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Films
by Kathi Maio

Embracing the Anachronism

George Santayana is famously quoted as saying that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I'm more inclined to believe that those who cannot remember the past are destined for great careers in Hollywood, making movies about it. And remakes. And sequels. (It's the movie-going public who are condemned---to watch it all.)

Entertaining books like Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies have done a good job at pointing out some of the historical fallacies in major motion pictures. Therefore, I'll leave it to real historians to pick apart a movie like Pearl Harbor.

Factual and timeline inaccuracies interest me less than what a particular interpretation of a period, event, or legend reveals about the people who fashioned that version of the past. To state the obvious (my favorite pastime), the storyteller betrays more about themselves and their culture in the telling of their tale than they do about their story's supposed subject.

For example, movie plots involving swords and sorcery, knights (chivalrous and otherwise), and medieval heroes of every ilk have been a staple of the film industry since before it was even recognized as an industry. There are historical anachronisms in all such movies. But the most interesting ones go well beyond whether you spot a zipper in milady's costume. They involve the actual spirit and tone of a film.

I remember loving the swashbucklers of Errol Flynn, watching them on television, growing up. At the time, I didn't question why Robin Hood, a bandit hiding out in the forest, managed to look so incredibly clean. But Michael Curtiz, et al., weren't really making a film about Jolly Olde England, they were making a movie for the America of the late thirties, and in some ways, about America in the late thirties.

Flynn's Robin was well-scrubbed and well-fed. (The perfect hero for a post-depression, pre-war audience.) Fresh-faced, optimistic, and bold. He was the confident American hero, bearing little resemblance to a realistic citizen of the 12th century.

Likewise, Danny Kaye's Court Jester, of 1956, is viewed not as an expression of the Middle Ages, but as a vivid "VistaVision" reminder of the heyday of the Hollywood musical and the brilliant career of one of our greatest song-and-dance comedians. To listen to Kaye wrap his motor-mouth around a patter song, or piffle his way through a tongue-twister like the classic "pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle" bit, is to witness genius. Fabulously silly genius, but genius.

Yet as exuberantly unrealistic as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Court Jester are, they never break character, or acknowledge their artifice. They offered us a make-believe Medieval age in which they hoped we would be willing, on some level, to believe.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, audiences were more skeptical and sardonic. (Discuss amongst yourselves the impact of the Vietnam War era and world student movements on popular culture.) Epic storytelling was outré. And the bright-colored musical disappeared from the big screen.

It is in this context that the brilliant madmen collectively known as the Monty Python troupe decided to create a marvelous mishmash of Medieval English history and legend in a little film entitled Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Gone was the clean-cut and heroic image of Flynn's Robin Hood. Everyone is filthy, slightly disreputable, and more than a little insane in Python's Middle Ages. . . . although King Arthur, a generally well-intentioned fool, is recognized as royalty because "he doesn't have shit all over him."

Neither the filmmakers (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin) nor the peasant citizenry on screen are at all respectful of Arthur and the assorted famous knights helping him to seek a sacred chalice. In one hilariously pointed scene, Arthur is berated in a field by a filthy peasant for his "imperialist dogma" and his exploitation of "the workers."

Marxist analysis of the feudal system isn't the only anachronism of Holy Grail, of course. The Python lads wear undisguised spuriousness as a badge of honor. We may be lunatics, they seem to be saying, but our beloved British mythology is even more ridiculous. Who'd buy this crap? Not them. And not, they hope, their viewer.

They even gleefully expose their low budget. Instead of noble steeds, Arthur and his sir-knights prance around on foot while flunkies wearing modern backpacks clack coconut shells together and smack their lips to provide horse-riding sound effects.

Python never believes their own make-believe, although they gleefully play with traditional story elements. Their yarn is so patently fake that modern police drive up and bust the whole ignoble lot of them right before they climactically storm a castle.

Clearly, comic anarchy reached a high point with Monty Python. While most movies encourage us to suspend our disbelief, Monty Python and the Holy Grail dares us to suspend our belief in traditional legend and story-telling, and sit back and enjoy the absurd.

