Wednesday, November 4, 2015

An Interview with Kent Jones

I couldn't make the New York Film Festival this year. Reading this year's reactions reminded me of a favorite NYFF experience: my interview with critic, filmmaker, and festival director Kent Jones. Part One was published on FilmLinc at the time, but somehow Part Two fell through the cracks. Until now. 

FilmLinc: I recently picked up a book of Stanley Kubrick interviews. The first one, written in 1959, opens up with a diatribe about how hard it is for artists to make films, versus the generic [stuff] that Hollywood churns out. Maybe in some sense that’s eternal.

Kent: [Kubrick is] a model. You have to have nerves of steel. Take somebody like Wes Anderson, for instance. He looks like a devil may care dandy who dresses in cool suits, et cetera. When it comes to his movies--to getting his films made exactly the way he wants to make them, and having them be marketed exactly the way he wants to market them, and seen exactly the way he wants them to be seen--he’s as tough as Kubrick. He’s as exacting of an artist. That’s always necessary. You know, it’s not polite!

I remember I was talking to a French actress named Nathalie Ruchard, who was in Irma Vep [directed by Olivier Assayas]. I was interviewing her for the Voice, and I asked, “What filmmakers would you like to work with?” She said Maurice Pialat. He was still alive [at the time]. I said to her afterwards that I’ve always heard he’s a monster to work with. She said, “Who cares, when you’re making films that good? He can’t be a monster. He’s a human being.” She’s right.

To get back to Kubrick. People talk about what a horrible, horrible experience [The Shining] was for Shelly Duval. And yes, it looks like it was. But guess what: in the interviews she said that it was horrible…and that she wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

I’m not saying that artists should get to go around and do whatever they want, that they’re the chosen people, and bla bla bla. On the other hand, it isn’t about politeness and everybody liking you. If that’s what you think it is, then you’re not going to last. You’re not going to get much done.

FilmLinc: Yes, and Tom Cruise said the same thing about Eyes Wide Shut. Whiplash seems very relevant to what you’re talking about. Damien Chazelle has talked about musicians who’ve seen J.K. Simmons’ character and said, “Oh yeah, that’s what it takes. If anything, maybe his character was too light.” That shocks people.

Kent: Well, there are different kinds of teachers. In music, you have to be one with your instrument. And you can’t be one with your instrument by just walking up to it and saying, “Wow, I think I’ll play this!”

In cinema, I think a lot of critics labor under the delusion (I know I did when I was younger) that filmmaking is about the director just walking onto the set and making magic. That’s because there’s an auterist lore, [like] Douglas Sirk taking Rock Hudson movies and making these films out of them. That’s not the way it works!

First of all, the director has to work intensely with the writer. They don’t just get handed a script and show up on the set and weave a tapestry. They’re interested in the writing, they’re interested in character. A lot of people think that [casting] doesn’t matter. It certainly matters to every director I’ve ever met! It’s news to them when they hear a critic say actors don’t matter. That happens a lot.

I’m not saying you, by the way. [Laughs].

FilmLinc: Good! I’m trying to think of who…

Kent: Well, it’s a very common thing. It’s unusual to read someone who writes perceptively about acting. Just to finish this thought [about Whiplash] —you have to be tough on yourself. In film, odds are that you’re not going to have that kind of teacher. You have to develop that kind of discipline yourself, and figure out your own discipline, the way Kubrick did, the way Von Stroheim did, the way Lubitsch did. The way Hitchcock did, for example.

FilmLinc: I was struck by your comment, because it does seem that we—not just critics, but people in general, that we don’t know how to talk about acting. I know this about my own writing. How many times have we seen a performance described as “bold”, or “fantastic”…

Kent: “Gutsy…”

FilmLinc: Right.

Kent: There’s a really strong essentialist bias in a lot of film criticism. Meaning, let’s get to the bottom of cinema and the essentials of cinema. The essence of cinema has nothing to do with acting, that’s theater. It has nothing to do with sets, that’s theater too. It has nothing to do with plot, that’s novels. Well, of course that’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous in the sense that if a movie has actors and a story, you have to deal with acting and narrative. You have to.

