The literary typology in ancient Greek and Roman literature known as the παρακλαυσίθυρον paraklausithyron (e.g, Theocritus Id. 23, Catullus 67, Propertius 1.16, Ovid Amores 1.6) has found its way into contemporary forms of film and television, and it is my purpose in the following words to explore the stellar mutations which it has undergone in these modern media.
But – first – what exactly is the paraklausithyron (one – among many – illuminating if somewhat technical paper, with plentiful bibliography, on the topic can be found here)?
The etymology is not without dispute: some derive the basic form from a root meaning ‘lament’, others from one meaning ‘shut’ – thus, either ‘the lament alongside the door’ (to one’s lover’s place), or (as I take it), ‘being shut-out/denied-access alongside the door’ (to one’s lover’s place). Thus, the Greek word παρακλαυσίθυρον is, upon this analysis, quite transparent in its lexcial decomposition: para (παρα) ‘alongside, by, near’ and klaus-i (κλαυσί) ‘shut [out/off]’ and thyron (θυρον) ‘door’ or, in other words, ‘the door shut alongside you[r face]’, ‘the door that shuts out/off the lovers from each other’! The Roman version, with a Latin nomenclature, becomes the theme of the exclusus amator (‘the shut-out lover’).
Frequently the typology accommodates a ‘gate-keeper’ of sorts, usually a crone serving the interests of the mistress, the girl-friend, the puella divina (‘the heavenly girl[-friend]’, ‘the goddess-like girl-friend’) – and this old servant may or may not be persuaded to facilitate or block the lovers’ passionate efforts to reach each other. The success or failure – and happy or unhappy implications — of these exertions may occupy a substantial and elaborate portion of the poem in question: what won’t fervent lovers in the throes of unquenchable desire do to enjoy each the sweetness of the other? For further, more detailed expositions (with bibliography) of this marvelous literary trope 1,
Another extremely common (and equally marvelous) trope – this one’s life begins fully developed in the Homeric Odyssey (Book 11) and then in the course of the following almost three millennia undergoes protean transmutations and displacements beyond counting — is the κατάβασις (katabasis), or ‘descent into the underworld’. For film, I have explored this particular device in some detail (“The Katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema” Classical myth & culture in the cinema, ed. Martin M. Winkler [Oxford University Press 2001] pages 23-50 – it may be available for perusal here); for an aspect of the literary Nachleben, see my Tarzan and Tradition: Classical Myth in Popular Culture (Greenwood Press 1981) pages 97-98, 137. If you enter the term ‘ katabasis ’ in the search box at the upper right on the homepage of this blog just under the tiger’s head you will find further references to other mentions of this topic that I make throughout the blog.
Need I belabor my point about such tropes by mentioning brief almost fugitive but nonetheless symbolically significant scenes like white frothing waves rolling in on a beach (see below), fire as passion [straight out of Roman elegiac poetry], erect buildings/structures rising straight up (e.g., Sharky’s Machine ), connecting bridges (e.g., Year of the Dragon ), etc. etc. etc.?
Now I’d like to look first in some detail at one smokin’ version of this infinitely malleable trope in modern cinematic shape – and then briefly adduce just two further references … so you can take it from there for yourself from now on in!
In the final television episode (#23 [first aired 17 May 2011]: ‘Closing Argument’) for season two of that modern and sophisticated legal drama called The Good Wife (a program – now running strong in its third season — for which I happily confess an inordinate fondness!) Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies) and her boss Will Garner (played by Josh Charles) finally stop teasing us so relentlessy and give in to what we have so long wanted them to give in to: they do it!
They’ve been having a drink late one night at a hotel (the Palmer House ?) in celebration of having won a major criminal case, and we see, on the bar counter, Will’s hand moving towards Alicia’s. The hotel is booked solid, but Will springs for the presidential suite at just under $8000 for the ‘just one hour’ they are going to need. The brief ‘hand scene’ is shortly doubled by a similar one in the elevator when his hand once more moves onto hers and she wraps her fingers around his: we know what is coming. (To me the execution of this motif is strongly reminiscent of the pre-coital ‘car scene’ in The Lover from a generation earlier )
There are impediments. First, the elevator for their floor is filled with room service carts, and they wait. Next, the elevator they do get on stops at every other floor – here too a cleverly articulated sequence of opening-and-closing elevator doors as the elevator rises through its shaft prefigures the motif of excluding/accepting entrances at the heart of the paraklausithyron. And, third, when they finally get to their floor and are about to enter their trysting place, Will fumbles about with the electronic key card and tries jamming it into the slot but no matter how he plays with the card he cannot stick it into the slot successfully: the door remains resolutely shut! No entry! In vexation he starts for the elevator to go down to the desk to get a card that will work.
