Progenitors?: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

ringstrilogyposterI so wanted to write some nonsense about Andy Serkis in War of the Planet of the Apes and in The Lord of the Rings films to make this connection, but really I had these reviews on my computer, and I guess that’s as good a reason as any.

Only fifteen odd years but many Hollywood eons ago, Peter Jackson’s much-vaunted trilogy was the commercial and critical darling of the cinematic world.  It enraptured both fair-weather film attendees and cinephiles alike, and it could seemingly do no wrong. Its reputation hasn’t flagged at all. Although time salves the reptile brain’s immediate magnetic attraction to Jackson’s visual splendor, the trilogy has never truly been framed and squared-off into a museum piece, a taxidermied old classic to rest on the mantle rather than a lively, kicking thing to unsettle your ribs to this day. It isn’t a whirlwind of living and breathing sensations any more, but if the paint has dried, it hasn’t chipped, let’s say. All these years later, why do the films settle so cozily into the imagination while so many other blockbusters of the time are more like skeletons on an abandoned summer-time battlefield of the mind?

Many reasons, likely, but the singularity of Jackson’s vision is never far from the heart of it. Primarily, Jackson’s creation is astonishingly classical, bearing an arresting quality of imagination over girth (or imagination married to girth) that sought not to go head to head with the blockbusters being released on either side of it (the superhero film craze was still nascent) but to forego the new century entirely. It saw the future not in a bold rush into post-00’s corporate synergy but in a careful and casual management of essentially forgotten past glories. The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s ideal analog isn’t the Harry Potter franchise, nor the Star Wars films, both series of the same time period, but a much older vintage. Scrub off the Jackson name and you might find Victor Fleming, and the reasons to appreciate the films are much the same as those that made a critical darling of Gone with the Wind in 1939. The Lord of the Rings is, in all its unmodulated glory, an attempt to rekindle that old country comfort of classical tent-pole filmmaking from the ‘30s and ‘40s, maybe even the ‘10s when DW Griffith was all the rage. With one of the cult sensations of the back half of the Twentieth Century and one of the sharpest cult filmographies of the ‘90s to his name, Jackson went to town with 250 million dollars (the price of one two-hour tent-pole these days) and nine hours of cinema to churn out (split over three films, of course). But 250 million and the future of cinema on the mind, his heart was and is in the past. (It’s not a surprise that his follow-up was a remake of King Kong, whose vintage dates back before Gone with the Wind).

Since Jackson himself isn’t exactly an icon of a storyteller and because you all likely know it all, I’m frankly tempted to bypass the mechanics of the plot, except that the films have a rather nasty habit of getting lost in the thrush of the event parade. The crux of it all is Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a young hobbit of Middle-Earth given an old ring by his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), which turns out to both contain and beckon dark and unforeseeable forces of evil hungered for by the evil lord Sauron. With the tide of evil rising, Bilbo and Frodo’s old friend, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), joins Frodo and three other hobbits, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Peregrin “Pippin” Took (Billy Boyd), and Meriadoc “Merry” Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) to delivery the ring to a council of races. When they arrive with the ring to the council at the elven stronghold of Rivendell, they are joined by the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the human Boromir (Sean Bean), and the soon-to-be-protagonist human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in a quest to drop the ring into Sauron’s residence at Mt. Doom deep in the heart of Mordor.

With a quest as its skeleton, the entire trilogy’s organizing principle of adventure is easy to spot, and it is driven into clarity by Jackson’s filmmaking, particularly Grant Major, Dan Hennah, and Alan Lee’s production design. A textured physicality and a semi-Wellesian deep focus sense of three-dimensionality evokes realms of land still to overcome and space off in an unforgiving, perilous distance, tempered and even counterpoised by just enough flat lateralization to imply the tenor of a storybook fantasy that is always hazily incomplete and un-real. Primarily, the films’ collective mode is an ecstatic state of constant wonder and discovery, although I must confess its understanding of those adjectives is often surface-level and even ephemeral compared to the truly internalized sense of new perception, the excitement of a headstrong rush of ideas,  that springs out of, say, an Andrei Tarkovsky or an Ingmar Bergman film, where discovery is internal and mental rather than simply cosmetic.

