The 1997 Odyssey miniseries is hokey, thrilling, and gorgeous

Need a little pick-me-up? The 1997 two part miniseries of The Odyssey is the most entertaining thing I’ve seen in ages. It’s now available for streaming on  Amazon Prime and on the Roku channel, and everyone I know who loves The Odyssey loves this production. 

Don’t get me wrong. Much of the movie, sets, effects, and acting, is hokey to the max. But it’s charmingly, enthusiastically hokey, and every minute of it is made with great love. 

Let’s start with the soundtrack. It is incredibly terrible, and some scenes may actually have been recorded inside a tin can. The incidental music is devastatingly synthetic and cheap sounding, like something from a video game. But then many scenes include people playing actual instruments, and are full of real music — tunes and sounds you can respond to as a human, but which also convey a thoroughly other time and place. 

The show is full of stuff like this: Big, balls-out, broad strokes and spectacle, peppered with startling touches of authenticity that must have come from a scholar or at least a deeply invested amateur. When Odysseus leaves his men at the door to the underworld, for instance, he mentions “the land of the dead” and they all make a reflexive ritual gesture of some kind that may or may not be ancient, but it sure looks both authentic and heartfelt. 

But the real secret of this movie is not that they get everything right. The secret is that they’re enjoying the hell out of it, and that comes through from start to finish. They have an awesome story to tell, and here it is:

Some of the scenes (the show was filmed in Malta, Turkey, England, and the Mediterranean) are clumsy and corny — there’s lots of churning water filmed to look like giant waves when it’s clearly not — but others are inspired.  Viewers are very familiar with movies that take a Cecil B. DeMille-style stab at vaguely barbaric grandeur, with everything pillared and gilded and exotically alluring. This movie also doesn’t hold back, and sometimes bites off more than it can chew; but here, the alien distance of ages is made coherent through dozens of details, the sounds, the fabrics, the hairpins, the utensils. The household gods, for instance, somehow look both sacred and naive, and you can see both that the characters are praying to them sincerely, and that they have built them themselves.

The Island of Circe is stunning and otherworldly; but Ithaca itself is the real island of a real person. I almost wept when Odysseus, still in disguise, first tastes the long-remembered cheese of home. You get a real sense of place, with well-beloved specific trees and blades of grass, and you can feel how much it feels like the entire small world to Odysseus and Penelope. Their tree bed is somewhat vague and disappointingly etherial, but the room where the suitor are slaughtered is real as real, part of an actual house.

Poseidon, as a rolling, roaring face in the waves, is hilarious and also hair-raising. In Hades, the special effects are ridiculous and yet terrifying.

Odysseus stalks right through patches of fire which were clearly pasted in afterward, and gazes in horror at eternally tumbling sheets of lava projected on the green screeniest of green screens. And yet . . . it works. It’s scary as shit in there, and you’re holding your breath the whole time as you watch, because of the fumes, and because you don’t want those shades of the hungry dead to get any closer. I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Lee as a crusty, cranky Tiresias, but I was willing to go with it. 

Which brings us to another miraculous virtue of this movie. The casting is really weird sometimes. Armand Assante as Odysseus? That is NOT how I have always pictured Odysseus. And yet, three minutes in, I was sold. Man has a presence, and he clearly feels bigger than he actually is. You can see why his crew adores him, and you can see how he kept on pushing, year after year, until he makes it home. When he finally lands in Ithaca draped in a red and gold robe with his hair combed and oiled, he is very convincingly the hero we’re still talking about thousands of years later.

Isabella Rossalini as Athena, with those eyes and that posture and that voice and that skin? Brilliant. Absolutely perfect. Bernadette Peters as Circe? Sure, why not? She gives it her witchy all. Vanessa Williams as Calypso? Sufficiently slinky. The guy who plays Hermes is a gilded weirdo zipping around awkwardly in the air, which seems about right. Greta Scacchi, who I’ve never seen in anything else, is a wonderful Penelope. I’d want to come home to her, too.

Her dialogue isn’t profound (none of the dialogue is), but she does convey a complex emotional life besides what you see, and she is grippingly beautiful and strong, and she looks her age. 

I wish they had included the scene where she tests him before she accepts him as her husband. That scene carries a lot of weight to counterbalance all the sex he has with various nymphs. But all the other elements are in place, and the homecoming absolutely hits the mark.

Above all, this production understands the Odyssey not as some kind of effete literary relic but as a really exciting adventure story full of fighting and monsters, with sexy ladies here and there, and a huge, endless love propelling the whole thing. And that is what the Odyssey is. I wouldn’t change a thing. 

***

It being The Odyssey, it’s pretty violent and sexy, so I’d probably show it to kids age 14 at the youngest, depending on the kid. People get graphically ripped to shreds and eaten and stabbed, and there are some very slinky outfits and steamily suggestive scenes. I mean, it is The Odyssey. 

