Circe an Enchanting Rethink of The Odyssey

Circe (2018)
By Madeline Miller
Little, Brown, and Company, 400 pages.

Madeline Miller knows how to retell a good story when she hears one. Perhaps some of you have read her 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, which she adapted from The lliad. This time she turns to The Odyssey, but instead of focusing on the end of the Trojan War and the travails of Odysseus, she turns her attention to Circe.

There is much to imagine when it comes to Circe. Depending upon which ancient writer you consult, she's a goddess, a nymph, a seductress, a sorcerer, or some combination of these. Maybe she bore Odysseus one son. Or was it three? Or five? Miller makes Telegonus an only child and presents Circe as a misunderstood witch. She's not exactly Glinda—she does, after all, turn obnoxious sailors into pigs—but her victims usually deserve it, and she's far nicer than Cersei from Game of Thrones, a character inspired by Circe.

Miller depicts Circe as a victim of corrupt and sexist gods, which isn't so hard to do if you know anything at all about Greek mythology. Miller makes another choice when it comes to Circe's lineage. All the sources agree that her father was Helios, the Titan sun god, but some say her mother was Hecate, the goddess of magic; others hold that her mother was a naiad named Perse. Miller opts for Perse, as sea nymphs are minor nature spirits. This allows Miller to present Circe as less powerful than her brothers Perses or Aeetes, and she's certainly nicer than her sister Pasiphaë, the Queen of Crete and wife of Minos, of Minotaur infamy. In short, Circe is more of a demigoddesses, which means she has to resort to guile and magic that she discovers on her own rather than from a spellbinding mother.

Sometimes it doesn't pay to be a good child, even of a god. Miller emerges as too trusting for her own good. Her fascination for the humans in general and the sailor Glaucos in particular led her to help transform the latter into a god. Glaucos spurns her and takes up with Scylla. In a pique, Circe turns Scylla into a hideous sea monster and that kind of power is what really gets her into trouble. Circe dabbles in pharmakeia; that is, magic: spells, potions, and the use of herbs. Even the gods fear magic. Miller makes Circe into a pawn in the struggle between the Titans—the original gods—and the Olympians who overthrew their dominance. Helios opts to keep the peace with Zeus by exiling Circe, his own daughter, to the island of Aiaia, where her power will be contained—as in, maybe for all eternity.

Circe is unpredictable, but Miller shows her as gaining enough wisdom and power as to be drawn into friendships and clashes with such ancient figures as Jason, Daedalus, Minos, and Odysseus. She's also something of a thoroughly modern witch in that she occasionally takes mortal and immortal lovers. She and Hermes have a several centuries-long thing going, even though Circe thinks him a pompous ass and knows he's most likely to come calling when an Olympian plot is brewing. As she should, she fears Athena; as she shouldn't, she doesn't trust her. In a sense, Miller shows us the maturation of a witch. Hers is a tale of transformation, dawning self-awareness, and stratagem on a cosmic scale. Miller even probes how a demigoddess might find meaning in womanhood and motherhood. I suspect we are also to infer a unique feminist reading of Circe and, by extension, number her among the victims of male domination—albeit that which comes down from on high.

I found Circe a fascinating tale, and a well-crafted balance between personal invention and reading between the lines of Homer. By making Circe the narrator and seeing the long passage of time through her eyes, Miller shifts the focus from the heroic tales of men and makes those seem banal. It is rather ironic, after all, that so much of how we think of The Iliad and The Odyssey comes out as romanticized sanguinary war tales. My own reading of Homer is that we are supposed to think upon the Trojan Wars and their aftermath as tragedy, vanity, and hubris. If you want to give it a Judaeo-Christian spin, Homer casts severe doubt on both the glories of war and the existence of freewill. But you need not go such depths to appreciate this novel. If I might, Madeline Miller's Circe beguiles on its own terms.

Rob Weir

Yellow Submarine: 50th Anniversary

Yellow Submarine (1968/2018)
Directed by George Dunning.
Animated by Robert Balser and Jack Stokes.
United Artists, 87 minutes, PG

The song lyric goes," It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the land the band play." If only! It's been 50 years since Yellow Submarine was released in theaters, a watershed celebrated by a restored and enhanced video release of this animated classic. I'm happy to report that it stands the test of time.

