Just a flesh wound

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

 

It’s fair to say that the regal, if probably hypothetical, legend of King Arthur has suffered more than a few flesh wounds from filmmakers over the years.

 

At least in the case of the Monty Python team, the filmmakers were deliberately taking the piss.  Their 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail inflicted on poor Arthur such indignities as the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, the bloodthirsty Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, Dennis of the Autonomous Collective (“Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”) and the outrageously rude French guard (“You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person!”).

 

More worryingly, other filmmakers have tried to be serious, though with cringeworthy results.  I’m thinking of 1967’s Camelot, which has Richard Harris’s Arthur bursting into song and warbling, “You mean a king who fought a dragon / Whacked him in two and fixed his wagon / Goes to be wed in terror and distress? / Yes!”  Or 2004’s King Arthur, which has a grimly wooden Clive Owen in the title role and which, according to the Times’ reviewer Wendy Ide, ‘attaches itself to the Arthurian legend like some parasitic worm’.  Or 2017’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, which was directed by Guy Ritchie in the manner you’d expect from Guy Ritchie, complete with a cameo appearance by that well-known icon of the Dark Ages, David Beckham.

 

Actually, I’ve immersed myself a lot in the King Arthur legend recently, not through films but through books, which I’ve found much more rewarding.  Not long ago, I managed to finish off T. H. White’s Once and Future King series, comprised of The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), The Candle in the Wind (1958) and The Book of Merlyn (1977).  Yes, I know, the first book was the basis for the underwhelming 1963 Walt Disney cartoon, but the series becomes impressively philosophical, political and tragic as it goes on.  I’ve also lately read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, set a short period after the death of Arthur.  Come to think of it, The Buried Giant could almost qualify as a postscript to White’s series, although there are a few differences in continuity.  (For example, Merlin is said to be dead by the time of Ishiguro’s novel, whereas in the timeline established by White he’d be alive.  His ability in the Once and Future King books to live through time in the opposite direction from human beings, from the future to the past, would ensure that.)

 

© Faber & Faber

 

A figure from Arthurian legend who plays a major role in The Buried Giant, as an elderly man, is Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain.  Gawain, of course, occupies his own niche in the Arthurian mythos because he’s the main character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the late 14th century poem written in a North West Midlands dialect of Middle English.  The poem has Sir Gawain respond to the mysterious Green Knight who arrives at Arthur’s court one Christmas Eve with an unusual challenge: who is prepared to strike him a blow with the axe he is carrying, on the condition that one year from now the Green Knight gets an opportunity to return the blow on his home turf, a place called the Green Chapel?  Gawain takes up the challenge and uses the axe to whack off the Green Knight’s head.  That, however, doesn’t resolve the matter, because the Green Knight refuses to die.  He picks up his head and rides off, leaving Gawain honour-bound to keep the appointment at the Green Chapel next Christmas.  Obviously, there, he’ll receive an equivalent blow that he’s less likely to be impervious to.

 

The poem was filmed twice in the 20th century by the director Stephen Weeks, first in 1973 as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with singer Murray Head as Gawain and Nigel Greene as the Green Knight, and again in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant. Both versions made little impact and the clearly well-intentioned Weeks was hampered by low budgets.  With the second version, he was no doubt hampered too by the fact he made the film for the notoriously schlocky Cannon Group, whose co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus overrode his choice of Mark Hamill to play Gawain and instead foisted on him Miles O’Keefe, who’d previous played the Lord of the Jungle in 1981’s dire Tarzan the Ape Man.  A better casting choice was Sean Connery as the Green Knight.

 

Now, however, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has received the big budget treatment.  Well, at 15 million dollars, not that big, but certainly a lot more than Stephen Weeks had to play with.  David Lowery has written and directed a new version with Dev Patel, of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, stepping into Gawain’s armour.  I have to say the resulting film, with the shortened title The Green Knight, isn’t perfect, but nonetheless it does justice to the poem at last.  It also qualifies as that rare beast – a quality King Arthur movie.

 

The Green Knight doesn’t present a fanciful or idealised picture of Arthur’s court, if that court had ever actually existed.  While it doesn’t wallow in medieval dirt, muck and shit like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Dennis!  There’s some lovely filth down here!”), it does show life in and around Arthur’s citadel as wintry, draughty, farmyard-y and unglamorous.  Accordingly, Arthur and Guinevere (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie) are portrayed as an ageing, rather threadbare couple, who don’t even get the accolade of being referred to by their legendary names.  They’re just ‘the king’ and ‘the queen’.

