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09.07.13, Haydock, Movie Medievalism

09.07.13, Haydock, Movie Medievalism

The study of cinematic representations of the medieval has grown remarkably in the decade since the publication of The Reel Middle Ages by Kevin J. Harty. The first few forays into the area by scholars such as Martin Schichtman, François Amy de la Bretèque, Linda Tarte Holly, and David Turner provided a foundation which has become well-established in the wake of Harty's encyclopedia and the accessibility it granted the corpus of "medieval movies." The bulk of studies within this young field have examined a film or two in relation to its source materials, but attempts to theorize have emerged only lately.

It is into this context that Nickolas Haydock sends his admirable new book Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages. Haydock's contribution to discussions of the medieval in film offers a dual focus, reflected in the bipartite structure of the text. The first two longish chapters offer a theoretical introduction to the topic, while the subsequent five chapters use single films or pairs of films as case-studies that simultaneously examine the examples of the filmic medievalia and highlight different strategies for approaching them. The book, thus, appears to be a potentially useful text for courses in what Haydock prefers to call "movie medievalism."

The first chapter employs Lacanian ideas of the Real, the Symbolic, and most importantly, the Imaginary to explain the presentist nature of films about the middle ages. While the idea that filmic adaptations of the medieval are more interested in modern than medieval issues, Haydock's use of Lacan provides a useful theoretical discussion of how and why that is so. For him, Lacan's idea that the Imaginary as a psychological site in which an ideal self is perpetuated becomes a model for understanding the function of the medieval in modern cinema. The middle ages serve that role in a cultural context, so that cinematic representations of the period become vehicles for playing out the ideal cultural self. The chapter references an impressive array of films by directors as varied as Terry Gilliam, D.W. Griffiths, Ridley Scott, and Paul Wegener, to name only a few.

Haydock shifts his discussion more firmly into film studies in his second chapter, "Time Machines." Here, he offers a very brief overview of Deleuze's notions of the time-image and movement-image as a precursor to subsequent discussions of selected films. He argues that the time-image, an image that challenges viewers to make sense of its relationship to the action of the film, has gradually been drawn into the cinema of popular culture from the auteur cinema upon which Deleuze had founded the idea. Haydock then uses a series of films to demonstrate this progression, from Bergman and Tarkovsky to Japanese films to Boorman's Excalibur and Donner's Timeline. The chapter offers interesting potential by drawing movie medievalism more firmly into film studies--particularly through Deleuze's ideas.

The treatment, however, ultimately disappoints because Deleuze's ideas are at times so sublimated that it becomes difficult to follow what Haydock would have us learn. For example, the term "Deleuzian hero" surfaces multiple times without any clear explanation of what Haydock takes the term to mean or how it can be used to elucidate figures in medieval movies. What remains unexplained, in other words, is how Haydock sees Deleuze's ideas as a useful apparatus for reading the cinematic medieval. While the discussion of Lacan makes its utility apparent, the second chapter does not have the same result. Moreover, one is left to wonder if Lacan and Deleuze offer, for Haydock, a mutually reinforcing effect, but the two theories are left largely unrelated.

As noted above, the second section of Haydock's volume develops more traditionally, with analyses of single films or pairs of movies. Yet Haydock very shrewdly uses these as focal points for chapters that develop different approaches, all rooted in an impressive awareness of and sensitivity to film studies, which this field has, perhaps, lacked to some degree.

The first of these chapters (chapter three) juxtaposes two films that use the synthesis of medieval and modern in contrasting ways. The first, Jerry Zucker's First Knight weaves modern American concerns with invasion, colonialism, and community into the Arthurian tradition to project a modern sensibility into the past. The innovative element of his discussion is the awareness of Zucker's penchant for satire, which produces a reading of the film in which Haydock sees a delicate balance between patriotism and suspicion of imperialism. The second film, Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale serves as counterpoint in Haydock's discussion. He argues that the medieval and the (post-)modern are brought into collision with one another such that the modernity of the tale becomes highlighted. The two films together offer a fine example of wildly contrasting approaches to filming the medieval, yet at the same time demonstrating the shared projection of modern concerns into the past.

Chapter four, "Shooting the Messenger," takes up Luc Besson's 1999 biopic of Joan of Arc, The Messenger. The chapter builds on the preceding one by demonstrating how the past is constructed as a record "of difference within a master narrative of continuity" (111). Haydock argues that the film presents a simultaneous fear of and desire for religion in its dual construction of subjectivity: one through personal enlightenment, the other through discursive subject formation. Additionally, Haydock examines the collaborative nature of film by focusing his discussions on the differences between screenwriter Andrew Birkin's screenplay and the final cut of Besson's film.

"Theatres of War," the fifth chapter, advances the argument by turning out from the film to its reception--which was premature in the case of the focalizing film, Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Countering academic concerns for fidelity and ideological motivation, Haydock argues that holding medieval movies to a standard of fidelity as historical sources ignores the larger referential context of films. He demonstrates that Scott's movie actually derives as much from Cecil DeMille's The Crusades as it does from any medieval text. The chapter then turns towards the paracinematic features of the DVD releases to discuss the ways in which they undercut the film with concerns of historical accuracy or overwrite such concerns altogether.

The next chapter picks up on the issue of cinematic referentiality introduced with Kingdom of Heaven. Haydock focuses the chapter on Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur to argue that the film has less to do with the Arthur tradition itself. Rather, the film derives from an assortment of cinematic references, though primarily Kurasawa's The Magnificent Seven in a peculiar marriage with the so-called Sarmation Hypothesis. Haydock argues, too, that the film reveals a desire for the moral certainties of World War II such that the past is rewritten out of that nostalgia. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the video game that was marketed with the film.

Haydock's book concludes with a chapter that discusses the uses of the medieval in the construction of paranoid conspiracies, such as in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code (though through the Ron Howard adaptation of it) and in the Russian film Night Watch by director Timor Bekmambetov. He discusses these films in relation to an idea he labels "the postmedieval." The term is intended to suggest that the Enlightenment ideals of modernity are "an aberration" (188) from which the world is gradually awakening--the emergence of what we call Post-Modernity. The concept is not entirely original. (We might look to Bruno Latour as just one potential source of inspiration.)

If these chapters that comprise the second section of the book have a recurring problem, it is a sense of being too divided in focus. The chapters seem to raise a general topic and then explore various facets of it without always drawing those facets together into the diamond they might be. Alternatively, they occasionally feel as if they are trying to cover everything, such as in the addition of the video game section at the end of chapter six. Additionally, the Deleuzian ideas seem to disappear a bit in this section of the book, though they are raised again in the final chapter, which might actually have functioned better as a chapter three by illustrating how the theoretical framework might be employed to find new purchase on movie medievalism.

That being said, Haydock has produced a book that takes steps towards moving the study of movie medievalism into a new academic rigor that leverages film studies much more consciously. The second half of the book, despite sometimes feeling too scattershot, accomplishes this by demonstrating the various angles from which film studies would have medievalists examine these texts. In that achievement, Haydock has pointed a new way forward and has challenged others in this field to follow him. If the strengths of his book are anything to go by, the path will be a productive one.