Cyclones, Seduction, and the Middle Mind - Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
By John Downie
“If everyone praises your production, almost certainly it is rubbish. If everyone abuses it, then perhaps there is something in it. But if some praise and others abuse, if you can split the audience in half, then for sure it is a good production”. — Vsevelod Meyerhold, (Russian theatre director) (1)
I have to report to you; the cyclone has gone through its climacteric, passing over and onward, now as hurtling wind, next as torrential downpourings, the earth itself erupting and cracking right down into its fiery core, industrial light and magic, a monstrous territorialisation. This media event, this mediatized eventuality, has been threatening, and happening, and shifting, and developing, and returning, for so long now, we’ll be hard-pressed to deal with its gradual absence. New Zealand, a remote island location in the Pacific, has been its eye, its onshore vortex and ground zero, but its turbulence is now spinning away offshore, through subsystems and smaller storms over the continents, with their cinemas and playstations, and out into memory. At the same time as the climacteric, it was sobering to have heard reports of another kind of disproportionate cataclysm in parallel, the devastation of Nuie, also a remote Pacific island location, by cyclone Heta, an event that reminded us that there are still two kinds of grand show available to us in our spectatorial helplessness; those emanating from within our inventive and increasingly digitalised souls, and those outside, fabricated (apparently) in and by the phenomenalistic universe. Inundated both by texts of the mind hooked on destroying the world, and texts of the world which unsteady the mind, it is only by trying to constantly excavate a meaningful relationship between the two that keeps us human.
The New Zealand cyclone was already well on its way to being one of the most ‘successful’ events of its kind, yet. How could it not be a success, when the very terms of its cranking up, its momentum, and its manufacture, were always posited on a final idea of the ‘success’ it must of necessity be? The anticipation from the outset, with its brief, tantalising, networked immersions into the very heart of the storm, was calculating all returns, in this new moment of the digitalised image brought alongside Wagnerian ambition – the original Star Wars trilogy being, in this sense, more a prophesizing of the event than the event itself, a kind of cardboard cutout of post-Joseph Campbell tropes wedged together as an ongoing improvisation of cinematic technologies trying to keep pace with themselves, albeit within ploddingly traditional dramaturgies. Certainly, by the measure of all measures, the box office, Return of the King was making early grosses that beggared all comers, and the Lord trilogy itself had thus far bagged profits in excess of the gross national product of many smaller nations (New Zealand not yet being one of them!).
And in the careful manipulation and management of awards, which, as in current political hegemony in general, pays absolute attention to American rituals of acclaim (does the United States manage us, or do we, the rest of nations, have to manage, as best we can, for all kinds of desperate reasons, the United States?), Return of the King is proving to be, as its promotional campaigns seemed to be planning, the icing on the cake for the trilogy as an integrated work. And the whole event, the seven best years in its main players’ lives, has won/will go on winning accolades for ‘best picture’, and ‘best director’, and ‘best costumes’, and ‘best special effects’, and ‘best tune’, and ‘best catering on a winter’s day dawn shoot for a hundred heavily encumbered extras in a damp and narrow valley’, and the accolades will do their best with their designer-draped appearances, chiseled-chin demeanours, and sweet and sentimental re-iterations at these baachanales, until everything finally loses its lustre and effect, intensity and presence having abandoned themselves to the sheer scale and ambition of diffusion. After the event, the event horizon; and after the event horizon, the black hole. But before everything hurtles thataway, it would be churlish not to acknowledge the sheer bravado of the singularity, the magnificence of the achievement of Peter Jackson and his hundreds of associates in so completely realising this gargantuan piece of cinematic crafting within the time-frames, at all the levels and meshings – managerial, financial, technological, and aesthetic – which constitute ‘performance’ excellence in this novice but rapidly acclimatising century.