 

On the other hand, the film is keen to show how unspectacular characters, settings and events get exaggerated and mythologised and turned into legends.  It makes much of story-telling and myth-making.  For example, no sooner has Gawain had his first encounter with the Green Knight than the tale is being retold as a puppet show for the neighbourhood’s children.  On a battlefield strewn with newly-dead corpses, a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) is already recounting stories of derring-do about the battle that are clearly over-the-top bullshit.  And Arthur himself pleads with his court, “Friends, brothers and sisters, who can regale me and my queen with some myth or tale?”  When he asks Gawain, “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee,” and Gawain replies, “I have none to tell,” Guinevere interjects with: “Yet. You have none to tell yet.”

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

 

It reminds me of another movie with a focus on myth-making, but a very different setting, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Ford’s meditation about the end of America’s Wild West. As Carleton Young’s newspaper-editor character says in that film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

 

I thought the first hour-and-a-bit of The Green Knight was splendid.  The Green Knight himself is presented wonderfully as a proper green man, all gnarled wood and straggly tree-root beard, and his appearance is complemented by his voice, which is that of gravelly Yorkshireman Ralph Ineson.  Actually, it’s nice to see Ineson and Kate Dickie together in a film again after they played the doomed Puritan parents in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015).

 

Once Gawain sets off in search of the Green Chapel, to keep his unwanted appointment, he has several phantasmagorical adventures that involve phantoms, giants and supernaturally intelligent animals and that are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo.  However, it’s the episode with Barry Keoghan and his grubby little band of thieves that’s perhaps most haunting, thanks to an amazing sequence with a rotating camera-shot and time-lapse special effects that makes you wonder if anything else you see in the film is going to be true.

 

But The Green Knight does, in my opinion, have a structural problem.  This is because in the original poem the adventures Gawain has during the first half of his journey are not described in any detail, and what we see on screen presumably comes from Lowery’s imagination.  However, later events in the film are based on the poem and form an important part of the plot.  These involve Gawain coming to a castle near the Green Chapel and enjoying the hospitality of its lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) during the last few days before his appointment.  His experiences there become strange and prove to be a series of tests.  That’s fine, but after the fantastical episodes that Gawain’s been through earlier on, these castle-bound scenes feel something of a let-down and act as a brake on the film’s momentum.

 

The climax bravely departs from the denouement of the poem (which had Arthur’s sister, and Gawain’s aunt, Morgan Le Fay popping up as a sort of medieval deus ex machina).  Instead, it does something that had me thinking of the climax of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  This neatly echoes the earlier themes of storytelling and myth-making.

 

The Green Knight certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes.  For example, a certain well-known science-fiction author, clearly more a Guy Richie / King Arthur: Legend of the Sword man, denounced it on twitter recently as “the worst film I’ve watched this year…  What a waste of good actors.  I want my two hours back.”  However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, not expecting anything like the usual cinematic Arthurian fare, and willing to tolerate some ruminative, slow-moving stuff in the second half, you may find it magical.

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

Kazuo in Kafka Country

 

© Faber & Faber

 

For me, one thing that’s suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic has been my reading.  Before the appearance of the virus, on average, I was able to get through one book a week.  However, since the pandemic forced some lifestyle changes – starting with two months of strict lockdown, and then a period with more freedom but limitations on my social life and ability to travel, and also a new working life where I have to do everything on a laptop at home with the result that I sometimes don’t go outside for three days at a time – my reading ability has diminished and it commonly takes me twice or three times as long to read a book now.  I suppose it’s something to do with my brain receiving less stimulation than it did in the old days.  In the current situation, my brain has grown lethargic, its processing muscles have atrophied, and reading has become a struggle for it.

 

That said, even back before anyone had heard of Covid-19, I think I would have found the book I’ve just finished reading, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, hard going.

 

I’d previously read only three of Ishiguro’s novels – 1986’s An Artist of the Floating World, 1989’s The Remains of the Day and 2005’s Never Let Me Go – but I’d enjoyed them and was looking forward to reading The Unconsoled when someone recently bought it for me as a present.  It tells the story of a world-famous pianist called Ryder who arrives in an unnamed city in the Germanic part of Europe a few days before he’s scheduled to top the bill of a concert there.  It gradually transpires that this concert has much invested in it.  It’s supposed to mark the rehabilitation of a local composer called Brodsky who, after many years as a chronic alcoholic, appears to be on the mend.  Brodsky occupies a talismanic position not just for the city’s artistic community but for the city as the whole, and the citizens whom Ryder encounters assume that Brodsky’s success or failure at the concert will lead to the city’s future well-being or decline.

 

This basic scenario is curious, then, but more curious still is what happens to Ryder after he books into his hotel in the city.  For he finds himself deep in the heart of what can only be described as Kafka Country.  Yes, Ishiguro drops his main character into a labyrinth of improbable confusion and frustration, like those that feature in the pages of the great Czech author’s The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).

