48th Annual Meeting of the Midwest Modern Language Association

November 9-12, 2006

The Palmer House Hilton

Chicago, Illinois

BABEL Working Group/Journal of Narrative Theory panel:

Session #187: High Stakes/Lowbrow: Early Modern Texts and Medieval Fantasies in Pop Culture and Film

Craig Dionne (Editor, Journal of Narrative Theory), Presider

As a number of critics in 2004 observed, Paul McGuignan’s The Reckoning, a film in which a troupe of medieval actors exposes the crimes of a nobleman and the institutional corruption that facilitates his offenses, invites its audience to consider the role of the artist in society. Released not long after American poets were turned away from the White House for fear they might advocate dissent towards governmental policy, this film dramatizes the human costs of a state where religion plays the bawd to politics, and ostensibly offers the dramatic arts as the first line of popular defense. The aesthetic and moral transformation that endows the artist with such power in this film lies in the painfully familiar trope of renaissance enlightenment: only when the actors shift from miming the ontological platitudes of medieval Corpus Christi pageants to exploring epistemological uncertainties of drama centered on human experience does the hero acquire the “forensic” power to challenge the system. Ironically, it is the film’s failure that recommends it pedagogically. For, through the familiar narrative conventions of the ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama that render this film, in the words of one critic, “an above-average 1970s TV pilot,” the myth of progress, both political and aesthetic, can be debunked—forcing us to acknowledge the potential for both complicity and resistance, not just in all forms of art, but also in audiences.