Monthly Archives: November 2007

Deconstructing ‘Beowulf’

Near the end of Robert Zemeckis’s film version of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf,” the now aged title character laments the end of the Age of Heroes. “The Christ God” has killed it, he complains to his loyal lieutenant, by filling people with fear and shame.Such a statement couldn’t have appeared in the epic itself. Mikhail Bakhtin noted in his essay “Epic and Novel,” which is included in “The Dialogic Imagination,” that epics take place outside of chronological/historical time. “The world of the epic is the national heroic past: it is a world of ‘beginnings’ and ‘peak times’ in the national history, a world of fathers and of founders of families, a world of ‘firsts’ and ‘bests.’ The narrator of the epic is “speaking about a past that is to him inaccessible, the reverent point of view of a descendent. In its style, tone and manner of expression, epic discourse is infinitely far removed from discourse of a contemporary about a contemporary addressed to contemporaries …” Not so Beowulf, in its film version a world of lasts, of fathers without heirs, who beget only monsters.

From this perspective, it’s clear that Zemeckis’s movie is not a film epic, in the sense of Peter Jackson’s monumental “Lord of the Rings.” Jackson’s success in the movie is to a great degree the extent to which he created a cinematic world purged of any references to our contemporary world. The world of “Rings” is a world where epic heroics and epic evil are altogether plausible. Vivid as the illusion was, we can’t place ourselves in the world of “Rings,” visits to New Zealand notwithstanding.

Zemeckis’s motion-captured world is quite easy to enter, especially the 3-D version. The director himself invites in, offering hints: “pass judgement here, folks!” Thus we’re aware of the Queen’s assessment of the merry goings on of Hrothgar’s kingdom. She wears a constant expression somewhere between mourning and disgust, with occasional bemused tolerance. We share her low opinion of Hrothgar when she spits in his face in full view of the drunken thanes. We revel in our superiority as Western contemporaries as we witness the men’s loutish treatment of women and disapprove of it. We easily see Hrothgar as more clown than monarch.

We also catch on fairly early in the story that Beowulf himself is a braggart, spinning a tale about sea monsters to explain losing an epic swimming race. We learn that he changes the number of slain monsters with each telling of his story, and we, as privileged viewers, get to see the real reason for Beowulf’s lost race: dalliance with an underwater seductive demon. (I couldn’t tell if that one was the same as Grendel’s mother or another one.) We know darn well Beowulf is spinning his own tale when he returns from the cave with a rather feeble story about what happened to the precious sword and dragon-horn flagon just bestowed upon him.

And we know darn well that Angelina Jolie, “the sexiest woman alive,” is Grendel’s mother. Who else but the reigning queen of mythic sexuality could so successfully depict a mythical seductress? No epic hero would have his sword/phallus liquified as does Zemeckis’s Beowulf, but we, the contemporary audience nearly seduced ourselves by Jolie’s legendary lips (at least the men in the audience) can sympathize with Beowulf’s failure to complete his mission.

As she reels him in, Grendel’s mother entices Beowulf not just with her dripping, curvy form, but with the promise of “the greatest song ever sung,” and indeed, “the bards will sing of this,” is a refrain throughout the movie. The songs actually create, or at least prop up, reality in a very modern sense. When Beowulf tries to tell his faithful lieutenant the truth about what went on in that cave, the sidekick cuts him off. Beowulf slew her; after all, that’s what the song says. This is a Beowulf after Jean Baudrillard’sSimulacra and Simulation,” a media creation better than the real thing, well, certainly more heroic, i.e. a “real hero,” a figure no longer real to us.

We bring to “Beowulf” all our experiences of contemporary action “heroes,” men whose status builds more upon body count than any exercise of virtue, and who are, in any case, too jaded and self-conscious to fit into the epic as Bakhtin describes it. There can be no heroic Beowulf alongside Captain Jack Sparrow.



