Welcome to the first in what will hopefully be a regularly recurring series of posts, the (Bad) Medieval Movie Club.* Each installment, I’ll be bringing in a guest reviewer to help me wade through the staggering backlog of medieval movies I’ve never gotten round to talking about here at the blog.
First up, we have Bettina Bildhauer, an academic from Scotland whose publisher kindly sent me a copy of her new book, Filming the Middle Ages, to review. ** Since reviewing books is way more difficult than watching a movie and grousing about it, naturally I invited her over to watch a movie and grouse about it, instead. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to slip into the faux dialogue style of these posts…
Carl, the Got Medieval Guy: Welcome to the blog, Bettina. Pardon the mess. We’re still unpacking from the move.
Bettina Bildhauer: Thank you for hosting me, and welcome to the glamorous world of film, which is full of free goodies for celebs like you. Oh yes, and also, there is no such thing as a bad medieval film to my mind, so thanks for the brackets around bad.
Carl: You’ve clearly never seen the Christopher Lambert Beowulf, then. Now, tell the readers who you are, and more importantly, tell me what movie we’re going to be talking about today.***
Bettina: I’m Bettina Bildhauer, and I’m a recovering film addict. I’ve been working on medieval films on and off for nearly a decade now, and have co-edited (with Anke Bernau) the essay collection Medieval Film, and have finally published my own book on them, which you know all about.**** But medieval films keep coming out, so I thought we’d chat about Thor today.
Carl: Thor? For real? This summer’s big budget Marvel Comics-based blockbuster? The movie designed almost solely to set up the marketingasm that will be next year’s The Avengers? Not to be confused with Captain America, this summer’s other big budget Marvel Comics-based blockbuster designed almost solely to set up next year’s Avengers marketingasm.***** Do I need to direct you to the title of this series? (Bad) Medieval Movie Club, with no brackets or parentheses around the Medieval? Correct me if I’m wrong, but Thor takes place in space. Space is not medieval. I don’t think they even had space until 1923. Or was it the Kennedy administration?
Bettina: One wonders how you managed to fabricate that clever graphic at the top of the page if you didn’t know until now what we’d be watching, but I digress. Thor is SO the Middle Ages: the film starts in “Tonsberg, Norway, AD 965”, with a fateful battle of the humans (with the Gods on their side) against the evil blue Frost Giants. The 965/66 autumn/winter season Lands’ End catalog is clearly where the Asgardian gods got their style inspiration. They wear medieval-ish armour, medieval-ish beards, medieval-ish weapons; they eat medieval-ish food (mostly the classic pig-on-a-stick) in a medieval-ish way (no manners or forks, and the cup gets smashed in appreciation of the drink; whole boxes of Pop-Tarts® eaten because they are hungry, not because they’ve got an eating disorder); they speak medieval-ish (ie. polite or pompous), they live in cathedral- and castle-like houses; and, well, the Norse Gods were invented by the actual medievals.
Bettina: What more evidence do you need–horned helmets? Puh-lease, we all know THOSE aren’t authentic. But then the Gods are also quite futuristic, with their houses looking like skyscapers and their armour like space-suits, and with some very advanced beaming technology at their disposal. Medieval, as usual in these films, is a state of mind, not a period.
Carl: A point I believe you make quite well in your book, so I’ll go with you on all that except the Pop-Tarts®, which are more a Restoration thing.****** Thor is medieval for a while there at the beginning and medievalish for most of the rest. So where shall we begin? The usual way to go about it is an excruciatingly detailed summary. But I’m not sure I’m up to the task, as it’s been some time since the movie hit DVD, and I’ll be damned if I can remember much of the plot, and I’m certainly don’t want the good people at Redbox to know I watched this mess. Just think what they’d send me coupons to rent next!
Bettina: OK, I can handle the de rigeur recapping duty, if protecting your reputation with the data-miners is that important to you: before that beginning in AD965, before the title, there is a prequel in the present-day USA (see, all this messing with chronology – all typical medieval film!). Thor, God of Thunder, falls down amidst a mighty tornado from the sky right into the arms (or rather, windscreen)******* of Dr Natalie Portman, a top scientist who has been investigating wormholes. Then we find out where Thor came from – Asgard, home of the Gods, conveniently located just a hop, skip, and CGI zoom away from New Mexico.
Carl: It’s unclear why the Asgardians hung out with the Vikings back in the day, but while they were there picking up fashion tips they also fought some frost giants and there was a lot more CGI that caused some people to get frozen solid. But the good guys won, and now it’s later, and it turns out that the expository voice over from Anthony Hopkins about that battle is actually a pompous lecture he’s giving to his two sons, Thor and Loki. Thor is rosy cheeked, blonde, and has the cutesy version of the posh English accent his dad has. Loki has black hair and a vaguely Northern accent. Both, for some reason, wear sweater vests.********
Bettina: I wonder who’ll turn out to be the good one and who the evil. By the way, are we going to keep up the pretense that I remember more about this film than you do?
