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Thread: THE GREEN KNIGHT ( David Lowery 2021)

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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    THE GREEN KNIGHT ( David Lowery 2021)



    A medieval classic with some changes

    It's nice that a director as original and risk-taking as David Lowery found it worthwhile to adapt a great, but obscure, Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem is a stunning masterpiece with moods and moments you won't find anywhere else in literature. Don't get the idea it's just another chivalric coming-of-age knights-of-the Round Table tale; it's unique. Did Lowery capture it? Not quite. But that's a difficult task and at least he starts us on a plunge into it led by the immensely appealing Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, the young knight (or proto-knight?), King Arthur's untried, unproven nephew, who takes on a deathly challenge out of youthful derring-do and fails the ultimate journey-quest of his life but is nonetheless forgiven.

    The poem is more forgiving and wittier than Lowery's version. There's a lot of laughter in it too; but in this movie all we hear is The Green Knight's loud, mocking guffaw ending his first appearance. The appearance of the Green Knight is one of the most stunning moments in medieval English literature. He is huge, with a virtual cape of long hair, riding a horse, and everything, head to toe to spur, horse and all accoutrements included, is bright green. It is this lurid color that shocks and paralyzes King Arthur's knights. It's stranger than strange. Everything green. But for reasons of his own Lowery has made the strange visitor more of a giant charred stump of a monster-man. In the poem, the green knight is beautiful, a richly attired though frightening figure.

    Notably, since it's Christmas, it's a festive day and a festive scene in the court. And with a strange paradox, the scary green color too is Christmassy. So is the blood that flows red from his neck when Gawain chops it off: green and red, Christmas colors. This is a game (also festive, partly a scary lark): whoever takes the challenge can take a chop at the strange visitor, but in return must submit to a return blow at the Green Chapel a year from this day. Can it really be true? Or is it a Christmas blague? In the poem, after the Green Knight's head's off, they kick it around a while, like a soccer ball.

    Everything is dark and gloomy in Lowery's movie and this look, especially in the big opening Green Knight sequence, is surprising. It makes one wonder if the filmmaker thinks the Middle Ages really means the "Dark Ages" in a literal sense, so that everything must be clothed in semi-darkness. Many of the film's scenes are that way (not all). I thought of the Knight playing chess with Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal - certainly a dark view of the medieval world and Huizinga's "violent tenor of life:" but that image is a contrasty black and white that gleams.

    Take a look at one of the great medieval illuminated manuscripts, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and you will see scenes of bright and glowing color that are typical of how things were visualized at this time. The images of Les Très Riches Heures are also, typically for the time, represented as a jumble of busy scenes on top of scenes with very little subordination. This is also different from The Green Knight, which tends to highlight a few figures and hide most of the rest in darkness. This visual style seems oddest in the court scene.

    But really we are always looking at Dev Patel. I have no trouble buying him as a noble striver and an action hero. He is an actor with panache, physical prowess and sexiness and a touch of lingering goofiness as well ever since his debut in "Skins" (a series I loved). He has always been a champion athlete in martial arts, physically impressive, and now a hottie among internet followers. I just hoped people wouldn't think of Dev's action-hero disaster The Last Airbender. But that was a while ago and judging by Green Knight's current Metascore of 84%, a raft of very reputable reviewers have been enthusiastic about this movie. However, as happens with literary adaptations more often than not, I have some reservations. Some big ones, actually. That said, this is an intense fantasy adventure that takes us to some haunting places. If I'm rather disappointed by the Green Knight himself, Sir Gawain (Patel)'s challenger/nemesis, it was satisfying to see Barry Keoghan appear as the taunting, bad-helper Scavenger. Alicia Vikander plays two roles and it's not just a stunt.

    I'm not sure Keoghan represents an actual character in the poem source. But it started to seem Lowery was most at home when he was riffing or inventing. Does the poem have a talking fox? If so, is it one that follows Gawain around on the moors like a pet? Did the Gawain in the poem get drunk at a whorehouse the night before the court Christmas celebration?

    In the poem, the big section of the journey, the biggest test on the way to the Green Chapel, comes when Gawain is a guest at a castle where day after day his host goes out hunting for different game, leaving his beautiful wife to repeatedly tempt him. If this happens in the movie I must have dozed off and missed it. Lowery's film provides Gawain with all sorts of challenges. Someone in a review describes the journey as "hypnotic." It seems to have a slow, uneven rhythm.

    Lowery's version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is sui generis. One can't pin him down on it too much. There are numerous good moments, and a rough outline of the story-poem is provided in an original way. My only disappointment is the darkness - and a Green Knight who isn't bright green but some sort of eco-sensitive autumnal critter not as scary or as strange, taunting, and inexplicable as the terrifying, jovial creature in the poem.

