@uspic¡ous Fish¿!
Delirious With Weird

Saturday, December 20, 2003  
The good humor man he see everything like this…

There was a moment during one of the climactic battles of The Return Of The King when Legolas (he’s the elf, non-nerds [I use the term ironically {nerd, not elf}, considering The Guardian’s rather aimless and unfocused article on The Triumph Of The Nerd or some such last Friday {December 12th}, which spent 2,000 words being surprised that girls like Lord Of The Rings and superhero comics are now forming blockbuster movies, like fantasy films have never been popular, as if Star Wars and Superman weren’t sensations nigh-on 30 years ago, as if Jason & The Argonauts never existed, as if no one ever went to the cinema in search of fantastical, escapist spectaculars until post-9/11, as if we’re all nerds now but never were before – I mean, wtf?!]) clambers up one of the giant, killer-elephant-things, swinging from strap to strap, bouncing on its haunches, slashing the guy-ropes that tether the huge, orc-bearing (ok, they’re not orcs, they’re foreigners, specifically Asiatic/African foreigners, with masks, and shaved heads, and make-up, but I don’t even wanna start to go into the race issues here) chassis, causing it to fall off as the giant, killer-elephant-thing (is this the same giant, killer-Elephant-thing that topped NME’s Albums Of The Year poll?), killing (presumably) it’s murderous crew of immigrants and voodooists. Legolas then daintily runs across the giant, killer-elephant-thing’s back, demonstrating supreme balance and fleetness of foot, before drawing his magnificent bow and unleashing an arrow into the giant, killer-elephant-thing’s cerebral cortex via the back of its head, killing the giant, killer-elephant-thing and bringing about the behemothic beast’s final, fateful tumble earthwards. And at the moment the giant, killer-elephant-thing hit the dirt, the audience of the Exeter Picturehouse, to a man (excepting me and my companion, possibly [and maybe a few others, so not quite to a man, perhaps more like 60%]), cheered. I’ve never known anything like it in my life. But considering that I’ve probably only been to the cinema three dozen times in my life this is not surprising.

What makes Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings meta-epic (it seems churlish now to call it a trilogy – these are obviously not three films anymore than, say, Orbital’s “Lush 3-1” and “Lush 3-2” are two songs) so much better than the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix saga? If anything struck me about The Return Of The King (aside from the sentimentality which comprised the denouement – remember the end of Return Of The Jedi, with the celebrations and the shiny C3-PO and the kissing and the smiling and the happyhappyjoyjoy? That lasts about three minutes – in The Return Of The King the equivalent lasts half a fucking hour or more) it is the complete spiritual and moral hollowness of it. The goodies win, the baddies lose, no one we really like dies (apart from Bernard Hill but he’s old so it’s OK), there are no consequences to deal with apart from happiness and the dawning, utopic Age Of Men, the absolute worst that happens is that we have to say goodbye to Bilbo (who is remarkably still alive!) and Frodo, that Sam gets to marry the girl and have some lovely halfling babies (his betrothed’s enormous, hirsute feet eroding any slight hint of eroticism), that Aragorn becomes king and that his elven love returns to be by his side, that Faromir (sic) doesn’t die by being burnt alive by his batshit insane father, that Merry & Pippin are left with the prospect of eating yet more bacon and eggs, drinking yet more ale, and smoking yet more tobacco… The Matrix trilogy ends with the death of Trinity and the resultant martyrdom of Neo (he loves her so much that he’s got nothing else to live for, so he might as well save the rest (read ‘dregs’) of humanity from the evil machines, geddit?), and, much as we don’t care about these characters, or by this point in proceedings the fucking godforsaken films themselves, there is at least a sense of pathos and finality-through-death and a new dawn that might require some work in order for people to live happily ever after.

An aside for the Wachowski Brothers – if you are ending an epic, pseudo-biblical film and want people to be touched, moved, enlightened and enriched, then don’t, for god’s sake, have the final, platitudinously hopeful utterances spoken by computer programs; if your audience didn’t care for Jesus and his Laura-Mulvey-baiting-first love (cinematic woman as nothing more than catalyst for man’s success [resist the temptation to go nuts over the Magical Negro, please Nick]) then they’re not going to care for MS Word and Mozilla Firebird gazing winsomely at a sunrise and saying “turned out nice again!” now are they?!

Lord Of The Rings has none of this sense of pathos at all. If anything the laying-on of sentimentality and happy-endings (which appears to have been done with an enormous trowel) twists the mood towards bathos, which is really not want you want after ten+ hours of mind-boggling, terrifying, wonderful, thrilling, triumphant cinema spectacle. But this is not Jackson’s fault, of course – it is Tolkein’s.

