Sunday, March 2, 2008

Paprika and Beowulf

Last weekend I saw the Japanese animated movie Paprika, and I've had a post about it in my head for a week. Because of the way my life's been going, I think up five posts for every one I actually write. I am kind of glad I waited, though, because I saw Beowulf tonight, and it gives me a good opportunity to play them off against each other.

I had every reason to like Paprika more. The movie is hand-animated and trippy. If I was ten years younger I would have watched it stoned, which would have been the perfect way to see it. Many of the images are disturbingly memorable, especially the parade of dolls and refrigerators marching through town, and Detective Toshiba's dream.

Beowulf, on the other hand, is a CGI flick, with the actors rendered as realistically as technologically possible. The poster that I saw when it came out turned me off utterly, one of the bearded hero and the other of an animated Angelina Jolie dripping animated mud. Beowulf is full of reasons to ridicule it, from the mishmash of accents to the battle scene between Grendel and the naked Beowulf in which things keep popping up to hide his genitals.

(Note: potential spoilers below.)

And yet I was surprised to find that I liked the CGI movie better. Being a 37-year-old family man, I saw Paprika stone-cold sober on a 24" television on DVD, which made it too obvious that the movie couldn't follow through on the mysteries and conflicts it set up in the beginning. It would be interesting to explore whether the creation of the DC Mini by the childish, obese Dr. Tokita was invading the last refuge of the human mind, as the bad guy the Chairman claims. Instead we get more of a superhero battle in which the utterly evil Chairman is destroyed. The only character with any complexity is Dr. Tokita, who has a sort of autistic inability to understand people's moral arguments. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the movie, there are a few subtleties I didn't get on watching the film (I guess the figure that grows up and sucks up the Chairman is the psychic "child" of Tokita and Chiba/Paprika), but they don't seem to connect with any of the philosophical conflicts the movie has set up.

By comparison, the story that Beowulf tells is tight and complex, and goes exactly where it set out to, which isn't surprising because it was written by Neil Gaiman. Begin with Grendel, who is made out to be both pathetic and terrifying. The monster is a big vicious baby, driven to destruction not by a lust for evil by the completely understandable desire to shut down the annoying party next door - which by the way seemed to me a perfectly believable portrait of what a 6th century Nordic mead-hall might have been. Then you have the hero, who is portrayed right away to be brave, certainly, but also vain, horny and boastful, inclined to exaggerate exploits that would have been impressive enough if told straight. And then you have the whip-braided naked "hag" of a mother.

Most reviewers I saw described the role of Ms. Jolie in Beowulf as just throwing a little sex into a story that didn't have much. But that's not fair at all. Actually, the sexy turn of Grendel's mother ends up adding a level of depth to a story that, for all its contribution to English literature, has about as much moral complexity as a Michael Bay movie. To be fair, I am not looking at the story now, but I am sure that the curse that Jolie's character puts on Hrothgar, and then Beowulf, was not part of the original. And yet it's a perfect portrait of the kind of compromises those who rule make to get into the position they're in. If that's not enough, Gaiman spiced the story up with a little Nietszche, which almost no one mentions. As Beowulf's soldiers massacre a tribe of barbarians, he says something to the effect of "the age of real heroes is dead, killed by Our Lord Christ Jesus. He has left us with only the wailing of the saints..." It's really straight out of Beyond Good and Evil.

Interestingly, most of what's been written about the movie by lit-people think the modification of Grendel's mom weakens the story. The people who like it tend to be movie critics impressed by the special effects. But then is it so surprising? When you've spent your whole career studying something, you're going to be inclined to defend it as it is. But the age of the heroes is over. If the original Beowulf were written today, it would do two hundred million in the first weekend, and be forgotten as soon as the action movie season was over. No one would, as they kept saying in the movie, "sing his name through the ages," unless we had reason to think he was really a human.

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