[Milton-L] 17th Century contexts

Jackie Murdock ucla760chica at yahoo.com
Thu Nov 29 14:24:04 EST 2007


A similar discussion went on a couple of weeks ago on a Chaucer listserv. This posting, by Daniel Kline, is one that I found particularly interesting and may offer you all some food for thought. (Back to lurking now) 
   
  --Jackie Murdock
   
   
   
  I really enjoy these kinds of discussions where medieval culture
 intersects
pop-culture topics because, I guess, I'm of the mind that my individual
situatedness in my own culture (with all its attendant complexities)
inevitably conditions my understand of "the medieval." 

To whit, a snippet of Stephanie Zacharek's review of "Beowulf" from
Salon.com:

<begin quotation>

"Beowulf" is Zemeckis' latest foray into soul sucking -- I mean,
 performance
capture -- and if you're thinking that the so-called filmmaker has
 hunkered
down to make a nice, faithful adaptation of the 2000 Seamus Heaney
translation of that weird, melancholy epic poem (you optimistic thing,
 you),
you should know that this "Beowulf" has been adapted, reimagined and
 souped
up by writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. After the hero of the title,
"played" by Ray Winstone, severs the arm of Grendel (Crispin Glover),
 the
scary, anguished creature that has been terrorizing a community of
mead-swilling Danes, a comely cutie wonders aloud if all of Beowulf's
strength is in his arms -- or if he's got it in his legs as well,
 especially
the "third" one. 

You see, the "real" Beowulf is not a particularly sexy story, and
 Zemeckis
knows it. "Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me,"
 he's
quoted as saying in the movie's press notes, recalling that he'd been
 made
to read the damn thing in junior high school. "But when I read the
screenplay that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did, I was immediately
captivated." He asked Gaiman and Avary why their script was so exciting
 when
the poem was so boring. They explained that the poem was written
 somewhere
between the seventh and the 12th centuries, although its story had been
passed along verbally for hundreds of years. Since the only people who
 knew
how to write in those days were monks, Avary and Gaiman figured these
reputable men of the cloth would have edited out all the juicy bits, so
 they
added some back in. If you see "Beowulf," you'll have plenty of
opportunities to stare down computer-generated cleavage, and one rowdy,
bearded, tattooed warrior crows to one of his conquests about how much
 noise
he makes when he comes. Personally, I file that under "TMI," especially
coming from a cartoon character, but you have to admit it would knock
 any
monk off his sandals. 

<end quotation>

I think Gaiman and Avary have created an important new form of textual
criticism -- 'paleopornology' or perhaps 'pornocodicology' -- in which
 one
simply adds the 'juicy bits' to lacunae in the text to create a salable
screenplay. I also think it's interesting to see the textual
 assumptions
that shaped the screenwriters' approach to the text.

I guess I prefer to try to make sense out of what these adaptations
 achieve
discursively and culturally rather than decry their 'authenticity' or
'inauthenticity' (as I try to do with any movie adaptation of a written
text. They're two different forms of media with their own sets of
conventions.)

As to Brian's question as to what makes something good or bad? On the
 one
hand, I absolutely love good bad movies ('A Knight's Tale') but get
 cranky
around badly done movies that could've been good ('Joliewulf') because,
 like
'Polar Express' (Zemeckis's other 'motion capture' crapfest) it turns
 actors
into animations and robs them of their most important assets: their
 bodies.
I don't mind stiff and plasticated 3D rendering in a game character
 that I'm
controlling, but I think it just deadens the characters in a movie. 

Nonetheless, I'll definitely go see the movie and I'll likely enjoy a
 lot of
it, but certainly not with the expectation that it's 'Beowulf' in any
 sense
that I understand that Anglo-Saxon text or that it's anything other
 than an
elaborate computer generated cartoon--that's not nearly as good as
'Knight-Night Bugs.'




Roy Flannagan <roy at gwm.sc.edu> wrote:
  I just reviewed the Beowulf movie for the local media here in Beaufort. I certainly hope that no English majors here say "I'm not reading the book because I saw the movie!"

