Number 33 Autumn 2002

A Milestone of Fabulous Digitalisation

LORD OF THE RINGS: The Fellowship of the Ring

By John Downie

Everything is already known, and has already been said, about Peter Jackson's film; at least about part one of the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. It was known before it was made; it was known while it was being made; and it was known, and critically adulated after it was made. And anyway, there was always something monstrous about the project, something from the outset that was splendidly portentous and idiotic; the sums of money involved, the impossibility of translating Tolkien's all too bulky, literary, and globally cherished epic into a consumable screen mouthful, not to mention the very idea of trusting such a weighty (and long thought impossible) popular literary morsel into the hands of a remote artisan and his bunch of merry men, known for little more than schlock and japes in their cinematic backyard, wherever that was. Wingnut films, indeed! Right you are, Swaziland; let's see what you come up with on War and Peace! Tee hee hee!

And so it came to pass that most of New Zealand's sparse and ever-willing proletariat, it seemed, became defined as goblins and elves and hobbits, or goblins' and elves' and hobbits' minders and makers, background to the lineup of international stars, teamed into prosthetically-enriched tumult, sharpening up swords and other unmentionables, whipping up odd architectures on the rolling hills in front of the snow-capped hinterland, cramming the preview web-site with trumpeting morphings and mixtures, like the sudden revelation of a hitherto terrible and secret genetic experimentation, a population transformed before our eyes, courtesy of covert American investment. Here was an ongoing local event that perfectly encapsulated the idea of 'performance' as the predominant cultural paradigm: as honed financial, commercial, and managerialised performance; as immaculately achievable state of the art technological performance; and as aesthetic performance given all the right respectable Northern hemisphere resonances both as painterly image and as quasi-Shakespearean language and gestural rhetoric. Here was industrial action, with full employment and high production values for a waiting and greedy marketplace, which was re-investing the soul of New Zealand nationalism in the Clark era; cultural product as post-colonial kickback. All these things which have already been heralded and assimilated, with still two further parts to be delivered, and who could knock that? I remember at an early Wellington Embassy showing bumping into one of my academic colleagues, a Kiwi whose professional life is bound in by the catholic austerities of literary and performative theory, an assiduous and merciless analyser of texts. And how was this one appearing to his eagle eye? That when it came to filmmaking, there was no equal to New Zealand talent, and that Peter Jackson was a non-pareil, when it came to the likes of Spielberg and Lucas. Good on yer, mate.

Because all these aspects are true, and more. The Fellowship of the Ring is a beautifully crafted piece of popular entertainment, likely in its eventual tripartite form to beggar comparison in cinema history; an entertainment in which a sustained, detailed, haunted and tumultuous vision of Death and Immortality (as Tolkien himself said, "All men must die, and for every man his death is an accident, an unjustifiable violation") for once anchors the visceral and playful energies of the prolific digital palette of the technicians. To a degree, there has been a sublime accident at work, bringing together Tolkien's European earnestness and learning, American lucre, and Jackson's instinct and nerve. The cinematic key, as has already often been said (and one which has perhaps always been the main aspiration of American-influenced mainstream film-making), lies in the film's concept and pursuit of 'realism' in the face of a fantastical, and almost abstractly religious, thematic.

Cinematic teaching and practice talk always about 'the world of the story'. In Jackson's film, this world is totally realised (the only shame being that the viewing experience for us is still determined by the merely two-dimensional screen, despite the best efforts of sudden and multi-dimensional soundtracks - what a world this might be to be thoroughly immersed in!). A kind of dissonance is at work here; the 'New Zealand' landscape gives birth to everything that's possible for Jackson's film, but what it holds isn't anything to do with its Pacific location and ethnicities, but as a transportation or transliteration of everything that hides in the heart of a Northern European consciousness and tradition, that map of places called 'Middle Earth', topographically defined from erupting volcanoes to beech forests to snowy ridges to black swamps to juicy green meadows to fast stony rivers. This is the Edenic territory of temperate climes always dreamt of by the European colonising adventure as the Peaceable Kingdom, but one also and unfortunately never able to detach itself from its Manichean inheritance, and thus populated by the threatening nightmares of the incomplete and disfigured 'other', that terror of raiding brutalities which the force of Time has brought to the adventure, driven by perversions of will, of power and superstition, a curse of knowledge, deep intimations of the Fall. We want to believe it, this complete world, all of us (and not just Europeans), because it is a world that, in imagination at least, predates the complex demands and responsibilities of social democracy, moral relativism, and the evolution and control of the Machine; there is a primitive and an adventuring anarchist in all of us, who abjures the discipline and rigour of the 'industrialising' vision, with its mass regimentations and diabolical plans. A world to be defended only by the strength in your own body and the blade in your hand, with your best mates alongside, against ridiculous odds. Ah yes, remember that plot!

