I’ve always had a soft spot for the Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise. Not only is the ride my favorite Disney attraction, the films, along with Mean Girls and the Spider Man series starring Tobey Maguire, were the first PG-13 rated movies I ever saw. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Spider Man 3 were the first PG-13 rated films I saw in theaters. I own a necklace of the golden doubloon from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (the chain broke years ago and I now have it on a silk ribbon) and I wore an Elizabeth Swann costume from Oriental Trading Company for Halloween when I was eleven. Even though I am a fan, I was part of the collective eye roll and “why?” when a fifth installment was announced and was not surprised to find that it was getting terrible reviews but a mixture of loyalty to the franchise and curiosity to see how bad it could be drove me to go see it.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales or Salazar’s Revenge picks up the story a number of years after the first four installments. Henry Turner, son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, is searching for a way to free his father, who is cursed to remain aboard the Flying Dutchman. This causes him to seek out Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), his father’s old friend/enemy, now a drunken wreck of his former glory. Jack Sparrow is being hunted by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a ruthless Spanish pirate hunter who Sparrow sent to a watery grave years earlier and has returned from the dead to get revenge. Along the way they encounter Karina, a young woman whose interest in astronomy causes her to be seen as a witch and who is trying to decode an enigmatic astrological map left to her by her father and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who returns for some reason. The macguffin that will help everyone get what they want is Poseidon’s Trident, which can break all of the sea’s curses, and Karina’s map leads to.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was not as bad as I thought it might be (I got a few laughs of out Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem was creepy, the CGI looked cool), but it was by no means a good movie. The two young leads are a poor man’s substitute for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Karina was exactly the type of female character I despise: the girl who’s so much smarter than everyone else but is absolutely useless in a pinch; a prissy ninny trying to pass herself off as a bad-ass. The first chance she gets to put her muscle where her mouth is, she runs away, gets caught in traps, and needs to be rescued. If your heroine is going to be a helpless damsel, at least be honest about it.
The film’s ending scene involves Will Turner returning after he is released from his curse and being reunited with his wife and son. Jack Sparrow gets back the Black Pearl and sails off into the sunset. It’s a decent send-off to the franchise before it is, hopefully, put out to sea for good.
I also have something of a soft spot for superhero films ( I love the Spiderman, Batman, and Captain America movies) but I was not planning on seeing the new Wonder Woman movie. My mind was changed when I heard that it was getting great reviews. I was also intrigued by the fact that the film is set during World War I, one of my favorite time periods. The fact that this movie exists, let alone this successful , is something of a miracle. After the notorious flops that were Catwoman and Elektra, Hollywood has been reluctant, to say the least, to touch superhero films with a female lead.
Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) has been dreaming all of her life of glory and heroism, but is sheltered from the outside world by her mother, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by Zeus to protect mankind from the corrupting influence of Ares, god of war. When an American fighter pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), crash lands on Themyscira, Diana learns that World War I is going on around her. Believing that Ares is behind this potentially all consuming war, Diana vows to kill him and save the world. Placing Diana in the setting of World War I highlights the change in attitudes during this period. World War I was first modern total war and had millions of casualties, many of them innocent civilians. The big super weapon in the film is a poison gas, a weapon which made its debut in World War I. Diana has always believed that war is glorious and that morality is black and white and is startled to find herself in the middle of a hopeless and all destroying conflict. The young men who fought in World War I, raised on greek epics and mythology, Diana’s world, must have been similarly traumatized. This shift is highlighted by the film’s cinematography which goes from the Homeric glory of Themyscira to the muddy, grey, grittiness of no man’s land.
Wonder Woman bares a number of similarities to Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, my favorite of the Avengers films. Both are war based period pieces featuring an earnest and idealistic protagonists. I appreciated the film did not make Diana a cold, cynical femme fatale like her Marvel counterpart Black Widow. Part of the film’s strength comes from Gal Gadot’s superb performance. After two hours listening to the smug, pedantic prattle of Karina from Dead Men Tell No Tales, which would make Hermione Granger think she was insufferable, it was refreshing to see a heroine who actually is bad ass. The action scenes, especially the one where Diana struts across no man’s land deflecting machine gun bullets with her wristbands, made me want to shout “fuck ya!.”