Return of the King, in common with the entire trilogy, is a film about which nothing can really be said, so perfectly does it fit its own expectations of itself. The relationship between assent and dissent within the negotiations of hegemony has always been dripping with paradox, particularly in the modern and postmodern eras of mass culture, with the proliferation and penetration made possible by mechanical and digital reproduction in the hands of globalised corporatism. The fact that Lord of the Rings, as a whole, has in this instance taken the form of a ‘film’ is less important than the ways in which it has come to inhabit the broader ‘big screen’. The project’s proclaimed strategies, in which both its producers and its private and public backers saw the virtue of a production publicity based on a three leg relay run of pre-release and release events (not so novel, considering, as one obvious example, Star Wars several backwards-forwards chapters), were skillfully arranged so as to maximise the regeneration of the huge commercial impact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s book had already had on the reading public in the 1960’s and 70’s. A mid-century don’s feverish evocation of a struggle between the medieval elegiac and an oppressive industrial and militarist blight, it provided just the right tokens of the portentous and oracular to situate it as one of the counterculture’s key texts, available to the eclectic mysticism which helped the baby-boomer generation to mythologise post-World War Two permissiveness, style, and consumerism; dissent and difference through assent and sameness, a ‘parent’ generation lining up what appeared to be a custom-quality literary product for its post-literary (grand)children, attuned much more to cinematic interaction and the ride.
Thirty and forty years on, these processes have deepened and knotted on all fronts, culturally become almost toxic, and there is no better guide to the confabulation of their mysterious machineries than Jean Baudrillard. To take just one example; in his initial elaborations in and around ‘seduction’, Baudrillard deals with the allure of surfaces as
“...Somehow the manifest discourse, the most ‘superficial’ aspect of discourse, which acts upon the underlying prohibition (conscious or unconscious) in order to nullify it, and to substitute for it the charms and traps of appearances. Appearances, which are not at all frivolous, are the site of play and chance taking, the site of a passion for diversion – to reduce signs is here far more important than the emergence of any truth”. (2)
Film and the cinematic apparatus, that ineluctable process for transforming, in John Boorman’s memorable phrase, ‘money into light’, is of the essence when it comes to the matter of ‘appearances’, and Baudrillard, riding on the back of Walter Benjamin and “. the inevitable destiny of mechanical reproduction”, suggests that the ritualistic and aesthetic terms of ‘seduction’ are now countermanded by a third quality, that of
“...an unlimited distribution where seduction becomes the informal form of the political, the demultiplied framework of elusive politics, which is devoted to the endless reproduction of a form without content. ...As it was for the case of the object, the ‘political’ form corresponds to the maximum diffusion and the minimum intensity of seduction.” (3)
Baudrillard’s language is irresistibly arcane; the point is that the show of things is everything (why else so constantly use a phrase as redundant of meaning as ‘show business’?), not necessarily a bad thing, nor a good thing, but a thing we should nonetheless keep kicking ourselves about, these ‘appearances’, how they are and how they lead us away, by diffusing and de-intensifying, from the opposite and impossible tasks of ‘interpretation’, as if ‘truth’ can ever be uncovered as something ‘naked’. The event of the ‘film’ of Lord of the Rings, the whole shebang, has been very seductive. In New Zealand, at least, a cyclone of the hyperreal.
Nowhere was this more so than on December 1 2003, in an unnaturally sun-kissed Wellington. In his 1937 novel, Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West evoked a Hollywood movie première, with its hysterical fans mindlessly braying, as a metaphor for the totalitarian possession that, like a rabid bite, had already fixed itself into the cultural body of the Thirties:
“...all these poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence...” (4)
and, further, identifying in those who walked the Red Carpet into the Glittering Foyer a fundamental separation of those who have ‘life’, from those whose life has gone out. In the first decade of the new century, so emphatically ruled by commodity and its allure, we have an altogether more sophisticated relationship to the apparati of social division; the whole thing appears perpetually in the egalitarian light which spins out of the fata morgana of ‘reality TV’ and ‘the making of...’ Like divine monarchs, the stars have come down to earth, and in these new realms defined not by West’s hot streets but by the cool digitalisations in our living rooms, we all can participate in the broader family of celebrity, as if born to it, master and slave the same. In Wellington, no one appeared to be in much doubt as to where exactly they were standing; even the usually levelheaded Guardian Weekly in its edition of the following week had half its front page identifying the capital as the centre of the world. In these few hours of miracles and wonder, the unviolent streets were definitely ‘our’ streets, lined by carnivalesque monsters and warriors, and every microphone-clutching media mask in the business, in this celebration of Kiwi neighbourliness and civic endeavour, and anyone could grab a view.
