Did Homer’s Odyssey — An Ancient Greek Epic — Influence Storytelling in Film?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) [Source: IMDb]

In A Companion to Film Theory, James Naremore’s chapter titled “Authorship” describes the nature of the film and television industry as hierarchical as opposed to collaborative, summarizing it as “involving a mixture of industrialized, theatrical, and artisanal practices”. These creative contributors can be considered a kind of author in their own right, their roles ranging from that of writers and composers to even stars and corporate studio executives. While this provides a loosely-tied explanation of authorship and how it manifests in the industry, Naremore attributes directorship to possess the highest position in this hierarchy of industrialists, thespians, and artisans. Herein lies the question of whether one can identify a single “author” of a film with certitude, and if film authorship can even be valued as a theory, which according to Naremore is more so a “topic or theme” rather than an overarching theory itself.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris/Contempt (1963), and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) are all about significant journeys of varying natures. However, all three of these stories find their roots or inspiration in one singular story — that of Odysseus’ journey in Homer’s Odyssey. When explored in conjunction to each other, all these narratives intermingle to provide the studious viewer with the most complex notions of who could truly be considered the author of the original story. This viewer is compelled to study each story within its context, seeing it not only in relation to its historical significance but also to any intertextual references that may stand as evidence of inspiration or tribute to other auteurs, creative individuals, or works of art. For instance, the very title of O Brother, Where Art Thou is an explicit reference to the eponymous, fictional book in Sullivan’s Travels that Sullivan aims to realize into a film but eventually chooses not to. Sullivan’s source of inspiration is itself the creation of an author of a different kind — of the literary sense, imaginary though it may be to real-life viewers. Interestingly, the name of this fictive author is also an ode to three absolutely real creative individuals — Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck — combining to create the imaginary “Sinclair Beckstein”. If O Brother, Where Art Thou is based on a fictional book, which as depicted by Sullivan’s Travels happens to be written by an unreal author, one is curious as to the true source of the story. This is where one can bring in the even more bewildering conclusion — the originator of this entanglement of tales is Homer, the author of the Odyssey. This conclusion would actually lead one to either a dead end or an open one, for there are doubts as to the whether it was truly Homer that created these stories or whether it was simply a retelling of preexisting myths and folklore.

That being a perplexing discussion itself, Naremore also addresses the general fallibility of authorship specifically in the film industry in relation to arguments about the view of directors as authors. Naremore states that the “discourse on the director-as-author has always been problematic — not only because of the industrial basis of the film medium, but also because the film director emerged as a creative type at the very moment when authorship in general was becoming an embattled concept”, creating a perfect segue into the discussion of the “auteur” theory. Initiated in the period of the “French politique des auteurs, or “policy” of canonizing directors in the name of art” in the 1950s and 60s, Contempt becomes the next study of the embracement and criticism of auteurism. It references the Odyssey in a fashion diverging from the approaches that Sullivan’s Travels and O Brother, Where Art Thou take, this time very significantly focusing on the role of Penelope, Odyesseus’ wife. Played on screen by Brigitte Bardot, Camille is the contemporary representation of Penelope, while her husband Paul stands in as the character on an Odyssean journey that neglects his distressed wife along the way. Paul fails to protect Camille from the rapacious Prokosch, much like the way Penelope is left to fend for herself against the numerous suitors that approach her during Odysseus’ absence.

These characters are not meant to be manifestations of any notion of “psychological realism”, which could be supported by François Truffaut’s stance against it in “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema”. Truffaut makes numerous negative statements regarding this narrative style, for instance by stating that the “dominant trait of psychological realism is its anti-bourgeois will” or that in “psychologically realistic” films, “there are nothing but vile beings, but so inordinate is the authors’ desire to be superior to their characters that those who, perchance, are not infamous are, at best, infinitely grotesque”. Instead, Godard’s characters are rather “ideas” being constructed in the form of people. These characters represent social constructs rather than psychological depth, but they also advocate for Astruc’s notion of the caméra-stylo (camera-pen). Coined by Astruc himself in “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde” within The New Wave, this metaphor for the new age of cinema could be described as an attempt to “break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing just as flexible and subtle as written language”. Contempt may serve as an example of both Truffaut and Astruc’s ideas, for while one may understand perfectly that the characters are symbolic and based on the Odyssey, it is almost impossible to truly analyze what thoughts and feelings these characters possess individually. Additionally, as if the audience’s lack of such information was not enough, the characters in the film itself are unaware of each other’s feelings due to a very explicit language barrier. The French-speaking characters are divided from and conflicted against the English-speaking Prokosch and are linked solely through the weak means of a translator, which evidently depicts the weaknesses of language as a form of communication and the words and ideas that are lost in translation. While one character wishes to adopt Homer’s Odysseus in its original form, another character desires to depict a deeper neuroticism in its characters and plot as per contemporary times. While these ideas clash, so do the characters’ relationships with each other as caused by their inaccurate expression of thought due to their language barrier. In creating this chaos, Godard is diverging from the notion that he must be viewed as some sort of omnipotent creator who is aware of every nook and corner in the mechanism of his characters’ minds. Instead, similar to what montage may have meant to Eisenstein, Godard’s tool is an impersonal construction of the film’s characters, which in the manner of the caméra-stylo is simply an auteuristic attempt to make a statement about art — in this case the significance of language in film.

While drawing towards a conclusion of the chapter, Naremore provides three lessons that could be obtained from a study of “auteur theory”. One of these lessons is that the “study of authors is useful because it enables us to differentiate films more precisely”. While all three films mentioned above are thematically very similar — in that a journey or the act of return are crucial themes in all films — each film differentiates in how its origin could be perceived. While all three have been inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, Contempt is a very explicit contemporary reference in terms of characters and Sullivan’s Travels more so according to its plot. However, O Brother, Where Art Thou is its most unique and complex manifestation, for not only are the plot and characters inspired very directly from the source (Ulysses’ name being an explicit reference for instance), the film also borrows from a text, Sullivan’s Travels, that was inspired by another text, creating a depth of intertextual material that could be analyzed. Hence, given this example, this lesson deems the value of authorship theory as absolutely potent, for a singular source could contain the ability to inspire more authors across temporal and spatial dimensions.

In an attempt to discern the value of film authorship and whether there truly exists a “single” author of a work of art, it is important to acknowledge the two other lessons Naremore provides. One lesson is that the “author is just as real (or as illusory and fetishized) as the money and the mechanical apparatus behind the cinema” and the second is that “viewers always decode messages by positing a source, even if only an imaginary or unconscious one”. If every work of art in the eyes of auteur theory consists of an imprint of the respective artist’s style, but every creation is merely a replication or reiteration of a preexisting “series of historical, social, and cultural determinants”, then why must the question of the value of authorship theory rely on the search for a singular source, or a “single” author? It might be preferable to acknowledge that every work of art is born from and gives birth to ideas that are molded into a new form by artists that act as vessels rather than as originators. Sturges, Godard, Joel and Ethan Coen, or even Homer himself imposed a style upon their work as auteurs, but neither must be considered the sole authors of the material that they have created. The value of a theory of authorship therefore relies not on the attempt to find a single source, but rather to acknowledge that there will be a constant influx and amalgamation of sources as long as they continue to inspire and influence each other.

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