My father and I read The Lord Of The Rings together when I was very small, and although I have since re-read The Hobbit I have had no inclination to revisit the actual trilogy itself, especially not since it has replaced Harry Potter as the Devon commuter’s morning read of choice. Snobbish, I know, but there you go. My twenty-year-old copies are safely ensconced beneath my bed should I ever change my mind, browned pages and broken spines all. I would say something insightful and knowledgeable about Tolkein writing in a post-war England which needed both escapism and hope for a better future, and that this is why the culmination of The Lord Of The Rings is so bleakly happy and idyllic, but I have no idea whether this is actually the case and know sod-all about Tolkein himself or what happens at the end of the books themselves, so I shan’t. We do like a happy ending though, don’t we?

Having studied philosophy at university, even if only for a minor part of my degree, and counting “thinking about things” as an interest, I tend very much to run away screaming from pop.cultural products which aspire towards profundity. Watching The Matrix for the first time at university, in a living room surrounded by rapt stoners who were very rapidly being mind-boggled and exclaiming “this is the best film ever” or “this is the most original film ever” or some such ridiculousness while I made a mental checklist of shots nicked from Vertigo or locations very similar to those in Die Hard or Terminator 2. The “there is no spoon” idea I could deal with without feeling sick, but the whole “what if we’re all in somebody else’s dream” schtick was tired and old before the jaded (as in ‘made green’?) opening credit sequence. By the time The Matrix Reloaded attempted to drown us in a sea of foul-smelling tripe about choice and destiny and paths and so on I was fully fed-up and embarrassed by the level of thought that had gone into it. Cod-philosophy? Not even that. I guess it’s quite amusing that Waking Life, with its extended, boring monologues about lucid dreams and existential theory, should be one of the films that I’ve enjoyed most over the last few years. Possibly Hal Ashby’s Being There is the diametric opposite of Waking Life, openly mocking the gullibility of people drawn into believing trite observances are universal profundities before rapidly and unexpectedly evolving the protagonist into some kind of magical entity, moving from realism into magical-realism just as Waking Life moves from luscious, surreal waking-dream into a realisation that it is little more than a visually stunning discourse on nothing in particular. I love Being There as much as Waking Life.

That The Lord Of The Rings is at heart completely empty works in its favour. Jackson is a schlock director, a b-movie maker – you only need to glance at Bad Taste or Braindead to realise this – and Lord Of the Rings is the ultimate b-movie. The story and world are laid in stone and have been for decades, visuals painted clearly in people’ minds by calendars, animations, Games Workshop, countless illustrations and parodies and so on and so forth; all Jackson had to do was bring them to life. Any fiddling with the story would have been untenable due to the unavoidably stern gaze of the Tolkein-fascists who must be consulted at every level lest they curse you, or something. Jackson could have ended the movie at the moment the Ring sinks into the magma, at the moment victory is achieved, avoiding the basking in happiness that follows, but a; the purists would go nuts, and b; why bother? When you’ve made a ten-hour film with no real lightness or calm after the first 40 minutes, why not milk the happy-ever-after for all its worth? The final 40 minutes or so was the only point during the film(s) that I have even approached boredom, and even then I felt nowhere near as cheated as I do at the culmination of Close Encounters when Richard Dreyfuss happily runs of to live in bliss in the world of the aliens with nary a thought for his wife and kids.

The key thing is to provide a spectacle, a cinematic phenomenon that bedazzles and astounds and amazes. To create a new world, not better or worse but different and remarkable and strange. To make people gasp, to make people cheer when a young man with false ears fires an imaginary arrow into the skull of an illusory elephant, to make a 6’2” Welshman appear as a dwarf and a rock star’s daughter appear as an ageless elf. Jackson has done all of this, and done it superlatively. And I am sure that come September (or whenever) and the release of the extended DVD version (replete with seven minutes of Christopher Lee to give a face to the faceless evil) the full, unexpurgated vision will be even grander, even more pompous, even more thrilling and magical and dangerous and magnificent.

The greatest film(s) ever made? Dunno about that. But certainly the grandest.

For what it’s worth, I think I enjoyed the first film the most, when the spectacle was new, to both us and to Frodo et al. The second and third films evolve inexorably into huge, awesome war films, but that first film is an adventure story, about stepping outside for the first time and seeing where the road takes you, the first brushes with danger, and the dawning realisation that there’s more between heaven and earth, Samwise Gamgee, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.

Never go off to have lunch and then come back to a blog post 3/4s done, because you will forget your point.

I felt like I was being condescended to by The Matrix, as if someone who wasn't as smart as me (and I'm not very smart to start with) was trying to show off with second and third-hand ideas that they don't fully understand (and assume that no one else understands either, so they can show off with them!), whereas I don't feel Lord Of The Rings was trying to do anything other than entertain me in the most spectacular ways. And of course there's always the fact that the crux of the Matrix films was predicated entirely upon you the audience believing Neo & Trinity's love for each other as a profound well of human experience. Which is patently ridiculous considering Keanu's dramatic ability ranges from confused to confused and back to confused again. The dialogue in LOTR may have made Star Wars look like South park, but that's part of the fun ("by nightfall these hills will be swarming with orcs!"). Uergh, what the hell. I just don't like The Matrix very much.

12/20/2003 01:51:00 pm


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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com

All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005