The long afternoon perambulation led from the steps of Parliament to the portals of the civically reclaimed and refurbished Embassy Theatre; amongst the tickertape and hullabaloo, there were handbills proclaiming PETER JACKSON FOR PM, an advocacy which was doing the current incumbent something of a disservice given her own sustained support for ‘creative industries’ and related bean feasts. But also it was a reminder of how close New Zealand constantly is to the kind of confusions around simulacra that bedeviled the election to power of Schwarzenegger in Nathaniel West’s secular state of California, this morphing cyborg of identity, ‘the endless reproduction of a form without content’, ‘the informal form of the political’. As a unanimous fellowship, the stars, the mayor, the prime minister, all lined the pavement outside the Embassy, and said warm and proud things about us, each other, J R R Tolkien, New Zealand. Sir Ian McKellen conflated the conceit by remarking how Peter Jackson had firmly inserted the kiwi into the Tolkien bestiary. Jackson (how long before ‘Sir’ himself?) suggested it hadn’t been one kiwi but upward of twenty thousand, enshrining the newly illustrated Tolkien firmly alongside egalitarianism in the New Zealand mythos. The gathered masses cheered and stamped, each person feeling, if not one of the twenty thousand themselves, nonetheless proudly endowed in kiwihood. Those odd, lonely, scuttering earthbound birds of the bush-filled night, such paradoxical icons for national identity. There was a sense of this oddness in the ways in which those celebrants with tickets eventually got to walk, at an uncertain step danced precisely between bravado and embarrassment, the two Red Carpets towards the two simultaneous premières. Approximately clad in the plumage of birds, but as citizens of a culture without either a political or celebrity aristocracy to show them how to fly, they seemed uncertain exactly which side of the metal barriers they really belonged; whether they were those who had life, or whether they were those whose lives had gone out.
This was a festive day, and media had long been heralding it, here in Wellywood, this-time capital of Middle Earth, celebrating such a rich fusion of deep tradition, family, and techno-managerial derring-do. How all the talent assembled from such distant fields had adored the friendly family ethos of both work and play; the movie’s producer, Barrie Osborne, so taken, becoming a New Zealand citizen. How NZ Telecom had been blowing its own puff, as the project’s necessary and willing servant, allowing Lord of the Rings crew to use “. Telecom technology to complete filming that would usually take nine years (sic) in just 18 months, and that enabled them to send movie files and digital effect around the world almost instantaneously”, in the same breath not forgetting to mention that “...you can dress your computer in The Lord of the Rings costumes with great wallpaper, screensavers, and e-cards” (sic). (5) How actor Viggo Mortensen, with each succeeding week at filming’s end, seemed to be endlessly illuminated as a proliferous mix of a Christ of Second Coming and a Leonardo da Vinci – photographer, painter, poet, while the city’s institutions hustled and bent and bowed to his profligate talents; reading, for example, some of his own poems at the Paramount Theatre to an audience of 500 paying $50 a kick, reported in the hyperventilating hyperbole which seemed to accompany his every modest gesture as “an evening of world-class poetry”. How the New Zealand Post Office was replacing the dulled native species and icons on its postage stamps and postcards with a parade of brightly coloured scenes and characters from the movies. How Ian Brodie’s opportune Lord of the Rings location guidebook was providing yet another re-configured litany of New Zealand’s topographic splendours, but in such as way as to allow a proper opportunity for tourism hustlers of the ‘Experience of a Lifetime’ variety to interweave lake or mountain vistas, for their busloads, with scenes from the film, technical explanations, ‘real’ items featured in the sequences, and not forgetting the gourmet lunch. Busy, busy!
