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Why do men dedicate all their crimes to women? - Myth Happens

Sovay
Date: 2016-04-10 04:48
Subject: Why do men dedicate all their crimes to women?
Security: Public
Music:Esben and the Witch, "Eumenides"
Tags:patreon

Last night's movie was one I had wanted to see since I was in graduate school and reading Sarah Kane and Seneca: Phaedra (1962), directed by Jules Dassin from a script by Margarita Lymberaki and ultimately Euripides. It's the only film version I've ever seen of the tragedy. It's one of the most direct adaptations that exists. It has a contemporary Greek setting, an international cast headed by Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, black-and-white location photography in three countries, and a score by Mikis Theodorakis. It was a box-office failure in the U.S. I loved it unreservedly. I may or may not be able to explain why.

Part of it is simply the fun of retelling: seeing the classical story transposed in clever and even thought-provoking ways. No one in this movie is Greek royalty; they are something better, more glamorous and more personally powerful, the dynasties of shipping magnates like Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis, who would have been very much in the news at the time. Theseus is not just king of Athens; he is the kouros of Poseidon, cult hero and son of the god whose sea-curse he will call down on his own son at the climax of the tragedy. The jet-setting super-rich are explicitly the new demigods, recognized as such by the scornful wonder of an old woman watching the fireworks that spell out SS Phaedra on the cliff above the bay: "They are powerful, they speak many languages, and they celebrate with fire in the sky." The newly christened ship's namesake is Phaedra Kyrilis (Mercouri), the second wife of ambitious, toughly handsome Thanos (Raf Vallone), a rising star of the business world with a shipyard in Piraeus. Her father is a modern-day Minos with a fleet of freighters and tankers, his strength at sea so far still greater than that of his challenging son-in-law; his nickname is "the old sea monster." Thanos' first wife, as in Euripides, is long offstage. We never learn her name; she is always "the Englishwoman" or "the foreigner," just as the hero's barbarian mother in Hippolytos is always "the Amazon." She lives in Hong Kong now, the East that is utterly alien to the ancient Greek world. Thanos left her for Phaedra; perhaps in retaliation, she brought up their son (Perkins) without anything of his father's culture, not even his language. "She thinks all Greeks are savages." He isn't a devotee of Artemis, but he's dropped out of the London School of Economics to become a painter, which is just as bad. His name is Alexis, and as the story begins, Phaedra is delegated to retrieve him from England and reconcile him to his father and the family business. Her maid Anna (Olympia Papadouka) warns her against the trip: "In my dream, two boys were fighting with spears. One was your son. The other, the son of the foreigner . . . Your husband will put the son of the Englishwoman in the shipping. He's building an empire. He needs a prince." It's an appropriate concern in a world as dynastic as theirs, but mythologically speaking, it's not what Phaedra should be afraid of. There is no Chorus, exactly, but there are the black-clad women of the island of Hydra, whose husbands and sons work in Thanos' shipyard and aboard his ships. The gods exist in statues and metaphor.

The rest of it is the performances. Mercouri at the time of Phaedra was Dassin's collaborator, lover, and award-winning co-star in the international hit Never on Sunday (Ποτέ την Κυριακή, 1960); they would marry in 1966. She was a singer, a political activist, and a politician, with an astonishing face—broad-mouthed, lion-eyed—a mane of heavy, Helen-fair hair and a voice so deep and husky, it sounds like the earth itself growling when it drops even further with emotion. She is a force of nature and she has to be, because in the absence of gods who direct and possess the lives of mortals, all of this forbidden love among the rich and famous can come off as shallow, self-absorbed, or even farcical. These are aspects that can be used to devastating effect, as in Phaedra's Love (1996), the play which introduced me to Sarah Kane—cynical, depressed Hippolytus apathetically continuing to watch TV as a love-demented Phaedra blows him among the expensive squalor of his royal apartments, "one big happy family. The only popular royals ever." Dassin and Lymberaki are going for social criticism with their modern version, but also for genuine tragedy, and Mercouri with her strongly marked face and her theatrical intensity brings an overwhelming, elemental quality to Phaedra that makes the audience believe in love as a form of madness, as a thing so imperative and unmanageable that it must come from the gods, even if there are none to be found outside of museums these days. London is a clever setting for Phaedra's first encounter with her husband's half-English heir with his dismayingly aesthetic ways: they meet in the British Museum, among the marbles that should be in the Parthenon.1 He is sketching them. About five minutes later, I wrote to derspatchel, "GOD DAMN ANTHONY PERKINS IS AMAZING."

