Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Hobbit

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

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December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

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.”

The fanfic disposition

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Yesterday, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s insightful opinion piece on the proposed HBO series Confederate, which was headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” I’m still sorting out my own feelings toward this show, an alternate history set in the present day in which the South won the Civil War, but I found myself agreeing with just about everything that Gay writes, particularly when she confesses to her own ambivalence:

As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. [Creators] Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel.

And I was especially struck by Gay’s comparison of the show’s premise to fanfic. Her essay, which appeared in the New York Times, only uses the phrase “fan fiction” once, linking to a tweet from the critic Pilot Bacon, and while its use in reference to Confederate isn’t literally true—at least not if we define fanfic as a derivative work based on characters or ideas by another author—its connotations are clear. Fairly or not, it encapsulates the notion that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are appropriating existing images and themes to further their own artistic interests.

Even if we table, for now, the question of whether the criticism is justified, it’s worth looking at the history of the word “fanfic” as a pejorative term. I’ve used it that way here myself, particularly in reference to works of art that amount to authorial wish fulfillment toward the characters, like the epilogue to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (Looking back at my old posts, I see that I even once used it to describe a scene in one of my own novels.) Watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently with my wife, I commented that certain scenes, like the big fight at Dol Guldur, felt like fanfic, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to get Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee to reprise all their old roles. And you often see such comparisons made by critics. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw devoted an entire article on The Daily Dot to the ways in which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child resembled a wok of “badfic,” while Ian Crouch of The New Yorker tried to parse the difference between fanfic and such works as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea:

Fan fiction is surely not a new phenomenon, nor is it an uninteresting one, but it is different in kind and quality from a work like Rhys’s, or, to take a recent example, Cynthia Ozick’s remarkable new novel, Foreign Bodies, which reimagines the particulars of The Ambassadors, by Henry James. Not only do these books interpret texts in the public domain…but they do so with an admirable combination of respect and originality.

As a teenager, I wrote a lot of X-Files fanfic, mostly because I knew that it would give me a readily available audience for the kind of science fiction that I liked, and although I look back on that period in my life with enormous affection—I think about it almost every day—I’m also aware of the limitations that it imposed on my development as a writer. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows you to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining our interest and sympathy. It begins in an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, the writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. This even holds true when the writer is going back to characters that he or she originally created or realized onscreen. When J.K. Rowling revisits her most famous series or Peter Jackson gives us a fight scene with Elrond and the Ringwraiths, there’s an inescapable sense that all of the heavy lifting took place at an earlier stage. These artists are trading on the affection that we hold toward narrative decisions made years ago, instead of drawing us into the story in the moment. And even when the name on the title page or the director’s credit is the same, readers and viewers can sense when creators are indulging themselves, rather than following the logic of the underlying material.

This all means that fanfic, at its worst, is a code word for a kind of sentimentality, as John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

If the storyteller appears to stock response (our love of God or country, our pity for the downtrodden, the presumed warm feelings all decent people have for children and small animals)…then the effect is sentimentality, and no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it.

Replace “children and small animals” with Harry Potter and Gandalf, and you have a concise description of how fanfic works, encouraging readers to plow through tens of thousands of words because of the hard work of imaginative empathy that someone else did long ago. When Gay and Bacon compare Confederate to fan fiction, I think that this is what they mean. It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge before Benioff and Weiss have written a line. You could argue that countless works of art have done the same thing—the canonical work of Civil War fanfic has got to be Gone With the Wind—but if slavery seems somehow different now, it’s largely because of the timing, as Gay notes: “We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide.” Benioff and Weiss spent years developing their premise, and when they began, they couldn’t have anticipated the environment in which their announcement would be received. I don’t want the project to be canceled, which would have a freezing effect throughout the industry, but they should act as if they’re going to be held to a higher standard. Because they will be.

