Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, November 19, 2007

I Am Beowulf! You're Going Daaaaahn!

Once upon a time there was a land far off in the North that looked very pretty as a computer-animated panorama on an Imax screen:

(For the full effect, close one eye, place the other approximately one inch from the image on your computer screen and swing your head in a wide circle. Ooooooh!!! Aaaaaaah!!!)

Here there lived a Welsh king called Hrothgar, played disturbingly by Anthony Hopkins in a CGI weeble-suit (minus the trousers):

(For the full effect, close one eye, place the other approximately one inch from the weeble's crotch and imagine it sans pants, as a freckled but pube-free groin conveniently obscured by other characters' arms, legs, swords, etc., at any point where we might be squicked by a sight of CGI tadger. Eeeewwwww!!!)

The king had a lovely young wife, Wealthow, played by Robin Wright Penn in a CGI cabbage patch doll costume:

He also had a snide / sleazy counsellor called Unfirth, played by John Malkovich in a CGI Brad Dourif costume:

Things were all going swimmingly in Hrothgar's court, with much partying, drinking, leching and singing of bawdy songs, until the noise of this joy woke up poor Grendel -- played here by Crispin Glover in a life-sized but mouldy and half-melted plasticine suit modeled after Morph from 70s British TV show, Take Hart:

Grendel lived in a cave on a mountain nearby, and for him such merriment could only be a source of pain, partly because he had no mates to party with and was therefore jealous, partly because the Northlanders' approach to singing was like that of a particularly annoying set of pissed-up Rugby fans, and partly because his dodgy dental hygiene had clearly resulted in some painful cavities (Is Glover talking Anglo-Saxon, doing an impression of John Hurt in The Elephant Man, or both? Enquiring minds need to know).

Anyway, the plot kicks in when, in the first instance of music criticism in recorded history, Grendel goes on a death-murder-killing-spree RAMPAGE, kicking in the doors of Hrothgar's mead hall (3D splinters FLYING OUT AT THE AUDIENCE!!!) biting off heads (3D heads BOUNCING OUT AT THE AUDIENCE!!!), chucking bodies about (3D bodies BEING CHUCKED OUT AT THE AUDIENCE!!!), and so on. This is quite spectacular and has huge novelty value, though Hrothgar and co don't seem to appreciate the spectacular novelty of it all, what with the dying horribly and all, but, hey, Beowulf is all about "the Age of Monsters" (according to Gaiman on some telly promo thing I saw on telly in NYC), so it's like, I dunno, cool and shit. Cause it's spectacular. And has huge novelty value. Did I already say that?

OK, so Beowulf turns up to Save The Day (tm) as a good old-fashioned Hero, played by Ray Winstone in a Noggin the Nog costume --

-- but, in a clever piece of method acting, modelling his performance on that of the "Guv'nor" character from Life on Mars:

Although this may be doing Winstone a disservice; it is possible that he's drawing on the original source material of John Thaw as DI Jack Regan in The Sweeney:

Anyway, Beowulf does a bit of throaty shouting (like, ye know that dragon movie, Reign of Fire, where Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey spend most of the time having a throaty-shouting contest -- "I CARRRN BE MORRRE GRRRROWLY THARRN YOOOOOUUU!!!" -- yeah? Like that!) then strips naked to fight Grendel and wins, hurrah!

But the story is only just beginning, as we realise when Beowulf has a scary wet dream about a floating Wealthow (actually Grendel's Mother in dream-disuise) only to wake up and find all his people killt and hung from the rafters by Grendel's Mother. All his people, that is, except for the Dennis Waterman to Beowulf's John Thaw -- Wiglaf, played by Frank from 28 Weeks Later, Brendan Leeson, in a CGI Gimli-suit:

Grendel's Mother, I should add, is here played by Angelina Jolie as Mystique from the X-Men if they ran out of the right colour of metallic paint and had to make do with gold:

"She's hot... but she's pissed", the tag-line might read. Or "She's hotter than that bint in Species... and even more dangerous!"

