Odin’s Frican Balls: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Beowulf

The key to Robert Zemeckis’s recent film Beowulf is to understand that it’s an old man’s story. Not so much a story about an old man, as the sort of story an old man would want to tell the youngsters around him. And not a story told by just any old man, but by one with a great sense of humor, a great sense of regret, and a great memory of what it’s like to be young.

I didn’t expect to love Beowulf. It’s got several strikes against it right out of the gate. One, it’s based on one of the oldest, simplest, most boring tales in English literature-we can quibble about the boring part, but not if your idea of entertainment involves complex or dynamic characters or complex plots.

Two, it’s got Angelina Jolie doing her usual bad impression of an actress, and Robin Wright Penn doing her usual impression of Mr. Frownypants, and Crispin Glover doing his best, as usual, to disturb me, and Anthony Hopkins and Ray Winstone and… OK, so the cast is a fascinating smorgasbord of talent and not-so-much-talent. The point is, on paper, this kind of a cast sounds like a trainwreck-not one of these actors has a record of carrying a movie singlehandedly-sorry, Hopkins, it’s true-and they each seem pulled from a separate corner of the acting universe. The last time I’ve seen such a casting strategy work was in a David Lynch film.

Three, Beowulf comes on what one hopes is the tail end of a train of flicks about ancient brawny manhood, which flicks have broken down into three subcategories: Greco-Roman, a la Gladiator or 300; Asian, a la Hero or Mongol or Last Samurai; and Euro-barbarian, a la Braveheart and 10,000 B.C. While each of these subcategories has had its moment in the sun and many more moments under a cloud, perhaps none seems quite so palled by failure at this point as the last, the Euro-barbarian subcategory, wedded as it has been to its crosseyed cousin, the swords-and-dragons fantasy flick. And sure enough, Beowulf checks in as a loosely historical Euro-barbarian flick that just so happens to feature a dragon and a couple other creatures from dimension CG. After Eragon and Dragon Wars, dragon presence is almost a deal-breaker in and of itself. As the saying goes, fool me thrice, shame on everyone in a thousand mile radius.

Four, Beowulf was made by the ghoulish artists who brought us The Polar Express, whose talent seems to be to take what would be an astonishingly beautiful live-action film and make a wax-fruit equivalent. I myself didn’t think the kids’ eyes in Polar Express looked “dead,” but I won’t deny that the Botox cheeks and general Shrek-iness of the characters in these movies makes one wonder whether their studio’s motto is, like that of Dr. Mengele’s workshop, Because We Can.

Suffice it to say that Beowulf overcomes all four of these objections. Here’s how.

One, Beowulf is HOT. Beowulf was made by people who understand the thrills of youth. While the screen’s yet black, we’re treated to the first chords of a soundtrack that features equal parts barbarian chant, traditional orchestral ingredients, and what might as well be a killer guitar riff off the Fight Club soundtrack. What soon follows is a party as messy and skeevy as anything you’re likely to find in Greek campus housing on a Friday night, hosted by Anthony Hopkins’ half-toga’d, wholly crunked King Hrothgar; sailorly song lyrics as lewd and hilarious as anything that comes out of R. Lee Ermey’s mouth in Full Metal Jacket; and a flirtation between one of Beowulf’s thanes and a local gal as hot and heavy as a Hell’s Angels one-night-stand. The movie’s so good at depicting the rush of mortal combat, that we feel some glee despite ourselves when Beowulf roars at his whimpering, pathetic enemy, “I am Ripper… Tearer… Slasher… Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength… and Lust… and Power! I AM BEOWULF!” And we bask in the marvels of what’s clearly a cock-and-bull story Beowulf tells about fighting sea monsters in the middle of a five-day swimming race (we know it’s cock and bull because we see that it didn’t end the way Beowulf narrates the ending, and we hear that the number of sea monsters slain has tripled since the last telling). And then there’s Angelina Jolie, whose CG handlers help her help us understand exactly what Beowulf could have been thinking in dropping trou for such an obviously untrustworthy ur-demon played by such an obviously anorexic and silicate quasi-cutie as Jolie. (Answer: He wasn’t thinking; she didn’t give him a chance to, at least not with his head.)

