Thursday, April 14, 2011

Camelot, a rant

I've been waiting to be in a calm, reasonable, orderly frame of mind before writing about Camelot, the new epic mini series on Starz, but, eh, that's not going to happen anytime soon. My brain is too full of Hild and my body too ravaged by virus. (Okay, it's a cold. What's your point?) Here's a disorganised rant instead.

Camelot has a great setting, some truly fine actors, and built-in marketing*. Also, to use a technical editing term, it's a big spaghetti mess.
The biggest problem is the story, or lack of it. That is, the writing. For a clue how bad it is, read this snippet from the official website:

In the wake of King Uther’s sudden death, chaos threatens to engulf Britain. When the sorcerer Merlin has visions of a dark future, he installs the young and impetuous Arthur, Uther’s unknown son and heir, who has been raised from birth as a commoner. But Arthur’s cold and ambitious half sister Morgan will fight him to the bitter end, summoning unnatural forces to claim the crown in this epic battle for control. These are dark times indeed for the new king, with Guinevere being the only shining light in Arthur’s harsh world. Faced with profound moral decisions, and the challenge of uniting a kingdom broken by war and steeped in deception, Arthur will be tested beyond imagination. Forget everything you think you know…this is the story of Camelot that has never been told before.

If I were teaching, I'd set this as a rewrite exercise because, damn, even a beginner should be able to do better. (To those of you at home who want to have a go at fixing this: using high-impact words like 'profound' and 'broken' to hint at story isn't enough. Readers/viewers need evidence of clear anchor points and an emotional arc. This is about Arthur--and Merlin, and Guinevere. Saying he's young isn't enough. Is Arthur a hero or a horndog? Smart or stupid? At this stage, before I've watched a single scene, I begin to suspect the writers don't really know.)
Ten seconds into the first episode I knew we were in trouble. Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays Arthur, stands around with his mouth open like a trout. Perhaps this is meant to indicate breathless emotional engagement, perhaps he has sinus trouble, but it doesn't inspire confidence. Arthur, the Once and Future King, the man who rallied a kingdom in the Terrible Times Previously Known as the Dark Ages**, should not be a gormless mouth-breather who looks as though he's been sawn off at the brainstem.
But then we meet Merlin, played by Joseph Fiennes, and I perked up a bit. Merlin, in this reimagination, is a cross between a shaven-headed Hard Man and a wise and mysterious Life Coach. Fiennes is a good enough actor to pull this off--or would be, if he had good, risk-taking writing to build from.
But, no, Michael Hirst and Chris Shibnall, the creators, plump every time for the cheap choice. So, for example, we get gratuitous female nudity. I'm not one to complain about seeing luscious naked women--unless it makes no sense. (The writers don't even try.) And unless there's a serious lack of gender parity. (The men don't show any skin except face and hands in the first two episodes.) In Camelot, all the girlie goodness does is make it clear to the viewer that women are objects and men subjects.
This is most obvious with Eva Green's part, Morgan, the evil temptress, sloe-eyed and dark-haired (of course--another cheap shot the writers couldn't resist; Guinevere is blonde). Green is, in my opinion, a truly fine actor, but she's given nothing to work with here. Morgan is an unevenly and rather sulkily written ragtag collection of tropes and mannerisms. She consorts with mysterious misty things with voices for which she wears conveniently drop-at-a-touch dresses (always, for some reason, see-through). She's emotionally unstable. She is not in conscious control of her powers.
This women wouldn't have survived a minute in TTPKDA. I think the writers, in some dim way, understand this. Sadly, their attempt to finesse this inconsistency just makes everything worse. They show Morgan foiling an attempted rape by King Lott (on the battlements, in front of his whole army) by turning it into jolly public sex. He rips off her clothes and she says, Come on, big boy, let's get it on in front of all your men! Lott then can't get it up (I assume. It's hard, no pun intended, to tell because he's wrapped head to foot in iron and leather, nothing peeking out). He retaliates by dragging Morgan off to a windswept moor and tying her to a (convenient, well-maintained, otherwise purposeless) stake in the middle of nowhere and abandoning her overnight.
I used to earn my living by teaching women's self-defence. One of the options I taught was (if you can't run) to ruin the assailant's power fantasy. So, intellectually at least, the writers were on the right track for Morgan to turn Lott's rape power trip to consensual sex. But if, in a public setting, a warlord couldn't get it up, I bet you a gold armring he'd kill his victim out of hand. He couldn't afford not to in front of his men.
That tiny detail aside, you can't treat a woman as a thing, a naked sex toy, one minute and then persuade the viewer the next that she's a powerful, shape-changing sorceress in league with otherworldly creatures. (Why didn't she summon a demon to eat Lott's face? Why didn't she change into something else? Why didn't she fly away?)
Let me be clear, I'm not saying that women who have been sexually assaulted can never again have agency. I'm saying that a writer can't take away a woman's agency when convenient to the plot and expect the viewer to believe it when, without explanation or apparent struggle, it is magically restored. Everything has consequence. These writers are displaying not only a fundamental misunderstanding of gendered sexual violence but of how story works.
Woman-in-jeapardy is no substitute for plot and character development. With this kind of pointless sexual game the writers have just lost the trust of 51% of their audience and, for the rest, destroyed their belief in the story's antagonist. They don't understand the basics.
If I were teaching these writers, I'd help them understand the notion of Show and Tell, and when to use which.
They do a lot of telling. The first couple of episodes are littered with As You Know, Bob dialogue that could have been lifted from a day-time soap: Yes, adopted brother of mine, who will come with me to scary places. And Why, hello, magician with a mysterious past whom I don't trust very much. And Oh, hey there, you brute with a sword, who has armies and doesn't like my dead dad and can help me take the kingdom.
When they do just show, the scenes don't make much sense. For example, in episode 3 there's a scene in which Merlin, tied up by Morgan, says, essentially, Well, I could free myself if I wanted to; but I don't want to use my magic... And then when Morgan wanders off (why? no idea) he just sort of wiggles free without magic. By just, y'know, tugging vaguely at the manacles. The viewer has no clue what's going on: Did Morgan do a really bad job? (Subtract a point from the characterisation score.) Is it just lucky coincidence? (Lose a point for plotting.) Did he use his magic after all--if so, why? (Burn and destroy any accumulated trust in the writers' consistency.) Then there's the scene in which Arthur and Guinevere stumble across a just-that-minute-dead deer (arrow still poking from it's chest) that no one, in economically hard times, has bothered to come and collect despite going to a lot of trouble to kill it. I'd discuss the ridiculousness of the following scene in which the boys clearly got so squicked out at the girlie particulars that they couldn't think straight, but I don't have the heart to go on. And I haven't even mentioned the awful anachronisms...
Anyway, after suffering (profoundly, bitterly, brokenly) three hours of this series, I'm convinced that the writers of this big-budget blockbuster epic don't know what they're trying to say or to whom. Camelot is a hopeless muddle.*** This kind of crap gives sword-and-pony epics a bad name.
* The Arthurian Cycle, part of the Matter of Britain is the English legend. It has huge brand capital. I'm sure it can survive this. (If you want to know how it should be done, read Mary Stewart's quartet of novels, starting with The Crystal Cave, and then Gillian Bradshaw's trilogy, starting with Hawk of May. Brilliant stuff, both of them. Go read.)
** Now termed, depending on what school you follow, Late Antique, sub-Roman, or early Medieval Britain.
*** For contrast, see the brilliant clarity of the Game of Thrones Making Of programme: everyone involved is sure as sunrise about their characters and/or mission. I am positively drooling with anticipation.
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