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Classics scholar connects 'golden age' Hollywood themes to ancient texts

Monday, November 19, 2018

LAWRENCE — The idea of a "golden age" often permeates Hollywood cinema. The recent success of films like "La La Land," for example, showcases nostalgia for an earlier age of Hollywood itself, and the immensely popular 2000 epic film "Gladiator" is reminiscent of the "golden age" of so-called "sword and sandal" films, which themselves traded on a notion of the classical past as a type of "golden age."

However, often overlooked is the idea that this theme of a yearning for things to return to the way they were in the past has ancient roots, according to a University of Kansas scholar of film and the classics.

"The concept as we know it is something that originates in ancient Greece and Rome," said Emma Scioli, associate professor of classics. "Several texts from Greece and Latin literature articulate an idea that things were better in an earlier time. There's a sense that life during that time was much easier or more simple. While people idealize this time, they are always aware that, in defining it as prior to their own time, the golden age has passed and is irretrievable. This feeling of belatedness creates a longing for that elusive prior time."

Various Greek and Roman authors depict the golden age as a time when humans lived like gods and the earth provided nourishment for people who didn't have to work the land to produce food for themselves to survive. Another type of golden age narrative recalls a time when people lived in a society based on trust and had no need for laws or a military, Scioli said. 

"One hallmark of the 'golden age' was that people didn't fortify their cities or travel by sea because they were content where they were," she said. "Sea-faring is seen as the beginning of the end of the golden age, primarily because it is associated with warfare and plunder, but also because it suggested a desire to explore other shores and thus foreign customs."

Scioli has contributed an essay called "Confronting the Ancient Greek Golden Age in Jules Dassin's Phaedra (1962)" as part of the volume "Screening the Golden Ages of the Classical Tradition," published by Edinburgh University Press.

Dassin's 1962 film gives a stylish update to the ancient Greek myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus, the subject of the tragedy "Hippolytus," by Euripides, which Dassin uses as a starting point for the film. In Euripides' play, for example, the deeply misogynistic Hippolytus advocates for a life "free from womankind."

His counterpart in the later Roman interpretation of this myth by Seneca singles out women as the "root of all evil" and shuns them for bringing about the demise of the golden age for which he longs. His disdain for women is seemingly confirmed when his stepmother, Phaedra, confesses her passion for him.

In his film, Dassin repeatedly draws attention to the film's origins in Greek myth and tragedy by displaying works of ancient Greek art, most prominently in a scene shot in the British Museum (see image), and suggestively modernizing elements from ancient Greek tragedy to force a confrontation between the past and present, Scioli said.

"Even though the film takes great liberties with the original tragedy, the director refers to ancient Greece's golden age by putting in these references to the visual culture of classical Athens. This move reminds the audience of the film's origins and forces the characters within the film to confront the golden age that they are unwittingly part of," she said.

The idea of a golden age becomes complex when understood alongside themes of foreignness and cultural appropriation, which can be at odds with a yearning to restore something, she added. Dassin is an American who was blacklisted in the 1960s and spent the rest of his career working in Europe. His feeling of alienation, both as an American working in Greece and as a contemporary filmmaker approaching an ancient Greek tragedy, are also relevant for considering the golden age theme in the film.

"Hollywood is one of those places where there is a tremendous nostalgia. There are constantly remakes and sequels of films — think of the box office flop "Ben-Hur," a 2016 remake of the 1959 film," Scioli said. "There's a sense that people want to keep seeing the familiar, and this leads many filmmakers back to ancient Greece and Rome."

As contemporary films and television series continue to explore themes that originated in Greek and Roman works or are set in the ancient world — including the current BBC series "Troy: Fall of a City" on Netflix — it makes her dual expertise in the study of ancient texts and the reception of these texts on screen relevant to a discussion of what the past means for the present, she said.

"Reception studies is a burgeoning subfield of the classics right now," Scioli said, "Critical studies of the representation of antiquity on screen are important for several reasons." 

Scholars in this area have moved away from simply critiquing directors for "what they got wrong" about antiquity. Rather, there is an interest in using these screen texts to ask key questions about access to the past:

  • If authenticity is no longer a central goal, then what are filmmakers and showrunners interested in depicting when they set a film or show in ancient Greece or Rome? 
  • What can these choices tell us about the roles that ancient Greece and Rome play in the modern imaginary? 
  • To what extent does a viewer's familiarity with the culture of ancient Greece or Rome affect the viewing experience?

"Rather than yearn for a lost golden age when things were 'done better,'" Scioli said, "these questions are best answered when considered in light of the contemporary cultural and political moment in which the work was made."

Image: Anthony Perkins in the film 1962 "Phaedra." Courtesy: Emma Scioli and Edinburgh University Press.