Wednesday, April 27, 2011


The hits just keep coming at the Aptos Cinema Weekend Classics series. This weekend (just in time for May Eve!) they're showing one of my favorite movies, ever, the bewitching Excalibur, John Boorman's voluptuously textured 1981 plunge into the King Arthur saga. This gorgeous take on the rise and fall of Camelot is not set in some recognizable historical period, whose details might be disputed by the Fact Nazis (costumes consist largely of polished silver, metallic lace, and gossamer); instead, it unspools within the misty depths of the collective human imagination, where dreams and myths are born. Boorman's source material was Thomas Malory, and every frame of film in infused with Celtic magic and mysticism.

A young, non-star cast breathes life and immediacy into these archetypal, yet human characters. The noble Arthur of Nigel Terry is a happy surprise after his mewling, petulant Prince John in The Lion In Winter a decade before. Cherie Lunghi makes a saucy Guinevere, and Nicholas Clay an earnest Lancelot. But delightful, eccentric Nicol Williamson steals the show as Merlin, along with the hypnotically sensual and diabolical Morgana le Fey of the young Helen Mirren.

(Helen Mirren and Nicol Williamson in Excalibur)

The film was shot in Ireland, and lots of young Irish actors new to the movies got early roles here. Keep an eye peeled for an embryonic Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, and Gabriel Byrne as Uther Pendragon. (And btw, this film also features the most exalted use of Carl Orff's driving Carmina Burana chorale ever heard in the movies.)

But it's Boorman's breathtaking images—violent and sensual, sacred and profane—that keep us riveted. This is not a fairy tale for kids, (rated R and 140 minutes, for those of you keeping score at home), nor a conventional Hollywood costume epic. It's an intoxicating spectacle of mythic power and savage grace. This is one movie you really want to be overwhelmed by on a big screen, so don't miss it! Saturday and Sunday, 10:30 a.m., at Aptos Cinema.

So what's the deal about May Eve? In the old Celtic calendar, before our mass culture got so homogenized and disconnected from the land, and the seasons, the first of May was reckoned the beginning of summer. And the night before (Aril 30, May Eve) was the second most uncanny time of year—after the Eve of All Saint's Day, or All Hallows Eve, October 31— when the portals between this world and the magical Otherworld were momentarily in synch. (Sort of like that tricky moment at Kings Cross Station in the Harry Potter books when you can run right through the wall and find the train to Hogwarts.) At these eerie moments of the year, fairies, demons, and spirits were free to run amok in our world.

In pagan times, the festival was called Beltane, for sun god known by various names like Beli, Belenus or Balder, although some insist "Beltane" merely means "bright fire." In the dark of Beltane Eve, fires were lit on hilltops to herald the coming of summer and the return of the sun god. (Something we Santa Cruzans can appreciate after a ridiculously wet winter.) After the Christian Church came along to muscle the old gods out of the picture, fires were still lit on May Eve, but the Church put out the rumor they were meant to scare off pagan witches. In German-speaking Europe, May Eve is Walpurgisnacht, the night of witches' revels, celebrated by stout-hearted practitioners of wicca to this day. That's the thing about folk traditions: the folk tend to hang on to them, no matter who's temporarily running the show.

For centuries all over Britain, May First was celebrated by troops of young men and women frolicking out in the woods before dawn to "bring in the May"— whatever flowering shrubs or blossoms could be found, often leaving flowers on the doorsteps of friends and neighbors to celebrate the fertility of Maytime. Fertility was certainly on the mind of Puritan writer Philip Stubbes, who complained in 1583 that "of fortie, three score or a hundred maides going into the wood overnight," less than one third "returned home again undefiled." They don't call it the lusty month of May for nothing!

(Above: A detail from "A Visit at Moonlight" by E. T. Parris, ca. 1832.)

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