Wednesday, September 07, 2005

TROY-- or not quite. . .

Belated, I know, but here goes:

I finally saw Troy (courtesy HBO), after I had decided to pass on the film in the cinema based on the reviews (i.e. a violation of my golden rule that one always ought to watch a "big" film in a theater).

Folks, the film is appalling. It's not appalling as far as the usual big Hollywood blockbuster-making-limited-demands-on-viewers goes (though it offers little that is new on that front). It's as a film "inspired by Homer's Iliad" -- as dutifully noted in the titles at the end -- that Troy comes a cropper.

First of all, there are no gods in this film. Pause. Let it sink in. Now repeat: there are no gods in this film. A film "inspired by Homer's Iliad" minus Zeus and Apollo? Minus (shudder) Pallas Athena??? Who is responsible for this outrage?

The above is not just a quibble: take away the gods and in a sense you've taken away the very ground of the epic, paving the way for Homer-as-precursor-of-liberal humanism. Thus we get an Achilles who tells Chryseis that the gods "envy us"; this would have been news to Achilles' goddess mother Thetis, who mourns her son's fate (in the very first book of the Iliad) thus:

O my son, my sorrow, why did I ever bear you?
All I bore was doom. . .
Would to god you could linger by your ships
without a grief in the world, without a torment!
Doomed to a short life, you have so little time.
And not only short, now, but filled with heartbreak too,
more than all other men alive-- doomed twice over.
Ah to a cruel fate I bore you in our halls!

(The Iliad (Robert Fagles Tr.), I:492-499)

The fate she is mourning is precisely her son's mortality. The tragedy of Achilles, in the words of Harold Bloom, is precisely that he is not a god. The Achilles of Troy is untroubled by any such concern, and appears to view honor and glory as species of celebrity (of the "my name's gonna be around even after a thousand years, and longer than yours, nyah nyah" variety).

There's more: In Troy, Achilles is also the proto-populist, lecturing Agamemnon on the notion that victories are won by "the soldiers," not kings. Is this the same Achilles we are familiar with, the one who sulks because Agamemnon has taken away the woman who was his prize? The one who curses the Greeks with defeats until they acknowledge the honor that is owed Achilles?

It almost goes without saying that Brad Pitt's Achilles has great sympathy for the woman given to him as a prize. One can only dimly discern in the film's near-apologetic master the Achilles who raged not out of any sympathy for the woman whom Agamemnon was going to take from him as a slave, but because Achilles had been dishonored:

. . .Mother!
You gave me life, short as that life will be,
so at least Olympian Zeus, thundering up on high,

should give me honor-- but now he gives me nothing.
Atreus' son Agamemnon, for all his far-flung kingdoms--
the man disgraces me, seizes and keeps my prize,
he tears her away himself! . . .

(The Iliad (Robert Fagles tr.) I:416-422).

The gods aren't the only ones to go: in Troy, Patroclus is merely Achilles' cousin, not his... ahem.
Which makes Achilles' grief at his death psychologically less than believable, I must say.

It's hard to be certain as to what precisely underlies the (for want of a better word) de-paganization, and perhaps even the Christianization, at the heart of Troy. A cold commercial decision as to what is likely to "sell" more? Appeasement of the Christian Right? Simultaneous appeasement of the PC brigade? Whatever the reason (and the possibilities above are obviously not mutually exclusive), the result is an empty Troy, all "...sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing."

4 comments:

Satyam said...

Nice perspective on the film. I agree!

gosht-khor said...

I believe "Howard the Duck", released in 1986 is still widely regarded as on of the biggest Hollywood flops of all time ("Ishtar" and "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" also rank highly in this category).
In Lew Hunter's "Screenwriting 434" he points out something that seems rather obvious, but was thoroughly overlooked in the making of "Howard the Duck": the audience knew there was a human being inside the duck costume. Hence, no one cared about the movie. By contrast, I've lost count of the number of "Aliens" sequels with Sigourney Weaver, not to mention the tons of other alien based movies made every year. What makes these other movies work is the element of the unknown. Quite simply, we don't know what aliens look like, and hence any concept that Hollywood can throw up is fine, and in fact, the improvement in special effects allows us to see aliens progress from beings with antennae to something far more fearsome in "Independence Day", "Aliens", etc.
Coming to "Troy" then, the producers had the task of portraying the gods in human form. This level of authenticity is something that just doesn't make for a summer blockbuster. In "art house" film, indeed you would have found a product that would have been truer to Homer's original. In Hollywood, you could only hope for a screen shot of the clouds bellowing the voice of James Earl Jones, or perhaps a bearded Anthony Hopkins (because all gods have booming voices, English accents, or some combinaton of both...didn't you know that?).
Consider another one of Brad Pitt's projects "Meet Joe Black" in which he plays death. Again, the box office draw was not so great, and really the point of the production was to get Brad Pitt's face to fill seats, and not really make anything terribly innovative.
Bottom line here: "Troy" was terrible, and I'm not sure what else you expected from a Hollywood summer blockbuster featuring Brad Pitt doing Homer!?!?

Qalandar said...

gosht-khor: Heck, at this point I'd even take James Earl Jones or a bearded Hopkins or clowds/English accents!!! These elements may be hokey, but in my book they are far more preferable to the complete erasure of the gods from "Troy." And I suspect that's not coincidental: i.e. when it comes to Biblical adaptations, we get the "bells and whistles," however hokily done; for something like "The Iliad" the supernatural elements are ruthlessly stripped away.

Your point about what else can one expect from Hollywood blockbusters is well taken; guess I know this sort of thing is ALL one can expect, yet one is still bothered by a particular manifestation of the tendency...

Prashant said...

I agree. It seems that Hollywood studios are intent on churning out sensationalised versions of literary classics--Brideshead Revisited being a recent example.

Other liberties taken by Wolfgang Petersen include the death of Agamemnon and Menelaus at Troy.

Sad as it sounds, this is the age we live: an age where superficiality prevails and instant gratification is the order of the day. Troy was made for the gamers and the narcoticised masses.