Judge Josh Rode prefers Throwing Muses.
Where art thou muse, that thou forget'st so long?
The Nine Muses is a carefully crafted, painstakingly filmed, yawn-inducing abstract film aimed squarely at English majors. What is it about, you ask? Well, according to the back of the DVD case, it is the "history of mass migration from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia to Post-War Britain." And I'll have to take their word for it, because there is nothing in the actual film that explicitly says so. The only hint is a voice-over at the very beginning that complains about how England isn't what his people expected it to be. This soundbite quickly gets lost amid dozens of other snippets (both oral and written) which quote a wide variety of authors, from Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson to lots of Samuel Beckett, all of which leave the theme of the film fuzzy at best.
Once you know the secret, though, The Nine Muses becomes a pessimistic, over-long, and fairly interesting rumination.
Director John Akomfrah (Speak Like a Child) attempts to create a story of sorts through two frames. The first is a rather slap-shod attempt to connect the happenings on-screen with the legendary Odysseus' attempts to get home from the Trojan War; thus, the myriad of quotes from Homer's masterpiece. However, these quotes come much too far apart to make an effective tie-in, and the scenes don't often have much in common with the quotes themselves. The bit about the Sirens, for instance, is spoken over placid scenes of Bingo and boats. I suppose one could stretch Bingo into a metaphor for the temptations of gambling facing these immigrants, but Akomfrah could have found more effective imagery, if that was the goal.
The second frame is the titular "Nine Muses" of mythology, each chapter beginning with a description of one of the muses. One would assume then the following scenes would have something in common with the muse in question. Such is not the case; everything pretty much continues as before. Euterpe, for instance, is the muse of music, and so one might expect there to be varied musical selections and quotes about music spread throughout. Nope.
The downfall of The Nine Muses is that everything feels the same. The quotes are well-chosen and the speakers read them beautifully, but after awhile all of the imagery quotes run together in a vast soup. The grainy black-and-white images add to the overall dreariness, dragging the most evocative landscapes into a morass of similitude.
There are some bits that stand out, such as Shakespeare's "this sceptered isle…this England" quotation overlaying a desolate landscape; although the attempted irony falls a tad short, when one considers that John of Gaunt was, himself, saying that England no longer fit his own description. As with any interpretive work, much of the connections are left to the viewer to decipher. Some will work for you and others won't.
The standard-definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is primarily in black-and-white, though there are a few touches of color, notably Akomfrah's bright yellow parka. Most of the images appear to be fairly old, although it's possible the grain and lack of depth are purposeful. The sound is basic Dolby 2.0 Stereo, which is certainly enough. The quotes come through clearly, except where strong accents sometimes hinder comprehension. Since there aren't any commentaries or other extras, there is no way to know for sure.
Well, there aren't any extras pertaining to The Nine Muses. The film comes packaged with two other Akomfrah short films.
The first is Seven Songs for Malcolm X, a 52-minute black-and-white essay on the controversial figure. Much like The Nine Muses, you won't necessarily be able to follow what's going on, if you don't have some prior knowledge. The film isn't a true biography of the man, it's more of an examination of certain times in his life, with a surface look at his part in them. Malcolm newbies will likely be lost, and Malcolm buffs probably won't find a lot of new information here, except perhaps the revelation that Malcolm and some of his associates purportedly used telepathy, not only to speak to each other, but also to sway crowds.
The second bonus film is Last Angel of History, which starts with Robert Johnson's near-mythical meeting with the Devil and continues by examining the phenomena of science-fiction's influence on black music throughout modern history, from George Clinton to Derrick May. A little uneven in its conclusions, but certainly a fresh take.
If you're in the mood for some serious metaphor dissembling, you should watch The Nine Muses. It's not a straight-forward documentary and feels much longer than its 94-minute runtime, but could make for a fun game of "Name that Quote," especially since the answers are listed in order at the end of the film.
Guilty of wanton similitude.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
• Short Films
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