Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Friday, December 20, 2002

Paola and I showed up at the Promenade for Two Towers at about 11:30 Tuesday night. Bad move, but I was actually working up until the moment we left. The result was that we were in the front row. You know you're close when you actually have to turn your head to read the subtitles. So I'll definitely need to see it again with somewhat more perspective. And to check my first impressions. But here they are. SPOILERS AHEAD. If you want to see the movie tabula rasa, turn back now.

The crowd, as expected, was hard-core. And it was clearly a Legolas crowd. When Orlando Bloom's name showed up on screen in the preview to Pirates of the Caribbean, the room erupted. Even more, I think, than when McKellan's actual face showed up in the preview for X-Men. And the most intense oh-my-god-this-is-so-cool-I-can't-stand-it moments of collective joy seemed to belong to the mofo from Mirkwood as well. One you've seen on the preview, that stair snowboarding move at Helm's Deep. But the other was a fleeting throwaway detail that blew everyone away. He's standing there shooting at wargs, his horse (with Gimli on board) comes galloping up behind him at full speed, and in one fluid arc he grabs the horse's neck and swings around onto its back, as only an elf could possibly do. Poetry in motion. That's the kind of unlooked-for gift that makes you go, "Thank you God...I mean, Jackson...same thing."

Not that the deity is infallible. I won't say the movie didn't leave me unsatisfied in places. Like the exorcism of Theoden, for example. First of all, why did it have to be so literal an exorcism? Why did they have to make him possessed by Saruman in such a crude, beat you over the head with it kind of a way? It's another Cate moment--he's got a stage full of nothing but fantabulous actors, but he won't trust them to incarnate the story's pivotal dramatic moments without making sure we all get the point by burying it under six feet of special effects. Come on, Pete--Bernard Hill is obviously a good actor. You didn't think he could convey the reawakening of a mind envenomed unless you actually mummified him and made us watch it melt away? Again, not that visual enhancements were out of order (the book has Gandalf doing some cool stuff with thunder and daylight), but there's putting syrup on your pancakes and then there's making soup. I wanted to hear Gandalf arouse Theoden with stirring words, not smack him on the forehead with his staff and go "You are HEALED! Y'all get lost, devil!"

Then there's Wormtongue. Couldn't we have afforded just a little more subtlety here? It's not like this is a film where the audience spends a lot of time confused about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Poor Wormtongue. As if his last name wasn't bad enough, his mother had to go and name him Grima. (Given the way Tolkien name families work, his siblings are doubtless named Slima and Crima.) The book describes him as having a "pale, wise" face. Pale is one thing. Did he have to look like death warmed over? Wouldn't this be a good place--indeed, the only opportunity in the whole story--to explore Frodo's intuition that one would expect servants of the enemy to look fairer and feel fouler? With ol'Grima, it's all foul is foul and fair ain't there. Not that he should be rivalling Viggo or anything, you understand. Just don't make him walk around with that neon "I am ugly, therefore evil" sign on his forehead. No wonder Theoden had to be literally possessed by Saruman--there's no possible way he could have been tricked into trusting this guy. And think how much more effective his scene with Eowyn would have been if you weren't sitting there going "Eew, it touched her!!" If you'd had room for even a smidgeon of doubt as to whether she might be taken in by him. As if. [It reminded me of the way they butchered Toohey in the film of The Fountainhead. Toohey is described in the book as a physical runt, but an absolute master of subtle psychological manipulation. A true worm tongue, likened in method and effect to a corrosive gas. And in the film they show him giving a speech, and it isn't a disarming insinuation but a browbeating harangue. But I digress.]

First request for the extended version: a scene showing how Wormtongue poisoned Theoden's mind. Let's hear some of that sweet reasonable advice about how unnecessarily risky it would be to take the war to the aggressor, how Rohan's forces would be overextended, how Eomer is only an ambitious warmonger, how sitting tight and appeasing Saruman is the best policy. Let us see the guy selling his snake oil persuasively, with sobriety and concern, prefaced by words of loyalty to Rohan and suspicion of Isengard, so that we understand how Theoden wound up buying it. (Such a thing isn't really all that hard to imagine, now is it?) Making Theoden the victim of magic rather than of the skillful playing on the fears of an aging sovereign was an unfortunate cop out. I say this realizing the time constraints that Jackson is working under: the unabridged book on tape reading of LOTR lasts 52 hours. He's got under 12 total. He has to paint in broad strokes, suggest the essence of personal dynamics without spelling them out at length. For the most part I think he succeeds brilliantly. And I am grateful for all of Tolkien's actual words that made it into the film, many more than one would have dared to hope from Hollywood. It's just that when something comes within spitting distance of perfection, its shortcomings are all the more frustrating.

