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Cinemetamorphosis: Toward a Cinematic Theory of Classical Narrative

Martin Winkler

Few today will deny, although many did before, that psychoanalysis, feminism, narratology, structuralism, etc. have significantly advanced our understanding and appreciation of classical literature and culture, even though none of these fields of scholarship existed in antiquity. A coherent modern perspective on the visual quality of classical narrative that goes beyond ancient art forms like painting, sculpture, and theater has, however, largely been neglected.

        Since the arrival of photography and cinematography, modern ways of seeing (Berger 1972) and reading have changed fundamentally. Analysis of moving-picture narratives has advanced the interpretation of modern literature and can do the same for classical literature. Greeks and Romans were aware of the affinities between the verbal and the visual. Simonides of Keos held that painting is silent poetry while poetry is painting that speaks (Plut., Mor. 17f-18a and 346f-347c). Horace’s ut pictura poesis (A.P. 361) followed, if with different emphasis. Terms like enargeia, evidentia, demonstratio, and repraesentatio and Cicero’s sub oculos subiectio (cf. Orator 40.139, De oratore 3.53.202; Quint. 9.2.40) express and anticipate what narratives in moving images do as a matter of course. The prologue to Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe elegantly demonstrates Simonides’ point.

        Over the past twenty-five years, classicists have become increasingly fascinated by the potential of cinematic analysis for their research and teaching, beginning with Winkler 1991 (rev. 2001) and Wyke 1997 and 1998, but no systematic approach has yet been developed. (First steps: Winkler 2009: 20-69, on “classical film philology”; Paul 2010, Solomon 2010, Michelakis and Wyke 2013: 1-24). The present paper attempts to contribute to an advance in classicists’ approaches to ancient narrative in the reciprocal manner Simonides pointed out. The paper’s goal is to demonstrate the validity of approaching ancient art and literature from the hindsight of our familiarity with moving images. Interpreting antiquity through the lens of modernity affords us greater insights into the complexity and depth of Greco-Roman visual and literary arts. Two practical demonstrations, one from Greek art and one from Roman literature, exemplify the approach here proposed.

        A black-figure amphora by the Amasis Painter (Würzburg L 265) of satyrs engaged in harvesting grapes and making wine presents a static image of a complex process. If read in sequence (r. to l.), the image becomes a motion picture in the term’s literal sense: four satyrs at different stages. Like much early cinema, the image appears sepia-toned, but it is not silent (a fifth satyr is playing an aulos). A cinematically trained viewer will easily appreciate the painter’s cleverness; others might not.

        The spectacular vividness of Ovid’s Metamorphoses has frequently inspired scholars to adduce contemporary visual arts (painting, theater). But the very complexity of Ovidian narrative calls for an analogy that goes much further. Ovid not only paints word pictures but also guides and directs his readers’ mind’s eyes (cf. Quint. 8.3.62) in a manner comparable to a film director’s mise en scène: individual shots (image compositions) and editing (shot sequences). One of the most astonishing—and convincing—examples is the tale of Niobe and her children (Met. 6.146-312), which can be adapted into a screenplay without any change at all. Most of the Metamorphoses is ready to be filmed virtually as it appears on the page.

        Modern retellings, translations, adaptations, and other reworkings of classical literature have generated a considerable amount of healthy discussion but little consensus. So it is sensible, and in the spirit of Ovid, to consider all forms of moving-picture adaptations of, and homages to, classical narratives as instances of cinemetamorphosis. This term, denoting the perspective here advocated, can even help resolve, finally and decisively, the old Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns by showing that both sides equally enlighten each other. As Horace had asked, not wholly rhetorically: what would now be old if there had been nothing new? (Epist. 2.90-91). Philology only profits from—ut ita dicam—phileicony.


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Looking Both Ways: Dialogic Receptions in Practice

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