And now, Agora

agoraLets talk film connections… well, here’s an example of one anyway- having watched Oliver Stone’s Alexander a few nights ago, I followed it up with another film set in the Ancient World- Alejandro Amenabar’s magnificent Agora. The connection is simple enough:  Alexander closes with Ptolemy an old man in the city of Alexandria in 285 BC, a centre of learning with a library that has teased and bewitched historians and academics for centuries regards the treasures it held within. Agora returns us to the Library of Alexandria in 400 AD, or thereabouts, and concerns the destruction of what remains of the library and how it ties into the fate of Hypatia, one of the most famous women of the ancient world who was killed by a Christian mob – perhaps a key event that signalled humanity descending into the Dark Ages. I think its a great film -much better than Alexander, by the way- and am always frustrated by how it seems to have slipped under most peoples radar. I don’t know if its relative obscurity is because its an independent, European film with limited distribution channels (I had to import a French Blu-ray several years ago to see it) or something down to its rather negative viewpoint of religion and early, formative Christianity in particular. I’d urge anyone who gets the opportunity to give Agora a watch.

Regards historical films. Does one judge Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus by its historical accuracy, or by whether its a great story well told? Should one disparage Oliver Stone’s Alexander because of his artistic license regards real events or academic debate, or just take it as a great romantic yarn about a major historical figure? Films are products of their time, and Spartacus is clearly a 1950s film and Alexander clearly a film with modern sensibilities concerned with the tensions between West and East that continue to dominate political discourse. Should any concern regards historical accuracy impact what one thinks of either film? How far can one go with historical accuracy before it lessens the entertainment value or dramatic qualities of a film?

agora2As far as I can tell, Agora is surprisingly accurate regards the events it portrays. Its Alexandria is a city in decline, with the Roman Empire on the wane, its pagan culture and Gods fading away to the steady rise of Christianity. There is a real feeling of change, the close of one era and the beginning of another. The Library of Alexandria has at this point been reduced to what scrolls remain in the Serapeion, a complex part Temple, part University, which is presumably a pale shadow of the Library’s earlier glory. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher who teaches there and works to make some sense of humanity’s place in the universe- she looks up longingly at the stars, trying to make sense of them, reaching for the perspective that the camera gifts us with our Gods-Eye views of the world (which I’ll come to later). I understand that the film largely exaggerates her intellectual prowess and what she discovers, but in most other respects it seems very fair to her and largely accurate. She feels like a very modern woman, independent, not needing the company or love of a man (rejecting overtures from a student) or feeling it necessary to fulfil the usual tasks of a woman. While not a Christian (the film infers she was, perhaps unsurprisingly as a scientist and philosopher, also an atheist) she had freinds who were Christians, most notably Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Roman prefect of Egypt whose friendship caused her downfall as it made her a target of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria who was feuding with Orestes for control of the city.  

I consider Agora a simply magnificent film and one of my favourites of the last twenty years. I think its beautifully well-made, looking absolutely convincing with excellent art direction and wonderful sets, featuring a very good cast, which also includes Max Minghella and Rupert Evans. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in possibly the actresses finest role. Agora can be seen as a very sobering, even quite depressing film with a rather negative view of humanity, religion and Christianity in particular- moreover, how religion, or especially religion, suffers from very human failings such as intolerance and tribal politics. There is a sense of seeing humanity at its very best, but also at its very worst. I think the film has something to say, and says it very well. There is a real sense of perspective offered by the film, regards our place in the cosmos, our fragility, and how transient and unimportant our human concerns can seem: at certain times the film literally gifts us a Gods-Eye view of events, seeing the Earth from space and in some shots sweeping down from  a global view to gradually close in on the North African shoreline and further down to street level. At other times he camera rises up from scenes, almost reducing people to ants in the landscape. Its an almost revelatory suggestion of time and space and history made tangible, and quite intoxicating.

agora3In 1980 I learned of the Library of Alexandria through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series, when through the magic of miniature effects and video compositing Sagan walked through the halls of the library talking about all the books and essays lost to us forever when it was burned down in the 4th Century AD. Sagan was a great populariser of science but tended to romanticise; the Library of Alexandria he walks through is glorious, huge; just how much of the library was even left by the 4th Century AD when Hypatia lived is open to debate among historians. Sagan cites the library’s destruction as the onset of the Dark Ages, that it lost to us all the works within, but in truth, no written texts from the Ancient world could have possibly survived to the present day even had the library not been sacked and burned. Its a point raised by Oliver Stone in his Alexander commentary that the memoirs that Ptolemy is seen writing about Alexander, telling us his story, did not survive and were lost to antiquity, ensuring that Alexander would remain an enigma to us. Preserving ancient works would have entailed copying them, repeatedly over long centuries and so many generations, over and over, with subsequent danger of embellishment or editing. Books and scrolls were on papyrus, and individually handwritten/copied, not printed. So it was never likely any of those ancient works could have lasted a few centuries (Ptolemy’s memoirs probably being lost before even Hypatia’s day), never mind millennia to the present day; but Sagan was right about the sense of tragic loss and the period of enlightenment shattered by barbarian hordes pulling humanity down into the Dark Ages. That being said, Hypatia of course sees nothing wrong with having slaves, so even that sense of ‘enlightenment’ that Sagan eulogised should be questioned.

