Thursday, August 5, 2021

Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Gawain


Written and directed by David Lowery (based on the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the anonymous Gawain poet)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
, a work of Arthur legend fan fiction from the 14th century Anglo-Celtic frontier, is very far from the piece of Arthuriana most frequently adapted for film.  It has inspired only three feature length movies (two by the same obsessive guy), one short film, two BBC broadcasts (one of those being animated), and a single episode of Adventure Time that mainly deploys the name and some concepts and is, I happily presume, the best adaptation anyway because it renders the contest between the titular characters personal, and because the concepts of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are perhaps more readily enjoyed in the format of a twelve minute cartoon involving characters you've already grown to love than they are in a more-or-less foreign language poem that, in translated recital, spends at least twelve minutes just describing its titular characters' appearances, like a hectoring memo from a micromanaging costume designer.

Now, I'm fully prepared to accept the opinion of experts and scholars that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important to our understanding of England and Wales and the wider culture of European chivalry during the 14th century, and that in its original language, Middle English, it bears some formal quality in its alliterative verse and bob-and-wheel scheme (whatever the hell that is) that makes it special as work of poetry qua poetry.  But plotwise, well, it obliges writer-director David Lowery, on behalf of his adaptation (called simply The Green Knight, either because Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was too many words, or perhaps to smudge the two togetherit's a bit of a "who knows, who cares?" sort of thing, but we'll get to that) to add new stuff, while changing existing stuff.

The basic framework is mostly the same, however, and so, at the court of Arthur (Sean Harris, credited as just "the king" I suspect for the same reasons of empty-headed iconicism that the film is just titled The Green Knight), there is Arthur's nephew, in this case not yet knighted, Gawain (Dev Patel), and in this instance son of the king's half-sister Morgan (Sarita Choudhury).  On Christmas, Arthur's festivities are interrupted by a supernatural being who bears no name but the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson).  The Knight challenges anyone brave enough to duel him, and if one of Arthur's heroes be able to lay his sword upon him, he'll get the Knight's rad battleaxe as a prizebut only on the condition that, in a year's time, he shall permit the Knight to return any blow he lands without resisting.  Gawain accepts this bargain, and when the Knight courteously drops his defenses to offer his host's champion the winning blow, Gawain quite naturally chops his fucking head off, as I suppose the implication of poem and film alike is "yeah? good luck returning that, bitch," though neither is really explicit about it.

And then everyone clapped.

It'll be easier for the Knight than Gawain thinks, however, for the Knight simply picks up his own head, laughs, and tells the young man he'll be waiting for him at the Green Chapel, before riding away on his steed.  (I am very disappointed, incidentally, that Lowery appears to have avoided remembering that the Green Knight's horse is also green.)  So, as the appointed day draws near, Gawain heads off, so to speak, to give the Green Knight what he owes him.

The invention starts coming hard at this point, since the poem doesn't detail Gawain's adventures until he arrives in the environs of the Green Chapel, and therefore the collection of various episodes comprising the middle stretch of The Green Knight are just whatever Lowery felt like putting into it, and are organized in a clever-ish scheme that might be my least favorite act of visible structuring I've ever seen in a movie.  The Green Knight introduces our hero with a title card reading "SIR GAWAIN" that flash-cuts between roughly eight different fonts with a kind of whimsical pop-art energy that is in no respect reflected by anything else in Lowery's direction or in his screenplay, but each new "chapter" of the film is unveiled with an ellipsis and a subtitle, e.g. "...AND AN INTERLUDE," this being the one closest to "pop-art energy," I suppose (but not that close), wherein Gawain witnesses the migration of a tribe of conspiracy-theory-style giants on their way through the mists to the further north, and thus out of the realm of fact and into legend.

So, yeah.  Lowery's The Green Knight is the kind of movie that's so keen to be about something that it forgets almost entirely to be about itself, and for 130 minutes, we're treated to a story about stories, which is obviously the most delightful surprise when you came to see a movie about knights and weird giants and decapitations.  It is also sometimes about how Lowery can set up long mobile takes of nothing happening and therefore about how Dev Patel apparently learned how to ride a horse, albeit only at speeds of six miles per hour or less.