 

Firstly, people he’s only just been introduced to pour out their problems to him and beg him for help – starting with Gustav, the hotel’s elderly porter, who believes that Ryder can somehow engineer a reconciliation between him, his estranged daughter Sophie and his grandson Boris.  Also requiring Ryder’s assistance is the hotel manager Hoffman (who thinks Ryder can help thaw the icy relationship between him and his wife) and Hoffman’s son Stephan (who wants to enlist Ryder’s aid in winning his parents’ respect).  Plus Ryder is soon being pestered by various city dignitaries in a panic about what Brodsky might do at the forthcoming concert, and by local journalists who for some mysterious reason want him to do a photo-shoot next to a controversial monument on the city’s outskirts, and by an embittered musician called Christof, whose fortunes have begun to wane as those of the now-teetotal Brodsky have begun to wax again.

 

Ryder agrees to help these many people out and soon ends up with a hectic pre-concert schedule.  But – and here’s the Kafka-esque part – he rarely manages to get from one appointment to another without being waylaid by somebody else.  The plot is a series of resolutions by Ryder to assist Person A by going to Place B, only to encounter Person C and get diverted to Place D.

 

From asianews.it

 

The laws of physics also conspire against Ryder.  Distances unaccountably expand so that addresses and buildings that seem only minutes away become harder and harder to get to.  But occasionally they contract too, so that function halls and restaurants in remote parts of the city turn out at the last moment to handily adjoin the very hotel Ryder is staying in.  Further weirdness occurs when Ryder acquires a temporary omniscience and finds himself eavesdropping on conversations that are happening rooms away from him or witnessing events that happened in his new acquaintances’ distant pasts.

 

To make things more confusing, it’s not just the physical universe that’s collapsing around Ryder.  His internal universe seems to be doing the same.  Improbably, as he beetles about the city, he keeps encountering people he once knew during his childhood and youth in England.  Even though he’s only just met Sophie and Boris, he somehow simultaneously seems to have known them for years, to the point where Sophie is his long-term partner and Boris his son.  And his elderly and ailing parents have supposed arrived somewhere in the city, with the intention of watching him perform for the first time.  But although he keeps hearing reports of his parents, he never quite manages to catch up with them.

 

So what is going on?  I wondered if it was all happening in Ryder’s dazed mind and Ishiguro was trying to create a nightmarish satire on modern celebrity.  Ryder, in other words, has gone mad whilst constantly having to fight his way through throngs of obsequious yes-men and hangers-on, all determined to exploit his fame in different ways.  However, I don’t think it’s a spoiler with this type of novel to warn that you may not have got the answers by the end of it.

 

Incidentally, it’s interesting that The Unconsoled appeared in 1995, just before the Internet took off and just before the carrying of mobile phones became de rigueur for everyone.  I can only imagine what a tangled plot The Unconsoled would have had if it’d been written a few years later, with the beleaguered Ryder also being assailed by phone calls, texts, emails and WhatsApp messages as well.

 

I’m a fan of the works of Franz Kafka and there are plenty of other books I admire that could be described as Kafka-esque.  Alasdair Gray’s 1980 classic Lanark is one.  But what makes The Unconsoled such a slog is that Ishiguro appears to have no ‘edit’ function when it comes to the dialogue.  Or more accurately, the monologues, because the book has an endless succession of them.  People approach Ryder, ostensibly to flatter and fawn over him, but really to unburden their problems on him, which they do in screeds of repetitive and obsessive blather.  It soon got to the point where, whenever a new character appeared, I’d shudder and check out the pages ahead to find out how long the inevitable, pleading soliloquy would go on for.  New York might be the City That Never Sleeps, but the anonymous city here is the City That Never Shuts Up.

 

Of course, this incessant, unstoppable prattling adds to the Kafka-esque quality of the situation enveloping Ryder.  But it isn’t much fun to read, especially when the novel clocks in at 535 pages.  That’s an awful lot of prattling to get through.

 

If Ishiguro had made The Unconsoled half its published length, he’d have created a novel with the same uncomfortable, disorientating qualities, but one that would have been far less of a chore to read.

 

Incidentally, I’ve just checked out the most recent Penguin editions of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle and found that they run to 208 and 320 pages respectively.  Would they have had the same impact if Kafka had added an extra 200 or 300 pages to them?  Or would this have diminished their effectiveness through overkill?  I suspect the latter.  As it stands, The Unconsoled doesn’t feel so much like a book influenced by The Trial as a book that’s just, well, a trial.

 

© Penguin Books