Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The desolation of slog

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Over the last few months, I’ve developed a hobby that I’d have trouble justifying even to myself—I’ve spent countless hours watching the special features for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, a series that I don’t even like. (It would be nice to pretend that I’ve been celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, which took place last week, but I frankly wasn’t even aware of it until the other day.) My deep dive into Hobbit featurettes came out of a confluence of circumstances that I doubt will ever recur. I’ve always loved the production videos for The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve compared elsewhere to a film school in a box set, and for years, they’ve served as my evening comfort food of choice, especially on days when I’m so tired from work and parenting to do anything but stare blankly at a television screen. During a period when I was exceptionally busy with the book, I worked through most of them yet again, proceeding backward from The Return of the King to Fellowship. Before long, though, I’d burned through them all, and it occurred to me that I might be able to get a similar fix from that other series of movies about Middle-earth. A glance at Amazon and some good timing revealed that I could buy the extended editions of all three Hobbit films for about ten dollars apiece. I’d been meaning to check out the special features ever since seeing the extraordinary authorized video that highlighted Jackson’s exhaustion during the filming of The Battle of the Five Armies, and shelling out thirty bucks for fifteen DVDs seemed like it would provide a decent return on investment.

As it turned out, it did. Not because of the featurettes themselves, which for the most part are a step down from their equivalents for The Lord of the Rings, but because of the light that they inadvertently shed on what went wrong with The Hobbit. Viewers hoping for Peter Jackson’s equivalent of Burden of Dreams or Hearts of Darkness are likely to be disappointed—the tone of the bonus features is relentlessly upbeat, and there are only occasional admissions of the possibility that anything might be going sideways. (Jackson’s graying hair, fluctuating weight, and visible tiredness tell us more than anything that he says aloud.) What sticks with you, unfortunately, is the length and tediousness of most of these videos, which seem like an expression of the same misconceptions that went into the movies themselves. The Hobbit trilogy reunited much of the original cast and crew for a project that, on paper, had no excuse for not reproducing at least some of the magic of its predecessor. Yet it feels for all the world like an attempt at reverse engineering, based only on the qualities of the first trilogy that could be most efficiently replicated. The Lord of the Rings consisted of three movies that came close to three hours each; therefore, so does The Hobbit. Viewers loved the epic battle scenes of the earlier films, so The Hobbit gives them lots of the same. A badass action sequence in which Legolas defies gravity? Check. A love triangle? Why not? Fan service reappearances from Elrond, Saruman, Galadriel, and other characters we liked the first time around? Of course.  And when the characters couldn’t return, The Hobbit finds their non-union equivalents. Bard the Bowman is called “the Aragon of The Hobbit” so often in the bonus features that I lost count.

By now, many viewers have come to see The Hobbit as a kind of simulation of the original, recreating it in broad, quantitative strokes while missing most of the qualitative factors that made The Lord of the Rings special. What surprised me, at this late date, was the discovery that the bonus features did exactly the same thing. The Lord of the Rings featurettes expanded to epic length because there was simply so much to explore, from conceptual design to training the horses to the workers at Weta who made so many suits of chain mail that they literally rubbed away their fingerprints. With The Hobbit, the special features seem to be just as long, if not longer, and they seem to have been driven by the same logic that went into the movies. Viewers love having multiple discs of bonus material, the reasoning goes, so we’ll give it to them—and if you’re simply weighing the physical size of these editions against the Lord of the Rings box sets that you already own, you’ll be happy. (It’s the opposite of the metric preferred by Apple, which uses thinness as a proxy for quality.) But it’s hard to convey how bloated these videos are. To give just one example, there’s a scene in The Desolation of Smaug in which the Master of Laketown, played gamely by Stephen Fry, eats a plate of goat testicles for breakfast. As the bonus features take pains to inform us, they aren’t real testicles, but carefully molded meatballs, although Fry still had to gulp them down in vast quantities. In a Lord of the Rings featurette, this detail might have merited a cutaway shot, a funny outtake, and a dry witticism during Fry’s talking head. With The Hobbit, it goes on for minutes on end. I had my laptop out while I was watching it, and when I glanced up after what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, they were still talking about testicles.

