Thursday, October 8, 2015

Beowulf and Grendel

"There were giants in our midst
But they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war
Thank your lucky stars that we don't do that anymore"

Rasputina - Holocaust of Giants

It's become sort of a catchphrase that Poe wrote The Raven as both high and low-brow, pleasing both the pretentious and the uneducated. I think The Raven would flop today.

Amusingly, Beowulf and Grendel tends to get criticized for exactly the same qualities which earned Samurai Champloo such praise. While I'm sure critics convince themselves they're addressing actual issues of quality, this may be more aptly viewed as a crucial difference between the audience for chanbara or anime and the tweed blazer crowd which tends to go in for adaptations of the one lone epic the anglophone public has ever heard about. No, it's not ignorance. It's perspective. "Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor" as Eminem said.

Humanity doesn't change. Thirteen hundred years ago humans built elaborate self-serving delusions to support the social premises which allowed them to exploit and abuse each other, just as Hammurabi's ilk had thirty-eight hundred years ago... and if you don't think it's still going on now, watch five minutes of a presidential candidate's speeches. Listen to some economist relating the past month's rise and fall in the stock market with the same reverence with which skalds related the descent of Odin to the underworld. Watch a commercial to hear about all the evils which will befall you if you don't buy the latest tech-fetish.

The Miniver Cheevies who learn Old English just so they can mystically enunciate the unassailably high-brow ramblings of drunken, lousy medieval buskers will reel from any suggestion of kinship with the greater psychology of the human ape. To recognize that "forsooth" translates quite readily as "fo shizzle" constitutes a gross violation of taboo in any English department. Of course that's not the whole story either. The differences accrued through time and space are as important as the similarities, and the truly valuable reflections on and of the past are not only the most faithful but also those which can dredge up the miasma of bygone days while offhandedly denying the deification of ancestor figures, those which can bring it all home.

Beowulf and Grendel is a movie as much about myth-making as about the myth itself. Production issues and a tacked-on sex scene aside, this is the crime for which it was shunned by an interested audience whose interest lies more in glorifying their own interests than exploring them. Just as Snow White and the Huntsman was attacked for being both too subdued and too emotional, too mature but not sexual enough, Beowulf and Grendel gets lambasted for being too violent and not violent enough, too formal and too casually profane. No-one is willing to admit that Beowulf and Hrothgar probably really would have cursed like drunken sailors because they actually were drunken sailors! No-one in the audience wants to admit that human culture really does pose a dichotomy between pretentious, officious posturing and the filthy habits of the naked ape (as much for the spear-Danes as for the Toyota-Yanks) because the audience these days is too polarized between high and low brow, each decrying the other as shortsighted and unrealistic, each clinging to superficial in-group markers.

A movie that brings myth into the purview of human agency breaks the taboos of both the rabble, who will not acknowledge the existence of myths even as it continually re-iterates them, and of snobs who view culture as a garland bestowed unto them alone as a marker of social status. Yet there is a crucial difference between modernization used as a crutch and conscious use of anachronism as progressive iconoclasm. No, Beowulf and Grendel is not an accurate depiction of the epic of Beowulf, but neither is it "Clash of the Titans" or "300" or some other horrendous rape of classical culture foisted on the public every so often to keep it from considering its place in history.

Instead it forces an awareness of myth-making on its audience, of the prosaic roots of poetry, and for this crime was unfairly consigned to oblivion.

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