Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Troy and the Purposes of Art

The blog post I mentioned in my previous entry (by Morrigan on Anthropology Net) on the purposes of art had been part of a thread of discussion on the movie 300. I agree with Morrigan’s point that 300 is not just art and not just entertainment. All movies are both art and entertainment (and often other things besides), though they might be good or bad art, good or bad at being entertaining.

Since I haven’t seen 300, at least not yet, I can’t say much about it. I’d like to shift to another epic movie set in the ancient Mediterranean, Troy. Troy was widely panned (a bit unfairly, I think) when released a few years ago and considered a commercial failure (despite making over $140 million at the U.S. box office, and about half a billion dollars worldwide – I’d like to be a commercial failure, too). Like most art, Troy does several things at once, having several distinct purposes simultaneously.

Art as Entertainment

Art in all forms can provide amusement, diversion, and entertainment. For big budget Hollywood movies, entertainment is the primary function of art. Troy is no exception, all of which is fairly obvious. The main reason to even discuss this is to emphasize that while entertainment may be the primary function of a movie like Troy, it is not the only thing happening.

Art as Aesthetic Object

Troy presents a set of aesthetic ideals – of masculinity, violence, and war especially. In his introduction to his modern adaptation, An Iliad (which faithfully preserves the content, but eliminates much of the repetition in Homer’s text), Alessandro Baricco speaks of the beauty of war in the Iliad. It’s one thing to state that The Iliad or Troy glorify war. They do, but more they present ideals of masculinity, violence, and war as objects of beauty. Baricco’s point is that any discourse on war, including opposition to it, needs to involve not just intellectualization but take into account also the appeal because of the beauty of (representations of) war.

In Troy, this aestheticization of masculinity, violence, and war takes several forms. Brad Pitt’s body, as Achilles, is an aesthetic object – at least since the movie Fight Club, Brad Pitt’s body has been an embodiment of a particular masculine body-aesthetic. In Troy, Orlando Bloom, as Paris, provides an embodiment of an alternate masculine body beauty. But it’s not just about men’s bodies, even if Troy and many other recent movies are very much about men’s bodies. The lines of the Greeks’ ships, the soldiers’ armor, the unity of movement of the Myrmidons, the arc and sweep of swords and spears, and the pacing of the action – imagery slowing and speeding up in an increasingly common Hollywood trick – all contribute to the aestheticization, the creation of a representation of violence and war as beautiful, something which I must admit works to an alarming extent.

Art as Intellectual Object

Art can provide grist for more intellectual contemplation as well (such as this blog post, and the blog post which prompted me to write it). Most of us don’t expect to encounter much food for thought when we go see a big budget action movie like Troy, but occasionally they surprise us. I’ll simply point out two ways in which Troy left me thinking as I left the theater.

Achilles’ Dilemma

Achilles has a dilemma as he goes off to war. He’s been told by his mother, Thetis, a minor goddess no less, that he has a choice. If he stays at home, he’ll live a long, comfortable life, be well-loved, but also be forgotten. If he goes to war, he’ll die at war but achieve a glory that will be remembered for generations. We all know what he chose, but he had to think about it (In The Iliad, he goes on thinking about it right up until Patroclus’ death and his own return to battle). Granted, the filmmakers didn’t come up with this – that would be Homer and whatever earlier oral traditions he was drawing upon – but they present it well, and I was certainly touched by it, left thinking, “What would I choose?” Not being a warrior, I’ve a pretty good idea what I would have chosen, but the equivalent dilemma for any scholar might be: “What would you do and what would you sacrifice in order that your work and ideas continue to be read and discussed not just during your lifetime, but 100 or 500 or 1000 years after your death?”

Patroclus’ Death

Troy is not a movie of The Iliad in the sense that it starts before the start of The Iliad (perhaps defying contemporary expectations – about either Troy or The IliadTroy is actually a much more straightforwardly linear text) and ends after the end of The Iliad, addressing material (such as the death of Achilles, the Trojan Horse, and the Fall of Troy) covered in The Odyssey. Still, it draws primarily on the material in The Iliad. It’s interesting then to compare some ways in which the two presentations of events significantly differ. One of these concerns the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ companion.

Through most of The Iliad and much of Troy, Achilles sulks in his tent over an act of Agamemnon, specifically Agamemnon taking away from Achilles a woman that he had claimed as a war prize. In The Iliad, this breach between the two heroes opens the narrative, ten years after the start of the war itself. Without Achilles and his men fighting on their side, the Trojans gain the upper hand. At a critical moment, in The Iliad, Patroclus beseeches Achilles to allow him to put on the armor of Achilles, both to rally the Greeks and to strike fear into the Trojans. By this point, Achilles clearly realizes he’s been petty, but he refuses to break his vow to not enter the battle, and so allows Patroclus to don his armor. Patroclus’ arrival on the scene of battle does rally the Greeks and strike fear into the Trojans, at least for a while, but after a few moments, everyone realizes it’s not actually Achilles. The more critical factor in turning the tide of battle a bit is as much the arrival of Achilles’ men as Achilles’ suit of armor. When Hector rallies some of his own Trojan troops and ends up killing Patroclus (with more than a little help from Apollo, not to mention another Trojan who spears Patroclus before Hector finishes him), he’s well aware of whom he has killed.

The story of Troy regarding this incident is different in important respects. Patroclus doesn’t ask Achilles’ permission to don the armor – he takes it on the sly, so Achilles has no idea that Patroclus has gone to battle, wearing his own armor no less. The appearance of “Achilles” on the battlefield has its intended effect, and no one else is in on the deception. When Hector kills Patroclus (this time without any god’s help), he thinks he has killed Achilles (a fact that Achilles later taunts him about), until the helmet is removed. For Achilles, the shock of Patroclus’ death is heightened, as he didn’t even know Patroclus was in the battle.

