Monday, January 17, 2022

Big Eden (2000), Thomas Bazucha writer-director, Arye Gross and Eric Schweig

 I rarely write movie reviews. I’ve done 3-4, the last on the delightful road-trip film Harry and Tonto about a man and his cat. But once in a while, I watch something on which I have a fair bit to say, as with the indie Big Eden (2000). So buckle-up, Buttercup.

This film has so much to appreciate even 21 years later. Let me open with what I didn’t: Arye Gross as Harry Hart, the lead. Harry is a successful artist living in NYC who must abruptly return to Montana to care for the ailing grandfather who raised him. My ambivalence to Gross may owe to my dislike of Harry (weird in a movie I otherwise enjoyed). Despite being a good actor (I’ve seen him in other things), Gross just didn’t stand out here, at least not for me.

The actor who does stand out, who steals every scene he’s in, is Eric Schweig as the love-smitten but painfully shy Pike Dexter. He’s matched by Academy Award winner, Louise Fletcher as Grace Cornwell, schoolteacher and family friend, and George Coe, as Harry’s grandfather Sam. O'Neal Compton as Pike’s wingman, Jim Soams, also caught my eye in a tertiary role.

Yet this is Schweig’s movie; he won a grand jury outstanding actor award for a performance that involves more expression and body language than dialogue. Schweig is always worth watching, with an enviable ability to disappear into his characters, but too often, his characters are dictated by his American Indian ethnicity. This one wasn’t, letting him be an actor…not a native actor. And oh, is he an actor. It’s not a flashy role, full of high drama or intense action. It’s quiet. Schweig’s character cooks, or stands hunch-shouldered and tongue-tied, or simply watches what’s happening around him and talks with his face. A tour-de-force.

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Performances aside, what I liked best is also what’s typically remarked on as unrealistic, or at least idealistic: a small Montana town where homophobia isn’t an issue. Even the town’s name, Big Eden, suggests the idyllic. Virtually every review mentions this, more often as a ding than as what makes the film, although a few do praise that aspect.

Yet it’s because of the lack of homophobia that Big Eden has a unique message. It’s not rejection by his family and friends that causes Harry grief, but the fear of rejection. Thomas Bazucha, the writer-director, explains, "I wanted [Harry] to be someone that was completely integrated into every part of this community, pretty much without comment. Because there is this question, which we get at when he and his grandfather are talking about the notion of shame in Henry’s life. If you take away all the outside resistance and hostility from people, would that make it easier? And I don’t think it necessarily always does. Sometimes shame is something we create on our own."

The scene to which he refers is near the end, where Harry’s grandfather asks, “Can’t you see all the love people want to pour on you?” then follows it with the very poignant, “Did we teach you shame?” Harry’s answer is no.

But society did.

A less kind world lurks in the background, ironically symbolized by NYC, where the film opens. (The only scene not in Montana.) It’s an interesting reversal to see big, liberal New York City, where being gay is, if not easy, at least not difficult, act as cold foil to a small Montana cowboy town where one might anticipate more of a Matthew Shepard tale than what Big Eden delivers. “I wanted to go see a gay film where someone fell in love, and no one had to die in the end,” Bazucha says.

Big Eden just rolls over stereotypes and assumptions. I started to write “doesn’t do clichés” except the entire plot is one big cliché. As a romcom dramady, it has all you’d expect from an unlikely love match to romantic misdirection and well-intentioned but bumbling friends to the final sappy, happy ending. Other than a hero and hero, instead of hero and heroine, there’s not much unique about it.

And that’s exactly what’s unique about it. It’s a romcom. It’s not a GAY romcom.

Just like Schweig’s performance is masterful in its quietness, Big Eden makes a statement by not trying to.

(Virtually) everything that happens in the film could’ve happened if it had involved a hero and heroine. Neither role is gay-coded. Harry is, admittedly, an artist living in NYC, but there it ends. He can’t cook, lacks more than normal style-sense, and is not at all flamboyant. Occasionally, a gesture or expression clicks my gaydar, but the characters are fully rounded. Similarly with the tertiary lesbian couple. One works at the local Ace Hardware, but her partner plays piano for the local church (which would be a cliché if a gay man).

That’s what makes the film charming. While full of (intentional) plot cliches, it avoids most characters cliches, or deliberately undercuts them.

The biggest undercutting is that nobody in town seems upset by Harry’s orientation. Some express surprise upon learning, but more in an “Oh,” sort of way. Most take it in stride. He’s even teaching at the local elementary school, which in 2000 would have raised comment for a gay man in many rural communities.

If Montana is a red state, it’s not the Bible Belt. The characters go to church, but don’t seem religious in a negative way. Harry’s grandfather even tells him that God made him beautiful. More Episcopalian than Southern Baptist. Like other parts of the “Wild West,” Montana was historically a refuge for individualists and others who didn’t fit into “proper society.” History does define the character of regions, so while unlikely, I didn’t find it wholly impossible that at least a chunk of the locals in Big Eden might care more that “their own” were happy, than that they’re heterosexual.

That brings me to two important qualifiers. First, neither Harry nor Pike are strangers; they grew up there. Small towns can be more accepting, even protective of homegrown difference. Much depends on who lives there—which brings me to my second point. These characters are nice people who just want their friends to be happy.

Consider the town gossip, Widow Thayer. Initially introduced as a busybody who takes it upon herself to matchmake Harry, as soon as she realizes Harry isn’t into girls, the parade of women becomes a collection of men, even calling in prospects from some distance. This begs the question of how this elderly widow knows all these fit gay guys, but who she seems is not who she is. Unfortunately, an exasperated Harry is unable to appreciate the surprise.