In many ways, though, the Rohan scenes are wonderful. The look and feel of the place is perfect. As are Mer and Wyn, the Eo twins. 'Specially Wyn. There aren't many women in these films, but my they're well-chosen. Paola really dug Eowyn's line about women bearing swords, only to get pissed later on that she was relegated to babysitting duty for the whole Helm's Keep sequence. There's something to that, of course. They're up there arming prepubescent boys, and it doesn't occur to anyone to ask whether any of the women can handle a sword? Even making allowances for an honor-based patriarchal society, it's like uh, guys? We're a little outnumbered here? Like by several orders of magnitude? (Part of the answer, I suppose, would be that it isn't easy to get people to willingly turn themselves into cannon--er, warg--fodder, and throughout human history we've done it largely by socializing men to regard the very essence of their manhood as sacrificing their lives to protect women. We can question the desirability of that dynamic and still suspect that the moment when your troops need every shred of morale they can muster maybe isn't the best time to confront them with a radical reinterpretation of gender roles. But let's not get into that can of worms just now.) Paola hasn't read the books, so I had to reassure her that we haven't seen the last of Eowyn while resisting valiantly her demands to know what happens. God, I can't wait to see it though. That's without doubt the moment in the next film I am most aching to see. (By the way...any geekier-than-thou types out there who know whether Tolkien in any way intended to reference Macbeth? I mean, here we've got Birnham Wood coming to Orthanc in a big way, and then there's...Oh, nothing Paola. Go read the book. )

I think I understand the liberties Jackson took with Helm's Deep. Okay, so Eomer was really supposed to be in there with them. And Gandalf shows up at the end with Erkenbrand. But really now, who the hell is this Erkenbrand guy anyway? Why go to the trouble of introducing another character that nobody really cares about? (Listening to the boneheaded reviewers Larry Mantle had on this morning I realized what Jackson is up against--people who can't even manage to follow the vastly simplified story he's telling them). And while there's some nice stuff in the book about Eomer and Aragorn drawing swords together, it's not really that crucial. Why not let Gimli help Aragorn with the battering ram? As for the elves showing up, what can I say? It works. It makes their survival through the night more believable, given the hordes amassed against them. And the speech about loyalty to ancient allegiance is moving and very much in keeping with the dynamics of honor so dear to Tolkien. Having the women and children all there too was very effective, as it brought home the threat of real extermination which is what would have happened had they lost. These departures from the book were all useful, and I have no quarrel with them.

I'm not going to get into the Theoden-Aragorn, Aragorn-Arwen, or Aragorn-Eowyn dynamics right now. I need to see the film again (preferably from about 20 meters further back) and think about it before trying to follow up my earlier thoughts on those themes. Maybe that'll be my contribution to Meryl's blogburst.