I realize that the rest of the moviegoing public knew this already, but Anthony Perkins is one of the actors for whom I have historically had an incredible fondness despite never actually seeing them in what I would consider a major role. I caught him early on in Friendly Persuasion (1956); after that we're talking Catch-22 (1970), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and bits and pieces of some whacked-out Disney sci-fi that years later turned out to be The Black Hole (1979).2 I had never seen him as a lead before. He's quicksilver: half the time a tormented homme fatale, deliberately shocking; the other half he's clownish, sarcastic, half-grown. On his first day with Phaedra in London, Alexis invites her to meet his "beautiful, miraculous girl"—a sporty Aston Martin DB4 with whom he does an incredible mime of romance, including trying to cop a lascivious feel of a headlight until interrupted by a sales clerk; he burlesques embarrassment, presses a chaste kiss to his beloved's bonnet, and exits to his stepmother's approving laughter. Because he hated her so as a child, the all-Greek trophy wife who usurped his foreign mother, as an adult he approaches her with exaggerated, ironic flirtation, not yet aware that he means it. He has the lean height of an archaic hero; his eyes are white and dark as a bronze statue's glass. He's not always beautiful, but when he is, the camera makes it count. Perkins is playing a character six years younger than himself, but that isn't the only reason Alexis' apparent age keeps flickering; so does his sexuality. He shows no real interest in women except for Phaedra.3 The film was criticized on release for its supposed lack of chemistry between Mercouri and Perkins; I can actually see where this complaint comes from, but I think it's missing the point. It's not that they don't have any: it's that it doesn't run along conventional gender lines. She is always the lover. He is always the beloved. Their first love scene is weird and fearless, full of gestures that shouldn't work: Alexis is building a fire when Phaedra declares her love for him, kneeling by the hearth as she stands at his back; the thin twist of flame gathers into a blaze as he reaches up one hand to her, his head still bowed; when her fingers slip suddenly between his, it's as intimate and possessive as a sexual act. They make love in a swooningly cheesecake setting—on the floor before a roaring fire as rain lashes the windows of an apartment in Paris—shot so elliptically that it becomes fragmented and elemental, fire between their mouths, the shadows of rain over their backs. Phaedra is a modern-day movie, but not quite a naturalistic one. People do not speak to one another like plain human beings. They have dreams. They talk to the air and the sea. Anna tells her mistress' fortune with a pack of playing cards; when a bystander at the harbor (Dassin himself, doing a Stan Lee cameo) remarks that the newly imported Aston Martin "looks like a big coffin" in its oversized crate, Thanos laughingly foreshadows, "It's the fastest coffin you ever saw—driven by hundreds of horses." It could feel too clever; at least for me it gets at some of the estranging effect of seeing a classical Greek tragedy performed in modern dress, people you might run into at the bus stop talking seriously about oracles and the burial of the dead.