When he first arrives in town, Grace, the local school marm and longtime family friend, arranges to have someone cook for them because Harry can’t cook. She is notably insistent on involving Pike, who owns the local general store. The Widow Thayer will cook; Pike will deliver. One may wonder if she already suspects Pike’s orientation and uses this elaborate scheme to move him into Harry’s path—a better matchmaker than the widow.

All the characters are genuinely kind, including the Romantic False Lead, Harry’s teenaged best friend and longtime crush, Dean Stewart (Tim DeKay). Conveniently, the newly divorced Dean has moved back to Big Eden only a week before Harry returns. Harry is initially reluctant to see Dean, but when they do run into each other at church, Dean is overjoyed to reunite with his old friend. Later, Harry chides him for not having been in contact for eighteen years. Dean replies, “You know, it’s not like you kept in touch”—which a surprised Harry must own. A nice turn of the tables, showing how Harry tends to blame others when he’s just as guilty.

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In fact, the least likable character in Big Eden is Harry himself: romantic hero as antihero.

The film began with his decision to leave NYC, despite his art show opening the next day. He must care for his grandfather, who’s suffered an unexpected stroke. Properly heroic! Yet his grandfather isn’t at death’s door, and he could wait 24 hours. So, when he claims he “doesn’t have a choice,” his friend and manager replies, “You are choosing. You’re choosing to bail. As usual.” What might have been heroic is thus subverted into the selfish.

The film’s biggest failing, imo, is an imperfect resolution for Harry’s callous self-absorption.

In the same interview quoted above, Bazucha is asked if, in retrospect, he’d change anything. He says the length of the kiss at the end. He wanted it to be uncomfortably long and in-your-face because the rest of the film wasn’t, but thought he overdid it.

A bigger “overdoing it” may be in how long it takes Harry to come around—but never showing his actual epiphany. Pike gets one. Harry doesn’t. Several scenes would seem to set up Harry’s, but he remains obtuse. It makes him increasingly unlikable as the film progresses. Harry is so self-involved, it’s almost painful.

The first time Pike arrives with dinner, Harry is too busy on the phone to do more than open the door. It’s his grandfather Sam who has a conversation with Pike. After hanging up, Harry does implore Pike to stay, but it has the stink of obligation. After Pike leaves, Harry’s semi-frustrated, “Kinda a quiet guy” (the tone belays the words) is met by a tolerant shrug from Sam.

Pike’s continued refusal to stay for dinner only irritates Harry; on one occasion, he puts away the extra plate with a roll of eyes. His impatience is most obvious when, after Pike’s delivery of the first meal he made himself, Pike tries to flee after saying he’s afraid. Sam grips his wrist to promise, “Next time, Mr. Dexter.” In sharp contrast, as the door closes, Harry calls, “Thank you,” followed by a snarky, “Good night,” to which Sam just gives him a look.

In contrast to his grandson, Sam takes time to lure Pike in, convincing him to stay when Harry is out with Dean. We suspect Sam uses his aloneness to elicit Pike’s sympathy and overcome his shyness. After that, Pike often eats with Sam when Harry isn’t there.

Harry’s insecurity makes him selfish, which in turn makes him cruel—usually unintentionally, but sometimes in petty ways. More often, Gross plays Harry with a kicked-puppy expression. We may suspect Harry’s attractiveness to Pike lies in a desire to rescue him, as suggested by Pike’s comment that he “just wants things to be nice” for Harry. Unfortunately, Harry has become comfortable in his misery and has a habit of missing what’s right in front of his nose.

This may be most clearly demonstrated by the fact he never cottons on (except perhaps at the very end?) to the fact PIKE has taken over cooking for him and his grandfather—although virtually everyone else figures it out, even the widow Thayer herself. Among the more delightful aspects of the film is how Pike’s friends assist him in his culinary courtship.

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Harry, however, never pursues where these gourmet meals are coming from, despite the sharp change in food quality, or when he and Sam compliment the widow’s cooking only to have her name foods they didn’t eat. No matter how many times people question who’s making the meals, Harry ignores all inconsistencies. It might be implausible, except we see over and over in other ways that he lacks basic curiosity about other people. At one point, while pouring out his heart to his manager-friend back in NYC (who warns him things with Dean will end badly), she snaps, “The baby is fine, thanks for asking,” just before he hangs up…because he never asked. This lack of other-curiosity leads to his lack of compassion. It might be tempting to chalk up his behavior to big-city versus rural manners, but it’s much deeper.

Again, we find a contrast in Pike, who discovers, relatively quickly, that two of Harry’s paintings were purchased by a museum. Upon his wingman Jim revealing that knowledge to Harry, Schweig-as-Pike sweetly tries to hide behind a piece of paper Harry just gave him. Pike’s affection is shown by finding out about Harry. In contrast, we get a litany of things Harry doesn’t know about Dean, and if this might be chalked up to trying to get over him, when Harry says, “I didn’t know you had kids!” it sounds more accusing than surprised. One musical montage set to a country love song shows Pike learning to cook for Harry, contrasted with Harry and Dean constructing a wheelchair ramp. Pike is doing something for Harry, and Dean is doing something for Harry. Harry does nothing much for either one.

If both Harry and Pike suffer from insecurity that can make them abrupt, I find this contrast between them pivotal. In response to his friends pestering him about his feelings for Harry, Pike says, “I just want things to be nice for him.” To which his friends reply, “We want things to be nice for you too, buddy.” Harry is never that selfless. The sensitive artist isn’t very sensitive.

As much as I like the film, the ending is flawed because we never see Harry learn anything. At the end, he returns to the general store to be with Pike. But…why? He may not have “bailed” again, but we aren’t shown why he changed his mind. We can guess but shouldn’t be made to. This movie needed 3-5 more minutes and a come-to-Jesus moment for Harry.

In any case, earlier, Dean works out how Harry feels about him, and has been making an effort to be what Harry wants because he cares so deeply about him. Following a second hospital trip for Sam, Dean tries kissing Harry, but must admit, “I can’t, I just can’t.” Harry seems understanding at the time. Is he learning? We can hope.

