Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Time for another of my pet artistic/philosophical topics.


For a long time I have been fascinated by the central theme of The Iliad; generally recognised as the first story in the western literary tradition it is curious to me in that it follows a single theme along many threads in an insistent, almost dogmatic, fashion:  Possession.  The possession of women by men, of power by men, of life, death, jealousy, honour, status, trophy, skill, love, respect, immortality and the bodies of fallen friends.  The whole story revolves around players who are constantly seeking the possession of something or someone.

Now this in itself is fascinating; why did the early Greeks craft a story such as this?  Why does the story not cover the beginning nor the end of the war?  What didactic lesson, if at all, was this meant to imbue the listener or reader with when, I think fairly, it can be said there is no conclusion (one might say "point") to the theme?

Well, in my own mind I have I feel answered these questions in part with a new interpretation of the Iliad that I have been building.  To get there, I want to jump forward to Danny Boyle & Alex Garland movies of today...

The three movies they have so far collaborated on, The Beach, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, follow very similar themes and my interpretation of The Iliad requires a preliminary interpretation of these stories.  All three follow a young man into a progressively worsening situation, and on one level chart his responses and eventual "triumph" over the obstacle.  In each case, the man is clearly of middle class origins, educated either in a formal sense or worldly way, but finds no tools within that experience to deal with what he faces.  Instead, he becomes like his aggressors, he becomes animalistic, savage and wild, acts unpredictably and totally unlike his usual self.  Having just written this, I am pleased to find on Wikipedia that Boyle was influenced by Apocalypse Now:

"It had eviscerated my brain, completely. I was an impressionable twenty-one-year-old guy from the sticks. My brain had not been fed and watered with great culture, you know, as art is meant to do. It had been sandblasted by the power of cinema. And that’s why cinema, despite everything we try to do, it remains a young man’s medium, really, in terms of audience."

Brando and Sheen are clearly reflected in the young men of Boyle's movies.  But what does this mean?

Each man is conservative and is forced, for his life, to abandon this for anarchy, to embrace anarchy, to triumph.  In The Beach, the triumph is over the conservatism of the beach community.  In 28 Days Later the triumph is over the anarchy of the zombies and the conservatism of the army.  In Sunshine it is over the conservatism of the pan-theistic religion of the captain (on a side note, what organisation sending a space ship to the sun to save humanity would ever call the ship Icarus, and when it fails - whoops, didn't see that coming - call the next one Icarus II?  Geesh!).  That each man triumphs over a different adversary in each movie is important; and what this signifies is the strength of anarchic-conservatism over either of its constituent parts.

Let's go back to the first story ever recorded; the Epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  The king Gilgamesh represents ultimate conservatism; he has absolute wealth and power in his kingdom, and was famed for the construction of the epitome of conservative architecture; a big wall.  Enkidu is anarchy embodied; a feral man who runs with the animals, he is civilised by procreating with a whore for a week.  Apart they are forces that rival and challenge one another, together they are stronger than anything else in the land.

And forward again to Akira (the movie) by Katsuhiro Ootomo...

Above, Capa (or "Kappa" or "K") and Kaneda attempt to repair the solar shield in Sunshine.  Below, Kaneda and Kei run from the cops.

Above, Kaneda faces down the light of the sun.  Below Kaneda enters the light of Akira to help Tetsuo.

In Akira, the two friends Kaneda and Tetsuo become anarchy realised as they tear up Neo Tokyo.  The Colonel is the force of conservatism, desperately trying to protect the city and its people using all his military power.  The Doctor, the scientist, is portrayed as a short sighted fool possessing neither power.  What succeeds in stopping Tetsuo in the end is not Kaneda (anarchy) or the Colonel (conservatism) but the three espers; Takashi, Kiyoko and Masaru.  Again, they are symbolic of the convergence of anarchy and conservatism; they are childlike in stature and voice, but elder in appearance and power and knowledge.  They stay with the Colonel in safety, but Takashi is escaped by radicals and comes into contact with the bike gang early on.  This dualism gives them the power to summon Akira, to stop Tetsuo.

Finally we may return to the Iliad.  To desire the possession of what one does not have is anarchic, to hold what one has is conservative.  Achilles is the fusion of these elements and this alloyed psyche is his real strength; the conflicting needs to be immortal and yet to be famed gives him a life-force beyond all others.  Hector is representative of all Trojans, excepting Paris; conservative, and thus his and his city's fate are writ.  His father though also conservative, enboldened by Hermes, he, like Boyle's characters or Ootomo's Steamboy, crosses the line into anarchy and does the unthinkable in order to regain the body of his son.


I believe that this simple message, that united anarchy and conservatism are stronger than either force alone, is a pervasive and universal theme of all art.  What I find incredible is that firstly, this was the central theme of the very first written art in the history of civilisation and has persisted 1000 years later with the Iliad and 3000 years later with cinema, and secondly that this message is not taught more explicitly.

It is clearly manifest in history, in contemporary politics and economics, but it is rarely identified.  Yes, the likes of Nietzsche or Freud or Campbell have elicited the basic need for a Hermes like figure to traverse the boundaries of the mind/soul/society/whatever to bring external knowledge to the group and so strengthen it, but nowhere have I seen this insisted upon with such clarity and strength of vision than in Homer, Boyle and Ootomo (and Michael Mann with whose works I've been having a protracted love affair).  Thus, we can answer that riddle from the start, how come this was the theme for the very first art of our cultural history.  At heart, the difference between these artists and the aforementioned academics is one of Action: They are artists of the world, and for men in the world.  Unlike the academics of towers on rare heights or scientists gazing at glowing rectangles, these are men that have themselves been actors in the world, and have transferred that experience to art for others to learn. 

The Music

Is from the soundtrack for the animation Akira, and is composed and performed by a Japanese music "collective" called Geinoh Yamashirogumi.  Every track is remarkable, but this one in particular has an artistic beauty tied to the movie.  Sections of melody decay into chaos, only to be restored by the Buddhist-style chanting, the primal rhythm of a male chorus.  But are they human?  No.  Each instrument and vocalisation becomes an animistic cry from nature.  The deep percussion at the start, the female chorus crying out Tetsuo's name, the priests forcing order, the cacophony of the city in the xylophones, the chorus returning with a lullaby for Akira and Tetsuo - this is the city of Neo Tokyo reacting to and trying to influence the events of the movie.  It screams in pain, rejoices in life and pleads with empathy.  I cannot listen to music anymore unless there is a story, either intrinsic to the piece or provided by mine own interpretation, to accompany.

I hope to see this group perform in August.