A lot of people do feel extremely uncomfortable talking about acting in movies, for a lot of reasons. One is that they feel it detracts from focusing on the filmmaking, which is the essentialist question. Then there’s the question, “How do you talk about acting?” A lot of people do it by not talking about acting, but talking about iconography. So they talk about the mystique of Bogart, they talk about Tom Cruise as a Scientologist--everything but acting. People have a million ways of talking around acting.
Then you get someone like Pauline Kael, who knew a lot about acting but who would talk as if acting were over here and the rest of the movie were over there. In film, you can’t isolate the art of acting. [Perhaps] if you’re talking about Laurence Olivier in Othello, because that’s what it is, a record of his performance.  But if you’re talking about Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria, or Jacques Dutronc in [Maurice Pialat’s] Van Gogh, or Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl—if you’re just talking about acting, then you’re missing it. You’re missing the interaction between the presence of the actor, as grasped by the director and interpreted through the editing, within the grammar of the entire movie.

[You can even miss it when] talking about a movie like Whiplash, which is more or less two people back and forth. That’s not just a couple of actors going at it [while] the director turns the camera on and lets it happen. Nor is that the case with Heaven Knows What. [Filming acting] is capturing slices and stretches of human behavior, working with people with varying degrees of experience, and interpreting it through the editing into a whole cinematic experience.

It can be hard for actors. Fincher and I actually had a discussion about this for another project. He was saying, “When you do a take, and you say it looked great, and the actor says, ‘It didn’t feel right to me,’ well okay. But the light was right, the electric cable coming down the street looked good, the color of the bricks as the sun was hitting was just right. I’m sorry it didn’t feel right to you, but it looked like it felt right, and I’ll take that.”

Sometimes the actor feels resentful, because they feel their process is compromised. But it’s a movie. There are a lot of different moving parts. The performance is one of them, and a very important one. Only Ben Affleck can deliver that cheesy smile, and only Rosamund Pike can be that opaque with her eyes. But you have to be alive to it as a director, and weave those different moments into a whole. I think that’s why it’s hard to talk about acting. People get mixed up between acting, writing, and direction.

There’s a part of the mind that can muddle that: the part that’s uncomfortable if you’re dedicated to the idea that cinema is the product of one individual behind the camera. On the one hand, yes. It is the product of one individual behind the camera, the person who has the governing idea. If there is no governing idea, you wind up with something else.

On the other hand, it’s [only] a governing idea. All those other people have to respond to that governing idea. The director has to see what those responses are and orchestrate it. Or let things happen, like [Olivier Assayas] does. He always puts himself in situations where he’s going to be surprised. And then [there is] interpretation—not to harp away at that, but editing is interpretation, shaping, storytelling.

FilmLinc: Can we talk about Gone Girl? I’m curious to hear your reaction to the reactions. There are so many key questions—the gender elements, obviously a huge topic of conversation in parts of the press. Also, David Fincher working with “trash”, interacting with that.

Kent: The gender stuff is kind of built into the movie. I’ve had conversations with people who say, “It’s a sexist movie, how could you see it any other way?” Well, I don’t know, search me. I don’t even know what to say about that.

The trashy part of it is interesting, and it does bring me back to Benjamin Button. I still get into arguments with people about Benjamin Button. “You liked that?!” “Of course I love Fincher, but hated Benjamin Button.” Or, “It’s a remake of Forrest Gump. Can’t you see that?”

Forrest Gump: Yes. They’re both written by the same person. Yes, they’ve both got a hero that’s in the midst of all this historical stuff. Bla bla bla. [My question is] why isn’t it Forrest Gump? Forrest Gump is by one person, Benjamin Button is by another person. The Benjamin Button that people complain about is not the movie that I saw. The movie that I saw was, sure, a movie with some awkward dialogue. But I found it absolutely shattering and an incredible reflection on time. It seemed like all of a piece with Zodiac. The movie that I kept hearing about from people was the script…That happens a lot.

I’ve heard all different kinds of things [about Gone Girl]. I get the vibe that people who didn’t like it loved to be there and not like it. It’s not the same as saying they didn’t like…[Pedro Costa’s] Horse Money. In those conversations I’ve gotten the sense that it makes them feel really creepy and like they want to take a shower. Which is kind of the idea. The trashiness of it, the supermarket counter quality, is something that the people who made it are extremely aware of.

FilmLinc: You enjoyed it.

