Bread and Circuses

By the time my body clock struck 5 a.m. and the hobbits shuffled onstage one last time, the Oscars were redeemed only by the yummy fixins and beloved company at Dom and Mark’s place in Cobble Hill.

I’m allergic to Billy Crystal. All the chicks had called each other beforehand and said ‘Nobody’s wearing anything pigmented, okay? Pass it on.’ Hollywood actors spouted guff about ‘practising their craft’. Charlize Theron showed up orange and thanked her _lawyer_. The only bright spot, apart from Annie Lennox, was the revelation that sheets of straightened hair are officially over, and soft, sexy waves are back. Especially for Eugene Levy.

With a mixed sense of dread and duty, I finally dragged myself to see _Return of the King_ last night, still jetlagged and increasingly irritable. I can see why so many people enjoyed it, and I’m glad they did. Unfortunately, I’m not the target audience. Though I’m ridiculously suggestible in movies about human beings–prone to weeping and terror as the director sees fit–I find special effects so distancing that I want to leave the cinema. They are never good enough if we come out saying ‘Great special effects’. I sat there wondering how they did the lumbering Harryhausen monsters instead of being transported by the story, which I didn’t understand. I daydreamed about Orc extras sitting around the catering tent and chatting in Kiwi accents. Jackson taunted me with fake endings too many times, until I was ready to yell ‘Jump, Frodo, jump!’

LOTR interests me only as a study of Tolkien’s First World War experience, where childhood friends from the shires marched off to interminable battles that were beyond comprehension, and the only cause that made sense was loyalty to each other. But I didn’t need nine hours of the cherub-in-peril stuff, even with a few years’ break in between. I’m too old and cynical not to splutter at the dialogue, and by the eighth hour of Sam Gamgee’s plump, sweaty yearning, my brain had superimposed Philip Seymour Hoffman in _Boogie Nights_.

10 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses”

  1. Oh no, blasphemy 🙂

    Seriously though, the rampaging elephants really bugged me. Over the top, and pointless noise for the sake of it. The beacons flaring up over the mountains was the emotional high point of the whole movie, I thought. Quite beautiful.

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  2. Elephants? Shame on you – they are OLIPHANTS! That my site is named ‘Hobbitwerk’ may give my bias away but for a moment I have to express surprise at the number of people for whom the fantastic is simply, well, too fantastic. I won’t chastise (any more than I already have) but from one of many who loved the books first and then the film, it has to do with the ability to immerse oneself in a world. But it’s the same part of a human that would respond to Roald Dahl or Hans Christian Anderson.

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  3. Yes, but in the book the Oliphaunts are described as being moving siege towers that the men of Harad rally around and the horses of Rohan shy away from. Not enormous monsters that can crush an entire horse beneath a single foot! It makes the battle look ridiculous, and one-sided. It is true that there is no hope left for Gondor (apparently), but that’s because of overwhelming opposition, not giant things with tusks. Overdoing it just makes the eventual victory via the Shiny Green Army of the Dead seem anticlimactic. It *breaks* the immersion, rather than helping it.

    I believe that the battle at Helm’s Deep was more impressive, and immersive, without being overdone. I did like the charge of the Rohirrim though, before they reached the Mighty Tusked Ones.

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  4. I just find that obvious special effects destroy my ability to immerse myself in a world in a way that books don’t. I heard beforehand that the FX were incredible, but when I see them I can’t help noting them as such and nothing more. I never have this trouble with books or cartoons, though I confess I’ll never read the books, even though they are dear to many of my friends.

    I know it’s sacrilege, but I’m a philistine. I don’t think many people can successfully come to LOTR as adults. 😦

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  5. The thing is, the atmosphere of the books is more “spiritual” than visual.

    For example, the mere *sight* of Anduril drives Orcs gibbering in fear, not because of what it looks like but because of intangible connotations such as who made it, how old it is, where it has been and what it has done; its very history has a physical weight that affects those who behold it or wield it. That’s hard to convey visually without coming across as kinda goofy, so in the movie it’s just a shiny sword like any other.

    When Frodo commands Gollum not to betray them, Sam is shocked to see the power of the ring working through Frodo, turning him into a taller, dark figure of shadowy menace holding a burning wheel of fire. Which is a very powerful mental image, but it isn’t going to work in a movie, and they didn’t try — though I did notice that they tampered with Frodo’s voice occasionally when he was commanding Gollum, but it wasn’t very significant.

    A last example from the Return of the King: the flying Nazgul. In the movie they are basically big birds that pick people up and drop them. That’s nasty, but conventional. In the book the Nazgul aren’t even seen, they fly above the clouds over the battlefield, and their mere *presence* is enough to drive the defenders to despair, while their shrill cries cause men to drop their weapons and flee blindly. Again, this is quite terrifying, but it doesn’t work in a movie.

    I do enjoy the movies for many reasons, but they don’t and can’t ever replace the book.

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  6. Yes, but the books are horribly written, and the movies are beautifully shot.

    I take Dervala’s point on some of the Oliphant stuff, and agree that special effects do not ruin a movie if you are NOT thinking through the movie that the effects are good. Peter Bogdanovich’s commentary on my Citizen Kane DVD mentions that by the standards of it’s day , and even now, it is riddled with special effects. I had not noticed any on first viewing.

    In this I think Jackson is mostly successful; Dervala mentions thinking the Oliphant’s were obstrusive, but nothing else. But Helm’s Deep does not exist, nor does Minis Tirith, nor did any of those battle’s take place, nor does Golum exist somewhere. These effects segued naturally into the movie.

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  7. My criticism comes more from the shift from the abstract nature of the book to the concrete nature of the movie, with the understanding that such a shift is inevitable if the movie is to work at all. I was unimpressed by the Oliphaunts not because they were special effects, but because they were gratuitous and seemed to detract from the story rather than add to it.

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  8. I have to say, Eoin–every identifiable special effect drove me crazy, from Orc makeup to giant birds to obvious CGI armies to green ghost soldiers, to the Alien 3 pit of fire. I thought they were all obtrusive, and no more convincing–thought better executed, sure–than Harryhausen’s stuff.

    I don’t always find special effects so painfully dull. The Alien series is a great example of good use, where an entire, believeable world is created with a script strong enough to support it, and the spectaculars are limited enough to have a huge impact when they arrive. I liked the first Matrix and the Terminator movies for the same reasons. But here I felt a) Jackson was reusing shots all the time–another city in peril, ho hum–and b) the special effects were so thick and fast it might as well have been Jerry Bruckheimer. Gasp at the Oliphaunts! Cower before the armies of the dead! (Yawn at the eighth ending…)

    It didn’t help that there wasn’t a shred of humour in the whole thing, unless you count the dwarf’s lumbering Arnie-style one-liners. But that’s Tolkien.

    If this hadn’t been a sacred book, the whole thing would have been edited down to five hours, maybe three, and the philistines would have enjoyed it more. Dunno if that would be desirable, as I’m glad the real enthusiasts got to enjoy it.

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  9. Odd. I thought the same thing about the special effects. Have many others mentioned them? I suppose I missed their comments. I’ve not seen the 3rd one yet, i.e., the award winning one. It must be a good deal better than the first two though, should it not? They were so gaudy and miserable. The book however I liked mostly. Nazgul “looked” good in the books. In the first two movies they appear to belong in some 50ish sci fi thriller. Oh well consider the fact that when I get to it the lost will be less. Or higher because it now has the brass thingee. Uh oh. The cinema seems such a wasteful expense anyway that I shall just borrow the DVD from someone.

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