Frodo’s Face, State of the Art, and the Axis of Evil
By John Downie
The story continues. Business as usual at the Embassy Theatre, on a cold, blustery Wellington so-called summer Sunday. My two twelve-year old companions munch popcorn and slurp softdrinks. I twitch my way through more than three hours worth, occasionally drifting off, now and then putting my hands over my eyes in embarrassment at the relentless effulgence of it all, worn-through sixty-year-old that I am. No, no, enjoy! This is just a piece of Entertainment (as in ‘Entertainment Today’, ‘The Entertainment Channel’, etc); it’s expected that things have to go bang, flash and flare, accelerate and accelerate and, apart from the occasional dip into pathos and sentiment, continue accelerating. Industrial light and magic saturates the audience. It’s like standing under, in the midst of, a tumultuous waterfall. The aftereffects are still ringing in our ears, flooding our visual cortices, as we grope our way out from under the rolling graffiti of the credits. What did the twelve-year olds think of it? Not quite sure what to answer. A pull of the face, a shrug of the shoulders. "Gollum was great." "And the Ents were cool". "The battle was too long". But the money’s been spent, the consumers are in the cinemas, and as far as critical opinion needs to go on this one, that about sums it up. Anyway, the kids are back home, already switched into PlayStation, things are happily going bang, flash and flare, fast food for the nervous system, accelerating and escalating, death and rebirth without a drop of blood being spilt. I suppose we should be grateful. The Guardian Weekly is this week running a report, ‘Hollywood and the Games Industry are Getting Closer than Ever’. Brian Pass, producer of SpiderMan:The Movie game, is saying, "I definitely see a time when you are not going to be able to see a difference between what’s been rendered out of a games console and what’s happening in a film." Or see a difference, for that matter, in the ‘World’, in that old-fashioned idea we once called ‘Reality’. Well, hooray for that!
Is the grafted slick of continuous imagery, which is what Pass sees as an evolving virtue, any worse for us than the tumultuous oppression of words used to be to the pre-digitised generations? I’m one of those who could never get beyond page two of Tolkien. I found it unreadable, laboriously literary, an Edwardian throwback. The main problem with Sword and Sorcery, its essential unreadability, lies in an over-effortful antiquatedness (arcane language, detailed props and procedures, etc.); its project, as a genre, to reconvene a type of human ritualising and mystification as popular memory, a heritage industry pleasing to human Fancy (as opposed to what Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing at the dawn of the industrialising and secularising world, famously and importantly proposed as human Imagination). Movie industry Imagination, at least the Hollywood version of it which is so pervasive, has always seemed much more comfortable with the literary legacy it received from the likes of Chandler and Hemingway, as a way of homing into an economy of narrative and dialogue (not to mention irony) when faced by the talking screen’s expansiveness, and the twentieth century’s sobering experience of itself. In my Tolkien-naif state, I can only assume the appeal of Lord of the Rings as a book must surely rest in the way that its language suggests a lot more to the Imagination than Peter Jackson’s audio-visual digest can make of it as a narrative. The virtue of language as the sole medium means that action, both physical and psychological, is implied, and relies on the willingness of the reader to fulfill story imperatives. To invest in the task of reading. In the main, the art and industry of the popular screen has learnt to invest everything into its own textual fabrication, all the work already completed for the spectator, who is invited only to sit back and enjoy the Ride. In this film, everything concatenates within a brimming frame; there is nothing outside the frame, because there is no real Imagination at work, only Fancy and Technique.
