September 10, 1997: In Review
From stones to statues
An accessible history of ancient Greece
Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times
Thomas R. Martin '70
Yale University Press
Thomas Martin '70's history of ancient Greece, from the Paleolithic to the Hellenistic Age (roughly from 20,000 years ago to 30 B.C.), is brief and synoptic (at slightly more than 200 pages), yet thorough enough to capture the region's essential history and flexible enough to allow readers to decide themselves which areas are worthy of further reading.
One of the more interesting aspects of Martin's history is the attention he gives to ancient women, going as far back as those living in groups of hunter-gatherers. Martin, a professor of classics at Holy Cross College, speculates that since the plant food gathered by women provided the staple diet (the meat provided by men was a less regular source of nourishment), women may have enjoyed equal power and status with men. It was only with the rise of agriculture, when men took over the production of plant food, that inequality between the sexes began to grow. Martin picks up the story of ancient women throughout his history, noting the relative freedom of Spartan women, the legal and political disabilities of Athenian women, and the new possibilities for political power and social status for the women born into the royal families of the Hellenistic period.
Martin intersperses his chronology with information on cultural and social history, including descriptions of daily life among the Greeks in each of the periods. Readers who wish to know what Greeks wore, what they ate, and what their houses were like will be satisfied. I myself, though a seasoned student of the ancient world, learned for the first time through Martin's book what provisions were made in Greek houses to meet the call of nature!
Readers who are interested in placing the more sublime aspects of Greek civilization in historical context will find discussions of the rise of lyric poetry, summaries of the new ideas introduced in the fifth century B.C. by the itinerant teachers known as the Sophists, and engagement with the philosophic and scientific thought of Plato and Aristotle. Martin lists translations of the principal ancient authors in a useful, chapter-by-chapter bibliography.
The book is unusual in that it originated in a historical overview written for Perseus, an interactive electronic database on the World Wide Web for the study of ancient Greece. As part of Perseus, Martin's electronic history of ancient Greece is linked to other resources, such as the works of ancient writers (in both English and ancient Greek), pictures of ancient works of art and archeological sites, an atlas, dictionaries, and much more.
While the hardcopy version of Ancient Greece cannot make up for the flexibility of the multimedia electronic form, it preserves one of the principal virtues of its original conception--to be a historical overview that can be supplemented according to the readers' interests. Adventurous readers will want to check out the Perseus site on the Internet (http://www.perseus
.tufts.edu/), where they can explore the legacy of the past using the latest technology.
--Sara Forsdyke *94
Sara Forsdyke *94 is a visiting professor of classics at the University of Michigan.
Working at the bottom of the food chain
An insider's chronicle of writing for the movies
Living off the Big Screen
John Gregory Dunne '54
Random House, $21
The promise of big money has often prompted literary writers to try their hands at screenwriting. F. Scott Fitzgerald '17, William Faulkner, and Nathanael West (among others) wrote for the movies. Add to this list the novelist and essayist John Gregory Dunne '54.
In 1988, plagued by pressing medical bills, Dunne and his wife, the writer Joan Didion, needed motion-picture work to remain covered by the Writers' Guild health plan. They agreed to write a screenplay for Disney to be based on the life story of Jessica Savitch, the small-town girl turned network correspondent who died in a freak car accident in 1983.
What Dunne and Didion expected to be a lightweight project they would dash off before returning to more serious work turned into a six-year nightmare. In Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, Dunne rivetingly chronicles this nightmare.
From the first script meeting it was clear that Dunne and Didion weren't going to write the kind of movie they thought they had been hired to write. The Disney executives wanted a Cinderella-type heroine; but the cocaine-snorting, mentally unstable Savitch was no Cinderella. Over the "six more years, four more contracts, two other writers, and 27 drafts" before the movie that became Up Close and Personal reached its first day of principal photography, Dunne and Didion played fairy godmother to Savitch. They transformed her into the older, nicer, more acceptable Tally Atwater, a newsroom Cinderella played by Michelle Pfeiffer who hooks Prince Charming as played by Robert Redford.
Up Close and Personal is a mediocre movie; the book about the movie is terrific. Though Dunne takes pains to explain he isn't a Hollywood insider (via references to work commissioned by literary periodicals), he's no stranger to the business. For unversed readers he explains Hollywood jargon: a "whammy," for example, is a "special effect that kills a lot of people, usually bad people." Better still are Dunne's descriptions of Hollywood personalities like Don Simpson ("the classier Hollywood madams were always ready to give him a character reference"); of schmoozing with the Fondas and Hustons at the Foremans' Christmas buffet; of what Vanessa Redgrave was doing with Rupert Everett at Natasha Richardson's wedding in Dunne's Manhattan apartment.
It would be puritanical to write a book about Hollywood without such titillating tidbits, and Monster is a book about Hollywood. It is not, however, a Hollywood book. Dunne's approach is thoughtful, not starstruck. This nightmarish tale gives rise to a range of philosophical meditations on friendship, sickness, work, play, death. Dunne examines the Hollywood monster, and what he discovers behind it is humanity.
--Tamsin Todd '92
In February my children pick
and put them to float in a dish of
white petals streaked with green,
you are like my children, floating,
floating on clear water.
From Journeyman's Wages, a collection of poetry by Clemens Starck '59, who works as a carpenter in Oregon (Story Line Press, $10.95).
Reflections on a war-in-the-head
The Soldier's Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War
Penguin Press, $24.95
I have often wondered why, in 1966, I went so willingly to war. Samuel Hynes, in his book The Soldiers' Tale, has provided a plausible explanation: I was seduced by my "war-in-the-head."
