Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Beowulf - The Movie

So I saw Beowulf last week. (What, you want timely? This is a history blog. Timely is not a priority.) I had been threatening to drag my wife to it for weeks, and every time I did, she would threaten to drag me to some Jane Austen Knitting Club movie in retaliation, until we were sitting in a Barnes and Noble coffee shop across from a Beowulf book display, and the following conversation occurred:

HER: Why didn't you tell me that Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay?
ME: I'm pretty sure I did.
HER: No, you would just point and say "I'm dragging you to see that."
ME: Well, it's been mentioned in every single ad.
HER: We could go this weekend.

(Postscript: my wife went home and watched the trailers. Contrary to what I led her to believe, there is no booming voice that says "Screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary." But, you know, the credits were still there.)

(He will kill your monster ...)

A friend who came with us called it "Monty Python on steroids." Me, I'm still cogitating. I liked it. I liked it a lot. The story moved, the actors were excellent, and the 3-D got oohs and aahhs. But there was a lot going on. It was animated, basically. Motion capture of live action, but every frame had clearly been computer-generated. And I don't know why, but I really thought that helped the tone. This is basically a big, gory fairy tale. If it had been live-action, it would have lost a little of the fairy-tale quality. If it had been more Shreklike, it would have been harder to take the mature content seriously. (As was, I think some of the audience had a hard time downshifting from the comic first act to the tragic third act.)

The plot took quite a few liberties with the poem. (It had to, if it were going to be filmable.) What I was impressed by was how Gaiman and Avary kept so many of the main elements (Grendel, Grendel's mother, the dragon), and played with the minor elements to make it a more unified story. In the poem, for example, Wiglaf is only around at the end, for the dragon parts. In the film, he's Beowulf's loyal sidekick. It worked. While the poem takes the approach "There was this guy Beowulf, and this is what happened to him," the film adds a few things in on the margins to give his story (I can't believe I'm saying this) an emotional arc -- gloryhound makes good, maybe, before dying violently. (This spoils nothing. The movie's been out for a week, the poem for more than a thousand years.)

My wife, who is far more literate than I (she's read the poem, in the Olde Englishe), assures me that several plot elements were lifted from John Gardner's Grendel, which I have on my "To-Read" shelf. Guess that will come down sooner rather than later. Meantime, I'm working my way through the poem (which I have never been able to finish). More on that when I do.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

You Can't Make This Stuff Up: Chevalier St. Georges

Quick quiz. The man depicted above:

(a) wrote six operas in the late eighteenth century, including one on which he collaborated with Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, of Dangerous Liaisons fame;
(b) founded the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, dedicated to eradicating slavery;
(c) was the most celebrated pupil of the Tessier de la Boessiere fencing academy;
(d) once threw a exhibition fencing match to the Chevalier d'Eon, a former spy who, after a stint in Russia disguised as a woman, spent the rest of his life as a transvestite.

The answer is "(e)," all of the above. I love it when it's all of the above.

The Chevalier on Wikipedia.

More here.

And, of course, soon to be a major motion picture.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Sontag on Story Shape

It's late, and I haven't posted yet, so I'm going for an easy link entry tonight. The Guardian has never-before-published essay by Susan Sontag that has this little bit in it:
The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story's end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.
I was going to say that this suggests one difference between history and historical fiction -- that one tries to bring things together, and the other doesn't. But that's not really true. Good history can do what Sontag describes. Bad novels don't. So I'll let this nag at me some more. Now it can nag at you, too.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Soft idiot softly

And now, your moment of highbrow high concept for the week:

WH Auden may have helped Guy Burgess flee Britain for the Soviet Union back in 1951.

It doesn't look like it was intentional. Burgess, looking for cover for his escape, tried to get himself invited to Auden's new home in Ichia, Naples. (Burgess and Auden were both gay, and had a passing acquaintance.) When he called the friends Auden was staying with, Auden was too drunk to answer. Somehow, the phone calls became public knowledge, and MI6 wound up interrogating Auden.

Just imagine: one of England's most famous poets gets questioned about his role in helping one of England's most notorious spies flee the country. How nerve-wracking would that be for a closeted gay man in the 1950s?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

... 299 ...

A tiny bit of 300 followup, from BBC News. Some Iranian government officials and newspapers are protesting that the movie is "psychological warfare."

Javad Shamqadri, a cultural advisor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said it was "plundering Iran's historic past and insulting this civilization".

He branded the film "psychological warfare" against Tehran and its people.


