Monday, March 27, 2006

The Monsters and the Critics

It was a near-miss dream of watching a movie – the uber-cinema experience: an ancient epic brought to life on the big screen, the theatre nearly all to ourselves, fresh popcorn, no mulish parents failing to pay attention to their yowling spawn in the flickering shadows of a story wildly inappropriate for youngsters… pity the film itself was wanting.
Last week the family and I trekked to our local labrynthine theatre complex to see “Beowulf & Grendel”. (Hence my borrowing of the title of a famous essay by the esteemed Professor J.R.R. Tolkien for the title of this not-anywhwere-near-so-famous blog posting.)
The fact that we even knew the movie existed, let alone that it was running in a nearby theatre was a stroke of luck even the famous beast-battling Geat would have been grateful to have. In all the previous months of production, the weeks before the premier, and even now, more than a week after it’s hit the silver screen, there has been no advertising and next to no buzz on this film. It’s a fluke we knew it existed.
To be sure, there was a blurb on Canada’s Space Channel sci-fi news show “Hypaspace” – one day after the movie hit the screen. And there was the odd review in the occasional paper, like the one my parents caught in the Ottawa Citizen. But no ads? No previews in the cinema? What the hell were the producers thinking? Granted, as a Canadian/British/Icelandic production (and admittedly, I have no idea if anything ran in the UK or Iceland), there’s no way any ads would ever hit the air on major American networks, and by extension, no chance of it ever making it to the review line-up of Ebert and his brainlessly yappy sidekick. Granted too, because it wasn’t an Alliance/Atlantis production, it would be difficult to make inroads on the Canadian networks. But no ads at all?
You can’t tell me they didn’t have the budget for it, after filming the whole thing in Iceland, one of the most expensive countries in the world to do anything, especially make a movie! If they could cobble together the funds to film this beast, the producers ought to have been able to trot out a 30 second spot or two on Space, CBC, CTV, CHUM or some of the other, smaller players. Most of the networks probably would have bit if only to write off the production & some of the cast for CanCon requirements! I mean, if they could make airtime to run commercials for “Men With Brooms” back in 2002, I think they could have given away a discount time slot for “Beowulf”. The total lack of advertising has automatically, and unfairly, set this movie up to fail, regardless of the quality of the film. I’m reminded of that old piece of broadcasting wisdom Mother Carlson told Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP: “Sometimes you put money into a radio station because it succeeds, and sometimes you put money into a business because you need a tax write-off.”
The fact there was such a near absence of publicity makes me wonder if the theatre chains were showing “Beowulf & Grendal” as a personal favour to some member of the production team. I’d suggest the possibility of the afore-mentioned tax write-off, but the cinemas aren’t in any financial position to be losing money these days if they can help it. Moreover, I doubt it will get any more screentime beyond the end of the week.
So like I was saying, my wife and I, along with my folks (visiting from Ontario for the birth of my nephew) were the only ones in the theatre until about 5 minutes before the show started, at which point we were joined by three other couples. And that was it. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to guess most other showings had about the same turnout, if they were even that packed.
As for the movie itself… “Beowulf & Grendel” wasn’t a bad film (insert sympathetic wince). It wasn’t a great film either. It wasn’t what it could have been, not by a long shot.
To give credit where credit is due, the cinematography was magnificent. Beautiful shots of the wild grandeur of Iceland that would make a Viking weep.
I also enjoyed how the 21st century dialogue was punctuated with snippets of the original Old English dialect when the skop among Beowulf’s gaggle of thanes (most certainly not the “merry band of psychopaths” as they’re dubbed by the satyr poet Martin Silenus in Dan Simmons’ “Hyperion”) tries to compose a poem to tell the kiddies and the folks back home the tale of their adventure. In debating this with my brother (one of the only other people on the planet, it seems, to have paid to see this flick), he complained it was jarring to have the odd snatch of the old dialect flung at the audience. I thought it was an effective (if obvious) way of underlining Beowulf’s unease with poetry’s tendency to magnify men and events beyond their banality.