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Reign of Error

We had two letters in the November 21 Leader-Tribune concerning the on-going dust-up over education matters, and my fellow columnist A.W. Dorsey even heard of this mess while “on the road.” What’s a sports columnist doing writing about the Board of Education? Why not, since it’s turned into tag-team wrestling?In keeping with the tone of Jody Usry’s letter, I’ll have a little fun at his expense. (I make no claim to knowing whether God is using me in this instance.) Usry writes of board member Kay Whitley’s “rein of terror.” I hope that the students of the Peach County schools have been taught well by their dedicated educators, and that they remember the horrors of the “Reign of Terror” following the French Revolution. I’m pretty sure the students wish to rein in the current Reign of Terror, whoever is actually carrying it out. The reins of our school system definitely need a gentler hand, and I pray the next person to reign over the schools as Superintendent will not rain on anybody’s parade (although we might wish the weather gods would loosen the reins on the clouds). My request: It is almost always counterproductive to mock people publically with personal attacks; if unity is truly what you desire, then please bring it about with a more civil tongue, lest that small member further fan the flames.

County Commissioner Martin Moseley Jr. used a more measured tone in his letter, which began by justifiably lamenting the departure of Superintendent Tommy Daniel. Moseley noted it “looks like” the BOE is “bent on the destruction of our school system and county as we know it.” I think “looks like,” is an important qualifier here, because I doubt that Whitley, Givens and Jamie Johnson are actually trying to destroy anything. What they are trying to do is hard to determine, since they have offered little public comment. However, people at each other’s throats seems like Peach County as we know it, at least at its worst moments.

Moseley echoes my own concern about who might replace Daniel. Will we get someone who just needs the job, or someone who can actually run the schools as an independent, competent professional? It is the superintedent’s job, after all, to run the schools; it is the Board’s job to keep an eye on the superintendent and monitor his or her performance, not to run the the show itself.

Moseley calls the reigning majority “indecisive and inactive,” but I think that’s a mistaken evaluation. Whitley, Givens and Johnson have been very decisive and active; it’s just that most observers have trouble comprehending to what end. If people in Fort Valley are indeed ready to get on the CFBE bandwagon, as Moseley suggests, this is a positive sign. It would mean that at least some of the people who voted in Whitley and Johnson (the new members) are dismayed by some of their actions. Since the people voted for the board to do their bidding, as A.W. cogently observed, then they have every right, and indeed the responsibility, to demand a change of course, if that is now their wish. Let the people speak.

It was distressing to read in A.W.’s column on Page B1 of the Nov. 21 edition that people outside the county are hearing about the BOE situation. Let’s hope our new friends from China don’t hear about it.

NEXT POST: Deconstructing “Beowulf”.

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More Items on my Thanksgiving List

Next Wednesday’s column will include four items on my Thanksgiving list. Here are a few more:

The Austin Theatre. I haven’t been inside the place yet, but it makes downtown Fort Valley look more inviting. The challenge for downtowns, in any size city, is to give people some reason to visit. Attractive buildings that hold events you can’t attend elsewhere are pieces of the puzzle. Successful examples in other places include the Douglass Theatre in Macon and the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. (For some reason, old theaters always spell it “theatre.”) The first is in a small city, the second in a large city. Macon’s downtown has some attractions, including the Douglass, the Tubman Museum, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. It’s a work in progress; some stretches of downtown Macon still look old and rundown, but it’s on the right track. Atlanta’s downtown has been on the comeback trail for a while now. Fort Valley faces more of a challenge, being so small and with limited resources, but civic pride and Fort Valley Main Street should make it happen. What we need next is a nice restaurant on the same block, since dinner and theater are a classic combination.

Fort Valley’s Christmas Lights. When the nights are long and cold and the streets mostly deserted, this annual sparkling display is reason enough to cruise through downtown. A suggestion for Main Street or other interested parties: Some kind of event that draws people to downtown particularly at night. Could local shops stay open a night or two during this season?

Local health care. After a rough year for my health, I want to once again sing the praises of Dr. Cynthia Giles and Peach Regional Medical Center. Dr. Giles is the best doctor I’ve ever had, caring, thorough, and determined to get to the bottom of any illness, or find someone who can. (I speak only from direct experience. I invite comments about your favorite local doctors.) PRMC really is the Little Hospital That Could. Through the years, they’ve struggled simply to keep their doors open and made it through the night. Lately, the struggle is to open their new doors. Things look good for that project. As I’ve said before, PRMC’s people took excellent care of me during my stay. Anybody unfortunate enough to have to stay there during the holidays will surely appreciate the care even more. To the bad-mouthers out there: Take care of PRMC as well as they take care of you. REMINDER: PRMC needs your support. Vote for PRMC to win an MRI. Last time I checked, they had 2,153 votes, which is way behind, but miracles can and do happen.

