Meet Kha and Merit: A Wonderful Documentary On A Couple From Ancient Egypt

Being something of an amateur Egyptologist ever since I was little, I’m always on the lookout for things like interesting lectures on or collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. So if you’re as interested in this subject as I am, I highly recommend that you check out a two-part documentary from the BBC which I saw recently. “Ancient Egypt: Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings”, hosted by Egyptologist Dr. Joann Fletcher, is one of the most interesting, engaging films I’ve ever seen on Ancient Egypt.

Although it touches on the lives of the Egyptian pharaohs, the heart of this film is Dr. Fletcher’s exploration of the life and death of a well-off, but non-aristocratic married couple. The discovery of their tomb a century ago was considered to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. And I must confess that, despite my interest in Egyptology, I had never heard of it until I saw this documentary.

Kha and Merit lived (very roughly speaking) around 1400 B.C., in a village near the Valley of the Kings which later became known as Deir el-Medina. Kha was an architect and oversaw the work on the royal tombs being constructed nearby, while Merit was his wife and the mother of his four children. Because of his position, Kha provided his family with a good living, and the family enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle than most. Their tomb in the hills overlooking the village had somehow been missed by grave robbers, so when it was discovered in 1906, everything was still in place, exactly as it had been left when it was sealed.

The contents eventually found their way to the Egyptian Museum in Turin, and if you have any appreciation at all for cultural anthropology, you will appreciate the wealth of material for study that their gravesite provided. Not only are there the mummies, masks, and coffins that we all associate with Ancient Egyptian burials, but many items from Kha and Merit’s daily lives were buried with them as well. The collection includes the beds they slept on, the chairs they sat in, the board games they played, and even Merit’s box of cosmetics. One jar, for example, still has Merit’s black eyeliner and application wand inside, while another still smells of her favorite perfume. The find really was an extraordinary time capsule from the distant past.

What is unique in Dr. Fletcher’s presentation of this material, is that I’ve never seen an Egyptologist personalize the lives being examined in the way that she does. She looks at Kha and Merit not merely as subjects of scientific study, but as real people. She doesn’t focus on the documented achievements of Kha, even though we are made aware of them, but rather on things that most of us can understand from ordinary life.

For example, Dr. Fletcher walks us through the ruins of what may have been Kha and Merit’s home, describing what activities would have taken place in the different rooms. She shows us the sitting room, for example, where Merit and her girlfriends in the village might have sat down to have a morning gossip, while another room is where Kha and his friends would have sat into the night drinking beer and playing games after the children had gone to bed. She shows us what an Ancient Egyptian fully-equipped kitchen looked like, complete with brick oven and primitive refrigerator, and how Merit would have baked the bread that the family ate every day, as well as kept Kha’s beer cool for when he got home from work.

Dr. Fletcher also explores the love that Kha and Merit had for each other, not only as husband and wife, but also as parents. Merit’s only daughter, for example, who was named for her mother, is shown very tenderly looking after her parents in the family funerary chapel and tomb art. When we learn that Merit died rather unexpectedly – possibly from an accident or a sudden illness – before Kha, the family must have been devastated. Dr. Fletcher suggests that, as the only daughter, Merit the younger would have looked after her father until he died, as the art commissioned by her father would seem to suggest.

There is also a moment in the documentary that I can relate to, when Dr. Fletcher visits the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep III for the first time. It’s a tomb whose construction Kha oversaw, and a place that she knows well through research and pictures, but it is not usually open to visitors due to ongoing restoration work. When she is able to go inside and look around at the magnificent wall paintings, Dr. Fletcher gets a little choked up, and apologizes for being unprofessional on camera – but I’m glad they kept this in the final film. I recently had a very similar experience, when I visited the Pantheon of the Kings at the Escorial for the first time, so I immediately sympathized with her. Nerds sometimes react to things that we’ve studied closely in rather an unexpected way.

If I were to fault anything in this film, it’s the conclusion that a major difference between Kha and Merit and ourselves is a belief in an afterlife, or that this life is merely a preparation for the life to come – something that Dr. Fletcher posits a modern Westerner can’t understand. That statement is perhaps true for a majority of British academics, who stopped believing in God a long time ago, but it did seem a bit unnecessary to conclude this otherwise admirable film with a somewhat dismissive, albeit passing, observation on spirituality. Still, if you love Ancient Egypt, or even if you’re just interested in history in general, this documentary is well worth your time.

The Courtier Reviews: The Light Between Oceans

This weekend I made one of my rare visits to the cinema to see the new film by Derek Cianfrance, “The Light Between Oceans”, starring Michael Fassbinder, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. Although I will avoid spoilers in this review, both the trailer and even the most basic of reviews give away the plot, so the reader will forgive me if I make certain references to it. Overall, while I was captivated and drawn in by what seemed to be an Oscar-worthy movie at first, by the end I was more interested in how much longer it was going to take to reach the inevitable conclusion of what had turned into a high-quality TV soap opera.