Then again, I like that the film tells you its ending from the start. Euripides' audience would have known the bones of the story, so why not Dassin's? The title comes up in feverish scratches over the tearing sound of a jet engine and the steam whistle of a male voice screaming Phaedra's name; then the credits themselves play coolly over the white sculpted horses of the Elgin marbles, as clear an allusion as I can imagine to Hippolytos' association with horses and a presentiment of the final wreck to which that dreadful yell belongs. An Aston Martin with a 250-horsepower engine makes as good a stand-in for a chariot as a truck on a cliffside road does for a bull from the sea; both are the fulfillment of a father's curse.4 Hanging is a woman's death in classical tragedy, but these days we have pills and faithful maids who will place a sleep mask over your eyes like Mycenaean gold. The ship that bears Phaedra's name has already sunk off Norway, taking almost all hands with it; her husband knows about the loss to his business, but has yet to discover the losses to his family—the film closes on his recital of the names of the dead to the wives and mothers who wait outside his office, their grief a rising chorus that encompasses, unknowingly, Phaedra lying on her bed and the shrouded body in the courtyard that must be Alexis, brought home from the crash. It is the closest to reconciliation this version of the tragedy will get.

So I continue to like Jules Dassin, and I continue to like Melina Mercouri, and I will have to watch Psycho (1960) after all, because if it's the role that defined Anthony Perkins for the rest of his life, he's probably pretty memorable in it. I wish this film were out on better DVD than the burn-on-demand available through TCM, but at least somebody thought it deserved that much. I think it's one of the better contemporary revisitings of the ancient world I've seen. This ivy crown brought to you by my myth-minded backers at Patreon.

1. As Minister of Culture for Greece in the 1980's, Mercouri held the first international competition to design what would eventually become the Acropolis Museum.

2. I saw most of my Disney films at summer camp at the Arlington Boys & Girls Club. Technically, I read through most of them, which is why my strongest memory from Sleeping Beauty (1959) is Maleficent turning into a dragon and the only thing I can really sing from Cinderella (1950) is the talking mice's sped-up patter song. I really can't tell if The Black Hole is one of the ones I want to rewatch: everything I have read about the plot suggests that it suffers from a cheese sandwich ending. On the other hand, Roddy McDowall voices a robot. Anyone got an opinion?

3. Late in the film, betrothed to his step-cousin Herse (Elizabeth Ercy) in accordance with his father's plans to consolidate power against his father-in-law ("Separately, one by one, he can swallow us whole. If we get together—indigestible"), Alexis gets drunk at a party, wins an extempore discus throw for the honor of the English, and awards himself his first night with a woman who isn't Phaedra. It seems to be strictly to prove a point: "Why does everybody think they own me? Nobody owns me."

4. The scene in which Alexis speeds to his death, beaten and formally banished by his father and under his curse, is fantastic: he talks to his car, he talks to the radio, he shouts along to a fugue by Bach, his voice strained and wild; it is the same odd animism the film has observed throughout, only now in a terrible key, as if the Furies were riding shotgun with him. "Let's face it, John," he shouts to the dead composer, "she loved me. She loved me like they did in the good old days."

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nineweaving
User: nineweaving
Date: 2016-04-10 17:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

Whew! That sounds amazing.

...and faithful maids who will place a sleep mask over your eyes like Mycenaean gold.

Nine

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Sovay: I Claudius
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-11 00:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:I Claudius

Whew! That sounds amazing.

I had no idea what to expect, because I had seen Jules Dassin do everything from light comedy to hard noir to fatalistic heist to screwball caper, but I had no idea how he would handle a classical tragedy. The answer was, really well. I was so happy.

The film really knows its ritual gestures. At the launching of the SS Phaedra, Thanos produces a priceless ring: I realized I was waiting for him to throw it into the sea like Asterion and Theseus in The King Must Die. He presents it to Phaedra instead: places it on her finger as if this ceremony were a second wedding. She wears it to London to meet Alexis; it's on her finger as she talks of the sacrifices the ancient Greeks would pledge for things they really wanted. Her example is pig sacrifice—associated with the goddess Demeter. But she has no pig, she mourns. She draws the ring off her finger; shows it to Alexis so that the stone catches the glitter of streetlights. Without taking her eyes from her stepson's, she says, very low and deliberately, "I wish that you come to Greece." And she throws the ring into the Thames. Damn, Dassin and Lymberaki. Damn.

