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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Beowulf & Grendel: A Love Story?

If I were to say "I went to see Beowulf and Grendel tonight, and it was weird," many might find that to be a tautology, or redundant, or tautologically redundant. When I further add that it was a Canadian-UK-Icelandic co-production, the mead hall would surely ring with a resounding chorus of "DUH!" And yet, it was not weird in the ways that you might think it would be

Uh . . . spoilers? No, really. In addition to the 1500-year-old spoilers, there are spoilers for this specific adaptation below.

Superficially, it's a pretty straight in-period (for Lasnerian values of "period," and with something passed down orally for who knows how long before being committed to text, that's pretty damned Lasnerian) retelling in modern English. Geats? Check. Danes? Check. Monster? You betcha. Mommy Monster? Indeed. Plus, there's mead, there's meat, there's smelly fur and no silverware. Men are men and women know that Martha Stewart knows jack about hand-cut prosciutto.

Quite a sensible deviation from the poem is axing the second act entirely. No one wants to watch Beowulf become some kind of reject from a Springsteen song, old, fat, and hardly welcome even at his local. No one cares about the dragon, anonymous balladeer, and sequels are dangerous territory. So I'm nodding my head emphatically with the decision to live up to the title: This is about Beowulf & Grendel (and Grendel's Dam, but chycks were rarely seen above the title in 500 AD).

And I suppose you've got to have a love story? I don't know. I think probably if your movie-going crowd is up for a bit of fur-clad Icelandic enjoyment of a Friday night, they can probably do without the hooters. If not they're welcome to freak freely over Wealhtheow and her legendery "hospitality."

But if you do have to cave and introduce a romantic foil into the mix, why make her a vaguely punk pagan with a North American accent who is orphaned, made a whore in her parentless state, then driven out because some old fucker dies in her bed? (Talk about Every!Woman, 500 AD edition.) And if she MUST be a vaguely punk pagan, etc., etc., do you really have to have her be pathetically grateful that Grendel covers her with a blanket after he stops by for a bit of inexplicable, nonconsensual sex (and, as it happens, super-protamine-powered sex)? And if she must be pathetically grateful for the postboink blanket, does she then have to have a continued soft spot for Grendel because they share a kid? Ok, to be fair, Grendel's other fine qualities include "never [taking her] again" and "keeping away the Danes who who would fuck [her] and slit [her] throat." (I kind of wish I was making that up, even though it [the kid part] is not actually as bad as it sounds.)

The other big addition to the cast of thousands is "Father Brendan," an epileptic (at best, bug-fucking crazy, at worst) Christian Celt who stumbles around warning the Danes that their gods won't protect them. He's less problematic than Selma (punk-pagan mother and Grendel apologist), and the more explicit mixture of mainstream Norse paganism (it's unclear what kind of paganism it is that Selma practices) has its interesting moments. For example, at the end as the Geats sail away into the not-to-be-filmed sequel, the balladeer among them adds in the detail that Grendel is descended from Cain, leading to some amusing "How's that? Who shot whose brother in the what now?" from others in the crew.

Also interesting, if kind of a cop out, is the fact that Brendan attributes the fact that he survives several of Grendel's more murderous walkabouts to the Big G, but they kill off another disabled-to-the-point-of-shamanistic-goodness wandering Crazy!Christian just to show that the REAL reason Grendel has no interest in Brendan is that Brendan has never wronged him. I suppose it's ballsy and unusual to suggest that all the religious options are equally bogus and empty, but that is undermined by the overarching message that all the violence is about personal vendettas ans foolish violation of the region-wide pact of mutual nonaggression.

In skimming the text of the ballad itself this morning, I'm reminded that Grendel really brings the petty in the original. I'm not used to thinking of him that way, as John Gardner's novel Grendel is my more recent exposure to the character, and it's been a long while since I've read that. (As an aside, if anyone sees Goldenthal's opera based on the novel being mounted anywhere that isn't HellA, lemme know. I'm in serious opera withdrawl.) But I have to admit, Grendel pretty seriously brings the petty (I mean, getting rampagey because the Danes have beer and you don't? Understandable, maybe, but killing 200 in response seems the teensiest bit twitchy) in the poem, giving the filmmakers a task to make him more sympathetic.