Whatever. At this point, anyone who's read the Anglo-Saxon source text might well be stroking their chin. Grendel's Mother was a super-sexy babe-demoness? I don't remember that in the original! One might grow more curious still when Beowulf proceeds to shag aforesaid super-sexy babe-demoness rather than dispatching her. Um... isn't that, like, a *radical* departure from the original? we might ask. No matter; all of these considerations pale into insignificance against the key question raised by this representation of Grendel's Mother: just how Mother Dearest, given her barbie-doll smooth and entirely slitless pubic mound, manages to get it on with both Beowulf and Hrothgar -- here revealed as Grendel's father, ye see, to provide a nice pat theme of parental responsibility as opposed to all that complex guff about the conflict of Christian belief systems with autochthonous religion and mythology; remember, it's about "the Age of Monsters", not the age of... well... the Christianisation of Northern Europe. Fuck that shit! It's about Monsters! Big 3D Monsters THROWING SHIT OUT AT THE AUDIENCE!!! But, I'm getting off the point, so, yeah, how exactly did she shag them? And from which orifice did she drop her sprogs? Sure, sure, others might ask *why*, given that Beowulf is all about "the Age of Monsters", we have Grendel's Mother as a stereotyped Evil Sexy Vixen rather than the ass-kicking, man-munching Monster of the source text, why she has to use her "womanly wiles" on the hero rather than, well, going mano-a-mano with him in an underwater slug-fest cause she ain't nobody's bitch, motherfucker. Me, I just want to know *how*.

It may seem that I'm overemphasising the importance of Grendel's Mama's labia-lack. To be sure, I have to confess I'm not quite sure what Zemeckis was trying to say by this, so it's entirely possible I'm missing something important. I can only be sure that we're *meant* to take this as highly significant from the close-up crotch-shot of Grendel's Mum that, in Imax, cannot fail to impress with it's in-yer-faceness (It's a giant gold barbie-crotch and IT'S COMING TO GET YOU!!!).

Anyway, shit happens, Beowulf becomes king after lying to everyone about having killed Grendel's Mystique, marries Wealthow after Anthony Hopkins jumps out of a window (proving that Weebles not only wobble, but do in fact also fall down), and lives happily ever after (with an extra Cabbage Patch Wench on the side when Wealthow gets too old to cut the mustard) until one day the dragon-cum-golden-baldy-man he's sired on Grendel's Mystique comes to wreak an angry vengeance on Daddy Beowulf.

It all turns out OK, though. The Cabbage Patch Queen and Wench are saved from a falling-down bridge (bits of bridge FALLING OUT AT THE AUDIENCE!!!), and Beowulf redeems himself by killing the son he's been a bad absent father to, dying nobly in the act (cause, um, bad parenting is resolved by infanticide?). People make speeches and we close on an inscrutably long scene of Wiglaf and Grendel's Mystique looking at each other in that alternate close-up thing that Hawk the Slayer stole from Sergio Leone movies. You know, where you see one character looking at another with a Paddington stare for long enough to know that it's *meaningful*, and then the camera cuts to the other character and they're looking at the first character, and this shot is held till you know that their Paddington stare is also *meaningful*, and then, just to emphasise the sheer *meaningfulness* of the characters' silent stares, they repeat these *meaningful stare* shots until the audience knows with every fibre of their boredom that this is *meaningful*, even if we don't exactly know what meaning we're supposed to be gleaning from this exchange of silences.

But maybe I'm being harsh on the ending. There's certainly an ultimate point of sorts to be found in the speeches that precede the staring contest. Like, when one of the characters extolls Beowulf's deeds and says how his story will live on forever, and you think, yeah, until a millenia and a bit later when it'll get dug up, rewired into a monstrously misshapen thing, painted in gauche muticolour, and made to dance like a monkey-puppet in a Follywood Spectacular. Ah, yes, the story of Beowulf's victories will live on forever... until we bowdlerise it by excising one-third of those victories in a revisionist rewrite where we decide *not* to have him kill Grendel's Mother after all. Oh, yeah, and be a lying philanderer to boot. Yes, Beowulf's story will live on forever!