Edited at 2016-04-11 06:21 am (UTC)

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nineweaving
User: nineweaving
Date: 2016-04-11 06:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

And she throws the ring into the Thames.

Damn.

Nine

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Alexx Kay
User: alexx_kay
Date: 2016-04-10 22:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

I saw The Black Hole in first release, so I would have been about 12, hypothetically a good age to see a Disney SF film. Even at that age, I found it simultaneously derivative and nonsensical. I haven't seen it since, so take with grain of salt.

Anthony Perkins is fine in Psycho, but it's not actually that complex a part (IMO). The film gets its fame more from some storytelling choices that were shocking at the time, though have been much imitated since. I do think it remains a *good* film in its own right, but its *greatness* in the historical canon only makes sense in historical context.

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moon_custafer
User: moon_custafer
Date: 2016-04-10 23:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

We couldn't find the disc, but almost watched Psycho today because we'd watched Goldfinger and I commented that it was playing a similar bait-and-switch game -- we go through about two fridged heroines before we finally get Pussy Galore.

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Sovay: Sovay: David Owen
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-11 04:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Sovay: David Owen

We couldn't find the disc, but almost watched Psycho today because we'd watched Goldfinger and I commented that it was playing a similar bait-and-switch game -- we go through about two fridged heroines before we finally get Pussy Galore.

I admit that would be a hilarious double feature.

My problem (I have complained about this on LJ before) is that I want to see Psycho for the first time on film, on a big screen, and theaters around here keep doing things like showing it for Mother's Day, which, just, no.

Edited at 2016-04-11 04:26 am (UTC)

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Sovay: PJ Harvey: crow
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-11 04:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:PJ Harvey: crow

Even at that age, I found it simultaneously derivative and nonsensical. I haven't seen it since, so take with grain of salt.

No, I'm pretty sure the film isn't any good. I'm just not sure if that's reason enough to stop me from seeing it, or if there are some things even Anthony Perkins and Roddy McDowall can't save.

The film gets its fame more from some storytelling choices that were shocking at the time, though have been much imitated since.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, I can't remember not knowing the plot of Psycho. My best guess is that I read about it sometime in elementary school, because I'm quite sure that I got it out of a book rather than pop culture, but that's based on the fact that I got a lot of things out of books at a very early age. I've still probably read about more movies than I've seen.

I do think it remains a *good* film in its own right, but its *greatness* in the historical canon only makes sense in historical context.

Have you seen Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960)? I only ever wrote about it obliquely, but it's brilliant and for years the only reason I wanted to see Psycho was to determine why one of these two high-profile serial killer movies was a star-maker and the other one of the most reviled films produced in Britain. (It was rehabilitated some decades later, which in a change from the usual narrative its director was still around to appreciate, but seriously: couldn't we have skipped all the ad hominem reviews and the drought in between?) I expect to prefer Peeping Tom after I've seen both, but I am still curious.

Edited at 2016-04-11 04:26 am (UTC)

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asakiyume: PJHarvey
User: asakiyume
Date: 2016-04-11 11:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:PJHarvey

why [was] one of these two high-profile serial killer movies was a star-maker and the other one of the most reviled films produced in Britain

--I wonder this a lot when you have two households works of art, both alike in dignity, and one catches the eye and the other sinks, or worse. Sometimes it's easy in retrospect to see why, and yet apparently it's never easy in prospect. And sometimes (I guess in the case of Tom Thumb) the obscurity or reviling of the one that fails is afterward seen to be unmerited. Go figure.

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moon_custafer: acme
User: moon_custafer
Date: 2016-04-11 12:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:acme

It's hard to know how the ending of Psycho would play to someone who'd somehow avoided spoilers all these years, but I do continue to find the beginning and middle somewhat surprising, because I keep forgetting they're made entirely of red herring. Plot threads are spun, characters introduced, only to be ruthlessly snipped a scene later. I think it's true that part of Hitchcock's plan was to make the audience identify with Norman, because he's the only continuous major character.