Alas, Monty Python disbanded. And the cultural zeitgeist turned conservative. Hypermasculinity and sensitive new age guydom fought it out for screen time in the '80s and '90s, with a strange and highly unsatisfying hybrid of the two eventually ruling the day. By the time Kevin Costner played Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Richard Gere played Lancelot in First Knight (1995), the heart seemed to have died in chivalrous tales. And as for spoofing them, the occasional parody like Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) seemed stupid instead of clever.

But perhaps this summer, we saw a rebirth of the knightly fable: One that captures the energy of the old swashbuckler movie, and does so with a knowing wink at its own artifice.

The first to appear was Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale, a story about a peasant squire who resolves to "change his stars," and become a knight.

Mr. Helgeland, who won an Oscar for his L. A. Confidential screenplay, and then got burned on his directorial debut, Payback, set out to make a popcorn movie. And he succeeds.

First, he avoids the long-in-the-tooth megastars and goes for a comely lad with a youthful swagger. Heath Ledger (The Patriot) plays knightly wannabe, William Thatcher. With his tousled blonde hair and soulful eyes, Ledger plays a jousting knight like he's a rock star. Or, perhaps, a star quarterback.

And if there's any doubt that the tournament champions of the 14th century were the sport stars of their time, Mr. Helgeland cheerfully whacks you over the head with the analogy. As William enters his first tournament, the nobles and yokels in the stands chant Queen's "We Will Rock You" and do the wave.

Helgeland uses several such in-your-face time-tweaks in his likeable film. The ones with music, like a banquet dance set to David Bowie's "Golden Years," work the best. Others, like the mod-medieval costumes and hairdos, most of which look like failing work from a second-rate fashion and hair academy, are less effective. None of these constitute true fantasy elements, since there are no sorcerers casting spells or time travel machines bringing our hero back and forth from modern to medieval times. And yet, there is nonetheless something fantastical about the purposeful use of cultural anachronisms in A Knight's Tale.

At times, I wished that Helgeland had gone further with his spoofing. But, all in all, he strikes the right balance. Most movie-goers today want a movie in which they can believe. And A Knight's Tale manages to seem sincere, and, at the same time, embrace the anachronisms of a chivalrous tale for the new millennium.

The sincerity is accomplished through some strong ensemble acting, lead by Ledger's hunky hero. Another standout is Paul Bettany who plays, of all things, Geoffrey Chaucer. Helgeland writes Chaucer as an imaginative guy with a compulsive gambling problem. And Bettany plays his first scene as naked as a jaybird, after losing everything---including his clothes---to pay gambling debts. Shanynn Sossamon, who plays Jocelyn, the would-be knight's lady fair, is the film's weakest link. She is attractive in an Angelina Jolie look-alike way, but lacks (at this point in her career) all of Ms. Jolie's fire.

But you can't have everything in a summer fluff movie. At least one that features live actors. That's why I liked another movie even more. And that movie is the Dreamworks/Pacific Data Images cartoon, Shrek.

Of course, actors were involved in the computer-animated feature---and good ones, at that. Mike Myers voices the title character, a green ogre with a heart of gold and bravery to rival any knight. Eddie Murphy voices the ogre's newfound sidekick, Donkey. And Cameron Diaz plays a princess named Fiona, well worthy of rescue from a dragon keep.

Shrek is an unabashed fairytale with some very modern, touchy-feelie messages about self-acceptance and anti-looksism. It also has some nicely barbed satire relating to the "very clean" Disney empire. And (like A Knight's Tale) it also makes some happily inappropriate use of pop songs along the way.

Like the live-action adventure romp that preceded it into theaters, Shrek is unashamed of its modern flourishes. At the same time, especially for young viewers, it works very well as a straightforward and quite funny fable. The animation, coordinated by directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, is impressive. And the writing, by a tag team of capable scribes, somehow hangs together despite the many hands at work here.

Shrek learns from the past mistakes of earlier films. It avoids the pious flatness of most Disney features and goes for something endearing, yet tart and sophisticated enough for even the most jaundiced adult. It celebrates the traditional fable, but isn't afraid to admit that this is a very modern movie.

Maybe Hollywood will make Santayana proud yet.

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