The first half of the film, which is set in Post-WWI Australia, is unquestionably a visual and cinematic masterpiece. Director and Screenwriter Derek Cianfrance is clearly well-versed in the work of two Swedes, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and artist Anders Zorn. Much of the cinematography reminded me of Bergman’s films and Zorn’s paintings, and the end result is absolutely stunning to watch on the big screen. The script, based on the novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman, recalls the work of François Mauriac and Thomas Hardy, who often explored themes of people who are good at heart becoming overwhelmed by bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. Over the course of the first hour or so, not only do we fall in love with the people and the places on screen, but we really come to feel for them when personal tragedies begin to cloud their otherwise picture-perfect lives.

Both Tom and Isabel, played by Fassbinder and Vikander, respectively, are wonderfully realized characters in this part of the movie. Perhaps because the two began their real-life relationship while working on the film, their emotional attachment is clearly visible. Clichéd though it may be, the story of actors falling in love with each other while playing lovers on screen exists for a reason. Fassbinder is wonderfully rigid and reserved as Tom, and Vikander is a perfect foil with her sunny, girl-next-door quality, which helps to bring the war-hardened Tom out of his shell.

One of the great strengths of the film is its significant reliance on Christian imagery and themes, although it is not an explicitly Christian movie. For example, we see Tom engaged in silent prayer at the end of a hard day, using a cold and heavy anvil as a prie-dieu. It is also a symbol of the hardness of heart which Tom is praying to get over after the horrors of war, for he has been wounded spiritually, rather than physically. In one of the most haunting moments of the film, the inconsolable Isabel goes to mourn over her dead children at their graves, and puts her head to the ground to see if she can hear them crying. I was immediately reminded of Jeremiah 31:15 – “This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

The title of the film refers to the lighthouse where much of the first part of the movie takes place, and the island where the lighthouse stands clearly represents a kind of Eden. Like the first man, Tom is initially there alone with his thoughts, but makes the place a kind of peaceful haven. Later, when Isabel becomes his wife, it becomes a true paradise for them both. They have little contact with the world beyond the oceans which surround them, other than the visit every few weeks from an ancient, bearded fisherman, who bring supplies and messages. Yet once they make a decision that will alter the course of their lives, the two are expelled from their Eden, and neither they nor the audience will ever see it again.

Their sinful choice, and the subsequent expulsion of this particular Adam and Eve from Paradise, serve as a powerful metaphor for the Fall from Grace. As in Genesis, we see Eve persuade Adam to do something that they both know is wrong, and to ignore the consequences of their actions. It is their conscious, mutual choice to do wrong, and then to try to cover themselves up, which like the original Adam and Eve causes them to be cast out of Eden. If you are trying to wrap your head around the concept of Original Sin, the film does a magnificent job of putting that concept into reality.

Unfortunately, for all the fine acting and beautiful seascapes up to this point, the second half of the film does not live up to the promise of the first. Perhaps this is intentional, because once you are thrown out of Paradise, everything else is going to seem a petty disappointment. Yet after Tom and Isabel’s sin is discovered, I kept waiting for a payoff that never came. Part of this seems to be the director’s inability to figure out what to do with all of the characters he has to introduce for the remainder of the movie.

The character of Hannah (Rachel Weisz) dominates much of the latter half of the film. Yet for most of her time on screen I felt as though Weisz was dialing it in; she seemed more like the guest star on a decent BBC drama, rather than an Oscar-winning actress. Equally unfortunate is the limited amount of screen time given to Hannah’s father, played by legendary Australian actor Bryan Brown, the star of classics such as “F/X”, “The Thorn Birds”, and “Gorillas in the Mist”. One gets the sense that his character originally had more involvement in the film, but that many of his lines and scenes got tossed onto the editing room floor.

Perhaps most fatal of all, for all of their captivating qualities early on, was that by the end I did not much care what happened to Tom and Isabel. A plot twist that a studio-era director like George Cukor or Joseph Mankiewicz would have used to provide Vikander with the opportunity to really show her range (and secure herself an Oscar nomination) is utterly lost. I kept thinking of how Golden Age actresses like Ingrid Bergman or Bette Davis would have handled the shift in attitude between Tom and Isabel, and finding that Vikander just comes up short. And Tom, who ultimately has brought them both low, does not seem to handle the lines given to him in this situation as well as would, for example, a Gary Cooper or James Stewart in the same role.