A change of hobbit

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Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

When I’m working through my beloved special features on the Lord of the Rings box set, I sometimes need to remind myself that they aren’t the primary work, and that it’s the films themselves that should matter most. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in the supplemental materials—the richest I’ve seen on any home video release—to the point where you start to neglect the movies they’re supposed to document. And there seems to be something about Tolkien himself, or the world he created, that encourages this kind of attitude. When you look at the endless shelves of notes, discarded drafts, and miscellaneous backstory that Christopher Tolkien has published from his father’s archives, you begin to feel as if the original novels were just one possible manifestation of the author’s underlying decades of thought. That’s true of any work of art, to some extent, but the degree to which Tolkien’s creative process has been documented makes it seem as if the books were created to enable the work behind them, rather than the other way around. (Tolkien, who wrote the trilogy initially as an excuse to develop his Elvish languages, might have agreed.) And the same philosophy seems to have affected the Peter Jackson adaptations, which chronicle the production process so exhaustively that the movies themselves can come off as incidental. And while this might be unfair to The Lord of the Rings, it’s less so with The Hobbit, which still strikes me, to quote Bilbo, as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I still haven’t seen The Battle of the Five Armies, but I may need to check out the special edition, judging from a production featurette that was recently released online. Bryan Bishop of The Verge describes it as “the most honest promotional video of all time,” and in fact, it provides some startling—and discouraging—insights into why The Hobbit turned out to be so underwhelming. Even in the earliest footage released from the shoot, Peter Jackson looked tired and discouraged, and in this glimpse behind the scenes, we start to understand why. According to the featurette, Guillermo Del Toro’s abrupt departure from the production and Jackson’s equally sudden arrival left every creative department scrambling to catch up, and they never managed to get ahead of the game. The Weta design guru Richard Taylor, who is one of my secret heroes, says that they were constantly delivering the props needed for each day’s filming, and he waxes nostalgic about The Lord of the Rings, in which they had over three years to prepare, with entire racks of armor ready months in advance. In the words of production manager Brigitte Yorke: “Peter never got a chance to prep these movies. I can’t say that. But he didn’t!” Jackson came straight from Tintin, got sick for six weeks, and had only two months to restart the process from scratch before shooting commenced. For much of that time, he was operating on three hours of sleep a night, hoping to keep going in any way he could. As Taylor puts it: “You’re laying the tracks directly in front of the train.”

Peter Jackson

By Jackson’s own account, he was able to “wing it” fairly well—telling the crew to take a long lunch while he puzzled out problems alone on the set, even as the scripts continued to be rewritten—until he had to film the titular Battle of Five Armies itself, when his lack of time to think finally caught up with him. Andy Serkis’s second unit was banking entire rolls of generic fight elements when Jackson told them to stop, and production was halted, much to the shock of the crew, until the following year. Jackson says: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” And as much as this explains some of the problems that clearly afflicted The Hobbit from the beginning, it’s hard to understand why everyone is being so candid. (In The Verge, Bishop writes: “I’m frankly shocked that any promotional clip would be this straightforward about the problems the film had, but hey—whatever gets people talking about the movie.”) Part of it is probably due to the fact that documenting every stage of the production had turned into a habit itself, and it’s hard to stop that process even when the shoot itself goes sideways. It doesn’t go quite so far as such documentaries as Hearts of Darkness or Burden of Dreams, but as far as bonus features are concerned, the shift in tone captured here seems unique. Not even The Lovely Bones, which produced some of the most painstakingly assembled featurettes imaginable for a fatally flawed film, gives you quite the same sense of a movie spiraling out of control.

