Saturday, May 4, 2013

'Homer's Odyssey' (1911) directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro

It's a strange experience watching a film that's 102 years old.  Every single person involved in the production is long dead, and so for that matter is everyone that went to see it in the cinema.  It's a historical epic that depicts scenes from Odysseus's journey, but by 2013 the film itself has become a relic of a distant past.  But, though this film was intended for an audience whose mindset is alien to us, there is still much that's familiar about this adaptation of Homer's Odyssey, which at the time was grandly billed as marking "a new epoch in the history of the motion picture as an actor in education."

The film was introduced with a talk from Pantelis Michelakis, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Bristol.  He gave us a brief history of the historical epic in cinema, tracing a line from the prototypical cinema of the first years of the 20th Century, through the silent era, up to the swords and sandals epics of the 50s and 60s like Cleopatra and Ben Hur and right to the modern day where the same stories we see in Homer's Odyssey are shown in bombastic digital 3D in films like Clash of the Titans and Immortals.

Odysseus (Giuseppe de Liguoro) tells his tale to the Phaeacian King and Queen
It turns out that Homer's Odyssey and modern CG blockbusters have more in common that you'd think.  Michelakis entertainingly explains how the film was marketed.  Notable tactics were; securing the recommendations of Classics academics in what are now the Ivy League universities; offering reprints copies of Homer's Odyssey (in English or Greek); an essay writing competition (which had 100,000 entries!); offering busts of Homer for cinema owners to display; and, brilliantly, offering university lecturers toga costumes to wear whilst delivering lectures about the film.  Then for the US premiere they invited President Taft and former President Roosevelt, as well as the Deans of all the major US universities.  Impressive stuff.  All this effort suggests Homer's Odyssey as a summer tentpole blockbuster of its day; an early 'event film'.

After all this build-up it is a bit of an anticlimax that the film is slightly tedious.  It's unfair to criticise the film too much though, recreating ancient Greek myth using the cinematic techniques of 1911 is worthy of praise for ambition alone.   But at 45 minutes the film can only present the briefest of overviews of the Odyssey and skips very quickly through the best bits, spending a bit too much time watching Penelope fending off her suitors and too little time watching Odysseus stabbing and murdering his way through Greek mythology.

Polyphemus the Cyclops being blinded.
Having said that, there are some very clever scenes the film that make excellent use of the rudimentary in-camera special effects available to the film-makers.  One of the most iconic sequences is Odysseus and his crew trapped by the cyclops Polyphemus.  The giant looks truly monstrous here, dwarfing the men around him, an effect achieved through careful double exposures.  He's a vicious monster, but the film gives him a touch of humanity after Odysseus blinds him with a flaming stake.  There's a surprisingly graphic image of his burnt out eyesocket, followed by him stumbling around in a blind panic.  We later see him fruitlessly hurling boulders at Odysseus' boat.  I felt a little sorry for Polyphemus and detected a slight prefiguring of James Whale's Frankenstein.

Sailing past the Sirens.
But my favourite sequence in the film was the short sequence showing us the song of the Sirens.  In the Siren sequence Odysseus orders his crew to lash him to the mast while they fill their ears with wax to drown out their Siren's song.  So do you show a song in a silent film?  We were fortunate to have a great live score by the insanely talented Stephen Horne.  Horne is one of the leading silent film accompanists in the UK, and improvises multi-instrumental scores at the BFI's screenings on the Southbank.   As they sailed past the mermaids Horne played an atmospheric synthesised choral melody that elevated the film beyond the slightly quaint into something genuinely spooky.  Watching Horne play along to these films is quite something, playing some impromptu combination of piano, flute, accordion and keyboards to fit whatever's on screen.

It always surprises me that there are people still consider silent films to be just that: silent. As anyone that's seen one will realise the answer is quite the opposite, with many silent films having outstanding soundtracks.  Though many of the original scores have been lost, silent films attract excellent modern musicians who interpret these films in new ways.   Just last month I saw the first feature length animated film from 1926, The Adventures of Prince Achmed with an excellent live score by Bushra El-Turk. I also always enjoy the work of the Alloy Orchestra, particularly their scores for Metropolis and Man With A Movie Camera.  Horne's score wasn't quite on that level, though it was a brilliantly involving piece of work.

Battling the six headed monster Scylla.
I always enjoy going to see early cinema; it feels like I'm getting entertainment and history all rolled into one.  There's a palpable thrill in watching the infancy of cinema; of directors taking slowly realising the vast possibilities inherent to the medium.  Homer's Odyssey was an interesting watch: the 1911 equivalent of a summer blockbuster, and a chance to see the past come alive in two ways; firstly in the depiction of Ancient Greece and secondly in the film itself as historical text.

Should it take your fancy: you can watch the entire film (sans score) here.

Thanks to the UCL Department of Greek and Latin and particularly to Pantelis Michelakis & Maria Wyke for the screening.

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