The first thing you discover by watching it now, is that after 10 minutes you will understand everything Terry Gilliam did in his early days as a cartoonist/collage artist for Monty Python's Flying Circus. It's all there: trippy, surreal imagery that defies logic and linear time, improbable mash-ups, weird sounds, and embedded social commentary on historical and contemporary figures for the cognoscenti.

You might also suspect you are witnessing the genesis of MTV, and you'd be correct. Mainly, though, you'll be reminded of why the Beatles mattered. Yes, this is a film that's very 1968, but it's also remarkably fresh. That's mostly because its animated format is a visual delight that manages to impress even in our age of digital effects and computer-aided movie design. The restored film, in fact, is so vivid that it highlights the reality that we still can't do color as well as was done in the era of handcrafted cells.

Yellow Submarine also works because it's a fantasy, and these seldom grow stale. Sort of like Beatles songs. Yellow Submarine features time-tested wonders such as "Nowhere Man," "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "All You Need is Love," "With a Little Help from My Friends," and of course, "Yellow Submarine." If you're young and wonder what all the fuss was about, watch the sequence in which the song "Eleanor Rigby" appears. Listen hard to both its lyrics and orchestral arrangement. Not only were such things rare back when the Beatles released it as single in 1966, it continues to rank among the top pop songs of all time.

A bit of background: By 1968, the Beatles had already stopped touring and had grown weary of celebrity fandom. The band appears in the film only in cameo as the credits roll, and did not lend their voices to their cartoon stand-ins. You might not even notice this given the outstanding voice acting of John Clive (John), Geoffrey Hughes (Paul), Peter Batten (George), and Paul Angelis (Ringo).

The actual story is slight and incidental. You might even say its spirit was lifted from Dr. Seuss's 1957 story How the Grinch that Stole Christmas. The citizens of Pepperland live harmoniously until invaded by the Blue Meanies, who look a bit like Smurfs crossed with orcs and the goons from old Popeye cartoons. It seems that—shades of Whoville—that the Blue Meanie chief can't stand Pepperland's joyous music. He unleashes the dreaded Flying Glove as the invading vanguard of the Blue Meanies; together they transform Pepperland's citizens into mute statues. Hey, it was 1968!

The Lord Mayor (Dick Emery) has just enough time to entrust a sailor named Old Fred (Lance Perceval) with the task piloting the namesake yellow submarine to fetch help. And I'm sure you know who that will be. Ironically, The Beatles look exactly like Pepperland's house act—who else?—Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The film is mostly an excuse for the lads to cut up, make silly jokes, and segue to musical numbers while they and Fred make their way through various and precarious seas: Time, Science, Monsters, and Nothing. This sort of thing seemed weightier in an era in which established authority was challenged, as did the character of Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D., who was a stand in for obfuscatory intellectualism and paralyzing over thinking. You can be excused if you just think of Jeremy as a plump, lovable goofball. It's on to Pepperland to fix things, and all you need is love.

None of this is a spoiler because it's the journey and music that matter, not the tale. Director George Dunning and animators Robert Balser and Jack Stokes use the screen as a big palette upon which they splash gay hues, imaginative figures, and fast-paced montage. You will probably notice that all action, including walking, is stiffer and less realistic then what we can create these days. Oddly, this makes the film more fun. We look more closely at psychedelic effects that pop up on the screen, we laugh at the corny jokes, and we sing along with the songs because we immerse in the fantasy rather than clinically admiring high-tech f/x.

Above all, Yellow Submarine reminds us of a more optimistic period of history. Yes, I know that it's fashionable to present 1968 as a chaotic time of excess and craziness. But you know what? That's not all that I remember about it. I also recall that lot of people really felt they could change the world for the better–—rescue it from the Blue Meanies if you will. Watching Yellow Submarine 50 years later made me think how much better things would be today if we still felt that all you need is love. Does this make me naïve? Probably, but I think I'd much rather dwell in Pepperland rather than In Donald Trump's America.

