January 14, 2013 | Myrna Anderson

This January, students are studying classical myths and the contemporary films that spring from them.

January at Calvin means interim, a time for courses with titles like “Mixed Media Artist Bookmaking,” “Big Sky Geology” and “Turkish Transformations.” During the three weeks of January interim, faculty and students travel down some exotic academic pathways on campus, across the nation and around the world. Every year, the News & Stories team covers a handful of Calvin's many interim offerings.

At the top of the class, classics professor Jeff Winkle told the students the myth of Orpheus: How Orpheus was the greatest musician who ever lived, how he married Eurydice, who was killed by a snake, how Orpheus descended into Hades to reclaim her and sang so beautifully that Hades (the god of Hades) gave Eurydice back to him—on one condition: As they journeyed out of the underworld, Orpheus must not look back at his wife. But Orpheus could not resist a glance, and Eurydice fell back into Hades forever, crying farewell.

In some versions of the myth, he added, Orpheus was torn apart by rioting Maenads. “Does the story of Orpheus remind you of any other story?” Winkle asked the class. “This may be a stretch, but it made me think of the movie Inception,” said senior philosophy major Seth Apol. As his student explained the parallels, Winkle was nodding. He designed the entire curriculum of the January interim class—eight films and numerous readings from classical authors—to help students make connections between myths produced in the 5th century and films made in the 20th. The class is titled: “Homer Goes to Hollywood.”

Recycling myth

“The basic idea is that film is the principle conduit of mythology today,” Winkle said. “By comparing ancient plays and history to modern films, we recognize that the way we tell stories and the way we understand the human journey hasn’t really changed. We’re not telling new stories. We’re re-packaging old stories again and again and again.”

He offered the Star Wars series as a classic and intentional example of Hollywood’s tendency to replay myth: “The character of Luke Skywalker—he walks the path of a Hercules or an Achilles,” Winkle said. The same is true of Spiderman, Batman, The Avengers and other superheroes in movies today and also of Harry Potter, he added.

In other movies, Winkle said, mythological threads are less easily detected, perhaps even by their makers. “There’s something about humans that we seem hard wired to watch the same kinds of stories over and over.”

His students will watch a smattering of films, some whose mythological themes are obvious and some whose aren’t: Black Orpheus, Orfee, 300, Troy, Quo Vadis, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Stranger Than Fiction and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Winkle is looking forward to teasing out the subtle mythological references in some of his picks— and the Dionysian figure in Vicky Christina Barcelona, for instance, and the theme of fate and free will in Stranger Than Fiction—and in myriad other films. During his first class, he traced the classic women’s journey in The Little Mermaid.

To give the film-watching a literary foundation, the class will also read the Iliad in its entirety, plus many versions of myths culled from histories and Greek dramas. For the Orpheus myth alone, the students read versions from Virgil, Ovid, Plato, Hyginus, Appolodorus, Fulgentius and Pausanius.

Some mythic-filmic connections Winkle preferred to avoid: “You could read about Perseus and watch Clash of the Titans,” he said, “but it’s just too awful.”

A necessary study

From his previous two outings teaching “Homer Goes to Hollywood,” Winkle is expecting students from a wide array of majors and interests. He’s also hoping for lively discussion: “I don’t want to be telling these student what these myths mean,” he said.” Students are also required to give a 15-minute presentation on a film not presented in the class.

Apol, plans to tackle Inception for his presentation.  A senior philosophy major, he loves the structure of myth: “If I wouldn’t have studied philosophy, I would have studied film,” he said.

Ashley Gove is studying film. A senior media production major, she came to the class with no  background in Greek mythology. “Anything with film is a big draw to me, and anything with the old, classic stories I thought would be really fun,” she said.

Gove enjoys the more relaxed pace of interim as well as the opportunity to explore a few academic byways: “The teachers get to teach on a topic they’re really passionate about.”

Winkle not only enjoys teaching classical mythology, he believes it’s an important thing to teach in 21st century classrooms: “In terms of understanding our culture, and the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves, I would say that there would be few classes that would be more practical than a course on mythology.”

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