Thursday, May 27, 2010

Target: Audience

Robin Hood is under siege. Critics have gone medieval over its length, its indifference to fact, its morose direction, Russell Crowe's dour archer with a Welsh-today, Scot-tomorrow accent... et cetera. While I've seen worse than a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems like a lot of support is coming from critics who appreciated the action sequences, and a lot of flamery from critics who wished those action sequences weren't so far apart. Not good.

What do I say? Dark isn't drab. Nolan's Batman franchise is dark; Scott's Robin Hood, like Gladiator before it, is drab. Grey pallette, grey characters, grey, depressing story. Crowe's merry man is unrelentingly grim, and so too are we, because we know everything he does about the situation, plus a whole lot more, all of it worse than even he imagines. Moments of humour--rare, and book-ended by tragedy or guilt--are shouldered by supporting characters, none of whom have a full grasp of events. If they did (we're forced to conclude), they'd have nothing to be joyful about. Just like we don't.

Now that my own quiver's empty, I'll point out something good about Robin Hood: the opening intertitles. I dug the throw-back feel of these screens, which prepped us, silent-movie style, for a familar tale delivered in new and spectacular fashion:

"This is the story of his return home, where, for defending the weak against the strong, he will be condemned to live outside the law."

My movie-going companion bitched about this, calling it a spoiler, but for me, it added power to a film for which predictability is both a blessing and curse. Robin Hood's ground is well-trod--like any remake, reboot, or revisioning of classic material, from Superman to Sophocles to James Bond, half the joy's in seeing how a new generation adapts the material. Robin Hood's opening intertitle acknowledges that the Robin Hood legend is part of our shared popular history; it brings us together and, for a few seconds, reminds us that we are witnessing a retelling of something bigger.

Many silent films open this way--with a brief summation of what's to come, or even, in the case of comedic shorts, a thematic platitude that sums up the absurdity ahead of time. For better (and worse), silent scriptwriters and directors assumed a common background among their audiences, and so seemed less afraid to begin with a shared idea, attitude, or understanding of facts.

Robin Hood isn't great filmmaking. But it could be a portent, if only because it assumes people of various socio-economic backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities and ages share a common knowledge of the Robin Hood tale.

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