Carl: It might be possible to obtain copies through less scrupulous means than Redbox, and I might be watching it in another window as I write this. And I mean ‘might’ in a completely non-legally actionable way.********* Or, maybe I developed freaky mind powers from all the CGI flashes and swooshes in this movie and now have a perfect memory, like John Travolta in Powder. You make the call.
Bettina: Right. (I had wondered about the screengrabs.)********** Back to our plot. The next thing we know, the kids from the post-battle days have blossomed into strapping young fellows (well, Thor has), so it’s maybe about 15 years later; meanwhile, on earth, 1056 or so years have passed. A terrible continuity error, or proof that time IS relative, as so many medieval films claim?
Carl: I don’t know as much about the temporal mechanics of medieval film as you, but in the comics Asgardians are a cosmic race of extremely long-lived super people. They age very slowly once they get to adulthood, but I don’t know if they’ve ever covered how fast they mature. The movie seems to allow you to go two ways. Either those two cute kids were cute kids for like 500 years then awkward pimply adolescents for another 250, or they grew up really quickly and there’s been 1000 years of The Adventures of Young Thor and the Warriors Three (Plus Sif) that we don’t get to see in between the “Daddy, tell me about the frost giants” and the ‘Thor mugs and does finger guns and winks at everybody in Asgard on his pre-coronation day’ scene that immediately follows.
Carl: But however long they live, apparently the maturation process is hell on their accents, because growed-up Thor has a mushy quasi-English accent that keeps drifting into Australian when he has a line of more than four words, and adult Loki sounds like he graduated from Oxbridge by way of Wormtongue’s Finishing School for Budding Megalomaniacs. Then the frost giants attack and try to steal their magic glowy blue box that the Asgardians apparently took during the last war, spoiling Thor’s big day, and leading to a bellow-off between him and Anthony Hopkins about whether they should invade Jotunheim–The Asgardian name for Frost Giant Land–or not, and Hopkins/Odin is all, “I’m your dad, and there’s a truce, and you can go to your room without dinner if you don’t agree with me about interspecies treaty law.”
Bettina: This entire movie is ultimately all about fathers. No surprise there. Even in outer space, even a millenium ago, even in heaven, even in other galaxies, everything is always about fathers–at least according to Hollywood. From the almighty thunder-god of the medieval Norse beliefs, Thor is cast down to earth as a nobody easily flattened by the nearest tazer gun, injection or windshield of a white van.*********** The journey of discovery that Thor embarks on teaches him one thing, and one thing only: Daddy knows best. Daddy in this case being Odin, the All-Father, and so not just a dad, but also God, and the King (or President). All power ultimately comes from this super-father, and a boy doubts that at his own peril.
Carl: You’re getting a little ahead of yourself there, as Thor’s casting down is yet to come.
Bettina: Remember, the movie starts with a flash-forward to the down-casting, so we’ve already seen it.
Carl: Fair enough. Though it’s clear you still know something about Space Viking society that I don’t. When did Odin get elected president? And how many electoral votes did he get? Was it a Reagan-style blowout, or did the Space Viking Supreme Court declare he’d won Space Florida after a protracted legal space battle over a space recount?
Bettina: Of course Odin was not elected to president, he was MADE president by his daddy, who was made president by his (that’s how democracy works, silly!).************ As witnessed by his casting out his boisterous son Thor “in the name of my father, and his father” or something like that.
Carl: After that, there’s twenty minutes of movie in which Thor leads his Superfriends in an attack on Jotunheim against Space Dad’s wishes and fights the Rancor monster from Star Wars by killing it Beowulf-style,************* that is, by exploding its head from the inside. But soon thereafter our heroes are surrounded BY THE ENTIRE POPULATION OF JOTUNHEIM!!!–sweet plan there, Thor–and ultimately have to be rescued by Space Dad. All this violates the terms of the treaty that ended the flashback-in-a-flashback war, and when Thor’s not sorry, Space Dad banishes him to Earth, after they Brian Blessed at each other about the doctrine of pre-emptive war and the proper use of imperial military–ok, so I see the president thing now, but let’s not go hog wild with it.
Bettina: I promise, the hogs shall remain tame from here forward. But it does all come together nicely in this one scene, Father = Moral Authority = Political Authority raised to the power of the U.S. presidency. Especially since we later learn that Loki is a Frost Giant himself, one of the Enemy Other race, adopted by Odin the All-Father both in his capacity as nurturing father and as a token of his intentions in the political peace he then negotiates with the Unnamed(?) Frost Giant King.
Carl: SPOILER ALERT!
Bettina: You actually believe there are people reading this sensitive to spoilers?