Tolkien's elegiac blueprint of it is realised with intelligent serious-mindedness by Jackson and his teams. The narrative is a miracle of compression and directness, considering the discursiveness of the original. The canvases glow with PreRaphaelite softness or glare in Bosch-like febrility or cascade in Altdorfer tumult. Howard Shore's Oscar-winning score hits all the right reference-notes between the nostalgic keen of Enya, the rising romantic cadences of Richard Wagner, and the synthetic false-Gothic rhythms and chants of Carl Orff. Weta Workshops, inspirationally led by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, provide production models, prosthetics and action goods that feed our simultaneous appetites for documented exactitude and sensational artifice. The lead actors' performances are felt and present in a way which is genuinely surprising in an action film much given to digital-fill, and all convey in developing degree the wear and tear of a genuine moral predicament, the one most noticeably painted onto the wide-eyed features of Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins as he transforms before us from playful innocent to the cursed youth coming to realise both the necessity of his task and the unlikeliness of his survival to complete it. There is strain and unwashed dirt on every face, and grit in every fingernail. The consistency, fervour and belief in the realisation of the set-pieces, most magnificently in the cathedrals and tumbling causeways of the underground world of Moria, and in the devilish earthworks being constructed by the Orcs around the tower of Saruman, present us with a stunning verisimilitude, around which cinematographer Andrew Lesnie's camera floats and plummets. We won't see better. State of the art. A thrilling and emotional ride.

It's all a myth, of course. A quest. Sort of. A synthi-quest, boiled out of the left-overs of generations of evolving human experience and story-telling, and rissoled-up into a kind of fast-food nourishment for transplanted urban multitudes. There's quite a lot of it about currently, making good box-office. But Jackson's film is superior in every respect to those other boy-adolescent rites-of-passage narratives which are insisting we pay them attention, whether it's the laborious and unimaginative English Harry Potter version, or the sanitized and utterly predictable American Luke Skywalker version. It goes without saying that it remains mainstream cinema's overwhelming project to provide us all with thirteen-year old makeovers. In the increasing absence of real-life 'quests' in the (post-?) X-generation's ever-expanding adolescence within the (post-?) industrial terrain, the digital and the virtual provide the languages that are spoke and the dances that are danced. It's part of the trance of the times, an irreducible glamour evolved over decades of moving image iconography and vocabulary. The question is (and 'globalisation' is never short of proselytising attractive answers in favour), are we to remain thirteen-year-olds all our lives?

One senses in Tolkien's original, for example, its author's own stunted growth, both as a product of stratified Englishness, and of the trauma of the First World War as it claimed the 'doomed youth' of so many of his fellows, in its choking mud and by its explosive metal. On probably its most important level, the book is a cry not to have to grow up, to remain in the wooded paradises, where adults are kindly uncles with a prolific line in party tricks, where cups of tea are made with kettles boiled on the open grate and a day contains many always catered-for snack-times; where, wrapped in the warm wool of scarves and cloaks, there is always a library of old volumes containing wonders, and where the growth of body hair is strictly restricted to the feet. It is Hundred-Acre Wood and Narnia revisited, only with a bleaker and more urgent dark side, something scabrous and nihilistic nudging along on the edge of blasphemy.

On the other hand, as far as Peter Jackson's previous work is concerned, his perpetual thirteen-year old revels in and teases out the dark side, calling it into play, and messily wrestling with its bedlam. It is raucous and irreverent, and its amoral terrors are essentially plays with trashed hardware and protoplasmic matter, violence as comic necessity. What's more, while Tolkien's basic terrors are coded through literary allusions and elusiveness, Golden Bough-style recourse to symbol and rite, and a pedant's true obsessions with philological matters, all of which strive to keep the unspoken heart respectably cloaked, Jackson's films have previously been overtly subversive exactly because they are so careless and demonstrative, pop- and op-art totally carried by crass materiality and utterly devoid of existential or spiritual terrors, their tackiness a kind of deliberate verfremdungseffekt, special effects not so special as to be unobvious, schlock-horror wearing its intestines on its sleeve as it were, inviting exaggerated protest and delighted guffaws from the kid in all of us. What is interesting in the combination of these temperaments in the film is how the strengths of both tendencies are neutralised, the repetitive ponderousness of the one denying the open and scat risibility of the other, to produce an odd and unsettling tension, neither quite boring nor quite outrageous; on the level of content leveling into the blandness of commodity, whatever the flash and bang of technical and stylistic wizardry.