Mythic tales and images of a paradisiacal ‘Middle Earth’ already existing in the Christian, Western imagination before industrialisation took hold in Europe, were carried by the immigrant into the expansionist and colonial adventure as a longed-for recompense for loss and sacrifice, and the constructed events and incidental details springing from the three films’ production were feeding into what has for a long time been part of the constructed New Zealand imaginary. In the second volume of his recent New Zealand history, Paradise Reforged, James Belich, in a discussion of genre in literary fiction, remarks, “New Zealand, as it was known to the world from these books, was often an idealised, even sentimentalised place. This developed a motif as old as the historians Gibbon and Macaulay, New Zealand as Britain’s little ‘Other’. It was a place of safe otherness, where simple virtues were preserved. New Zealand has long played Shire to the West’s Middle Earth”. (6) A tradition, which the films of Jackson and his associates have now successfully globalised, as part of heritage tourism.
But what about the film itself? Somewhere in all this, Part three exists, and is there anything more to say about it than there was about Parts one and two? It is both more splendid and more exhausted, much poorer in its imaginative resource than the striking Part one. In fact, even though the trilogy was already a parody of itself, both as a book (‘Bored of the Rings’) and as a ‘cinematic’ event parodying the idea of a cinematic event, Part three seems to have arrived fully grown as Parody, in its overall tone and in its genre references. Parody has always been the most distinctive tendency in Jackson’s work, undermining more imaginative possibilities, as in both Brain Dead and Daughters of Heaven’s potential as satires of an enervated New Zealand society of the kind evoked by Gordon McLauchlan in his mid-Seventies’ dissection of national manners and mores, The Passionless People, and instead, eventually, half way through perhaps, losing themselves in endlessly rising tides of gore, and claymation extravaganza. From The Two Towers onwards, this latest film has been hijacked by the frenzy of combat, one to one and hundreds to hundreds, that tirelessly repetitive theme of the arcade and playstation scenario, cinematically brought to recent appallingly juvenile climax by Tarantino in Kill Bill. It is uncertain, both in Tarantino and Jackson, exactly how conscious this parody is, both of human action, and cinematic genre; film as film, ‘pure film’, film as tireless reiteration and reification of itself. But complaint against this all-pervading degradation of human presence into the digitalised virtuosity of the marionette is one that needs to be kept in constant circulation, because, whatever its rich pedigree within the human fascination with the animate, it also expresses, in its alluring commodification, the removal from the scene of human complexity, of flesh, of pain, of age, of experience. And this is, arguably, also Corporate Capitalism’s great project in the world, from the Coliseum to the Computer, to draw us into this simplification, youth and energy, bread and circuses, games and guignol; as director Robert Lepage noted in a recent interview, “Cinema is like a huge empire, and its all about money.” (7) Kinetics and loot.
At an early stage of the modern era, Heinrich von Kleist perceptively anticipated these contradictions of animation in his 1810 publication, On the Marionette Theatre. In this, the advocating voice for new principles of ‘performance’, a century before Film asserted it as that medium’s predominant quality, argues that
“...these puppets have the advantage of being for all practical purposes weightless. They are not afflicted with the inertia of matter, the property most resistant to dance...Puppets need the ground only to glance against lightly, like elves, and through this momentary check to renew the swing of their limbs”. (8)
Kleist is courageous enough to pursue the implications of this as a philosophical aesthetic, in which Form shamelessly can predominate over Content:
“We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness.” (9)
A perfect conjuration, if you like, of the predominance in the digital age of the idea of ‘special effects’ in all our prevailing media, with their almost totalitarian urge to appear, accelerate, and pleasure, tying in the ‘effective’ power of acting on the entire world of objects as an ‘affective’ strategy, directly accessing emotional life, creating perhaps an ostentatious fondness for, and a display of, artificiality. In other words, as an affectation, which ever so capably can disconnect the intelligence of feeling from the reception process, so that what we are engrossed with becomes simply the incommensurable power of the field of view, and the virtuoso movement of objects within the frame. In Return of the King, as an example, think of the absurdly adrenalin-crazed journey of Legolas in his de-commissioning of the elephant-thing war-machine, in the journey around which all consideration of gravity and mortality is of no account, in which the ground is only ever glanced against very lightly, and during which Legolas’s limbs are inexhaustible in their swinging. Every increment of motion is perfectly at play here, but the purpose of the scene is simply to show it off; the effect is affectless. Then again, Legolas is literally an elf! ‘Orlando Bloom’ is no more present either, other than in a handful of nicely lit facial inflections, which here and there identify a set of motions within the wider frame. But this is what has always been going on in movies, more or less; advanced production technologies simply drain out any remaining blood, and stitch up that puppet so much more seamlessly than ever before.