I'm usually all for revisionist reinterpretations of old myths, of course. And if they subvert the sub-Neitszchean bollocks of the All-Conquering Hero that's all the better. The problem with this take on Beowulf is that the reinterpretations are less about subversion than they are about simplification, paring away complexities and bolting on spurious interpersonal relationships to make a story that's more accessible to a cinema audience looking for gosh-wow and SFX. Grendel is sired by Hrothgar cause it gives us a pat sentimental sense of his Responsibility for the Bad Things that are happening. The dragon is sired by Beowulf for the same reason. The result is a cosy illusion of moral ambiguity and flawed heroism in an easily-parseable theme in which Grendel and the dragon are spurned sons a la Frankenstein's Monster. An illusion, I say, because that's about as deeply as the theme is developed; the film ultimately has nothing to say about all this other than, "Oh, look! The spurned son of the supposedly heroic warrior figure (who's actually a lying philanderer) just bit the head off someone and SPAT IT OUT RIGHT AT THE AUDIENCE!!!"

I mean, in plot terms the story is probably engaging enough to keep most people watching through those points when things aren't FLYING OUT OF THE SCREEN AT YOU!!! It's just that -- make no mistake -- the eyeball kicks are pretty much what's on offer here. If all you're looking for is the spectacularity and novelty value of a cutting-edge 3D Hollywood Schlocksbuster, Beowulf does do the business. It'll have you oohing and aahing appreciatively at all the COOL SHIT COMING RIGHT AT YA!!! And even apart from these action scenes, what with the tracking shots over icy wastes, through canyons and caves and what not -- it's all very... spectacular. If you can hack the way that the hyper-glossy CGI gives a weirdly unrealist vibe to the characters -- somewhere between bad Fantasy cover art and creepy Victorian china doll -- then the whole thing will probably look WAY COOL, MAN!!! I find the whole video-game cut-scene look a bit shite, to be honest, but maybe that's just me. I've been over CGI since Star Wars Episode None.

What else have we got? The dodgy accents aren't quite at the Highlander level of amusement potential, but they're not far off. Hopkins used his own Welsh accent, apparently, because Zemeckis didn't care enough about that sort of shit to specify anything. That same directorial indifference seems to have given us Angelina Jolie speaking in a weird psuedo-Slavic mode and Winstone defaulting to his Cockney gangster/guvnor gruffness. It's not, as I say, *too* risible; it's just that you kinda keep expecting Beowulf to drag some hapless Geat out of a drunken stupor and shout, "GET YER TROUSERS ON, SONNY BOY! YOU'RE NICKED!"

Ultimately, I'm not even too bothered by the butchering of the source material, because it's hard to get angry at candy-floss. It's just a fluffy confection, after all, made of little more than artificial colouring for prettiness and spun sugar for the rush; it's not meant to be anything more. That's what Beowulf is, so it's about as worth seeing as any brain-out, sponge-in Hollywood bollocks, assuming you can switch off the inner critic and forget everything you know about Beowulf. And assuming, of course, that you see it in Imax. Strip away the sensurround 3D experience and I suspect it'd taste less like candy-floss and more like cotton wool painted pink. As it is, I came out of with my mates laughing at the stupidity but appreciating the hokey-but-neat 3D tricks. If you go into something knowing it's going to be shite, you're much less likely to be disappointed.


Blogger John Klima said...

Dude! Rock on! I'm glad I wasn't drinking anything when I saw that damn weeble. I have a whole box of them somewhere around here.

That's too bad that Gaiman couldn't do better (or wasn't allowed to do better) by Beowulf. I'm not surprised, but still disappointed. Particularly by that wee digression from the source text (the whole mother not dying thing).

Beowulf is one of my favorite texts. I read it first in grade school (we had a juvenile prose edition that I'd literally kill to get my hands on) and then again in high school for a class, and my friends immediately dubbed me 'Grendel,' a nickname I carry to this day.

If I wasn't lazy, I'd actually go to my LibraryThing account to tell you how many different editions of the book I own. In college, they had a course where you read it in Old English, but it never fit into my schedule. So I read it in Old English on my own.

*sigh* I need to get a life.

6:51 am  
Blogger John Klima said...

Sorry to post again, but the juvenile edition was by Robert Nye. I decided to go looking for it and I found it!

So, do I spend $25 for a used hardcover (and likely the same edition I read as a child) or $5.99 for a new paperback?

7:03 am  
Blogger Aishwarya said...

*snicker* Now I'm really looking forward to this movie. I doubt it'll ever be released here, though.