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College Football Big $$$

Last Saturday, I caught a bit of the UGA vs. Auburn game and marvelled at the poetry in motion that is Knowshon Moreno, the Dawgs star running back. The next day, in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, Michael Lewis asked why college football players are the only parties not making money off the game:

“College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?”

UGA’s football program generated $59 million in revenue recently, Lewis wrote, but the players, whose labor provided that value, got nothing, and they get in trouble if they’re caught accepting almost any remuneration for their labor. “At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen,” Lewis wrote.

The injustice of this situation grows when we consider that so few college football players graduate. The pretense that college athletes are students first and athletes second is silly, Lewis wrote. How many star high school players choose their college based on academics? It isn’t that college athletes can’t learn, Lewis wrote, but that ” … they’re too busy. Unlike the other students on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing. Neglect the task at hand, and they may never get a chance to play football for money.”

Lewis suggested paying college players based on the ratio of revenue to payroll in the NFL. Texas Longhorns star quarterback Vince Young would have made about $5 million in 2005, for instance. “In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge, Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year — and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk,” Lewis wrote. Moreno would surely be worth a million or two.

So why not set up the paid college sports marketplace, and let those who really want amateur status make the choice, Lewis asked. “The N.C.A.A. might one day be able to run an honest advertisement for the football-playing student-athlete: a young man who valued so highly what the University of Florida had to teach him about hospitality management that he ignored the money being thrown at him by Florida State,” Lewis wrote.

This is a thought-provoking proposal, but I don’t think I want to turn college sports into a totally commercial enterprise. For sports that don’t make money, and for lower divisions, athletics really is a way for students to attend college who might otherwise not be able to go. Football at Fort Valley State, for instance, hardly makes enough money to pay anybody, and for every Rayfield Wright there are hundreds who never went any further as players.

What say you all?


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The Post Daniel Era

I haven’t been able to reach School Superintendent Tommy Daniel to find out why he asked the board to buy out his contract. He said nothing newsworthy in The Telegraph, so I assume he is A) A class act who doesn’t like to bad mouth people and B) Keeping things clean for his next job.

So we’re left with the obvious question: Why would a schools superintendent leave in the middle of a school year, when the system had been showing some signs of progress under his direction? It’s hard not to speculate that the current turmoil between BOE factions and the fowl up with the new schools made working conditions unpleasant. It ain’t easy being a superintendent these days, what with No Child Left Behind breathing down your neck and limited resources. Being stuck in the middle of a feud couldn’t have made the situation happier.

What’s next? Who, given a good look at the current Montague-Capulet situation, would take the job as Peach County Superintendent of Schools? Yet someone will come forward. The money’s good and some bold soul will get it into his or her head that the challenges are stimulating, rather than daunting. All I can say to the candidates is: God be with you, and rent, don’t buy a home.

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What’s Wrong With Political Reporting & Blogs

In my first bloggish post, I take a pot shot at blogs and the sorry state of reporting on politics. As readers have no way of avoiding, there’s a presidential campaign on. I can barely read most of the coverage. Today, my negative example is the hubbub over whether Hillary Rodham Clinton tipped an Iowa waitress, first reported by National Public Radio. Seems Anita Esterday, a waitress in a Toledo, Iowa restaurant, mentioned not getting a tip after Mrs. Clinton and her entourage ate there. Now, people lacking refined journalism sense (insert tongue in cheek) might suppose that either the candidate or some member of her crew meant to tip the lady, but some error on somebody’s part deprived the hard-working single mom of her well-earned tip, end of story. But not in NewsLand!

No, the Tale of the Missing Tip morphed into the millionth tempest in a teapot of an already too-long campaign. The blogosphere, always ready to apply nuclear heat to the teapot, cooked up The Hillary the Cheapskate and Hillary The Exploiter mini-scandal. For instance, look at Propeller, or that pillar of journalistic integrity, The Drudge Report, which dredged up another example of Mrs. Clinton’s alleged chintziness. The Big Dog offers a long list of other stories/blogs on this story.

But Esterday herself had the best take on this idiocy, as reported in the New York Times: ““You people are really nuts,” she told a reporter during a phone interview. “There’s kids dying in the war, the price of oil right now — there’s better things in this world to be thinking about than who served Hillary Clinton at Maid-Rite and who got a tip and who didn’t get a tip.”

I’m now soliciting donations to establish the Anita Esterday School of Journalism at whichever university wishes to host it.

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