Sunday, 19 October 2008

Movie Review #2 - Model B

All right, kiddos, here's the second one. Read both carefully. Take notes if yu need to. Look up the words you don't know - don't come asking tomorrow. What do I always say? "My middle initial is 'D', but it doesn't mean 'dictionary'!"

See you all tomorrow, period 3!

So this afternoon the four of us - my husband, the girls, and I - sat on our bed and watched the latest incarnation of the unknown poet's BEOWULF. I went in prepared to hate it. After all, the director had cast Angelina Jolie in the role of Grendel's mother, among other insupportable decisions, such as the one to make Wiglaf, Beowulf's successor, equal to him in age, as opposed to the young, strong, vital man he is in the original poem.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning...

The movie opens with a drunken Hrothgar and his men, with the women attending them, in the world-famous hall of Heorot, celebrating in typical male fashion - wine, women, and song. Hrothgar's wife, a beautiful, silent, and much younger woman, watches the festivities with cold disdain. The noise of their revelry, as his men chant his name, echoes in the dark, damp lair of the demon Grendel, who emerges to wreak havoc on the ones who dared to disturb his gloomy peace.

The resultant slaughter propels Hrothgar into a deep depression. He bars the doors of his great hall, buries the dead, left behind by a rampaging monster, larger than life, uglier than sin, and madder than a wet hen. Enter Beowulf, accompanied by fourteen of his trustiest warriors, including the faithful Wiglaf. His mission, one he has eagerly chosen to accept, is to defeat the demon Grendel, and restore laughter and good times to the Danes.

So far, so good. The movie adheres strictly to the poem...well, almost. There is a troubling glimpse of Beowulf and Hrothgar's young wife becoming very aware of a "something" flaring between them. We all notice it, as does Wiglaf, who warns his friend and lord that warriors must be focused to fight, and not be distracted by their lusts. It is a lesson this Beowulf would have done well to learn.

The challenge by Unferth, true to the original, allows Beowulf to boast of his prowess, though it seems to give the edge to Unferth, till Beowulf reveals that his challenger, the man attempting to cast aspersions on his ability and courage, was himself guilty of murdering his kinfolk. But all this is "true".

Then Grendel arrives, intent on destruction. He has been brought there deliberately by Beowulf. First, the queen sings a beautiful song about heroes, and then Beowulf's men raise a rousing, and unsurprisingly bawdy tune, guaranteed to wake the dead. It wakes Grendel, who comes to silence his tormentors. Only this time, although he manages to kill a few of them, and even chomps on the head of one before our horrified eyes, he is outmatched by an agile and wily Beowulf, who manages to shackle him to the central beam of the hall. This is how he loses his arm, as he struggles to flee this mighty opponent. And Beowulf has fought him barehanded, again true to the original.

So, I'm beginning to relax, and to think that maybe, just maybe, this will continue as it has begun, and we'll have a winner. Well...that was a foolish hope.

Things take a turn for the worse with the introduction of Grendel's mother. Hrothgar is seen to take his own life, bequeathing his kingdom and his queen to Beowulf. When he finds her, not only is Grendel's dam not a hag, but she is also never killed in the movie. She is an agelessly beautiful, patently seductive witch, who manages to lure Beowulf into a one-night-stand that produces the dragon with whom he fights, and whom he must kill at the end to protect his people and his lands.

We discover, just before Beowulf finds and "mates" with her, that Hrothgar has himself committed the gross sin soon to be his successor's as well. Grendel is Hrothgar's offspring, as the dragon is Beowulf's. And they were spawned in the wet, cold, eerie cave in which Grendel's mother makes her home.

The changes not only include a Wiglaf far older than the young man in the original poem, a Beowulf who rules in a land not his own, and an affair with Grendel's demon mother, but other liberties are taken as well. In the final battle with the dragon, Beowulf defeats the monster single-handedly, literally, without Wiglaf's help. He has a "bed mate" other than his wife, whom he nonetheless professes to love at the end, before the final battle, when he must make peace before he leaves to do battle. His wife helps to save his lover's life when the dragon attacks them both. Beowulf is sent off to Valhalla in a ship which is set aflame, instead of buried in a huge, burning mound on the headlands. And it is suggested that Wiglaf will share the fate of his friend and lord, at the end of the movie.