And to be fair, I think the movie did a great job of creating two important portraits: that of Beowulf, effectively played by Gerard Butler as the hero who’s really just a guy who’s a bit smarter and tougher than his chums but is embarrassed by and wary of having his reputation elevated to that of some sort of godling, and that of Hrothgar, a king mouldering under his impotance as his kingdom wastes away as its warriors die and its survivors are overcome by despair, and as his people turn from the old ways to the false comfort of the new Christianity.
Hats off to Stellan Skarsgard for his performance as the king tearing himself apart with guilt and alcohol for ultimately being the cause of his people’s misfortune and for not being able to admit it to the foreigner who comes to his rescue and circles ever closer to the truth. With a modified script and better editing to make the movie tighter, Skarsgard’s performance could have been the entire focus of the film – would have been a brilliant movie on its own.
And the writers should be commended for following in the footsteps of a number of other, smarter writers in trying to make Grendal more than just a monster. We feel sorry for him from the opening scene of the movie when the not-so-little tyke is forced to witness his titanic daddy being hunted down and slaughtered by Hrothgar’s gang of surly Norse. And it is easier to by sympathetic to a Grendal who looks basically human except for his enormous size and the presence of a beard during his childhood. For all that the Danes and Geats call him “troll” throughout the film, Grendal’s appearance is more that of the thursir, the frost giants, than the demons of Norse folklore. It’s also harder to fear a Grendal who spends more time teasing Beowulf and his gang (and peeing on the door of their sleeping quarters) than slaughtering them, and we feel pity for the poor soul who, in the end, is desperate enough to escape the Geats that he saws off his own arm at the shoulder rather than be captured.
Let’s also give credit to the mad Irish priest who cavorts around the Danish village trying to convince the worried Norse to head down to the local freezing waterfall for a dip and a conversion. He adds a laugh or three to an otherwise dry flick – that is until Grendal’s drippy momma comes sloshing up the garden path with blood on her mind and takes his head off.
Oh yeah, Grendal’s bowling with heads scene was pretty funny too – in a gruesome Bastille sort of way.
But that being said, the flaws in this film are more fatal than the dragon that comes a’callin’ on Beowulf at the end of his life (sadly, not an episode shown in this trollkind family values film). As mentioned before, the flick’s too damn long. Hrothgar’s mental collapse could have been done just as effectively in a shorter period of time (this criticism from a guy who takes 3 pages to get to the point). There’s so much chin-scratching on Beowulf’s part, so much “aw, let’s get it over with” from his buddies, so many mocking stares from the village witch, and so many Hrothgar’s falling apart yet again scenes that the tension was completely bled out of the movie.
Then there were the accents. To be sure, in a period piece like this, casting directors will do their damndest to round up every British accent they can lay their hands on to sound vaguely authentic. Hats off to this crew for netting Skarsgard and some other northern European actors to actually sound, well, Norse. Problem is, there were about half a dozen different accents going on. If that wasn’t jarring enough, there was Sarah Polly, with her Canadian non-accent, not even trying to affect any kind of British or Danish/Icelandic/Norwegian/Swedish/Finnish accent. It was like listening to a version of Beowulf performed by 1st year university students on a theatre exchange summer study course in Bermuda or something. Yet another sacrifice on the alter of lack-of-consistency.
I’ve earlier bemoaned the lack of the final chapter of the poem, Beowulf’s fatal encounter with a dragon. But maybe the dragon really was in this picture. Maybe it was stalking the film all along, the spirit of an ancient poem that wants to be read, preferably in the original (though not ruling out fitting tributes like Parke Godwin’s “The Tower of Beowulf”), and so tearing the guts out of the editing and script of a film that hasn’t been thought through or produced properly. In essence, guarding the hoard of the imagination from those who would cheapen it.

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