Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Failures of imagination

I just noticed a poster for the new Robin Hood movie.

No, we're not quite that far behind the times. The poster has been there for, ooh, must be over a month already. But sometimes I'm a slow reader.

From all I've heard, I have no interest in seeing the current movie. I've often complained about the prolonged rape of British culture by America - the process by which our stories are taken without so much as an acknowledgment to a thousand years of tradition (or, in some cases, to real live heroes) - then recast in dysfunctional Hollywood molds to suit some featherbrained modern philosophy and sold back to us - and it's going to take a more appealing offering than this to sell me on such a product again. I think one per year is a reasonable limit.

But what struck me today was the tagline: "The untold story behind the legend".

Of course, every generation retells myths in its own image. That's what myths are for. What I'm wondering now is, what does it say about our generation that this version is being marketed as some kind of "true story"? (The same thing happened to King Arthur in 2004.)

Throughout the history of cinema, Robin Hood has been a fruitful vehicle for stories. You can watch virtually any version and deduce what decade it was made in by the political values it espouses. Our hero has been cast as a Saxon liberation fighter (in the 1930s), a selfless patriot (in the 1950s), an economic pragmatist (1990s), and today, from what I read, he's become a rationalist republican, chafing against taxation in general. Maid Marian's role has been steadily upgraded over the decades, from passive damsel in varying degrees of distress, to (in some cases) full-fledged bandit leader and the real brains behind the whole operation. In the 1990s it became de rigueur to include a token "Saracen" in the Merry Men. I gather the latest version was initially supposed to cast the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero, and Robin as a sort of proto-terrorist; but then Obama's election showed a public falling out-of-love with the police state, and the Rebel-figure suddenly became glamourous again. (A shame - I might well have gone to see Nottingham.)

At the same time, films have striven for "authenticity" in sets and costumes - from Errol Flynn's tights, via Sean Connery's chainmail, to Patrick Bergin's mud. This is a fashion thing - Hollywood has long taught us to despise "stagey" settings, costumes and acting. But there's a big difference between "authenticity" and "truth". Showing something that approximates, in at least some dimensions, to the reality of medieval life, is not the same as pretending that the story you're telling is a bona-fide recreation of actual events.

Maybe it's the CSI syndrome applied to folklore: we've grown accustomed to see people using magical computers to recreate past events based on the thinnest of evidence, so why shouldn't we demand the same of historians? - that they should "know" things that no-one will ever know, short of the invention of time travel. Maybe it's the way Hollywood has infantilised its audience, to the point where we can no longer accept historical tales for what they are - an imaginative retelling of an old story.

Or maybe it's just a marketing department with a total failure of imagination, trying to make a completely redundant film seem, for a few weeks at least, like a significant contribution to our culture.

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