Not long after, on a night when Harry’s father goes to bed early, Harry finally convinces Pike to stay for dinner. Or rather, come back for dinner. We see Pike rush home to feed his dog, then dress up in a love-red button-down. It’s darling. It’s also the first time Harry makes a real effort to see Pike. The next day, he shows up at the general store (supposedly) looking for mail, and to invite Pike to Thanksgiving dinner. Is Harry having an epiphany?

Maybe. But we discover he’s there with Dean and Dean’s kids, on their way somewhere else. Pike’s hopes are dashed, even as his friends argue that Harry’s drop-in meant more. (This prefaces the “I just want things to be nice for him” statement.) Pike does attend Thanksgiving, and there’s some veeery interesting table glances between Harry and Pike—noticed by others, including Dean—which may suggest Harry’s affections are shifting. Or maybe Harry’s just trying to make Dean jealous (subconsciously, if not deliberately).

After the meal, Dean confronts Harry in the pantry to say he wants to try again. In response, he gets an earful as an angry Harry accuses him of leading him on, concluding, “Can’t you pick on someone else?”

Dean replies that he needs to remain close to Harry: “You act like this is so easy for you, just cutting me out.” Harry replies that he’s waited twenty years, and spent the last six months in Big Eden, hoping something would materialize between them. He calls it wasting his time.

Dean lays into him for selfishness, bringing home what’s already been established: “It’s all about you, isn’t it? Man, I would do anything in the world for you, anything I could”—which is the problem. He can’t make himself feel what he doesn’t. That isn’t enough for Harry, and to his complaint that he’s loved Dean for years, Dean says, “You may be in love, but it’s not with me.” Dean’s right. Harry’s in love with the idea of Dean, which stops him from seeing what he has. “I do know what love is,” Dean says. “You’re my family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that’s not good enough for you.”

Ouch. But also touché.

Pike, of course, is right there as Dean explodes out of the pantry, then storms out of the house. Pike leaves shortly after as well. Harry’s reaction, instead of introspection, is just thwarted anger.

Harry’s disillusionment is understandable, having been hung up on Dean for decades. Yet Dean’s accusations are spot on, and I felt more for Dean than Harry (as Bazucha intended?). Dean is sorrowing for hurting Harry; Harry just feels sorry for himself. Later that same evening, his grandfather presses Harry on his “intentions,” pointing out that people have come to rely on him. It annoys Harry but leads to his grandfather affirming his love for him, asking him whether they (his grandparents) taught him shame. He says they didn’t. This conversation, more than any other, makes it clear Harry can’t blame his insecurities on rejection. He was never rejected. Yet affirmation is a different thing from a lack of hostility, and Harry dissolves into tears, head on his grandfather’s shoulder.

This should be the climax: the breaking and mending of Harry.

Instead, he remains entrenched in his self-pity, deciding to return to NYC—“bailing” as his manager-friend accused him at the film’s outset.

He comes to the general store to give Pike the painting that was pivotal in his coming to see Pike with new eyes, even says he wishes they’d got to know each other better. But it’s not an overture to increased intimacy, it’s a going-away present. Harry tries to deny it, but Pike is having none of that and tells Harry he has work to do (Harry should leave). To complicate matters, while Pike and Harry talk in back, Dean walks into the store, looking for Harry. His state suggests he wants to make up. He’s told to go around the side, where, through a window, he witnesses the picture gifting, but of course can’t hear the larger context. Feeling jilted, he flees to his truck. While sitting there, crying, the (female) mayor happens by, and comes to comfort him.

So Harry has hurt two people in one fell swoop: Dean and Pike. If he didn’t know Dean would be there, his behavior with Pike is just mean-spirited. That’s what makes Harry so frustrating and why it’s hard to be sympathetic to him. His conversation with Grace after shows he still hasn’t learned anything. “I was just hoping you’d let yourself be found this time,” she says. He walks away from her. On the way home, he stops at Dean’s, presumably to tell him goodbye, but walks away there too without knocking.

Bailing.

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The unexpected death of Sam delays Harry’s plans. It’s Pike who finds the body, presumably when bringing dinner. He waits to be there for Harry, yet can’t bring himself to attend the funeral later, which makes Harry mad…although we see that Harry himself sat in the vestibule. When Pike’s wingman Jim tries to explain that big public events aren’t easy for Pike, Harry just retorts, “It isn’t easy for me!” Jim replies, “Just try to understand him.” Yet Harry can’t because it’s all about Harry. (At this point, the viewer may seriously wonder what Pike sees in this guy?)

Harry does try to visit Pike one last time, bringing him the carved replica of his general store that Sam had made. Yet it seems more to assuage Harry’s guilt, and is too little too late. Pike doesn’t answer. Henry leaves the wooden model, still planning to return to NYC.

The film’s conclusion follows too quickly. As noted before, Pike has a revelation and decides to go after Henry in a final, classic rush-to-the-airport trope where he plans (finally) to declare his feelings…but the plane is taxing down the runway. Defeated, he returns home, only to see the Hart’s truck parked at his store. Entering, he finds his friends there, along with Harry, who didn’t leave after all.

In these last few scenes, Pike has become the protagonist, his journey the important one. Harry has slid to the side. This shift screws up the resolution. Yes, it’s a happy ending, but has Harry actually learnt anything? And if so, how? Earlier, on the way to the car to leave for the airport, Harry ran into the Widow Thayer, who gave him back Pike’s plate, saying, “I’m sorry. This plate doesn’t belong to me.” Harry’s face wears a puzzled expression.

Did he finally figure it out?

