Film series: A look at death and the underworld


With the way film is consumed by the general public, it can be easy to forget that film is an art form like literature, music or painting. Like those other art forms, film can explore and provide insight into complex ideas about humanity. As part of the “Afterlives of Antiquity” classics course, Benjamin Stevens, visiting professor of classical studies, has organized a series of film screenings that all have one thing in common: death.

Every Thursday at 7 p.m. in room 320 of Laurie Auditorium, Stevens introduces and screens a film that has something to do with death and the afterlife in a celebration of the art of film and its ties to the stories and themes. I was able to interview Stevens and ask him some questions about the film series he organized for his class on the afterlives of antiquity.

Trinitonian: Why did you organize this film series?

Stevens: One of my research specialties is called classical traditions or classical receptions studies, which is the study of how later material draws upon earlier material for inspiration, for theme, for plot [and] for imagery; and the fact of it is the bulk of reception materials that students would know would be movies. And so it seemed to me that I had the opportunity, as a new member of the classical studies department this year, to try and connect that department to the campus as a whole by offering something that would resonate with people’s existing experience “” they know films, they know video, they know television shows, etc. “” by focusing on a series of films that involve receiving and transforming materials from antiquity. … This series is tying directly into the subject matter of the course on afterlives of antiquity, underworlds and afterlives from antiquity through to today.

T: How did decide on the films in the series?

S: I had come up with a syllabus for the course, and [that] syllabus, more or less, is a chronological move from Greek and Roman antiquity through early Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, to modern contemporary fiction. Having that syllabus in place, what I was able to do is choose a series of films each of which speaks to a given source. This week, the film you saw, Jean Cocteau’s “Orphee,” is perfectly timed for our introduction to the ancient story of Orpheus in a work called Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” So, more or less, I looked first for direct correspondence, a modern film that draws on an ancient story, and with about half of those in place, I then looked for films that speak to the similar themes, the interest in the afterlife, the underworld death, but would do so from a different perspective [and] would offer a variation on that theme or a twist. So about half the films correspond to the students’ readings and the other half are complications, challenges to that tradition.

T: What do you think students who are not enrolled in your course on the afterlives of antiquity can gain from seeing these films?

S: First of all, I want students to have the experience of watching film critically on a big screen with a group of people around. I think that’s important, the idea that we can regard a film just as critically as we would a work of literature, a work of art [or] any dataset; I want that to be part of their experience. Secondly, it matters to me that the students realize that they can continue to think about things critically [and] analytically on their own time outside the classroom. It’s important that [this] sort of critical activity be part of the community more generally. And the third thing, that may be the most important thing, is to realize that this is not a closed set of texts that have been written, that there has been a “final word,” but this an open-ended activity that people are still contributing to, that the students themselves could go on to contribute to someday.