The point is, Luke and Harry as well as Frodo, that these are not just thirteen-year old stories, these are thirteen-year old boys' stories. And all of them, in their different ways, have particular takes on chasteness and sensuality, and their sublimation. In Tolkien's book and Jackson's film, girls, women, or crones simply don't come into the picture, unless it be as pretty young redheads to be abashed by at the village dance, or as a fey lass to look after the wounded in the manner of the warrior-nurse Arwen when times get tricky for the lads out on the field, or as a threatening all-powerful temptress like Galadriel, with her strange promise of androgyny and promiscuity. And that's it. The connected kin of Hobbits seems oblivious to female presence, the traditional messy, mortal stuff of women's lives partly excused away by a variety of takes on the notion of longevity (i.e. a prolonged absence of natural birth or natural death), for which the ring itself stands as potent instrument and symbol. The Hobbit village seems to be a bastion of male hi-jinks and tidy domesticity; the local pub is crammed in the true Protestant tradition with a gloomy and aggrieved male proletariat of drinkers; the Rivendell meeting which creates the Fellowship has all the ritual dullness of a bearded Oxbridge college council. The fellowship once out on the road, displays its discrete, body-warmth and back-slapping homo-erotic bondings, reaching genuine levels of pathos and passion in, for instance, the traumatised silent weeping following the loss of Gandalf and the exit from Moria, and in Samwise Gamgee's suicidal bid to regain the company of his beloved Frodo in the river. The main men, Boromir and Aragorn, simper darkly in their bachelor armour like trampers on some kind of extreme coast-to-coast, while Legolas (how's that for a character-name which hedges its bets!), figures here, as in the Tolkien canon, as a fallen angel and is therefore profoundly sexless. In the entire film, the nearest we come to any kind of sensuality (the thing we spend an awful lot of our adult lives in pursuit of) is the extremely chaste passing kiss, and exchange of promises, between Aragorn and Arwen on the bridge at Rivendell.

The real sexual energy of Jackson's production, naturally, and upon which Weta's artists' devote their consummate skills, is given over to anime versions of life-giving and death-dealing. In, for example, the military preparations and contests, exemplified by the unsheathing, wielding, and clashing of sword-blades. These weapons have magnificent honed presence, as you would expect of the genre, and there's none of the frightful reminders of how such an instrument turns the human into meat in the way that Robert Bresson so masterfully implied in his dystopian Lancelot du Lac (1974). Here, Deaths tend to be delivered as sudden and aseptic flashes of steely light, and bodies tumble bloodless and obliging out of the frame; largely, it's Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) without the scurrilous and de-stabilising humour. Death isn't real, because it only comes to the goonish cartoon characters; and we know the good guys will always have some kind of pass-key to re-incarnation.

On the other hand, there is a ferocious libido flying around through all the filth and devouring rage of the Orcs; a visual litany of teeth, blood, miscarriage and deformity, presenting themselves with all the steaming hurry and rush of a relentless maul on a dark Saturday afternoon at the House of Pain. If there is a sense of sexual oppositeness to all this dronelike warfaring, it seems only to be contained in the conjurations of the ring itself, sitting in the centre of the hive like some monstrous queen, vibrating the air, sucking its expendable servants towards its vaginal slit in a gravitational pull which is barely to be endured. One might begin to see, and not just for the landscapes, why white New Zealand, with its combined Presbyterian, Anglican and Military roots, might be the natural cinematic home-from-home for the pre-modern fantasies of a late-Empire Merton Professor of English Language and Literature. In soured, ironic, and multi-cultural contemporary Britain, a country much older than New Zealand, it could never show a cinematic face in such a way.

The Fellowship of the Ring brims with all the sorts of ingredients through which a certain kind of film continues to beguile and tease us, making scared and sentimental children of us all, magnificently and idiotically. And, lets not forget, it is idiocy. Because this isn't the best cinema, nor the best of Cinema (if one even dare still use the capitalised C-word!). The film is first and always genre commodity, part of the E-universe (why else did it receive, as its sequels will no doubt go on receiving, Oscars?). It permits us to wallow in the same place where thirteen-year-olds have always wallowed. But we aren't thirteen-year olds. Individually we live longer and, if we're lucky, deeper lives, than our predecessors ever did. And collectively we grow older every generation, and, we should always hope, wiser too. Daily the world becomes more inhabited, and its moral complexities can never be cut clean with a sword, nor obliterated by throwing them all back into the volcanic mound of Primordial Eve, however much we might want to. So while this is profoundly not cinema for idiots, it is an idiotic cinema nonetheless, in the sense that Jean Baudrillard meant, in a little paragraph taken from Cool Memories III 1991-95, which will serve to sum up Peter Jackson's milestone of fabulous digitalisation:

"The specific idiocy of our time is, sadly, no longer differentiated from its intelligence. It is merged with it. It is no longer uneducated, but is indeed overinformed, and has the same reflex vivacity as artificial intelligence. It is the degree Xerox of stupidity which merges with the degree Xerox of intelligence."