Daily Archives: November 27, 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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