Kent: Enjoyed it? I loved it. I think that there are a few filmmakers alive right now where every time they make a movie I can count on the fact that I’ll have my eyes opened to something. When [David Fincher] makes a movie he gets specific about things and places and kinds of people and situations that nobody else would even touch. St. Louis, the discomfort of the people that comes with sophisticated New Yorkers. The boredom that [Rosamund Pike’s character] feels out there. The very uncomfortable feeling of two people who are reasonably intelligent (but maybe not all that imaginative), who after a few years realize, “This isn’t what I planned. Gee, I really liked her”…”He was great, but look at him now.”

Then it just becomes this phantasmagorical TMZ-style dream encapsulation of stuff that people are obsessed with…this moment that feels eternal but isn’t.

FilmLinc: The ending almost seemed bleakly happy to me. After all this time these two people have found a way to live with each other, however messed up.

Kent: Yeah, it certainly reflects…I don’t want to make a big deal out of this, but I don’t do social media. I don’t look at websites very often, I don’t watch television, whatever. I glance at that stuff every now and then. I don’t have a Twitter. What I know of it, what I see of it--and what I see of that really unhappy world of Bruce Jenner and the Kardashians—feels like Gone Girl feels.

The way that these people put themselves on display, and create drama out of their own lives in order to keep their viability with an audience that they reckon has the attention span of a three year old. And a lot of people limit themselves to the attention span of a three year old. A lot of people think of themselves that way, that fundamentally that’s all we boil down to, so we might as well enjoy it. That’s something that’s part of the moment that we live in.

It’s a moment that will pass, but when people look back on it, you could do worse than watch Gone Girl and see it encapsulated. 


Good times. Kent Jones is a true renaissance man.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thucydides Book 1: 23-31