But let's talk about Faramir. This is the departure that's hardest to understand. I hadn't reread the book for nearly ten years (don't tell Meryl), but one of the lines that had always stuck with me was Faramir's "Not if I saw it on the highway..." Why, oh why didn't they let him say it? [There's request number two for the extended version.] But again, rather than merely harping on differences let's do the filmmakers the courtesy of trying to understand their purpose. Why does the film need that scene with Frodo and the Nazgul in Gondor? On one level, we know it's a good thing for the good guys that Sauron now thinks that's where the ring is going. (I hope this doesn't mean that we won't get to see Aragorn wrestling with the palantir.) It appears, though, that Jackson thought Faramir needed to see that in order to let Frodo go. (Or to be more precise, he thought we needed to see Faramir seeing that to understand why he lets Frodo go.) And mind you, despite the loss of his best line, I think Faramir's character remains pretty intact in the film. He doesn't want the ring for himself--but he does have duties to Gondor and his father. Even in the book, he considers taking Frodo to Minas Tirith to be interrogated by Denethor. I think the reason they went this way in the film is that the relationship between Frodo and Faramir is too subtle to translate well to a movie audience. It's based on a series of verbal fencing matches, hints deciphered, and that dance of platonic flirtation engaged in by honorable men as they start up a mutual admiration society. Even at the end of all of it, Faramir doesn't explain his decision to let Frodo go. We read it between the lines. He knows that not everyone in Gondor would leave the ring lying in the highway. (We later suspect that he knew his father wouldn't.) He senses that Frodo is a person of immense character on a mission that must not be interfered with. How do you make this clear to an audience? Jackson has the same problem with Faramir that he does with Aragorn: to make virtue palpable to a movie audience, you have to show someone struggling with it. So the film is logical: Faramir, following his duty to the law, initially takes Frodo to Gondor. I think the scene with the Nazgul is supposed to dramatize the realization that Faramir in the book had deduced for himself long before Frodo showed up: that the tools of the Enemy are to be avoided at all costs. Having seen first-hand what hold the ring has on Frodo and what it does to him, Faramir knows that he doesn't want it in Gondor. He certainly doesn't want his father to be exposed to it. So he lets Frodo go. If I'm right, this explains why they dropped Faramir's line. It would have been inconsistent with the mental process Faramir is supposed to be going through. So I can appreciate why Jackson went this way. I'd still rather have seen Faramir deliver his speech, though.

I don't have much to say about the Frodo-Sam-Gollum scenes. They were perfect. All the elements of the relationship were there, skillfully evoked. Gollum was real, pitiful and horrifying as he should be. The love and growing tension between Sam and Frodo, the animosity between Sam and Gollum--it was all there. It's unfair, really, that it's so much easier to talk about what you don't like than about what you do, but there you have it. So instead of trying to praise Jackson, I think I'll turn my critical eye on one of his critics. (Has anyone ever Fisked a movie review before? Well, I'm about to.)

For the second year in a row, Roger Ebert has given the LOTR film three stars while giving Harry Potter four. Now look, far be it from me to put a lot of weight in anything as arbitrary and meaningless as a movie reviewer’s star. Nor do I wish to cast aspersions on Ms. Rowling’s scar browed little hero and the films made about him. I thought the first was great, and the second passable. That’s not what this is about. What it’s about is that I can’t abide reading condescending and baseless tripe like this:

With "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," it's clear that director Peter Jackson has tilted the balance decisively against the hobbits and in favor of the traditional action heroes of the Tolkien trilogy. The star is now clearly Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and the hobbits spend much of the movie away from the action. The last third of the movie is dominated by an epic battle scene that would no doubt startle the gentle medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ah yes, the “gentle medievalist J.R.R. Tolkien.” Expert in the literature of that era often referred to as the “Gentle Ages,” when iron clad dainties held discourse like this:

“Prithee good sir. Wouldst thou not share with me some of thy lip balm? For verily I do fear that I may be bechapped by this ill wind.”

“Forsooth! Fain would I help thee to avoid such a fate. But lo! Let us tarry by yon field of daisies, where thou mayst take such succor as thou wilst.”

Here, for Ebert’s enjoyment, is a passage from Beowulf, one of Tolkien’s favorite poems of all time.

He who fought for the Danes,
fierce and sword grim,
despairing of life,
seized the chain-wound hilt,
drew the ringed sword,
and angrily struck--
It grasped her neck hard
and her bone rings broke.
The blade entered
the fated body.
She fell to the ground.
The sword was bloody,
and the warrior rejoiced
in his work.

That was somebody’s mother he just killed, by the way. And if Ebert finds Jackson’s version of Helm’s Deep inordinately startling, I wonder what he would think of a siege scene in which the enemy lobbed all the heads of the dead defenders over the walls into the city, so that people walking down the street might run into the marred visage of a loved one rolling in the gutter. Gosh, I hope Jackson doesn’t do anything like that in the next film. It would certainly never have occurred to a gentle soul like Tolkien’s.

The task of the critic is to decide whether this shift damages the movie. It does not. "The Two Towers" is one of the most spectacular swashbucklers ever made, and, given current audience tastes in violence, may well be more popular than the first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring." It is not faithful to the spirit of Tolkien and misplaces much of the charm and whimsy of the books, but it stands on its own as a visionary thriller. I complained in my review of the first film that the hobbits had been short-changed, but with this second film I must accept that as a given, and go on from there.