To unstack the deck against Grendel, the filmmakers introduce two additional plot elements and deploy a manly man ethos with garnish of "ethnic conflicts are hopeless." First of all, Grendel is not nearly as monstrous as the ballad makes him out to be---he's a "troll." In this case, being a troll involves being hairy (starting in early childhood), very muscular, and having wookie legs from the knee down. There are also some spurious facial prosthetics that had me worried that they were going in a Clan of the Cave Bear direction (i.e., Neanderthals vs. Cro Magnon in a stone cave death match), in which case I would definitely have had to slap some bitches. As it is, Grendel has only some kind of rudimentary grunting language (which Selma, conveniently, speaks fluently), which stands in for Beowulf's determination (in the original poem) to fight the bare handed so as not to give himself a cultural advantage over the uncultured savage.

Leaving aside the general interethnic human-troll conflict for a moment, the filmmakers have also given Grendel a very specific beef with the Danes. As a goat-bearded, angelically blonde troll child, Grendel witnessed his father's death at the hands of Hrothgar and his men (we later learn that they hunted him down for the heinous crime of "crossing [their] path and taking a fish"---for some reason, Beowulf does not deliver the much-needed slap up Hrothgar's head when this information is provided long after they are hip deep in the skulls an innards of friends). Thus, Grendel's issue with Hrothgar is not the superiority of his mead and his endless supply of knock-knock jokes, but the fact that Hrothgar pulled a double-stupid by killing Grendel's sire and NOT killing Grendel when he had the chance. Then to make sure that the story retains its eternal struggle feel, Grendel's child with Selma is introduced (quite literally) 10 minutes before the end of the film, and Beowulf mercifully decides not to kill him. Proving that there's just no getting chycks, Selma tells Beowulf he's clearly learned nothing from Hrothgar. Sorry, dear, next time I'll hack your love child to pieces, 'kay?

Personally, I wouldn't have resorted to such substantive plot changes in spelunking for sympathy for Grendel. For me, the fact that they did is complicated by the opportunities within the text that they didn't handle so well. I don't mind that they literally humanized Grendel by making his species at least near-human, and I'm sympathetic to the point made by the Reader reviewer that this saves the filmmakers from a cash-flow problem and saves us all from CGI on the cheap.

But the cultural/acultural or civilized/savage dichotomy is such a natural element of the text to work with in illuminating why Grendel might do what he does (or why what he does is set down through oral and eventually written history in the way it is), and they really waffle there. They have baby-goat Grendel hack off his father's head, which, I think is meant to be a whacky cultural misunderstanding; that is., the idea of decapitation is appalling to the Western audience---particularly at the moment---but it turns out that this is Grendel's death ritual. It is his way of mourning and venerating his father, but it's also serves as his Inigo Montoya scars---Grendel is not going to be anyone's Hamlet.

But the filmmakers seem to be at a loss regarding Grendular exposition. We hear a lot about him from Selma, and personally, I wish we hadn't. I suppose when one is used to drunk Danes showing up and forcing a fuck, a troll showing up for the same purpose at least stands out from the background (plus, the blanket of "he's just misunderstood, my love can fix him"), but ew. When we see Grendel in expository scenes, we end up as frustrated as he. He has a tendency to bash himself bloody: Is this training for the ultimate confrontation with Hrothgar? Is it frustration with himself because he keeps forgetting to kill Hrothgar (when you dispense with the idea that Hrothgar's throne is protected by the big G, you do have a problem of Hamlet-y proportions there)? Is it because he really wants to direct?

In another apparently pointless scene, he's bowling for skulls with skulls. I think we all know that I have a much greater than average capacity to appreciate that visual---and me and my viscera did a sick little happy dance during it---but dude, wtf? Most of your audience is going to received that as pretty persuasive evidence that Grendel is without culture, without morality, and there's no reasoning with him. I couldn't figure out why the scene was there at all, particularly given the central role that Grendel's father's disembodied head plays in driving the action (uh, not in a Futurama way, but that would be cool, too).

On the flipside of these weird scenes that show Grendel on the culture fence, Beowulf seems to think that Grendel has, not just an ethos, but an ethos that Beowulf understands and shares: Don't fuck with me, and I won't fuck with you. Throughout the film, Beowulf sets himself apart from both his own men and the Danes by persistently trying to understand Grendel's actions. He notes that, troll he may be, he adheres to the manly code---he doesn't kill women and children (though Hrothgar notes they'll die anyway without their men, and Selma is an ambulatory reminder of the grim fate to which Patches and Poor Violet are doomed in this story), he leaves the crazy priest alone, and he has no taste for Geat flesh until the Geats insist on scentmarking his 'hood and smashing up dear old dad.