 

Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (2004/2007)

alex1…except that it wasn’t really a Final Cut at all, because Oliver Stone followed up with another cut (‘The Ultimate Cut’) a few years later, which was actually little shorter. In all, I think there are four different cuts of this film and only one of them, the theatrical cut, is currently available on Blu-ray here in the UK (I imported this ‘Final Cut‘ several years ago since when its languished on the Shelf of Shame until now). I think the theatrical version was 175 minutes, the Directors Cut several minutes shorter, the Final Cut is the longest version some 45 minutes longer than the theatrical  and the Ultimate Cut several minutes shorter than that- the biggest difference between all the versions (other than additional violence and gore) seems to be the sequencing of scenes and how Stone juxtaposes those sequences within the internal chronology of the film. 

I’m sitting here reconsidering how I started this post and where I’m going with it. Maybe it would be especially apt to revisit this post and post alternate versions, reordering paragraphs, remarshalling my train of thought. Stone himself would possibly appreciate the irony of that. 

It would be especially interesting to sit down with Stone and discuss this film and his experience making it and re-making it. As a movie lover, I think there is something almost endearing about a film-maker’s fascination with a project driving him to rethink himself, and not quite let go of something. I think Oliver Stone didn’t quite succeed in making the Alexander he dreamed of, and his frustrations drove him to return to it, trying to perfect it. It is clearly a passion project, and such films are not always the best films but they can be the most interesting. Sometimes I’d rather watch passion-project failures than formulaic by-the-numbers successes. Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut is quite superior to the theatrical version I saw in the cinema- Stone was under immense pressure to trim the film down to a manageable length and he discusses this in the opening section of his commentary on this disc. Its indicative of the friction between the artist and the businessman, and clearly one of the boons of the home-video market of the past few decades on VHS/DVD and Blu-ray was the opportunity for film-makers to release longer cuts of the films, most of which are superior (but not always). Whether such opportunities will continue in the shift towards streaming is questionable.

I will say I really enjoyed this version of the film. How much of a success the film is, is probably a subject of some debate; there is always a sense of Oliver Stone reaching for something and not quite getting there- some sequences are breath-taking and others feel ill-judged, but you always feel an immense passion behind the film, for good or ill. I recall at the time the film came out in 2004, much criticism of Colin Farrell in the title role, but funnily enough, all these years later it doesn’t seem such a problem at all (how incongruous Kirk Douglas as Spartacus or Richard Burton in his own Alexander film? After awhile does it really matter?). I think Farrell does very well here and his Alexander lingers in the mind afterwards, so does Val Kilmer as his father, King Phillip- perhaps it is something to do with additional scenes or their sequencing in this version: its been so many years since I saw the theatrical cut that I cannot really vouch for any differences between the cuts. Maybe its just a case that Revisited works better, that Stone got the edit right. 

There’s some big names in this film (Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, Christopher Plummer, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Hopkins) and while its really a European film rather than an old-style Hollywood epic, it does seem something of a throwback to the big epics of the old days with such big names attached. It results in an odd tension within the film, of the old and the new: the incongruity of all those accents and Western actors of various nationalities appropriating Greek characters and the English language and text in scenes in ‘an enlightened, modern film’  feeling wrong: albeit inevitable, while attempting to visually be as authentic as it possibly can the film flounders on the edge of farce. While opening the film to criticism, I guess the old adage “its only a movie” holds so very true, and certainly, one could not expect someone like Oliver Stone to make some dry historical epic; this is Cinema.

To fully understand and ‘know’ such a complex character as Alexander and his achievements, you really need a time machine. In that sense, the real meaning of the film is in its tensions between West and East, in how Alexanders generals feared that Alexander had ‘gone native’ and forgotten his Greek origins, and how that makes Alexander seem to us, unconsciously in his part or not, a very modern individual. That might well be a Western, twentieth-century interpretation that gets it absolutely wrong, but Stone seems to paint a picture of Alexander of a man out of time. He’s us, in the Ancient World. Trying to bring modern sensibilities to it, trying to assimilate West and East. But there is also the sensation that’s just us appropriating Alexander, and one of the complexities of the film that nettles at Stone. Alexander and the Greeks were Pagans, who absolutely believed in their Gods and believed  that there was a limit to their world, physical as well as intellectual, that was a much smaller world than the world we know. We cannot really get into that mindset. Some things are human and universal, but other things are alien and unique: as I have written before, the distant past is as much science fiction as any story of the far-future.

