Notes on the Atrocities
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Sunday, February 29, 2004  

Movie Week

Here's the last of the Grand Jeffy nominees.

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson
201 minutes (theatrical release)

It's hard to review a film everyone's seen, particularly one that's really just the third part of a longer narrative. Those who love it love it dearly, and those who are put off by the whole phenomenon aren't going to be swayed by the thoughts of an obscure blogger. So rather than review the film you already know so well, I'll mention just two elements of the larger project and why they so impressed me.

The first element--now widely accepted even by people who don't care for the spectacle--is how Jackson successfully filmed this ur-fantasy tale. Fantasy seems easy. It is the most visual written form, the most obviously cinematic. And yet LOTR is arguably the only artistically successful fantasy film ever made. How did Jackson do it?

He started by locating the essence of the story: large things are accomplished by a group effort, and even the most insignificant-appearing creatures are critical to the success of the whole. (It is not, as generally reported, a tale of good versus evil.) Working from the central point, he found the several other major themes and looked at how Tolkien animated them in his own story. Then Jackson bravely altered the narrative so that it would function successfully as film but retain the essence and themes of the original. What results is a perfectly realized version of the written work, but one that's not slavish in its interpretation.

It was particularly brave because the trilogy has become the canonical fantasy text. Deviations were bound to be despised, but filming the thing without the animating spirit of Tolkien's vision would have produced failure. So Jackson left out Tom Bombadil and Galadriel's gifts and he ended the first movie in a different place than the first book. Gutsy stuff and exactly the right thing to do.

The second thing I admire about the trilogy is how Jackson handled he task of size. This thing was an epic born, and nothing could change that fact. But there are pretentious epics and fatuous epics and sterile epics; on the other hand there are V-8 stories filmed with four-cylinder effects. A lot of movies get the "epic" moniker, but few epics get to be called great.

Jackson hit the sweet spot. Part of making special effects work is in having a big enough vision to include all the gadgetry. One of the main reasons I loved the first Star Wars is because Lucas' world is dirty. Sure, it's a sci-fi, but that doesn't mean there's no dust.

Jackson's vision included that level of detail. He used plenty of computer effects, but he also spent the effort to make vast sets, which always look more realistic. When he could, he used visual compositions to inspire awe, not technology. Perhaps the most stunning visual in the series happens in the last movie, when we see a series of warning fires spread from peak to peak. David Lean's most spectacular shots from Lawrence of Arabia were of immense desert painted by golden sunlight. Jackson is wise to this, and doesn't overplay his hand. The special effects are in service of the story--the acting, characters, and tension are what propel the action. The epic grandeur come later, to elevate these. (Hollywood generally has it backwards, with effects first, and story and character second--if at all.)

What Jackson has accomplished almost seems old hat to us already. Yet I am certain it will stand as the epic of a generation. All adventure movies will automatically have to deal with LOTR's presence. I hope people are still watching Lost in Translation and American Splendor in 25 years. I know they'll be watching Return of the King.

posted by Jeff | 10:59 AM |
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