23. The Median War, the greatest achievement of past times, yet found a speedy decision in two actions by sea and two by land. The Peloponnesian War was prolonged to an immense length, and, long as it was, it was short without parallel for the misfortunes that it brought upon Hellas. Never had so many cities been taken and laid desolate, here by the barbarians, here by the parties contending (the old inhabitants being sometimes removed to make room for others); never was there so much banishing and blood-shedding, now on the field of battle, now in the strife of faction. Old stories of occurrences handed down by tradition, but scantily confirmed by experience, suddenly ceased to be incredible; there were earthquakes of unparalleled extent and violence; eclipses of the sun occurred with a frequency unrecorded in previous history; there were great droughts in sundry places and consequent famines, and that most calamitous and awfully fatal visitation, the plague. All this came upon them with the late war, which was begun by the Athenians and Peloponnesians by the dissolution of the thirty years' truce made after the conquest of Euboea. To the question why they broke the treaty, I answer by placing first an account of their grounds of complaint and points of difference, that no one may ever have to ask the immediate cause which plunged the Hellenes into a war of such magnitude. The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable. Still it is well to give the grounds alleged by either side which led to the dissolution of the treaty and the breaking out of the war.
24. The city of Epidamnus stands on the right of the entrance of the Ionic Gulf. Its vicinity is inhabited by the Taulantians, an Illyrian people. The place is a colony from Corcyra, founded by Phalius, son of Eratocleides, of the family of the Heraclids, who had according to ancient usage been summoned for the purpose from Corinth, the mother country. The colonists were joined by some Corinthians, and others of the Dorian race. Now, as time went on, the city of Epidamnus became great and populous; but falling a prey to factions arising, it is said, from a war with her neighbours the barbarians, she became much enfeebled, and lost a considerable amount of her power. The last act before the war was the expulsion of the nobles by the people. The exiled party joined the barbarians, and proceeded to plunder those in the city by sea and land; and the Epidamnians, finding themselves hard pressed, sent ambassadors to Corcyra beseeching their mother country not to allow them to perish, but to make up matters between them and the exiles, and to rid them of the war with the barbarians. The ambassadors seated themselves in the temple of Hera as suppliants, and made the above requests to the Corcyraeans. But the Corcyraeans refused to accept their supplication, and they were dismissed without having effected anything.
25. When the Epidamnians found that no help could be expected from Corcyra, they were in a strait what to do next. So they sent to Delphi and inquired of the God whether they should deliver their city to the Corinthians and endeavour to obtain some assistance from their founders. The answer he gave them was to deliver the city and place themselves under Corinthian protection. So the Epidamnians went to Corinth and delivered over the colony in obedience to the commands of the oracle. They showed that their founder came from Corinth, and revealed the answer of the god; and they begged them not to allow them to perish, but to assist them. This the Corinthians consented to do. Believing the colony to belong as much to themselves as to the Corcyraeans, they felt it to be a kind of duty to undertake their protection. Besides, they hated the Corcyraeans for their contempt of the mother country. Instead of meeting with the usual honours accorded to the parent city by every other colony at public assemblies, such as precedence at sacrifices, Corinth found herself treated with contempt by a power which in point of wealth could stand comparison with any even of the richest communities in Hellas, which possessed great military strength, and which sometimes could not repress a pride in the high naval position of an island whose nautical renown dated from the days of its old inhabitants, the Phaeacians. This was one reason of the care that they lavished on their fleet, which became very efficient; indeed they began the war with a force of a hundred and twenty galleys.
26. All these grievances made Corinth eager to send the promised aid to Epidamnus. Advertisement was made for volunteer settlers, and a force of Ambraciots, Leucadians, and Corinthians was dispatched. They marched by land to Apollonia, a Corinthian colony, the route by sea being avoided from fear of Corcyraean interruption. When the Corcyraeans heard of the arrival of the settlers and troops in Epidamnus, and the surrender of the colony to Corinth, they took fire. Instantly putting to sea with five-and-twenty ships, which were quickly followed by others, they insolently commanded the Epidamnians to receive back the banished nobles—(it must be premised that the Epidamnian exiles had come to Corcyra and, pointing to the sepulchres of their ancestors, had appealed to their kindred to restore them)—and to dismiss the Corinthian garrison and settlers. But to all this the Epidamnians turned a deaf ear. Upon this the Corcyraeans commenced operations against them with a fleet of forty sail. They took with them the exiles, with a view to their restoration, and also secured the services of the Illyrians. Sitting down before the city, they issued a proclamation to the effect that any of the natives that chose, and the foreigners, might depart unharmed, with the alternative of being treated as enemies. On their refusal the Corcyraeans proceeded to besiege the city, which stands on an isthmus.  
27. The Corinthians, receiving intelligence of the investment of Epidamnus, got together an armament and proclaimed a colony to Epidamnus, perfect political equality being guaranteed to all who chose to go. Any who were not prepared to sail at once might, by paying down the sum of fifty Corinthian drachmae, have a share in the colony without leaving Corinth. Great numbers took advantage of this proclamation, some being ready to start directly, others paying the requisite forfeit. In case of their passage being disputed by the Corcyraeans, several cities were asked to lend them a convoy. Megara prepared to accompany them with eight ships, Pale in Cephallonia with four; Epidaurus furnished five, Hermione one, Troezen two, Leucas ten, and Ambracia eight. The Thebans and Phliasians were asked for money, the Eleans for hulls as well; while Corinth herself furnished thirty ships and three thousand heavy infantry.
28. When the Corcyraeans heard of their preparations they came to Corinth with envoys from Lacedaemon and Sicyon, whom they persuaded to accompany them, and bade her recall the garrison and settlers, as she had nothing to do with Epidamnus. If, however, she had any claims to make, they were willing to submit the matter to the arbitration of such of the cities in Peloponnese as should be chosen by mutual agreement, and that the colony should remain with the city to whom the arbitrators might assign it. They were also willing to refer the matter to the oracle at Delphi. If, in defiance of their protestations, war was appealed to, they should be themselves compelled by this violence to seek friends in quarters where they had no desire to seek them, and to make even old ties give way to the necessity of assistance. The answer they got from Corinth was that, if they would withdraw their fleet and the barbarians from Epidamnus, negotiation might be possible; but, while the town was still being besieged, going before arbitrators was out of the question. The Corcyraeans retorted that if Corinth would withdraw her troops from Epidamnus they would withdraw theirs, or they were ready to let both parties remain in statu quo, an armistice being concluded till judgment could be given.
29. Turning a deaf ear to all these proposals, when their ships were manned and their allies had come in, the Corinthians sent a herald before them to declare war and, getting under way with seventy-five ships and two thousand heavy infantry, sailed for Epidamnus to give battle to the Corcyraeans. The fleet was under the command of Aristeus, son of Pellichas, Callicrates, son of Callias, and Timanor, son of Timanthes; the troops under that of Archetimus, son of Eurytimus, and Isarchidas, son of Isarchus. When they had reached Actium in the territory of Anactorium, at the mouth of the mouth of the Gulf of Ambracia, where the temple of Apollo stands, the Corcyraeans sent on a herald in a light boat to warn them not to sail against them. Meanwhile they proceeded to man their ships, all of which had been equipped for action, the old vessels being undergirded to make them seaworthy. On the return of the herald without any peaceful answer from the Corinthians, their ships being now manned, they put out to sea to meet the enemy with a fleet of eighty sail (forty were engaged in the siege of Epidamnus), formed line, and went into action, and gained a decisive victory, and destroyed fifteen of the Corinthian vessels. The same day had seen Epidamnus compelled by its besiegers to capitulate; the conditions being that the foreigners should be sold, and the Corinthians kept as prisoners of war, till their fate should be otherwise decided.
30. After the engagement the Corcyraeans set up a trophy on Leukimme, a headland of Corcyra, and slew all their captives except the Corinthians, whom they kept as prisoners of war. Defeated at sea, the Corinthians and their allies repaired home, and left the Corcyraeans masters of all the sea about those parts. Sailing to Leucas, a Corinthian colony, they ravaged their territory, and burnt Cyllene, the harbour of the Eleans, because they had furnished ships and money to Corinth. For almost the whole of the period that followed the battle they remained masters of the sea, and the allies of Corinth were harassed by Corcyraean cruisers. At last Corinth, roused by the sufferings of her allies, sent out ships and troops in the fall of the summer, who formed an encampment at Actium and about Chimerium, in Thesprotis, for the protection of Leucas and the rest of the friendly cities. The Corcyraeans on their part formed a similar station on Leukimme. Neither party made any movement, but they remained confronting each other till the end of the summer, and winter was at hand before either of them returned home.
31. Corinth, exasperated by the war with the Corcyraeans, spent the whole of the year after the engagement and that succeeding it in building ships, and in straining every nerve to form an efficient fleet; rowers being drawn from Peloponnese and the rest of Hellas by the inducement of large bounties. The Corcyraeans, alarmed at the news of their preparations, being without a single ally in Hellas (for they had not enrolled themselves either in the Athenian or in the Lacedaemonian confederacy), decided to repair to Athens in order to enter into alliance and to endeavour to procure support from her. Corinth also, hearing of their intentions, sent an embassy to Athens to prevent the Corcyraean navy being joined by the Athenian, and her prospect of ordering the war according to her wishes being thus impeded. An assembly was convoked, and the rival advocates appeared: the Corcyraeans spoke as follows:

Map 1.26: Corinth, Corcyra, and friends (adapted from Historia Nerd post)


Now, we get into some of the immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War. This passage contains a major theme of Thucydides' thinking: that Sparta's fear of Athens was the true cause of the war. ("The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally most kept out of sight. The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable" 1.23.) This, along with the catalog of ways the Corcyraeans annoyed the Corinthians, serves to underscore what Prof. Donald Kagan describes as "the importance of real human emotions" in statecraft.

In John Lewis Gaddis' The Cold War: A New History, he describes Nikita Kruschev as "excess personified: he could be boisterously clownish, belligerently cloying, aggressively insecure. Dignified he never was, and the volatilities of post-Stalin politics were such that he could never be sure of his own authority"(69). This is a man that regularly threatened to drop nuclear bombs!

International affairs are too important to be reduced to mathematical models, psychological profiles, geographic destinies, or any other single silver bullet. Those are all important, of course--but they must come with an understanding of the crucial--and terrifying--power of individuals to influence the course of events. 

There are two other interesting dynamics introduced in this passage: the ancient Greek international arbitration system, and the practice of setting up trophy markers on battlefields. I'll need a separate post to delve into the international system, but I do have a picture of a Roman trophy from a later era that bears the same structure (arms and armor up on a cross) as the Corcyraeans would have used in 1.30:

We'll pick up next time with the first speeches of the book, and delve into rhetoric a little bit. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Thucydides Book 1: 17-22.

"A Possession for All Time"