Perhaps oddly, I think my favourite scenes of the film are those featuring Anthony Hopkins’ aged King Ptolemy that pretty much bookend it; Ptolemy’s reminisces of his old friend Alexander, trying to grasp who/what Alexander was or what his achievements meant, so likely mirror Oliver Stone’s struggles, and indeed those of historians for centuries. In some ways its trying to understand the human condition, our mortality and the impermanence of everything we create. Ptolemy in Alexandria of 285 BC, some forty years after Alexander died, is one of the last people to have lived in Alexander’s time and to have known him, so his thoughts would be the most definitive, but of course Alexandria itself would eventually fail, and the memoirs Ptolemy put down for posterity would themselves be eventually lost. In just the same way as Ptolemy’s effort failed, its impossible for Stone’s film to properly define who Alexander was;  all things fade, except Alexander himself, or certainly the myth of him that remains.

alex3Visually the film is quite amazing- I think the battles are gritty and brutal and give us a sense of what it must have been like, and the landscapes are wonderful: I have always been quite enchanted by the film’s representation of Babylon. What an astonishing place; one can understand how Alexander might have been so intoxicated by the East. Imagine a Greek, or anyone from the West, entering Babylon having conquered it and then himself becoming conquered by its unique beauty, its smells, its colours.

I love the Vangelis soundtrack. Like many of his scores, it lives differently within the film, his soundtrack album following his method of being a listening experience alternate to that music heard in the film. I think his music works better in the film; there is a romanticism brought to the film by Vangelis’ customary style that lifts the film up, and indeed makes some moments of the film quite transcendent. Its possibly why I enjoy the film so much, that I’m a huge fan of Vangelis for so many decades now that I cannot seperate my enjoyment of his music from the film itself, but certainly he brings a great deal to Alexander and it would be a much lesser film without this score. Being electronic it works against the pre-conceived notions of what a period film should sound like, in just the same way as his scores for Chariots of Fire and The Bounty do. Vangelis has a gift for keying into the ‘soul’ of a film- in Blade Runner it was the bluesy, electronic jazz of a future seen through the old, mirroring the films future noir sense of being caught in between two worlds . Here in Alexander he seems to capture the lyrical, almost classical romanticism of the story, the myth beneath the reality that has allowed the story of Alexander the Great to be so… ageless. Stone seems to have been frustrated by the episodic nature of film, trying to evoke some meaning or message in the sequencing of the it, feeling it lacking in a conventional chronological telling, hence all these different cuts, but Vangelis seems to have it at hand in his keyboard. Its the meshing of Western and Eastern and the ethnic music of each, while each transformed by his mostly electronic orchestration. I think the story of Alexander is too big for one film, or one film-maker (or classical historian for that matter) to really encompass but I think perhaps Vangelis comes closest to nailing it. Maybe Stone and Vangelis should have made Alexander as some great opera; in some ways, its almost there.

Little Shop of Horrors – Directors Cut (1986)

lsohThis is a weird one. Usually my instinct is to prefer Directors Cuts if only from a position of purity of intent. Its the ‘original vision’, after all.  Usually the subsequent, post-preview weight of external forces result in ‘tweaked’ theatrical cuts that dilute that vision or intent, resulting in poorer films. But with LSOH I have to wonder, because I watched the recently released UK Bluray of the DC the other night and… well, I prefer the theatrical.

I know very little about the original source for LSOH; I haven’t seen the original Roger Corman movie and neither have I seen the stage version, but it would appear that the DC is faithful to them both, with a rather bleak ending. But while its  clearly intellectually the right ending it doesn’t satisfy emotionally. It sort of betrays the connection we have with Seymour and Audrey. Is it something unique to the movie, the performances of the actors or nuances of Frak Oz’s direction? Why does it work onstage but not onscreen? Its a curio. I can certainly understand why preview audiences were appalled at the screening of the original cut and their reactions sent the filmmakers hurrying into re-shoots.

I first saw the film on a VHS rental, not expecting to enjoy it. Instead I found the musical numbers enjoyable, the staging clever and the humour right up my alley. It was a great little movie and while I never bought the film on either VHS or later DVD,  I always seemed to enjoy it if I caught it on TV.  But I had read about its delayed theatrical release and the original ending in Cinefantastique, and you know how it is, that kind of stuff attains mythical properties over time. Those leaked images from the cut climactic effects sequence looked so cool. Back then directors cuts on home releases were not as common as they would one day become (I believe Oliver Stone has recently done yet ANOTHER cut of Alexander, a case where even the Final Cut wasn’t, in fact, quite as final as first thought).  So back in the day, the original cut of LSOH was instantly something we’d never see, a darker, more epic version. A better version, undoubtedly. At least that was the perceived wisdom of fans. Well, all good things come to those who wait,they say. To say I’m surprised, after all these years, that those preview audiences were right after all, would be an understatement.

Its enough to validate that most-derided tool of modern filmmaking, the infamous preview screenings.  Well OK, I guess they had to be right once in awhile. Of course, I’m sure there are many who prefer the DC. Fortunately the Blu-ray also includes the theatrical version so everyone can be happy. A great Blu-ray release.