Tuesday May 18, 2010

Armond White's Review of “Robin Hood” —with Footnotes

Every Man for Himself
Russell Crowe plays Ridley Scott’s everyman again—this time with arrows

By Armond White

At a reported cost of over $200 million, according to the London Telegraph, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood refutes the old altruistic axiom “rob from the rich and give to the poor.” All the charm and meaning has been taken out of this reboot. It’s now a “history,” opening with a detailed inscription to establish the 12th-century tale’s seriousness: “In times of tyranny and injustice, where law oppresses the people, the rebel takes his place in history.” In other words, Gladiator II.
I assumed the title card was an homage to earlier cinematic version of “Robin Hood” rather than a call to seriousness. Who knows? But every major “Robin Hood” movie has begun with such a description.

Russell Crowe once again plays Scott’s everyman hero who rises above his taciturn machismo to avenge dreadful memories—clever shtick for the wealthy duo that like to pretend they’re doing something besides just raking it in.
Question: how is this not a potential criticism of any movie in which a star plays an everyman? Movie stars are wealthy; everymen are not. Was it shtick for Crowe to play an everyman hero in “L.A. Confidential”? And what’s the point of guessing at the motivations of Crowe and Scott? What does that have to with what’s on the screen?

Their nouveau-riche narcissism imagines having a populist purpose, yet the clichés of Robin Longstride’s archery skills, put to use in the English army’s campaign against the French while, back home, Marian Locksley (ludicrous Cate Blanchett) tills her impoverished, overtaxed fields, don’t speak for the people, except in distant, almost invisible metaphor.
I had to read this sentence several times to fathom its meaning... and I still don’t quite fathom its meaning: “...the clichés of Robin Longstride’s archery skills....don’t speak for the people...”? WTF? In general, White seems to be saying that the film pretends to be populist but isn’t. Maybe: It’s the one Robin Hood movie in which King John and Robin Hood fight side-by-side. On the other hand: It’s the only Robin Hood movie where Robin is a commoner, where none of the royals, including Richard, are particularly worthy, and where the end game is not the return of King Richard (and a more benevolent monarchy) but the adoption of the Magna Carta (and the beginning of liberty for all). Some might consider this a populist message.

And the motto these oppressed Brits live by (“Arise and arise until lambs become lions”) isn’t about Tea Party insurrection; it merely replaces poetic generosity with vengeance.
Does White want the motto to reflect Tea Party insurrection? Admittedly “Rise and Rise Again” is an odd slogan for this movie, since Crowe as Robin is always a lion, and so doesn’t need to rise and rise again to become one. But it works if one thinks of the Magna Carta as the end game. We all must rise again until we stop being sheep and become men.

Scott and Crowe return to Gladiator’s violent formula because the high-life confessions of their “A Good Year” collaboration didn’t click. But they also seem to be chasing after Antoine Fuqua (the director Scott replaced on American Gangster) in the way Robin Hood repeats the insipid realism of Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur, the grungy, anti-poetic reboot of Arthurian tales. Both films represent a dullard’s version of history; Hollywood’s commercial calculation has become so obvious that it removes beauty from storytelling. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s period setting over-simplifies the context for violence—reusing his Braveheart formula but without director-star Mel Gibson’s conviction.
Why would they be chasing after Fuqua—“King Arthur” failed miserably. And what exactly is the commercial calculation in removing beauty from storytelling? Let’s face it, there’s not much in the plot here that is commercial. It is, in fact, the least commercial of all the Robin Hood movies since it never even gives us Robin Hood.

Look at Scott’s superficial “beauty”: a couple of dusk landscapes (amazingly subtle lighting by John Mathieson) and a splendid view of French ships roiling on blue, misty waves. But these are not “cinematic” images; they’re mini TV commercials that lack existential vision. Ultra-hack Scott reverts to the slickness of his advertising background. TV imagery has pervaded cinema to the point that Scott doesn’t balance his over-cropped TV-style close-ups with the postcard vistas. Like Gladiator’s jarring F/X, it shows Scott’s disrespect for cinema.
White piles insults upon opinions here. It’s all air. There’s nothing to even push against.

Fake beauty and fake history rob Robin Hood of previous moral value. It’s no longer “legendary” because Scott and Helgeland’s sham realism trivializes history. They pretend how history happened (Monty Python-style) but their embarrassing, anachronistic rip-off of Saving Private Ryan’s beachfront battle scene shows no feeling for how history is constructed and passed down through ritual, repetition and affection. An abstract end-credits sequence is more imaginative (it’s in the style of Scott’s Scott Free company logo). In place of inspiration, Robin Hood has the bloat of a 1960s roadshow presentation: Costly, overlong but with no intermission—or reprieve.
The previous moral value of Robin Hood stories has been greatly exaggerated. In older stories, Robin is basically a noble fighting a disreputable royal until a better, war-mongering royal returns, so life can continue as is. This Robin is using his luck to actually push for reform. I’m not saying Scott’s “Robin Hood” is a good movie. I’m saying White, in his ad hominem attacks, doesn’t delineate any of the reasons why it’s not good.

Back in '38, when, according to White, “Robin Hood” had a true populist message: to fight and bow before a benevolent, warmongering monarch like King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter, above).

Posted at 08:38 AM on Tuesday May 18, 2010 in category Robin Hood  
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