Monday, November 26, 2007

Beowulf 3D

The weirdness of sitting in a theater and watching Crispin Glover, as a mutant monster, reciting Old English poetry -- in 3D! -- is surely worth the price of admission. This movie, surprisingly, is pretty good, and is making me seriously consider teaching the poem in conjunction with the movie -- if only because it makes the poem accessible and because the film gives such simple, useful examples of irony and metaphor.

Beowulf seems, in part, to be tailor made for a screenplay because the original story breaks so easily into the classical three act Hollywood structure. Teaser: Grendel attacks. Act One: Beowulf v Grendel. Act Two: Beowulf v Grendel's mother. Act Three: Beowulf v the Dragon, in which Beowulf dies taking the monster down. The end. In a strange, unintentional way, this structure has already been presented to us in film in the first three Alien movies: in Alien Ripley fights the monster. In Aliens Ripley fights the monster's mother. In Alien3 Ripley fights a four legged version of the monster and dies taking it down. Obviously, in some lost codex, is the fourth part of the Beowulf poem, in which our hero is cloned as a Grendel-human hybrid who teams up with space pirates to defeat Dan Hedaya. Certainly Grendel in the movie Beowulf bears a striking resemblance to the alien that appears in the fourth Alien movie.

Gaiman's script for Beowulf is pretty solid. He looks at the original poem and figures out how to tie the three stories together more closely into a cyclical family romance, so that it avoids being merely episodic. It even gives the poem, written in an era before psychology and the interior monologue, a little Freudian oomph that seems more part of the myth than part of the characters, which works out well, since film, especially the action film, is not good with interior states. The film uses the most basic symbols available -- the sword and the cup -- simply and economically. Beowulf strips down to fight Grendel and a sword hilt in the foreground obscures his genitals. Then he enters a cave that has a shape that will not go unnoticed. Confronting Grendel's mother in a sexually charged scene, she strokes the sword tip until it melts into silver goo in her hands. That was the sex scene. The cup Beowulf took with him, used as a metaphor for the original King's wife in an early scene, returns later and is offered to someone else. We know what is being offered instantly. Beowulf is forced to damage himself in the same way he damaged Grendel. Ray Winston is credited as two more characters in the film besides Beowulf -- for metaphorical reasons. All of this is obvious, and you could complain about its obviousness, but it chimes with the un-anxious simplicity of a poem written before Milton and Spenser (though this is probably a simplification in itself).

The script also handles nicely the differences between the poem and the film. Since one of the main themes of the film is the difference between the poem and the life -- Beowulf, in his old age tells his wife to remember him not as a hero or as a king but as a man with flaws -- when the film diverges from the poem it is no mere whim, but a conscious irony. If you do not know the poem you do not need to, but if you do you will get more out of the changes. Absurdly, but in a fun way, this ridiculous over-the-top 3D motion capture animation film presents itself as "what really happened."

Also, Gaiman does not forget to give even minor characters, like the Queen and the fratricidal would-be priest, character arcs.

I have heard complaints about the technology, that they all look like freakish puppets, but the film embraces its role as a cartoon so well I do not think you can complain about this. I think it actually helps in some ways. The 3D experience seems to me to be crucial here. You may have some resistance to a whole film in motion capture animation, but just the gesture of putting on the 3D glasses makes you complicit in the absurdity, and so you care less about a possible realism. You have on 3D glasses. They SHOULD look like action figures. (The story fits the technology as Toy Story does -- especially years ago, everything Pixar was going to make was going to look plastic-y anyway so why not do a story about plastic action figures?). I have heard complains in which the scene where Beowulf fights naked is compared to Austin Powers -- what random object will obscure his genitals next. I think that joke is being made in more than one place more because it is easy than because it is true.

Plus Angelina Jolie shape-shifts into mutant high heels, even when naked. This is a really fun movie.


Jason Powell said...

Great review! I want to see this now. (Thanks to Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis will always have a place in my personal pantheon of cinematic gods, but I haven't seen a new movie by him in years. This sounds like a good one to try out.)

