By the power of a friend with an invite, I found myself at the Newnham event ‘Classics on Camera’ last Friday, where the fac’s own Mary Beard was talking with her director and producer about the Pompeii TV programme they made for BBC2 and their new series on Roman life (coming soon!). They covered various aspects of making a television programme like this – including financing issues and dealing with the Italian museum authorities – but the part I was most interested in was the discussion of how they construct their narrative.
It seems that Prof. Beard was rather adamant that there would be no CGI or actor reconstructions, and all televisual illustration was going to have to come from the Roman material itself – artefacts, paintings, ruins, skeletons etc. Going by the clips we saw and what I remember of the Pompeii programme when it aired, this served things well, creating a story from what Latin inscriptions and material objects could evoke, with all their possibilities, rather than what some bod with a computer managed to interpret. ‘Trust the material’ was apparently the mantra for the evening; I don’t think it was a bad one.
I was left wondering, however, as I am always left solipsistically wondering by TV on the ancient world, about how could you do the same thing with literature. Say – ooh, I dunno – Homer? Outside of translation and screenplays full of CGI and actors, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be impossible to produce a documentary about the reading of ancient texts, but I’ve never seen it done and don’t really know how you’d go about it. Of course, I can’t immediately recall a documentary on the transmission or reception history of an ancient text, which you think would be a much more standard thing to do, so maybe they need to get out there first.
On a smaller scale, though, you face the problem of visualising reading with Powerpoint in papers and presentations. How are you meant to visualise your argument without just throwing some Greek on a slide (or a handout, which in the end is basically more useful for everyone to take notes on)? How do you create something that isn’t just a book on screen, but shows the dynamics of interacting with that book?
It’s not as if literary theory is averse to diagrams, as this one from Genette’s Palimpsestesshows. However, tabulation like this is only really useful for categorisation. There’s always the trusty highlighter pen for closer readings, say if you want to look at repeated words in a passage – but if you take a concept like ‘genre’, for example, I’m less certain where you could go. What I’d like is a visualisation of the expectations and constraints the words then have to wiggle around, but that sounds very much like a recipe for bad CGI and potentially oldskool science lesson videos.
Having said that, however… There is always kinetic typography.
It’s unashamedly CGI’d, but I can almost see it – ‘μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ’ with drumbeats for the metre. Is that what a textual documentary would need?