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.


Jason Zavoda said...

This sounds like a movie I will have to see.

Odin and Christ. You do have to wonder in that age of roman empire who exactly were the legionnaires in Jerusalem? Did someone take the early stories of Christ back to the north and explain it in their own way? Odin seems a late comer to the Norse gods. A god hung upon a tree as a sacrifice, himself to himself, stabbed in the side with a spear. The hanged god who brought the runes to the north and taught men magic, whose son died and will rise again after the last battle with the children of men beside him.

But maybe this writer looks at the Allfather as God, the true representation of divinity and religious experience. Easy then to link the Allfather with other versions of his story, such as the Christ.

I will have to see this movie. Violence and religion have gone hand in hand throughout history so I don't see it as necessarily shocking to have a movie reporting to be about religious experiences fairly thick with it.

Trey said...

I don't know that I ever wrote a review, but I have a mixed reaction to. It's a bit slow--but almost perhaps hypnotic, so not really boring for its slowly. As you suggest, it certainly very much seems if it means something, but that meaning eludes me, though I don't have a clear idea what it might be.

Spawn of Endra said...

I really liked the film overall, and didn't have much of a problem with the pacing, which is slow but steady. It was paced like a graphic novel and looked to me as if it was shot as one (apparently it wasn't?). The final scenes and Christ imagery did stick in my craw, not because of an implied connection between Odin and Christ (which isn't a new concept), but because the historical context ...SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM!!!

.... strongly implies something as stupid as Mel Gibson's Apoplecto does, i.e., that Native Americans are essential anti-Christians, though here presented in terms of the Icelandic sagas (Skraelings).

Ultimately, I can't fully endorse that reading, partly because the narrative by that point is vague, though visually compelling, and there isn't a vocal narrative. And the sequences that lead up to that are a really interesting depiction of what e.g., St. Brendan and others might have been facing in NE North America, so I like that. Overall, I wish the last scene went differently.

P.S. I think because it's a Danish film, some of the division between reviewers may reflect a division between Dogma95 filmmakers/fans and others that think it's a load of bollocks. It's funny because VR is equally a Lars von Trier adventure epic and the nationalistic romantic vision that D95 would reject, all at the same time.

arcadayn said...

Definitely a riveting and baffling movie. Hypnotic is a great adjective for it. By the way, for those who don't know, the movie is available on Netflix instant streaming.

2eDM said...

The pop-culture idea of Oden = Jesus is a result of certain Christian monks looking to convert a few northmen(and is based on rather bad scholarship to boot). In addition, there's been plenty of deities out there who suffered the same blasted way as the alfather and those legends are many centuries older than xtianity. Really wish people would stop trying to say that all gods are the same. I saw the film. I was not impressed. At the very least I didn't actually pay to see the thing.

Cimmerian said...

I've been compelled to watch this a few more times. This is one of those movies that is like Contact, No Country for Old Men, etc. Viewers formulate ideas from their own experiences as to what a director may or may not have even been trying to convey. How can you convey a LSD trip to someone who has no experience, they are bound to just relate to something they have experienced that is most similar. The two tracks do not always meet and who is to say any interpretation is wrong or right, especially in another set of moccasins?

Kind of reminds me of a disorientating art film but there is a strong pull to find a meaning to it all especially in answer to all the violence. Perhaps we are compelled to always find a meaning for it? Is one-eye a psycho path, a survivor, or stuck in a violent dream world? Is the film holding religion accountable, man, or just one characters dismal story?

(In reference to the movies listed above. They both were movies that when talking about it later with someone found that they had a completely different take then what I did and had a rational stance for their interpretation wether I agreed or not. Goes to show..)

Cimmerian said...

Oh one more thing BTW....

Trey mentioned on my blog sometime back about Valhalla Rising being like an "allegorical/trippy Spaghetti Western"

I could see Clint in this role, and with a 6 gun in his hand it's not much different than his movies is it?

I like that take!

Rainforest Giant said...

It is an homage to Kurosawa in a way but it is also a steaming pile. The movie is well made in parts especially before they make landfall in Vinland or Markland or wherever they are. After that it loses its way. The Native Americans are as stereotypical as you can get. 'Drums on the Mohawk' was more subtle in the presentation of the locals. The vikings reactions were just as predictable. It was as stylized and 'surprising' as a Kabuki play.

That was not the worst part of the movie but it was by far the most predictably bad. It had great moments and some good cinematography. I will watch something else by the director but I won't go hunting for him.