And poor writing and non-existent acting have always been available to back up the more pressing needs of mise-en-scène and montage, and to raise the dramaturgical pulse. Jackson’s third film presents both; characters very rarely speak, and when they do utter, its either in tragedy-inflected monosyllabic monotones, or as brief sparky verbal highlightings of overwhelming tropes of action, a quality, which, as in most ‘action’ films, can become very tedious long before they’ve been stretched to the matter of nine hours. In these kinds of films, talk has little to commend it. And individual actors, like McKellen, Wood, and Mortensen, who started out quite chipper with both extended dialogue and potential personalities on their way to founding the Fellowship, have by the final battle been exhausted of both; the latter, despite having been elevated to majesty, melts into anonymity within the fiction in some kind of inverse proportion to the way his public persona as man and artist was being illuminated in the realm of public relations. And it’s hard to imagine, for example, Liv Tyler’s anonymous simpering presence here as being the work of the same actress who gave such a richly nuanced performance in Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. It may be irrelevant in the midst of so much cinematic sturm und drang to consider these all-but-antiquated items of script and performer, but even within the severe limitations of Tolkein’s blueprint, there might have been an altogether livelier sense of presence, as is proved by the realisation of Schmeigel/Gollum for and by Andy Serkis, albeit in the end a character so overdriven in his Principal Objective as to make his final demise arrive not a moment too soon. Its the set pieces that this film is all about, as in the superb orchestration of the sequences in the tunnels and webs of Shelob, the giant spider, and not its trundling need to visit characters or plot updates, which more and more just tumble together into some kind of redundant middleground.
That ‘middleness’ is a problem in the end. An American media academic, Curtis White, has recently been trying to establish, not entirely convincingly, the idea of ‘the middle mind’ as a way of defining the ways in which contemporary cultural commodity is both manufactured and received, as
“...pragmatic, plainspoken, populist, contemptuous of the right’s narrowness, and incredulous before the left’s convolutions”.
He is keen to locate a sense of quality, tastefulness, and liberality through this definition, and in the ways it brings itself before our individual and collective consciousnesses:
“…the Middle Mind is present effortlessly. It comes to us with convincing and implicit claim, ‘You’ve been curious about this, you’ve been waiting for it, and wondering about it, and here it is.’” (10)
We’re used to this kind of hype, and selling, of course, but White is also interested in allowing us to consider afresh the place of ‘creativity’ in the industrial context:
“...however liberal its methods, the Middle Mind is still a form of management, and its final purpose, even if its not a purpose it’s aware of, is to assure that the imagination is not abroad, not out and about, and certainly not doing its own powerful thing.” (11)
This notion of the complicit connection between makers and audiences is an important one within the creation of political consensus and control. It might provide a way to measure Jackson’s achievement with his entire project, its ‘success’, because Return of the King, like its two predecessors, is not really a work of the imagination in the sense mooted by White. It is a triumph of management, and all of management’s extensions into promotion and technology. It allows the question to be asked whether the Jackson team can be seen as artists, or as artisans; Jackson as essentially an illustrator of Tolkein’s book, on behalf of a willingly receptive ‘middle mind’ clientele.
