I've just returned from seeing "The Golden Compass." I feel the desire to write a review. Not an in-depth one, as I've seen it but once and I've not read the books, but it raised some questions and thoughts in me.
Or rather, it raised nothing but questions, in such a way that I found myself unable to come to any final decision on anything. And I am no longer certain whether that is good or bad. Is this the future of film narrative? That's what it all comes down to.
Granted, I am aware, vaguely, of all the hoo-ha surrounding the author and his religious proclivities, and I can see where all that comes from. It took me all of two minutes to establish the range of historical links between the institution of higher education as the post-scholastic, early-modern model of "atheist" (in the sense of Bacon) inquiry versus the nexus of anti-intellectual establishments who operate under the reformed-sinner mantle of "helping" the future (running the gamut from crusty church father figures to jack-booted National Socialists), and the metaphor of soul/free will embodied in the Daemon (the efficacy of which metaphor I think we could debate for...centuries, probably, which ultimately is a good thing, I think). And that was where my first question arose. No sooner were the likes of Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee seated in down-right early Christian counsel than I thought, can we ever tell a new story again? This story is so old, I feel like I am going to spend the next two hours measuring the trajectory of the story against the effort of the filmmaker--is that what I want to do during a film? NO. I want to be delighted and amazed. Why do we tell the same story again and again?! Answer: because it is a good and important story. Question: then why am I so impatient with it? Answer: because not only is there nothing new about this story, it is truly a post-modern retelling: it is pastiche-pur, it's taken stock images from every one of these intellectual vs establishment clashes since the dawn of history (from old Norse epic and the conversion of the Norse kings embodied in irritatingly thinly-veiled "Eisbjorn" to every example of 21st-century scholars irritating the powers that be and endangering their posts, embodied everywhere) and crowded them all into a parallel universe that is essentially compressed earth-time; A midrash. Why go to all that trouble to say something so obvious? I felt extremely cheated after I'd sat through all this ADHD visionry--with every possible opportunity to say the word "Gyptian" taken--only to have Nicole Kidman say the words "free will" with 10 minutes to go. What IS this, I screamed silently.
What really bothers me about this is, I don't want to think that. I do love this essential story, what could be cooler than having every instance of it told to me at once?
I don't know. But I think it was driven home to me through the supremely off-putting Witches of the North with crypto-Finnish names who were clearly intended to mimic in their speech a skaldic, pre-Christian style of writing. This sort of syntax has the unfortunate disadvantage of being alienating, which for some reason is much easier to take on the page than it is coming out of someone's mouth. After pseudo-Andie-MacDowel flew off I found myself thinking of every film adaptation of ancient or medieval literature, and how often these fail miserably, despite the fact that they are amazing reads and some of the best narratives ever written. They are even told in a very film-like way. So why do they never film well?? I still don't quite get that, but it seemed to me that this story ultimately suffered the same ailment, which might actually be a recession in the narrative economy. It's hard to appreciate the subtleties, the rationale without a certain degree of information, and having not read the books, I was lacking that information. Which in fact seems to me to suggest a strength of the books--the images might all look completely familiar, but that is merely the surface. Otherwise it's a world in itself that I do not know enough about to appreciate. Perhaps the book is too complex to be filmed, like Beowulf or the Odyssey. Or maybe it's just a hack-job. I don't know.
Cut to the credits, where of course I sat to hear--for the first time, mind you--Kate's new song, Lyra. And there I was again, in the same dilemma. Is this just sort-of tossed off, or is it meant to resemble a very old, bardic style of ballad? I presume it's intended, it reminded me a lot of "Bertie".
But as Nicole Kidman made some of her more teary confessions, I was impressed to see that the storyline was deftly opening holes that I am genuinely interested in seeing filled. This is a trend of late, one sees it in Harry Potter as well, that those we look up to as acting in our best interests often have motives we don't or can't see, and sometimes those people even knowingly offer up their wards as a sacrifice that must be made. I realize this is sort of an old trope--I think of Isaac, or Iphigenia--and yet, here there is something that I have not consciously encountered (and I sort of plan to email some Folklorists about this): there is no higher power testing their faiths in these recent stories; it is logic and reason they act on, which makes the story, I think, about a million times more interesting. Because then it really IS about the human condition and the mettle all of us carry within, the choices and priorities people have, the ultimately arbitrary concept of "right" and "wrong", "good" and "evil".
If nothing else, the failings of the film made me want to read the books. And encouraging people to do their own research rather than buy what someone else tells you--well, that's the message anyway, isn't it. So dumb-founding as the film often was, it was definitely true to its purpose.