We’re left to assume he does. Unfortunately, there’s no actual epiphany scene for Harry. If we don’t need to be beaten over the head, what we get is just not enough. Harry has been SO selfish and blind for 99% of the film, why does he suddenly get it in a 1-2 second camera pan? I find his sudden reversal more unbelievable than a non-homophobic rural town in Montana. Pike’s epiphany is much clearer, and Schweig does it with virtually no dialogue (once more showing what a superb actor he is).

The last scene, at a party some weeks (or months) later, we find the once-too-shy-to-attend-parties Pike there with Harry. While dancing, they share a loooong, passionate (fully open-mouthed) kiss, putting a seal on their relationship. A small note that while Bazucha is gay, neither of the lead actors is. In 2022, with representation more important, that might raise eyebrows. But in 2000, that both actors put pedal to the metal might be a fair twist on the many times closeted gay actors had to feign passion for the opposite sex in movies. Reputedly Schweig gave a pep talk to his costar beforehand, that they had to get this right. Props to him.

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So, the plot is predictable but holey, and the lead character isn’t the one for whom we cheer. At best, we put up with him.

What renders this film outstanding is the blasé approach to gay romance, and general lack of character stereotypes—and not just gay ones

Bazucha said that even before casting Schweig, he saw the character of Pike as Native American. Yet there’s nothing about the role that demands it. Nor do we find anything specifically native in the shop or his personal quarters in back. At Thanksgiving dinner, when the mayor leans over to admit, “I always wanted to ask…,” we half-expect a question about Indians and Thanksgiving. Instead, she wants to know what Pike’s posse do all day outside Pike’s store. “Nothing,” he replies, making everyone grin. It’s a good example of how Bazucha playfully undermines our expectations. At no point do the characters refer to Pike’s ethnicity. Only Harry’s NYC manager-friend who's flown out to attend the funeral calls him Indian—3/4s of the way through the film.

In just one place does Pike speak as a native person, when he relates the Onondaga tale of the Pleiades. Schweig brings to it the characteristic quiet rhythm of native storytelling.

I was as delighted to see an Indian in a non-Indian-specific role, as I was to see a romcom that has two male leads (as opposed to a gay romcom). Pow-wow Highway and Smoke Signals in the US and Dance Me Outside in Canada were among the first films to show current Indian life, as opposed to historical recreations. They’re about modern rez experience. Others followed where native people wrote, directed, and acted in the productions, most recently HULU’s critically acclaimed Reservation Dogs (all-native production) and NBC Peacock’s Rutherford Falls (with a strong native presence among creators and actors). These are authentic renderings of native experience. Yet being Indian is also crucial to the storylines.

It’s mind-blowing to see a native actor playing a character who happens to be native but doesn’t have to be. Schweig himself has expressed this in an interview:

MP: So, most of what you've been offered, not just yourself, but with a lot of Indian people, .... it's always "the Indian" role of a hundred or so years ago? Not just a regular 20th century guy?

ES: Yeah, THE INDIAN. I'm not an Indian actor. I'm an actor who just happens to be an Indian.

MP: Cast as the Indian all the time, but you'd prefer to be offered a role because you're a good actor?

ES: Yeah.

Even if Hollywood is still unfriendly to people of color, the POC in a non-POC-specific role is a ceiling that has been shattered for most minorities in the US—but not for Indian people.

Ergo what Big Eden did by front-ending the romcom aspect rather than the gay aspect, it also did by front-ending the character aspect instead of the Indian aspect. That’s what makes this little indie film particularly special.

It gives a glimpse of what unconscious inclusivity might look like.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Having “no regrets” is not a good thing

 The Hollywood Reporter recently posted an article titled “Jennifer Aniston Has No Regrets.” I’ve seen, now and then, similar slogans expressed by this or that celebrity/other.

On the one hand, I recognize this may represent a coming-to-terms with our past, a way to convey forgiveness to ourselves. Yet I fear it accidentally points to a dangerous inability to understand maturity, or to acknowledge growth—of which failure is a part. It has certain similarities to those politicians (or other leaders) who can never admit to changing their minds for fear it might be branded as “flip-flopping.”

What both share is rigidity.

To my mind, as we age, we either ossify, like bone, or learn to bend like a willow.

Having no regrets, like never changing one’s mind, suggests an inability to learn from our own past. To grow, and change.

Biologically, at 57, most of the cells in my body are not the same ones I had at 20, or 30, or even 40, although my neurons are another matter, so perhaps my analogy is wonky. Yet I like to think that I’ve become a different person across those years. Less sure of myself and so more tolerant, less impetuous and so more judicious, less ambitious but more determined.

One doesn’t get to those places without regrets. Without mistakes. Without being a least a little broken.

A wise person is able to change their mind when presented with new evidence, or new experience.

A kind person is able to acknowledge regrets and learn from them in such a way they can offer grace to others who also fail, or at least don’t achieve what they once dreamed of.

Regrets aren’t a sign of weakness. From Ernst Hemmingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

Have regrets. Just don’t become mired in them. I think that’s a better way to say it.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

In Memoriam: Eugene N. Borza, 1935-2021

When I first arrived at Penn State University to visit in the spring of 1992, thinking about going there to study with Gene (Eugene N.) Borza, he was off in Greece with students. I’d spoken with him on the phone but not met him in person. I made sure to find his office. Several comics had been taped to the door. One can tell a lot about a professor by what they put on their door. I decided I liked him.

Penn State wasn’t the only uni I’d applied to, but it was the one offering funding, which is how I landed in Macedonian and Greek studies, not Early Church history. It was also the one I’d really wanted to attend, with the professor I really wanted to work with. I picked Gene not by default, but quite intentionally after reading articles by various authors writing on ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great. I liked how he wrote, and how he treated other scholars in footnotes, even when he disagreed with them. Plus, I was interested in the country that produced Alexander as much as in Alexander himself.