In the end, mine is a mixed review. The first hour or so of the film is wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, and given the vastness of the seascapes I doubt that the better half of the film will play as well streaming on the small screen. Fassbinder and Vikander are wonderful together, and remind the viewer at times of actors in Classic Hollywood and Art House love stories. That being said, because of the average melodrama which makes up the remainder of the movie, I would suggest that this film is more appropriately seen at an afternoon matinee, rather than for a night out.

Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

Tea And Sympathy With The Devil: A Reconsideration Of “The Shining”

This weekend, between bouts of berating the smugly self-satisfied buyers on “Tiny House Hunters”, I re-watched “The Shining” (1980) because, as the saying goes, it was there. We all know that television passively feeds us, and all we have to do is sit back and allow ourselves to be fed. Me being me, even when that engagement starts out as passive, it eventually becomes rather active, not so much because I am anticipating certain lines or scenes – “Wendy…love of my life…” – but because the brain cannot stop being a brain simply because I want it to switch into idle mode.

I am not a Stephen King fan, and so cannot speak to “The Shining” the film’s relationship to “The Shining” the novel. The lone occasion when I casually picked up a collection of Stephen King short stories at the beach and read one at random is an event that I wish I could undo, or at least bleach what I read from my mind. Therefore if you are an expert in his work, please, refrain from commenting on how if I *only* read the book the film would make more sense, since that is never going to happen.

For a long time I have always felt a great deal of sympathy for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in the film version of “The Shining”, because I never quite understood why it is that he ends up the way that he does. From other horror films, we know that opening the door to the occult by playing with Ouija boards or tarot cards is never a good idea. Yet even this weekend, in discussion with someone who watched the film with me, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that led to Jack’s downfall. After all, he had not drawn a pentagram on the floor or started worshiping goats. It was only when I had the long trip back to DC yesterday that I had the chance to think a bit more about the damnation of Jack Torrance.

Two thoughts occurred to me, in considering what it was that made Jack something other than a dull boy. The first is that, in a sense, Jack actually did invite the devil in – an old one that was already very familiar to him. For Jack, as we learn early on in the film, is a recovering alcoholic. Although alcohol has been removed from the hotel as part of their insurance coverage, he nevertheless turns to the idea of alcohol in his frustration, an idea which his mind (or the haunted hotel, take your pick) is all too happy to indulge.

Jack’s addiction is not an excuse for his harming others, but it is an explanation. Perhaps today, we are more conscious of the complicated roots and effects of addiction than we were when this film was made, and we can understand that there is some degree of mental illness or brain damage that has taken root in the serious substance abuser. However the choices that one makes as an adult are, like it or not, still choices made using our own free will and not staring down the barrel of a gun. As a result, these sorts of choices have consequences.

The second thought, which is perhaps tied to the first, is that Jack’s character is motivated primarily by self-interest. While it is easy to mock Wendy Torrance (Shelley Duvall) because of her appearance and mannerisms, it is she who not only displays real backbone but, more importantly, a sense of self-sacrifice. After all, she follows her husband out into the wilderness, because she believes him when he says that this will be a good opportunity for them to start afresh. The fact that she references the Donner Party while doing so turns out to be rather an inauspicious coincidence, as we watch the family unit slowly devour itself.

Recall the moment when Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) shows up with unexplained bruising around his neck, and Wendy naturally runs to her husband for help. Given Jack’s reactions, she concludes that it is he who has inflicted physical abuse on their son, as indeed he had done previously. Wendy is trapped, both in an abusive marriage and in a location so isolated, forbidding, and dangerous that it may as well be outer space (something which Kubrick as a director understood very well.) Yet even toward the end of the film, when her own future seems bleakest, Wendy is more concerned with saving others than she is with saving herself.  

Perhaps then, the demon that gets Jack in the end is the one that stalks all of us: selfishness. For much of the film, Jack complains to Wendy that he is doing what he has to do for his family, except that he really isn’t. His choices are largely based on what he wants, and what he (as it turns out, mistakenly) believes is the best way for him to make up for his failures, as he descends into madness. Even if the Overlook Hotel somehow amplifies that selfishness, because of evil things that have taken place there previously, the hotel itself is not responsible for the individual’s decision to sit down to tea with the Devil in the first place.

However one cannot help but recognize, as Jack flails about in the maze at the end of the film like a wounded animal, incapable of forming human speech, that to look upon this figure without sympathy is to somehow become an animal oneself. Yes, Jack receives his just desserts, but without downplaying the horrible things he has done, one cannot help but feel just a tinge of pity for someone who could not finish the good fight. If we were isolated and battling our own demons, would we really come out of the fight any better than Jack? I wonder…and yet personally, I do not care to find out, thanks all the same.

image