Alicia, with a gentle smile, puts a hand on his arm and takes his card from him, fondles it and flips it over, and then effortlessly slips it into the hole – an action not, I might add, entirely without a certain delicious phallic suggestiveness all its own – and, voilà, the door springs open, the lovers enter, the doors close, and season two ends, our imaginations screening in our heads the film that will now roll there off and on until season three begins a good four months later (25 September 2011).
To my cinematic sensibility that brief scene arc is as unmistakably classical as it is gratifying: the lovers are as it were first closed out from contact (paraclausithyron) by the displaced ‘guardian’ – here not the gnarled old servant but (the obstructing elevator and) the glossy electronic key – until ‘she’ relents and allows access. It is noteworthy that, in a variation on the traditional working out of that motif, it is the puella divina herself in the form of a yearning Alicia who enables, both for herself and for an equally ardent Will, a smooth penetration of the initially locked entryway into the presidential suite.
A sexy deployment of the paraklausityron theme appears in that great 1983 exploration of teenage sexual angst, Risky Business – the movie that ‘made’ Tom Cruise. At one point he has had a prostitute, Lana (sleekly played by Rebecca de Mornay), come to his home while his parents are away on vacation. In the build-up to the big event (he pais for it from his college funds [a savings bond]), the two of them are fumbling about in the living room by the patio, and in place of showing the actual act whose consummation we sense is all but imminent (“Are you ready for me?”) a blast of wind outside blows open the patio doors and sweeps out the curtains: suddenly nothing is closed off and easy entry is on transparent display. I’d say they’re both ready! Cut to a later scene, “Did you have a good time last night?” 2
As a sidebar I note what may well not have been intentional in the script but nonetheless caught my attention. The impassioned lovers do it all over the house, and at one point there is a brief scene in which they are climaxing on the staircase. Now, the word for a ladder or staircase in ancient Greek is κλῖμαξ klimax, and it struck me as either inordinately sophisticated on the part of the movie-makers to deploy a sexual climax on a physical κλῖμαξ as it were – or, it is merely one of those happy andentirely fortuitous accidents, this one at least giving me an adventitious thrill of delight. But, as I say, it was probably not intentional (I have no idea if any of the actors or crew ever studied ancient Greek!).
And here’s another bit of toying with the typology. Do you remember that absolutely mahvlous piece of high-camp trash — King Kong — from a few years earlier (1976)? A “turned-on ape” falls for a human cutie, and before the paraclausithyron sequence sledgehammers the audience with its grotesque implications there is a good deal of what one might charitably refer to as cinematic foreplay: the long dark lubricious pole that slides in and out (recall seeing the pumping pistons on a steam engine after the he and the she do lights out in the sleeper car?) of the loops and so bars the massive gates shut; the ’love tryst’ of beauty and beast against the salient backdrop of white foam cascading down a huge waterfall (remember the archetype of such liquid symbolism in From Here to Eternity (1953) when Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr are rolling around in the roiling white spurting surf?). Thus primed, we reach the film’s orga– … whoops, I mean the film’s clima- … double whoops, what I really mean is the film’s erotic (do I dare?) denouement in which the ape in a sexual rage at being kept from his puella divina does a kind of Viking berserker routine and trashes the gates, literally tearing and ripping them apart so that, his access no longer barred, he can now plunge right on in. Not only is the sequence a kind of crude inversion of the paraclausithyron but it is also a not so cryptically in-your-face tour-de-force of displaced visualization of the virgin violated by that huge, libidinous “turned-on ape”.]
And so it goes.
From now on, just pay attention to the overt signals or subliminal suggestions promoted by this symbolic manipulation of doors, entry-ways and portals in film, especially in those thematic settings that entail some kind of erotic possibility, tension or release – not to mention, of course, lubricated pumpings and white foamings. Once you’re on to this cinematic gambit of doors etc. [fire is another potent and pervasive one], you’ll discover that it’s a lot more common than you’d at first think — a perfect emblematic arc of symbolism in amatory narrative across the millennia.