Gene looking Aristotle-y
Once I and my then-husband arrived in State College, PA in July of 1992, and were semi-settled, I finally met Gene in person, in his office in Oswald Tower (then home to the history department although it moved not long after I arrived). The comics-covered door was open this time and the man himself was waiting for me in a nice leather chair. I settled down in a comfy seat across the desk from him and thought:

“Oh, my God, I’ve come to Penn State to study Alexander the Great with Aristotle.”

The resemblance was a little uncanny, and also, I suspect, a little cultivated. Years later, I would dedicate the first half of Dancing with the Lion, which most featured Aristotle, to Gene. (Gene at left, looking Aristotle-y.)

I spent six years studying with him, gamely attending classes he liked to hold at the crack of dawn because he was very much a morning person, and I very much was not. But we could both agree on a love for cats. I defended my dissertation in September of 1998 (which Beth Carney also attended as my external committee member). I’d remain in town another two years until finally getting a tenure-track job at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Even then, TT jobs were thin on the ground.

Gene was a consummate story-teller, which is why I opened this memorial in the way I did: with the story of meeting him. To this day, bits and pieces of Gene’s stories from lectures still appear in my own lectures on Greece or Macedonia. And the graduate seminar I teach on Argead Macedonia is nicknamed my “I’m going to teach you to love Philip II” class because Ol’ Phil was Gene’s favorite, more than his son Alexander. And Gene’s book, In the Shadow of Olympus, is one of the main textbooks.

Gene also had a mischievous side. When I arrived at Penn State, I’d never heard most of those Greek names said aloud, so I looked them up in Greek, then pronounced them according to the ancient Greek accents. Ergo de-mos-THE-nes instead of de-MOS-the-nes. Gene would just laugh when I’d come out with these and tease me, “Who, who?” with a hand to his ear.

Similarly, not long after I arrived in State College, Gene took me on a short tour of the Penn State campus. As we walked, I noticed an interesting fallen leaf of a type I didn’t recognize. I picked it up and asked him, “What sort of tree did this come from?” He just stared for a minute, probably gobsmacked. “That’s an oak leaf. As in Zeus?” I looked at it and said, “No, it’s not. I had a yard full of oaks growing up.” Laughing, he replied, “That’s a real oak.” Of course, the oaks I’d grown up with in Florida were water and scrub oak, whose leaves are small and have smooth edges. The leaf I’d picked up had come from a big White Oak. From then on, oak leaves became a running joke. I even brought a couple back from the (Valonian) oak tree growing in the palace ruins on the Aegae acropolis at Vergina. But that was his sense of humor, a little sly. He also offered, or perhaps threatened, to make a little sign for me to put in the back window of my car that first winter that said: BEWARE, FLORIDA DRIVER.

Not all PhD students are or remain close to their academic parent (the supervisor of one’s dissertation). Yet I’d been Gene’s last PhD student (at least as supervisor), and had specifically specialized in his field of expertise. He’d treated me like an extra daughter, and I continued to correspond with him, and his wife Kathleen after. He came out to Omaha to give a lecture for me in 2002 (Gene at right sitting behind my desk at UNO), and I (with Tim Howe) organized a festschrift in his honor, published in 2008 (Macedonian Legacies). The last time I saw Gene was for Thanksgiving in 2018 (image below), to bring him a signed copy of the dedicatory page to Dancing with the Lion: Becoming. I went home with several boxes of books. He was trying to thin his library. UNO also has copies of offprints he gave us, his and several other scholars, in the days before PDFs—many of them signed by the authors. They’re the Eugene N. Borza Offprint Library for the Ancient Mediterranean Studies Program here.

Gene taught me more than just about Macedonia. He knew about wine, and jazz, had played trumpet himself. He told lots of stories about his encounters with other historians, which helped his students feel they were part of a larger academic family. He also dragged me/us to a fair number of conferences: annual meetings of the Association of Ancient Historians, and the (then) American Philological Association (now SCA) and Archaeological Institute of America. At none of these could Gene walk down a hall without stopping to talk to at least four people. He seemed to know everybody, not just fellow Macedoniasts, and earned his title as dean of U.S. scholars on ancient Macedonia.

When I first started reading on Macedonia, I noticed certain recurring names, frequently cited. Those same authors sometimes had little debates in the footnotes with each other. Before I knew Gene, or even really considered a PhD in Macedonia, I started to think of three of them as “The Three Bs”: Badian, Borza, and Bosworth. It turned out they all knew each other rather well, and got on, even when they argued theories. Among the things Gene taught me was how to disagree and stay friendly. That was the nature of good scholarship. I have colleagues now who I love dearly, but disagree with, sometimes sharply. It’s not at all personal. I still enjoy getting a beer or glass of wine with them. I want to know how they are. That’s the Gene Borza Effect.

Anyway, all Three of the Bs have now walked on. Ernst Badian in 2011, Brian Bosworth in 2014, and now Gene in 2021. I’d like to think they’re hanging around somewhere—maybe having tracked down Philip of Macedon to join them—for a glass of good red wine (or perhaps proper ambrosia). Then they’re going to argue over who got what right—probably joined by Nick Hammond and Manolis Andronikos.

Tonight, I’ll tip my glass of Boutari Naoussa to Gene. The glass it’s in was a house-warming gift when he visited Omaha in 2002, only to discover I had no proper set of red wine glasses. That just wouldn’t do! He couldn’t leave the new assistant professor of Greek history in Omaha without proper red wine glasses. So off we went to find glasses. The gold replica of the larynx from Royal Tomb II was a gift from Kathleen a couple years ago, and the Alexander drachma is one of the last Gene had collected, back when Greece still had drachmas, and sent to me when Dancing with the Lion was published. All my love to Kathleen and Gene’s kids, Michael and Karen, as they work through healing from a tremendous loss.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

What Genre IS Dancing with the Lion?

