Monday, December 22, 2003

It probably doesn't need saying that I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan. Grew up with the books, became thoroughly involved with the movies. I feel actual grief now that I've seen Return of the King and have to stop traveling with those characters, as I have more or less since I first saw the preview for the first film while goofing off at my dot-com job in 1999. Along with all the raves there's been some backlash: I found this Caryn James article both typical and baffling. Aside from the anecdotal evidence of my girlfriend Emily's love of the films (and she's never read the books), I was struck by this sentence: "The well-calculated hype and exaggerated praise (the New York Film Critics Circle last week voted "Return" best picture) has obscured what the series really is: an FX extravaganza tailored to an adolescent male's fear of sentiment and love of high-tech wizardry." This runs wholly counter to my experience of the films, even as I freely admit that experience is rooted in lingering adolescent maleness (for an NY Times article on that topic click here). The movies are an opportunity to absolutely wallow in sentiment, even as the latent homoeroticism (very much present in the books) goes practically undisguised to our cynical eyes. In fact they're all about love, and not just the romantic heterosexual variety that provides the only compensation for women like Ms. James (in the admittedly irresistible figure of Viggo Mortensen). The movies celebrate friendship and filial love (such as that between Merry and Pippin, Eowyn and Theoden, and the triangle of Boromir, Faramir, and their father Denethor) as well as a love for a country and a way of life. Of course the absolute evil of the Enemy (nasssty orcsis, as Gollum would say) is more than a little problematic and, I hope, should prevent the films from being treated as simple analogs for the war on terror (as some have tried to do). George W. Bush is no Aragorn, that's for sure—not only does he do all his ass-kicking by proxy, but he possesses none of the latter's humility or capacity for introspection. Man, do I digress. My point is that the movies are as crammed with sentiment (if not as sentimental) as any "chick flick," and much less afraid to cop to that sentiment than, say, the male bonding we see in a John Wayne or Mel Gibson movie is. And the love these characters have for each other make the spectacular battles matter in a way they almost never do in movies (the closest most of them manage to come to having an emotional justification for violence is the very cheap one of revenge), which has the effect of pushing the special effects into the background, where they belong. When I gasped at the spectacle of the giant siege machines laying into the walls of Minas Tirith, my emotion wass underlaid with anxiety for the welfare of the characters (in spite of my knowing the ultimate outcome). When Frodo fled from the giant spider, I share the feeling of the woman sitting next to me who cried out, "Run, Frodo!" Most of all, I was moved by the pivotal grouping of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum: Frodo's need to believe in Gollum's redemption, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary; Sam's deep, suffering loyalty for the friend who has moved past his understanding; and Gollum, whose slimy need is part and parcel with the remnant of humanity visibly flickering in his CGI eyes. In that central triangle the film achieves its truth content, becoming ambiguous and conflicted in a way the larger story of a battle against absolute evil could never be.

Now it's all over and I'm in holiday shopping hell, at the nadir of imagination where people keep buying Rumi calendars and copies of The Da Vinci Code. At least tomorrow the days start getting longer.

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