A Homeric Contemplation
In Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, (click here to see the painting) we see the philosopher garbed in the flowing robs of an aristocrat and thinker, his hands elegantly strewn across the head of the blind poet, dressed in poor man's garb. In his Poetics, Aristotle considered The Iliad's plot "simple", especially when compared to The Odyssey, the difference being that The Iliad is founded on the theme of suffering in each of its different character types, whereas The Odyssey selects a single man (the most interesting and complex of the Greeks) and explores the total humanity within. Still, Aristotle did not consider The Iliad a failure in this regard: He believed that the best the epic poet could do is select a section of history, or a single historical figure, and construct the poem using seemingly disparate episodes (such as the death of relatively minor characters) so that the selection represents the whole of history or of humanity. Even so, Aristotle considered poetry, even epic poetry, an inferior art to tragedy: His reasoning is that though both are imitations, tragedy is the more authentic imitation.
Part of what Rembrandt depicts in Aristotle's contemplation is that tragedy can replicate external struggles, but poetry (represented by Homer's blindness) delves within. Aristotle, the wealthy and famous, favored the expensive and expansive spectacle of the theater; while the poor and unknown Homer performed his art without prop, only his own faculty for voice and lyric. This sense of incompleteness in both men (and why they seem to long for each other) lends the painting a deep melancholy. Rembrandt's Renaissance image might just foreshadow the rise of the art form that succeeded the epic poem and the great tragedy: The expansive and poetic genre of the novel. Now looking at the painting, one can see all the elements of cinema contained within. Film contains elements of poetry, tragedy, and painting that offer the filmmaker tremendous opportunity to bring the ancient story to the modern audience--lyrical and internalized in one moment, both spectacular and genuine in the next. Only a handful of filmmakers in the history of cinema are capable of the great poetic, theatricality, and painterliness of the epic: Kurosawa, Ford, and Lean--which should be remembered in a time when the word is bantered about so recklessly. Do we really think that the director of The Perfect Storm even has a chance? Wolfgang Peterson's film is a noble effort, but a failure.
Wolfgang Peterson's Troy is an existentialist's take
on Homer's epic. Basically, screenwriter David Benioff and director Wolfgang
Peterson turn The Iliad into a modern political
struggle. Paris' thieving of Helen functions more or less
like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand--a catalytic
event stoking already smoldering embers. In this telling of the tale, the struggle is over the meaning of "empire": Does the word carry an exoteric connotation--that "empire" means to accumulate wealth and power abroad, or is does it carry an esoteric meaning--the building of wealth and power within one's own walls. The Trojan War still matters because it's the story of this conflict, how Western Civilization is rooted in the idea that accumulation of wealth and power across borders is the outcome of modern advances. The Greeks prey upon the Trojans' religious superstitions to destroy them, thus destroying the notion that modernity is a quest to return to Eden. In Troy's telling of the tale, the Greeks destroy Troy not because it's the will of the gods, but because they can. In fact, the gods are nowhere to be found, except as statues to be toppled and decapitated--even Achilles mother, in The Iliad the goddess Thetis, is just a woman looking for seashells. In most Greek literature, the gods wage war
on Olympus and Earth, with the mortals existing more as chess
pieces in the immortal struggle. Here, the mortals who honor
and sacrifice to the gods are superstitious fools--in fact,
the Trojan Horse becomes a symbol of the ignorance of superstition.
Those true-believers who rely on the gods not as a propaganda tool but as a political crutch are punished.
Peterson's boldness is to be greatly admired--in fact, it might be the only way to bring The Iliad to the screen, without giving the gods a sense of supernatural ridiculousness. The fatal problem is that there's no lyricism to Peterson's technique. In fact, Wolfgang Peterson's best film, the 1980 submarine drama Das Boot, shows that his greatest strength is close-quartered realism. In Troy, Menelaos tells the wounded Paris that "the crows are circling", but Peterson doesn't bring them into the frame. On almost every count, he's too literal in his approach: I don't mind his rearranging of the story to fit his political narrative, but by filming his battles like every other conventional Hollywood blockbuster (thrusting the camera so close to the action that we can't see what's going on), he loses the voice of the poet without developing his own. By simply observing the characters, we never experience the full range of their motivations, which is precisely what Aristotle says distinguishes Homer from other epic poets.
The whole enterprise, all two hundred million dollars worth of it, might simply have been too big for Wolfgang Peterson. As if to ease us through the story, each character seems to have a layer of personality shaved off for easier consumption. This argument could be made for almost any of the major players (Orlando Bloom's Paris, for example, who is all love struck puppy and no arrogant suitor to Helen--thus, we see absolutely no reason for their love except to set the plot a-rolling). Let's consider Eric Bana's Hector. In the film, Hector is both angry at and protective of his brother. He feels the pull of responsibility to the Trojan people who he will someday lead. He honors the gods while being a realist about the war. He is a good father and husband who plans for their escape upon Troy's demise. He is a brave leader of men, a skilled tactician, and seems to make every right judgment about the Greeks, whether he is listened to or not. All in all, he's probably the most heroic figure in the film. And though Bana admirably portrays this valor, he's a completely different, and simpler, Hector than Homer's. Homer's Hector is befallen by his own pride and wish for immortality. He promises his people victory and pushes his troops past where Zeus promised aid. He was sub-consciously deluded by his own self-grandeur, despite his conscious devotion to the people. He traps himself into battling Achilles (which, in poem, he begins by trying to lure Achilles to within range of the Trojan archers). At this exact point in the film, Hector has the archers put down their bows, says goodbye and reminds his wife of his preparations for her escape, and bravely faces his fate. In the first assault on Troy's walls, it is Hector who brings the men back behind the walls--no detection of arrogance in his character at all. He's a more likable Hector for sure, by as Aristotle might say, less of a "true" imitation.
All of Troy's major players are constructed in a similar way--especially Brad Pitt's Achilles, despite his genuinely and poetically god-like appearance, though I would like to say that Brad's performance is at times terrifying and convincing. Still, an adaptation of The Iliad that features Achilles jumping out of the Trojan Horse to try to get the girl must be declared "miscalculated." By removing dimensions from the characters, especially with the modern faculties of cinema at hand, Troy reduces The Iliad's plot to expansive cliche. Its one bold play, secularizing and politicizing the struggle, comes off less as a existential conflict and more as an excuse to exploit bloodletting. Even in this regard, Peterson's battles are hyperkinetic blurs of violence or computerized extrapolations of the term "epic." The fault lies not in the choice of violence and war as a subject, but in the unskilled depiction of those who fight--both in their manner and motivation--because Peterson's direction is overbearingly literal. Only in Brad Pitt's Achilles and Eric Bana's Hector great battle (Pitt's firm poses resemble Greek statues of the gods) does Troy approach the brutal grace of Homer's verse--and even in this, the reduction of character reduces the struggle itself to little more than titillation and the satiation of the audience. Peterson so concentrates on advancing the political struggle of his plot, he ignores the beauty and enriching effect of Homer's poetic--and potentially cinematic--language. There's some of Aristotle's ideas on dramatic conflict, but none of Homer's lyricism, and a whole lot of blood. Benioff and Peterson's telling of The Iliad can be summed up thusly: