Greek town in the western Peloponnese, population ca. 2000, inhabited since before 1600 BCE. Near the current town's location lie the ruins of an ancient sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and Hera since at least 1000 BCE. This installation was the site of the ancient Olympic Games from at least 776 BCE until 393 CE, though there's evidence of it hosting sporting events as early as 884 BCE and possibly earlier. Olympia is not related to Mount Olympus which is in north-eastern mainland Greece. In fact, during much of antiquity Olympus was barely on the fringes of Hellas whereas Olympia rivalled Delphi as a cultural reference for all Hellenes.

The site of Olympia was originally under the control of the town of Pisa (no, not the Italian one or we'd have a leaning temple of Zeus). In 572 BCE it came under the joint control of Elis and Sparta, the former organising the events and the latter enforcing the Olympic truce. After all, a truce is worthless without a big stick to back it up and the Spartans had nothing, if not big sticks. From ca. 360 BCE onwards and until the decline of the Roman Empire Olympia was formally neutral territory in respect to all conflicts.

Following the end of the Olympic Games, Olympia went into decline and lost its role in world affairs. Today it is little more than a village. It has regained some of its symbolic importance in regard to the Olympic Games as the site where the Olympic torch is ceremonially lit before being carried to the venue of the modern Olympic Games. Modern Olympia relies on the tourist trade and the traditional cultivation of olives, citrus and other fruit for income.

Archeological digs have uncovered numerous artifacts from ancient times that are now on display at the local museum (though some of the exhibits took a terminal whoopin' in a 2008 earthquake), as well as a lot of remnants both of the ancient temples and of some of the sporting venues. Other than the antiquities, its scenery isn't much different from the rest of southern Greece.

For the casual visitor, its poor location relative to Athens and other significant tourist destinations means that it's not necessarily worth the day trip unless you're in south-western Greece anyway or are really into old stones, though the stretch between Corinth and Patras makes for a scenic trip by either rail or bus for travellers coming from Athens and the nearby coast offers some fine beaches.

Impressionism's first painting, painted by Édouard Manet in 1863, inspired by The Venus of Urbino by Titian, which has a similarly matter-of-fact expression. Gallons of ink have been spilled out explaining how it was refused by the Salon of Paris 1865 Exhibition, how it depicts a whore resting between clients, etc. so I won't waste any bandwidth echoing them. This makes Manet look like a man who hung out with prostitutes and a deliberate prankster trying to make trouble (he wasn't) and the Salon look like terrific prudes who didn't like naked ladies, particularly disreputable ones (they weren't).

Acutally, the model was not a whore, but a professional model and painter in her own right, Victorine Meurent, who is also featured as the smiling woman in Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, and as a thoroughly bourgeois mother in further paintings. (The maid with the flowers may not have actually been a maid, either. However, I was told that the black cat was a rather accomplished mouser.) The title comes from a popular play of the time, Olympia's Wedding, where a teenaged streetwalker cons a besotted nobleman into marrying her by posing as an orphan bilked out of a fortune. The minute the ring is on her finger, her mother shows up (it's a miracle!), and the two of them set to work eating, drinking, and demanding the fellow out of house and home. They're found out, however, one afternoon, when the two of them are in a race to the bottom of yet another bottle of champagne when Ollie admits she's sick of being married to someone with whom she has absolutely nothing in common and reminisces about all the good things she left to live there: all her friends, the thrill of going out every evening, being able to wear flashy clothes and to live life as she wishes. Her mother, not in on the scam corroborates this, and the moral is given: a swan is a swan, but a duck raised to be a swan will find itself longing for the mud in which it was laid. With this in mind, I don't quite read the painting as Olympia waiting for another John, but Olympia, bored, on a warm afternoon, lolling around in bed and spending her husband's money on flowers and suchlike (instead of doing embroidery or something else useful).

A lesser artist would have made her prettier, lusher, with curves instead of flab, and every flaw excised. A lesser artist might have chosen a fantasy setting for his nude, cast her as Venus in a sylvan dell or a slave in an Oriental palace, and posed her in a more flirtatious/embarrassed manner. Even as an illustration of the play, she could have been handled in a way as to have been well within most contemporary guidelines, with an elaborate background, and perhaps spent Champagne bottles and boxes from tradesmen scattered liberally in the foreground.

But she's not. As it is, you can see nothing but the raw materials for such a painting. A bed, a woman, nude, a maid, flowers, and a cat. She simply lies there, with an expression that tells you that she's just doing her job and there are worse ways to make a living, in a natural pose, meeting your gaze as if totally unconcerned that you're looking at her. The brush strokes are quick, sketchy, as if in a hurry to record the moment.