Carl: There are. They meet in the shadows, on forums where mortal men dare not venture, swapping leads, plotting their raids, nostrils flaring when one catches the scent of an un-warned spoiler. They emerge, fetid, from their wretched hives to track their spoiler prey, slavering as they skim the post, stoking their outrage, black talons tensed above their keyboards. They bellow like madmen when they strike, a sound I pray you never hear, you poor deluded Internet child, for it infects the heart with a despair so keen that–it’s too much, I can’t go on… But also, I just love typing SPOILER ALERT!
Bettina: Carry on, then… I guess.
Carl: SPOILER ALERT!************** After all that father symbolism hits us like a hammer to the head, we shift gears into a completely different movie, Thor as fish out of water. Except he’s an incredibly buff fish out of water, like maybe a bearded Norse tuna, and also delusional. Then comes the Pop-Tart®-eating and the worst attempt at making Natalie Portman try to mimic the mannerisms of a normal person I’ve ever seen in a movie, and boy is that saying something…
…but because I like to disappoint my readers, I think we need to save all that for Part Two.
Bettina: To be fair, the movie we have watched to this point is suddenly replaced by a romantic comedy for at least forty-five minutes, intercut with a tepid government conspiracy thriller, so we’re entitled to a bit of a break.
Carl: Exactly. If Kenneth Branagh can’t be bothered to make just the one movie at a time, how does he expect people with blogs will be able to adequately in only one post make fun of all his very-lucrative-and-probably-not-all-that-hard-when-you-get-right-down-to-it work?***************
Stay tuned, True Believers! Part Two of Got Medieval presents: The (Bad) Medieval Movie Club presents: Thor (2011) presents: Beautiful People Caught in A Confusing Mishmash of Genres Stitched Together With Awesome CGI will be posted soon. You should almost certainly check back hourly and hit refresh several times, as that will do wonders for my Google Ad revenue and my fragile sense of self-esteem, which I base entirely on my sitemeter’s hit count. Excelsior!
Oh, and before I forget, The (Bad) Medieval Movie Club is meant to be a club. Have you seen Thor? Do you think we’re both entirely off-base here? (SPOILER ALERT: We’re not.) Let us know down there in that commenty area below the (alarmingly long) footnote list. As an added incentive, the comment that Bettina and I agree is the best (according to whatever standard we feel like using at the time) entitles its writer to a free copy of Bettina’s book, Filming the Middle Ages, the self-same copy that was sent to me for review by an overly optimistic publisher’s publicity agent! Autographed by me, and maybe even Bettina, if we can work out the postage for the back and forth. So comment away, because free goodies are on the line!
- * The spiritual successor to Bad Medieval Movies, the two-part blog crossover I had last year with Jennifer Lynn Jordan of the now dormant (and much-missed) Per Omnia Saecula. (Part One here; Part Two here. [↩]
- ** Note to publishers: free stuff is awesome and I need more of it. [↩]
- *** My guest reviewers get to pick the movie we watch for these things, in exchange for full footnote rights remaining with yours truly. None of that dagger crap JLJ got away with any more. [↩]
- **** Imagine, a job in which watching Braveheart and The Da Vinci Code factors positively in your tenure review. [↩]
- ***** That one came out at least fifteen minutes later, if I recall correctly. Totally different movies. I mean, the Captain America toys were predominately in the 1:18 Scale, with only select figures in 1:10, while the Thor line was predominately 1:10, with only a couple of 1:18. [↩]
- ****** Charles II invented them as spaniel food, I do believe, and Nell Gwyn designed the first foil pack. [↩]
- ******* Windscreen! Very UK. We call them windshields, here, silly. Oh, I forgot, you can read these notes down here. Still, note to self: I need to figure out a way to work the conversation around to trainers, lifts, rubbish, and Bob who is your uncle. [↩]
- ******** I think they might be metal sweater vests–which is weird, but also very Metal, in a finger-horns electric guitar Molly Hatchett album cover sense. [↩]
- ********* Best not to think too hard about how I managed to get all these screengrabs, MPAA lawyers. [↩]
- ********** Oh no, she can see me down here! Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out. Don’t freak out. Play it cool. She’s cool. She let the windscreen thing pass. It’s cool. [↩]
- *********** Aiaiaiaiai! She knows! Dontfreakoutdontfreakoutdontfreakout… I’m still safe down here, she can’t do anything down here. [↩]
- ************ It has just occurred to me that she’s using parentheses as footnotes. And I dare not violate those punctuating arcs for fear of rending asunder the wispy remains of our pretense of dialogue. Outplayed on my own blog! [↩]
- ************* Not Christopher Lambert Beowulf-style, mind, which would have mostly meant driving near it on a motorcycle while sulking, filmed from just the right angle to almost hide the star’s male pattern baldness. Rather, Ray “I. AM. BEOWULF.” Winstone-style. [↩]
- ************** For people who haven’t read the Cliff Notes summary of Freud. [↩]
- *************** They wouldn’t sell directors’ chairs at Urban Oufitters if directing were really all that bad, would they? Good job, good pay, good benefits, and a comfy chair. What else do they want? Other than artistic license, points on the back end, and a ‘film by’ credit. [↩]