It could be said that the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, worked surprisingly well because of the story dimensions it proposed, both domestic and epic, a setting out, an opening up, a certain Odyssean aspiration. Besides, the stunning topographies offered by Jackson and his team seemed altogether fresher than we’ve been led to expect from what is often the inflated rhetoric of digitised actioners; it was bathed in glorious kinds of light and breathing an invigorating air (that odd ideological contiguity between ‘Middle Earth’ and ‘New Zealand’), catching the intoxication, fever and slightly perverted moral sense of the best Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art. Despite the brilliantly dimensionalised opening sequence - which captures Gandalf’s vertiginous fall with the beast which has dragged him down from Moria with great tearing gashes of light and colour, dimension and distance - in its subsequent unfolding, The Two Towers seems a much more predictable and routine trundler. Thematically, it has become a film more or less on one note; the war waged by the overwhelming weight and force of the Orcs, under the will of Saruman, against the Humans, climaxing in the seige of the fortress of Helm’s Deep. Prospects of human survival seem hopeless, things only get worse, before at the last minute they suddenly get better due to the preposterous heroics of the gang of three - broody Human hunk Aragorn, sinewy fey Legolas the Elfin bowman, and the smelly insanely-combative Dwarf Gimli; a rather muddily articulated sense of destiny; the last-minute arrival of reinforcements led by Gandalf on a white charger; and the slow strength and righteous wrath of the Ents, giant animated trees. Is there anybody out there who doesn’t already know this?
Where this film, like its predecessor, is undeniably masterful is in the orchestration of its effects; the composition of images, the flow of action, the sudden influx of energy and its gradual release, the uses of surprise and shock, the stun of a blow and the lilting of sorrow and loss. Masterful in the sense of how actions can be coherently story-boarded, at least, and those storyboards made to swing; there is a tight relationship here with the kind of story-telling techniques of the best comicbooks. On the other hand, to what degree the vocabulary and syntax of Jackson’s film merely fulfills what French critic Serge Daney, citing Lacan, has spoken of as "...programming of the little people, with new forms of totemism and the static unfolding of instant-cliché images", needs more space than is available here to examine. But the technical inventiveness and firepower invested in the film’s production values is certainly very strongly conveyed in the current Exhibition about the trilogy’s creation, beginning its life at Te Papa, Museum of New Zealand, before "it tours to major centres around the world". Like the movies themselves, it self-evidently will go well; it was crowded to the gills (even though it cost more to get in than to the movie!), swelling Te Papa’s profile on the must-see tourist circuit, appealing to that new kind of verfremdungseffekt made familiar from TV, ‘The Making of...’
Essentially, two kinds of ingenuity were on show in the Exhibition. The first demonstrates how layering and scaling within the compositional frame synthesise the "believable images of a world that doesn’t exist". In truth, that’s a generalisation about all of cinema, though it is still impressive to see how digitalisation allows for extreme marriages of proximity and distance in relation to a constantly moving camera – the plummeting descent through the pandemonium of the labyrinthine Orc workshops to discover a striding Saruman is an example on show. It’s not so much images of a world which are at issue here, as the novel ways we experience of traveling through it; there isn’t that much difference between Jackson’s studios and that of Georges Meliés a hundred years ago in respect of a desire to evoke strange and exotic interiors and exteriors by trickery, but those hundred years have done away completely with the illusionistic theatre’s need for the fixed frame of the proscenium. Now we spin and speed through all three sixty degrees. There’s also ample demonstration of how inanimate detailed models, as well as the human actor, can be scanned into virtual virtuosities, such as Andy Serkis learning how to extend himself into Gollum, illustrating that Edward Gordon Craig’s anticipation of an uber-marionette a century ago – a mechanical figure, or an operator inside a mechanical figure - turned out to be perfectly correct, if not in the limited form he imagined then.