(N.B.: This post should not make anyone feel guilty for mislabeling the novels; I’m posting it because there seems to be some confusion.)

One of the most important parts of selling a book is getting it into the right hands: that is, to the readers most likely to enjoy it. And that involves labeling it correctly.

If you picked up Dancing with the Lion because you’re a fan of Alexander the Great or ancient Greece, the book’s genre probably matters little. I’ve read novels about Alexander in everything from lit mainstream to SFF to mystery to old-school Romance.

Yet such readers are a fraction of potential readership. For those with no particular inclination to a book about Alexander the Great, naming the genre matters. Will it meet reader expectations and appeal, or frustrate and annoy? That’s why authors worry about genre labels.

So, to answer the question:

Dancing with the Lion is a mainstream historical coming-of-age novel with touches of magical realism and queer themes.

Below, I’ll explain in brief why it’s some labels and not others. But I want to stress that getting a book correctly labeled is NOT a diss at genres it isn’t. Again, it’s about getting it into the right hands so readers like it instead of hate it.

Novel: At root, two basic story types exist—those that focus on plot (romance, small /r/ = adventure story) and those that focus on characters (novel). I write both, incidentally; my current WIP is an historical fantasy adventure series. But DwtL is a novel. Characterization IS the plot, rather than characters moving the plot along.

Mainstream: Just means the book doesn’t fit into the plot conventions of commercial genre fiction. Saying something is “mainstream” therefore says mostly what it is not: not mystery, not horror, not Romance, not fantasy, etc. Some folks will subdivide it further into “literary” mainstream versus commercial mainstream with the distinction that the latter sells better and/or the former is more artsy.

Historical: A subcategory of several genres, including mainstream. Readers of historicals tolerate more historical detail and unusual names, although genre historicals can alter that. Too much historical detail in an historical Romance that slows down the love story can get an author in trouble. Mainstream historicals may include glossaries, character stemma, timelines of historical events, or other reader guides. Afficionados of historical novels are reading for that detail, not in spite of it.

Coming-of-Age: as the name suggests, this very old story archetype is all about the characters growing up. In DwtL, three characters have coming-of-age arcs: Alexandros, Hephaistion, and Kleopatra.

Magical Realism: Unlike genre fantasy, magical realism combines realistic/non-magical elements with supernatural ones. They also take place in this world, not a different fantasy world in which magic works. Yet the line between historical fantasy and historical magical realism can be fine because, in the past, people did assume magic worked, and the better authors of historical fantasy employ magical systems appropriate to that place and time. The biggest difference is that magical realism is subtler, and the supernatural elements may not be perceived by all, or even most characters. (So while Alexandros sees Dionysos, no one else does.)

Queer Themes: This is more than just Alexandros and Hephaistion as lovers. Especially in Rise, one sub-plot for Hephaistion’s coming-of-age is his own growing awareness that the way he experiences desire does not conform to the expectations of his society. He is what we, in the modern world, would call gay. I wanted to explore how it might feel for someone to be gay in a world that doesn’t have that label, and which might, on the face of it, seem more accepting…but really isn’t.

Now, for the genres it’s not, and why:

Not Romance: Capital /R/, Romance the genre has fairly locked-in plot arc expectations. The Hero and Hero (if it’s m/m) meet, go through trials and tribulations, then finally hook up in some sort of permanent way to live happily-ever-after (HEA) or at least happily-for-now (HFN). The focus of the novel must remain firmly on the Hero and Hero and their relationship. Other relationships and events should serve to frame the main one, never distract from it.

DwtL: Becoming simulates some of those things. The book does begin when the boys meet, and they go through a friends-to-more plot arc, but there’s too much Other Stuff, and in Rise, the story just keeps going even after they get together. Furthermore, Rise is not a Romance plot arc, even loosely. It’s all about Alexandros and Hephaistion entering the adult world of politics and war, and the larger theme (of the whole series, not just these books) asks what it means to be a moral/ethical sovereign?

Not YA (Young Adult): Although YA novels should have an adolescent protagonist and will often be a coming-of-age story, not all novels with an adolescent protagonist or coming-of-age story are YA. So what’s the difference? The themes and the language employed.

The plot of YA should focus on things important to that age group (13-18), not necessarily what could equally matter to someone in their 50s. That doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy YA stories; about 55% of YA books are purchased by adults. Another aspect of YA is the vocabulary used and complexity of ideas. Sometimes adult coming-of-age stories are called more “sophisticated,” which isn’t a term I like. Intricate might be better, in characterization and theme.

Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye are all coming-of-age novels, and some are even assigned in high school English classes. But they aren’t commercial YA in language or theme. In contrast to, say, Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time, Jane Yolen’s Pit Dragon trilogy, or Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Yet I don’t think anyone would call those latter three “unsophisticated.”

In short, a teen protagonist and/or coming-of-age story does not qualify a book as YA.

Finally, most YA treats sex gingerly as they must be appropriate for readers as young as 13, 14, 15. They may have some romance or none at all, and they may have elided sexual situations light on description. It shouldn’t be shocking, but age-appropriate to adolescent curiosity about sex. (By contrast, the category of New Adult [18-25 readership] may have quite a lot of graphic sex in it, although in other ways NA resembles YA.)

When I wrote Dancing with the Lion, despite the age of the main protagonists, I made no attempt to moderate the language. There are also POV scenes from adults, and three of the chief thematic concerns—what does it mean to be a moral king [Alex], how does one support the powerful without losing one's self in the process [Hephaistion], or how to exercise personal agency when one has none legally [Kleopatra]—are themes that can apply to any age group. Last, the sex scenes have no stop on them. If two are over fairly quickly with general/poetic description, the third is graphic because it needs to be as what they are doing matters very much to Hephaistion’s character arc. There is also reference to the rape of women and children in war; only the aftermath is shown, but still. While I realize emotional maturity can vary wildly, I wouldn’t recommend the second novel for readers under 15/16. (I told my niece not to let my great-niece read it yet.)

