Monthly Archives: January 2021

Alexander

I used to be a little obsessed with Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and I look back on the enthusiasm with which I threw myself into trying to write an Alexander epic in Homeric hexameters with a little chagrin these days. But I grew up with movies like The Black Stallion, which left me fascinated with the legend of Bucephalus and Alexander, so I was primed to enjoy a film that featured Alexander and Bucephalus facing off against an elephant chariot in the previews!

There are interesting little historical flourishes in the Oliver Stone film, like the use of knives in Roxane’s dance (Philip’s father was assassinated by a troupe of dancing girls who danced with knives to get close enough for the kill), or the momentary glimpse of a hoplite shield at the battle of Gaugamela. Alexander’s use of the sarissa was effective not against chariots or cavalry but only against hoplite formations of Spartan mercenaries, who made up the core of the Persian emperor’s fighting force. Strangely though, the film’s battle of Gaugamela features sarissa-wielding phalanxes repulsing chariots and camel cavalry instead, and makes the lone hoplite shield appear to belong to an isolated bodyguard in a rearguard action as Darius flees in his chariot. Perhaps because explaining how the Spartans came to be fighting Alexander’s army in Asia would have added too much exposition to an already unwieldy script?

If I had to pick just one scene in the movie to explain how it grabbed me, it would be when Alexander’s army mutinies in India, and he stands before them, urging them on into the East, where none of them want to go.

This poem about that scene, based on the 44th Psalm, is in the voice of one of his commanders, flouting his orders and speaking for the other unruly Macedonians, men who have travelled so far with him already, while longing for home. They are uneasy with Alexander’s adoption of the court customs of the oriental despot he deposed in Persia, and disgruntled with his decision to legitimize their unions with camp followers and captives whom they would be embarrassed to call their wives back home.

They compare his wars to his father Philip’s conquest of Greece, when he was just a boy fighting in Philip’s cavalry. At the same time, they remember Alexander’s early promise when he routed the legendary Theban band, thus capturing a city where Philip had lived as a royal hostage in his own boyhood. And they remind him of the deaths of Philip’s most trusted generals, at his own orders and one of them by his own hand, on grounds of treason but in one case, during a drunken orgy and over an ill-considered remark.

Alexander, we have heard the stories told,
our fathers versed us well in Phillip’s battles,
and told us of your charge at Chaeronea,
in the days of your father’s conquest of Thebes.
You led the horse to dispossess the Thebans.
You smashed the proudest of Greeks, and none survived.
Not by the sword and the phalanx was Thebes won,
and not by the arm of Phillip’s prized warriors,
but your right hand and your javelins and horse,
and the light of your youth when you favored us.
You are out king, and perhaps a sort of God.
Lead us again to victories like Phillip’s.
Through you we captured elephants, gored our foes,
through your name we trample all who resist us.
For not in my spear and my shield do I trust,
and my sword will not conquer all Persia’s hosts.
For you alone led the victorious charge,
and put Darius and his Spartans to shame.
Zeus hears our praises from over the mountains,
and your name beside his all peoples acclaim.
Yet now you neglect and disgrace Phillip’s friends
and hold yourself aloof from your companions.
You kept us back from our families and our homes,
as though our spoils of war could last forever.
You made our comrades-in-arms food for serpents
and exiled your generals to alien forts.
You spent our birthrights on worthless excursions
and set no high price on our blood in your wars.
You gave us wives that our sisters blush to meet,
derision and scorn is our posterity.
You made us a byword, your vanity’s pawns,
our unconquered army an object of scorn.
Everywhere I look my disgrace greets my eyes,
and the trappings of Asians we wear shame me,
From the crude whispered curses – they revile us! –
these, our enemies, join us, but want revenge.
All this is plain to see, but you are our king,
and we did not betray you, though we wondered.
Our hearts have never quailed before a battle,
nor have we whispered against you or set snares,
though you brought us face to face with monstrous beasts,
and many of our comrades fell for strange ends.
Had we forgotten our king and our homeland
and given our oaths to some alien tribe,
like the Spartans, would not Zeus have fathomed it?
For our hearts’ secrets are open before you.
For your sake we’ve fought in every land on earth,
and the path we’ve beaten is red with slaughter.
Rouse yourself to face our claims, Alexander!
Put aside this stupor, do not neglect us.
Why do you withdraw from us, seeing no one,
forget our bond to you, discount our burdens?
For our necks are not made to grovel in dust,
we have never pressed our bellies to the ground.
Rise and stand as one of us again, my king,
and redeem our constant service – lead us home.

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Filed under Corruption, Poetry

The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days is one of my favorite Russell Crowe movies, because it showed me a side of Elizabeth Banks I’d never seen before, and because like any story with a good Don Quixote fan reference, it makes you believe in impossible feats, without doubting that they are impossible. It makes you believe that for love, you have to try even if it is impossible, you have to try no matter what.

