One of the reasons why I love working on classical receptions is that there’s always so much new material to get stuck into. While colleagues working on, say, classical literature are left fantasising about the discovery of new fragments – and are only very occasionally granted their heart’s desire, as with the recent Sappho papyri – those of us who work on modern receptions of antiquity are never short of new subjects. And in the world of cinematic antiquities, these new subjects have, in recent years, just kept on coming. In the decade and a half since Gladiator (2000) burst onto the scene and seemingly reinvigorated the ancient world film genre, new titles have appeared practically every year. This in itself is something of a challenge. Striving to finish my PhD thesis, and then the book-of-the-thesis, I envied friends working on Latin literature or Greek tragedy, who could at least come close to a sense of completion, when all the texts and all the scholarship had been read. By contrast, how could I call time on my own project when the Hollywood machine (and all the attendant media buzz, and then scholarship) kept rumbling on?
But a challenge bigger than the sheer volume of stuff soon presents itself. You’d think, from what I’ve just said, that the classics and film scholar might constantly be whooping with excitement – when in fact (confession time), my heart has sunk a little lower with each passing year, my enthusiasm waning with each new release. What was initially a certain smugness about my research (“Why, yes, I am sitting down in front of the telly with a pizza and a glass of wine FOR WORK!”) has now become a weariness. Do I want to go and watch another vaguely mythological film in which immortal Titans get all wrathful and clash? Can I really drag myself to watch another 300 heroes in leather pants, another empire rising? The short answer is usually no.
To be fair, this isn’t much of a sob story. No one’s forcing me to spend time on these films, and I feel mighty lucky that I get to work on a lot of stuff that I do enjoy – whether it’s the blockbusters of the earlier twentieth century, or the creative genius of directors like Fellini, or indeed Gladiator, which I’ll always love. But the trajectory of the 21st-century ancient world film genre can’t be totally ignored, nor can its implications for classical reception studies. Prompted by the recent box office bombing of yet another version of Ben-Hur, once again there’s a feeling that we’re witnessing the death throes of the ancient world film genre (in Hollywood at least, where the very future of the conventional ‘blockbuster’ is up for grabs).
These choruses have piped up several times over the past decade, it’s true, and maybe 2016’s obituary for epic will also prove premature. But now is as good a time as any to reflect on my own disappointment and failure to engage with these contemporary films. Next week I’ll post my review of Ben-Hur itself, but for now, I want to share some more general thoughts, by way of provocation and as a springboard for further discussion. First, my disillusionment with these films is, of course, mine and mine alone. Reception Theory 101 states that the reader, or audience member, interprets the text or film (or whatever) according to their own perspective, and shaped by their own baggage. I didn’t much care for Ben-Hur, but some (OK, a few) did, and I can’t pull rank and insist that they’re wrong just because I’m a classicist. It’s not objectively a bad film.
Classical reception’s subjectivity is, for me, one of its most enduringly fascinating aspects, anyway. Think how boring it would be if we all loved the same things! For example, I’m not often a fan of the kitsch 1950s peplum films, but I’m very glad that many of my colleagues are, because without their enthusiasm and scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to understand the counterpart to the mainstream Hollywood canon of that era. What’s more, we shouldn’t have to apologise if we do enjoy something that is broadly deemed terrible or tasteless; if I had loved Ben-Hur (and there were things about it that I quite liked, as I’ll discuss in my next post), I’d like to think that I’d put my head above the parapet and explain why! It’s common to speak of ‘guilty pleasures’ these days, but the whole notion of that makes me uncomfortable. If it’s a pleasure, why should we feel guilty about it?
Suffering through these films also reminds me that, even if we could somehow all agree that they were objectively ‘bad’, that wouldn’t itself make them uninteresting and unworthy of study. To put it another way, saying that something is in poor taste is not the same as saying that it is unimportant. Any reception has the capacity to reveal something about how a given moment in time, a given culture, responds to, interprets, and recreates the ancient past. Whatever I think about Ben-Hur and its artistic merits, I can still seek to understand it as one example of what the ancient world means in 2016: observing that the spectacular thrills of the arena or circus remain profoundly emblematic of Roman civilisation, for example; or that ancient world narratives continue to provide a vehicle for exploring religious faith, and human motivations like revenge and redemption. The fact that these are far from original insights (what has changed from the 1950s?) is itself an important conclusion to be drawn. This is also why I struggle with an implicit (and sometimes explicit) charge levelled against the study of popular cultural reception: that we’re somehow doing ourselves a disservice by studying so-called inferior material (‘we form ourselves by the company that we keep’, argued Charles Martindale a decade ago). Despite my yawns, I’m pretty sure that sitting through Ben-Hur didn’t make me a worse person – but it did remind me that there are many more ways of telling Roman stories today than those favoured by me personally, or by a self-appointed cultural or intellectual elite.
So what next? Regardless of whether or not Ben-Hur finally kills the 21st-century epic genre, those of us who spend a lot of time studying cinematic receptions still have to figure out what to do with these lacklustre films. They’re never going to make my personal Top 10, but part of me thinks they still need to be required viewing for students who want to understand why popular culture keeps reaching for antiquity yet failing to satisfy or inspire audiences. And they should be object lessons for those filmmakers who want to use the magic of their medium to transport us to a past that offers so much more than chariots and sea battles, swords and sandals. Turn a different lens on antiquity and I’ll be first in the queue for tickets.