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December 21, 2003 - Film: As If the Age of Reason Never Happened

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The third of the Lord of the Rings films: three hours of atavistic classicism, racism and xenophobia... as if the age of reason never happened.

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New Line Cinema released The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King this week.  The box-office is astounding.

And the reviews were better than good.

Andrew O'Hehir in SALON.COM on the 17th: "...the greatest long-form work in the history of mainstream cinema."

James Berardinelli in Colossus: "...labeling this as a 'movie' is almost an injustice."

Glenn Kenny in Premier: "I teared up several times..."

Gregory Weinkauf in The Dallas Observer: "Fucking wow."

Roger Ebert had reservations in Chicago Sun Times review.  He worried that "epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns" in the audience's mind.  Guess he mistrusts fantasy.  He prefers the real world, it would seem.

On the other hand, in Slate David Edelstein does a number on the whole idea of thousands dying "to destroy what in essence is a weapon of mass destruction," and a Los Angeles Times editorial claims the capture of Saddam Hussein - who "looked for all the world like a dark wizard whose evil finally had caught up with him" - "fits perfectly with the trilogy's ultimate message."

Roger says it too divorced from the real world to be a good movie, others say it's connected.  Darn.

Alex Ross in The New Yorker gripes about how much Tolkein and Jackson stole from Wagner.  Opera critics!

J. Hoberman in The Village Voice of course says the film is homoerotic - "...gayer than anything in Angels in America."


All very interesting. 


And I came across this, the argument that the film is an apology for American imperialism, and feeds the neoconservative ideology that we can make over the whole world and everyone will be just like us, and love it.  Or they die.



See The Return of the King: Tolkien and the new medievalism
K.A. Dilday, Open Democracy, 18 December 2003
The obsession with power, will and hierarchy in Peter Jackson's film trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings fuels its dangerous topicality: a vindication and veneration of empire.

Ah, what have we here?


We are living in times when the public rhetoric is medieval.  Politicians and pundits invoke the words good and evil casually, as if the age of reason never happened.  They speak proudly of killing, bullet-ridden corpses are triumphantly paraded.  And like in Lord of the Rings, we define evil by demographics.  The bloodline, the colour of skin, the ethnic background or nationality makes someone immediately suspect.

Can one judge a film with the morals of politics?  Is Lord of the Rings seen differently in the United States than it is in Europe where the majority of people were against the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq?  A fable is "a narration intended to enforce a useful truth."  When I look at the Lord of the Rings as the fable its author, J.R.R. Tolkien, intended it to be, I see a world clearly divided into races and regions of leader and followers, I see Calvinist pre-determinism and I see the vindication and veneration of empire unfolding in frame after frame. And I feel the quick burn of shame that I always feel when realising that as a child I was taken in by a "useful truth" that now seems odious.

I can't lay the sole blame for the Lord of the Rings' atavistic classicism, racism and xenophobia with either auteur or author.  It was Peter Jackson, the director, who chose his alabaster cast and decided that the camera would lovingly caress their sky-bold eyes.  But Tolkien had lived through the horror of the "great war", and he imagined a world where the qualities of leadership were in the blood and where social and moral hierarchy was clearly identifiable through race and appearance.  As the spectre of a second world war loomed, it was a soothing reordering of the world with a clear delineation of good and evil. ...



But where's this coming from (beside the UK)?


... in times of war, the definition of culture is loaded with meaning: it is a way of setting your world apart from the enemy's.  To be worth dying for, it must be weighty and distinct. I n these times are we so consumed by war that all art takes sides, or does art cease to become art once it is political?  Theodor Adorno wrote that the genius of art lies in its ability to reveal what ideology conceals.


Oh.  That.  Right.

But isn't Tolkien a harmless, quite dead linguistics don?  Heck, back in graduate school I read his analysis of the language in Beowulf and his comments on the odd Middle English used in The Battle of Maldon - didn't everyone? (Well, maybe not.)

These Lord of the Rings books seem harmless fantasy.  Folks like the films.  On the other hand Dilday points this out:


The world Tolkien lived in frightened him, and despite his protestations, he transferred his fears and experiences to his secondary world.  Middle Earth reflected the deathly struggles he'd seen but he made it much simpler to distinguish good from evil.  Elves, humans, hobbits and wizards were good for the most part.  Orcs, trolls, and Sauron, the evil genius and lord of Mordor were smelly, ugly, and bad and none could shake their destiny.  What was bred in the bone came out in the flesh. ... Tolkien's fusty belief in hierarchy was probably common in 1930s Oxford, but Peter Jacksons energetic interpretation of it in the 2000s is regressive.


Regressive?  Okay.

I don't go to movies much anyway.

By the way - Dilday here wonders how the last of the three The Lord of the Rings films is doing in countries that opposed the war, like France.  Well, Le Seigneur Des Anneaux : Le Retour Du Roi is doing quite well, thank you. 


The very mainstream television network and website TF1 polled it viewers - and the film got the highest ten rating: 

Plus épique, plus grandiose, plus fabuleux, plus... Le troisième volet de la trilogie réalisée par Peter Jackson est enfin sur les écrans. Une réelle et réjouissante réussite. Bravo monsieur Jackson !

Click on lower left of this page and you can watch the trailer in French.

Ah, but I digress.


The The Lord of the Rings films are imperialistic, racist fantasies that play to the fears of frightened xenophobic old white men who are the leaders of the western world, and enflame their mindless, even more fearful followers to go forth and smite the dusky folks.

Perhaps so.


My friend Phillip deep in Georgia reacted this way:


Yes, maybe the Orcs were just a little misunderstood.  Bullshit! 


To compare standards of political and racial enlightenment to The Lord of the Rings is at best misguided and decontextual. 


The real standard for judging the movie is how well the director created the images that the text described given the available technology of filmmaking. 


The plot or story relied on myths of northern Europeans with archetypes used in those stories.  I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my sons as bedtime stories.  It was more an opportunity for me to re-read something I read as teenager, and since I rarely read books twice, the only reason I would revisit something I had mostly forgotten.  I also love to read aloud, and rarely find the chance to practice the talent. 


It is a little uncomfortable to me to drag in the war with Iraq or the democratic primaries into a classic tale, but I guess some people can't help but relate things to current events.  It's like a mustache on the Mona Lisa.  Was it ever funny?  


Now I look forward to Leslie Neilson's version of Bored With the Rings.  " 'We must head east,' said Arrowroot pointing to the setting sun."


I suspect that the Neilson film is in preproduction right now.