Yet there’s another explanation that gets closer to the heart of the matter. The video that we see here feels like the first half of a narrative familiar from all creative stories, cinematic or otherwise: the triumph over impossible odds. Despite formidable setbacks, the artist wins out in the end over all the constraints that time, money, and energy imposed, and the result vindicates the years he devoted to the acquisition of his craft. And for the first Lord of the Rings trilogy—which was beset by its share of production woes—that narrative made sense. (It also absorbs the myth that we find in the stories themselves, in which a ragtag fellowship triumphs over the seemingly invincible forces of Sauron.) If The Battle of the Five Armies had emerged as a masterpiece, the pessimistic tone of this featurette would more than satisfy the narrative function it was meant to fill, as Gandalf’s deep breath before the plunge. Instead, it gives us the first half of the cliché but not the second, and the mediocre quality of the resulting movie makes its candor seem bewildering. But that’s a lesson in itself. On this blog, I’ve often glamorized the role that constraints play in the creative process: “To achieve great things,” Leonard Bernstein is supposed to have said, “two things are needed—a plan, and not quite enough time.” But that’s usually as true of bad works of art as of good. We tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. That can be a hard truth to swallow. And if the example of The Hobbit has any value, it’s to remind us that not every creative road leads out of Mordor.

The road goes ever on

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Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

For the last few days, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through the commentary tracks for the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sometimes feels like as long of a journey as any of the characters undertake. So far, we’re sticking to the primary commentaries for each movie, featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, which barely scratches the surface of the material available: each film has three other commentaries for members of the cast and crew, adding up to something like twelve hours of additional listening, not to mention the countless documentaries, featurettes, and galleries on the three bonus discs. (It’s a borrowed box set—my brother-in-law lent it to us over Christmas—and I doubt we’ll get through even half of it before it’s time to give it back.) It also makes me feel as if I’m a decade late to the party. The commentaries for each movie were recorded and released shortly before the following installments appeared in theaters, which serves as a reminder of how more than ten years can seem to slip by in a flash, as well as a fascinating glimpse into how Jackson and his collaborators felt about each picture at the time.

It’s obvious, for instance, that they regard The Two Towers as the weakest movie in the trilogy. Part of this is due to the fact, as Jackson notes, that it’s arguably the least interesting of the original three volumes, with quintessential second-act problems blown up to a massive scale, but it also appears to have suffered during the production process. Shooting began using a relatively early version of the script, and the filmmakers admit that if they had been given more time, they might have reworked certain elements, particularly Frodo and Sam’s interminable sojourn with Faramir. Postproduction and promotional duties for Fellowship also left them with a tighter working schedule than before. As a result, there’s a mildly defensive, even apologetic tone to many of their comments, which explicitly respond to criticisms that the movie received after its release. We’re repeatedly invited to let certain scenes “play out” in our heads with certain controversial elements removed, so we can see why, for instance, it was the right call to give Aragorn a fakeout death scene at the end of the warg attack, or why Faramir’s character needs to be rewritten to make him more tempted by the Ring.

Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

These are all valid points, but they also point to a weakness in The Two Towers that, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining why the two parts we’ve seen thus far of The Hobbit are so much less satisfying than their predecessors: it’s written from the head, not the heart. The Two Towers plays less like a story that demanded to be told in its own right than as an ingenious solution to a series of narrative conundrums. On paper, the calls that Jackson and the others made are absolutely right: the big climaxes of Shelob and the confrontation with Saruman were best postponed to the next movie—or, in Saruman’s case, cut out of the theatrical trilogy altogether—and other stories had to be pumped up to take up the dramatic slack. The result, though, is a movie where we can sense the pieces being assembled into a passably coherent whole, rather than one that unfolds under its own momentum. That’s true of The Hobbit as well, except that the seams are even more visible. Jackson and his collaborators deserve a lot of credit for pulling off these movies at all, but it’s a bad sign when we’re equally aware of the logic taking place behind the scenes as of the events unfolding on the screen itself.