    The Green Knight, 130 mins., opened in the US Jul. 30, 2021. Metascore: 84%. The language of the original poem (anonymous, 1360-1400) is in a northern dialect of Middle English much harder than Chaucer, but the Burton Raffel translation is fine; Simon Armitage’s newer one is said to be excellent too.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-01-2021 at 02:48 PM.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area
    "For a Medieval Therapy Session, The Green Knight Casts a Seductive Spell"*


    Keith Watson on Slant has a review* of The Green Knight that makes clear a whole lot that I missed when watching the movie, such that I think I should see it again - if only I were in NYC and could walk to Regal Union Square. Only I'm not and can't. But I recommend this review. (In one of the most intelligent reviews, by A.O. Scott of the NYTimes, magna cum laude in Eng.Lit. from Harvard, by the way, he says "This movie is worth watching twice." One of his best remarks is "The most sincere compliment I can pay The Green night is that it often feels like a tribute to The Seventh Seal by way of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or maybe vice versa, with some Led Zeppelin deep cuts thrown in.")

    Watson, who is one critic who approaches this movie thoroughly aware of the original 14th-century poem, notes that there the journey is "perversely condensed into just a few stanzas," while in Lowery's version the physical journey's difficulty is increased and more elaborately spelled out.
    In the original poem, Gawain’s journey is almost perversely condensed into just a few stanzas, in which scenic landmarks and fantastical occurrences are briefly mentioned but not described. Lowery has taken these few lines and inflated them into the heart of his film, turning Gawain’s trek through the forests and hills of the English countryside into a hallucinogenic vision quest filled with giants, a talking fox, and a creepy encounter with St. Winfred, who asks the knight to fetch her head from the bottom of a pond. Meanwhile and by contrast, the poem’s hunting scenes, which fill stanza after stanza of lovingly described detail, are largely reduced by Lowery to a few shots of a tapestry.
    As I mentioned, the hunting scenes - and the coresponding tempting scenes with the noble host's lady while her husband is away- the latter not mentioned by Watson here - are largely omitted from the film. But Lowery has wild fun with his free inventions. If you read the whole Slant piece, I question whether it's quite as low a rating (even if on the site it's 2 1/2 out of 5 stars) as the Metacritic estimate of 63% for this review; he says some nice things. But he does, admirably, note the radical and inventive ways Lowery departs from the poem. He also commends cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo's work in capturing the biting cold of the English landscape in a way free of cliché and using some "some truly intoxicating color grading".** He describes Daniel Hart's "nearly omnipresent"and "propulsive" score, "which crosses the disarming dissonance of Ligeti with the liturgical doom-groove of OM." Watson sees some (to me) surprising connections - with
    Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, the chaotic medieval overload of Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, the surrealistic sense of scale of René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet, and the druggy folk-horror of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England.
    A Field in England - yes; Lowery might have thought of that. But I could not have thought of those other films. I must have been asleep most of the way! There is much else in this review, including a comparison with popular blockbuster junk that's not so favorable:
    The analogy to superheroes is apt here, and not only because the film’s portentous imagery at times recalls the stentorian mythologizing of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Lowery has refashioned his source material, the eerily captivating 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, into what’s essentially a comic-book origin story, in which a normal man achieves greatness through conflict with a seemingly invincible enemy.
    This explains a lot, though it's not entirely fair to Lowery's offbeat originality or his quirkily-structured film to reduce it to "a comic-book origin story." Watson sums up Lowery's transformation: "In essence, Lowery’s film takes an age-old text and transposes into it an eminently contemporary subject: the failson, the son of privilege who, when confronted with the pressures of adulthood, ends up frozen in adolescence. . . If, in the poem, Gawain’s quest is a strange test of his commitment to chivalry and honor, here it’s basically one long therapy session." Pretty brilliant, though I don't quite understand how Watson explains the movie's final segment, and unless I'm missing something - which I very well could be - I think he leaves out Gawain's royal transformation. But this is almost a ten-out-of-ten review in my estimation for including Watson's well-informed elucidation of the little-known literary original and how the filmmaker has departed from it. One just doesn't get that in reviews. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an important, essential gem in the crown of English literature's ancestry, but it is very little known, because it is stranger and considerably more difficult to read in the original Middle English than Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

    This reminds me - I wanted to mention that practically no significant filmmaker has successfully approached this period of our literature other than Pasolini, whose "Trilogy of Life" (see the Criterion Collection), encompassing the separate anthology features of the Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights, every cinephile must see. Why do American directors lack that ability to enter into foreign periods and cultures? Is it a kind of egoism, a lack of "negative capability," somehow related to a lack of skill at languages?
    **".[color grading] . .which not only adds an optical pop to the film’s finely crafted images, but also creates evocative visual rhymes, linking, for example, the warm glow of a lonely bonfire in one scene to the amber hue of Gawain’s scarf in another." Watson was awake - or tripping!
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-02-2021 at 01:59 AM.


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