A second field of ingenuities lies in Weta Workshop’s magnificent display of models, prosthetics, costumes, props and weaponry, fabricated from all manner of materials, evoking a more vivid and detailed sense of a civilisation which has vanished from human view than anything mere archaeology could cobble together from any actual human remains. Even Tutenkhamun would have to eat his heart out seeing the splendour of this. Nothing is left here to smoke, light and vaseline on the lens to augment; these artefacts stand up to scrutiny, beautifully imagined and finished. Just how many million links of individually stamped out grey-toned string, to be hand sewn into a multitude throw-over coats of chain-mail, was it? Brief video presentations give a sense of the scale of production workshops and arsenals and supply-lines, stocked to give life to an army of extras and doubles. One gets a sense of the sheer joy in inventiveness, the idea that the solution to every problem is only a techno-fix away. Nothing is plainly impossible; rules are there to be broken; human creativity is boundless; and Kiwi-nationhood is high-staked on its outcome. The Fantasy franchise came onto the market, and Jackson and his team grabbed it with many hands; they may be Mexicans with cellphones, but Al, these guys put together a better package than most! The Exhibition feeds that insatiable human curiosity for ‘how’ something works, compellingly interesting. But I don’t know if I can completely share Jackson and Richard Taylor’s enthusiasm that the technical wizardry in creating "completely believable images" automatically gives birth to the rich complexities and motivations of human character, nor to the weave of a dense narrative of the world’s events, particularly when those events are spiralling down to an image of the ‘last battle’. Nor to the much more interesting question of ‘Why?’ rather than just ‘How?’
The exhibition structures itself around the theme of ‘the fight between good and evil’. But for me, the mish-mash of storylines in The Two Towers, and the rhetorical ambition of their implications, often overwhelms meaningful sense. The film is always crafted enough for the dramaturgy to keep the plot components in reasonable balance with each other and moving forward, but if, on the moral level of the story, the main theme has to be the coming-to-experience of Frodo given his unenviable task as Ring-bearer, then the interesting thing for us, as in all good fiction, is the more-or-less from which experience is accrued, and how a sense of moral ambivalence and existential momentum is sustained across the range of character predicaments. In The Two Towers, it’s always everything-or-nothing, life-or-death, feral and pre-historic, the bestial, the human, and the angelic ambiguously co-mixed, the grunt or the lament. Character depth or development, the importance of change as the result of action, decision, or conscience, doesn’t operate here, so that though we are six hours into screen time by now, the characters have all become somewhat fixed and functional, and unlikely, unless I’m mistaken, to change.
As a result, the dialogue is largely empty of life, meaning, argument or connection; just ritualised phrases and attitudes, fatally tainted by the antique, language degree zero. You are alive and about your quest, or you are suddenly, and rather hygienically, dead. The virtuous (our side) die with pathos and sentiment, and individually. The malevolent (their side) are slain in vast numbers, without account. What I’m suggesting here is that there is an impoverishment noticeable in the screenplay; the lumpen dialogue and characterisation is only there to retain some linking between the grandiosity of the set pieces. Even Gandalf, who was set up initially as a character who might well have access to moral complexity and the trickeries of fate, and whose instincts seemed to resonate with wise anxieties throughout McKellen’s Part One performance, ‘returns’ following his fall as yet another (at least in this Part) roaring sword-wielder, rearing on his white horse like Custer at Little Big Horn, this time to herald the fact that the Seventh Cavalry has arrived in time to save the day. Saruman, on the other hand, has all but disappeared as a character, which seems odd, given that his role of instigator of the whole bedlam would make it logical for us to see something of him in operation, as energetic strategist and will-driven commander ready to ride the shifts of circumstance (and not the least so we can continue to enjoy Lee’s performance, which is, as usual in this actor’s creative life, always trying to create three-dimensional moments out of a two-dimensional scenario). As it is, Saruman emerges to discover the carnage that the Ents are making around him as if he’d been unaware of everything that’s been going on in the previous two hours of screen time, scampering helplessly around his tower-top as if for all the world he’s just been woken from a very extended siesta, as well as having mislaid his book of spells.
