My name is Vincent Tomasso, and I'm an assistant professor of Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. In this blog I post my reflections on contemporary pop culture and the relationships it consciously creates with the past. Over the last few years the complaints of film critics have reached a fever pitch over the spate “sequels”, “re-imaginings,” and “reboots” flooding the multiplexes, a phenomenon that I refer to as QRR (“‘quels, re-imaginings, reboots”) in this blog. A. O. Scott, film critic at the New York Times, has led the charge with his choice words for the summer crop of 2010: “Summertime brought the usual fare — superhero sequels, action thrillers, goofball comedies, animated spectacles for the whole family, remakes and reboots and rehashes. A lot of these were not as good as previous examples, though it may be splitting hairs to distinguish levels of mediocrity” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/12/movies/12scott.html?pagewanted=all]). The assumption behind such critiques (note especially the dirty word “mediocrity”) is that modern popular culture is out of ideas and is forced to raid the vaults of yesteryear to keep its money machine oiled. I’m not sure if this is more insulting to the artists who create pop culture or the audiences who consume it. Perhaps it’s both.
In any case, I take an entirely different approach to this phenomenon than Mr. Scott, in part because I have been trained in the Classics--the study of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Because I am interested not only in the past for the past’s sake, but also in the connections we in the present make to the past, I look at sequels, reboots, re-imaginings, etc. as ways that the present to engage with the past in dynamic ways. It is undeniable that in the second decade of the twenty-first century we inhabit a cultural moment in which producers AND audiences want to engage with the past, whether our own recent(ish) past or the ancient Greek/Roman past that is has been so influential to western cultures. Because I am interested not only in the past for the past’s sake, but also in the connections we in the present make to the past, I look at sequels, reboots, re-imaginings, etc. as ways that the present to engage with the past in dynamic ways. It is undeniable that in the second decade of the twenty-first century we inhabit a cultural moment in which producers AND audiences want to engage with the past, whether our own recent(ish) past or the ancient Greek/Roman past that is has been so influential to western cultures.
I want to note from the beginning that I am not particularly interested in the aesthetics of the pop cultural products that I analyze. In other words, for the purposes of this blog I don’t care whether the product was “good” or not. I guess I must’ve found something redeeming about it or I wouldn’t take the time to blog about it! And you don’t have to tell me that Mr. Scott is correct about a large number ofQQRs.
At the start of this blog, I imagine that I will mostly be writing about films, but I have ideas for television programs and comics as well, and other kinds of texts might sneak in through the wings occasionally. Basically, I’m interested in media that are used to express ideas about the past that the greatest numbers of people in our society engage with.
What on earth do sequels have to do with my career as a professional Classicist teaching Greek and Latin to hordes of eager students? Glad you asked! The subjects of this blog overlap my interest in how the past is portrayed in the Posthomerica, a poem attributed to the ancient Greek poet Quintus of Smyrna. This epic poem is a direct and conscious continuation of the story of the Trojan War told in Homer’s Iliad and engages with the Homeric style extensively in complex ways. (If you think I’m making too much of the connection between this ancient “highbrow” poem and modern “lowbrow” movie sequels, consider the title a French scholar gave to the Posthomerica: La Suite d’Homère--literally The Sequel to Homer!) The Iliad only covers a few weeks in year nine of the war and ends with (spoilers!) the funeral of the Trojan champion Hector. Homer’s Odyssey relates the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus over many years as he tries to get back home to Greece. There were several important events that happened between these two poems, and in the third century AD Quintus decided to bridge the gap between Homer’s two poems. I am fascinated by the fact that he chose to do this centuries after the two Homeric poems had been in wide circulation and in a completely different political and social context: Greece had been absorbed by the Roman Empire centuries earlier.
“But don’t take my word for it,” as Reading Rainbow used to say. There is an on-line translation here, but its language is hopelessly out-of-date. You can’t really blame the translator, Arthur Way; he published it in 1913 and was trying to make the translation sound high-brow literary. That’s what you get for trying to get something for free! My friend and fellow Quintus scholar Dr. Calum Maciver has joked that you have to translate Way’s English into modern English before you can make sense of anything. And that’s saying a lot for a book that is supposed to be translating the original Greek! In my opinion the best translation of Quintus so far was done by Alan James in 2004 (title: The Trojan Epic), which is available from Amazon here.
A final note: this blog doesn’t pretend to be cutting-edge current. Because my reflections about these popular culture texts are close readings, sometimes I will wait until I can review the text on DVD, etc.. At the same time, I also aim to post as soon as I see a film for the first time.
OK, that’s enough formality, folks. Excelsior!