Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Valhalla Rising

Well, Robilar, wherever you are, I hope your treasury is full and your dragons well-fed.

While you're out perhaps exploring the City of the Gods, I was wondering if anyone hanging about here had any thoughts on the movie "Valhalla Rising." I just saw it and was baffled. I read a few reviews and they're split into two camps -- those who see it as genius and those who regard it as a steaming pile of dung. I am of both opinions, strangely. This is what I wrote in reaction to one of those negative reviews and I was wondering if anyone had an enlightened (and enlightening) take on it -- even if it's a violently negative one:

I enjoyed your review: it perfectly described half of my reaction to this movie. But the other half of me wanted this movie to say and mean something. I actually got invested in two of the characters , One-Eye and the Boy (predictably, I think). I felt the cinematography was breath taking and invested with symbolic meaning – but for the life of me I couldn’t decode it (at least on a first viewing – I don’t know if I’ll give it a second look). The strange thing is that I’m usually pretty good at finding meaning – it’s what I do for a living (teaching and writing about some of the most obscure English poetry ever conceived). I also know a fair bit about old Norse mythology and about mythic syncretism – e.g. the relationship between the stories of Odin (a one-eyed sacrifice) and Christ – but, still, the meaning wasn’t really coming together.

However, after reading some extremely negative reviews of the film (including yours – which I really have no argument with) and a few positive ones (that call it “genius” without really saying why), I started to cobble something together. The violence of that negative reception, is that anything like the violence in the film? Your review isn’t really “violent” per se, but it is frustrated and pissed-off, right? You want the film to say something (like me) and it doesn’t – isn’t that a bit like One Eye? There are interpreters (like the Boy) – various reviewers you might say – and they make guesses at what his meaning is, what One-Eye is doing or thinks or wants – but he’s as mute as a hanged Odin, as mute as this film. People try to enslave, beat, dominate and control One Eye but, like the totally obscure meaning of this film, it/he can’t really be summed up and “controlled” by any one explanation. In the end, One Eye is killed by multiple figures all as enigmatic and silent as himself – multiple meanings that can go in all kinds of different directions (and simply fade into the wilderness). It’s a meta-film, you might say, about interpreting film.

I think this also relates to the mythic syncretism of the movie – how it wants to draw parallels between Odin and Christ, how they are echoes of each other in many ways. As the Chieftain says to the kid in that interminable boat scene, the story of Christ essentially gives you an explanation for who you are and where you’re going: it puts the chaos of experience in order. That’s a fairly interesting take on religious motivations (although it’s been done before). The need to make meaning from a film is the same need that gives rise to religion.

I usually don’t like interpretations such as this because it assumes there’s a meaning (that it’s all about meaning-making) when, in fact, it could just be a poorly crafted movie. I felt frustrated through the whole experience, thinking that I deserved just a few clues about what was going on – but your review got me thinking and I feel better, now. I don’t imagine I’ve convinced you, but I wouldn’t mind hearing from some of the people above who felt they “got it” – I’d like further clarification. I realize that, to the extent that I’ve made any meaning out of this film, it just amounts to an act of faith.