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The Medieval Filmscape: Reflections of Fear and Desire in a Cinematic Mirror by William F. Woods

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Abstract

The title of this slim volume announces its ambitions: to define the scope (and the scape) of films set in the Middle Ages (which last until the mid-sixteenth century in order to accommodate The Return of Martin Guerre) and to identify those that authentically reflect the period. Its achievements, although not insignificant, are more modest. The volume opens with a series of theoretical essays and an introduction. The Introduction (‘Our Lady of Pain: The Subgenre of Medieval Film’), the most ambitious chapter of the book, serves to illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of the chapters to follow. The author amply demonstrates his wide knowledge of medieval film and his talent for discovering telling details and producing loving and lavish descriptions. His engagement with the films he discusses is deep and devoted. The problems arise with his theoretical approach. While his survey of the corpus suggests diversity, as he moves closer to a definition, the corpus becomes narrower and solidifies around the dolorous sort of film suggested by his chapter title. More exuberant films (like Camelot or Monty Python and the Holy Grail), though mentioned on occasion, seem excluded from the corpus, and significant imaginings of the Middle Ages (notably Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, possibly the most sustained examination of the period in twentieth-century cinema) are not even mentioned. Despite the richness of detail in this introduction, the examination of the corpus ultimately seems to be devoted to proving that true medieval films are the medieval films that the author is particularly fond of and that reflect his preference for films of gloomy peasants and gloomier clerics. Similar problems beset the following theoretical chapters (‘Authenticity,’ ‘Simplicity,’ and ‘Spectacle’). Woods avoids most of the real difficulties of defining ‘authenticity’ in the context of film, and (necessarily perhaps) avoids discussing whether the issue of authenticity is even worth discussing at this stage of critical discourse. His final definition, assuming I take his point, is the unhelpful tautology that the authentic medieval film is the film that looks authentically medieval, according to how medieval films have taught us to look at films that want to be looked at as medieval. The second and more successful part of the volume consists of sensitive analyses of Woods’ limited canon of medieval films: The Advocate, The Seventh Seal, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Perceval le Gallois, Lancelot du Lac, The Name of the Rose, The Return of Martin Guerre, and Kingdom of Heaven. While all these films are excellent, they do suggest a certain dreariness in Woods’ conception of ‘medieval,’ and, especially in the Nordic examples, an echo of the old assumption that black and white is somehow more authentically medieval than color. Woods’ analyses of these films are quite fine, however, and complete with useful explications of the historical context, and his readings of the films are filled with thick, rich descriptions. Flawless choice of stills from the films enrich the verbal descriptions and include a surprisingly angelic Christian Slater (in The Name of the Rose) and a young Gerard Depardieu (The Return of Martin Guerre), surprisingly demure before his Brandoesque weight gain and his quest for a home without taxes. While the discussions of individual films are informative, there is a tendency in the volume to quirks and tics that are summed up neatly in the concluding sentences. ‘Finally, it all comes down to identity—that is what fables are for. We seek ourselves in the mirror of medieval film. And we find ourselves there. How could we not?’ (178). Woods’ fondness for rhetorical (and often inscrutable) questions becomes irritating, as does his relentless use of ‘we,’ which becomes an almost bullying device to ensure that the reader embraces the author’s point of view on all issues, and shares preferences and presumptions. ‘How could we not?’ is not a question posed to open the floor to discussion or dissent. Woods’ ‘we’ is a quirky ‘I,’ posing as a universal. When finally the reader gazes into Woods’ mirror of medieval film what we see reflected is mainly Professor Woods. A charming reflection it may be, but neither as inclusive nor conclusive as the title promised. We have a medieval filmscape...

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