Friday, November 30, 2007

Beowulf Rant

Okay, today was the last day of class, so I decided to reward myself before the torrent of papers comes in on Monday by giving myself a night out. First stop Borders, to pick up a copy of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Tower. Reading for pleasure, I have a vague recollection of what that was like. Then, on to Beowulf.

As I had indicated to some friends, I was mildly curious and went expecting to like it for two reasons. One, I'm a non-reformed contrarian. If the majority of the evangelical press and subculture hate it, I'm bound to like it just to tweak their noses. Second, unlike, say, LOTR, I have no real emotional attachment to the source material, so I'm not likely to be offended by changes.

It took me, sadly, about five minutes to realize that this film was a colossal series of blunders, the last of which was my blundering into the theater to see it.

Oh...

my...

gosh...

I'm stunned speechless. Pardon me while I try to think of how to express the inexpressible badness of this film...

Okay, I'm back.

I thought (honestly) of two analogies while I was watching Beowulf. The first was, to be perfectly honest, Left Behind. Beowulf shares with Left Behind a sort of zenith of badness. It is, what Slacktivist calls "instructionally bad"--that is bad in such a way that it is actually an object lesson in how to be bad, an almost perfect Platonic example of badness. The other analogy that I had was that my response was something akin to what English teachers sometimes feel when they receive one of those rare train wreck papers. You know the ones I'm talking about...the ones where "F" just isn't quite sufficient to express their failure...the ones with total system failure....where the grammar is bad, the documentation is haphazard, where you can't find the hint of the whiff of the scent of an idea, where it's not just disorganized but incoherent, and where the smiling student asks you to read it over (the day before the paper is due) to make sure she hasn't missed any tiny points that might keep her from getting the "A" on which she is counting...

In poker lingo...they call this going on "tilt"...a Mike Matusow meltdown. This is 2oo7 New York Mets territory here...a once in a lifetime perfect storm of bad decisions, bad luck, and bad execution punctuated almost exclusively by brain farts.

Better, more educated men than me have documented some of the content problems...some of the ways that the film not only misunderstands and misrepresents its source material, but does so needlessly and (bigger sin here) pointlessly. It is not as though they are subverting some Christian or humanistic or epic message to replace it with something else, because there is just no real consistent view of what makes Beowulf heroic or different from anyone else other than he happens to share his name with the title of the movie.

No, let me focus on a point that I haven't yet heard mentioned in the jeers and catcalls about content....

The movie looks like crap
.

I really, really, really, cannot overemphasize this point. I might be willing to forgive the ideological or literary rape of the source material if it were in the service of an alternative idea or philosophy or even in the service of an entertaining spectacle, but, alas....

The movie, really, really, looks like crap.

The animation here, mostly rendered in a style to make it accessible to 3D is totally and completely wrong. Was I the only person in America who kept looking at the seat next to him to see if the other guy in the audience was holding a joystick? Because, I swear, it felt like I was watching someone play a video game, not watching a movie...and, even in comparison to contemporary video game standards, the graphics looked like crap...closer to Grand Theft Auto than Halo3, if you know what I mean. (With the exception, of course, of Angelina Jolie's breasts which were lovingly and carefully rendered to have depth, curve and musculature rather than just lines to suggest the same. How the hell this movie got a PG-13 is beyond me, and I like to think of myself as the least prudish evangelical in America.) Anyway, there is a rotoscoped feel to the herky-jerky movements that make the exchanges plastic, wooden and two dimensional but is supplemented with computer enhanced detail in all the wrong places. Thus you can count the hairs on Wulfgar's beard but Beowulf never changes expression. Really, a half-hour spent with the Simpsons animators would have gone a long way for Zemeckis and company in learning how minimal changes in simple animation in conjunction with vocal performance can convey a broad range of emotion. Stack the set design up against 300 (another anachronistic and lurid retelling of source material that is sick in both senses of the word [as an insult and as a compliment]) and you see how bare is the vision of the world here. Zemeckis and Gaiman are clearly infatuated with some of the ideas expressed in Beowulf and expressed through Beowulf, but (I really can't emphasize this enough) film is primarily a visual medium and abstractions don't film well..and the narrative through which the ideas are supposed to be conveyed LOOKS LIKE CRAP!

I will admit, that I have friends who are much more tolerant of expressionism in film than I am. Amongst my cinematic friends, I refer to myself unapologetically as the narrative whore. So I will cop to the fact that seldom is being visually interesting sufficient to engage me in a film. Oh, the last five minutes of 2001 looks trippy and all (even if you're not stoned), and In Memory of Myself looks gothic and operatic and is cool even if you don't know what the hell is going on most of the time...but truth to be told I get a little bored by Fantasia or Mary Poppins or even (it pains me to say it) parts of A Clockwork Orange...where the visuals so overpower the narrative that the medium becomes the message itself. It's not that I need realism...it's that I want a sensible meshing of style with content. The Man Who Planted Trees is both minimal and expressionistic, but the simple, pencil drawings are perfect for conveying the starkness and emptiness of the landscape that is gradually and subtly transformed by Eleazar Bouffier's faithfulness. Pan's Labyrinth and Blade Runner both have power enhanced by expressionistic set design that creates a real world in which real people (and replicants) can interact rather than just being sets to look at without a story (e.g. Jeneut's Alien Ressurection or Lucas's Phantom Menace). The last time I saw such a poor marriage of style and content was Michael Wigglesworth's "The Day of Doom" (trying to do the last judgment in nursery rhyme form, really...argh).

I could go on and on...the naked battle was ironically and unintentionally reminiscent of Austin Powers in all the wrong ways. Mike Myers has made it impossible to cleverly hide the male sex organ and that device has already passed the genre cycle of parody (in The Simpsons Movie) to the point where it is experienced, instinctively as cliche or parody, not as serious...it can't be taken seriously by this audience at this time. The dialogue is just wincingly bad...I actually got some dirty looks from a few people in the theater for inappropriate laughter...

"You honor me."
"No it is you who honor me; it is I who am honored...by you...who am honoring me...because I am Beowulf!...and I have come to kill your monster! Your monster will be killed by me, Beowulf. After which we will drink mead...or maybe before...in any regards, there will be mead drinking and monster killing at some point because I am...umm...who am I again...oh yeah, Beowulf...and you are Unferth and you are hot chick that I'd like to sleep with after I kill the monster and drink the mead and am honored by you for doing the same...."

Oh, the scene where Jolie grabs Beowulf's erect Hrunting...and it...ummm...splurbs onto the floor into a pool of liquid was, quite possibly the biggest belly laugh I've had at the movies since Derek Zoolander said "You can read minds?"

The latter, at least, was intentionally stupid.

4 comments:

Elizabeth said...

"Instructionally bad"! Perfect. I've linked to this post from my blog. Thank you.

Peter said...

Ken,
Now I have to go see it! Thank you for working the Mets into your rant, btw. And thank you too for erect Hruntings that go splurb.
Thank you very much for that.

T.C. Truffin said...

Hee, hee. I love to read Ken ranting. It helps me laugh at the two hours wasted with this film.

On the other hand, it's going to make my Arthur Miller infused comments about the film seem like I'm actually taking the film seriously. Grr.

Laura said...

I'm sort of with Peter...now I want to see this film so as to access the perfectly bad film.

I take it you're telling me it's worse than "300"?