Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Movie Review: The Green Knight (with SPOILERS)

We saw The Green Knight in a local cinema yesterday, and I have to say, it is a disgrace to the original. Calling this an 'adaptation' is stretching it so far that the Super Mario movie looks like a win in comparison. The audacity of that director to touch a classic like that without even a hint of an idea what the source is about (beyond the basic premise) to then project some very immature, pseudo-intellectual thoughts unto it (and I'm being generous here), seems very much to be a sign of our time. I want to talk about that a bit. Originally I started writing a comment on MeWe about it, had to stop in the middle to make it a post, as it very much concerns the state of what "art" is supposed to be nowadays and we can make a good example of this. This will contain spoilers and I will rant about this movie. You have been warned.
I have read a prose translation just last week. It had an essay by J. R. R. Tolkien attached where he talks about why this is an important work. I came prepared. If you want my two sentence take on the original (just as far as story goes), I see it as a pre-psychological examination of what is supposed to be the ideal man of the 14th century, measured versus Christian and social morality and values, tempted by seduction and fear of death. How Gawain (the best of knights) acts and why and what that means are themes that the author of the original masterfully played with. Let's talk about what the film did.


So Gawain is still King Arthur's nephew, but not even a knight. Instead the film begins with him waking up in a brothel, not knowing where his shoes are. He has no father, you see, and his mother seems to be a witch (as soon will be very clear, as she summons the Green Knight), so to flee facing this, he makes himself useless by drinking and whoring a lot. On Christmas eve the mother doesn't want to go to King Arthur's court and sends Gawain alone so she can do some witchcraft. Arthur is all splendor and father figure, but weak and decaying (a returning theme here, kudos to the actor actually pulling that off). Enough of a father figure, though, to be present enough at christmas to ask little Gawain if he is the man Arthur hopes him to be. Gawain says no, the queen says 'Not yet'. Then the Green Knight appears with his challenge, and Gawain, primed like that, jumps on the challenge without understanding a single word of it.
In the original Gawain protects the King from himself (Arthur wants to take the Green Knight head on) and takes the challenge willingly. Here? Not so much. Gawain thinks they are playing a game and is surprised that he just beheaded somebody, even more that it didn't take (side note: he gets to use Excalibur for the beheading, which should have done the Green Knight in, since it's all Morgan Le Fay's doing). A year goes by (just like in the original), but nothing changes for little Gawain, just more drinking and whoring and a bit fighting when the mother is addressed. Then the King appears to push him a bit to go to the Green Chappel and find out what's up (which in the film is supposed to be 6 days travel due north). He doesn't want to, but goes nonetheless. Scenes of the brooding mother are interjected throughout. Two days later he meets a stranger on the remains of a battle field. The stranger pretends to help, but sends him into a trap instead, where he is bound and gagged and left behind ... to die!

I kid you not. The camera moves from his concerned face through the forest and back to his dead and decayed remains, then back through the forest and then to the concerned face again. Next thing you see is him encountering a ghost and interacting with it. Actually, this is the point in the film where the quest turns psychedelic and 'magical' (before that magic is shown as something people like Merlin and the witches are the cause for, after that it's the land itself). It is reduced to nothing more than Gawains soul travelling the in-between to face death through the Green Knight's axe. The whole seduction part of the original (the core of the piece, according to Tolkien) is just one more random encounter, again with a massively changed focus. The frame is there, but the picture drawn is something else (and, I'd argue, lesser) than what the original had to offer.

In the end, the fox that accompanied him ushers a warning not to go (a warning like that was in the original, but mainly to elevate Gawain's resolve, here, again, it's all twisted and changed). Gawain chases him away and enters the boat that would lead him to the chapel (there is no obvious reason why the boat or the small river is necessary, he could have walked, again underlining the underworld-character of the scenery ...).

When confronted by the knight, he offers his neck to be chopped off, but flinches the first time (like in the original, but not with the same effect or for the same reason ... again, twisted and changed). The second time around, Gawain flinches again and asks "Why like that", just to get a "How else" as an answer. Before the third attempt goes through, he flees, screaming he can't do it, runs home, gets his low-status fling pregnant only to have the baby taken away from her (she wanted to be his lady, ended up being his brooding station ... many witches and a Merlin had been involved), he becomes king, gets married to a princess (witches and the mother, again).
He stays a coward long enough to see his son die on the battle field (the kid, for sure, believing the lies about the great Gawain, thinking it would make him invincible as well, because blood and all that ... that's only implied, though), and in the end, before "they" run down the gates to get to him, he sees all the women excerting power over him, leave him. Sitting alone in the throne room, realizing his unavoidable doom ... his head falls of and the scene cuts back to the chappel, before that last attempt with the axe.
Gawain is in the know now. He has been dead all the time, his life would have led to nothing. He gets rid of the garb that is supposed to protect him and tells the Green Knight that he is ready. The Green Knight says something to the effect of "Good boy, and now off with the head ...", which is how the movie ends. You don't see the actual death, the original ending is off the table, too, at this point.
If you disagree with my take on this being a dead Gawain, travelling to the great beyond, I'd just like to add that there is actually a scene where he sees himself decaying AND he brings it up in a discussion with the lady in the castle, where green is associated with decay. The director also uses the the old 'god shows the character how his life would have turned out to let him find peace'-trope*** to bring that shit home. So yeah, you can disagree, but dismantle that for a hot second ... 
Analysis (light spoilers)