Daily newspaper Ayandeh-No carried the headline "Hollywood declares war on Iranians".
The paper said: "It seeks to tell people that Iran, which is in the Axis of Evil now, has for long been the source of evil and modern Iranians' ancestors are the ugly murderous dumb savages you see in 300."
Can't say this is a surprise, or even that it's unfounded. (I do think Shamqadri may have meant "propaganda," though. Psychological warfare presupposes the movie will get wide distribution in Iran.) For example, the BBC article runs a photo of a Spartan fighting one of the Persian immortals. Students of history know the Immortals as the Persian imperial guard, which served as an infantry unit at both Marathon and Thermopylae. Viewers of 300 know the Immortals as the Masked Persian Zombie Ninjas that attack right before the elephants and the rhinoceros.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Free Story Idea: The Anglo-French Republic

From the latest New York Review of Books (which, clearly, got it from the Guardian when I wasn't looking):
In January, a government document was discovered in the British national archives which, according to the Guardian newspaper, "shocked historians." This was the note, dated September 28, 1956, of a meeting in London between the British prime minister, the conservative and Francophile Anthony Eden, and his French equivalent, the socialist and Anglophile Guy Mollet—one of those rare encounters when two premiers spoke each other's language both fluently and willingly. ... [A]t this rare moment of concord, Mollet suggested that the two countries unite; or, if not that, then at least France join the Commonwealth. The British note shows that Eden recommended "immediate consideration" of the latter idea; also that Mollet "had not thought there need be difficulty over France accepting the headship of Her Majesty; [and] that the French would welcome a common citizenship arrangement on an Irish basis."
There's the basis for an interesting alternate history. What would the past fifty years have looked like if Mollet and Eden had tried for unification?

The Review notes that the "British treated it as a jokey what-if, speculating on amalgamated soccer teams and the possibly improved quality of croissants in British shops."

Forget if it was successful. What if the countries had tried it, and it failed?

Monday, March 12, 2007

Women Onstage

From the Times Literary Supplement, a review article on women's roles onstage since the Restoration:
If we are to change the way that theatre women are included in today’s stories, we must attend to how they have been marginalised in the stories of the past.
The article is mainly focused on the business end of the theater, which, frankly, makes it even more interesting.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


(via Warren Ellis)

Clockpunk is the new name for alternate history stories that take place in a world where the Renaissance yielded more technological innovation than ours did. (I'm assuming, from the few writeups I've seen so far, that the soon-to-be-cliched premise of much of this fiction will be "What if we had listened to Da Vinci?")

The term appears to derive from an old role-playing-game manual, and the term may have referred to something else entirely at one point.

The new blog devoted to this Renaissance strain of clockpunk -- The Da Vinci Automata -- seems interesting enough so far. But, so far, it also seems more an attempt to create a subgenre around a label than a recognition of an actual literary movement within either science or historical fiction. (For example, click on the "Bibliography" at DVA, and all you'll see is "To be added soon.")

Still, I'll keep an eye out. Good alternate history can be fascinating, and it's possible the Da Vinci Automata will point out some solid stories that would otherwise get overlooked.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

History and Film: 300

The good news is, it was just about what I expected it to be. Awkward hard-boiled bon mots, gloriously over-the-top violence, computer-generated rhinoceri. The trailer did not lie.

Historically, this movie was nowhere close to accurate, but if you're going to a movie about ancient Sparta where the poster looks like it's advertising a heavy metal concert, what were you expecting? Among other things, the movie tries to cast the helot-owning Spartans as the champions of freedom, and has a plot point turn on the queen's alleged adultery, despite the fact that extramarital sex was not particularly scandalous in Sparta.

But the biggest problem, from a storytelling standpoint, was that the script allowed the foregone conclusion (the 300 Spartans die) to rob the story of any tension. Up until the moment they die, none of the Spartans surrender. None of them even consider surrendering. And none of them lose at hand-to-hand combat. Which means that most of the scenes are just a repeat of the Spartans facing a threat, dispatching it handily, and then reaffirming that no, they're still not surrendering. It's too bad, the last thing I expected was that the battle scenes would get boring.

Friday, March 09, 2007

303 ... 302 ... 301 ...

Going to see 300 tonight.

It looks gloriously bad.

There will be a full report later.

(also, Rome reviews to resume shortly)

Monday, January 15, 2007

Rome - "Passover"

"Sorry about your uncle."
"I'm made his son, by will."
"Oh, congratulations. You'll be wanting vengeance, then."
Titus Pullo and Octavian.
The new season of Rome is finally here, which makes me a little giddy, since it's one of the few shows that bothers to dramatize history, and since it does it so well. I'd been thinking about how it manages to create an ancient Rome that feels so convincing, without bogging the viewer down in detail. Tonight, at least, two things pop out: violence and ritual.
The violence in Rome is brutal and casual. (As opposed to the violence in Deadwood, which, while brutal and common, was usually accompanied by somber lighting and that plucked-string score that heralded major events.) As a result, it leaves the feeling that violence, while serious, was something that ancient Romans lived with every day. What makes pieces of violence noteworthy on the show are their meanings to the characters. Caesar's death is worth paying attention to because it has an immediate impact on a number of lives. The manner of his death is noteworthy primarily because it occurred in the Senate chamber. Alex Epstein of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue has already made this point well about the first season, particularly about how the writing frequently makes violence the second most important thing in the scene to the characters.
But the other thing that Rome does well is its use of ritual. Dropping in rituals that advance the story but still seem foreign to modern viewers help to create a different world very effectively without slowing down the story. Sometimes, these rituals are set pieces, like the twin funerals in this episode. Other times, they're just snatches of dialogue or actorly business. Titus Pullo marries his former slave by asking, and then marking her forehead. Attia, when planning to flee the city, barks a quick "Pack the money and the household gods." The script doesn't dwell on the exotic moments, and neither do the actors, and it's that ruthless efficiency that sells the difference so well.