Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Great (film) Debates vol. 105

Life is an allusion.

What is your favorite literary allusion on film?



Panelist: Floyd

Best allusion 1a: The Coen Brother's "O Brother Where Art Thou?" I just watched this again recently and it is really well done. It is chockablock -- and famously so -- with allusions to Homer's "The Odyssey".

Tied is 1979's "The Warriors" -- a version of Xenophon's "The Anabasis". In the book a small army of Greek mercenaries go to Persia to help Cyrus defeat Artaxerxes and seize power. Cyrus is killed and the Greeks are trapped in enemy territory with no sponsor and fight their way back home. "The Warriors," though rough in film execution -- is a great transplant of that narrative to the New York City of the 1970s. Even having the Warriors go from Coney Island to the interior of NYC and then fight back to the coast mimics Xenophon's story.

Panelist: ScottDS

I struggled with this one for literally months. I didn't want to go with the obvious (Trek, Dickens, Melville, etc.). And then I remembered that The Naked Gun is based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. (Seriously, the producer says so on the DVD commentary. He's obviously joking... but it would explain how they managed to get John Houseman to appear in the movie!) And if you're reading this on Sunday, it means I never came up with a better answer.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Floyd has made two great calls, but I'm going in a different direction. I would have said Rollerball for best. Rollerball is an allusion to Brave New World. I love this film because it shows what for a danger individual achievement is to collectivism and it shows how even people who think they are good can be evil. But there's something better! Wall-E. Wall-E also is an allusion to Brave New World and it contains the same messages as Rollerball... but it's ALSO an allusion to the story of Noah's Arc from the Bible. Fantastic! A double allusion. How rare is that?

Worst has to be any movie that has it's hero fall in the shape of a cross when they get shot. That's heavy-handed, grade-school allusion BS.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Well, a good one that comes to mind is O Brother Where Art Thou? which lauded to Homer's The Odyssey. It was well written and directed, and made the country aware of Alison Krauss & Union Station. I cannot think of any horrible examples at this time.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

What’s a literary allusion anyway?


Comments? Thoughts?

34 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

while Floyd and I were clearly thinking along the same lines, I also really like Andrew's pick. Loved the original Rollerball,and its allusion to Huxley. "hip hooray, Tokyo; Houston ... Houston ... Jonathon!!!!

Tennessee Jed said...

... and Bev's allusion is fine in it's own right.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, I can't think of any films where the hero falls in the shape of a cross. Closest I can think of .... "Dead Man Walking."

Floyd R. Turbo said...

The Omega Man... Heston gets pierced by a spear AND falls in a cross...

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_qZW_ffxM6L4/R8t3chobhiI/AAAAAAAABIs/tcI0VY45v3Y/s320/still+of+the+dead+Robert+Neville+played+by+Charlton+Heston+from+The+Omega+Man+banner+thumbnail.jpg

Tennessee Jed said...

but Floyd, did they shoot him through both palms? I guess filmmakers could use that about one time before it became a silly cliche.

ScottDS said...

...Yeah, I'm kinda tired of the hero/cross thing. The last couple of Superman movies have been guilty of this. Which begs a question that some folks have asked: Superman started out as a Jewish allegory... when did it turn into a Christian one?!?! :-)

PikeBishop said...

Roy holding a white bird, while his hand is pierced by a long nail-looking thing while talking about life and death with Deckard in "Blade Runner." Hmmmmmm. can't think of what that is trying to say. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have to respectfully disagree. The hero forming the cross as he falls is as clumsy or as powerful as the director. Elias falling in the crucifixion position in Platoon was clumsy and heavyhanded. Clint Eastwood doing it in Gran Torino was powerful, at least to me.
GypsyTyger

BevfromNYC said...

But aren't literary allusions just the telling and re-telling of the same human condition and foibles since the beginning of time. Shakespeare not only used allusions liberally taken from ancient mythology, but Shakespeare's works themselves are used as literary allusion. And also why Shakespeare's works are infinitely adaptable to any time and place.

tryanmax said...

This is tough. Almost every work of fiction anymore is chock full of allusions to other works. It seems as if everyone interpreted the question as, "What is your favorite film that is a literary allusion, or alludes heavily to a single source?" But if I had to pick a favorite, it would of course have to be something obscure. Such as the penguin scene in Fight Club which is inspired by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Kit said...