As for the rest, the actors’ individual edges have all been polished off them by genre-role and the overall drowning digitized ambience. Two characters are exceptions to this rule. Digitized enhancement is central to actor Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum, the weirdly transmuted cliff and cave-dweller who’s early misfortune it was to encounter the psyche-destroying radiations of the Ring and be left stranded in the hinterlands of its promise and its danger. He gambols into Frodo and Samwise Gamgee’s lives like some kind of albino Caliban, or a prehensile Ben Gunn from Stevenson’s Treasure Island, glad for the company and to be of service, persistently and loudly loquacious, yet slippery and possibly murderous to the hesitancy of their quest. His mutated body and how it is animated into the action acts as an emblem for the moral dilemma at the heart of the whole story, a psychosis of depleted will and inflamed greed, both subservient and helpless, and longingly opportunist - though often too frenetically to convince us of its fleshly rather than its pixillated truth; the production is rather too much in love with the sheer flexibility of its creation, so that the scrunched frequencies of the voice, a bit like ET on speed, are often incomprehensible, and unfortunately it’s Gollum that seems to have most of the best lines in the movie. His endearingly zany guilelessness as he leads the Hobbits on despite their better judgment seems like an amalgam of all the boys in Pinocchio demented by the illicit promises of Pleasure Island, a transformation into lubricious, braying stupidity; "My Precious, my Precious!"
On the other hand, and emblematic in a similar and possibly more powerful way, is the face of Elijah Wood’s Frodo. Because it’s his face, rather than his perfectly adequate performance, that carries a resonance beyond the frame itself. Wood’s wide child-like eyes and firm-boned features were obviously central to the actor getting the role, and a combination of the subtle shift of proportion in these as the actor grows physically through adolescence and production time, with the enforced passivity of his witnessing the disintegration of the world around him, which the production theatricalises through his watering and darkening eyes, etches an existential anxiety somehow closer to the Real than the comicbook. This is dramatically caught in the extended face-to-face moment he has with the cowled and blank-faced demon sitting astride the muscle-necked flying creature – a perfect analogue, perhaps, for a Stealth Bomber – while at the same time being supercharged by the force-fields of the Ring’s energy, the growing boy/man (not a single mention any more, nor shot even, of his hairy feet in the entire film!) as witness and experiencer of the schizophrenia of the world, hooded against clear seeing, terrorised by its own brain-stem nightmares and its murderous continuity. Like Theoden, King of Rohan, who was brought back from the brink to his senses, and gazing down on the massed ranks of Evil beleaguering his fortress like a sleeper suddenly awoken, remarking "How did it come to this?", Wood’s face incarnates that same startled question, to ever-deepening effect. Being ring-bearer is no fun, he’s discovering. Growing up in the world, the world of fantasy as much as the world of fact, and both coloured in the effulgent hues of ‘theological’ exaggeration, can bring you face to face with some scary evidence.
So let’s shift for a moment, half a step to the side, out of the allure of the screen’s glow. Evidences of a scenario of the Real are constructing themselves around us daily. The Guardian Weekly (January 16-22) is open at my elbow. The editorial in it which is headlined "Madness in the Making", spins off from the broad proposition, "The possibility that the US will resort to nuclear weapons is greater than at any time since the darkest days of the Cold War", considers again the importance of non-proliferation treaties in the face of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and signs off this broader sense of geopolitics with reference to the day’s immediate situation, "singling out states such as Iraq is not only hypocritical; it is also ultimately doomed to fail." These aren’t easy days to get a variety of perspectives on world events, as evidence slips and slides between its willful fabrication and blatant denial. Matthew Engel’s featured examination of "..why Americans are looking in vain to their newspapers for an independent voice", could well apply to other Murdoch-dominated media, and into countries much farther afield, but also themselves apprehensive about possible sudden invasions into ‘homeland security’. The constant need to acquire the advertising dollar for virtually any kind of broadcast or published views has produced a world-wide conformity of opinion characterised concisely by Engel condemning the once fiercely campaigning Washington Post as "journalistically flabby...notable for its turgid prose, its conservative slant, and the apologetic tone of its more liberal contributors".
