Jan. 3rd, 2017

Boneless

Jan. 3rd, 2017 01:22 am
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2016's off with a bang, around my place. Yesterday I watched The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which was amazing up to a point, then left off in what I'd have to call an unsatisfying place; it didn't help that I know enough about history that when Emil Hirsch starts saying: "Hey, maybe she has a reduced waist because of corsetry...wait, what about Salem?" I immediately go: "People in Salem didn't WEAR corsets, just front-boards and stays at most--you're thinking about the 1890s, not the 1670s. So not, that's not it." The basic problem is that after a certain point, all we're sure about is that Jane Doe's body is an awful object leaking horror radiation and if it shows up on your table you should run, hide, burn the building down if you can; Steve called it "the Dionaea Corpse," which fits.

Tonight, OTOH, was Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow, which turns out to be just as great as everyone said it was--a tale of djinns and madness set during the Iran-Iraq war in which the political turns personal early on, focusing on living under religious fascism as being like a state of constant walking PTSD cut with fever, depression and wild hallucinations. The main character, Shideh, once wanted to be a doctor but her pre-Revolution dabblings in student activism have forever disqualified her from finishing her degree; she now spends her time at home in downtown Tehran, looking after her daughter and hiding from increasing aerial bombardment, and as things get worse she keeps forgetting basic stuff like hiding her VCR (with its entirely illegal Jane Fonda's Workout tape from tradespeople, or stopping to put on a head-scarf before she runs out into the street. Well worth the money I paid out to iTunes, at any rate.

So otherwise, I also found out something amazing the other day. Apparently no one knows what Ivar the Boneless died of, but when he died, he asked that his body be entombed on the edge of the land the Great Heathen Army had conquered, so that he could make it hard for anybody who wanted to invade the part of England he considered his. And two hundred plus years later, when William the Conqueror (or "Guillaume Bastard," as he was known at the time) crossed over from Normandy with his army, one of the first things he encountered was a mound he realized might be Ivar's tomb. So he had it broken open and found Ivar's body in there, still oddly undecayed, and then he made sure he burned that body before they went any further.

I was thinking about this within context of the TV show Vikings, because (spoiler alert) Ragnar Lothbrok finally died last week, turned over by his "friend" King Ecbert of Wessex to King Aelle, who promptly made him walk a gauntlet and then threw him in a pit full of snakes. As played out by Travis Fimmel, this is the last big show Ragnar can put on for posterity, his attempt to snatch posthumous victory from the jaws of defeat and re-seize control of his wyrd by dying in such a way as to inspire his sons to take revenge for him. On the show, Ragnar has been persona non grata since failing to re-take Paris because his brother Rollo turned on him, became Duke of Normandy and married Princess Gisla, with whom he's already had three kids (one of whom will obviously grow up to be William the Conqueror's great-great-great-grandfather, or whatever); he re-emerged from self-exile at the beginning of this season, and was naturally unable to inspire any of his sons to come to England with him except Ivar the Boneless, who will now become the keeper of Ragnar's legacy.

It's been interesting watching Ragnar tough-love Ivar into realizing that all his apparent weaknesses are strengths, especially since I still remember when Ragnar almost abandoned Ivar to die under a tree right after he was born, when it became obvious his deformity and infirmity might be the result of his mother's prophecy that if Ragnar had sex with her when she didn't want to, their next child would be a monster. That mother--Queen Aslaug, chilly and beautiful daughter of Brynhild and Sigurd, a powerful volva who could never quite forgive Ragnar for still being in love with his first wife Lagertha--has since died, leaving Ivar orphaned twice over; she was actually murdered by Lagertha, which means Ivar will have to put immediate revenge aside for long-range revenge if he wants to take advantage of Lagertha's personal army as he starts building up his forces. I guess we'll see how that turns out this week.

Ragnar: People will always underestimate you, and you must use that. Yet I say to you that the whole world will one day come to fear Ivar, the Boneless. Be ruthless.
Ivar: I wish I was not always so angry.
Ragnar: Why? Your anger will guide you.
Ivar: But I might have been happy.
Ragnar: Happiness is nothing, idiot.
Ivar: I know. I was only joking, idiot.


I was thinking about what I like most about Fimmel's consistently sidelong, teasing portrayal of Ragnar, a man literally out of myth, and I think it boils down to the fact that much like Odin--who he overtly identifies himself with, often citing the rumour that Odin was one of his line's ancestors--Ragnar is both a warrior and a Machiavel, coolly manipulating the people around him to get not so much what he immediately wants as what he perceives to be best for everybody in the long run. He sees the future and it fascinates him, even though he seems well aware he won't see any of the changes he may have caused come to fruition. He's a farmer who makes himself into an explorer, an Earl, a king, but a king in an age when "king" really still means "Very Big War Chief." He's a man of fate, and the people around him remark on it, but his guiding principle is an utter inability to be satisfied, even with the things and people he loves most; he's "loved by the gods," but he doesn't really believe the gods even exist. It makes total sense that his best friend is a semi-madman who thinks he's descended from Loki, or that his other best friend was a Christian monk he kidnapped from Lindisfarne who taught him Anglo-Saxon and enough about the Bible to fake his way through baptism so he could pretend to be dead and smuggle himself into Paris after sheer brute attacking strength failed. He literally lay there like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, listening to Floki, Lagertha and Rollo pour out their love and hatred for him, then popped up out of the sarcophagus and stabbed a bishop to death. Nothing is ever enough.

The two quotes I'll always remember him for are: "Odin gave his eye for knowledge, but I would give much more," and this weirdly fatalistic but practical speech to his oldest son Bjorn: “I know it is hard for you to accept, but unhappiness is more common than happiness. Who told you you should be happy? You have come to an age where you must grow up and be responsible about such things. When I was your age, I had many friends. All are dead. Their happiness is neither here nor there.” Both clearly delineate the ways in which Vikings, for all its overt historicity, rings true to me as a version of the world I recognize from the Sagas--that latter speech in particular really is pure "There is no need to look, for it is just as you think; the leg is off." People on Vikings constantly act against their own self-interests in ways that are completely understandable, forgiving each other only as long as they think they need to, nursing grudges that flower into murder after years of apparent dormancy--they celebrate everything in blood. I'll miss Fimmel, but I think we'll probably see him a few times in the future, reaching out to Ivar through visions. Meanwhile, if the whole series doesn't end with the story I told at the start of this post being acted out, I'll be extremely disappointed.

(They should definitely re-cast Fimmel as William, too, once he's had a few years away to recuperate.)

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