Scott,

Supeman: The Movie in 1978 used Christian metaphors but was far, far subtler about it than Superman Returns and Man of Steel were by making them, if they were intended, flow so well with the story that you do not really notice them.

Also, you must remember that Both 1 and 2 were intended to be a two-parter but things got so bad between Donner and the Salkinds that he left and it was finished by Richard Lester.

AndrewPrice said...

Folks, sorry I haven't commented. Internet issues. Hopefully, I'll be back up soon.

As for the cross thing, the problem is that for the couple who do it in a meaningful way, there are a dozen B-grade movies that do at the end to try to add something interesting to an otherwise worthless film. It's like the literary version of adding a sex scene,

Floyd R. Turbo said...

I tell my Humanities students all the time that without knowledge of the Bible, Greek myths and Shakespeare they can't understand even half of all literature, music, and pop culture.

Also like the Moby Dick quote by Khan in ST2: The Wrath of Khan. Of course it is cutting the meat for the white whale/revenge story, but still a great moment.

Mycroft said...

Don't forget Ripley falling into the molten lead in Aliens 3.

Tennessee Jed said...

I would say that to qualify as an "official" literary allusion, the film in question must clearly point specifically to a prior event, person, literary work, and it cannot specifically state what the event is. People who are familiar with that to which the allusion is drawn will usually recognize it. People who are not, will not since the reference is always indirect.

Tennessee Jed said...

In that regard, a parody is often a form of literary allusion, albeit one that specifically is intended to poke fun.

Loyal Goatherd said...

Not a great fan of the movie, but you said allusion, so the first one that came to my mind was West Side Story. The twenty-three year old Natalie Wood helped to jog my memory.

BevfromNYC said...

L. Goatherd - Yes, Westside Story is most certainly a literary allusion to...Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Timeless.

Tennessee Jed said...

I thought it interesting when both Richard Beymer and Russ (?) Tamblin surfaced decades later in David Lynch's Twin Peaks.

goldvermilion87 said...

I'm so sick of the falling-into-a-cross trope it's not even funny. I actually got angry at the end of the 300 (well . . . more angry. I was forced to watch it, and it was the stupidest movie of all time, but the added "we're going to be clever by adding some incoherent Christ imagery to our already incoherent God imagery" was the finalest of final straws).

Can we vote for an episode of Sherlock?

Yes? Lovely. Thank you!

So, as a long time Paradise Lost Adaptation Fancier, I love Love LOVE the Paradise Lost-ness of The Reichenbach Fall. Especially when Sherlock says "I may be on the side of the angels, but never think for one second that I am one of them." Because to my mind that shifted him, potentially, from a first Adam analogue (as the one being led on to fall) to a second Adam analogue (the Son leading, but not one of, the angels). Which is an utterly brilliant way to use Paradise Lost. And I think The Empty Hearse may have transformed potential into real.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, That is so true. You can still enjoy the films, but you miss so much of what is really going on because miss all the subtext.

AndrewPrice said...

goldvermilion, I think "incoherent" is the key word. So often, these guys take a film that has no Christian elements or principles and then think that by tossing in a very generic Christian reference -- like the cross thing -- that they can adding a meaning to a movie that just didn't have one. At other times, you'll see a character suddenly mention that the hero is "chasing your own white whale" or they'll name their characters after the characters in some famous book, but there is nothing else in the story to support that allusion.

goldvermilion87 said...

I'll be totally honest -- I feel that The Wrath of Khan did NOT earn the right to spout Paradise Lost/Moby Dick references. (I say that as someone who is currently wearing a "Kirk Fu School of Manly Fighting" T-shirt.)

Maybe saying it was incoherent is unfair, since Khan is on a revenge mission, and is willing to die himself so long as he destroys the good guys/the white whale. But I think it is unworthy of such epic-ness given the way the story was told. (And I still love The Wrath of Khan. That just bothers me. That, and the way William Shatner delivers curse words like "MUST! Say a bad word now. It's . . . so defiant of . . . me!")

AndrewPrice said...

goldvermilion, I thought the "Paradise Lost" reference at the end of the episode that spawned The Wrath of Khan was well earned -- better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. That fit the struggle between Kirk and Khan and the resolution of the struggle perfectly.