Roy Flannagan

Beowulf, the Computer-Enhanced Movie

The god of Wrothgar in the Beowulf movie seems to be Epicurus, not Odin, even if Anthony Hopkins, in character, often says, drunkenly, “Thank you, Odin.” Poor old Sir Anthony has to show off enhanced muscular arms and lots of blubber as he appears as inelegantly nude from the rear as did Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets. Angelina Jolie, now called Angewulf in various blogs*well, she is another thing naked in gold paint. I guess all those old Geats, Angles, and Saxons used to party naked in the seedy meadhalls that in the movie look like road houses on a Fifties rural dirt road in the South.

The movie is special-effected, rather than acted, even though the director, Tribeca or Duckmuckus, whatever his name is, has bought very expensive stars in Hopkins, Jolie, and John Malkovitch; and the actor who plays Beowulf in the buff, Ray Winstone, is undoubtedly an experienced actor underneath his enhanced, synthetic facial expressions and his all-too-perfect abs. For some reason, Winstone uses a Welsh accent to play a Geat. But, for his character, computer-generated imagery rules.

Don’t go to see the movie right after having read Beowulf the epic poem, because then you will wonder why Wealtheow, wife of Hrothgar, played by Robin Wright Penn, starts flirting with Beowulf as if she were Isolde married to King Mark and flirting with Tristan*or as if she were Lancelot’s girly-girl Guinevere, off on her fling from King Arthur. All those medieval romances look alike, according to Zemeckis and his writers. And Grendel in the cartoonish movie is a rotting corpsy thing, something like the Gollum in Ring movies but able to fling Jutes or Geats or Danes from one end of the hall to another with a one-handed toss (until Beowulf rips his arm off, of course). He is not, as in the epic, spawn of Satan and descendant of Cain, and Christianity is sadly mocked in the movie and made to seem second-fiddle to the worship of Odin. In the epic, Grendel and his mother are both emissaries of Satan, sent to punish humankind for evil human deeds. In the movie, they are eit!
her slimy or beautiful in gold leaf, and they have little or no theological significance.

Grendel’s mother is not younger than Grendel in the epic, or golden, or naked: she is a certified evil, strong old hag. She is fought with under water: she doesn’t rise out of it slowly like the sword in some “wartery tart’s” arm coming out of a puddle. You can tell that I like Monty Python and the Holy Grail better than I do this movie, which takes itself too seriously, for the sake of all the teenaged boys who are drawn to its violence, its teasing nudity, and its noise.

I guess it is good for the continuity in the movie’s plot to have the dragon that Beowulf fights in his declining years occasionally look like another of the shapes shifted into by Angiewulf, and for Angie-the-demon-bitch-goddess to be making out with the body of Beowulf as it burns in his ship burial, as he seems to be returning to the really sexy love of his youth, the beautiful Jolie hag.

As an English professor, I don’t know what exactly could be done with Beowulf in the movies, since it is a Christianized heroic wolfy folk tale written down by monks in about 1000 AD. In today’s idiom, the plot certainly appears to have cartoon elements, though I don’t think computerized graphic images are the way to make a cartoon based on primitive fears of swamp monsters facing totemistic super-strong, battle-hardened heroes. If I were making the movie on a human scale, a character-based movie, I might use a giant like the guy in the early Bond movies or an NFL tight end in the role of the monster, and, I guess, a pumped-up Brad Pitt type as Beowulf*the type Brad Pitt played in Troy. Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Unferth, and Wiglaf could all be played by fairly ordinary actors who could act kingly or queenly or snidely or loyally. And the mead hall should be a fairly substantial standalone structure, not a kind of outhouse adjacent to some sort of fairy tale futuristic medie!
val town as it is in the movie. Things going on in the mead hall could be drunken, yes, but not as if we were attending a Roman Saturnalia with a paunchy Trimalchio figure leading the chuggers. And, I’m sorry, but really pretty modern women like Angelina Jolie and Robin Wright Penn don’t belong in an era of crooked teeth and dred-locks not just for battle-worn men but for the hags they married.


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