Dreamlike reviews: Hadesdown, The Ghost Keeper, and The Sopranos (again)

You know what the real thing is about being in your mid-40’s? You can do everything you used to do in your 30’s, but you cannot bounce back.

I was in Chicago at the FemCatholic Conference last weekend, and it was completely wonderful. Met Mikayla Dalton, Corita Ten Eyck, Theresa Scott, Leticia Adams, Donna Provencher, Jenne O’Neill, Aimee Murphy, and so many others in real life for the first time, and I spent lots of time with my wonderful friend Elisa Low.  And Nora Calhoun, and Hope Peregrina and Ben Zelmer, and Samantha Povlock! And Shannon Wendt and Meg Hunter-Kilmer and ARGH the woman at the Femm Health table whose name is escaping me at the moment. And so many other brilliant, interesting, driven women I admire so much. I felt so out of my league.

Anyway, now I’m lurching around like a reanimated but still desiccated mummy, dizzy and incoherent, picking ridiculous fights with people I care about, and complaining about how bad my head feels and always feels, and I just can’t seem to snap out of it. I blame feminism. And airplanes. And train madness! (I did not take a train.)

Oh, if you want to hear my talk and all the talks at the conference, you can stream and download the whole thing for $49. My speech was called “When Women Say Yes: Consent and Control In Sex and Love.” It was about . . . a lot of things.

Also, I’m sorry we haven’t put out a podcast since the middle of February. Soon, I promise! I’m sorry! You could listen to that one again if you wanted to. Sorry.

Anyway anyway, I don’t want the algorithms to forget me completely, so here are some quickie reviews of things I’m enjoying while busily burning through all my social capital:

Listening to Hadestown

My daughter Clara turned me onto this musical. Originally a New Orleans jazz-style folk opera concept album about Orpheus and Eurydice by Anaïs Mitchell (I know. Stay with me), it’s now a musical that’s premiering on Broadway this month. You guys, it’s so good. Entirely successful world building. I am a sucker for anything based on Greek mythology, but become irrationally enraged with anything that doesn’t do it justice. This one is just weird enough to work.

From The Theater Times:

[Mitchell’s] version isn’t totally pin-downable about where and when it’s set–it’s mythic, after all–but there’s a Depression-era vibe to above-ground scenes, where penniless poet Orpheus and his lover Eurydice struggle to survive. It is hunger that allows the wealthy Hades to tempt her down to the underworld–to an economically secure but soulless industrial town, where men may be guaranteed work, but forgo contact with the natural world. Naturally, it is Hades who gets rich from their labor.

You will not believe “Why We Build the Wall” was written in 2010.

But this isn’t about politics; it’s about mankind. “Wait For Me” just about killed me.

All in all, just a fascinating, captivating, completely original work. Perfect lyrics, songs that stay with you. Such good stuff.

What I’m reading:

The Ghost Keeper by Natalie Morrill

It is not a chick book, despite what the cover might suggest if you are one of my jerk sons. I keep plucking people by the shirt sleeve and shakily asking if they’ve read this book yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard more about it. It did win the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which is a good start. I’m working on a review for the Catholic literary mag Dappled Things, where Morrill is fiction editor.

This is seriously brilliant lyrical writing, on a level with the best of Michael Chabon or . . . I don’t know, I don’t want to be crazy, but I keep thinking, “Edith Wharton, no, E.M. Forster, no, Faulkner . . . ”

It follows a Jewish Austrian boy with a very particular vocation that keeps pulling him back. He grows up and starts a little family, and they are so happy, until the Anschluss.

The book follows them before, during, and after the war, and I’ve just gotten up to the chapter that describes another, related love story, but an infernally inverted one. And then they all need to figure out: What is love? What is loyalty? What is forgiveness? GOSH. I haven’t finished it yet, but even if it totally mucks up the ending (which I don’t anticipate!) I’ll forgive it, for all the moments of gorgeous tragedy and piercing joy. Do not read on airplanes unless you don’t care if you get stared at for gasping audibly while you read. Wear a sweater; you’ll get chills.

And we’re watching:

Well, we’re still watching The Sopranos. This is the second time around for me, and it’s even better than I remembered. It’s so much funnier than I remembered. It’s a little scary how much more sympathy I have for Tony this time.

I also think they should have won some particular prize for the depiction of dreams.

I guess the common thread in all these things is a sort of lyrical dreamlike quality, realer than real life.

That reminds me, what movie or TV show has the best, most accurate portrayal of dreams? It’s so easy to get it wrong and overplay your hand.

I got the displaced person blues

What are you watching, reading, and listening to these days? Here’s mine for the week. Apparently I have the blues of some kind or other, what do you know about that.

