Thursday, August 19, 2010

Secular Myths

This was originally published in a slightly different form at The Second Awakening.

"Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint." --Carl Sagan, Cosmos

One of the things I've come to love about Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is the sheer effrontery of the way it re-writes the end of World War II. All movies about history are fiction, Tarantino seems to be (truthfully) saying, so let's wallow in that freedom. Anyone who watches movies for history lessons deserves what they get. Or to quote another film by another filmmaker, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Myth of Hypatia--and even though Hypatia was a real person, Carl Sagan relates a myth, not historical fact--is a kind of Rorschach test. Are you a bibliophile? Then this is a horror story. Are you a feminist? Then this is a portrait of the patriarchy at one of its lowest moments. Are you a scientist? Then this is a parable about academic freedom. Are you an atheist? Then this is your worst fears about religion made flesh. What you take from this is in large part what you bring to it. The atheist in me has a few problems with this, because one of the core questions an atheist needs to ask herself is this one: do you care that what you believe is true? As it turns out, this particular atheist does care, so The Myth of Hypatia is a bit of a disappointment to me. No matter how much I may want this story to arm me against the religious and the superstitious, it's bullshit and I can't in good conscience use bullshit as ammunition against bullshit.

This disappointment does not extend to Alejandro Amenabar's recounting of the myth in Agora (2009), however. Because, you know, it's a movie, and just like Tarantino, Amenabar is rewriting history for his own ends (though he rewrites considerably less than Sagan even as he adds romantic subplots). I don't have to care if a movie is true. I only care if it's good theater. By happy coincidence, one of the main themes of this particular movie involves the quest of Hypatia to determine if what she believes is indeed true. "Synesius, you don't question what you believe," she tells one of her disciples, "You cannot. I must." It's an interesting conundrum. Would a historically accurate depiction of the life and death of Hypatia allow the filmmakers to explore this theme? Probably not. Almost certainly not.

The word, "agora," has three meanings: 1. a popular political assembly. 2. the place where such an assembly met, originally a marketplace or public square. 3. the Agora, the chief marketplace of Athens, center of the city's civic life. Discarding the third definition, which is specific to a place and time, you can conflate the meanings thus: "A marketplace of ideas." The movie chooses this word for its title. Not "Hypatia" or "Alexandria" or "The Last Scientist" or somesuch, but "Agora," a word that's not in common usage these days (a choice that dismayed the film's marketers, I'm sure). The title is a tell-tale, indicative of a movie that wants to be about more than what it's literally about. The agora is an ideal, but it's also a pit for bloodsports. The movie mourns the latter.

Like the Myth of Hypatia, Agora touches on the pressure points of secular thought. It's a feminist film, an atheist film, and a paean to science. It's also a thriller and a spectacle. These last two are its qualities as a movie, but the themes and the form are inextricably linked.

As a thriller, the story is a freight train downhill. Anyone who knows the story will watch with mounting apprehension, because this comes to a bad, bad end. Its structure as a thriller encourages the viewer to become attached to its ideals even as it goes about the business of wrecking them. It's overt about its attack on fundamentalism and intolerance; it's crafty and subtle in the way it advocates for the opposite worldview. By the last act of the movie, the audience is so attached to these ideals that it can find thrills in the realization that the orbit of the sun is an ellipse as a ward against encroaching doom. As movie epiphanies go, this one is both esoteric and at the heart of the human experience at the same time. Among Agora's multifarious themes, its depiction of the march of human progress based on the solving of puzzles is its most subtle and most primal delight.

As a spectacle, the film takes the grandiosity of its idiom and expands it. Sure, it has lots of fantastic sets and costumes and scenes with crowds of extras and horrifying conflicts between groups of people, but it uses these elements with a purpose. The film's costuming is of particular note. You can see a clear demarcation between the classical ideal of knowledge, incarnated in Roman-ish robes, and the Christianized Dark Ages, represented by darker robes of indeterminate design. As a matter of production design, the Alexandria depicted here is a cosmopolitan polyglot of classical, middle-eastern, and ancient Egyptian. As part of the plot, the classical is slowly swept from the table by the know-nothing Christians. But it's the movie's shot selection that is most important. Pay close attention to the repeated shots of circles at a slant; they presage Hypatia's epiphany late in the movie. The most flamboyant shot in the movie occurs while the Christians are ransacking the library: the camera looks up from the mayhem to the occula of the central chamber as scrolls are unfurled in the air, then it tilts back level with the horizon line, upside down:

This accomplishes two things: First, it represents the overturning of the old order. The world of the film is briefly and literally upside down. Second, it suggests that people aren't going to fall off the Earth just because they are on the "bottom side" of it. This is important, because it's a question that's explicitly asked during the course of the film, even though the visual shorthand of the film has already answered it. More than this, though, every so often, the movie pulls back its gaze to a broader viewpoint. There are numerous shots of the Earth and the city of Alexandria from space. In another movie, these shots might be superfluous, kind of like those plunging aerial shots in the Lord of the Rings movies. In THIS movie, however, the shots are deployed with a very specific purpose. It sets up this shot: which human beings are put in perspective. The scurrying of people in this shot resembles the scurrying of ants, an effect exaggerated by speeding up the film. In the grand scheme of things, we're all ephemeral and the whole lot of us will eventually be boiled from this rock by an aging sun. The last shot of the movie travels backwards to show us a planet that continues to hurtle through the void even after Hypatia meets her fate.

