I’ve just got home from giving that paper at the Birmingham and Midlands Classical Association branch sixth form conference, and I thought it was as good a time as any to draw together some concluding thoughts on the experience. It’s the first time I’ve given a talk to an audience not made up of either undergraduates or academics, and a couple of things seem important to note after the fact.
Fourty-five minutes is not very long at all when you are trying to give a potted history of classics and film. It really isn’t. I have to salute Tony Keen here for generously giving me a list of the ‘greatest hits’ that should get name-checked, even if they didn’t get much analysis, which helped to crystalise my thoughts about what I wanted to do – as much in disagreeing with it as agreeing with it, but also in pointing out things like Agora (2009) which had completely slipped my mind. The problem with more modern material is that it isn’t included in Jon Solomon’s magisterial The Ancient World In The Cinema which is the more or less comprehensive account of all films made before about 2000. For more recent films, you have to rely on your memory, and I’m afraid to say that Agora had slipped mine – so I am very grateful to Tony for reminding me of its existence.
My original plan for the talk had been a quick-fire tour through cinema with a concentration on the three current big franchises (Clash, Immortals and Percy Jackson), but as I actually wrote the talk and worked out where I wanted to show clips, more and more time got used up – and I gradually figured out that this wasn’t actually a bad thing. My original structure had been based on my lecture format for my students, which is spend the first half of the lecture giving them basic information they need to understand the second half, and then spend the second half doing more in-depth analysis. For this talk, which wasn’t meant to give the audience any information on which they would later be examined, that more detailed analysis actually wasn’t necessary.
I realised that what I really wanted to do was to enlarge horizons. I wanted the audience to realise that there were films out there they hadn’t heard of, and to have an idea of why they might want to watch them, and to give them a taster of what they were like. I also wanted them to start thinking about film as a cultural production, and how historical context affects how films get made. So I spent a little longer than I might have done on silent film, and did a bit of a spiel about Spartacus, communism and the McCarthy witchhunts, and something similar about the way Gladiator thinks about what it means to rule an empire as a way of exploring America’s role as the last superpower standing. I also picked out themes and ideas that were popular at one stage and had waned, like the rise of Christianity narrative you get in a lot of the 1950s films, and finished with some of the tropes shared by the three big recent franchises.
Overall, I’m pleased with it. I got very positive feedback from the teachers afterwards, and the students all seemed engaged through the talk itself. It’s not bad for a first go, particularly when I only realised late in the game that I was trying to do something I didn’t need to do. This audience didn’t know anything about classical film, and wasn’t going to roll its eyes at being told the basics about Cleopatra (1963). This needed to be much more introductory than I was first anticipating, but that doesn’t make it bad. Part of the skill of doing this kind of thing is pitching it to the audience. What this audience needed was something interesting and fun after a long day of thinking about their A-levels. I think I gave them that – and hopefully some ideas about what to rent in the not too distant future.
So now I have my general purpose classics and the cinema talk in the bag. All I need now is an excuse to write the talk on the queerness of ancient film, and I’ll be all set!