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’s “Simulacra 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.