How, you may ask, will he do so? Ah...I see I neglected to mention the little matter of the gift. After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Hrothgar presents him with a beautiful golden horn, decorated with a dragon. The horn remains behind in Grendel's dam's cave, for she has promised Beowulf that as long as she has it, he will be a powerful king, and live well and prosperously. But then, the horn is found by a villager, and the ensuing mayhem almost causes the complete destruction of the commuity.

And when Beouwlf's burial ship has sunk, and Wiglaf has discovered the horn half-buried in the sand just under the water at the shore's edge, Grendel's mother, whom we see just prior kissing Beowulf's corpse on the burning ship, rises from the sea and shows her face to Wiglaf, who stares at her, mesmerized.

*GROAN* What we have here is a movie which began founded in a work of literature, and ended up in a place so far removed as to be horrifyingly laughable. The fact is that even here, where the producers and directors had the chance to present the three epic battles which the hero fought and won, they chose to present only two, making of the third, which was actually the second in the poem, a psychological struggle which the man loses because he thinks with his second head!

So, what can we learn from this incarnation of the epic tale? Well, let's see...

* Men don't function well when they are in heat.
* Unless men can resist the call of the flesh, they doom their communities to despair and disaster.
* Even evil women are more powerful than the mightiest men.
* Men who think with their second heads usually spawn "monsters".

May I hazard a fifth lesson, one that perhaps producers and directors should learn?

* The re-enacting of great works of literature is best left to those who understand them, who appreciate their importance in human culture, and who can forego their limited vision of the world to present something that is very likely outside their scope and experience.

That "monster" remark above reminds me... There was a very Mary Shelley's Frankenstein moment in the movie, when Beowulf first meets Grendel's mother, before he drops his pants and "does" her (thankfully, something we are spared the sight of!), when she compares him to her son, calling him a "monster". Hey, when she's right...

I did not like this movie. It did not make changes to answer questions left open by the fragment of the poem that remains extant. It introduced sensational, salacious, and frankly ridiculous elements into a story that, if treated as fantasy, would have been a fine thing to watch. I cannot imagine why it was made... Well, actually, I can. The reason is simple - so people can make money. The demon Grendel, the seductive Miss Jolie, the brawny Beowulf, whose real name escapes me (a bad sign that, when you don't know the name of the actor who plays the key role!), and Anthony Hopkins as the drunken Hrothgar, must have been enough to draw the movie-going crowds to what for me is a clear and present FLOP!

My rating: 2 stars, only because it actually started out "true" to the original.

Movie Review #1 - Model A

Okay guys! Here's the first one I did, for BEOWULF AND GRENDEL. We'll discuss what each one does tomorrow in class. Please be sure to read the second mode as well, in order to be ready for class.

I am a medievalist ... specifically, an Anglo-Saxonist. Don't panic ...all that means is that I am becoming something of an "expert" at the literature, and perforce, the history, of the Anglo-Saxons. And THAT means that among the things I must know is their greatest epic, the tale of the adventures of their greatest legendary hero, Beowulf. Now, I studied BEOWULF, the epic poem which is heralded as the greatest epic of the English language, in Old English. I was eighteen, my teacher was herself a medievalist, Jean D'Costa, now retired, and I was a freshman at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, St. Andrew, Jamaica, West Indies.

Since that time, I have become what I still am - a teacher and student of literature in English. And every time I teach a senior English class in the school where I am now also the assistant principal responsible for the English department, I teach BEOWULF. I usually begin the survey of British literature by reading my students the first few lines of the poem, in Old English, of course:

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

If I could, I would read it to you, too! Here's the translation, courtesy of the website listed below:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore, awing the earls.


I thought, as I watched the older modernized version of the poem, referenced in the title of this blog, that I would be displeased with it, as I so often am with movie adaptations of seminal works of literature. While there are spit-flying, "blowing raspberry" moments, where my lips did a more than passing fair imitation of Timon's in THE LION KING when he was told that Simba was a king, there are also moments when I saw the thoughtfulness of a mind willing to grapple with the difficulties of making legend into reality.

I forgive the writers, producers, and directors for the license they take with the original. After all, the poem is a fragment, and many questions need to be answered to make what's left "real" for a modern audience. The way they have chosen to answer those questions makes for an interesting retelling of a famous and riveting legend. They have made much that might elsewhere be taken as literal and made it figurative. And that's fine by me!

The version I watched this morning, not the one that came out this year with this ambitious and yet somewhat laughable blurb - "In a legendary time of heroes, the mighty warrior Beowulf battles the demon Grendel and incurs the hellish wrath of the beast’s ruthlessly seductive mother. Their epic clash forges the timeless legend of Beowulf." - - had as its hero the ruggedly handsome and deliciously-accented Gerard Butler in the hero's role.