Rob Weir


Eighth Grade: Remember and Quake!

Eighth Grade (2018)
Directed by Bo Burnham
A24, 94 minutes, R (dumb rating for language, sexual situations)

“I wish I could go back to eighth grade.” Said no one ever. Bo Burnham’s surprisingly sharp and realistic look at adolescence might well be the year’s most terrifying film.

I was once a teacher in a grades 7-12 school. Years later, when I’d encounter former students, some would ask me, “What was I like back in junior high school?” I’d smile and ask, “Did you like yourself when you were 14?” When they inevitably said "no," I’d chuckle and reply, “No one else did either.” Lest you think me cold-hearted, my retort never failed to induce an instant burst of knowing laughter. If you remember those days—the middle school years in larger school districts—you’ probably agree that it’s a miracle any of us survive the experience.

Bo Burnham makes his directorial debut with Eighth Grade and he apparently recalls those years with gothic clarity. His film is more like a dark tone poem than a conventional narrative. This is as it should be, as eighth grade might be the reason scholars (like Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner) developed the concept of liminality, those befuddling in-between moments that are so shapeless that they are defined as neither this nor that. Adolescents are textbook cases; they are neither children nor adults. Add raging hormones, in-process identity formation, and a tissue thin boundaries between reality and fantasy and stand clear—the situation is as volatile as a mad chemist mixing explosives.

Burnham’s story is appropriately slight. His youngsters, played by mostly unknown actors, live in the world of impression, imagination, and emotional fragility. Burnham focuses on Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) and her last days of middle school. She is glued to her smart phone and laptop to such a degree that she’s struck a deal with her father, Mark (Josh Hamilton), that she doesn’t have to talk at the dinner table on Fridays. He’s a single dad; his wife walked out on the family when Kayla was an infant. Mark has goofball charm that Kayla finds totally annoying. He cares deeply, but the best he can do when Kayla throws a wobbly is try to get out of her way.

Kayla has two masks, a fantasy alter ego in which she covers her zits with makeup for posted advice videos on how to be popular, have confidence, be yourself, and so on; and her actual experiences in school, where’s she’s a slightly pudgy, acne-spotted, depressed, quiet kid with few friends. As middle school winds down, students look at memory boxes they made as 5th graders and there’s little to cheer Kayla. Even worse, she’s roped into going to a swimming party at the home of Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), the spoiled queen of the cool crowd. It doesn’t go well. (Is that a spoiler? Do such things ever go well?) The only glimmer of hope is a day in which the middle schoolers visit the high school they'll enter in the fall, and Kayla’s guide is the kinder and way more mature Olivia (Emily Robinson), who gives Kayla hope that fantasy and reality can merge in the future. Even this comes with bumps and potholes.

You could have written that script yourself. That’s because Burnham has made a (mostly) realistic film about what it means to be a teen. This isn’t Fast Times at Ridgemont High, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Mean Girls, or any of the scores of other films in which adolescence is dramatized or lampooned by older actors, and the faux youths navigate thinly veiled young adult situations. Some of the aforementioned are entertaining movies, but they don’t make you think, “Wow! That was what school really felt like.” Eighth Grade will, which is why it both entertains and makes you shiver.

Film fans will recognize a few scenes that pay homage to The Graduate, including a performance from Jake Ryan, who channels the awkward quirkiness of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock as we could easily imagine him at 14. Ryan even looks the part. Elsie Fisher is wonderful as Kayla. She makes us believe she’s 14 for a simple reason: she was 14 when the film was in production. I suppose she must be more poised in real life, but she’s clearly in touch with the churning cycles of elation and deflation that mark the early teenage years.

To be sure, this isn’t a perfect film. Josh Hamilton—who looks a lot like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg—overplays his cluelessness to the point where he’s not convincing when he gets serious. The film’s resolution feels rushed and clichéd, and at times the tone balance between poignancy and humor undercuts Kayla’s depression. Or maybe it just seems this way because everything is confusing during adolescence. This film made me remember and if I could relive those years anew, there’s not enough money in the world that could convince me to do so!

