The Green Knight

What follows is a guest post from the Good Doctor himself. For a Stoopid American, he sure knows a lot about English literature!

Dark: And so Sir Gawain sets off, traversing forests and mountains to find The Green Knight, where he meets a talking fox who warns him: 'You will find no mercy, no happy end'

The Gawain doctor is in—and like most doctors, he’s running a little behind.

I should probably start with the patient’s question, which was about how faithful Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is to the 14th-Century poem of the same name. It’s not particularly faithful, but since we’re not 14th-Century readers, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is deeply engaged with the original poem in ways that are probably more interesting than would be the case in a more direct adaptation. Knowing the poem will give you a framework and additional material to think about, but it won’t “explain” the film or leave you with nothing to do but listen to some English professor carping about what the director misunderstood or didn’t get right.

The original poem explores the themes of courtesy and mirth, reflecting on how a society genuinely inspired by the medieval Christian understanding of those virtues might operate (and on how the actual medieval world falls short). David Lowery’s movie has almost no mirth, and courtesy always turns out to be a deceptive mask (as it sometimes is in the original as well). It feels more like the world of Beowulf or Game of Thrones than the refined and civilized world of the movie’s source material.

Fittingly, Lowery’s Sir Gawain is a flawed everyman rather than an innocent embodiment of courtesy. He has a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold girlfriend, and his drunken excess is always set in a brothel or a tavern to distinguish it from the equally-inebriated, Christian-sanctioned mirth of the original poem. I think this revision is probably designed to make Gawain a relatable character, allowing modern film-goers to identify with his trials and tribulations over the course of the film, in much the way that medieval readers were invited to identify with the courteous but inexperienced Gawain of the poem.

At the same time, Lowery nicely captures the sense in the original poem that things are rarely as simple as they seem, and that forces at the edge of our understanding—if not entirely beyond it—are at work shaping the course of events and giving them meaning. His approach is more in the form of a fever dream than the subtle and teasing allegorical undertone of the original poem, but it feels properly medieval in its rejection of naturalist or realistic plot in favor of symbolic or allegorical meaning.

There are definitely easter eggs for readers of the original poem. There is a brief mention of the five virtues, an important set piece from the original poem in which Sir Gawain’s shield is allegorized for its “endless knot” pentangle front and painting of Mary inside. When that shield is cracked and destroyed in the opening episode of his journey, it confirms what you had probably already guessed about how far those medieval virtues would get you in the movie’s world.

The film also follows the basic structure of the original poem: the Green Knight’s visit to Arthur’s court, fast-forwarding to Gawain’s departure a year later, a Christmas over-nighter at a mysterious castle, and a final conclusion of Sir Gawain’s “game” with the Green Knight. Readers familiar with the poem will find significant resonances with the critically important castle episode immediately prior to that final encounter, and may be particularly interested in the decision to cast the same actress as the hooker-with-the-heart-of-gold and the lady of the house.

The final confrontation with the Green Knight is as confusing and counter-intuitive as in the original, but works to a different end. My own reading is that, where the original invites the recognition of our fallen nature in even the most virtuous of Christian heroes, Lowery is more interested in revealing the systemic injustice of patriarchy. Ironically, Lowery’s Gawain must pass his test if he is to succeed, whereas the 14th-Century Gawain can become a hero despite his all-too-human failings. But there is plenty of material (friendly robbers, lady ghosts, talking foxes, earth giants) to fuel other interpretations, which is one of the things that makes this movie so rewarding.

If you can figure out what those creepy giants are up to, you’re a smarter reader than I am. Len tells me that they’re Czechoslovakian anime, and who am I to disagree?

The Forty-Year-Old Version

A special guest review to the LnD Report by Joana Kosowsky Dane

After reading half a sentence about the film “40-Year-Old Version,” I knew I needed to see it.  

Radha Blank plays herself, missing her dead mother, unable to return her brother’s phone calls. She is chronically late to the after-school theatre class she teaches where one of the girls, frustrated with Miss B’s indifference to her heartfelt spoken word, calls her washed up, a fake. It stings more than the girl knows.  Radha had higher expectations for her art, no doubt.  Her name is on the 30 Under 30 Playwright’s Award that sits among the clutter on her dresser.  But now she’s 40, with that all-too-familiar reality facing aging artists: What do I have to show for this life I’ve lived?

Filmed in black and white, we follow Radha on a journey through New York – Harlem and the Bronx and a brief foray on Broadway – the camera in close, capturing all the details of her pain and her comedy.  She glances at the camera and we know exactly how she’s feeling about D, the guy who lays down beats for anyone willing to bring him a bag of weed; or about J. Whitman, a famous producer who is willing to give Radha a big break but only if she compromises the integrity of her play by turning the characters into racial stereotypes.  

What’s an aging artist to do?  

Interspersed are color photographs explaining years of back story in a single flash (like the one of Radha and her gay agent, dancing together at her high school prom); and postcard sized snippets of interviews with characters from the neighborhood giving blunt and hilarious commentary on Radha’s middle-aged life.  

She’s down, but not so far down that she can’t grasp inspiration when it strikes, rapping one afternoon about all the ailments that come with being 40.  “Why my ass always horny? Why I always gotta pee? Why a young boy on the bus offer his seat to me? Why my skin so dry? Why am I yawning right now?  Why them AARP niggers sending shit to my house?” She catches the ear of the elusive D who invites her to perform her piece Poverty Porn at his next showcase.  She fails hard.  But we see what the past 10 years have taught her, a resilience that comes when an artist keeps creating despite being crushed and ignored.  

D takes her on a long drive, to a Queen of the Ring competition where 4 women battle with their rhymes in a stark boxing ring.  Radha is awed by their raw power and their courage.  They show her how it’s done, and in turn, she shows us.  Keep doing, stay brave. 

Radha goes to see her brother.  Trying to figure out what to do with one of their mom’s numerous paintings that neither have room for, her brother says it will just have to go into storage.  “Wow. You come here with a dream, and your work ends up in storage,” says Radha, a pitiful conclusion to an artist’s life.  Her brother sees it differently.  “She did what she wanted. She was a teacher, a curator.  She chanted, she traveled, she did some art.  She lived a life.”  Her children, their mother always said, were her greatest creation.

Radha realizes the reward is not in the big production, but in the much smaller daily task of staying true to her art.  And when she does, she wins the admiration of her theatre students, though she won the viewers’ admiration long before that.  

Lady Bird

LadyBirdPoster

A special guest review to the L & D Report by Joanna K. Dane of                           A Terminal Case of Whimsy.

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A few things about Lady Bird.

It passes the Bechdel Test in the opening scene: A middle aged mother and an 18 year old daughter weep to the closing lines of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  They have a moment. Then the daughter turns on the radio and the mother turns it off asking can’t we just have some silence?  Do we always have to be entertaining ourselves?

A sketch that immediately illuminates their relationship.

The daughter insists her mother call her Lady Bird and dreams of moving to New York.

The mother berates that she’ll never get into Columbia, that she has a terrible work ethic, scolding her for leaving her clothes lying on the floor, for being insensitive that her dad just got fired, and that everything they do they do for her.

The father is empathetic and flawed, complexities even in the minor characters.

Lady Bird hams up the audition for the school musical and then is shocked she only gets chorus.

She falls in love with the leading man, a rich kid who breaks her heart, and then loses her virginity to a jaded boy in a rock band who reads Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

There’s the touching scene when the beloved theater teacher cries.  And a hilarious one when the captain of the football team takes over as director.

And in the end, we feel the most empathy for the character who is the most difficult to empathize with.

That’s some great screenwriting.

And it’s an ode to Sacramento.