Two, Beowulf is FUNNY. Intentionally, deliciously, savvily funny, and clearly made by people old enough to see humor in the passions of youth. You doubt me? When Grendel’s mom, Grendelina Jolie, rises from her lair’s waters to seduce Beowulf, she reveals her prehensile tail to be her floor-length hair, braided and given by demon magic the functionality of a fifth limb. In the same shot, we see that her naked feet-not her shoes, her feet-have stiletto heels. A moment later, Grendelina grips Beowulf’s sword in a very phallic 45-degree position and liquefies it-these details could not amount to a more parodic depiction of the femme fatale were they gags in a Naked Gun movie. Likewise the filmmakers’ snickering use of the Austin Powers method of hiding a man’s naked crotch with foregrounded objects to draw attention to the sexuality, and the silliness of the sexuality, of Beowulf’s brand of heroism. If the physical presentation of this hide-the-salami fight scene doesn’t drive the point home, hopefully Beowulf’s dialogue does: “I am Ripper… Tearer… Slasher… Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength… and Lust… and Power! I AM BEOWULF!” Yes, this stuff is over-the-top. Yes, it’s meant to be. Any eternal-adolescent audience member who holds Beowulf’s fighting and fornicating spirit in such high regard that they can’t see the humor in it, no matter how broad and loud the lampoon, will probably eventually find himself in the kinds of trouble that Hrothgar and Beowulf get themselves into.

Which brings us to:

Three, Beowulf is MOURNFUL. A late-life sting of real regret inspires the whole movie, and we’re gradually led to feel more and more of that sting as the movie proceeds. When he’s brought into the castle half-incinerated and writhing on a fallen steeple, John Malkovich’s pixellated priest cries out the words his attacker told him to pass on to King Beowulf: “The sins of the father!” And since it’s Beowulf’s sins being referred to, but Malkovich’s children and wife who’ve been incinerated as punishment, we’re forced to admit that the movie has taken a hard turn into pathos and is actually asking us to care. When, a bit later, Beowulf swings wildly from his own near-severed arm trying to reach his dragon’s heart, the dragon stands in for the audience, who doubtlessly came to see stuff get burned and slashed and shouted at real good, and not so much to have its heartstrings tugged at. In at least one case, mine, Beowulf gets at that dragon heart, those dragon tears; dear reader, I admit, I briefly cried, during my second viewing. I’m not sure it’s necessary that one harbor regrets similar to Beowulf’s for one to have such a reaction to his story, but I’m sure it helps.

Four, Beowulf is WISE. It manages to combine a firsthand understanding of the seductions of youth-kingdom, power, glory, spoils, merriment, joy, and fornication, as the movie lists them-or as it star asserts, “Mine is Strength… and Lust… and Power! I AM BEOWULF!”-with an older man’s penitence about youthful indiscretion, and an even older man’s freedom to laugh at youth. And not just combine these elements, but make them work together, on the premise that the only way to convey both the power of youth and the foolishness of it and the tragic danger of it, is to find a way to fit both the power, and the foolishness, and the tragic danger on screen together. This means composing a piece that is alternately stirring and full-tilt and gung-ho, and light and tongue-in-cheek and parodic, and agonizing and tear-jerking and bitter. No mean feat. Many have failed trying to accomplish something similar.

Beowulf manages this feat. And maybe part of how it does so is, it draws on the wisdom of many decades as lived by its cast and crew. Unlike Beowulf, the people behind Beowulf chose their battles well. They chose a medium that would imbue human faces equally well with youth and with age, with comedic cartoonish simplicity and with dramatic nuance, as the scene required; they chose a medium that would allow fantastic monsters and realistic emotions and utterly flawless young bodies and a plausible 6th-century dank Danish fiefdom to coexist without one element upstaging the others. And then, in the poem “Beowulf” they chose a tale simple enough to serve as an elegant spine on which to flesh out a Greekly clever tragedy. Furthermore, they knew enough to tackle the issue of historicity with nonchalance, by interlacing details of a foreign and long-forgotten world with hints of a human nature and society identical to our own-there’s no better way to achieve a sense of timeless import. Oh, and they cast people with exactly the talents needed for each role. Turns out Angelina Jolie + CG = a perfect Grendel’s mother.

Just in case you’re not convinced of Beowulf’s great achievement-and really I’d rather you go now and watch or re-watch the movie and let it do the convincing-I’d like to point out three or four idiosyncratic ways in which the movie won me.