Rob Weir


Christopher Robin Charms, but It's a Disney Film

Christopher Robin (2018)
Directed by Marc Foster
Walt Disney Pictures, 104 minutes, PG.
★★★ ½

Britain's best-loved bear returns to the screen with his best friend Christopher Robin, the latter all grown up and acting like a human of very little brain. This update of A. A. Milne's classic tale of a boy and his stuffed animals is uttering charming—and totally Disney.

It needs to be said from the outset that if Disney makes you gag, this film will be like force-fed honey. If, on the other hand, you are such a Disney fan that you think the sun rises and sets over Disney World, you probably don't need to read this review. From where I sit—somewhere in the middle—I'd call Christopher Robin an uplifting film that you should see if you're at all in touch with your Inner Child. But I think there are also moments in which your Outward Adult can provide critical balance.

This sequel-of-sorts opens with a bittersweet tea party between pubescent Robin and his boyhood friends Winnie the Pooh  (voiced by Jim Cummings), Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, Owlet, Rabbit, and that pessimistic old grump, Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett, though you'll swear it's Sam Elliott). Robin is "going away," which we are to interpret as both heading off to boarding school and checking out emotionally, as he's on the verge of being too old for the world of make-believe. The story then rushes forth in vignette snapshots: Robin (Ewan McGregor) as a young man, Robin acquiring a sweetheart, and Robin fighting in World War II, before settling in with a wife named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), and a young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Alas, Robin is an all-work-and-no-play middle management drone for the Winslow Luggage Company. His long days get even longer when efficiency expert Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss, whom you know for his role as Mycroft Holmes) tells Robin he must cut costs by 20%. Just what the already-too-serious Robin doesn't need. He's already just about out of goodwill credits from Evelyn, and his Madeline is well on her way to becoming as colorless, unimaginative, disconnected, and sad as her father. Then, back in the Hundred Acre Wood of Sussex, a lonely Pooh can't find any of his friends. He walks through a door in a tree and exits in Christopher's London backyard.

You can probably take it from here. It will be, of course, a tale of how a reluctant Christopher finds his mojo, saves himself, discovers what's really valuable in life, and sets free his daughter's imagination. I say "of course" because this is pretty much the arc of all Disney family fare. One reason I stand in the middle when it comes to Disney is that, for the most part, all of the imagination of their films lies on the visual surface; Disney has been recycling the same basic story since the early days of Mickey Mouse. The film's action is a zany caper that begins in Sussex, travels to London, and ends up back in Sussex.

The good news, though, is that Winnie is far more charming and interesting than Mickey. He is a bumbling bear who's not the brightest bruin in the honey pot, but he's kind, soft-spoken, and simple in all the right ways. In fact, it dawned on me that Winnie calms a bit the same way as Mister Rogers used to do so. Who can resist sentiment such as this? When asked," "What day is it?" Pooh replies, "It's today. My favorite day." Is that simplistic, or the highest expression of Zen? (Some older folks may remember a book from 1982 titled The Tao of Pooh, which actually is a series of Eastern-style meditations on Winnie the Pooh!)

When the adventure begins, the best thing to do is chuck your logic in an old log somewhere and just go with it. As was the trick in Bill Watterson's comic Calvin and Hobbes, the Pooh crew is sometimes anthropomorphic, sometimes just a collection of stuffed animals, and sometimes something in between whenever the plot demands some grownup befuddlement. McGregor helps us suspend belief. He is deft and believable within the film's internal logic—a sort of boy man trying his hardest (and failing) to exude gravitas. I was reminded a bit of how Michael Palin took on similar roles in Monty Python—sometimes wearing a serious mask, but always with a twinkle in the eye that heralded an imp waiting for release. I suspect also we will be hearing from young Bronte Carmichael, whose performance suggests she is adaptive in her emotional range.

It would be too much to declare Christopher Robin any sort of movie masterpiece. Really, the only question you need to ask is whether you think all movies need to be profound? Is there a place for something that makes us revert to childhood? In the film, Christopher Robin concludes there is. I agree. Now I hope I can remember under which log I stowed my logic.

Rob Weir