And wow -- the "Beowulf"/"Alien" analogy... that is some kind of brilliant.

Not Ultros said...

Crispin Glover's doing a series of lectures at the IFC Center through this week too. WHAT IS IT?! is about as different a movie from BEOWULF as I could imagine, though they do have similarities (dead animals, odd puppets, Crispin).

Mr. Glover is also a very keen and well-spoken man.

James said...

Initially, I didn't know what to make of Beowulf. The visuals are often fantastic, some because of the 3D and some on their own merits. Structurally, the script is great, but there are some weak dialogue bits, and I thought (and still think) that the lack of likeable characters is a problem.

The movie did stay with me though, and eventually it struck me how the plot functions as a critique of US foreign policy. An idiot king's land is besieged by an aggressor who attacks in response to the hedonism of the citizens. There is an ongoing cycle of violence, wherein the land's "protector" is complicit in creating the next generation's "evil", in return for personal gain. Brendan Gleason's Wiglaf stands in for the audience in the analogy - he is by far the most relatable character (and, presumably by coincidence, by far the best performed/animated). Never directly responsible for any violence (that I can remember), he disapproves of Beowulf's actions, but is nonetheless complicit in them through inaction and loyalty. The movie ends as he is tempted by the same oily-gold siren as his predecessors, and must choose whether to or not to repeat their mistakes and once again doom his people.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

What is your take on Beowulf doin' the nasty with Grendel's mother and the Dragon being his son?

My mom, who taught Beowulf for thirty years, was really disgusted by those changes.

Geoff Klock said...

JP: I would say Back to the Future is the best movie ever made. Seriously. You want to see screenplay economy, watch that film again. there is not a wasted frame or word of dialog anywhere in that film. I did not believe Brad when he told me this, but he is dead right. And Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which I also saw recently still holds up as a really great movie. Plus Jessica Rabbit is easy for me to crush on because she seems to genuinely like kind of spaz-y guys like myself.

NU: thanks

James: I think what you mean is that there are no straightforward heroes in the film, which is true, and a fair complaint maybe, but I LIKED Beowulf more than I would have because he was so flawed. That is a good analogy you found.

VoE: Does your mom read comics? Cause the thing about comics is characters are updated to reflect the times and, as comic book fans describe it, the ability of the story to still be relevant after the changes means the character was made to last. The changes in Beowulf are radical, but so was adding Robin to the Batman comics. I thought it was a good way to fuse the three bad guys into the story structure a film requires -- you cannot, in a film, just have the third act be Beowulf fighting a random Dragon. I thought it was smart.

Tell your mom, who taught Beowulf for thirty years, to come on here and debate this with me, the Oxford D.Phil poetry critic. Cause I am seriously thinking about teaching the poem in conjunction with the movie and I would LOVE to hear her thoughts. I think the differences between the poem and the film will be great for teaching irony, a hard thing to teach -- since the film is ABOUT the differences between the story and the life. Seriously I want to know what she thinks. I have only been teaching for a few years and I could use the advice. Go. Go get your mom.

Geoff Klock said...

VoE: I want her to explain "disgusted" in particular, because I think that faith to source material is not necessarily a virtue in film -- look at Harry Potter for example.

John said...

Mr Klock: So do you hate the character of Beowulf? The movie made him a complete fraud. He lies about his accomplishments, instead of killing Grendel's mother, he BANGS HER? The freaking Dragon is his SON?

I'd put it this way:
Imagine a movie about Batman, where it turned out that Batman was a fraud. He never actually fought crime, but he and the Joker maybe had a game of golf and then he just reported to Commissioner Gordon that he captured the Joker. And then he flirts with Gordon's wife. And then he has sex with a big crocodile and Killer Croc turns out to be his son one day. And instead of Two Face having a horrible accident scarring his face, we'll do that to Batman instead.

That's about what they did to Beowulf.

Geoff Klock said...