That’s why I’m concerned about Dancing with the Lion being labeled YA. An unsuspecting parent might buy it for their early teen child, only for that child to get a textual eyeful in book 2!

Also, readers who pick it up thinking it’s ___, get angry when it’s not. E.g., in an otherwise fairly positive review, at least one reader wrote: “Because the western spellings/pronunciation are so ingrained using the stranger sounding Greek slows the pace even further and seems to over complicate things merely for the sake of it. This is clearly aimed at a YA audience and so I find the choice doubly baffling - Because you want to encourage teens reading not put them off by making this harder than it needs to be.”

But it’s not YA, was never meant to be YA, nor marketed or labeled as YA on the cover. Apparently, some folks on Goodreads labeled it that in their tags, so now “Young Adult” shows up as one of its genres…and I can’t get rid of it because I don’t set those tags (nor does my publisher).

In the above case, the reader mostly enjoyed it, but her perceptions affected how she reviewed it. Authors can’t always control those perceptions and expectations, but as we really do want readers to like the book (not feel deceived), we endeavor to use the right labels on them.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Philia Reigns Supreme

David Konstan’s In the Orbit of Love lays out how ancient Greek concepts of philia (friendship) differ from modern ... and why using modern cultural cues to read ancient friendships is, at best, unwise, at worse, arrogant and ethnocentric.

This is why I’m not that fussed by the idea that maybe Alexander and Hephaistion were friends-without-benefits. Notice I didn’t say “just” friends because “just friends” is SUCH a modern idea. English-speaking countries seem to have special difficulty with super-close friendships to the point we make up words for it: bromance, girl-crush, BFF.

Why isn’t “They love each other” good enough?

(You know the reason: because we tend to elide love and sex, except when applied to family members.)

Ancient Greeks didn’t do that. They were rich in terms that we translate “love.” As I’ve insisted before, Philia existed at a much higher level than eros. In a society like ancient Greece where most of one’s time was spent with people of the same gender, it’s no great surprise if that’s where one’s affective (and also erotic) ties lay too.

The best-selling genre of fiction in English-speaking countries is Romance. It is, quite literally, the bread-and-butter of the publishing industry. Even in genres outside Romance, novels that have a love story somewhere often sell better than those without them. Super-close friendships don’t count, and if a novel (or TV show) has one, a chunk of viewers want to make it sexual.

Why is it so hard to wrap our heads around the idea that people can really, really, like REALLY love each other, but not want to have sex with each other?

But this attitude promotes Queer Erasure from history!

No, it doesn’t. I’m all for outing ancient figures where appropriate. Yet the difference in open affection between ancient Greeks and modern Americans (or those of other, more restrained cultures/countries) results in a tendency to misread normal affection as “extreme.” We can go into how homophobia has deprived especially men of emotionally significant non-sexual relationships…but that’s a post for another day. I simply want to underscore that I’m well aware of the impact of homophobia on Queer Erasure.

The answer to that is not to sexualize every close tie that’s not family. Yes, I tend to assume Alexander and Hephaistion were lovers in their youth, and have reasons for doing so, which I’ve argued elsewhere. But at the moment, I want to do a little pushback at the auto-assumption that anyone who thinks they weren’t is homophobic. Er, no.

Konstan’s book details how the concept of philia underlies so much of Greek/Athenian social life. He discusses Rome, for complement and contrast. My chief complaint is, as usual, the Greek part is extremely Athenocentric. He opens by talking about Greece generally, but quickly narrows down to Athens. It’s also strongly focused on philosophic thought. While I think there were some differences in other places (especially the north: Macedon, Epiros, and Thessaly), the basic principles hold true, I believe.

Their society had different emotive constructs that placed friendship much more at the center than we allow today. It might be easier if we described Hephaistion as Alexander’s brother, but Aristotle really did say it best: “One soul in two bodies.” (Diog. Laert. 5.1.20)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Could you write a short "ancient Greek sexuality for dummies," please?

 Caveat the First: while this may look long, it IS the short version. It’s not a book; it’s not even an article. There are no citations.

Caveat the Second: it’s colloquial and even irreverent, and includes quite a few NSFW images from ancient pottery. The Greeks were far from prudes.

Caveat the Third: every modern reader—put away current terminology and assumptions about human sexual behavior. It’s natural to try to understand new things by fitting them into frameworks we already have. But that can get in the way of allowing us to grasp how, and how much, human conceptualizations have changed.

So, first, the TL;DR version: The Greeks looked at what was done and the status (not gender) of the one doing it. Everything else is the flavor of your dipping sauce.

***

Now, here’s the longer skinny with proper nuance:

Sex was what you did: a verb, aphrodisiazō. That meant “have sex,” or, bluntly, “fuck.” And yes, same root as Aphrodite’s name. They also had “politisms” such as sunousía, but that noun just means “intercourse” and is used for verbal conversation too.

Nobody described or categorized themselves by their choice of sex partners, which was assumed to vary.

Ergo, it all came down to WHAT you did, not who you did, that determined acceptability. This is why you’ll see me use the term “homoeroticism” and “heteroeroticism” rather than “homosexual,” “bisexual,” or “heterosexual.”

For ancient Greeks, the role taken was crucial: active or passive. And that linked directly to one’s social position. In general, Greek thinking tended to the dichotomatic. Even the language shows it in the so-common-we-only-rarely-translate-it pair of words “men…de.” Literally, “On the one hand this…on the other hand that.” It’s all over the damn place in ancient Greek. Language shapes how we think about ourselves and our world, and the Greeks thought in “men…de.”

Also, those dichotomies are hierarchical: immortal-mortal, man-woman, citizen-non-citizen, adult-child, free-slave, etc. Your relative status determined your role in the sexual encounter: active/penetrating/on-top, or passive/penetrated/on-bottom.