Wonder Woman is refreshingly free of the cynicism which characterizes similar films made in the past few decades. Diana is presented as a naive fish out of water and though she becomes less naive about the outside world, but does not lose her idealism. She learns that humanity is flawed and capable of atrocities but is still worthy of her protection. Considering all of the political conflict, terrorist attacks, and destruction of the environment that we read about in the news today, perhaps Wonder Woman has arrived when we needed her most.
Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.
Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter.
The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.
Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.
Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia. It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing. If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.
One of the most endlessly fascinating episodes in American history is the Salem Witch Trials, perhaps it’s best known unsolved mystery. What made the citizens of an upstanding puritan community turn against itself with friends, family, and neighbors accusing one another of the worst crime they could think of: witchcraft. There is no shortage of books describing the events of 1692 Salem and providing theories as to why they happened, but The Witches by Stacy Schiff is a welcome addition.
Schiff provides a detailed and nuanced depiction of the Salem Witch Trials, going beyond the American History class stereotypes. She gives context to these events as well as possible explanations, without resorting to the typical conspiracy theories: these range from political divisions to ergot (a mold which is what LSD is derived from ) laced rye bread. It all began with a group of adolescent girls, a disenfranchised section of the community who were both largely ignored and highly scrutinized, it is possible that a combination of strict puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations and the repression of teenaged impulses and desires caused them to act out. What started off with youthful rebellion snowballed out of control, fed by the divisions and suspicions in their society.
Early New England lived in fear of attacks from Indians and the French, disease and other natural disasters as well as interference from the British crown. It was divided between a number of different political and religious factions. Salem village itself was split between those supported the minister, Samuel Parris, and those who resented having to pay his salary. A top of that were various land disputes and personal grudges.
Schiff puts the Salem Witch Trial against the larger backdrop of the 17th century ( the period which saw the greatest number of witch trials worldwide) as well as World History in general, specifically the McCarthy Trials of the 1950s and the fairly recent Patriot Act/ War on Terror era, which we are (arguably) still going through. Both of these events and those like them are often referred to as “witch hunts.” The Salem Witch Trials are invoked whenever a climate of fear and suspicion cause us to turn against one another.
The Witches by Stacy Schiff provides fascinating context to the much discussed Salem Witch Trials and is a must read for anyone who is interested in these events. I found it dry at points but that is due to the difficulty I have with non fiction.
The Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers MA hosted a World War I themed event in honor of Memorial Day Weekend. I have a somewhat Edwardian looking dress and hat and decided to wear them. Dad and I arrived in Danvers a few minutes before ten o’clock a waited a few minutes in the car before going in.
A local group that reenacts World War I had set up a camp on the grounds of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead and there were also reenactors portraying British sailors and French soldiers. Dad was disappointed to find that there would not be any drills or demonstrations that day. To see that, we would have to come back the next day. The first part of our visit involved poking around the event to see what was there and then looking around in the Rebecca Nurse house. While looking in the wing of the house with display cases filled with artifacts dug up on the site, we met a volunteer named Don, who gave us a tour of the second floor of the house, which I have never seen before. The meeting house was set up for crafts and coloring; I made a poppy out of tissue paper and pipe cleaners.
Dad and I were hungry by this point, so we went to the concession stand for snacks: We both got cokes. I got a bag of popcorn and a bag of candy; Dad got a donut. Afterwards, I went to the gift shop and bought and a volume of poems by Anne Bradstreet, who we studied in my American Lit. class, and a couple of postcards. I donated my last dollar to a fund to build a World War I memorial in Washington D.C. My donation allowed me to take a packet of Flanders Poppy seeds, which I later planted in a pot on my deck. We will see how well they turn out.
The reenactors had brought a great deal of interesting things to look at. A table displaying weapons had a rifle bayonet which could be detached and used as a knife.
Another table, which had books and other paper goods from the period, had a romantic postcard of an American soldier kissing his girl before going off to war and a basic french book, as well as a book of “naughty poems.” I wonder what people in 1917 considered naughty.
There was also a table set up with rations which a World War I era soldier would have eaten and a fire for cooking bacon. Another table which displayed period communications devices such as radios and cameras.
The British encampment had cigarette cards of King George V, Queen Mary, and other members of the royal family. The French encampment had an actual Croix de Guerre medal. An adorable little boy tried on a helmet at the British encampment and appeared to be having a ball. I love seeing people bring kids to these type of events.
We left around noon and I put my postcards and poppy in my scrapbook.