My current research task (at the end of a much-needed reading week) has been getting some ideas down for the talk I will be giving at the Birmingham and Midlands Classical Association branch sixth form conference. After a day of discussion about the set texts for the Latin and Classical Civilization A levels, as well as some speakers on general interest subjects, I will be giving the closing talk on Classics and Film. If you would like to find out more about the conference, or book a place, there are more details here – please pass them on to any sixth formers and their teachers you know who may be interested!
As I started to think about the topic to plan a general outline, I was struck by how many issues I had to take a position on to pitch the tone of the talk. First of all, I can’t assume any prior knowledge of classical film, and certainly not of reception theory. Second, I can’t expect to cover the whole range of classical film that has been produced in the history of film. The films produced by, for instance, Italian and French national cinema are going to have to go by the wayside, because I can’t do them justice in 45 minutes, and mentioning Maciste for the sake of mentioning Maciste doesn’t feel right. This means focussing on the cinema produced by American and English studios, which is a shame but probably makes the information more accessible to the audience and can be done respectably within the time limit.
Then there’s the question of how to structure your talk. I thought a bit about whether to do a survey of Film From The Beginning of Time or whether to look exclusively at the three latest franchises (Clash/Wrath of the Titans, The Immortals and Percy Jackson). I’m I’ve decided to aim for a speed survey that finishes with a bit more discussion about the franchises, as one thing I want the sixth formers to get out of the talk is an idea that films continue to exist after they have been shown in cinemas – mainly because it took me quite a while to get this and begin to watch things that weren’t current cinema or that I hadn’t been shown as a child by my parents. That said, I also want students to get some critique of the cultural productions they’re expected to consume, and thankfully the Harryhausen article has given me some good ideas about what to say about that.
However, in thinking about the survey aspect of this, I’ve run up against a very interesting mental block that I hadn’t anticipated. Trying to get my thoughts together, I asked Twitter and Facebook what films they would include if they were doing this kind of thing. The replies came back – 300! Ben-Hur, with the heavy queer subtext of the scene between Ben-Hur and Messala! The oysters and snails scene from Spartacus! And I found myself thinking ‘wait a minute… can I say that in front of sixth formers?’
I wouldn’t have a moment’s hesitation about using this material in front of a first year undergraduate class – in fact, I’d consider it almost essential that they be aware of the various ways in which gender and sexuality are portrayed and manipulated in film. But sixth formers are a different case. It’s not that I’m worried about them – they know sex exists, they can cope. But I am worried about what happens if I’m in loco parentis at the point of speaking, and the problems of discussing that material with those who are not legally adults. It feels like a cop-out, I know. But given the huge amount of material that I could cover, and the fact I only have 45 minutes to do it, and the fact that explaining the construction of sex and gender to an audience who hasn’t come across it before is complicated and needs to be done properly… leaving out that material from a talk for this particular audience feels like a sensible thing to do. If I’m going to talk about it, I want to talk about it well.
Which is making me think I should find people who would want to hear a general-interest talk about the queer element of ancient film, just to balance out the CV…