Russell said that he liked the script because it challenged him to play someone who faces an impossible choice: he could save his wife, but only by becoming someone she could no longer love.

Also worth spotting are co-stars Ty Simpkins (of Jurassic World and Iron Man fame) and Olivia Wilde, an actress best known for lead roles in T.V.’s House and the remake of Tron, who recently directed her first movie, Booksmart, to critical acclaim.

In this scene, pictured above, Russell Crowe’s John Brennan confronts his wife’s attorney about the results of her last appeal. His wife pled innocent to a murder charge, but was convicted on circumstantial evidence because a witness saw her fighting with the victim (her boss) and driving away from the crime scene just before the body was discovered.

John’s last hope is the Supreme Court, but his lawyer warns that even filing an appeal with the high court would be dishonest of him, as their attorney – the Supreme Court hasn’t heard a murder appeal in decades, why would they start now? John hasn’t yet contemplated breaking his wife out of prison, but after this turn of events, that unlikely possibility will be her only way out.

Grant us this one reprieve from an injustice:
take up the lance against the windmills, for love.
From an act of brute indifference, free my wife.
As my friend and as her advocate, appeal –
do not ignore her innocence to decide.
Could you send her to live among criminals?
Just extend your hand – vouch for her honesty.
The light of the truth falls on us all alike.
This hope in the impassive leads me onward.
The law has just one remedy left for us,
and you must take us there, to the highest court.
Let me bring my wife home to bed with our son,
restore our lives together, while she still breathes.
Let me tell the world that she is innocent,
as well you know, as I have always believed.
This separation rends her from her being.
Attest her honesty – the court will hear you.
The law that maligned her must come to her aid.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, The Next Three Days

The Soloist

Attachment disorders are an underexplored aspect of managing schizophrenia in the community – most people just aren’t willing to let a schizophrenic develop an attachment to them in the first place. But when they do, the intensity of the emotions involved can be scary.

The friendship story at the heart of The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx, really digs into this theme to explore what can go wrong when people reach out to the most vulnerable among us, and how social isolation itself can exacerbate psychotic symptoms in people with a serious mental illness, making living independently especially problematic for them.

The Soloist is the story of Nathaniel Ayers, a talented cellist who left Julliard because of his psychotic symptoms and eventually ended up homeless in Los Angeles, serenading passers-by on a beaten-up violin. A lifelong Beethoven fan, he frequents a park statue of the composer, and there encounters a friend who will change his life.

This poem, based on the lovely 42nd Psalm, is about fangirling over Beethoven, and being torn between the immediacy and terror of isolation in a new living situation, and an abiding sense of gratitude that one has a friend of sorts, even if that friend isn’t often reachable, reliable, or willing to negotiate on emotional ties.

Because his real friend is harder to trust than music itself, Nathaniel practices a kind of transference onto Beethoven, shifting his emotional baggage from a real, unreliable friend to a more perfect, imaginary one, through the channel of his art.

As a deer bends her neck toward streams of water,
so I yearn for Beethoven to visit here.
My whole being vibrates with the thirst for grace,
for the spectral lives of soundscapes in L.A.
When shall I come and listen to the echoes
and the sympathetic chords that answer here?
My tears became my bread inside these four walls.
All day long I heard voices: “where is your God?”
These thoughts race through my head – I pour out my heart
when I would give up all to join the strings
in the orchestra pit for a symphony
to lift the hearts of the music-lovers’ throng.
How bent, my body – my soul moans for release!
I still court Beethoven; I will acclaim him
for his transformative presence in my life.
Forgive me – my feelings were bent for my plight.
Remember instead all you’ve done for me, please,
remember how far we’ve come together, friend.
The depths of your heart answered the depths of mine
and the sound of music carves these channels deep.
Passionate breakers and waves overwhelmed me.
By day this city smiles on me while I play
and by night I cling to the echoes, afraid –
music is my prayer to the God of my life.
I should have said to you, as a friend can say,
“Why have you forgotten and rejected me?
Why do I rack my soul alone in this gloom?”
The threat of murder animates my bones, hate
fills my ears all day long, saying “where is your God?”
How bent, my soul, and how low my body moans!
Hope remains, and Beethoven is never far,
I turn to him for rescue and redemption.

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Filed under Acting, Music, Poetry, Puppy love

Amazing Grace

In 2007, two movies about the hymn Amazing Grace came out – one directed by Michael Apted and starring Albert Finney, Ioan Gruffudd, and a very young Benedict Cumberbach, and the other written and directed by Nigerian filmmaker Jeta Amata. I’ve only seen the first one, which focuses on the story of William Wilberforce (played by Gruffudd), the chronically ill (and opiate addicted) member of Parliament who engineered the passage of an abolition law in England to put a stop to the slave trade. Benedict Cumberbach plays William Pitt (the younger), then the youngest Prime Minister in British history and a close friend and sometime ally to Wilberforce, but one who often has to play his hand close to his chest.

