Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Axis of Medieval"

Axes of Medieval?
For beating around the Bush...
(Image from Wikipedia)

Another of my cyber-cypher friends -- "Eshuneutics" this time -- has alerted me to a . . . well, 'intriguing' review of the new Beowulf film:
This is a weird little article about Beowulf (film) as an American v Korea allegory.
By "Korea" here is meant North Korea. The article, "'Beowulf': War Porn Wrapped in a Chippendale Dancer's Body," was written by an expat author currently living in Moscow, Alexander Zaitchik, and published on November 27 (2007) in an online magazine with the punworthy title AlterNet.

Eshuneutics was referring to the following passage:
Beowulf, played by Ray Winstone, arrives in Denmark not as a king, but as a famed mercenary. Like today's Pentagon-contracted security firms, he claims not to be interested solely in money, yet heartily indulges in the king's munificence. The mercenary-hero proceeds to do battle with three monsters -- a sort of Axis of Medieval.

The three beasts in the film in fact line up pretty well as stand-ins for Iraq, North Korea and Iran. Beowulf slays the first beast (Grendel/Iraq) easy enough, but he loses his soul in the process and becomes prisoner to the battle's legacy. Because of the second beast's potent demon powers, Beowulf decides not to slay it at all (Grendel's mother/North Korea). The third monster is the biggest (Iran/the Dragon), and when Beowulf finally gets around to charging its cave, the battle ends in their mutual death and the destruction of the citadel.
Nice line there, that "axis of Medieval" remark. I suspect that the entire review was constructed by Zaitchik just so he could make a great Bushwhacking pun. And those two paragraphs above are a fairly apt summary of the film . . . if one deletes the extraneous references to the Pentagon, security firms, mercenaries, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

Zaitchik is only half serious, and he admits that the film is not really a neoconservative allegory:
Beowulf's heroic but tragic end . . . makes it hard to fit the story into a neat neocon narrative.
Because, of course, there isn't one. Zaitchik is simply being satirical and ridiculing the film.

But the review isn't entirely satirical, and I think that Zaitchik is right about the 'homoeroticism' implicit in the film's admiration for the muscular, naked male body. In the poem, Beowulf removes his armor to take on Grendel without weapon or protection, but I don't recall him stripping down naked to wrestle the monster, so what's the motive for the movie having Beowulf remove all of his clothes except to make his muscular body an object for the fascinated gaze?

Not all gays were fascinated. One gay man reading the review wrote:
I am 100% gay living in a gay household. I thought the movie was a piss-poor adaptation of the original "Beowold." But neither I nor my friends noticed all the homoerotocism described by the author. (Razst on Nov 27, 2007 10:19 AM)
Razst needs to use spellcheck, but if he didn't see "homoerotocism," who am I to argue? Still...

But as for the anti-Christian interpretation that Zaitchik finds -- and I think seriously intends -- I disagree. Zaitchik asserts that "another of the film's notable themes . . . [is its] strident, Nietzschean anti-Christianity," for which he gives the following evidence:
This theme is unveiled in the film's early minutes, with John Malkovich's character, the venal drunk Unferth, explaining the new Roman religion to a small group in hushed tones, as if he were explaining some new street drug. "This is how it works," he says. "After you die, you wouldn't really be dead -- providing you accepted him as the one and only god."

Later, after Grendel attacks the castle, Unferth asks King Hrothgar, "Should we pray to the Roman god Christ Jesus? Perhaps he can lift our affliction." To which Hrothgar responds: "No, no, no. The gods will do nothing for us we cannot do for ourselves. What we need is a hero."

Enter the mercenary Beowulf. But even heroes are no match for the new god Jesus Christ. After the religion has gained a foothold in the land, an aging Beowulf mutters, "The age of heroes is over. The Christ god has killed it, leaving humanity with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear and shame."
If this were the film's only word on Christianity, then I'd agree in seeing the film as anti-Christian, but Unferth is an intriguing figure, for despite his unsavory character, he may, in fact, be a truth-teller, for when he questions Beowulf's tale about battling sea monsters, we know that he is at least partly correct to doubt Beowulf's story. Despite his own disreputable character, then, Unferth might be saying something 'true' about Christianity. As for Beowulf's remark about Christ having killed the age of heros, that's perhaps true enough, historically, as a metaphor expressing the passing of the old, heroic pagan culture with the coming of Christianity, but Beowulf's words are not always entirely trustworthy, as we have already noticed, and his sort of hero is concerned mostly with self-promotion anyway, even to the point of allowing some of his thanes to die first at Grendel's hands before entering the fray to act the hero and also of lying outrageously about supposedly heroic deeds that nobody else witnessed.

And I still maintain that Wealtheow, depicted in the final scenes wearing a small but shining golden cross about her neck, is the only fully admirable character in the film, suggesting to me that the director Zemeckis did not intend an anti-Christian message.

But I've already argued about this.

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At 9:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm... all this talk of Beowulf makes me wonder if I should go and see the film anyway.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Go! You'll learn something valuable: Among humans, pecking order depends on who has the biggest pects.

And in this film, it's Beowulf by a node!

For that, one truly needs 3D...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:07 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

The burning, collapsing cross has appeared prominently in TV ads for the movie here in the U.S., so I had expected a stronger and certainly more negative depiction of Christianity. Instead, Christianity is shown simply as a neutral historical phenomenon that followed a pagan "heroic age" of falsehood and lies. I can't recall another movie that set up so many references to historical Christianity only to express no real opinion on the matter. I'm not sure whether it's an oversight or a sign of remarkable restraint.

At 9:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff, my guess is that Zemeckis is favorable toward Christianity and is restraining himself from depicting it in a more positive light. I base this opinion on the Christian symbolism in The Polar Express film and the American Academy of Achievement interview with Zemeckis, in which he remarks favorably on his Catholic upbringing.

I looked at these things a few posts back.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:48 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Wonderfully written. After a tiring day, you raised my spirits!

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics. Without your tip, I'd never have blogged on it.

Jeffery Hodges

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