The first way it won me: the final scene. I won’t say exactly what happens in the last scene, or who’s in it, or what has led up to it; I’ll only say that it’s the best battle scene in the movie, and that everything important to that battle happens in and behind the faces of the combatants-in the changes that roil through and behind one combatant’s face, like lightning in a cloud, and in the inhuman constancy of the other combatant’s expression.

Hint: The Inhumanly Constant Face Belongs to the Inhuman Combatant.  Really, I’m Surprised They Bothered Capturing Her Facial Movements.

Second way the movie won me: When I realized the delicacy with which the movie had dared to touch on matters of religion and worldview. Set in the first half of the 6th century, in Denmark, the movie argues plausibly that its characters were living during a transition from worship of the Norse gods to worship of “the Christ god.” We see that the biggest fan of this new religion, Malkovich’s Unferth, discusses it as though it were a new product he’s read about in the Sharper Image catalog, and we see that he hasn’t internalized any of its tenets, what with his sadistic impatience with his slave, his tendency to cower in the corners (”Unforth”), and his hypocritical attack on Beowulf’s moral character. Accordingly, we see a graying Beowulf bemoan the death of the heroic age, saying that the Christ god killed it, leaving only “weeping martyrs.” The movie makes room here for delicious irony-pristine self-restraint is the feature that sets the new god apart from Odin’s gang, and self-restraint is the quality whose absence in Beowulf, and in his predecessor Hrothgar, leads to their fall. On a second viewing, this irony zings loudest in an early exchange between the sniveling weasel Unferth and King Hrothgar: “My king, for deliverance our people sacrifice goats and sheep to Odin and Heimdall. With your permission, shall we also pray to the new Roman god Christ Jesus? Perhaps he can lift our affliction.” “Ah. No, Unferth, no. The gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. What we need is a hero.” It’s at this moment that Beowulf enters the film, and it’s at this moment that a level of ambiguity usually found in timeless classics makes its entrance. For Hrothgar’s answer betrays two deadly errors-he shows himself able to switch from espousing self-reliance, to reliance on someone else’s heroics, in the space of ten words; and he shows that his concept of the sort of hero required by their situation is precisely wrong, and doomed.

Third way the movie won me: Symbolism. Top-notch symbolism, the kind that sets off all kinds of associative alarms in your head, the kind you can’t anticipate and can’t keep track of, so that you start to suspect that the writer has invested insane energies into the text and packed it with so much symbolism, it’ll be there wherever you dare look for it. In the case of Beowulf I suggest you start by pondering the progression from Grendel’s severed arm, to the prosthetic used in the lie-tainted reenactment of that severing, to Beowulf’s attempt to harm the dragon’s arm, to Beowulf’s realization that he must attack a different arm to accomplish his goal, to the mirror images lying on a beach with their arms touching in a later scene. This level of symbolism doesn’t happen accidentally, and it doesn’t happen with hack writers. Whoever wrote this movie deserves a hand. No pun intended.

Fourth way the movie won me: Old king Beowulf has just tracked down his dragon, and he leaps out of its lair just in time to avoid a blast of broiling dragon-burp. Beowulf’s right-hand man Wiglaf has been waiting outside the dragon’s lair, and when he sees Beowulf emerge, followed by the dragon’s flames, followed by the dragon, he cries out in surprise, “Odin’s swifan balls!” My first reaction was one of incredulity-certainly, no matter how much these rowdy Danes resembled our own rowdy selves, “Odin’s swifan [f’ing] balls” was not a stock expletive-it’s just too bloody unlikely that their sense of a savory curse would so closely fit our own. My second reaction was to laugh-if Wiglaf’s words aren’t historically fitting, is there any doubt they capture the likely spirit of a grizzled 6th century Euro-barbarian’s near-death exclamation? And isn’t it some sort of consolation, some sort of hoot, that we can share with our distant forebears a certain spirit, a certain mix of bawdy wit and shock in the face of life’s overwhelming moments? It is for me.

And then there was my third reaction, in the space of a few seconds, to Wiglaf’s words: How apropos! More than Wiglaf understands, he has just beheld the result of worshipping, and modeling oneself after, heroes and gods whose highest glory is outward battle, whose heroic struggles end outside the doors of Herot, Hrothgar’s hall of drunken fornication. Little does Wiglaf know, in the moment he utters his curse, that he has just witnessed, in a certain literal sense, the fiery issue of Odin’s swifan balls.

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