Last night, I went to see Beowulf with a bunch of my unsavory pals. This was our third attempt to put together a group of people to see it, but third time is a charm and there ended up being around a dozen of us including Blue Blood hotties Scar 13, Tassy Pink, Joel Awesome, and Kitty Von Klau, Blue Blood Creative Director Forrest Black, Allan Amato who shoots for Scar13.com and more. It was kind of cool because it seems like it is becoming less common to have a bunch of people get together for something simple like seeing a movie. Yes, I’m thinking of going to see a movie with naked vikings fucking water sprites as a wholesome activity. You have to consider what the rest of my existence is like to put it in context.
We saw Beowulf at the Arclight so we could view the 3D version. The Arclight has extra-comfy chairs and prides itself on its high tech theater equipment. This is Los Angeles, so the front hall featured a display with actual costumes worn by actors in the movie. I sort of thought they were all in motion suits and they made the flick video game style, but I guess physical outfits were involved at some point. I liked the clothing anyway. I think I need to start wearing a royal cape around. The Arclight personnel handed us 3D glasses on the way into the theater.
Spoiler alert: If you didn’t read Beowulf in school (or at any other point), then the rest of this might include spoilers. I studied all the Icelandic sagas in school. When I was in college, I actually took a class called “Kinship and Law in Medieval Iceland.” And now it is my job to do things like write up the Beowulf movie. I guess I wasn’t wasting time and money at university after all. Phew.
Most of the Scandanavian sagas came from many troubadours through oral tradition and they were about heroism and adventure. And possibly about the fact that vikings tended to drink mead stored in flasks which were fabulous breeding grounds for hallucinogenic fungus. Beowulf, by contrast, believed to be by one author of English or German origin, is almost a satire of the saga genre. In the book, it is unclear whether the hero Beowulf or the monster Grendel is really the protagonist. Grendel is a sympathetic monster and some scholars feel that he represents nature in the epic battle between man and nature. It seems like, in these environmentally conscious times, the movie makers would have hit the green message a bit harder. Personally, I buy recycled where I can, even if it costs a bit more. But I roll in a big American car and I leave my air conditioning on when it is hot, whether or not I’m home. So this didn’t exactly damage my enjoyment of the movie.
The main deviation from the original poem is in the nature of Beowulf’s relationship with Grendel’s mother. Scholars disagree vehemently with one another on whether Grendel’s mother was a heroic female warrior who, in response to the killing of her son, simply carried out the requirements of blood feud and debt. Or whether this descendant of Cain was monstrous in appearance. In the poem, Beowulf is described as killing her with a magical sword and then using that same sword to decapitate Grendel’s corpse and bring his head back to the mead hall. It is entertaining to think that the screenwriters looked at this and wondered why the warrior would have only brought back one head if he had slain two monsters. Their explanation might not be so true to the original, but many things can be explained by Angelina Jolie’s wet, buoyant, gold-slicked, CGI boobies. Many scholars believe that the original Beowulf poem was a Christian propagandist restructuring of familiar tales to impose Christian values on them. So one can hardly blame a modern retelling for imposing current rules of cinematic story structure on the film. Beowulf’s relationship with Grendel’s mother not only allowed Robert Zemeckis to bring us hot naked viking/water sprite sex, but it also honestly ties the Grendel portion of the Beowulf saga and the dragon portion together much more neatly, for modern sensibilities, than the original does. Some feminist scholars argue that Beowulf has a three part story structure where the battle with Grendel’s mother is as important as the one with Grendel and the one with the dragon, although the story is generally viewed as having a two part structure. It would probably be reaching to call the Zemeckis adaptation a feminist retelling, but it is tidy modern story structure for a modern audience.
Much as the original saga was almost making fun of the braggadocio of its predecessors, the Beowulf movie is sold as a costume adventure blockbuster, but it points out that maybe the adventures just are not really that great. When Beowulf kills Grendel, the monster is tragic and, despite Beowulf’s humorous and aesthetically pleasing nudity, the warrior comes off as a bully, brutalizing a monster who is no match for him. It is uncomfortable to watch and the monster takes an agonizingly long time to die in his mother’s arms.
The movie pretty immediately switches tone from a certain almost cheesy brashness to a dismal and depressing ever after. The plot goes briskly from the warrior king yelling “I am Beowulf!” Flava Flav style to telling his young slave girl that none of it was as great as it should have been, not the battles, not the treasures, not the kingdom, not the women. She seems distressed that not even the women excited him in a particularly pleasant way, but he pretty much confirms that he can’t even summon interest in sex.
Beowulf set out to do battle for glory rather than gold, but he has acquired both through his exploits. Beowulf’s closest companions revere him. He is a king. He has wealth and many followers. People keep telling him that his praises will be sung after everything then alive has turned to dust. But, basically, nothing feels good.
Unusually, for a Hollywood blockbuster, the writers of the movie get top billing in the closing credits. The screenplay was written by the very impressive duo of Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Neil Gaiman is very well known in comic book and science fiction and fantasy circles. If you are gothic, you are probably familiar with his Sandman comic (or should probably at least fake like you are.) If you are more fandom-identified, then his somewhat tongue-in-cheek novels may be more your thing. Although Quentin Tarantino is the name everyone knows from Pulp Fiction, Roger Avary also has a screenwriting credit on it and has said in interviews since that he can’t hang out with Quentin Tarantino because the man just sucks the ideas right out of him. Roger Avary is probably best known for having written and directed the solid film adaptation of one of my favorite books, Bret Easton Ellis’ Rules of Attraction, (which Forrest Black and I shot some promo for with Scar 13 years ago.) There is some buzz about whether the technology involved in making Beowulf will ultimately somewhat replace actors, or at least turn them into licensable clip art. I will be interested to see if this sort of technology will ultimately mean that writers and scenic designers and people like that will receive more credit for how a movie turns out. Before I knew anything about how Hollywood works, it used to trouble me, as a consumer, that whether or not I enjoyed a movie depended very much on plot and story structure, only movies were never advertised as “written by the guy who wrote that other thing you liked.” A great actor with a horrid plot is generally Michael Madsen in that awful poker movie which comes on late night cable only. No Oscars there.
Perhaps because the original Beowulf saga mocked the more traditional sagas, although the movie is marketed as an epic adventure for fantasy fans, it feels almost like the viewer is being told that what they were coming to see is not as terrific as they might think. After the credits ran, most of my group of mighty thanes went to get shabu shabu. Everyone kept asking each other if they liked the movie. Except for Scar, who had promised to dislike the movie beforehand, no one seemed to know if they felt like it was a good movie or a bad one or somewhere in between. I know the film left me feeling a little extra aggro such that I wanted to attack the waitress when I asked her for a sparkling Voss water the seventh time. Not that people doing their job badly doesn’t annoy me normally, but not in such a visceral way. I think Joel Awesome and I might have been the only ones who were somewhat familiar with the saga genre. (Wait until you all see the super hot signature couples set of Joel and Kittie which Forrest and I shot for BlueBlood.com. All that hotness and smart and well-read too!) I think the movie was well-done and technologically interesting, but, being familiar with the original, I was mostly sort of kicking myself for being surprised that it was not a feel-good movie.
The message of the Beowulf movie seemed very much: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, with 3D glasses, and despair.” (Joel says that, when he was little, he used to confuse Gilgamesh and Grendel, so I can stick Ozymandius in my Beowulf if I want.) Fortunately, we had to give the 3D glasses back to the Arclight after the movie. It was disorienting, at first, to look at the world without them.