It is very occasionally about what the poem is meant to be about, principally in terms of how the Green Knight as a reflection of nature and chaos overlaps with Lowery's needs, with some overtones of Christian/pagan conflict that Lowery forgets about as soon it's established.  It is, obliquely, still about testing knightly virtues, which is maybe the most obvious thing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is about; at least as far as the virtue of chastity goes, The Green Knight starts off with Gawain in a brothel with Essel (Alica Vikander) and before it ends it finds Gawain getting jerked off by Lady Hautdesert (Alicia Vikander)not a typo, and for all that The Green Knight is extremely obvious in its symbolism, this bit is genuinely obtusethough this also winds up accidentally making our 21st century Green Knight somehow more skittish about homosexuality than the poem written seven hundred years ago, in regards to what Gawain now owes to Lord Hautdesert (Joel Edgerton) for his wife's hospitality, even though you can tell it thinks it's being daring when it puts a man-on-man kiss in a severe art movie.  Look, Lowery, the Gawain poet didn't ask you to put a handjob in your picture, but rules are rules.  The poem's twist ending, anyway, is somehow both mooted and exposed for all to see in the opening feast sequence, which is cross-cut with a summoning performed by Gawain's mother that brings the Green Knight to Arthur's door.

And sure: rebuilding a very old story and using its bones for your own purposes, that's perfectly cromulent adaptation.  Yet when it comes to The Green Knight's own substance, it's one of those movies that is laboriously dry about just how desperately it wants to be read and interpreted (Christ, footnoted), so that Lowery and his audience can high-five each other.  The "story about stories" thing is brought in early, with Arthur encouraging his young nephew to share with his king a story that would indicate the lad is worthy, or at least interesting, and Gawain sheepishly avers that he has no story to tell, just in time for the Green Knight to clomp his way onto the scene and give our hero his quest.

Into this are threaded constant references to mortality, to death and terror of death, to rot and decay and how even the matter left behind when we die is overtaken by time and recycled into the dirt and into the green; and in case you didn't get it, Vikander has a three-minute speech to reiterate the point and vomit all of Lowery's thematic exposition onto your face (in this, she refers to a woman's womb as green, I assume metaphorically).  It at least has the decency to be buttoned with one of, I believe, just two flashes of any wit here, when Edgerton makes a sarcastic remark about having a battle with a hue.  Set against this is the paradox of Gawain, who can live a good life and lie forgotten for eternity like any other man, or brave death in chivalric fashion and become the story he'd have told his uncle, and thus live forever, essentially requiring us to spend two hours getting to The Deep Meaning that, for example, Arthur's final conversation with Guinevere in Excalibur, regarding his wish to discharge his debt to the future and just be a man, got across in two minutes.  And that movie had Helen Mirren in a metal bikini throwing glitter at Merlin.  Vikander has a shorter speech about this, too, though at least it's more organic and slightly less "[THEMES HERE]"; she's also the vehicle for the film's most flamboyant symbol, even moreso than the giants, involving the capturing of Gawain's likeness via medieval alchemy upon a photographic plate.  Which is very clever and may've been cleverer still if it didn't feel like all Lowery and his movie were capable of doing was piling metaphors one atop the other, ultimately throwing some Freudianism into the mix that nobody's quite sure what to do with, though all are very eager to let you know it's important.

In between, Gawain gets into scrapes that test his chivalry in vague ways and aren't especially exciting (he helps a saint's ghost via dull literary parallelism, he meets the nicer brother of the fox from Antichrist, he spies those giants), with the closest being how he gets bamboozled by bandits.  Part of the point, of course, is that Gawain is a shitty, callow knight, and that sounds like rich, dense commentary in an eight-minute explainer video*, but it's a hell of a point to make and remake for 130 minutes where very little occurs besides Patel wandering around a phantasmal vision of ancient Britain with a frown on his facethough Patel, at least, is one of the things I actually like about the movie, finding some resonance (though not exactly the same thing as "interiority" or even "a character") with his drawn expressions and general ambivalence.