John: But they did not "do" anything to Beowulf. The original poem is intact. And we accept things like Superman landing in Russia in an Elsewhere book so why not? I do not see why a film should be required to be so faithful to the original, or why I must HATE Beowulf because I liked this film. The fact that he had flaws, that he was doomed, made me like him more.

James said...

I just wanted to clarify that I agree with all of Geoff's review, and had no problem with Beowulf being flawed. I thought Gaiman and Avary's thesis that since the only account of Beowulf's encounter with Grendel's mother comes from Beowulf himself, it is therefore potentially suspect, was quite brilliant. The reason I didn't like Beowulf (the character) was just that, aside from his tragic-hero-flaws, he seemed like kind of a dick. And there's really noone else in the movie to turn to and root for instead: Hrothgar and Unferth are clearly both dicks, Wealthow is a mopey hypocrite, Wiglaf is not a dick but does not get enough face time to care about, etc etc.

It's possibly a pretty reductive way to go about character analysis, but I had the same problem with Peter Jackson's King Kong. Man that was a very long movie about a bunch of dicks.

Anonymous said...

but there are plenty of good films with no discernably likeable characters, at least on the surface

the problem with king kong was that it was 3 hours of peter jackson jerking off

as for beowulf, im avoiding it because i dont think ill be able to get past the weird looking animation, plus ray winstons accent in the clips ive seen makes me cringe

James said...

I really don't want to derail the discussion, but can you give examples anon? Because I don't think we're talking about the same thing. Reservoir Dogs is a movie about Bad Men who do Bad Things, but you (I) like some of the characters because they are funny, cool, noble or charismatic. Beowulf didn't work for me because on the one hand he is a flawed hero who dooms himself and his people for lust, and on the other he is a macho blowhard bore. All he really has going for him is that he is a good fighter, and he takes responsibility for his actions in the end, which wasn't enough for me to like him.

FPFP said...

yeah, sorry, just to clarify, resevoir dogs is a good example, but i get your point that being a dick is kinda different from being a witty killer, although from my point of view, despite the "coolness" of the characters in resevorir dogs very few of them are likeable characters

maybe thats the difference between a good movie and an OK movie

Jason Powell said...

"I would say Back to the Future is the best movie ever made."
***I'll go ahead and steal a line from you: God bless you, Geoff, and everything you stand for.

"Seriously. You want to see screenplay economy, watch that film again. there is not a wasted frame or word of dialog anywhere in that film."
***You are preaching to the converted, m'man! I always tell people the same thing. (Well, by "always" I mean, whenever the subject of "perfect screenplays" comes up in conversation... which isn't often in my world, more's the pity.) But, YES! I absolutely agree. (Have you ever watched it with commentary from Bob Gale, who cowrote the screenplay with Zemeckis? It's pretty great.)

"And Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which I also saw recently still holds up as a really great movie. Plus Jessica Rabbit is easy for me to crush on because she seems to genuinely like kind of spaz-y guys like myself."
*** The Roger Rabbit Screenplay is pretty dang economical as well. It manages a fully-realized noir-style mystery (heavily borrowed from "Chinatown"), all the classic cartoon slapstick gags and props, a ton of animated cameos, and three or four musical numbers all into 90 minutes.

brad said...

I am SO RELIEVED that I'm not alone in this. My favorite movie of the year used to be Michael Clayton. It's a difficult thing to look someone in the eye and say that the new high score goes to Beowulf in 3D (admittedly, I still have to see No Country for Old Men).

When you see the movie again (or for the first time, slackers), pay attention to the character design. This is where the economy of Zemekis is really mind-boggling. With the malleability of CG, we see bits of Hopkins in Grendel, we see dragon scales on Grendel's skin, and later we see shades of Grendel in the face of the Dragon. They're all genetically linked. He's telling the story through the design. This is true across the board. As in BTTF, there is nothing brought into the story that does not pay off later.

I thought Zemekis lost his mind when he said he would only be making mocap movies for the rest of his career. After seeing Beowulf, I understand why he's doing that: not because the tech is awesome and ready to take over, but because it will be, and he'll be the guy that ushered it in.

