The Franchise: The Title: The Subtitle: The Catchphrase: The Roman Numeral

Culture, Media, Movies

There’s a brief comic moment in the second Lord of the Rings film—I don’t think it occurs in the original book—where Gimli the dwarf tells the noble niece of the King of Rohan, a sort of half-Norse, half-Hunnish horse kingdom riding out of the North of Tolkein’s fictive world, that men mistakenly believe that there are no dwarf women, whereas in fact dwarf women simply look so much like dwarf men that outsiders can’t tell them apart. Then Viggo Mortenson, future King of Gondor, which is a sort of half-Roman, half-Most Serene Republic, half-Carolingian kingdom in the south, says to her, sotto voce: “It’s the beards.” It’s an odd, modern locution given Jackson’s general fidelity to LOTR’s ponderous inversions of contemporary English’s Subject-Verb-Object order: epic was the dialogue; but for comic relief ordinary English rarely spoke they. Anyway, this is the common complaint about Tolkein’s universe in general, isn’t it?–the women are just beards for a locker-room full of fellas who prefer the company of other fellas. Poor Cate Blanchett as the mighty elven woman Galadriel really sums it up back in the first installment. Offered the One Ring of Power, she transforms briefly into a weird obsidian-eyed vagina creature and intones ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR, enacting in summary the generally worry of the Tolkeinian universe.

The Hobbit dispenses with women altogether—or, the book does, but it seems less overtly . . . strange, if only because it’s really a boy’s own adventure tale. Cate makes an appearance in Jackson’s film, which, like a middle third trimester pregnancy is both immensely swollen and still unformed. I just reread The Hobbit, and it’s really a shame Jackson had to go and make it epic. It’s such a pleasant little adventure yarn, with a surprising surfeit of bitchy authorial asides. In fact, The Hobbit’s prose is remarkably un-ponderous. Stripped of Anglo-Saxonism, Tolkein can be bumptious and quite funny. The voice in the reader’s head is a slightly drunken English uncle amusing the children after dinner. It’s a shame Jackson stole the movie back from del Toro, who might’ve done the book more justice, having a better eye for both childhood and the grotesque, although for my money, the best choice would’ve been Terry Gilliam, whose Time Bandits (an outright homage to The Hobbit already) was far closer to the tone and tenor of Tolkein’s brisk little tale than this 3-hour prologue. The company of dwarves is permitted its slapstick, but when axe comes to neck, everyone transforms into a superhero, while Ian McKellan’s more mischievous Gandalf seems somewhat flummoxed as to how his later filmic self emerged from this character. The problem here is not so much that the movie is overlong, but that it’s overladen. I don’t mind a long movie where nothing much happens, but this ain’t Barry Lyndon. After a busy opening and then a long fallow section in Bilbo the Hobbit’s house, action arrives with predictable regularity—the problem isn’t the pacing, but the design, or the overdesign. The movie creaks under the burden of its overattention to detail. I did not watch the high frame rate version, but even in regular ol’ projection, it looked like a movie going into post-production rather than emerging from it. The lighting was often either too bright or too dim, and I kept waiting for a boom to drop into the frame or a dolly track appear in the leaves.

It would be unfair to single out Jackson for larding the movie with the many edifices of Tolkein’s, ahem, legendarium just to stretch it out and thus squeeze more fucking money out of it. After all, for every pretention otherwise, the very published existence of Tolkein’s tales and epics and lost tales and lost epics and lays and poems and songs and so on and so forth owes to his estate’s and his publisher’s desire to do precisely that: having exhausted his finished works, they ransacked his papers in order to make more money. Rather, the problem is that movies and heroes may no longer have a limited scope. The adventures of small people in a world that is obviously vast and mostly unknowable to them is actually quite interesting as a conceit, most especially when it’s basically a children’s story, but by constantly panning back and helicoptering skyward to reveal the size of the countryside and the goings-on the next country over, what’s meant to be wondrous become merely banal. In the book, all of this is hinted at just enough by the weird wizard’s occasional disappearance and reappearance, his errands simply implying that greater histories are being woven elsewhere; in the film, we have to follow him around. Far from making the world more wondrous, it makes it less so, over-explained and over-determined, not a story in its own right, but a mere prequel—worse, an origin story, the curse of modern fantasy and science fiction. What is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit? It is the longest, most expensive DVD extra ever made.

True Lies

Movies

A lot of people are giving Kathryn Bigelow’s new flick, Dark Thirty Rock, or something, a lot of free publicity by jagging off over whether it does, or does not, embrace torture as an effective tactic of interrogation. The filmmakers have elsewhere claimed to have been engaged in something akin to an act of journalism, and that’s supposed to imbue their work with a sort of virtuous truthfulness that makes their depiction of an instrumentally useful waterboarding all the more despicable, or their depiction of a sordid act of ambiguous and questionably efficacious torture all the more morally compelling, depending upon your take as to their authorial intent. But these being filmmakers and this being a work of fiction, when they say “journalism,” what they mean is something more like “realism,” a bit of Anglo-American narrative artifice in which action and affect are supposed to synch up like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz. Well, the point is that the film may or may not depict torture as having been necessary, or at least instrumental, in the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and the filmmakers either are or are not morally compromised for having included it in their otherwise realistic tale.

It’s interesting that we should take up this particular narrative detail as a mark of the movie’s verisimilitude (or lack thereof), given that the entire story is patently bogus. The tale of the gangland killing of Bin Laden is carved out of the stankiest pile of official bullshit: the fake vaccine program that may or may not have occurred; the wife who was or wasn’t there; the mansion that may or may not have been a hovel; the firefight that did or didn’t happen; the body unceremoniously dumped in the ocean; the national security cabinet watching a livestream, just like in a movie. Leave the gun, take the canoli. The tale is pure confabulation, a bunch of cinematic set-piece details straight outta Hollywood, which makes Bigelow’s film a sort of exercise in entertainment doping, blood extracted, saved, and re-injected into the veins of its own originator.

“People are gonna come out of this movie thinking that torture is how we got Bin Laden.” The problem isn’t the torture, but that they think we got Bin Laden in the first place, that this whole episode sits in a neat official history that traces a through-line from the World Trade Centers to the dusty exurbs of Abbottabad. As critics, the question we ought to consider is not, how does this film deviate from reality and, in so doing, become propaganda, but rather, what sort of reality can be so innately and inherently cinematic that it satisfies the artificial demands of narrative realism without significant alteration? If the question of the film’s realness and accuracy is simply, did torture work?, then we should ask: how could it be that a piece of actual history, but for a detail or two, is so neatly constructed that it fits without change into a wide-release, cinematic format? Consider that the movie contains assassination scenes filmed in real time based on assassination scenes filmed in real time. How do filmmakers make less true that which was arranged to give the mere appearance of truth in the first place?