Perhaps this is my baggage, courtesy of current events and my current dissertational ethnicity obsession, but during these conversations, there's a strong **cough**solution to 'ethnic conflict' in the middle east and elsewhere**cough vibe. It's appallingly simplistic and wrong headed in a number of ways. And even if one takes this policy at face value, I feel certain that the 200 slaughtered Danes might be a bit miffed and like an explanation as to why Hrothgar is still boozing and queening it up (again, without the literal Deux Ex Machina of the one, true God). In any case, I guess I'm just doomed by my internal reproductive organs to have a certain distaste for the vicious cycle of such a manly moral code.

But even my pretty hard core dissatisfaction with some of the plot elements and much of the apparent philosophical orientation of the film, there's a lot that's good and enjoyable in the film. After my last outing with Gerard Butler, I was extremely wary, but he's an excellent Beowulf. Everything about him sets him apart as a leader of men. In fact, I'd argue that they didn't need to go to the trouble of making him cleaner and giving him a more "Jesus-y" look as the film goes on. On body language alone, he stands out.

In contrast to Grendel, most of the plot changes they decided on for Beowulf are to the good. In the poem, the Danes are subjects of the Geats and Beowulf's arrival has a bit of "noblesse oblige" to it. Here, the class and power differentials are levelled. In fact, there's a scene before Beowulf arrives in Daneland in which Beowulf's king wishes that he was as beloved as Hrothgar. This makes Beowulf a more accessible, if highly skilled and charismatic, regular guy and less of the supernatural hero. (Of course, it's worth mentioning that Selma's entire storyline hinges on the future being predestined, which kind of undermines the suspense of a more human Beowulf.)

That social levelling also allows the audience to view the fact that the times, they are a-changin' through Beowulf's eyes. As a future leader of his people, you get the sense that all the interethnic shennigans weigh upon him, and he sees some pretty bad shit on the horizon. A more equal relationshp with Hrothgar also allows Hrothgar to challenge Beowulf's take on the Danes' conversion to Christianity. Beowulf says the "swim" out of fear, but Hrothgar points out that at least they're still swimming.

Stellan Skarsgaard is also a highly appealing Hrothgar. On the one hand, he's a sad old drunk who can't cope with his own troll problems. On the other hand, he became a sad old drunk out of genuine grief for the lost and multilayered guilt (over killing Grendel's sire in the first place and his own "weakness" [or mercy, as Beowulf points out] in not killing the child when he had a chance) regarding his role in it all. He rises to the occasion from time to time, but ultimately, his simple-minded foreign policy is the undoing of the Danes. (Yes, let's pause and reflect that Beowulf's Machiavelli and Sun Tzu for Dummies approach represents unprecedented nuance.)

You might have gotten the impression that I'm not entirely happy with the gender politics in this version. Truthfully, I wish they'd just left the chycks out of things entirely. Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir (why, yes, that was a cut and paste, why do you ask?) is---visually impressive---as Wealhtheow, but she's got precious little to do. One gets the feeling that her scene with Selma was inserted to give her more screen time, but like Grendel's expository scenes, it's disjointed and pointless. Grendel's dam is practically a nonentity (in fact, she's credited as the Sea Hag and looks like a female Wraith from Stargate: Atlantis). I think that Sarah Polley is actively bad (or, rather, passively bad---she is unnervingly affectless throughout the movie), but I could be convinced that the director simply had no idea why Selma was there at all, resulting a hopelessly botched performance.

But however problematic the women are, the rest of the supporting cast is quite good. Breca (Rory McCann) and Unferth (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) met my 15-year-old mental pictures of them perfectly. Tony Curran, who is given very little to do right up until the point that he completely dooms himself, really pulls out the stops in that scene as Hondscioh.

There are also directorial kudos to be given, even if I personally might give more pinches on balance. Certainly the Icelandic landscape is stunning, and Sturla Gunnarsson makes the most of it. There are also some artfully placed shots that play around with perspective to good advantage---Beowulf's silhouetted figure appears literally larger than life as he stands and dwarfs a building in the background. Grendel, for as massive as he is, often has a childlike lightness to his movements. And (you knew I'd have to comment), the movie gives great severed head and highly realistic severed head reaction to the laws of physics. SHUT UP, IT'S IMPORTANT.

The Telecommuniculturey executive summary: Weird (but not Bergman weird, M would have me note), but compelling in some ways. Worth a rental, at least.

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