He is a hero burdened by a conscience, one that is awakened by a character who appears nowhere in the fragment of the poem still extant in the British Museum. Selma, the "witch", can see the future, able as she is to read the bones of divination. She it is who sees Grendel's end. And well she might - we come to find, as the movie winds to its close, that she was "had" by the "troll" once, and that forever thereafter he protected her against the wicked Danes, who would otherwise have not only "had" her, but slit her throat.

And the troll Grendel - well his story, as you can see, if you know the original, has been so tampered with as to make him almost unrecognizable. And yet, despite its many fascinating "additions", I don't mind him as the antagonist. After all, the Danes killed his father before his very eyes, because he happened to be in their path, and had taken a fish. He cut off the head from his father's corpse and kept it in his cave until Beowulf's men found it, and one of them, who was to get his at the hands of the affronted son, smashed the skull to bits in a fit of useless anger.

Hrothgar, the man who killed Grendel's father, was the king of the Danes, and a more pitiful man it is hard to find in a warrior culture. He has been humbled at the hands of the troll, and by the midpoint of the movie, he is a sad drunk, bemoaning his fate, and wondering why Beowulf is giving credence to a woman who lives outside the community, whom his men would ravish if they could, and whom they had exiled anyway. If you understand the culture of the Danes, exile was tantamount to death for a warrior. But Selma is only a woman, and so of less value in the scheme of things.

Grendel's mother makes her appearance late in the movie. She is a white-haired, long-toothed, screaming banshee of a woman, coming to retrieve the arm of her dead son, and to kill any who try to stop her. She is the wild creature of the cave under the water, fighting in mortal combat with our hero to protect the corpse of her dead son, and her grandson - oh yes, another fabrication progressing, perhaps, from a "heat-oppressed brain" - the child of Grendel's one-night-stand with the fictitious Selma. She dies like a hero, at the wrong end of Beowulf's sword. That much is as it should be, if we go by the poem.

The setting is one of the reasons I have respect for the movie. It is bleak, even in daylight hours, and at night, when the troll stalks the land and murders the men in Hrothgar's mead hall, Heorot, it is even more eerie and fearful. The lives of the people are hard, and even the children (though none appear in the fragment of the poem that remains) are not left untouched by the cruelty of the times and place in which they live.

What lessons does this Beowulf learn? First, he is not immune to the charms of a "witch" who still manages to make him look like an unprepared, wet-behind-the-ears warrior with little capacity to understand the subtler lessons about leadership which Hrothgar has to learn the hard way. She has to tell him, practically, so that he does not repeat the mistake of the once mighty king of the Danes. Let me explain...

The movie opens with Grendel and his dad walking on the open plain, Grendel gamboling a few feet away from his sire. Suddenly, his father calls to him, gathers him in his arms, and runs. Behind him appear a band of warriors, who overtake him at the edge of a cliff. He lowers his child, who crawls over the side, clinging to the cliff-face, watching as Hrothgar's men shoot him with arrows and Hrothgar dismounts to make sure he is dead. He sees the boy, raises his sword and then lowers it. The final battle scene in the movie shows Beowulf facing a wild-haired child with a sword, defending the corpse of his dead father, now that his grandmother has been killed. Beowulf lets him go unharmed, and Selma tells him he has learned nothing from Hrothgar. We see him, just before he sails back to Geatland with his remaining men, making a burial mound for Grendel, as the troll's son watches.

What Beowulf has learned, it seems, is that to spare a life is not enough unless one acknowledges the life one has taken away. He has learned that compassion must act to heal the breach, or else the wound will remain, and the consequences for others will be high. He has learned that no act is without a consequence in human joy or pain, that no evil deed goes unpunished, that no one is immune to suffering. He has learned that we are each of us a part of something bigger and better than ourselves.

And he has learned the most powerful ties that bind us to each other are the ties of parent to child. What comes of that bond can be good or ill, but it cannot be broken, not even by death.
I leave you with a quotation from the blurb from this movie:"BEOWULF AND GRENDEL powerfully entwines themes of vengeance, loyalty and mercy, stripping away the mask of the hero myth, leaving a raw and tangled tale that rings true today." Maybe I'll show this one to my students the next time I teach the poem... it bears re-viewing.

MY RATING (take this as you will from someone who doesn't do movies much!) 4 stars