The commodity take on ‘entertainment’ essentially as distraction, finds in Film a particular conviction, which is its ability to move everything towards the condition, or genre, of fantasy (‘the tendency of Meliés’s given added verisimilitude by ‘the tendency of Lumière’ – hence, for example, the particular hard-edged quality which the artifacts of Weta Workshop add to Jackson’s film). In a recently published three-way conversation between once luminary Hollywood directors William Friedkin, Brian de Palma, and Paul Verhoeven, none of them notable as part of Cinema’s intellectual elite, and all in their successful pasts guilty of form over content as much as the next, they morosely consider how less than ever, the dramatic film can affect and even change peoples’ lives. “Audiences and young film-makers”, offers Friedkin, “don’t want to go to those places, and in any case, US film is almost entirely fantasy-driven, comic books and video games.” (12) Verhoeven adds, “I feel fed up with the formulaic thinking and absence of values, and of any relationship to life.” All three filmmakers, of course, are tangentially if fatally connected to European practice, and such a lament does re-iterate that mutual miscomprehension between the ideals and aesthetics of American movie business and European artistic pretension, which Wim Wenders so essentially summed up in his 1982 The State of Things. That ‘state’ hasn’t shifted much, except in its increasing capitulation to American hegemony in the current Bush years. From the very beginning, Jackson embraced the former with gusto, but Tolkein’s ‘European’ credentials have also helped make him seem at home within the latter. The project was always a clever business calculation.
Return of the King does pitch, for example, and maybe without much real thought, and certainly now historically disconnected from any sense of ‘real life’, one of the most cherished fantasies of sentimental conservatism: that there exists a king to be returned. There is a myth of royal power and privilege that still hovers in the air, transmitting itself in the English speaking world from Tolkein’s class-ridden vision of England (Jackson’s film faithfully reproduces the bucolic, forelock-touching subservience of the Shire folk), via the colonial histories of both New Zealand and the US, into the idea of a fantasy social and political order which is beyond question. In New Zealand, the ‘Crown’ still imposes its authority on a fragile political identity which goes on delaying a proper embrace of republicanism, while in the American Republic, there is a view of British, even European, monarchy and its still attendant class systems as representing a ‘quality’ act which its own less blooded elites can still aspire to. Showbiz and tourism provide the popular access for subjects/fans, this latter semantic confusion of the hereditary and the industrialised marking, in Return of the King, both in the soppy ritual of Aragorn’s crowning in the film itself, and in Wellington’s day out, with its chosen courtiers walking the Red Carpet to witness it, ‘real life’ having been put on a twenty four hour hold. In both contexts, ‘we’ are subjects, to be subjected
Playing the same time in Wellington as Return of the King was Lars von Trier’s latest song of innocence and experience, Dogville, and I think some of the comparisons that can be made between the two films might be provocative here. Dogville, far and away this director’s finest achievement, is a film about which, unlike Return of the King, the right amount can be spoken of judiciously and with some certainty, in critical mind. Von Trier’s take on the fable is much more in the sense of consciously imparting ‘some useful lesson’ (Shorter Oxford) than Tolkein’s more helpless and ‘academic’ evocation of a mythic field, or Jackson’s recourse to the much lesser ambition of fantasy for its own architectonic and decorative sake. But like the Ring trilogy as a whole, its narrative concern is to place an unwilling, vulnerable bearer of Consciousness’s terrible burden of knowledge into the centre of the stage, and have to deal to it, take on board responsibility for it, and somehow off-load its overwhelming force.
Nicole Kidman’s educated and cultivated Grace is not an innocent in the same sense as the bumpkin Frodo; and her fatalistic advance towards her Mount Doom reveals it to be geologically undemonstrative and quite lacking in usefully purifying heat and flame. No relentless unleashing of monsters of brute strength, size, tooth and claw, daunt her path, but just everyday folk ambiguously about their everyday business as best they can. And no shackling with a lightweight ring about the neck, which can eventually be detached and thrown out of existence, but instead encumbered by the gift of the townsfolk’s resentment and fear, leashed to her place by its weight like an animal, pulled down and trapped by gravity. And no warriors or wizards to work their muscles and magic to help clear the pathway to redemption, but only the naive and appropriating Tom (Paul Bettany), who has no tricks up his sleeve other than the all-too-human one of destructive self-deception.
