Monday, June 08, 2009

Slicing and dicing, with extra Jung

I wonder if you know the myth of Baucis and Philemon? It's quite weird, basically a story about a nice old couple who get turned by the Gods into a tree. It's the sort of story that, elsewhere, you might treat as a creation myth, or a tale of divine wrath (two old farts get turned into a piece of foliage for their sins, happens all the time). Only, perhaps at some point, the Ancient Greeks or Romans or whoever was responsible for the writing of the myth in its current form, tacked on an explanation that explained nothing: Baucis and Philemon get turned into a tree because they have been good, and kind, and generous (whereas everyone else in the village they live in have been inhospitable to the gods.)

It's weird, it's illogical, it doesn't make sense physically or emotionally, and it's one of my favourite myths ever.

I feel the same way about my favourite movie, John Boorman's Excalibur. I was rewatching it last night for perhaps the tenth time, and had an opportunity to remind myself just how ridiculous it is. In essence it's a retelling of the Arthurian romances, starting with the back-story about Arthur's dad, bringing in his twisted family relations, and building up to the war between Mordred and the Arthurian court after a complicated and somewhat silly search for the Holy Grail.

All these plots twists and turns were quite enough to keep me interested in the film the first two times that I saw it, but after repeated watchings, one can't help but notice a fundamental silliness to the whole thing. For one thing, you couldn't really say that the film has a script, so much: certainly not a script in the sense of lines of dialogue which act as expositions for characters feelings and reactions throughout the film. Instead, they're forever stomping through scenes (the wearing of armour actively facilitates their ponderous stomping) uttering phrases about their place in history: "It's not for you, Uther, hearth and home, wife and child." Or: "Arthur - that's you!" Or: "I will build a - round table! And a hall around the table! And a castle around the hall!" Or again: "Now, once again, I must ride with my knights, and defend what once was - and could be again."

Sometimes, when they're not pompously expostulating about whatever tragic and disastrous fate is forever in the process of befalling them, they wax and wane with bizarre eloquence about whatever preposterous new-agey idea Boorman had in his head when he was preparing the script. "A king without a sword? A land without a king!" Or: "You have broken what could not be broken. Hope is broken." Or again: "Merlin! What is the dragon?" "It is everywhere! It is everything!" "Is Excalibur part of the dragon too?" "Oh, yes. I like that. You learn fast!" (George Lucas's Force has nothing on Boorman's dragon.)

All this is not to say that the film does not have a certain tragic grandeur of its own. This tragic grandeur is largely borrowed from other tragic and grand works of art, and tends to make sense only when taken completely out of its original context. When Arthur first meets Guenevere, he asks Merlin if he can make her love him, and Merlin replies with a Shakespeare quote: "This mad distemper which strikes down both beggar and king!" Shakespeare - in the dark ages! Then again, the music is literally Wagnerian: the film is prefaced by Siegfried's funeral music; Lancelot and Guenevere's forbidden, and long unfufilled passion, is described withy the Tristan and Isolde overture; at least Perceval (the guy who finds the grail) gets the overture to Parsifal. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, on the other hand, is deployed when the knights are in action. Arthur's adoptive father is even played by Richard Bucket, or in his real life persona, Clive Swift. Oh, and though I still don't know what samite is, I'm still pretty sure that the arm that grabs Excalibur at the end of the film, out of the middle of a lake, is wearing it.

When he's not doing stuff like taking obscure fashion tips from the poems of nineteenth century English poet laureates, Boorman is a great director. The scenes where Morgana gives birth to Mordred, or where a child Mordred rides laughing through a forest hung with the bodies of dead knights, or several other scenes throughout the film are absolutely arresting. If you accustom yourself to the perpetual habit Boorman has of borrowing grandeur from other films, you'll find that the results are quite fascinating (if not entirely coherent). The whole film is visually, quite beautiful, and the special effects really rather impressive for what must have been a small budget.

I still remember when I watched the whole thing all the way through, at about two o'clock one night in Newcastle at my parents house - which is probably the perfect time to put all your worries about coherence and Jungian references aside - and how impressed I was by those final scenes, in which Arthur and Mordred slug it out besides a red setting sun while Wagner's music from Gotterdammerung burbles away in the background; and how, for no obvious reason, the final words of dialogue spoken are by Perceval, who wanders up and back on the shore of a blood-drenched lake and hollers, "Arthur! Arthur!" at the top of his voice.

Coherence! Who needs it anyway?


forlorn said...

I think I watched part of this movie as a child. And then the sex came on (fairly graphically and fairly early on, as I recall) and I was sent to bed. Should I try to watch the rest now?

TimT said...

Well the first sex scene pretty much starts how Boorman intends to go on; there are two other sex scenes, the last between Arthur and Morgana le Fay (his sister)!

Aside from the complicated family relations (I guess that's how a good medieval romance should be), there's also a fair deal of war and battles, but apart from that a fairly straightforward movie.

forlorn said...

Ah. See, I always thought that there was something very knowing about it and that people were exchanging knowing winks with each other when they mentioned it because it was forbidden to me. And I'm still unsure after reading your review why you like it enough for it to be your favourite!

(word verification is the story of my weekend: tediumer).

TimT said...

Was going to mention in the review, though I forgot in the end, that it has at least one thing over almost all the other weird 1970s/early 80s fantasy and sf films that took as their subject Jungian archetypes/the traumas of the subconscious, bla bla bla - it actually has a plot. And that plot isn't resolved in a mish-mash of dream images or by aid of a solipsistic denouement (such as happens in other films like, say, Boorman's Zardoz).

The film shares these characteristics with Star Wars, in fact, though I get incredibly bored by Star Wars, but not by Excalibur. Maybe it's because Boorman is so much dirtier than Lucas - the armour gleams in Excalibur, but there's also a lot of blood and guts and lichen and mould and so forth.

As for the jokes about the script, I don't think I ever really related to the script of Excalibur, even when I first saw it - it was the astounding images. Maybe I should have gone on a bit more about them in the review.

forlorn said...

Thanks for that, Tim. I didn't mean to sound critical of the review. I was just interested in what you personally like about the film. I suppose it might have been the fact that I really don't know very much about fantasy or sf. I like real dirt too.

Perhaps I will watch it this weekend, when I have an unusual amount of free time on my hands!

("patheto" now, after "tediumer". The internet is very empathetic!).

Email: timhtrain - at -

eXTReMe Tracker

Blog Archive