John said...

Superman: Red Son is great, but it's's not simply called Superman. If a film of Superman was made and it followed Red Son, and it was simply called "Superman", it would make no sense. If this film was called "The Beowulf Chronicles" or something that explained that it was another interpretation, I wouldn't be as harsh.

The 2005 "Beowulf & Grendel" movie with Gerard Butler also took some liberties with the story, but was much, much closer to the actual tale, minus the dragon. But the end of the movie also shows one of Beowulf's companions writing the tale of Beowulf. This makes sense because then we are shown on film that Beowulf's career is embellished upon.

And usually, when something doesn't follow the source material, or uses it poorly, I don't like it. Superman Returns, for example. I thought it was a disgrace to those who actually read Superman comics.

Geoff Klock said...

James, Anon: Hamlet does not really have any likable characters. Well, Horatio, but that depends on how interesting you think Horatio is. For me, I do not mind a film with no likable characters as long as I can like the director or screenwriter or something, as I do in Beowulf. When Matt Fraction said Kill Bill v 1 had no heart I disagreed -- Tarantino has his heart all over that thing.

Brad: Ximena, who I saw Beowulf with, noticed the Hopkins-Grendel resemblance. I was looking forward to seeing it again to pay more attention, but I am glad to hear you noticed it too.

John: You really would be happy if Beowulf was called "Elseworlds: Beowulf"? I am surprised to meet someone so passionate about fidelity to source material, especially when the source is a 1000 year old viking poem and the contemporary iteration is a stop-motion animation 3D film with Crispin Glover as Beowulf. I agree Superman is a disgrace, but only because it is a badly told story, not because it changed the comics too much. I mean what decade of the comic book should a superman movie be faithful to? The 1938 version where he cannot fly? Morrison? Azzerello?

It has to be possible for a new version to improve an old one -- the new Solaris cut the book and the original down to a tight little story that was the essence of both earlier versions.

Is this a comic book continuity thing? Do you feel this way about Ret-Cons?

I do not mean to give you such a hard time about this. It is not you. I am just slightly fascinated when someone wants to argue the virtues of faith to an original. I do not know how well you know me but I have written two books basically arguing that the only way to honor an original is to break it and make your own way -- because being original was made the old thing great in the first place.

There is an old Jewish story about a guy whose father dies. The father was in charge of passover dinner and now the son has to take charge. The first thing the son does is change everything. His family gets upset and says that he is not honoring his father's tradition. But the son points out that when his grandfather died his father changed everything at the passover table. So the son claims he is not breaking with tradition -- he says he participates in a tradition of change.

Dr. K said...

In the original source, Beowulf is by no means flawless. Ultimately, it is his own quest for personal glory, which brings him success for most of his life, that causes his downfall in the battle with the dragon. None of his men, except Wiglaf, come to his aid, and Beowulf has failed in his royal duty to provide a successor. The poem ends with a notably pessimistic tone as Wiglaf warns the other Geats that Beowulf's death will open them to invasion.

So, it makes sense, in a way, for Gaiman to retain a certain flawed quality in Beowulf for this updated version.

I'm still sorting out how I feel about this movie, but this review helps put the movie in a better light. I was originally put off by the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel's mother, but I like the way you unpack the symbolism.

Also, Hrothgar warns Beowulf, in the poem, that he shouldn't rely too heavily on the skills that make him a great warrior in his youth, because they won't be there forever. In that sense, Gaiman retains the spirit of the original by having Beowulf commit the same mistake that Hrothgar did. However, this I don't get: Anthony Hopkins sleeps with Angelina Jolie, and you get Grendel; Ray Winstone sleeps with Angelina Jolie, and you get an Academy Award that changes into a dragon. How does that work?

Geoff Klock said...

Dr K -- I re-read Beowulf (Heaney trans) yesterday in a norton critical edition and read some essays -- I will blog about this soon, and look forward to you joining in.