In one scene, Wilberforce shows some guests around a slave ship in London harbor to drive home the importance of the abolitionist cause. The very small size of the compartments for slaves is remarked upon – today we know that most of the slaves being transported were abducted as children and transported before the age of 15, which may partly explain the extraordinarily cramped size of the compartments. That’s not to say that the compartments would have been more comfortable for children. They would have been barely large enough to hold a small 10-year-old with no room to move, and the children would have been stewing in their own in urine, blood and faeces throughout the voyage.

Jeta Amata’s film focuses more on the story of the conversion John Newton, the writer of the hymn itself, who once practiced the slave trade, before going into the clergy for a living. It’s on my watch list. Wikipedia has a wonderful entry on John Newton’s life story – if you check it out, leave a donation today, if you can, because it’s Wikipedia’s 20th birthday!

This poem, based on the 41st Psalm, is in the voice of Ioan Gruffudd’s Wilberforce, begging his beloved wife to be his crutch in the final stretch of his long, physically and mentally exhausting crusade to stop the slave trade. Here, he questions Pitt’s friendship, but in the end, the two were reconciled. Wilberforce and Pitt are buried side by side at Westminster Abbey.

Happy is he who sees to the afflicted.
When all is lost, his conscience will keep him safe.
May charity guard him and make his heart strong.
May his happiness know no shame – sing it out!
Deliver him from his enemies’ designs.
And let his love sustain him, in acute pain.
My whole bed turned over in wretched illness.
I prayed for more than a reprieve – “grant me grace,
and heal my soul, though my life is an offense.”
My enemies derided me when I swooned:
“How soon will he die, with his cause forgotten?”
And when these colleagues came to visit my bed,
I sensed the lie in their quick condolences.
While with me, they observed my every motion,
and in a spirit of mischief, told out all.
One and all my foes made light of my chances,
foretelling my death as though it served their plans.
“Some tumor or disease is lodged in his gut.
Once he lies back, he will lose this fight for good.”
Even my closest confidant, whom I trust
above all others, who ate at my table,
chose just then to be devious with his plans.
And you, my sweetheart and my true companion,
grant me grace, prop me up to show them my face.
In this I must know you are equal in love
to the enemies who trumpet my collapse.
And I, in my ignorance, you preserved me
and helped me rise again to our common cause.

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Filed under Acting, Corruption, Directing, Music, Poetry

Enemy at the Gates

Susan Sonntag wrote memorably in her essay Regarding the Pain of Others about a famous photograph of a still life with actors created in a studio, called “Dead Troops Talk (A Vision After an Ambush of a Red Army Patrol near Moqor, Afghanistan, Winter 1986)”, by Jeff Wall (1992, sold for $3.6 million in 2012):

“Thirteen Russian soldiers in bulky winter uniforms and high boots are scattered about a pocked, blood-splashed slope lined with loose rocks and the litter of war: shell casings, crumpled metal, a boot the holds the lower part of a leg.. The scene might be a revised version of the end of Gance’s J’accuse, when the dead soldiers from the First World War rise from their graves, but these Russian conscripts, slaughtered in the Soviet Union’s own late folly of a colonial war, were never buried. A few still have their helmets on. The head of one kneeling figure, talking animatedly, foams with his red brain matter. The atmosphere is warm, convivial, fraternal. Some slouch, leaning on an elbow, or sit, chatting, their opened skulls and destroyed hands on view. ..”

I strongly suspect director Jean-Jacques Annaud was influenced by this artwork in the staging of his adaption of William Craig’s book about the battle of Stalingrad – where the end of World War II for Europe was decided – Enemy at the Gates. Starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Ed Harris and Rachel Weisz, this gripping story of dueling snipers was scored by one of my favorite composers, James Horner, who was nominated for best action soundtrack – the film gathered seven nominations in total, including best director, best actor and best actress.

In this fan poem, based on the 40th Psalm, the hero is at odds with his closest comrade-in-arms, a propaganda specialist who has built him up into a larger-than-life target and, in so doing, touched off a war within a war. The Germans have sent their best sniper to defeat Vassily, Stalingrad’s newly-minted celebrity war hero, in a brutal duel that is taxing Vassily’s resolve. Instead of helping him climb down from his fame, Vassily’s friend descends into back-biting in the press, accusing him of inconstancy, as if it were treasonous to be afraid. This poem is his reply.