Tarkovsky and Bergman externalized the mind, imagining with their eyes in addition to their soul, turning sight into an instrument of the self. Jackson, even at his best, is so stricken with a gawking, eyes agape form of beauty that he forgets to use his eyes to think, to wander, to truly reconsider the self. Which is fine. The Lord of the Rings isn’t and needn’t be a deconstructionist, post-modern sort, but it does not know when to restrain itself or turn to minimalism when less will do. Take the urak-hai and the orcs, the boots-on-the-ground antagonists here. They become lesser entities even as their numbers balloon into the thousands. Their collective personality does not mushroom with the size of their armies, not surprisingly because Jackson wants to show off and get up close and personal, allowing them to speak and thereby exsanguinating them of their bloody lack of individuality. Penetrate their masses, and they are no longer a terrifyingly impenetrable mass.

This is an example of how Jackson sees, but sometimes only in a literal sense, looking where he can but not because he should, and including simply because he can include rather than because he should. There’s absolutely a place for searching without knowing – indeed, that’s the whole point of the series – but Jackson searches only in the superficial sense, which is the most dispiriting kind of adventure, one that negates the possibilities of the mystically held-off, the mythically incomplete. Giving the villains a voice is emblematic of his “more is more” attitude, his attempt at more cinema rather than better cinema.

In some sense, this is why the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is paradoxically livelier and more present because it speaks a little more with its absence. The terrible, otherworldly evil of the first film enervates itself in the two follow-up films, perhaps necessarily (and I’m not the first to suggest this) because a greater portion of the latter two films are shot from the perspective of adult fighters (Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, etc, but still, mostly Aragorn) who undoubtedly construe the rising tide of horror less as an implacable terror of uncertain origin, a nightmare wave of abstract evil, and more like a large collection of less-than-friendly soldiers. But even if it makes sense for the characters, the audience always comes first, and choosing narrative or character logic over emotional logic is devastating, especially for a fantasy blockbuster.  Maybe cutting us away from the mystique of this world is necessary for adapting Tolkein, but that implies Tolkein is unimpeachable and that the film’s goal should be a mere cataloguing of events, a compendium of Tolkein’s writing transplanted arbitrarily to a new medium, rather than an imaginative reading, an enhancement, a transfiguration of theme into a new idiom that is not entirely reconcilable or reducible to the text. Plus, if “cutting the mythical nature of this land and making it more hellishly ground-level and real” is really the goal here, Jackson really ought not to film 80% of his trilogy from a goddamn helicopter or from so far away.

Still, the series begins well enough. Of the three films, Fellowship most adeptly evokes a sense of vastness beyond presence, the frame itself feeling least like a physical boundary and most like a perspective-limit to be slowly opened-up to the untold miles of land careening off the side. More than a slovenly smearing of postcard-ready imagery, Fellowship’s imagery is polyvalent, slipping and sliding in the liminal spaces between homey comedy and home-brewed horror (the Ringwraiths here are legitimately expressionistic phantoms rather than simple presences, as in the second and third films). Horror is and always has been Jackson’s natural mold (nothing in the Hobbit films that veers away from horror is useful at all), and uncorking the imprint of his grimy B-picture heart is when his soul comes alight. The phenomenal Mines of Moria sequence, the climax of the first film even if there is another 30 minutes of film and a major action set-piece afterwards, is the highlight of the debut film. Jackson guts all of the narrative detritus and the gaggle of exposition, replacing it with a temporary tone poem to damaged, abandoned dwarven society and the unthinkable catastrophe of baroque, endless death. Here most of all Jackson resonates with and echoes the unspeakable sense of decay thrumming through the writing of Tolkein.

The family disease fatiguing and infecting all three films is an inconstant commitment to these blazing visual lesions and operatic beats of fire and brimstone, suggestive intimacy, that willingness to move away from a sheer depiction of an event and introduce the mood or feel of that event. The vein of Tolkein’s writing from which Jackson draws to animate all that works in his trilogy is also the flattening albatross around his neck. Or rather, his freedom to adapt the books also latches him to the sinking corpse of the “book adaptation”, which inevitably means he has to shorten hours of reaming text into indifferently rhythmic films. His films draw from Tolkein’s writing for moments of pure filmmaking elan, but they can never settle on those moments long enough since a new narrative development, and the tendentious rush of story, is always around the corner.