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Sovay: PJ Harvey: crow
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-12 05:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:PJ Harvey: crow

I think it's true that part of Hitchcock's plan was to make the audience identify with Norman, because he's the only continuous major character.

That makes sense to me: it's a known accidental side effect of serial killer narratives, even.

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moon_custafer: acme
User: moon_custafer
Date: 2016-04-12 12:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:acme

It occurred to me after my last comment that even the twist at the end may be for the express purpose of making the audience forget all the previous plot so they can be surprised again upon rewatch.

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moon_custafer
User: moon_custafer
Date: 2016-04-10 23:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

the estranging effect of seeing a classical Greek tragedy performed in modern dress, people you might run into at the bus stop talking seriously about oracles and the burial of the dead.

I don't think that would surprise me anymore. Among other things, I worked in an office around six years back in which lunchroom conversation could include several people arguing, quite seriously, about whether miscarriages are caused by ghosts, or by curses.

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ethelmay
User: ethelmay
Date: 2016-04-11 00:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

I am strongly reminded of what legionseagle said recently: "And I think where Mary Renault comes in is that her contemporary novels -- the ones I've read, at any rate -- seem to be setting up magical realist situations, and then failing to deliver the magic. It's much more satisfying (to me, at least) when you get into the historicals and realise that yes, it probably really is Demeter in that cave, or at least her characters are perfectly straightforwardly believing she's there, rather than it being a rather screwed up young man failing to cope with his mother. I prefer my Oedipus as a historical figure rather than a psychological metaphor."

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Sovay: Rotwang
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-11 05:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Rotwang

And I think where Mary Renault comes in is that her contemporary novels -- the ones I've read, at any rate -- seem to be setting up magical realist situations, and then failing to deliver the magic.

Yes, sadly. Although of her contemporary novels I've read, Return to Night works the best for me because it carries its mythic dimension through: I believe in the Madonna of the Cave more than I do the Freudian explanations that drive Renault's intended ambiguous-to-downbeat ending. It's the one I come back to, anyway. There should be magic in it. It's a theater story as well as a hospital drama. It dodges too much of itself.

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Sovay: I Claudius
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-11 00:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:I Claudius

Among other things, I worked in an office around six years back in which lunchroom conversation could include several people arguing, quite seriously, about whether miscarriages are caused by ghosts, or by curses.

I almost added a footnote to similar effect regarding myself and my friend group, but (a) crossposting was broken last night, so I couldn't edit the post without creating duplicates (b) it actually does make a difference for me when someone dressed like a contemporary politician wants to make sure they've got the word from Delphi before starting the war. I find it a useful historical reality check. The past should be alien, because it was.

What was the consensus of your office?

Edited at 2016-04-11 12:52 am (UTC)

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moon_custafer
User: moon_custafer
Date: 2016-04-11 03:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

It was never settled. I think this was the argument in which the (somewhat**) conservative Christian insisted that neither caused miscarriages, because curses couldn't hurt one if one's faith was strong, and ghosts didn't exist according to the bible; someone else said she was taking the latter too literally.


** She cheerfully talked about having had two abortions, and that she now prayed to God to take her fertility and give it to someone who didn't already have enough kids, which I suspect is a more old-school view of the matter than that held by most present-day conservatives.

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Sovay: Morell: quizzical
User: sovay
Date: 2016-04-11 03:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Morell: quizzical

because curses couldn't hurt one if one's faith was strong, and ghosts didn't exist according to the bible; someone else said she was taking the latter too literally.

Yeah, neither of those is the reason I'd have opted out of the argument in the first place.

She cheerfully talked about having had two abortions, and that she now prayed to God to take her fertility and give it to someone who didn't already have enough kids, which I suspect is a more old-school view of the matter than that held by most present-day conservatives.

Agreed, but I think refreshingly so.

Edited at 2016-04-11 04:26 am (UTC)

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moon_custafer: acme
User: moon_custafer
Date: 2016-04-11 12:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:acme

I was quite fond of her really.

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