I urgently hoped for miraculous help.
Fate bent down toward me and heard my strained whisper,
and ushered me over the roiling Volga,
out from the clambering limbs of drowning men.
Memories of the steppe helped me find my feet,
kept my footing in the mud firm, once ashore.
And faith put to my clenched lips a brave new song –
praise for our Motherland and the Red Army.
May many see us fighting here and fear us
and trust in the People’s Revolution’s flag.
Happy the soldier in Stalingrad who puts
his trust in the hammer, the sickle, the star,
and does not yield to fascist propaganda,
resisting the cruel advance of total war.
Many mountains you have moved – Magnitogorsk,
the steelworks of the Urals – wonders of strength!
With every Five Year Plan we hurtle forward –
none can match the Soviets for speed. We rise,
and I have not the words to describe our fate:
the future arrives in the blink of an eye.
Sacrifice and ritual shrink behind us.
You opened our world to reading and science:
the mummery of penitence is no more.
Coming of age as a Soviet man means
inheriting blueprints for peace and plenty.
What I want is to do my part in all this,
to act on all I’ve been taught, to lead the way.
I acclaimed our cause in black and white newsprint.
When have I refused propaganda duties?
You, who dictated letters to me – you know,
I have never hidden my feelings from you.
The army’s faithfulness, my comrades’ rescue –
of all this I spoke with truth for all to hear.
You cannot, as my dearest comrade-in-arms,
stifle these truths, accusing me of bad faith!
Your steadfast belief in my courage and skill
has always been my protection from purges.
For all of us live and breathe under shadows
of doubt and fear of failure, here at the front.
My every mistake costs us dear in this duel
and at times, I cower in confusion’s grip –
blind to the devices of this sharp-shooter –
overwhelmed that he seeks only my own death.
Release me from this hero’s death, I beg you.
I ask only to be transferred from this duel.
Castigate the sniper the fascists sent here
to seek out a single man in all this hate,
force them to draw him off the hunt in disgrace,
for pitting himself against a hero’s fame.
Let him fall as all men fall, beaten by shame,
for relishing a murder I denied him.
Let those who turn to you for courage take pride
in how we snubbed the fascist propaganda.
May your readers praise the Commissariat
for fighting simply for the Motherland’s cause.
Let me fight as a regular, not a star,
so that my death will cost us less, should I die.
You have always been my friend here and my help.
Comrade, I need you more than ever today.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Poetry, Roll Credits

Cinderella Man

I guess it makes sense to ring in the new year with a poem about Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, the story of boxing legend James J. Braddock’s comeback after the Great Depression nearly tore his family apart, when the economic pressure to fight in spite of a disqualifying injury got him suspended from the ring. Starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti, this is one of my (and Bagehot’s!) favorite films of all time, even though I’ve never followed boxing (or boxing movies). I also love the soundtrack, by Thomas Newman, which has a track named after a line in the movie – “All Prayed Out.”

This poem, based on the 39th Psalm, is inspired by a tear-jerker of a scene in which the suspended and still-injured Braddock revisits the boxing club to ask for loose change, after having already signed on for unemployment relief, in order to get the heat turned back on and buy food for the kids. Braddock had been a rising star in boxing before the Depression, making enough money to own a cab company and provide a middle-class life for his family, so it’s jarring for the people who knew him then to see him now. Jarring for him, too.

The screencap above is from an earlier scene in the movie. Just as he had to hide his injury to fight, he has to conceal his injury to get work at the docks now that boxing isn’t an option any more. His wife Mae, played by Renee Zellweger, hides the cast with shoe polish.

I thought, “Today I will hold my peace instead.
I should not give voice in my prayers to anger
as long as my family’s hardships swell my throat.”
I said nothing – waited in silence, prayed out.
I kept still, while my children went hungry, cold,
punished by the pain in my useless right hand.
My heart rose, on fire, in my throat that night.
In my private thoughts a thousand questions burned.
I confided in my wife I did not know
where we would end another winter ourselves
or how much longer we could keep the children.
You can see how fleeting a man’s success is.
Listen, we built what I had together here,
and I would have been nothing if not for you.
We’re each and all a breath away from ruin.
The long shadow of want has touched all of you.
To murmur under one’s breath for help – men work
without knowing day to day how they will eat.
I came here last, expecting little; I need
your help to turn the heat back on, and buy milk.
Your generosity is all I can ask.
Don’t turn me back without what I need in scorn.
I said nothing before, when you laid me off,
for it was your right and your own decision.
But do not punish me for fighting injured,
not today – my family needed me that night.
You rebuked me then and you chastise me now,
when all that I built here has melted away.
All I have left is the strength to ask for help.
Hear me out, for the sake of our past; this once,
help me find the means to keep my children warm,
do not turn aside from my embarrassment.
For we have done great things here, earning laurels,
and each of us made our start here in his turn.
But look away for me – I must catch my breath
before I leave. Outside these walls, I’m no one.

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Filed under Cinderella Man, Poetry