A Man, a Clan, the Banal: Troy

Bananabread, who clearly knows from epics, has written a review of Troy in what appears to be the traditional 24 chapter format. Being the trusted staff writer that she is I am posting this without having read it, but I look forward to reading it just as soon as it goes up, and you should as well!

I think I’ve figured out what went wrong with Troy. Writer David Benioff and director Wolfgang Petersen probably had the same experience everyone has with the Iliad. You read halfway through, realize you’ll never finish in time for Lit Hum, say, “fuck it” and dash off to class to find out the ending from someone who’s done the reading, preferably Julie Epstein. Benioff and Petersen probably figured they’d read enough to fake a little discussion, but come October, they cajoled their professor into letting them make a movie instead of taking their midterm. When they got to the parts they’d skipped, they copied some key passages into the script verbatim and filled in what they think Achilles probably felt about it. Then they borrowed bits from other epics, improvised the rest, ran a quick spell-check, and called it a day. That’s why what begins as a perfectly respectable adaptation ends up a gag-fest.

The action begins before Helen even goes missing. We start off, in fact, in Thessaly, I forget why. A few fights demonstrate that Achilles (warlike Brad Pitt) is all about swagger and slaughter. We also duly note that Brian Cox’s Agamemnon is an inveterate land gobbler. Then we’re off to Sparta in time for a romance between Paris (Orlando Bloom, the getting-less-elfin) and Helen (Diane Kruger), whom the script carefully avoids calling the most beautiful woman in the world, though it would be nasty of me to point out why. Menelaus (moss-toothed Brendan Gleeson) is an odious, abusive husband, not the uxorious cuckold of the Iliad, and the affair between the queen and her guest is all wholesome fun until they get buyer’s remorse on the boat to Troy. Hector (Eric Bana of the preternaturally huge pecs) is annoyed with his little brother, but accepts the damage, and they go home to Priam (Peter O’Toole, the contrary-to-rumor-not-yet-dead) to prepare their defenses.

War comes awfully quickly. The sail to Ilium looks relaxing, and Achilles and pals storm the beach with brio. They kill off Apollo’s priests and acquire a concubine, Briseis (Rose Byrne), pick off some Trojan soldiers, and eat grapes. Now, here comes a bit of elision. The decade-long siege is compressed, as far as I can tell, into a matter of days. Time is not explicitly counted, but the armies meet about four times before the city is sacked, which makes it rather unconvincing when assorted Greeks argue that they can’t go home after all they’ve been through.

The battle scenes, however, are worthy. The sweeping and swooping camera work to emphasize numbers gets the blood pumping; then we close in to capture every last arterial bleed and remain at that range for most of the war. The horse was very well done both in its enormity and in the way it was patently made out of ships’ wood, and I particularly enjoyed the giant flaming tumbleweeds. But I abominate the device of finishing off a battle in melodic slow motion that drowns out the clank, squish, gurgle and scream of the realist take. The cliché runs contrary not only to the spirit of the Iliad, the bulk of which is devoted to chronicling individual deaths, but even to the theme offered up by Benioff’s script, the idea that valor gains you immortality. This film avoids giving faces to the fallen, never mind histories, possibly because a good portion of said faces were digitally assembled.

A couple of battles pass and until now we’ve been plodding along with a decent script that does a fair job of stuffing a whole epic
into a movie. To be sure, one finds the emphasis on computer-generated ships at the expense of Odysseus’ character a tad misplaced, and
one’s disappointed that they didn’t play Patroclus gay, but by all means you deem it a perfectly sound rendering of the work you know.
And then, suddenly, everything falls off a cliff. The whole movie gorps without warning. How can I find an appropriate metaphor for the
sudden abrupt turn for the unwatchable? To borrow a line from The Bird Cage, “I’ve never had anything go so wrong so fast. It’s like riding a psychotic horse toward a burning stable.”

The first disaster is the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis, which is refurbished as a whole narrative arc. It’s
not just a contest over the spoils of war in the movie version; it’s a romance. Briseis’ character is “flushed out” as a spunky virgin, and Achilles is in looooove. Much time is devoted to storming her walls and teaching him the value of peace or some such absolute bollocks. When instead of killing Achilles in his sleep she decides to let him buy the milk for free, the audience actually guffawed.