The Britain he trundles through is very much not one of the things I like about the movie, and since The Green Knight's Britain is in every frame, that's a problem.  You wouldn't have to search very hard to find somebody getting ecstatic about how this movie looks, and I cannot for the life of me figure out whyit's basically A24 house style (which in fairness Lowery helped define) but somehow more banal.  It's almost front-to-back airless, mechanical-feeling compositions, with a restless camera you rarely stop being aware of frequently arranging itself around big-ass shafts of light, and with every color tilted toward desaturated grays, and edited for long takes without any particular purpose.  It's technically "pretty," I guess, in its bleak medieval post-apocalypse, but so stultifyingly monotonous that it makes that runtime feel like a test of its audience's own chivalry.  For a film "about" the color green, it's barely in it; even the Knight himself is more blueish-gray.  (And at least some of this isn't Lowery's choice, since for whatever reason this story about a putative symbol of nature takes place during a pair of consecutive Decembers.)  It's almost more annoying when the film manages flashes of brilliance in the midst of this, like a 360 degree pan that encompasses an imagined year of death, because it keeps making promises that it might stay interesting.  But eventually you give up, and the point that I absolutely lost patience with The Green Knight's aesthetic is when the giants' sequence closes with the camera doing that queasy spinning-axis shot over a landscapea move that A24 and its clones have taken from "fun new toy" to "abominable cliché" in two short yearsthough I've never seen it done with so little narrative tether or so much pointless show-offery.

Which means that I went into the finale with no patience left, though patience was surely demanded.  I'm loath to spoil it, because it does not end the way the poem does, but it does end the way another famous movie does (that movie is The Last Temptation of Christ), except reversed somewhat in tenor and worse in every respect.  Lowery's version of this bludgeons through a dreamy montage that only hits bulletpoints, but has, like, two dozen bulletpoints, so even though this sequence is significantly shorter than the analogous sequence in the movie it's ripping off, it feels like time is telescoping into infinity, because, as with virtually everything in The Green Knight, it exists to be "gotten," and you "get" it almost immediately.  In the watching, what I was actually thinking of was Lowery's own A Ghost Story.  It's not exactly the same as A Ghost Story (at least, not the way it's exactly the same as the other thing), and there's a countervailing interpretation of the ending, more in line with the poem, that requires such a reimagination of the Matter of Britain to make sense that if that's what's intended the film isn't playing remotely fair with it.  But it's enough to establish Lowery as one of the more morbid filmmakers working today, and it's hard not to scowl when you've already seen much the same thing done better by the same guy, using slow cinema to overwhelmingly more beneficial effect.

And The Green Knight isn't even really slow cinema, it just feels like it because it's so uninterested in your giving a shit.  This is, indeed, how cinema dies: I have a premonition that The Green Knight is going to be the movie Film People won't shut the fuck up about for the rest of the year, because everything else has been Marvel mediocrity or genuine anti-movies like Space Jam, but this is "challenging" (that means "boring") and "confident" (ditto), so it must take an awful smart and sophisticated person to enjoy it, and, as Film People are by definition smart and sophisticated...  And every time this happens, and it happens so much, a new generation of filmgoers gets burned: the audience I saw it with was, curiously, mostly Zoomer kids (or, possibly, very young Millennials, but whatever), and for kids, they were an extraordinarily well-mannered bunch, though probably self-selecting in that regard, no doubt aware that they were in for An Art (despite A24's disingenuous ad campaign).  Overhearing their conversations afterward, the consensus seemed to be they mostly hated and resented it.  They're going to see that this is the kind of thing critics love, and adjust their perception of critics' criticism accordingly.  They're going to go home, and stay home, and watch Loki for the third time.  That's sad, and it makes me dislike The Green Knight more than I even should, since at the end of the day it's just one more pompous art film too big for its britches; but it is absolutely not the movie we need right now.

Score: 5/10

*And I'm not a medieval knight nor an ancient Achaean, but honestly to the extent it is a critique, doesn't it kinda feel more like it's critiquing Greek kleos than European chivalry?

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