It isn’t hard to guess what happened. The creators of the bonus features—who, it must be said, know how to put together an attractive, professional product—were expected to produce a certain volume of footage, on the assumption that fans would be happy with hours of anything. As a result, the most trivial byways of the production, like the fake testicles, get the same loving treatment as the hallway fight in Inception. I don’t blame the makers of the featurettes, who were just doing their best, but the mindset of the producers who gave them a brief that measured the quality of the outcome by how many discs it managed to fill. (Some of it, I hasten to add, is worth watching. Aside from the weirdly candid postmortem of The Battle of Five Armies that I mentioned above, there’s a fascinating treatment of the orchestrations for The Desolation of Smaug, and my attention perks up whenever Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, or John Howe appear onscreen.) But I keep going back to the fatal flaw of The Hobbit movies themselves. After a certain point, you lose track of why you’re here, so you fall back on benchmarks and targets that worked the first time around. You forget that people didn’t love The Lord of the Rings because each movie was three hours long, but the movies were long because there was so much there that people would love. The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien famously said, but it’s a mistake to confuse that growth for the imaginative impulse that nurtured it. Bonus features might seem like a modest form of art, but the Lord of the Rings featurettes were a masterpiece of their kind, and those for The Hobbit bear exactly the same relationship to their predecessors as the films did. What was lacking in both cases was a basic clarity of thought. As John Fowles wrote in his great novel Daniel Martin, about an English screenwriter in Hollywood: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.”

From Aqaba to the Lonely Mountain

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Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia

Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, and I inadvertently spent this weekend contemplating this principle in action. On Saturday, thanks to my wife’s kindness in giving me a dad’s day off, I saw what I’ve come to think of as The Hobbit: The Triumph of Hope Over Experience. The following day, after hearing of Peter O’Toole’s death, I revisited Lawrence of Arabia, watching its first hour and its last twenty minutes and lingering particularly on its closing image, which may be the greatest final shot in the history of movies. (The fact that, three hours earlier, it also includes the single most memorable cut of all time is only one reminder, as if we needed one, of the riches that this movie contains.) And seeing them back to back made me a little sad. There’s still an appetite for epic cinema, perhaps even more so now than ever, when film competes with so many other media that can’t compare to the movies at their best in terms of scale and immersion. But even as the technical resources at a filmmaker’s disposal become all the more astounding, it’s growing harder to find the deeper qualities that make an epic worth our time.

The difference, to put it as unkindly as possible, is that between a leap of the imagination and an act of brand extension. Roger Ebert has beautifully described the conceptual daring at work in the older film:

What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make Lawrence of Arabia, or even think that it could be made…The impulse to make this movie was based, above all, on imagination. The story of Lawrence is not founded on violent battle scenes or cheap melodrama, but on David Lean’s ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being. He had to know how that would feel before he could convince himself that the project had a chance of being successful.

The Hobbit, or at least its middle chapter, may have had its roots in a similar vision, but in the form it finally takes, it feels like movie born solely out of commercial calculation. The decision to split this story into three lengthy parts may have seemed questionable from the beginning, but now it seems totally indefensible: The Desolation of Smaug isn’t without its merits, but after a promising first act, it turns into ninety minutes of nonstop entertainment stretched into two and a half hours. It’s a movie that only exists for the—admittedly valid—reason that it would add another billion dollars to the coffers of three studios, who can now sleep like Smaug on their treasure hoard, and much of it, like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, feels like nothing more than marking time.

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

As a result, I found myself silently questioning many of the movie’s decisions, rather than getting caught up in the story itself. When an entire movie begins to feel unnecessary, it’s hard for any individual element to seem essential. Evangeline Lilly may be very good in the newly invented role of Tauriel—whose name, I believe, is Elvish for “pandering”—but there’s no escaping the suspicion that her presence here is less about an organic expansion of the material than an attempt to check off all four audience quadrants. Many of the scenes carry an air of obligation, a sense that the filmmakers included them only because of what viewers allegedly expect from this kind of movie. And while Bilbo may be more of an obvious hero in this installment, it also feels as if the writers are scrambling to give him enough to do to justify his name in the title. Lawrence, in fact, has more in common with Bilbo than you’d expect: he’s an unlikely protagonist, not naturally a man of action, thrown into a group of bearded doubters, and ultimately determined to restore a king to his rightful place. Yet he dominates every scene while remaining uniquely himself throughout, while Bilbo spends much of his own movie’s endless middle section as just another face along for the ride.

And despite its huge cast, enormous scale, and plethora of settings, it comes off more than ever as a movie taking place somewhere in a hard drive at Weta Digital. Only a handful of scenes bear any mark of a real location: the beautiful New Zealand landscape is barely in evidence, replaced by what David Thomson has aptly called its “superb, pewterized undertone” created in the absence of real photographed light. Contrast this to Lawrence of Arabia, where the recent digital restoration revealed places where the original negative had cracked and healed over in the desert heat, and you see the difference between a movie that opens a vast window onto the real world and one that merely renders it. Even Pauline Kael, no great fan of Lawrence, wrote: “If you went to see it under the delusion that it was going to be about T.E. Lawrence, you probably stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide.” And that sensual pleasure is precisely what is missing from The Hobbit. I don’t mean to discount the expertise and care that went into each frame of The Desolation of Smaug, which, on an abstract level, filled me with gratitude for the effort involved. Yet it pales in comparison to the legacy of Lawrence as a dispatch from another time and place, a tale, or an adventure, that its makers have survived to tell.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2013 at 9:43 am

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