17. Again, wherever there were tyrants, their habit of providing simply for themselves, of looking solely to their personal comfort and family aggrandizement, made safety the great aim of their policy, and prevented anything great proceeding from them; though they would each have their affairs with their immediate neighbours. All this is only true of the mother country, for in Sicily they attained to very great power. Thus for a long time everywhere in Hellas do we find causes which make the states alike incapable of combination for great and national ends, or of any vigorous action of their own.
18. But at last a time came when the tyrants of Athens and the far older tyrannies of the rest of Hellas were, with the exception of those in Sicily, once and for all put down by Lacedaemon; for this city, though after the settlement of the Dorians, its present inhabitants, it suffered from factions for an unparalleled length of time, still at a very early period obtained good laws, and enjoyed a freedom from tyrants which was unbroken; it has possessed the same form of government for more than four hundred years, reckoning to the end of the late war, and has thus been in a position to arrange the affairs of the other states. Not many years after the deposition of the tyrants, the battle of Marathon was fought between the Medes and the Athenians. Ten years afterwards, the barbarian returned with the armada for the subjugation of Hellas. In the face of this great danger, the command of the confederate Hellenes was assumed by the Lacedaemonians in virtue of their superior power; and the Athenians, having made up their minds to abandon their city, broke up their homes, threw themselves into their ships, and became a naval people. This coalition, after repulsing the barbarian, soon afterwards split into two sections, which included the Hellenes who had revolted from the King, as well as those who had aided him in the war. At the end of the one stood Athens, at the head of the other Lacedaemon, one the first naval, the other the first military power in Hellas. For a short time the league held together, till the Lacedaemonians and Athenians quarrelled and made war upon each other with their allies, a duel into which all the Hellenes sooner or later were drawn, though some might at first remain neutral. So that the whole period from the Median war to this, with some peaceful intervals, was spent by each power in war, either with its rival, or with its own revolted allies, and consequently afforded them constant practice in military matters, and that experience which is learnt in the school of danger.

19. The policy of Lacedaemon was not to exact tribute from her allies, but merely to secure their subservience to her interests by establishing oligarchies among them; Athens, on the contrary, had by degrees deprived hers of their ships, and imposed instead contributions in money on all except Chios and Lesbos. Both found their resources for this war separately to exceed the sum of their strength when the alliance flourished intact.
20. Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever. The general Athenian public fancy that Hipparchus was tyrant when he fell by the hands of Harmodius and Aristogiton, not knowing that Hippias, the eldest of the sons of Pisistratus, was really supreme, and that Hipparchus and Thessalus were his brothers; and that Harmodius and Aristogiton suspecting, on the very day, nay at the very moment fixed on for the deed, that information had been conveyed to Hippias by their accomplices, concluded that he had been warned, and did not attack him, yet, not liking to be apprehended and risk their lives for nothing, fell upon Hipparchus near the temple of the daughters of Leos, and slew him as he was arranging the Panathenaic procession.
There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand. 
21. On the whole, however, the conclusions I have drawn from the proofs quoted may, I believe, safely be relied on. Assuredly they will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers that are attractive at truth's expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of legend. Turning from these, we can rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity. To come to this war: despite the known disposition of the actors in a struggle to overrate its importance, and when it is over to return to their admiration of earlier events, yet an examination of the facts will show that it was much greater than the wars which preceded it.
22. With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

Summary and Analysis:

We're light on maps today, but no matter. We have an excuse to learn more about some of the famous battles of the "Medean War" as Crawley calls it--the war between the Greeks and the Persians. (Another note is that Lacedaemon is the capital city of Sparta, and different translations use those words interchangeably.) Those videos, again, are awesome. They make me feel like I'm cheating a bit by not reading Herodotus first, whose Histories tell the story of that war, among other things. Then again, why have I still not finished Chapman's translations of Homer? For that matter, why haven't I learned Greek? Maybe someday. These are the sorts of excuses the mind throws up to dissuade one from the good work at hand. 
This section about wraps up the exposition. After the end of the war against Cyrus, Athens and Sparta emerge as the two dominant powers in all of Hellas, or Greece. Athens has a strong navy and a lot of wealth thanks to tribute. Sparta has a formidable force of hoplites, despite its austere finances. It remains to be seen whether its policy of forming friendly governments in allied countries will provide an edge.
In chapter 20, Thucydides transitions away from the background to provide justification for the book. Its easy to see why he's considered a founding father of history as a discipline--he discusses the process of trying to discover truth by weighing the claims of competing primary sources. And, less we are quick to judge the ancient Greeks for their superstition, let's look to the plank in our own eye. The epidemic of ridiculous tabloid news items on social media, not to mention myths clung to in more reputable places, show that Thucydides would still be justified in making the same complaint were he writing today.
Finally, Thucydides also recognizes that he's not writing the script for a Hollywood blockbuster. He doubts that his work is going to be widely read or liked by many--he doesn't have a high opinion of human beings in general--but insists that it will have universal value for those who can see it.
Is he right? Let me consider two recent speakers on the topic, Daniel Drezner at Foreign Policy and Prof. Hunter Rawlings III's speech at Bristol University.
Drezner's appeal to the millennial crowd (300! Star Trek! And maybe some history, please, you imbeciles?) offers the reader the ability to "recognize some recurring patterns in history." Rawlings excellent speech points us in the direction of Auden, who made the same point slightly better:

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

He wrote that in 1939. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thucydides, Book 1:16

[Today I will experiment with placing the maps and pictures throughout the text.]

