Friday, 5 March 2010

Is ASNaC on the rise in popular culture?

Robin McConnell writes:

The early medieval period has always been an area of exploration for the arts. In painting, sculpure, literature and cinema - in essentially all the creative media - there has been a longstanding tradition of appropriation of the medieval period as context for storytelling and entertainment. But it would be fair to say that the use of the early middle ages (or the "ASNaC period", as I like to think of it) in the arts has always been a sub-genre at best in any media; often it is so low-profile that you might call it an underground movement. Let's face it, how many people would recognise an early medieval novel that is neither Lord of the Rings or The Once and Future King if it came up in conversation? And neither of those can even be classed as 'early medieval' in the traditional sense, since they are not concerned with accurately representing the period, either historically or culturally. Likewise with films, the early medieval period has largely been overlooked. There are one or two lesser-known classics, such as 1958's The Vikings and 1952's Ivanhoe, but the fame of most films set in the early middle ages has been restricted to cult status. Even when 'blockbusters' as recent as the noughties have been made set in that period, they have usually been met with commercial and critical disappointment: take 1999's The 13th Warrior, 2004's King Arthur or 2007's Beowulf as prime examples of big-budget Hollywood treatment of the ASNaC period floundering in lukewarm critical reception and mediocre box-office takings. Such failures in the past have condemned the genre to low-budget and therefore mostly low-quality fare like Siege of the Saxons (1963) and Beowulf and Grendel (2005). Incidentally, 2007's Beowulf is fast developing a cult and has enjoyed considerable success in DVD sales.

The Secret of Kells



But the mainstream status of the ASNaC period on film could be about to change over the next few years. 2009's The Secret of Kells has proved to be the little-film-that-could: like many films of the ASNaC genre, and of British and Irish cinema more generally, it is a low-budget effort. The film puts a supernatural, rather quaint spin on the reality of medieval life, and has received a very limited run in cinemas, enjoying mild commercial success. However, it has defied all expectations and landed a nomination for Best Animated Film at this year's Academy Awards in Hollywood: the highest accolade it could hope to achieve. The results of the Oscar's will be announced this Sunday, so we'll have to wait and see if it achieves the award. But what is perhaps more significant is that news of The Secret of Kells's Oscar nomination has coincided with the announcement of numerous other ASNaC period film projects. Coming this month is Dreamwork's How to Train your Dragon, while coming later in the year are Centurion and Valhalla Rising, as well as the more old-fashioned Ironclad, plus an untitled Viking project by Mel Gibson which will start in production soon. And just for good measure, there are two Arthurian projects on the horizon: one 'original' take on the legend (possibly to be directed by Guy Ritchie) and a remake of 1981's Excalibur. With the exception of How to Train your Dragon, all of these projects have stated their intention to be faithful to the period, both in terms of visual accuracy and their representation of early medieval culture. Could this mark the beginning of a new era of popular but accurate ASNaC period films?

Personally, my money's on the Mel Gibson project. He has already directed three historical 'action' films, most (in)famously Braveheart (for which he won the Best Director Oscar) and later The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Although I love Braveheart, it is the latter two films that were particularly impressive, combining wonderfully evocative visual detail and as-accurate-as-possible historical languages. Moreover, they were good solid films in their own right, which won commercial and cult success. Of his latest project Gibson has promised "it's going to be in the English that would have been spoken back then, and Old Norse, whatever the ninth century had to offer. I'm going to give you real." After Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, I believe him: the scale of budget he can muster, plus his ability to construct a good film that appeals to a wide audience, could finally produce the kind of mouth-wateringly accurate and entertaining ASNaC film we haven't seen since The Name of the Rose in 1986. I'm not asking for non-fiction storylines, but simply for good films. Hopefully, if the upcoming wave of ASNaC films proves successful (both critically and commercially), then ASNaC itself might enjoy its own renaissance, and may get to the point where it is as accepted and widely-known as science. Or at least Lord of the Rings.

But we'll have to wait and see.

7 comments:

  1. Nice summary, thanks. Ironclad certainly looks promising, although I believe Valhalla Rising has been and gone, actually. It passed Britain by with a brief festival appearance and perhaps should be out on DVD now?

    Also are we not due a couple of 1066 films that were being mentioned a few years ago? 1066 and William the Conqueror - apparently a "£67 million US blockbuster"...

    I don't feel that Mel Gibson's early comments have reflected much of an interest in 'accuracy' as we know it, although perhaps by the time his researchers have done their work it'll sound more promising; I did thoroughly enjoy Apocalypto, if not the glorified snuff film that was The Passion of the Christ. His films will undoubtedly reach the widest possible audience, although it's a shame that Scandinavian offerings such as Arn - Tempelriddaren do not get a higher international profile, as they seem more likely to take a more thoughtful and imaginative approach to what can be done with the 'ASNaC' genre...

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  3. I managed to overlook the 1066 projects, thanks for drawing my attention to them. I remember dismissing them from my mind some time ago when I first heard about them, possibly because they involve Normans... They don't look very promising. William the Conqueror, in particular, has been going around the rumour mill for a long time and could easily go the way the rumoured ‘Boudica’ project went (i.e. nowhere). The interesting thing about the 'ASNaC' genre is that there seem to be more and more films of the type being made; the past year has churned out loads by itself. Just today, I discovered a Russian viking film in HMV, released last year...
    I believe Valhalla Rising is slated for a 26th March release in the UK, probably very limited. There should be a society e-mail going round shortly with a link to the 'trailer'.
    I agree, it's a shame that European cinema in general doesn't get more attention, as that would go some way to giving films like Arn (which I haven't seen, but sounds interesting) a wider reception. At the moment it is chiefly the Mediterranean (France, Italy, Spain) film industries that receive the right amount of attention. Germany and Russia aren't far behind, but Scandinavia is basically ignored, and those countries are probably the most prolific in terms of 'ASNaC' films. In Britain we just get Faintheart...

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  4. The Secret of Kells trailer was played at the recent Cambridge conference on the ninth century crisis and provoked howls of laughter. I don't think that we should be expecting much from any US/UK film about the Middle Ages - if you have to go back to 1986 to find a good example then that says something in itself. As for the filmmakers' claims that it's going to be really authentic, they always say this and they're almost always wrong. They will go to extremes to get a few details right and then leave gaping holes in other areas. I heard about the filming of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves once - they had imported mistletoe from France to get it looking right. Then they ended with the returning crusaders wearing the white cross on a red background of the Swiss.

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  5. Indeed, it was our Department's own Máire Ní Mhaonaigh who showed the trailer, and to much hilarity, as you say. I suspect that films are always going to perpetuate popular stereotypes, but hopefully they can get some people sufficiently interested in the period that they want to learn more for themselves.

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  6. With regards to "as-accurate-as-possible historical languages" in Gibson's films, I am not how well the ecclesiastical pronunciation of Latin in "Passion" really fits that bill. Likewise, I can't help but think we should have run into more Greek in 1st century Palestine than was evident in the film. (Of course, since it later turned Gibson thinks that Greek ἀποκαλύπτω is best translated as "new beginning", perhaps Greek had a lucky escape!). For good or for ill, though, I can't comment on the pronunciation of Aramaic or (Modern Yucatec) Maya!

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  7. typical pitch-fork wielding academic bigotry. Secret of Kells is a superb film.

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