(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2004)
I spent the Christmas season in Edmonton, where any discussion of movies began and ended with one film: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It might be the film that has it all, especially once the New York film critics named it the best picture of the year. A sixteen-year-old boy of my acquaintance pronounced it the best movie he’d ever seen. Normally this would be easily dismissed – the historical perspective, movie-wise, of the average sixteen-year-old stretches back maybe as far as Gladiator – but this kid is a fervent movie fan, already possessing encyclopedic knowledge, and so reminds me of myself at that age. At which point I recall that at the age of fourteen, I would have solemnly sworn on a stack of Bibles (or on a stack of Starlog magazines) that Star Trek: the Motion Picture was the finest film ever made.
Christmas in Edmonton
But I soon grew out of that. When I was sixteen, I started keeping a record of movies I was watching, and the record shows that early on I was watching Luis Bunuel and Orson Welles on BBC2, and if I wasn’t watching Jean-Luc Godard it’s only because I had no way of getting to see the movies. That was in pre-video North Wales, as inhospitable a climate for movies back then as one could imagine in the English-speaking world. Present-day Edmonton seems like much more fertile ground. So we asked the kid if he’s getting into foreign films at all. And here’s his answer: “If I want to read, I’ll buy a book.”
OK – it’s an easy laugh line. But the actions speak louder than the words, and the fact is he doesn’t watch foreign films (he did allow, by way of meagre compensation, that he’d seen Amelie). In itself, how one kid draws the line doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. But the thing is, I’ve had conversations like this many times now. Take the couple sitting next to us at a wedding reception – we stumbled through a series of failed conversation-starters, until I mentioned movies and he came to life. He was a student, a real enthusiast. His choice for best movie ever made: Star Wars. At least he seemed contrite about not having seen any Antonioni.
I’ve written in this vein before, and I’m going to keep on doing it periodically because classic cinema is in trouble and if I can just drum into one person that there’s something else going on there, it’ll be worth it. We have the Cinematheque Ontario, and it’s a marvel, but even if the Cinematheque sells out (which happens only in a distinct minority of cases) that represents by my count something like 0.01% of the population of Toronto. In other words, extinction-level territory. And those crowds are usually pretty gray-haired too. So every convert counts. Otherwise I’m worried I’m going to end up like one of those guys in Fahrenheit 451 who embodies the only memory of a lost masterpiece. True, the analogy doesn’t hold because the works will mostly still exist in archives, or on DVD. But no one will ever watch them, except crazy academics.
The Return of the King
It’s a tough sell, because it’s not hard to understand the measuring system by which The Return of the King represents everything one could wish for. The movie is truly a mammoth piece of filmmaking. Jackson’s vision has been minutely imagined, and almost flawlessly executed. The film blends intimate struggle with sweeping conflict; it has ample room for introspection and suffering. Unlike many epics, it actually seems to be about something meaningful; about a literate, complex society torn apart by a fundamental struggle about its identity and direction. The varied races and tribes and creatures don’t seem like mere window dressing (like another wacky made-up creation thrown into the Star Wars cantina) but like substantive manifestations. The film has real physical presence. Maybe once in a while there’s something that looks a bit too fake (Orlando Bloom bringing down the giant elephant; Ian McKellen riding the eagle), but these are minor cavils against such a consistent realization of a fantastic world.
The reader may detect though a somewhat rote quality to this praise, and I can’t deny that fact. Truth is, I don’t know how to summon true enthusiasm for the film. In a few weeks, I’ll write about the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who represents an entirely separate conception of what cinema might be about. For now, let me say that my response to Jackson’s film is more like the response I have to a new office tower. You admire the engineering and the coordination and the massive human effort required to anticipate it all and hold it all together (I am not being flippant at all about this). But unless you’re an engineering student, none of that can provoke a truly emotional response. Unlike the way something about the building’s line against the sky strikes you from a distance, or the way it reflects the early morning light: a purely aesthetic effect of course reflecting the sum total of those detailed efforts, but transcending them, carving out its own existence.
Although The Return of the King certainly evidences human and political dynamics that have some relevance to our own circumstances, it remains essentially a depiction of a self-contained world. I didn’t like the first film in the trilogy very much at all – it lost me right at the start with all the malarkey setting up the rings and the kingdoms and whatever. The second film seemed essentially like a grand-scale battle picture, and I enjoyed it on that level. The final picture has clear narrative lines and greater spectacle than ever (although less of the vivid sense of New Zealand landscapes which served as such a compensation in the first film). But whenever it drifted off into the ethereal musings or the quasi-religious parallels or the paeans to the brave hobbits, I lost patience. The last twenty minutes or so, which drone on about what becomes of the hobbits after the big adventure is over, seemed to me a complete waste of time.
Because, for all its might, the film doesn’t carve for me a significant connection with our own world. I mentioned points of identification, but they’re a matter of mere recognition, of easy parallels and allegories. Nothing about the film’s world seriously illuminates anything about ours. But for most viewers, that’s not a concern. One could take the view that we’re past the point where we need small-scale movies about intimate issues, except that you look around you and realize that the raw material of human interaction continues to confound us. One could conclude that we’re past needing to ask basic questions about cinema, or past any susceptibility to being impressed by simplicity and purity, except that we haven’t exhausted the potential of poetry, or painting, or any other of the art forms that have been around fifty times as long. Of course, the appeal of the epic isn’t new – D W Griffith and Cecil B DeMille were there at the start. But now we’ve been gasping in awe for the better part of a century.