Hynes, a professor emeritus of literature at Princeton, reflects on the personal narratives written about the three "most remembered and most recorded" wars of this war-filled century--the two world wars and Vietnam. His reflections focus mainly on the firsthand stories of men who did the actual fighting and on what they have said about their states of mind going off to war, during battle, and when trying to leave it all behind. Hynes contrasts these "authentic voices" with what the uninitiated often imagine about war and also with what he calls the "myths" of war, defined as the simplified narrative that evolves from a war, to give the experience meaning, whether good or bad.
Hynes once had his own war-in-the-head. As World War II approached, he writes, "Our image of war was as falsely romantic, in its different way, as anything that had stirred Edwardian boys." As a young man, Hynes thrilled to the names of battles, like Belleau Wood--from what he calls "our favorite" war, World War I--and to the scenes he visualized of Spads and Fokkers locked in knight-like aerial combat.
At Okinawa, as a Marine pilot, Hynes must have begun to realize, as all participants in battle eventually do, that the dreams and the realities of war are quite different. Yet as his review of the personal narratives reveals, the experience of war and its complex effects are not that simply laid to rest. It is one of war's many ironies that when we should know better, war continues to fascinate. "The death of youth and promise, the wasted, unlived lives--it seems too cruel to be endured," Hynes writes. "But the evidence of war stories is clear: we like it."
Hynes knows that cautionary literature and evidence from previous wars have not yet done much to alter young men's romantic expectations. His effort to close this gap is most penetrating when he focuses on firsthand reports of the Holocaust and Hiroshima--personal narratives from civilians who, in this century, have become part of "the soldiers' tale" and in the process suffered far more casualties than the troops. Hynes concludes that we must believe humans can learn from the testimonies of others.
Perhaps, but I recall as a teenager reading John Hersey's Hiroshima, as well as accounts of fearsome battles from several wars. I also recall one hot, clear day in August 1966, as my platoon, on patrol, emerged from the bush into a small clearing, lined with palm trees, in which sat a single, deserted plantation house. A light wind and our own movement made the only sounds as we approached the house, stepping over a few fallen trees, kicking scattered coconuts, anticipating enemy contact. Suddenly, a flash of memory. I had been here before--in my imagination, half my life before, at 12 or 13--whether in a book or movie, I couldn't say. But I knew at that moment I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Professor Hynes may shake his head, but I know he understands. He cites a 1980 Veterans Administration study that says over 70 percent of Vietnam veterans polled had enjoyed "their" war and were glad they had gone to Vietnam. Their war stories did not become part of the "canon" of Vietnam memoirs. Had they been, Hynes says, the Vietnam "myth" would have no moral.
Such evidence makes Hynes's ultimate goal seem quixotic, but his book forces a deeper look at individual motivations for wanting to experience war. Through the narratives, we see ourselves as we are, rather than as we should be. And we realize the importance of being more familiar with what stirs the imaginations of our children.
--Lewis Dale '64
Chalkboards and storyboards
For Russell Banks, the Howard G. B. Clark '21 University Professor in the Humanities, last semester ended on a high note when a movie version of his 1991 novel, The Sweet Hereafter, took three major prizes at this summer's Cannes Film Festival--the second-place Jury Prize, Best Director, and Best Actor awards.
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who directed the film, also adapted the novel about the investigation of a school-bus accident in which a number of children are killed; Ian Holm, best actor, plays the investigating lawyer.
Banks, who was impressed with Egoyan's previous work (including last year's Exotica), felt his book was in the right hands. "If anyone adapted my novels," says Banks, "it should be him." Although Egoyan changed the novel's chronology and certain aspects (including relocating the events from New England to British Columbia) and added elements like the myth of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as a constant refrain throughout the film, Banks was pleased with the changes. "I really wish I'd had that idea," he admits. "If I were to publish a new edition of the novel today, I'd add that poem. It is so perfectly at home in the story."
But, as with any adaptation, certain parts of the book didn't make the cut. Egoyan changed Banks's ending in order to strengthen the cinematic drama. "Ironically, the part of the book that made me say, 'I'm going to adapt this novel,' " says Egoyan, "is not in the film." Banks agrees: "Atom was right not to keep the same end as in the novel. Adapting doesn't mean being faithful." Banks appears in a cameo role as the town doctor.
Banks's 1989 novel, Affliction, has also been made into a movie. Directed by Paul Schrader (American Gigolo and Mishima), the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August. The movie's cast includes Nick Nolte, James Coburn, Sissy Spacek, and Willem Dafoe. Another Banks novel, the 1995 Rule of the Bone, is in development, with Carl Franklin (One False Move) as director.
New on video this fall is Foxfire, a 1996 movie based on the 1994 book by Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities. Another Oates adaptation has long been available on video: the 1984 Smooth Talk, starring Laura Dern, was based on Oates's short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Another story, "In the Region of Ice," was made into a short film that won an Academy Award in 1976. Other Oates film projects include Showtime's television movie based on her book We Were the Mulvaneys (1996) and Snake Eyes, published in 1992 under her nom-de-plume Rosamond Smith.
Further in the future is the big-screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved, by Toni Morrison, the Robert F. Goheen '40 *48 Professor in the Humanities. The film, directed by Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), stars Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, who worked together in the Steven Spielberg adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Shooting on Beloved started in July, and Disney's Touchstone Pictures hopes for a December 1998 release.
--Stephen Garrett '92