7:25 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

And, ye know, I didn't even mention the stilletto heels on Grendel's Mommy.

2:39 pm  
Blogger Jess Nevins said...

Hi, Hal--

Perhaps she extrudes a labia, similar to the Alien's inner mouth?

Or is that too hentai?

6:55 pm  
Blogger Eric said...

What's the point of Beowulf if no one gets beaten to death with their own son's arm?

He did at least tear Grendel's arm off, didn't he?

7:49 pm  
Blogger Elizabeth Bear said...

The stills of the stilletto heels making the rounds of the internets were key in my decision not to go see this thing.

Thank you for watching so we don't have to.

9:19 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I guess I'm going to be in the minority here, and say... I really liked it. Key to note is that even in the original, Beowulf SAYS he killed the Mother, but brings back the head of Grendel. I think it's a pretty cool commentary on how inaccurate word-fame can become truth if repeated often enough...

9:37 pm  
Blogger Britgeekgrrl said...

Best. Review. Ever.

11:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good night, he boinks Grendel's mother? Why do I have to see a messed-up CGI movie to se Ray and Angelina make the beast w/two backs?

Ah, well.

Here's a Beowulf antidote, if you like. No CGI.

3:08 am  
Blogger AbbotOfUnreason said...

Ya know, I wanted to see this movie in spite of the objection of my very own wife, but this review convinced me. Not because of the divergence from source -- the Brunette made the case for that already -- but because of the THINGS FLYING AT THE AUDIENCE with Weebles.

I'm oddly weirded out by your obsession with women's crotches.

Oh, and although you helped me avoid this movie, you did not help with my Weeble nightmares. thanks.

2:01 pm  
Blogger Swanosaurus said...

Oh come on, give these guys some credit. At least they made one thing perfectly clear: the whole hero-ing business is a fucked up asshole thing. Sure, Grendel might be a sociopath. But Beowulf clearly is the schoolyard bully who picks on the sociopath (and therefore the greater of two evils). Later in life, this bully will probably become a cop and be resonsible for multiple cases of severe police brutality. Intentionally or not, this movie DOES deconstruct the masculinist hero.

Also, I liked THINGS COMING RIGHT AT ME! I also liked Anthony Hopkins bad cgi-skin (which actually looked good because it was, well, convincingly bad skin!). And his fat, round belly.

12:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got beyond being appalled at the mess of the narrative when I saw the *naked* fight scene with Grendel, and their decision to use cute genital-blocking props (ala Austin Powers)for Beowulf during the fight. A whole row of teenage girls seated behind me howled with laughter during the scene -- eyes following the makeshift fig leaves. (yeah and of course those stiletto heels too -- perfect for cave-wear.) After the movie I went home and re-read Heaney's translation just to purge myself of the silliness.

12:13 am  
Blogger Richard Brandt said...

Thanks to Angelina Jolie, I also know that only barbarians in Macedonia spoke with an actual Greek accent. Macedonian children, of course, were blonde and had an Irish brogue.

7:24 pm  
Blogger Ethan said...

I must be sure not to miss this one. You've just convinced me. Oh, and also, this?

"I've been over CGI since Star Wars Episode None."

THANK you. No one listened to me.

5:39 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So as a non-labia-lacking viewer, I was appalled at the even-tho-it-was-in-animated-3d detailed carnage but at the same time thrilled that the downfall of 3 mighty kings, including the most manly and epic of all, was their you-know-whats - no matter that the movie was a total outrage compared to the poem - it was still true-to-life, lol.

3:54 am  
Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Heh heh. I've been wise enough to avoid this movie - the trailers were enough, surely? - but it did prompt me to go back and read the poem. And then to start doing my own version, squinting through the Old English, because none of those extant please me. (You can of course request a copy if interested, I'm up to line 1000 or Fitt 16, but I swear it's a better poem than Heaney's, which reads rather as if it's written by an accountant).

To be perfectly honest, anyone who reads the poem and thinks it's an awesome model for male behaviour needs their heads read. Or an imagination implant. It's all drinking, fighting and boasting. Really, it is. (OK, maybe some people are that dumb?)

But it's a fab poem, all the same.

4:10 am  

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