This flabbiness, and the collective political and cultural anomie which it can help consolidate amongst us all as mass consumers of images and opinions, arises from a terrible ambivalence at the heart of our civilisation, dominated as at present by the US administration’s brazen hunt for a pretext to avenge the assault on its citadel. On another Guardian page, Faisal Bodi (who opens up by referring to Lord of the Rings simply as "Hollywood’s adaptation"; no mention at all of Jackson or Kiwi ingenuity) writes on how Western governments decree that liberty is not a fundamental right for Muslims, and that "the war on terror is part of a campaign to wrench Muslim societies from their religious roots", as a first check on the possibilities of ‘extremism’. Julian Borger reports on how David Frum, as one of Bush’s speechwriters in late 2001, offered up "axis of hatred" as a new way of rhetoricising stateless terrorists working in combination with terror-sponsoring states, and how this was modified into "Evil" by the administration’s more senior and devout Christians, wanting to make it sound more "theological", Bush amongst them. With virtue so emotionally on its side, the US plutocracy translates its all-pervasive piety into a boundless self-confidence, as the final battle approaches. Though now out of the loop, Frum still admires Bush as a man, if short on intellectual curiosity, nonetheless very much in charge, ".in private, Bush was not the easy genial man he was in public", and certain "not because he was arrogant, but because he believed that the future was held in stronger hands than his own". Maybe, if we could see more closely, we’d be able to spot the eponymous Ring on his finger! Faith in the necessity of the Happy Ending, which transcends all. Good wins, evil is defeated, the dictates of Manicheism. And, like in the movie, the two fundamentalist faces of the Warrior, both pinned back inside their pre-modernist armours, mercilessly incompatible with, and antagonistic to, each other. ‘The fight between Good and Evil’. In which it is expected that things have to go bang, flash and flare, etc., etc. Industrial light and magic saturating the audience. Intelligent weapons systems. Firepower is what matters; high production values. Popcorn.
The strange coincidence of the title of Tolkien’s second book of the trilogy being so close to recent dramatic and era-shifting events in New York, a city whose architecture of towers celebrates corporate capitalism like no other, seems to demand that some connection be made between the import of each of the current spectacles on offer, the one on the Screen and the one in the World. Not in the literal sense in which Jackson’s film fantasy can be made to correspond to the escalating predicament for social democracy (the evolving idea of which the UN continues to keep fingertip hold on), though the last battle of the ‘humans’ for survival in the face of a developing and rapidly de-stabilising plague of sub-humans led by a self-professed Malignancy is couched in the same fundamentalist terms as the current US administration’s vowed (though daily dis-avowed) crusade against Evil and its Axes. One had the sense, almost two generations ago when Tolkien’s plaint of Mechanism’s destruction of the Green World became a bible of the counterculture, that it was articulating both a nostalgic longing for a shire of quietist homegrown sustainability where identity could be fey with difference, together with a high adventure quest-for-the-self which, in times of plenty, patiently struck all the Campbellian gracenotes. Jackson’s transposition of this into contemporary audio-visual immersion, through sheer compositional expertise, imbues its quasi-mystical underpinnings with a much more raw sense of panic, skillfully orchestrating the moviedrome’s palette of pure and onward-hurrying sensations, in times of diminishing resources.
In certain respects, of course, Saruman is a dead-ringer for Osama Bin Laden; the Orcs and kindred monstrosities do clearly express the fearful din and bedlam of advancing self-hypnotised hordes of darker-hued races beyond civilised control (Attila’s barbarous horsemen or H G Wells’s ‘Morlocks’ on acid?); and the retreat of the good citizens of Rohan with the persistently framed vulnerability of its all too obviously blue-eyed and fair-haired women and children is a special plea for the survival of good old Western family values, headed by the benevolent, though more than uselessly old-fashioned, autocracy of King Theoden. But these have always been prevailing themes of an isolationist American culture throughout its skilled and ubiquitous evolution of Entertainments of Mass Consumption, of whatever genre, throughout the past century. What needs to be looked at, perhaps, is the way in which a product like The Two Towers, narratively one-eyed and freeze-dried as genre, however gratifying as spectacle, in itself embeds an ideology of endemic conflict and necessary sudden action, seamless and beautiful as a guided weapon riding through the skies on the wings of Howard Shore’s music, and how its combination of a quasi-European mythos with Kiwi willingness and can-do, sustains and extends the cultural hegemony of Hollywood.