Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The World of the Scythians by Renate Rolle

Scythians- map of their territory

The World of the Scythians
 by Renate Rolle
p. 1980/English translation 1989
University of California Press

Example of Scythian art
   The World of Scythians is translated from the German, and approximately 80% of the cited texts are in Russian, and that is an accurate description of what is like to get good information about the Scythian people in English.  The Scythians inhabited what is today Ukraine- the southern portion, running down to the Black Sea.  During the pre-Classical and Classical period, they interacted with Greeks who set up colonies on the shore of the Black sea.   Lacking a written language, we only know about the Scythians from three sources:  Greek sources, Persian sources and archeology.  It is unknown what language the Scythians spoke and what their ethnic characteristics were, though Persian sources and a certain amount of common sense that the Scythians came from the Iranian branch of the Indo European family, and recent genetic studies point to a mixture of European and Asian populations.

  The archeology points firmly to Indo European roots, with the common characteristics of horse rearing and nomadic travelling in ample evidence.  Similarities between Scythians and "primitive" western Indo European groups like the Germanic and Celtic peoples abound in terms of artistic motifs and burial rites.  The Scythians are also notable for being the source of the Amazon women legend, which Rolle backs up with archeological finds, and being the earliest known users of Marijuana.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) d. Roberto Rossellini


Movie Review
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
 d. Roberto Rossellini
Criterion Collection #293


   Merry Christmas!  I like to keep the blog dark on major holidays but writing about The Flowers of St. Francis on Christmas was irresistible.  While there are stylistic consistencies between Rossellini's better known Italian neo-realist trailblazers of the same period and this film, the thematic gap is likely to leave viewers double checking whether The Flowers of St. Francis is really a Rossellini picture.  There is no hint of world weary irony or cynicism in his portrayal of St. Francis, here simply Francis.  Rather the approach is classically hagiographical: a series of well known incidents from the works produced after his death by his followers.

   Franciscan monks famously take a vow of poverty, and The Flowers of St, Francis will certainly fill you in on the medieval back story as well as the various ways Francis proved himself to his followers, who are also the "Flowers" in the title (I think.)  Francis stands for peace, non-violence and kindness towards others.  In the accompanying Criterion Collection essay, the author mentions that in contemporaneous interviews Rossellini compared St. Francis to Gandhi as a way of making the case for the relevance of his film.

  Despite the ponderous and religious nature of the subject, the film possesses the quiet beauty of other Rossellini films, and by the end it becomes comparable to his other films and less the stylistic outlier that it at first appears to be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: The Tin Drum (1979) d. Volker Schlöndorff

David Bennett plays Oskar Matzerath in Volker Schlondorff's 1979 version of Gunter Grass' 1959 novel.


Movie Review:
The Tin Drum (1979)
d. Volker Schlöndorff
Criterion Collection #234

   The Tin Drum (1979) was German director Volker Schlöndorff biggest hit in America, where it won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.   The Criterion Collection/Academy Award for Best Foreign Film is a good way to focus in on which films were really enjoyed by audiences upon initial release, vs. what the Criterion Collection Editorial board thinks is worthwhile (and available to them for release.)  Schlondorff was notable because all of his films were literary adaptations.  Unlike his movie version of Musil's Confusions of Young Torless,  The Tin Drum was a relatively recent book, released in 1959.
Gunter Grass was a member of the Polish ethnic minority of Kashubians, whose "territory" within present day Poland is marked on the map above.  The Tin Drum takes place in Danzig, east of Kashubia.

   The book The Tin Drum was controversial because it had a "light" treatment of the Nazi theme (while being critical/dismissive of the Nazi's themselves.) The complicated history that underlays the book and its reception by contemporary German language audiences is also informed by the recent episode where Grass revealed that he was "briefly" a member of the Waffen SS in his youth.  Even this fact is not as straight forward as it might appear.  Grass was a member of the Kushubian/Polish ethnic minority that is centered around the city of present day Gdansk in present day Poland.  The Tin Drum is mostly set in Danzig, which was a "German" city cut off from the rest of Germany, and with a population of Germans, Poles and Kashubians.

  The Kashubians have a history of being looked down upon by "Poles" and it isn't impossible to see why Kashubians would look towards Germany during the time when Grass was young.  In a sense though, it makes his membership in the SS worse, since he was basically a "foreign enlister" and the Nazis had no kindness for Slavs of whatever ethnicity.  

  The Tin Drum was also controversial upon initial release as a book because of the sexual content.  By the standards of foreign cinema of 1979, that material is not nearly as bold or transgressive, but it still packs a startling punch, and would be enough to send any child watching with family out of the room.

  I delayed watching The Tin Drum because I thought it might be (at two hours and forty five minutes) a slog, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Scholondorff's film moves along at an engaging clip, with plenty of sex and violence, making the selection by the Academy as Best Foreign Film understandable.
   

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

NIghtwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes: author of Nightwood (1936)

Book Review
Nightwood (1936)
by Djuna Barnes

  Calling this book a "masterpiece" has to be special pleading. I'd go along with calling it a minor classic of early-mid twentieth century modernism, but T.S. Eliot's famous introduction to the American version of this novel rang false to me.  Barnes represents modernism, lesbianism and the avant garde of American AND Europe- she was from the north-east of the US, wrote in Berlin and settled in Greenwich Village, where she survived to the 80s.  Nightwood is her one hit, she has one other novel and a play and some poetry and that is about it.  Nightwood is loosely "about" a lesbian couple in Berlin, but the most memorable character is the itinerant gynecologist who has a postively Burroughsian quality (Burroughs was a Nightwood fan.)

Monday, December 22, 2014

The History of Archeology: An Introduction Edited by Paul Bahn



The History of Archeology:
An Introduction Edited by Paul Bahn
published February 10th, 2014
Routledge Press
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  The History of Archeology: An Introduction is a succinct college textbook meant to give an undergraduate a brief introduction to the personalities and issues in world archeology. Broadly speaking, there are three main periods of archeology- the pre scientific heroic/amateur period, where excavations were undertaken in the pursuit of glorious, striking artifacts that were typically exported from their area of discovery to western museums and private collections.  This period started, basically, in the late 19th century and continued into the mid 20th century.
   
The second period was the spread of archeology as an academic discipline leading up to advances in radiocarbon dating of objects that destroyed the central archeological task of deciding when objects they found in the ground were actually used.

    The third period, roughly dating from the 60s, is a reaction to many of the "assumptions" of scientific archeology by scholars familiar with critical theory, leading to a cross-pollination between archeology and other disciplines, like climate studies and systems theory, to create a more "theoretical" archeology that looked beyond digging up villages and figuring out when people lived there.

   After a couple chapters detailing the origins of the first period of Archeology, The History of Archeology: An Introduction is composed of a series of chapters discussing archeology in each separate part of the world, with a distinct emphasis towards notable local archeologists and an explanation of their issues and concerns.   Each chapter concludes with a brief "Bringing It Up To Date" which mentions contemporary issues for each geographical area, and a chapter ending bibliography.

  Personally, I found the bibliography disappointing, with many of the listed sources being untranslated books from the chapter subject location.  I understand why the authors would do that, but it limits the ability of English language students to actually follow up on many of these subjects.  Several of the authors explicitly point out the works for a given area that HAVE been translated into English, which would seem to make this the exception rather than the rule.

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