And this makes me strangely hopeful about The Hobbit‘s final installment. The two movies released so far have been watchable but underwhelming, and that’s largely because they’ve been thought through rather than felt: a lot of their energy is devoted to inventing satisfying climaxes where none existed before, figuring out an approach to transitional material, and giving characters enough to do while keeping important parts in reserve. In theory, There and Back Again shouldn’t suffer from the same issues—its climaxes are already there, and most of the heavy lifting has been done by the earlier chapters. It’s even possible that the first two movies will seem stronger in retrospect. (I’m also looking forward to the inevitable fan edit that cuts the trilogy together into a single three-hour movie, which I suspect will become the version of choice for a lot of casual viewers.) That’s the funny thing about these films: because we have so much other material to draw upon, from the original books to the extended cuts to the vast amount of conceptual art, they still feel like works in progress. More than any other movies I know, they’re capable of being endlessly revised in our heads, or of allowing us, as Philippa Boyens says in her commentary, to dream of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2013 at 9:48 am

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

Why hobbits need to be short

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Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s never easy to adapt a beloved novel for the screen. On the one hand, you have a book that has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest works of speculative fiction of all time, with a devoted fanbase and an enormous invented backstory spread across many novels and appendices. On the other, you have a genius director who moved on from his early, bizarre, low-budget features to a triumphant mainstream success with multiple Oscar nominations, but whose skills as a storyteller have sometimes been less reliable than his unquestioned visual talents. The result, after a protracted development process clouded by rights issues, financial difficulties, and the departure of the previous director, is an overlong movie with too many characters that fails to capture the qualities that drew people to this story in the first place. By trying to appease fans of the book while also drawing in new audiences, it ends up neither here nor there. While it’s cinematically striking, and has its defenders, it leaves critics mostly cold, with few of the awards or accolades that greeted its director’s earlier work. And that’s why David Lynch had so much trouble with Dune.

But it’s what Lynch did next that is especially instructive. After Dune‘s financial failure, he found himself working on his fourth movie under far greater constraints, with a tiny budget and a contractual runtime of no more than 120 minutes. The initial cut ran close to three hours, but eventually, with the help of editor Duwayne Dunham, he got it down to the necessary length, although it meant losing a lot of wonderful material along the way. And what we got was Blue Velvet, which isn’t just Lynch’s best film, but my favorite American movie of all time. I recently had the chance to watch all of the deleted scenes as part of the movie’s release on Blu-ray, and it’s clear that if Lynch had been allowed to retain whatever footage he wanted—as he clearly does these days—the result would have been a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, important, but ultimately a film that I wouldn’t need to see more than once. The moral, surprisingly enough, is that even a director like Lynch, a genuine artist who has earned the right to pursue his visions wherever they happen to take him, can benefit from the need, imposed by a studio, to cut his work far beyond the level where he might have been comfortable.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Obviously, the case of Peter Jackson is rather different. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an enormous international success, and did as much as anything to prove that audiences will still sit happily through a movie of more than three hours if the storytelling is compelling enough. As a result, Jackson was able to make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as long as he liked, which is precisely the problem. The Hobbit isn’t a bad movie, exactly; after an interminable first hour, it picks up considerably in the second half, and there are still moments I’m grateful to have experienced on the big screen. Yet I can’t help feeling that if Jackson had felt obliged, either contractually or artistically, to bring it in at under two hours, it would have been vastly improved. This would have required some hard choices, but even at a glance, there are entire sequences here that never should have made it past a rough cut. As it stands, we’re left with a meandering movie that trades largely on our affection for the previous trilogy—its actors, its locations, its music. And if this had been the first installment of a series, it’s hard to imagine it making much of an impression on anyone. Indeed, it might have justified all our worst fears about a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien.