On this incident, I find myself far preferring the version of the story told in Troy. The intervention of Apollo to wallop Patroclus in the head in The Iliad hardly seems fitting, and I find Hector’s fate more poignant if he thinks he’s already defeated Achilles in battle before finding out that he’s not even come close to fighting someone of Achilles’ skill in battle. I wondered at the time, though, and still wonder now, whether my preference stems from a modern mindset, or whether, in fact the makers of Troy have one-upped Homer in telling a better story on this point.

Art as a Reflection of its Society

In a number of ways both Troy and The Iliad reflect the societies in which they were produced. Here, I’ll discuss two – one a way in which the two works have much in common, the other one of the main differences between the two works.

War as a way of life

As I said above, both works glorify war and violence. They don’t do this by making an argument that war is good (if they did, they could be more easily countered with opposing arguments) – they take that largely for granted, though both texts also occasionally interject awareness of the sadness and tragedy of war also. Instead, they successfully aestheticize violence and war and make of it an object of beauty.

In doing so, they reflect societies for which making war is a part of the way of life of the culture as a whole. In the case of the United States, the U.S. military has been nearly continuously involved in the application of force around the world for the past several decades, e.g. the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first Persian Gulf War, enforcement of the no-fly zone between the two Iraq wars, Haiti, Kosovo, peace-keeping in Bosnia, Somalia, military advisors and trainers in Colombia and other spots associated with the “War on Drugs,” Panama, cruise missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan after the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, etc. Note that the motivations and details of these different missions vary considerably, and also that I’m not making an argument that lumps them all together as good or bad. Rather, I’m simply stating a fact – that the U.S. military has been nearly continuously engaged for decades, albeit at different levels of intensity, and that making war is a regular part of a way of life for the culture as a whole.

A key difference between the United States today and Ancient Greece is that in the U.S. today, the military and war are quite distant from the lived day to day experience of many, if not most, Americans. I live and work in a region of the country, the Southeast, which is the source of a high proportion of military personnel. I also live and work in a community, the Pensacola area, which is dominated by the military. Most businesses in town offer discounts for active duty military personnel; people routinely give thanks and prayer for members of the armed services, especially those actively engaged in combat; I routinely have active duty and military reserve personnel enrolled in my classes. I also realize that this is not typical of most places in the U.S. For many middle-class Americans, the military, military personnel, and war seem like very distant phenomena, while at the same time war is encountered very regularly in its aestheticized form in movies, television, and to a large extent mainstream news.

The Gods

The largest difference between Troy and The Iliad has to do with the role of the gods. In The Iliad, the gods are omnipresent – barely a page goes by (except in sections cataloguing the men present in battle, how many ships and men they brought, their genealogies, etc.) without the gods intervening in some way. In Troy, the gods exist, but they aren’t directly involved in the story. The only one we see is Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a minor goddess, and she interacts by giving him advice – that is, she acts as his mother and not as a goddess. This reflects a basic difference in the cultures. Contemporary American society is not so secular as some (especially religious fundamentalists) think, but it is one profoundly affected by the humanism of the Enlightenment. Which is to say, most Americans don’t expect God to directly intervene in mundane affairs and they find the actions of people more interesting and compelling than the interventions of Greek gods.

Many of the parts of The Iliad I find most unsatisfying involve such interventions, and here my dissatisfaction is very much a result of the ways in which my thinking and preferences reflect modern culture. I’m dissatisfied with the role of Apollo in Patroclus’ death and the role of Athena in Hector’s death – I find the versions of the narrative in Troy more compelling. More importantly, two incidents, which open and close The Iliad, demonstrate key differences in Ancient Greek and modern American worldviews.

At the opening of The Iliad, Achilles isn’t just bitter at Agamemnon. He doesn’t just go to sulk in his tent. He also beseeches his mother to beseech Zeus to turn the tide (at least for a while) of battle against the Greeks. Much of the misfortune of the Greeks through much of the narrative is partly the result of Achilles’ request against his own side. The main closing event of The Iliad is Priam’s visit to Achilles’ tent to recover his son Hector’s body, which Achilles had been abusing for many days. Many of the gods had favored Achilles but had since been angered by his treatment of Hector’s body. Achilles’ mother has warned him to allow Priam to take the body or incur the wrath of the gods. When Priam visits, Achilles is genuinely moved by him, but it’s also clear (through the explicit statements of Achilles) that the only reason Achilles gives up the body is because of the threat of the gods’ wrath.

Troy plays these incidents quite differently. Achilles is angry at Agamemnon, but doesn’t try to bring down intervention of the gods against his own side. Priam visits Achilles, genuinely touches him, and convinces him to give up the body of Hector out of respect and pity for Priam.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding Troy’s versions of these two key events more compelling, even finding The Iliad’s versions a bit strange. In the case of Patroclus’ death, Troy might even simply tell a better story, but in these two instances, the sense of satisfaction or strangeness is shaped by the social context which the work also reflects.


Unknown said...

Hey Robert....Im a Marine Corps combat veteran, as such have ead many many books on war..Ive read The Iliad four times, and just watched Troy for the second time, and was searching the net looking for opinions on the differences between the two. I happened upon your blog and loved it!! You are simply spot on!! I also have a question: Have you ever read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield?

Robert Philen said...

Glad you liked the post.

I have not read that particular book, but I'll look into it.

If you're into modern adaptations of The Iliad and related material, two interesting examples I've recently encountered are John Tipton's recent translation of Sophocles' Ajax, and Christopher Logue's War Music, which is a setting of key episodes in The Iliad in modern poetic form.

Anonymous said...

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