16. Various, too, were the obstacles which the national growth encountered in various localities. The power of the Ionians was advancing with rapid strides, when it came into collision with Persia, under King Cyrus, who, after having dethroned Croesus and overrun everything between the Halys and the sea, stopped not till he had reduced the cities of the coast; the islands being only left to be subdued by Darius and the Phoenician navy.

Map 1.16

Friday, February 6, 2015

Thucydides Book 1: 5-15

[My edition has this segment in 5, so I'm tacking it on--remember that the rest of 5 is in the previous post] 
5. And even at the present day many of Hellas still follow the old fashion, the Ozolian Locrians for instance, the Aetolians, the Acarnanians, and that region of the continent; and the custom of carrying arms is still kept up among these continentals, from the old piratical habits. 
6. The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. And the fact that the people in these parts of Hellas are still living in the old way points to a time when the same mode of life was once equally common to all. The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life; indeed, it is only lately that their rich old men left off the luxury of wearing undergarments of linen, and fastening a knot of their hair with a tie of golden grasshoppers, a fashion which spread to their Ionian kindred and long prevailed among the old men there. On the contrary, a modest style of dressing, more in conformity with modern ideas, was first adopted by the Lacedaemonians, the rich doing their best to assimilate their way of life to that of the common people. They also set the example of contending naked, publicly stripping and anointing themselves with oil in their gymnastic exercises. Formerly, even in the Olympic contests, the athletes who contended wore belts across their middles; and it is but a few years since that the practice ceased. To this day among some of the barbarians, especially in Asia, when prizes for boxing and wrestling are offered, belts are worn by the combatants. And there are many other points in which a likeness might be shown between the life of the Hellenic world of old and the barbarian of to-day.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Thucydides Book 1, 1-5

I will experiment with this format for now: I'll paste the relevant section of the text here first, then maps, and a brief summary afterwards. Down the road, once I get to supporting materials, I will add in links and other thoughts where appropriate.

Book 1: 1-5

1. Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world—I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on a great scale, either in war or in other matters.

Review: "The French Revolution" by Peter Davies

Just wrapped up Peter Davies' Beginner's Guide to the French Revolution.

I somewhat enjoyed this book. Although hailed as a launching point for total beginners, I think it will best serve readers with a modicum of existing knowledge who wish to begin a more serious study.

It is most helpful when explaining the different schools of Revolutionary historians--early historiographers like Burke and De Stael, to the dominant Marxists of the 20th century. The final chapter, about the legacy of the Revolution for contemporary French politics, is also interesting. Davies' strength lies in tracing the contours of debate. This quite breezy read (about 150 small pages) is like a signpost for the historical traveler: I've been pointed towards my sites of interest. For that I'm thankful.

I did have some qualms with the writing and structure. There are occasional references to groups and movements that have not been defined yet--talk of Girondins and Thermidoreans before we've gotten to their official introductions. This didn't ruin my experience, but I can imagine this throwing off the totally uninitiated.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Blogging Thucydides

I'm going to blog about Thucydides. I have three reasons. The first is that Thucydides demands a slow read, piece by piece. The blog format lends itself to that approach. As much as I'd like to just power through The Peloponnesian War, doing so would provide a "notch in the old bookshelf" at the expense of, say, strategic and philosophic insight.

The second is that on a blog, one can include as many maps as one likes. Even The Landmark Thucydides can't have a map illustrating the movements of each force in detail on every page. At the end of this process, I'll have maps galore, perhaps some of my own making.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Recent Writing

Hi all, Sorry for the long silence--the holidays followed by an engagement tend to throw things into chaos, I guess!

Here are some of my recent doings:

 -On Hieronymus Bosch, one of my favorite painters, for The Atlantic

 -A review of the excellent Nightcrawler for Christianity Today

 -An interview with the fascinating, wise, and pleasant head of the New York Film Festival, Kent Jones

 Thanks for reading!