The movie isn't without its faults, of course. Prime among them is Hypatia's trio of suitors, Orestes, Davus, and Synesius, played respectively by Oscar Isaacs, Max Minghella, and Rupert Evans, who moon after her. None of them is her equal, and none of the performances is the equal of Rachel Weisz's Hypatia (when Hypatia rejects one of her suitors with a used menstrual cloth, it doesn't seem as harsh as it could, because the recipient is kind of a wet blanket). More cumbersome is the way the movie arranges to spare the audience from the horror of Hypatia's method of execution. The way the movie plays it out is an elaborate game of averting one's eyes. It seems a bit of a cheat, particularly given that it's folded into the romantic parts of the movie that just don't work that well. There are other nits I could pick, I suppose, but on balance Agora is splendid. And I'm not just saying that because I share its worldview.

A short addendum. My friend, Ali Smith (who is an academic, not a blogger), has a countervailing opinion, which she shared with me on the IMDb's message boards. I asked her if I could reprint it with my own opinion, and here it is, presented without further comment from me:

1) This is a feminist film? It has one female character. One. Count her. Plus a couple of ghostly figures who drift into a couple of shots as her ladies-in-waiting/maids/figures-in-background-kneeling-over-chests. This in a film with almost as many extras as an Italian 50s peplum, and the whole population of a classical city in its scope. And what does it do with that one female figure? It circles around her like a planet round its sun - if you want another of those cinematographic tricks of mimicking the cosmos and kicking us in the shins to look at the pretty diagram - , as she stands gazing up at it, practically inexpressive. Around her 15 or 20 years pass, and the years take their effect on her assorted suitors, while she remains untouchable in her marble perfection, unlined, ungreyed, impervious to crow's feet. That's not feminism, that's a Madonna.

2) As far as social hierarchies are concerned, at least, it's with the historical Hypatia all the way. Good slaves know their place, staking out the terrain for experiments, listening, keeping silent. A slave who looks beyond his slavery is at best impertinent and doomed to disappointment, at worst a potential public danger. As for taking an interest in the social injustice of such a vast and hierarchical city, it's a sure sign that those who take notice are opportunists and not to be trusted. As a piece of reactionary defence of privilege, I've rarely seen better.

3) Sorry, but it lays those cinematographic tricks on so heavy, it feels like a textbook collection of textbook diagrams, exaggerated a bit so that the beginner can understand. This is how you use low-angle shots to give a small person importance. This is how you use high-angle shots to make people look small. This is how you use circular camera movement to make one figure the centre of the world. No wonder it takes so long.

And for the rest similarly. It's so un-nuanced that credibility withers. Which is not the same thing as complaining that it's not historically accurate - I agree that no film is, and that it's probably best not to make any pretence, and I wholeheartedly agree with your incidental assessment of Inglourious Basterds. But Inglourious Basterds doesn't mess up history in order to make it digestible; all its major characters are complicated and their motivations are mischievously confused, and the audience's allegiance and their approval don't necessarily always go together, whether they like it or not, and it's carefully so engineered. Result, you may be exasperated with them or horrified by them, but you never feel browbeaten by them, you're free to go with your loves or your hates. Agora on the other hand doesn't think it possible that it may be ambiguous in any detail, and by the time it ended I was heartily sick of Hypatia, something I would never have imagined I ever could have been, at least in imagination. In real life possibly yes, but then in real life she would have been, precisely, ambiguous.


FLJustice said...

Hypatia's story has been adopted, adapted, inflated, interpreted and completely distorted by many groups over the years--primarily because what we do know about her is so little, but so dramatic. Enlightment writers and artists, feminists, scientists, atheists,(I have seen some people claim Hyaptia was a Christian!) all claim her martyrdom for their cause. Classics scholar Maria Dzielska sorts through the myths and primary sources in a very readable biography Hypatia of Alexandria (Harvard University Press, 1995.) I also have a series of posts on my blog on the events and characters from the film - not a movie review, just a "reel vs. real" discussion. BTW, I agree with your friend that this is not a feminist film, even if the main character is a feminist icon.

dr.morbius said...

Hi, Faith,

Sorry it took so long to reply to this. The posts on your blog are excellent. Thanks for pointing me at them.

Hypatia strikes me as the same kind of historical figure as Jack the Ripper, in so much as she's a cipher to which subsequent generations attach their own meanings, regardless of what we actually know as historical fact.