As for the movie, the film writers have had a penchant for making references to the most famous lines of various literary works through the series -- especially in the 6th film. Don't forget that the Wrath of Khan starts with Spock giving Kirk a book by Dickens... "It was the best of time, it was the worst of times. A message Spock?" Then you have the whole creation bit with the Genesis device and Kirk eating an apple before leaving. Then the Moby Dick stuff, the Paradise Lost,

I've never felt that any of these were truly deep. They always felt like writers looking for clever ways to make obvious cultural references that everyone would get. Said differently, they weren't earned, they were just used.

KRS said...

Prof. Turbo - I also like how Christopher Plummer as General Chang steals the show in The Undiscovered Country - not exactly a difficult task with that particular script.

He tells Kirk that Shakespeare needs to be experienced in the "original Kingon," and then proceeds for the rest of the movie to quote the Bard repeatedly and to effect - in English.

ScottDS said...

KRS -

Chang's nods to Shakespeare are, according to co-writer/director Nicholas Meyer, a reference to the Nazis who would claim, "You've never read XYZ till you read it in ze original German!!"

goldvermilion87 said...

I definitely agree that Space Seed earned its allusions!

That's an awesome episode!


And regardless of the reason, Chang was SOOOOOOO annoying!

AndrewPrice said...

goldvermilion, That was one of my favorite episodes. It was really well done, and so well written.

I like Chang, but he never struck me as a Klingon.

Rustbelt said...

Just my two cents on some of the movies mentioned so far...

'The Warriors'- probably the best since you can watch it without the references hitting you over the head. Then, after you know the references, you can have a pretty good time figuring them out.

'Wrath of Khan'- the references don't bother me. They appear to be director Nicholas Meyer's favorite spice. According to his autobiography, "From the Captain's Chair," he said he enjoyed adding them, though he mainly drew inspiration from the Horatio Hornblower series. (Warning: the book's intro starts with Meyer going on a massive Bush/conservative-bashing session. I only bothered to read the chapter on ST II.)

"The Undiscovered Country"- I really should've read the chapter on this one Subtlety is out the door in Meyer's second Trek film. The themes are in your face. I've never studied the Bard in great detail, (though I really like the works of his that I've read), but the Shakespeare quotes are on Barry Bonds steroid levels. The in-your-face style could actually make people hate the Bard.

SPOILER ALERT!

as for the cross imagery...instead of mentioning the other films or how it's cliche, I'll throw in a new wrinkle: at the end of 'Manhunter,' (the first film version of Thomas Harris's novel 'Red Dragon'), director Michael Mann twisted this by having the villain fall in the fashion. After shooting Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), Will Graham (William Peterson) stands over him. Dollarhyde lies in cross fashion- but with arms bent- in the middle of a circular pool of blood. Christ imagery? Maybe. I personally think he's supposed to look like an angel of death. Of course, it also be a reference to the William Blake painting ('The Great Red Dragon') that Dollarhyde finds inspirational. Not sure if there's a definitive reference, but the imagery is both haunting and grotesque enough to make you think.

Koshcat said...

Nearly all movies and other stories contain the monomyth or Hero's Journey.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1b/Heroesjourney.svg/398px-Heroesjourney.svg.png

So, in essence, almost all stories are very similar in structure. Star Wars episode 4 does this perfectly as well as the combination of episode 5 and 6. Lucus was aware of Dr. Campbell's theories into this but then seemed to forget all of it when writing episodes 1-3. When reading literature and watching good movies you generally will find allegories to both the biblical and Shakespearean stories.

One of my favorites is Apocalypse Now with allusions to Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

shawn said...

"Predator" with slight allusion too "The Most Dangerous Game".

Anonymous said...

I originally thought the same thing as Bev. But I think I figured it out.

I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and in one scene when Walter is leaving a character says to him "Stay gold Pony Boy, stay gold". I laughed my head off as I got it and knew what he meant, so did a friend, but another friend didn't get it and was confused by the scene and at our reaction.

I will also second O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Warriors.

Scott.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, Subtly is definitely not in his toolbox.

On your example of Manhunter, I think the key is that the image is well-enough done to force you to think about the director could possibly mean. That is rarely the case. Typically, it's just a generic, easy image done at the end of the film to try to make you think there was someone more going on the film... when there really wasn't.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, True. Though one of the problems I have with ideas like the Hero's Journey is that if you break something down far enough, then it's easy to say everything is the same. I had an English teacher who would do this. She would claim that almost all books were copies of each other because they were about "man versus man."

Apocalypse Now is a great choice!

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