For a few years now, I’ve been a huge fan of “highschool class project” renditions of the classics. I would dig through Youtube and get amped on 9th graders overprojecting the lines of Antigone or Prometheus Bound in their parents bedsheets. What really got me about those renditions was that, if they more or less obeyed the text, some of the power still came through— even though the whole thing was shot in their gym or garage, with mops and bedsheets as props and costumes. More than this, occasionally the shoddiness— both in the settings and in the flatness of the acting— enhanced the dialogue for me in some as-yet-inexplicable way. Perhaps this was because the works were classics, and perhaps classics by virtue of their incorruptibility, their ability to shine through any production despite flatness, kludginess, or anachronism. In the highschool renditions, this contrast, this tension, was heightened— which was good for people like me, who are most susceptible to poetics when caught offguard.
That was the initial idea behind this version of Antiope— the only one extant in the post-ancient world that I know of. Most of the works of the great Greek tragedians— Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides— have been lost. Of Euripides’ ninety-some plays, only eighteen survived whole, with some others recovered in fragments. Antiope is one of these fragments, and one of the larger ones, with many lines and details occluded but its main arc and moral force wholly intact. I had to piece a fair bit of it together, patch in some narration and lines of my own lines, alter others to effect, but the majority of the thing is still Euripides. And as far as bad, point-and-shoot, highschool kludge classics go, I’d say it’s a masterpiece.
The second motivation is cinematographic: I’m really psyched about the possibilities of smartphone cinema. I’m sure it’s done plenty already, and that people are killing it (in the good sense), but being stupid about all things related to film and video, I’m still very quick to crow at this horizon. Like many, I find few things more repulsive than the contemporary insistence on technical “quality” and so called “realism”— that is, high production value at the sacrifice of narrative, edge, and meaning— in movies. Even in very traditional storytelling, the first premise is the suspension of disbelief. We can become just as enthralled when watching talking cartoon fish, or people on a bare stage, as we can with “realistic” depictions. What is this insistence on verisimilitude— and a false verisimilitude at that? I just don’t get it. If the stories or poetics have power, high-fidelity is nice but unnecessary. The vice versa doesn’t hold for me. I especially admire when someone poeticizes a low-quality medium by boldly turning its drawbacks into virtues, or into a feeling of raw vivacity. Film people, I’m sure, could supply you with loads of examples.
The Cuban filmmaker Julio Espinosa opened his popular 1969 essay “For an Imperfect Cinema” with “Nowadays, perfect cinema — technically and artistically masterful — is almost always reactionary cinema.” I mostly agree with this— at least that an insistence on technical and artistic mastery is “reactionary.” He wondered what would happen “if the evolution of film technology (there are already signs in evidence) makes it possible that this technology ceases being the privilege of a small few? What happens if the development of videotape solves the problem of inevitably limited laboratory capacity, if television systems with their potential for ‘projecting’ independently of the central studio renders the ad infinitum construction of movie theaters suddenly superfluous?” And this has happened, right? For years now, anyone with enough drive and dedication could get a film made. But now, with smartphones, we don’t even need drive or dedication. We can make a film just because we’re bored and it’s Saturday. If seven people with smartphones are hanging out, that’s three cameras, two audios, a light and a script. There are even film editing apps. The result may or may not be a masterpiece, but if the makers get inspired, or the narrative is rock-solid-gold, it stands a good chance at being more worthwhile than anything on the marquee at the mall. At the very least, the makers have a great time making a movie and confronting the text through this process.
And where could we find rock-solid-gold narrative? Well, in that bottomless trove of world mythos called “literature,” largely ignored by the general public. No one was going to do Antiope anytime soon, pretty sure. Go to Project Gutenberg, grab something that’s been lost or neglected, and then just call up some friends and say “hey, do you want to make a movie version of Wilhelm Meister?” If you have your own script, great. If not, try the Epic of Gilgamesh. Or a history as Shakespeare did— the Peloponnesian wars, the Children’s Crusade, the biography of Alfred Jarry. No special effects needed. All you have to do is engage in a little of what I call “make-believe mise-en-scène,” the approach taken in Antiope. Instead of actual locations, or theatrical stage-setting, or adapting ancient tales to contemporary settings, I did what every kid does— I found things and places with a rough formal similarity, reimagined them a bit, and then jumped the rest of the gap with fiat. An overpass over a stream became a cave; a retaining wall, the walled city of Thebes; and bedsheets and garbage can lids became togas and shields— voilà! I like this because it transposes classical forms and mythos onto contemporary stuff, just like Granddaddy Joyce did.
The only place where I was thrown for a loop was with my actors and actresses. Originally, I imagined everyone reeling off the lines like bored highschoolers in English class, in a way that would create a kind of Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect. I thought the flatness would especially pair well with the classical tragedy that, even with the relative “everydayness” of Euripides, still required mask-like personae in comparison to modern film-acting. They each told me they couldn’t act; I said “perfect.” After even the first shoot however, I knew I’d need a Plan B. Some of them were being way too modest, especially as they got comfortable, and my original primary tension— between flat-acting and power-lines— fell through. Keep in mind that they hadn’t memorized the lines. Some hadn’t even seen the script and barely knew the plot.
Partly this was my fault. Before shooting, I bought a case of Two-Buck-Chuck and loosened everyone up with wine, in order for them to better let go of themselves. As Michael Moses pointed out to me, this was after all the birth of tragedy: intoxication. It also underscored the pleasures, rather than the rigors, of our production. The emphasis was as much on our experience as that of later audiences. With the red wine, I noticed a kind of productivity curve:
For all the sloppiness though, I was hooked. I want to make more smartphone movies, on the same principles as Antiope. I had chosen Antiope for a couple reasons. One, it’s one of the more complete fragments, with lots of secondary material from its popularity in the ancient world. Two, and more importantly, its general themes— like productive leisure and the refusal of what Hegel called the “way of the world”— fit perfectly both Carrboro and Jeremy Harris, both of which the movie was secretly dedicated to. They embody the way of life and society that Antiope (the play) so highly praises, and that made Antiope (the movie) so possible and fun to make.
You should try it yourself and let me know how it goes.