Sexual relationships are not equal. And you didn’t switch positions as the mood struck.

It’s hard to get across just how super-steroid-competitive Greek society was. I think that’s why they developed democracy, even if that seems counterintuitive. Democracy was Athens’s wild-card attempt to deal with the problem of stasis (clan and class conflict) that was shredding Greek civic life by the end of the archaic era. It spread out from there, although more Greek city-states weren’t democratic than were (yes, really).

In a lot of sexual transactions (using that term intentionally) relative status was automatic, and thus, easy to figure out. So sex between a freeborn man and freeborn woman, or a freeborn man and a slave of either gender would put the man on top or in the active role: the penetrator. If the woman was on top, it was transgressive.

NOTE: Just because it’s transgressive doesn’t mean they didn’t engage in it. In fact, given the prices we find on the walls of excavated ancient brothels, positions that put the woman “on top” were more expensive. This appears to be male-penetrating-female sex, not pegging. The Greeks certainly had dildoes. We find pictures of them on pottery and have found them archaeologically too; we’ve even found double dildoes. Sex toys were a thing. (See comical image below of a respectably dressed matron gardening her dildo patch.) But there’s not much evidence for strap-ons. If a woman used a dildo on a man, that would be doubly transgressive.

Anyway, it’s “safe” to be transgressive with someone who, as soon as you walk out the door, is unquestionably below you in the social order: such as a slave prostitute. Maybe one could try it with one’s freeborn citizen wife but she might blab at the water fountain with her women friends (because women could never keep their mouths shut). And those women might then tell their husbands—your friends, or worse, your enemies—which would make you a laughing stock and lose face. Ergo, save your kink for the sex workers.

That brings me to THE most important thing to remember: Status/honor (timē) is EVERYTHING. This is a shame society, not a guilt society. Guilt was certainly felt, but usually as a result of letting someone down; it was personal and mostly semi-private. Shame was public. It could (and did) lead to suicide in extreme cases.

These concepts aren’t unfamiliar; human feelings are consistent across time. What tends to change is what evokes those feelings.

So if you get their basic status constructions, you can figure out how the Greeks would view any given sexual relationship. As noted, many would have been straightforward. Things got muddier, however, if both partners occupied one of those larger social categories—both were freeborn men, or both freeborn women, or both slaves.

Now, I just gave all three chief possibilities, but the Greeks themselves only worried about the first. Greek misogyny means Greek men didn’t care, and therefore didn’t talk much about what the women were doing sexually unless it might lead to family shame. And slaves? Phfft. They’re slaves.

So (cue Rod Sterling Voice) “You are now entering…The Male Gaze Zone.”

We also have an evidence problem: most of what we know is Athenian, both in art and in text. Those of us who look outside Athens have fewer sources.

Yet while some parameters can fluctuate, such as how much age difference is required, where these relationships are fomented, or when same-sex affairs should respectably end, what seems constant is a need to maintain a hierarchy.

Again, these are not equal relationships. One partner is the social superior, the other, the social inferior. The elder partner was assumed to play a pedagogical role, hence the use sometimes of “paedophilia” [note spelling!] for the Greek practice, with an emphasis on paideia as teaching, not “little kids.” Many modern scholars have dropped the term, just as we avoid “gay,” because it feeds modern assumptions.

That’s NOT to say ancient relationships were never pedophilic. By their use of age to establish hierarchy, they created a veritable breeding ground for potential abuse.* I don’t want to sugar-coat or romanticize what the Greeks were doing, but do want to explain why Greek freeborn male/male pairings are better compared to dating in 1950s America.

In democratic city-states such as Athens, age became the primary way to mark relative status when all citizens were theoretically equal (but of course weren’t). Even non-democratic city-states such as Thebes and Sparta, or monarchic Macedon, used age as a factor. A youth’s Older Friend was expected to introduce him to “all the right people” and take him to “all the right parties.” Non-democratic cities such as Thebes, Sparta, and those on Crete had other unique-to-them customs I won’t go into. (See my long-ago article, “An Atypical Affair.”)

The terms they employed were erastes (lover) and eromenos (beloved): pursuer/pursued. In Sparta, it was “Inspirer” and “Hearer,” underscoring even more the teaching aspect. I should add that in addition to age, breeding mattered. For one thing, male-male courtships were perceived as largely an upper-class conceit. They had time (and money) for it. Farmers’ sons were busy with backbreaking labor out in the fields, and potters’ boys were minding the house shop.

So in a society hyper-fixated on maintaining the agency and honor of freeborn citizen men, how did they keep these relationships from looking too much like sexual transactions with women or slaves?

By requiring courting from the erastes, and giving the boy (eromenos) the right to say “No.”

Thus, I compare it to dating in 1950s America, or really any time after girls were allowed out without a chaperone, before the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s/’70s. Citizen boys of status were roped about with remarkably similar velvet cords regarding “proper” behavior.

File:Red figure pottery, AshmoleanM, Man offering a gift to boy, AN 1896-1908 G.279, 142597.jpg Courting involved not just attention but presents. Yet these couldn’t be worth too much or the boy might be accused of accepting payment, making him a prostitute (and thus, barring him from a political future). We see a lot of “low-ticket” items: wreaths of sweet-smelling leaves, hunted game (esp. small like hares), plus cockerels (right, Ashmolean G279). Love-poems, sometimes commissioned from a real poet, might be recited.

After courting from various suitors, a boy might select his Friend. Now they’re going steady! In fact the term philos (friend) is used more often than erastes. These pairings didn’t necessarily last. Remember, most involved teens and young men in early/mid-20s. Ideally, sex was verboten in early stages, but a lot of longing glances, caresses, and kissing (image below). To “give in” too soon made one a Loose Boy!**