***

Watching:
Peter Gunn,
a jazz-powered, noir, private eye TV show from the late 50’s.

I’m only watching with half an eyeball, if that, but every time I do look up, the framing of every single shot is gor-ge-ous. Worth watching just for that. All the flossy mists, lurid lips, hard streets, velvet shadows, sinister dimples, lonely lampposts, glossy fenders, and echoing gunshots your noirish little heart desires; and you certainly don’t care about any of the characters, so there’s no emotional cost. Although I kind of like Mother.

Also, this show is where this music comes from (by Henry Mancini):

Now you know something! Peter Gunn is now streaming on Amazon.

***

Reading:
“The Displaced Person” by Flannery O’Connor.

I came across this long short story in an anthology (originally part of the collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find, 1955) and I’m scratching my head over why this story is not getting more play right now among Catholics who welcome refugees. It’s just as well, because, despite the obvious parallels to current concerns, literal refugees is not really what the story is about. (The Paris Review notes that O’Connor herself was highly allergic to “topical” stories.)

Fleeing Hitler’s onslaught and ending up in a rural Southern dairy farm, the displaced Polish family are not only foreign, but their foreignness threatens the right order of things — even though the familiar order wasn’t satisfactory.

This passage is killer: Mrs. McIntyre, the self-righteous wife of a barely adequate but firmly established tenant farmer, waits for the displaced persons to arrive and recalls seeing a newsreel showing

a small room piled high with bodies of dead naked people all in a heap, their arms and legs tangled together, a head thrust in here, a head there, a foot, a knee, a part that should have been covered up sticking out, a hand raised clutching nothing.

She wonders whether anyone coming from such disorderly barbarity can even be fully human — and never mind that the Guizacs were the victims, not the aggressors:

Watching from her vantage point, Mrs. Shortley had the sudden intuition that the Gobblehooks [her best guess at how to pronounce “Guizacs”], like rats with typhoid fleas, could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others? The width and breadth of this question nearly shook her. Her stomach trembled as if there had been a slight quake in the heart of the mountain and automatically she moved down from her elevation and went forward to be introduced to them, as if she meant to find out at once what they were capable of.

That’s the question. What might these displaced people be capable of? Mrs. McIntyre ends up being displaced herself, fully engaged in a cataclysmic body heap of her own, as she flees the farm in outrage; and the Guizacs become a door for upheaval of everyone’s idea of order, ushering in terrifying change.

O’Connor is a hair heavy handed with the Christ imagery — Christ as Displaced Person, but also as the ultimate displacer of persons — but it’s still a fascinating read with many threads.I don’t know why this story doesn’t get anthologized more.

***

Listening to:

Chris Thomas King. We showed O Brother, Where Art Thou to the kids the other day, and they ate it up. So good. Here’s one of the quieter numbers, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” with some heartbreaking guitar

Here’s King’s “Come on in my kitchen” from The Red Mud Sessions album.

Hey, anyone can shout into a can for ten bucks. Great singers can put it across quietly. In a different vein, here’s “Death Letter Blues”

I guess I have a soft spot in my heart for someone who’s always complaining. I got the displaced person’s blues.

***
Flannery O’Connor photo by Will via Flickr (Creative Commons)

6 animated kid’s shows I’ll sit and watch myself

Here are six animated shows my kids are always happy to watch. Not only do I not object, I’ll sit and watch it with them, because they’re genuinely entertaining, and the creators knew what they were about. We get our TV through DVDs, or by streaming Netflix or Amazon Prime.

Shaun the Sheep

Shaun the Sheep belongs in a category with The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, and the heyday of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Miraculously evocative stop-motion animation by Aardman, the folks who made Wallace and Gromit, it serves up the clever and ridiculous adventures of a band of thrill-seeking, British sheep who never get tired of outwitting (and sometimes colluding with) poor Bitzer, the faithful, scrupulous working dog, who, with his knit cap, his terry cloth wristband, and his everlasting to-do list, manages the farm and fruitlessly strives to please the irascible farmer. There’s always a mild rebellion afoot, mainly consisting in eating all the pastries, ordering pizza, and putting underwear on their head.

In this episode, Bitzer loses control of a bottle of glue:

There’s plenty of pure slapstick (complete with special theme music for those times when you’re getting beat up by pigs, and those times when you’re balancing on top of a runaway rolling object) and well-conceived stock characters (the winsome lamb Timmy; the ponderously ravenous Shirley; the trio of malicious pigs; the dreaded visiting niece; some unnervingly canny crows, and the occasional curious alien); but the show also allows itself some fleeting peeks into the characters’ interior lives. In one animated filler between episodes, Bitzer in human mode throws a stick, and then, becoming pure dog, bounds after it. And then he tries to take it away from himself, but growls and resists, because he is a dog. Brilliant, impeccably crafted, immensely satisfying. No words, but the sheep bleat, Bitzer whimpers and barks, and the farmer mumbles, rants, and hollers their way through unmistakable dialogue.