Besides, Grace is a woman, and her moral involvement in the predicaments of Evil, as a freely acting agent caught on the horns of dilemma between choice and necessity, is central to Von Trier’s evocation of gangster and depression America, while the mere presence of women in Jackson’s quasi-medieval quest obscures them into their profoundly secondary roles as spiritual backup to the boys, despite Eowyn’s (Miranda Otto) spunky attempts to get out there in the frontlines and whack everything that moves with her sword. Do women actually live in the world? is a question that the space between these two films gives rise to; and if so, to what degree is that existence equal to the burdensome knowledge of its lethal struggles for power, hitherto historically largely borne and battled for by men?
Von Trier’s film very clearly invites us to see Evil as a profoundly elusive entity, emerging through imponderable accumulations of time, circumstance, and human nature, and while there is enough similarity between the jollifications in the pubs and commons of the Shire, and Dogville’s sentimental Fourth of July celebrations and speeches, the latter can never be returned to, in story terms, once the Oppressor’s eye is turned firmly towards them. James Caan’s gangster dad is identified in Dogville only as ‘the big man’, willing to engage in extended moral and ethical discourse on the complexities of power in the comfort of the back of his roadster; he doesn’t apologise for necessity, but he is entertained enough by its delay, and tries to reason his misguided adversary into understanding his finally unassailable point of view. His action in the world is characterised in the film entirely by inaction, a certain passivity. Which contrasts with the relentless frenzy of Jackson’s film(s), where power is abstracted through Sauron’s radiating force-fields, and within which beats a single refrain of choreographic conflict, everything always on the wing, on the hoof, on the sprint, clashing and battling, hand to hand and face to face (however ludicrous the augmenting and accelerating sense of mismatched adversaries).
And, while like Frodo, Grace has managed to continually thrust the Ring away from her in the past, her experience of the days and months spent journeying to her own particular Mount Doom, with all their personal abuses and existential terrors, convinces her that it isn’t her business to throw it and lose it, even if that were possible, but to finally wear it, and exercise it. So a terrible justice is meted out to the townsfolk. The ‘Shire’ of Dogville is obliterated by the person whose single initial intention was to support, defend, and celebrate it. There is no soft redemption (tediously extended) in a glow of golden sun and tear-filled eyes, as in Return of the King; the ritualised tropes of closure, sutured into Hollywood, or Wellywood, narrative, and so qualifying the nature of ‘film’ as commodity, are, in Dogville, left uncomfortably raw and open, and while we still essentially sympathise with Grace as protagonist, and the ‘appropriateness’ of her choice, we are nonetheless, in leaving the cinema, uneasy, and debating the issue. This is a film that supports our real sense of the open incompleteness of experience, in life; the quest compromised, lost trace of, brought face to face with even greater dilemmas.
And this is not to deny the nature of the film as ‘fantasy’. All films are speculative more or less; a fiction text allows us to engage with the unconsidered and not experienced, the basis of the ‘what-if’ of all stories. But there is a heap of difference, for audiences, for readership, between entertaining the propositions of a narrative, and merely being entertained by them. This is the whole bugbear of the industrialisation of the image in the face of mass consumption; the degrees to which a text offers relativities of engagement or avoidance. It is interesting to note how close Jackson and von Trier are as contemporary film-makers – both from small countries outside the production mainstream, with roughly the same number of completed works; both famously stay-at-homers as a way of declaring the integrity of their independence, men with something to prove; both quirkily innovative workaholics. But the mise-en-scènes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dogville display quite opposing attitudes to cinematic innovation. Jackson’s films cram the frame with the detail of a world to be completely seen, as confirmation of the essential illusion of cinema. What you get is what you see, over-primed for emotive immersion, the ride. He and his associates use technologies to exquisitely meet this aim, even if the latter parts give the impression of composition-by-numbers, because the endless proliferation of ‘The Makings of...’ promotional vehicles have made this, finally, the purpose of the films. How am I doing it, not why am I doing it. State-of-the-art for Jackson and his associates means sustaining the illusion for longer and longer periods into more and more untenable (impossible) terrains, steadicam operating at every scale and mesh.