Manet is saying, in essence, It's not a painting of Olympia. (She doesn't exist.) It's not a painting of the character Olympia (this woman is real), or a real-life Olympia (she's not a teenager, a whore, or married to a nobleman). It's a painting about painting Olympia -- but it doesn't stop there. You're seeing a model, not with me in my studio, but as I saw her in the studio, when I went to paint the painting "Olympia".

Little wonder it unsettled people -- and it has ever since.

I just saw this movie for the first time last night with about a dozen other people.  We were all very surprised at how deep an effect it had on all of us, even with us knowing what it came out of.



DirectorLeni Riefenstahl

Music:  Herbert Windt

Release Date:  1938

Running Time:  201 Minutes in two parts (3 hours, 21 minutes)

Background:  Olympia is a movie produced by the (in)famous German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who is better known for her work promoting the Third Reich than for any of her other films.  Like the more famous Triumph of the Will, she claims it is a "documentary"; in this case of the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics.  Riefenstahl is best known for her love of editing her films.  In this case, three different edited versions of the film exist; a German, French, and English version, each with a different order of scenes.  This is a review of the English version.

Summary:  The film opens, like many of Riefenstahl's films, with a rousing score of music and no spoken words for several minutes.  The camera pans over ancient Greek ruins and broken marble statues, especially focusing on the idealized Greek nudes.  At the end of the sequence there is a truly masterful fade from a shot of the Discobolus to a shot of a man holding the identical position right before he throws the discus. There continue to be several more minutes of men in loincloths throwing disci or javelins in slow motion interspersed with nude women performing calisthenics.

The sequence abruptly changes to show the Olympic torch run (in actuality a practice devised by Riefenstahl and Nazi party officials, in part, to be shown in this movie).  There is a cut to the opening ceremonies and the Parade of Nations.  Following the parade, the torch runner enters the stadium and proceeds to light the Olympic Flame.

The rest of part one is taken up by exposition and commentary of various track and field events such as the hammer throw, shot put, javelin, high jump and various distances of footraces, ending with the marathon.

Part 2

In many ways the second part can be considered a separate film from the first.  Similar to part one, it starts out with an instrumental section.  In this case it is of a group of young men running through the woods in the morning until they arrive at a bath house and begin to bathe each other in a rather homoerotic fashion.  However, the similarities end there.

The second part progresses very differently from the first, most notably in the lack of commentary.  Riefenstahl displays the less classical events such as gymnastics, sailing, and swimming along with more famous ones including the decathlon.  There is also more emphasis on team sports: polo, soccer, field hockey, and rowing.

The final competition scene is considered the masterpiece of all of Riefenstahl's work—the diving scene. This scene is a compilation of shots of the diving competitions, shots of the athletes falling beautifully and seamlessly intercut with underwater film of their entry into the water.

Review:  This film is much more emotionally engaging than Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl's other 'great' work.  Though the events took place more than 70 years ago, I still found myself cheering on the American athletes in the film along with the rest of the people watching the film.  One of the hardest parts of this film is trying to decide whether it is intentional propaganda or simply a result of the situation in which it was produced.  The scenes at the beginning of both parts scream propaganda to me with their fascination with the idealized body in a non-sexual manner and yet there was a great deal of screen time devoted to what the Nazi's considered 'inferior races', most notably Jesse Owens.

Though it's impossible to separate the film from the ideals it represents, the film is a masterpiece in cinematography.  In one scene two men are fencing each other, the only sound being the whip and occasional clash of their foils.  Instead of the traditional shot, Riefenstahl distorts the perception and points the camera downwards; filming not the men but their combating shadows.  The effect is seriously disorienting but at the same time refreshingly different.  The diving scene uses the same style to create the same mental double take.  Riefenstahl begins by showing the divers from expected profile and rear angles but then begins filming them with the camera on its side, making the divers fall diagonally across the screen.  She establishes a pattern: jump, fall, splash, underwater view.  Then she turns the whole sequence on its head and shows another dive in reverse—starting with the diver's fingers just barely touching the water and ending with them on the platform.

Aside the editing, the most captivating part of the movie is the music.  Herbert Windt composed a score that, while sounding somewhat minimalist, works perfectly with the repetitive motions of the athletes.  Repeating motifs of music are paired with images of running, rowing, and cycling.  Riefenstahl's editing ability also shows through in the spectacular synchronization of audio and visual experiences.  The music rises to a crescendo during the peak of a javelin throw, turns quiet in a slow motion section to raise tension, and triumphant at the end of the marathon.

This movie is definately worth the three and a half hours.  The innovations in cinematography and the superb editing are reason enough let alone its controversial position in world history.  If you ever get a chance to see this film, do so with an open mind: it is truly one of the greatest uses of film as art in the 20th century.

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