Four seasons, originally on CBBC, available on Amazon Prime.

***

Puffin Rock

Just a little lullabye of a show. There’s a tiny paradise on Puffin Rock, a wild island off the coast of Ireland, where the puffins, little Oona and her baby brother Baba, explore their little world, make friends, have some mild adventures, and always end up safe and happy. Here’s a taste:

Narrated by the cozy, corduroy voice of Chris O’Dowd (Roy of The IT Crowd), the show is pretty and atmospheric, giving you the sense you’ve put your head out the window to feel the breeze and smell the salt air. Gentle and lovely, with child voice acting that doesn’t grate or irritate.

Two seasons, 26 episodes, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Ronja the Robber’s Daughter

Amazon Prime original series. We’ve seen the first two episodes of this new Studio Ghibli anime series (released January 2017), set in Medieval Scandanavia(ish), based on a 1981 book by Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren, and directed by Goro(son of Hayao) Miyazaki, narrated by Gillian Anderson.

I’m into it so far, with some reservations. Unlike my kids, I’m not a huge anime fan, but the ickier aspects (some sentimentality around children, weird pacing, sometimes jerkily animated facial expressions) aren’t overwhelming in this show. The animation is mixed, sometimes blocky, sometimes brilliant; some of the watercolored scenes are gorgeously atmospheric, and the sound effects go a long way to creating an arresting, believable world. It’s offbeat and funny enough that I’m invested in watching the rest of the series.

I just about died watching the robber and his band of toothless, muscled henchmen trying to coax their adored baby girl to eat her cereal; and I got a real chill from the harpies swirling around the castle while the mother labors to give birth to Ronja. Here’s that scene (not in English, though, sorry! The Netflix series is dubbed into English):

The mother is a huge pain in the neck, and I hope she gets taken down a few pegs, or just fades out of the story. Looking forward to getting back to this show.

***

Pingu

Sweet and hilarious adventures of a penguin named Pingu, his baby sister Pinga, his erratic friend the seal, his affectionate but stodgy father, and his loving but harried penguin mother. The show is done in appealingly fingerprinty claymation, and the dialogue is inspired gibberish. Pingu acts exactly like every little boy I’ve ever met. He has spectacular ideas that backfire on him; he tries to evade his pesky little sister, but deep down he loves her passionately; and when he’s bored, he just staggers around making noise and hitting stuff.

He does dumb stuff and then repents, and his parents bug out and then forgive him. Real, warm family and community relationships played out deftly without sentimentality. Entertaining and endearing.

160 five-minute episodes (1986 to 2000), originally from Switzerland, now available on Amazon Prime

***

Batman: The Animated Series

A lovingly-designed homage to 1940’s noir, a complete feast for the eyes, with real suspense and actual stories. The creators of this series put together a “writer’s bible”, including guidelines like “The humor in our version of Batman should arise naturally from the larger than life characters and never tongue-in-cheek campiness … Dry lines in tough situations and occasional comments about the outlandishness of costumed villains is certainly within the realistic context of our vision of Batman.” And the Joker makes jokes, but he is scary.

No Robin, no partnering with the police, no origin stories. Batman is grim and strong, and doesn’t lean too much on gadgets. When it’s funny, it’s really pretty funny (as in “Almost Got ‘Im”). Each episode has three acts, with a set-up, story development and increased tension, and then climax and resolution. Did I mention how it looks? It looks so good. I’ll share the opening sequence, because it’s a work of love and captures the show so well.

This show, true to its style, includes truly sinister people, nail-biters and cliff hangers, and female characters in skin-tight clothes, so caveat viewer. If you watch any animated Batman, let it be this one.

Five seasons, (1992-1995), now available on Amazon Prime

***

Sarah and Duck

This British animated show is made by people who really, really remember what it’s like to be a six-year-old. The matter-of-fact Sarah, a polite problem-solver, is accompanied by her slightly less patient friend, Duck, as they navigate adventures like becoming queen of the ducks, cheering up friends, going for a ride on the sea bus, and baking with ingredients that talk back.

The simple, big-headed characters came straight off your kid’s artwork on his fridge; and the plot lines and characters will ring true to anyone who’s listened to an imaginative kid tell a story. Weird and charming, devoid of sassiness and preching, it gives a very relatable model of considerate friendship. In this clip, Sarah and Duck fill in for the Bread Man:

Character include the daft scarf lady and her long-suffering handbag, a family of squeaky, cheerful shallots, and the moon. The music is also top notch.

Two seasons, originally on CBeebies, available for streaming on Netflix.

***

Next time: Shows that I will watch with half an eyeball while I’m working, and that I won’t mind too much if my kids watch.