Beowulf 3-D

It’s probably no mistake that the first major feature to get the high-def 3D treatment is Beowulf (IMDB) one of the oldest stories in the English language. The Old English epic poem is a high school standard but one that mixes historical figures with mythic creatures (dragons, monsters), making it simultaneously familiar and alien. This uncanny quality makes Beowulf an apt vehicle for director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary to explore the ways in which digital 3-D can be used to reinvent cinema as a medium. And while Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Contact, Death Becomes Her) has often been dismissed as a gimmicky director, his Beowulf adaptation has some subtle touches that explore the relationship between cinema and embodiment in particular, but more importantly about the medium of movies themselves (can we even call it film anymore?).

The basic story of Beowulf is well known: King Hrothgar builds a giant mead hall where his subjects sing, dance, and celebrate, disturbing Grendel, who kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors. Soon after, Beowulf arrives, killing Grendel by ripping off his arm and setting up the second battle with Grendel’s mother (famously played by Angelina Jolie). However, instead of killing her, Beowulf finds himself seduced by her and returns from her cave claiming to have slain her, a fairly significant departure from the original poem, which Gaiman and Avary have justified by claiming that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. This seduction sets up the final scene in which the dragon attacks Beowulf’s kingdom, delivering a message from Grendel’s mother (“the sins of the father”), also a departure from the original text. In this sense, Beowulf is transformed from an epic hero to a flawed character, one characterized by his overreaching pride. More crucially, the film adapts the epic poem into a story about a crisis in masculinity, about Hrothgar and Beowulf’s failures to produce male heirs, an interpretation of the poem that I found mildly intriguing but deeply flawed in its execution.

The masculinity crisis is so overplayed in places that it became almost unintentionally funny. As Matt Zoller Seitz observes, the film contained “a few too many dick jokes, including elaborate attempts to shield a nude Beowulf’s mighty sword that just become ridiculous.” In fact, Beowulf’s action of ripping off Grendel’s arm is itself a symbolic castration, one that reduces the monstrous Grendel to a whimpering child (the depiction of Grendel was, in fact, one of the least intersting elements of the film). And Grendel’s mother’s seduction of Beowulf seems to revive fears of the monstrous female, as SMU medieval studies professor Bonnie Wheeler notes (Manohla Dargis also raises this point).  But even with these flaws, I found myself fascinated by the depiction of bodies, by the use of 3-D to depict movement, and in many cases, the use of shape-shifting to depict Grendel’s mother, in particular.

And this is where I think that Zemeckis’s use of 3-D may be a little more subtle than other attempts at 3-D in the past.  While Zemeckis does use 3-D occasionally to depict swords, arrows, or other objects flying directly at the viewer, Beowulf typically avoids many of these cliches.  However, unlike Frank Rose, writing in Wired Magazine, I did not feel as if the 3-D was used to draw me into the sixth century world depicted in Beowulf.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as I could never forget for a second that I was watching a movie.  Part of this can be attributed to the physical discomfort of wearing the 3-D glasses, which were slightly too small, for two hours, but much of the effect was due to the amount of visual information “on” the screen. 

And this is where I find Ted Pigeon’s review/reflections on the movie especially interesting and helpful, even if I’m not sure I share his conclusions.  Ted describes being “distracted” by the layering effect, commenting that:

The 3-D experience is so “distracting” because it disrupts the spatial unity of the cinematic image. For those who approach cinema from a more formal theoretical perspective, 3-D technology makes cinema something else entirely. It is, quite simply, a betrayal of cinema. 

Like Ted, I found the use of 3-D to be something of a “distraction,” but instead of seeing that as a weakness or flaw, the distancing effect was, for me, what made the movie interesting.  In fact, the film offers a calculated attempt to make us aware of how we watch movies, openly defying the pictorial flatness that has come to define movies as a medium (see also Pat Graham of The Chicago Reader and, more crucially, Rudolf Arnheim on this point).  But, again, rather than merely using 3-D as a gimmick, the 3-D serves to underscore a layered, hypermediated aesthetic.  Matt’s suggestion that the movie essentially uses “a high tech version of Rotoscoping,” giving Beowulf an almost painterly aesthetic, seems about right to me.

I don’t know that I have any conclusions about the experience of watching Beowulf just yet.  Unfortunately, there were only three or four other people in the audience when I saw the movie last night, so I did not get a clear sense of how a crowd might have responded to it.  The relatively empty theater may have, in fact, distanced me from the movie even further, making the act of watching feel even more like an academic exercise (I’m planning to discuss Beowulf in my revised chapter on digital projection) than a piece of entertainment.  I’m unwilling to embrace Wired’s wide-eyed futurism (note especially Roger Avary’s comments that “It was like a third eye opened up in my forehead,” and Fox executive Jim Gianopulos’ claim that “Talkies were an evolution of the medium. This is a complete transformation of the medium”).  But I do think that Beowulf’s use of 3-D introduces some interesting challenges to traditional definitions of cinema as we know it.

1 Comment »

  1. The Chutry Experiment » Grading 3-D Said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    […] for a new semester–but I’ve been thinking about 3-D quite a bit lately (especially in my response to Beowulf), and while my initial impulse is to agree with Ebert, I want to tweak his argument just […]

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