On the other hand, von Trier does away with most of the in-frame aspects that sustain the illusion of cinema. Quite the opposite, we are in a rehearsal studio in Dogville, and never leave it. Or rather, he confuses, or alienates, or distanciates, absolutely in the Brechtian sense and with Brechtian purpose to help instruct, through the many means by which a film text can present itself as coherently readable, including its own very partially notated decor – the placing of the low-key naturalistic performances of the actors within this anti-illusionary environment adding to the complex read which we, the audience, must be prepared to offer it. In other words, much of the film is not within the frame, but somewhere outside it, between the screen and our gaze, searching out in both directions; the spectator searching into the screen; the screen (and its strategies) searching out into the spectators. Jackson’s film, via Tolkien’s blueprint, reiterates and confirms humanism, as in American film generally, as a sentimental and unquestionable (Caucasian) touchstone, however strange the mix of quasi-humans who gaze into the film’s concluding sunset. Von Trier’s film, on the other hand, investigates the defects of humanism. In terms of the technologies of production, Jackson exhausts patience with tricks, all of the same kind, to perfection. Von Trier experiments with how production has “… arrived at a position where everything is possible”. Film, theatre, and literature are combined to show, unambiguously, why he is doing it, what ‘useful lesson’ his film is delivering, hand-held to a fault. Politically, one can anticipate how this might be received in the centres of production, distribution, and their accompanying ideologies. J. Hoberman reported one American critic howling out after the New York press showing of Dogville, “I can’t decide who I’d like to kill first – the man who made the movie or the people who like it!”(13) In such a context of reception, given the goods he’s capable of delivering (at least for now), Jackson is the made man you would least want to kill, a director who cannot be other than adored, garnishing the accolades of those same critics, in those casinos where the best odds are always with the light that is most pixilated.
So, at the end as from the beginning, there is nothing to say about The Return of the King, just as there is nothing to say about Lord of the Rings. Just as there is nothing to say about a cyclone. It is a huge investment of energy, ingenuity, and managerial skill, but in the end, sound and fury signifying nothing very much at all. Tumultuous, accelerating images amidst seismic and saturating din. We are so used to these blitzes, these weather systems of technologically enhanced spectacle passing through, spinning us around thrice, and leaving us dazed amongst commodification’s detritus, immediately hunkering down for the next one, that we have long ago forgotten what it takes to dare to think. What do we dare to think about this film and its surrounding events? What is its connection with a world that we still just about experience on a daily basis? That there is a crisis in the world that we can call evil, sure. But what else is new? It might take a lot more to get to grips with than swords and yelling. There’s nothing in Jackson’s film version that wasn’t apparent in the original epic novels fifty years ago, and even then, Tolkien was hardly a man who welcomed in the twentieth century and all its works. In our sense of what the Cinema is still capable of offering, is bang, flash and flare the only way we want to engage with the bafflingly complex 21st?
1. Cited in Jonathan Pitches, Vsevelod Meyerhold, Routledge 2003, p.5.
2. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, Polity Press2001, p.152.
3. op cit. p.167.
4. Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, in The Complete Works of Nathanael West, Octagon Books, 1981.
5. New Zealand Telecom, In Touch, January 2004.
6. James Belich, Paradise Reforged, p.341.
7. Alexsandar Dundjerovic, The Cinema of Robert Lepage: the Poetics of Memory, p.221.
8. Heinrich Von Kleist, 'On the Marionette Theatre (The Puppet Theatre)' in Heinrich von Kleist: Selected Writings, ed. David Constantine. J.M.Dent 1997, pp 411-416.
13. all quotes, Sight and Sound, January 2004.