Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Dragons and Other Everyday Monsters

(Wyrds and Wyrms)

“Nothing we advised could convince
the Prince we loved, our land’s guardian,
not to vex the custodian of the gold,
let [the dragon] lie where he was long accustomed,
lurk there under the earth until the end of the world.
[Instead, our Prince] held to his high destiny. The hoard is lay bare”

Beowulf, 3079—3084

“A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded, enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.”


They’re a bit of a supergroup really. Innovative director Bob Zemeckis (Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Polar Express), novelist/screenwriter Neil Gaiman (Stardust, Coraline, American Gods) and screenwriter Roger Avary (Tarentino’s opening trifecta) couldn’t help but make an interesting movie. They’ve done a helluva lot more than that.

From the opening scenes that use 3D to establish the terrible isolation of King Hrothgar’s mead hall and drive home the horror of an inescapable reaping, this new Beowulf redefines the moviegoers’ experience with sensations as primal as those felt by prehistoric children gathered around a cave painting. It doesn’t hurt that the scene of the attack is cast in an unearthly flickering will-o’-the-wisp that accompanies the demon Grendel. And those scenes of Grendel savagely attacking Hrothgar’s people in the mead hall make more complete sense of 3D filmmaking than anything I’ve ever experienced before. The movie theater becomes a living, breathing diorama with the ability to transport viewers into an awful little box, in an awful wilderness in some shadowy corner of the dark ages.

Of course, we can thank that anonymous poet from the end of the first millennium for the vision behind this experience. What’s particularly wonderful about this new version of Beowulf is the way it takes great liberties with a thousand year old poem and manages to remain true to its purpose and effect. Zemeckis apparently told Gaiman and Avary that the didn’t want the entire cast of characters to change midway through the movie the way it would in the poem when Beowulf returns to rule his own kingdom, and, as is the challenge of art, solving that logistical problem became the key to making the story more focused and provocative for a modern audience.

In order to allow Beowulf to remain and inherit Hrothgar’s kingdom, the screenwriters [this has got to be Gaiman’s particular mythic genius at work] turned an episodic hero tale (with many extended anecdotes of evil and reckoning) into a single unified tragedy. The sins of the fathers that serve as a context for the stories in the original poem become the secret sins that link Hrothgar and his successor Beowulf. The result is a story with such great economy and depth it deserves recognition as a classic in its own right that still manages to preserve the integrity of the ancient poem. The poem is the story as it was handed down in song; the movie is all that excitement and glamour plus the behind the scenes story of flawed humans making a go of it as best they can.

The Beowulf in the movie reminds me of a story my mother told me about an encounter between Burt Reynolds and Spencer Tracy (so, if it’s not true, take it up with my mother). Apparently, as a young actor, Reynolds used to follow Tracy around backlots until the older actor told him one day to come on up and walk with him. When Reynolds asked his advice about acting, Tracy said something like, “Acting’s easy. Life is hard.” Ray Winstone’s Beowulf might say this about being the greatest hero of his age—“Slaying dragons is easy; being a good man is hard.”

It’s funny that I find myself writing about Beowulf today because what I read of it in high school I misremembered, and it took seeing this movie to make me seek out the 2000 Seamus Heaney translation and rediscover the original poem. Though I have an affection for the fantastic, my love of swords and sorcery doesn’t extend much beyond what Tolkien did in his trilogy and what Peter Jackson did even better in his movies. As far as fantasy goes, more to my taste in many ways was the movie I most eagerly anticipated and which could hardly live up to the beauty of the source material, The Golden Compass. So, it’s funny that I’m writing about Beowulf today because it’s not what might be generally considered my thing, on one level, but also because I haven’t written a real blog in over three months. Oh, I’ve put some links up and tried to use my blog to alert people to things I thought were important, but I haven’t been particularly inspired to write anything for it in a long while. Even a month ago, I wouldn’t have imagined Beowulf would have been the thing that got me going.

But then the last three months have been full of surprises. On September 22, I had a heart attack, and my blissfully ignorant assumption that I was as healthy as any other 44 year old plodding the earth vanished forever. Worse than that, my wife of 2 years and my 16 year old daughter no longer get to live with such blissful assumptions either.

My reckoning with heart disease has led me to a lot of reflection and a little less writing over all, though I’ve been more motivated than ever to finish the novel I’m working on, and I did put a lot of energy into an article about Springsteen’s new album of reckoning, which has been speaking pretty forcefully to my need to come to grips with my new reality. [If you are interested, you can order that newsletter at http://www.rockrap.com/; the article is called “Your Own Worst Enemy.”]

So, why do I find myself writing my first new blog on January 1st, 2008 about a 1000 year old poem made into a 3D movie that most of the world is probably not taking very seriously? Well, because it speaks to me and where I am right now, and I never would have guessed that, but that’s why I call the page “Take ‘Em As They Come.”

Beowulf transports me to someplace I could never be, contemplating someone with superhuman physical condition fighting supernatural forces, and it’s entertaining as hell in the process. But it’s also moving and resonant because it’s not just about that, it’s about all of life. It’s about the dragons we have to slay every day and the dragons we don’t even know are laying in wait. It’s about knowing they’re out there, and as Beowulf says, “For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end,” and, yet, the challenge is to hold to our high destiny.

One of the great things about the poem in its final scenes is that it even allows that Beowulf needs help in his final battle, and Beowulf’s surviving brother in arms emphasizes that everyone is part of the larger fight. Though some aspects of the vision may seem dated, they take very little to translate into rich allegory for our times. The repeated theme in the poem of grieving, keening mothers and fathers becomes one of the most striking scenes in the movie, the death scene between Grendel and his mother. No one's hands are clean in that world or this one, and nothing is guaranteed, but our only choice is to keep on fighting and live life as we know we should. At the end of an era, facing a Christian god he neither knew or understood, Beowulf’s heroism comes in his struggle to remain true to his ideals. He dies in battle, and in both poem and movie, the story looks to grow darker before it sees light, but that's not what matters. With Beowulf as with us, what matters, as always, is how we choose to face whatever monster blocks our path.