Not so ironically, the first and second of the three works succumb to and benefit from opposite problems in this sense. If Fellowship is a model of expediency that cuts away Tolkein’s excesses, Two Towers is at times a dogged trudge through narrative-extending longueurs. Conversely, if Fellowship is a sputtering stop-start jalopy that hop-skips over tomes of narrative essentials and rushes when it should wait, Two Towers is a breathlessly breath-ful motion picture, a film that waits and is permissive to filling space. It’s not incommensurable with what, say, Malick or David Gordon Green might envisage if they were given over a hundred million and forced to adhere, relatively and with minor wiggle room, to blockbusters standards. The sheer deluge of information film one drowns us in is antithetical to the leisurely grandeur of its immediate follow-up. The Return of the King navigates the balance more eloquently, but it is somehow less given to its own personality for exactly that reason. One could play Goldilocks and say Fellowship is too fast, Two Towers too slow, and Return just right, but being so neutral in pace actually makes Return feel somewhat anonymous.

Still, freed from the burden of having to introduce or conclude, the strange, lumpy mass that is The Two Towers also feels the most indecisive of the three films, which for me, is largely to its benefit, at least in theory. Jackson finally has the room to rest on atmosphere and mood without the constant refrain of narrative hanging overhead. He can wait, linger, explore odd ends and nooks, find himself amiably unsure of where to go next. Gifted a less dense onslaught of sheer exposition, Jackson is obviously free in Two Towers to let loose the horses of pure cinema and concoct a more experiential amalgam of competing and contrasting senses and spaces. It’s not perfect. Rather than wringing the possibilities of space truly dry, Jackson (via his interpretive cinematographer Andrew Lesnie) adores the lacquer of grandiosity, and he filters much of the film through a too-dry pictorial beauty that saps the tonal dexterity and multiplicity of moods from Tolkein’s writing. But the breathing room the film has to take in the land at least finally sells the idea that this space is worth fighting for in the first place.

Somewhere between fighting for his filmic identity and comfortably sliding into a new Hollywoodized one, the acting often saves the film series from its own gigantism. Wood’s face works more than his harshly affected English accent, but his face trembles with the weight of the world upon it. Astin’s melodramatic, romantic acting tacitly invokes Sam’s love for Frodo (I’d call it queer, but I don’t mean to imply a sexual quality to it so much an understanding that love does not exist as a platonic-to-sexual binary). McKellen radiates quiet warmth, grandfatherly concern, prickly energy, and dog-tired age all in good company. Mortensen, along with McKellen the best of the performers, sometimes drops out (probably aware that things are getting a little long in the tooth) but his wounded resignation is a constant through-line of destroyed emotional energy throughout the series. Jackson’s films are often too high in the sky, and the performers at least do their best to take us back to (middle)earth.

A hybridization of outre Jacksonian stylization and the neutralizing pall of Hollywood, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not, in my opinion, great cinema, but it can be great movie-making. For every incontrovertible passage of arid storytelling, Jackson scores a coup. Gollum, for instance, is never less than an unmitigated triumph of performance, technical vision, and characterization, a corroded and collapsed figure of dubious morality and a parody of the human (well, hobbit) form. He was many people’s introduction to the performative genius of Andy Serkis (later of Jackson’s King Kong, by far the most human depiction of the character thus far, and Caesar, the protagonist of the best blockbuster franchise of the ‘10s). But Jackson also suffuses Serkis’ Gollum in sharp, spellbinding shadows, the visual architecture for the most conflicted character of the series, with darkness and light dancing around his face emblazoning his moral dualities and unstable demeanor.

The whole series vacillates between similar highs and equally magnitudinous lows. The climax of The Two Towers (The Battle of Helm’s Deep) is a high-point of ‘00s blockbuster cinema, but it is almost entirely undone by the arbitrary, sloppy mass known as The Battle of Pelennor Fields, which climaxes The Return of the King with Jackson’s latter-day modus operandi: falling all over himself with the sheer size of his images, a gross negligence for restraint, and a severe mismanagement of time. (That everyone on the internet turned on Jackson’s follow-up King Kong almost immediately for its length is astonishing to me in light of the undying praise for these films, especially The Return of the King, which are equal offenders in that department). But the franchise’s moments of majesty are inarguable, and they exert an electric charge. Jackson has a way with a sequence, and the conflict with giant spider Shelob in the third film is among the finest horror sequences in all blockbuster cinema. But stitching those sequences into a rhythmic feature film, or three in this case, is another task entirely, and Jackson just isn’t always up to the task. Everything’s just too … homogenous. Kevin Smith’s criticism of the films, about it being hours of people running around, doesn’t intrinsically bother me. But for a series that does spend months of diegetic time and hours of screen time running around in search of an exit – for a series about ranging out beyond the beaten path – it could have used a more crooked line of attack, or a few more hitches in its giddy up.


Fellowship of the Ring: 7/10

Two Towers: 7.5/10

Return of the King: 6.5/10


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