What we have here is the story of a loser boy that believes the stories about knights and heroes enough to be forced into a quest by his mother and a sick father replacement, dies two days into the quest due to his naivity only to get tormented some more and get killed in the end again, this time accepting his fate, because being alive would have sucked way more (he came to this conclusion himself?).
It inverts and perverts the Heroe's Journey, which should be bad enough, but it also categorizes the relationship between men and women as evil and toxic. The mother is a witch, love doesn't exist, only obligation does, the idea of maturity through trial and initiation is a lie, institutions are a lie ... They went as far as having Gawain's shield, in the film a portrayal of the Holy Mother instead of the pentagram in the poem, splintered in front of him (which he laments, for unexplained reasons, more than anything else in that scene).
Now, in Symbolism, Mother Mary is The Throne of Wisdom, she is a positive influence on Jesus, helps him finding his way and bear his cross. A positive representation of the relationship between men and women. Psychology has caught up to that, actually, so it's not only the Bible talking about this. All of this is shat upon in that movie.
It'd be the hip thing to say "it is deconstructing Christianity and its cultural influence as a lie", but I don't think it does the harmful ideas given air in this movie any justice at all. This is, plain and simple, an aestheticization of Satanism*, and not the cute kind of Satanism people like to flirt with, but the serious kind that aims to pervert you towards uselessness.

The methods to convey those ideas are the most effective propaganda tools available to humanity: the film is drowned in music, the scenes are hypnotic, always aesthetically highlighting something irrelevant to veil the interaction and intentions between the characters (something you can see quite well in the discrepancy between Arthur's gravitas and his decay, for instance).
It's one sleight of hand like that after another. You don't question what you see because the film never asks those questions. It rather takes your attention to something else, something 'magical', and lets the interactions stand as something 'given', as if it is reality. That is some powerful psychological manipulation right there!

Really, just take all the glitter and lights on face value. What does it add up to? Beautiful noise, nothing more. Abusing the original like this only adds to the diversion by claiming the story is in dialogue with something bigger, but it only pays lip service to that (or attempts to corrupt it).
We need to start looking closer ... (no spoilers here, I think)
In the end, it's either very shallow and nice to look at, or it's hiding something very ugly while trying to inject certain values into an unassuming viewer. I tend to believe it's the latter, for the reasons I state above. 

Readers might be inclined to think this is about Christianity since I talk Symbolism and Satanism and what-not. They are mistaken**. This is about the values we held high in our society and culture for a long time.
Those values are, naturally and to some degree, influenced by the religions surrounding us, and as far as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is concerned, an early idea of Christianity is a key element and needs to be considered. However, we, as a society, had been on a good way to transcend religious values into a set of staples that exist independant to religion (at least I'd argue as much).
It seems we are learning the hard way now that these values need to be upheld and protected. Taking movies like The Green Knight apart in public is part of that process. I know my reach, so this is of no significance for any Hollywood type out there ... still had to say my piece. But I see this happening again and again. Star Wars is a good example, Wanda Vision seems to be another one (see where the * leads). The US Comics scene has massive problems with telling 'good' stories, and the successfull ones seem to hide questionable messages. 
In a discussion on MeWe an online friend wrote that a lot of the public discourse today isn't about right or wrong, it's about having values or not having them. I agree with that a lot and I believe it applies here. Could I be off with my assessment? Maybe. You've seen me argue my case, I can provide sources for all of that (if I haven't already), so to take that apart, you should at least be able match that. I'm confident I can hold my ground, but would be happy to hear some great counter-arguments about it.
So would I recommend seeing this movie? Well, actually, yes. Avoid paying for it, if that possibility arises (in a legal way, of course), but yeah, if you've read the above (even if you disagree with my take), see the movie. The visuals are often stunning, as is the soundtrack, and there are some nice little story bits in it, all things told, so you'll most likely not be bored. I'd use some of the visuals for my games, for sure (and some of the ideas to portray evil, heh).
Far more important, though, would be trying to see what I saw, verifying it, if possible (it maybe all in my head, after all). If nothing else, I believe it can help creating an awareness for some ugly trends and ideas manifesting in our culture. Just because something is nice to look at, it doesn't mean it's virtues or 'true'.

If you have seen the movie already, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts on it. Can you see my points? Where am I off?

I'll leave it at that (although I'd have to say more, I think I said what I needed to say).

* Jonathan Pageau has a great take on Satanism like that. See the video here on yt.

** I'm not a Christian, but I appreciate the positive influences Christianity had in our culture (there's lots of bullshit, too, mainly stupid politics, but anyway). If pressed, I'd say I'm a Daoist. If I were pressed to explain that, I'd say it's like Zen Anarchism (in that Zen is the little brother of Daoism, and thinking like that makes you an anarchist, it seems). 

*** Only thing is, where that insight comes from is not explained. If that's something the character is alluding to, it's even more stupid than I assume it is.

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