Not faithful to the spirit of Tolkien. Which, apparently, is characterized by charm and whimsy. Charming old Sauron and his whimisical desire to take over Middle Earth so he can give everyone ballet and ukelele lessons. No grappling with horror and fate, mortality and corruption, honor and the intractable choices it compels. I can only guess that Ebert has misplaced whatever part of his brain was once exposed to these books. Or that he once saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of the Hobbit and only thinks he read Lord of the Rings.

[Two paragraphs snipped, in which Ebert says sensible and complimentary things about Gollum and Treebeard.]

The film opens with a brief reprise of the great battle between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Balrog, the monster made of fire and smoke, and is faithful to the ancient tradition of movie serials by showing us that victory is snatched from certain death, as Gandalf extinguishes the creature and becomes in the process Gandalf the White.

It’s a good thing Jackson had access to those movie serials so he could think up the nifty idea of Gandalf snatching victory from certain death.

(Two more paragraphs snipped, in which Ebert says justly complimentary things about the computer effects and the flawless complexity of Jackson’s images.)

What one misses in the thrills of these epic splendors is much depth in the characters. All of the major figures are sketched with an attribute or two, and then defined by their actions. Frodo, the nominal hero, spends much of his time peering over and around things, watching others decide his fate, and occasionally gazing significantly upon the Ring. Sam is his loyal sidekick on the sidelines. Merry and Pippin spend a climactic stretch of the movie riding in Treebeard's branches and looking goggle-eyed at everything, like children carried on their father's shoulders.

A valid concern, and I’ve expressed elsewhere some of the further depth I’d like to have seen. But I have a hard time hearing this from the guy who gave the Chamber of Secrets four stars. Wormtongue may be one-note villian, but he’s a friggin’ symphony compared to Lucius Malfoy. And what danger does Harry Potter escape from in that movie that isn’t deus ex big shiny machina? “Oh look, the car showed up! Oh look, there’s a sword in the hat! Who’d a thunk?” The actors in Jackson’s film have a palpable bond with each other, and there are many places where relationships that take pages to set up in the book are evoked with few words--or just a look. And as a general philosophical point--how exactly the hell is character defined if not by actions? Especially in a movie? What, were there not enough neurotic voiceovers for you? Would you like it better if Aragorn blew off Helm’s Deep and went out to have dinner with Andre?

The details of the story--who is who, and why, and what their histories and attributes are--still remains somewhat murky to me. I know the general outlines and I boned up by rewatching the first film on DVD the night before seeing the second, and yet I am in awe of the true students of the Ring.

The truth comes out. Why didn’t you say so in the first place, instead of pretending that you had some base of knowledge about the “spirit of Tolkien” that you could draw on to criticize the film’s fidelity to it? It’s okay to look at the film simply as a movie critic and judge it on its own terms. I’d have had no quarrel with you if you’d done so. It is, after all, a movie, and part of its job is to be accessible to people who have never read the books. Or who have, but skipped all the parts that didn’t involve hobbits frolicking in the forest.

"The Two Towers" will possibly be more popular than the first film, more of an audience-pleaser, but hasn't Jackson lost the original purpose of the story somewhere along the way?

Which was what, exactly?

He has taken an enchanting and unique work of literature and retold it in the terms of the modern action picture. If Tolkien had wanted to write about a race of supermen, he would have written a Middle-Earth version of "Conan the Barbarian." But no. He told a tale in which modest little hobbits were the heroes. And now Jackson has steered the story into the action mainstream. To do what he has done in this film must have been awesomely difficult, and he deserves applause, but to remain true to Tolkien would have been more difficult, and braver.

Take a look at the actual book sometime, Roger. It wasn’t supposed to be a trilogy, you know. But it was divided into “books.” Six of them. The middle two comprise what was published as The Two Towers. Book Three follows Aragorn and company. It’s 192 pages long. Book Four follows Frodo and Sam. It’s fifty pages shorter. Modest little hobbits are among the heroes. But they’re not the only ones. Despite all the elves, dwarves, and hobbits, Tolkien’s myth--like all myths--is ultimately about men.

Update: Second impressions. Still to come: thoughts on Aragorn.

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