Now if you have a problem with reviews that give away endings, stop reading. What’s that you say? You already know how it ends? Think again. You protest that you have a rudimentary acquaintance with literature? You know nothing. What? Helen is rekidnapped by her first husband? I’d like to see him try. Hector’s son is supposed to get dashed from the ramparts? You sicko! You may have heard some rumors about Agamemnon surviving the Trojan War only to make it home and be killed by his wife. But if you think the nagging memory of Aeschylus’ version, or Freud’s, should influence the outcome of this film, then you are a snob. That’s right, take your elitist ass home and rent Winged Migration. We want none of your kind here. Agamemnon is our bad guy, and he is most certainly not making off with any concubines (Cassandra who?). He is going to be stabbed in the neck by…Briseis. Yup. But not before Achilles has climbed the suddenly undefended walls of Troy with his bare hands and run around helpfully shouting “Briseis! Briseis!” and pointedly ignoring the battle raging around him.

Confound this plot line! Just when we think things are picking back up, we run bang smack against the heterosexual love story. Why? Why? Why? Any adaptation of the Iliad ought to be a total sausage party. That is the whoooooole point. The Achaeans are ten years and hundreds of miles away from the domesticating influence of romance. Even if Benioff needed to find the girls something else to do, the Trojan War offers more interesting women than Briseis. If Agamemnon must be evil, why not include the sacrifice of Iphigenia? Or why not use Cassandra to ratchet up suspense? I mean, if you’re going to write in Aeneas, why not Hecuba? There’s just no excuse for turning Achilles into Han Solo.

The film’s heroes seem familiarly limp in part because they are missing the nuance of fatalism. I had amused myself during the previews by imagining who I would cast as Athena (Jodi Foster) or Ares (The Rock), but I needn’t have bothered. The Olympians make no appearances in this script. From the beginning we dance around the very existence of deities. A little messenger boy asks Achilles if it’s true that he’s immortal, and he answers, “I’d hardly bother with the armor, then, would I?” A classic non-denial denial. When we meet Thetis (Julie Christie---sigh), she’s definitely half soaked and prophesying her son’s doom, but is Mom a nymph or just a bit eccentric? I mean, my mom prophesies my doom on a regular basis; it doesn’t mean my grandfather is the Hudson.

Achilles and Hector are united by their apparent skepticism of religion. In the original myth, Troy’s fall can be attributed to their failure to heed omens, but here their defeat is chalked up to superstition’s prevailing over Hector’s military pragmatism. To desecrate Apollo’s temple is clearly in bad taste, but there’s no sense that the god might disguise himself as your waiter tonight and force-feed you hummus till your colon ruptures. It makes our heroes more palatable to a 21st-Century audience, but without the advance knowledge of their own deaths they are far less compelling. When gods walk beside you, you know that you are powerless, even if you are a hero, because the gods rearrange your world at their whims. So when Homer’s Achilles kills Hector, he knows it’s his own death sentence. Benioff’s Achilles rages, but his rage lacks the pathos of damnation.

Thus even though the ships are probably authentic, the non-bifurcated costumes are probably accurate, and the names are all pronounced Greekly, the movie fails to capture the ancient morality which is fundamentally different from our own. It crams the legend of a warrior culture full of post-World War I Judeo-Christian principles and blatant political allegory. In Benioff’s version only Agamemnon conquers for his own glory, and that’s what makes him wicked. Everybody else is doin’ it for the kids. I like that Benioff emphasized the idea of legend as immortality, but the film fails to convey that that’s all that these guys have. There was no alternative to war glory.

The other, perhaps inevitable flaw lies in the transition from the medium of poetry to that of film. The Iliad is a big folk song, and the language of it isn’t just a means to describing the action, it’s an end in itself. That was most conspicuously not the case with the dialogue offered in this movie. And although some of the actors are classically trained and accustomed to exploring stylized language, others, most notably Pitt, just stumble over it. I love Brad; don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the best. But sadly we seem to be back to Legends of the Fall Brad, who hyperarticulates the letter T and demonstrates very little control of his monologues. I think maybe he was trying to imitate O’Toole, but it doesn’t work. Come to think of it, O’Toole didn’t even sound like himself, which is a pity, cause I was so excited when I found out he wasn’t dead. Wily Sean Bean, who plays wily Odysseus, has a way of just wandering into movies hoping no one will notice him—luckily for him, the character had nothing to do. Bana fares better as Hector the family man, and Cox puts on his usual show, but Petersen seems to have let everyone’s passions get reduced to grimy malaise. It’s hard to swallow that they’d die for the oral tradition when they so obviously dread the spoken word.

In the final analysis though, Troy is not that bad, especially compared to other action movies with pretensions toward literature. Unless you’re a purist, the worst you can say is that it was a tad anemic. The first three quarters or so were somewhat enjoyable, thoughtful even. But I was hoping for more, if only for Prof. King’s sake.

Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Anna, daughter of Arthur, who really wanted to like the movie Troy, but couldn’t. Even at the movies we are but playthings of the gods.


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