And the really strange thing is that Jackson has no excuse. For one thing, it isn’t the first time he’s done this: I loved King Kong, but I still feel that it would have been rightly seen as a game changer on the level of Avatar if he’d cut it by even twenty minutes. And unlike David Lynch and Blue Velvet, whose deleted scenes remained unseen for decades before being miraculously rediscovered, Jackson knows that even if has to cut a sequence he loves, he has an audience of millions that will gladly purchase the full extended edition within a year of the movie’s release. But it takes a strong artistic will to accept such constraints if they aren’t being imposed from the outside, and to acknowledge that sometimes an arbitrary limit is exactly what you need to force yourself to make those difficult choices. (My own novels are contractually required to come in somewhere around 100,000 words, and although I’ve had to cut them to the bone to get there, they’ve been tremendously improved by the process, to the point where I intend to impose the same limit on everything I ever write.) The Hobbit has two more installments to go, and I hope Jackson takes the somewhat underwhelming critical and commercial response to the first chapter to heart. Because an unwillingness to edit your work is a hard hobbit to break.

“Sufficient art, cunning, or material…”

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Map of Middle-earth

I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really, stupendously long narrative and see whether I had sufficient art, cunning or material to make a really long narrative that would hold the average reader right through. One of the best forms for a long narrative is the adage found in The Hobbit, though in a much more elaborate form, of a pilgrimage and journey with an object. So that was inevitably the form I adopted.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As Tolkien knew, every novel, regardless of the scale or modesty of its conception, begins as a test that an author sets for himself. No matter how many times you’ve been through the process before, a novel always presents itself initially as a set of unanswered questions, both about the details of the actual story and about the author’s own talents and capabilities. And the only way of resolving such questions involves many months or years of sustained work that may, in the end, turn out to be fruitless or misguided. Reading the passage above, I’m fascinated by the fact that Tolkien’s original challenge to himself was simply to write a very long book that would hold the reader’s interest—an almost impossible proposition for most writers—and that his most crucial decision, to build the book around a pilgrimage or quest, was in some ways a technical solution to the problem of structuring this massive narrative.

And the key word here is cunning. Tolkien never had any reason to doubt his own intelligence, or his ability to generate extraordinary amounts of material for his imagined legendarium, but the tactical, tricky, flexible craft required to keep the pages turning was another matter entirely, and there’s no particular reason to believe that even a professor of philology at Oxford would have the skills required. (For one thing, they seem to have largely eluded Tolkien’s posthumous editors.) Reading Tolkien’s letters, you get a sense of a very shrewd storyteller who is well aware of the workings and practicalities of his carefully constructed fantasy, as in his treatment of those notorious eagles: “The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine,'” he writes. “I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.” Credibility, usefulness, cunning—these are the words of a writer highly attuned to the tricks of the trade. We’re all on a similar journey. And the road goes ever on.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2012 at 9:50 am

Guillermo’s Labyrinth

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Daniel Zalewski’s recent New Yorker piece on Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies, is the most engaging profile I’ve read of any filmmaker in a long time. Much of this is due to the fact that del Toro himself is such an engaging character: enthusiastic and overweight, he’s part auteur and part fanboy, living in a house packed with ghouls and monsters, including many of the maquettes from his own movies. And the article itself is equally packed with insights into the creative process. On creature design:

Del Toro thinks that monsters should appear transformed when viewed from a fresh angle, lest the audience lose a sense of awe. Defining silhouettes is the first step in good monster design, he said. “Then you start playing with movement. The next element of design in color. And then finally—finally—comes detail. A lot of people go the other way, and just pile up a lot of detail.”

On Ray Harryhausen:

“He used to say, ‘Whenever you think of a creature, think of a lion—how a lion can be absolutely malignant or benign, majestic, depending on what it’s doing. If your creature cannot be in repose, then it’s a bad design.'”

And in an aside that might double as del Toro’s personal philosophy:

“In emotional genres, you cannot advocate good taste as an argument.”

Reading this article makes me freshly mourn the fact that del Toro won’t be directing The Hobbit. I like Peter Jackson well enough, but part of me feels that if del Toro had been allowed to apply his practical, physical approach to such a famous property—much as Christopher Nolan did with the effects in Inception—the history of popular filmmaking might have been different. As it stands, I can only hope that Universal gives the green light to del Toro’s adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness, a prospect that fills me with equal parts joy and eldritch terror. Judging from what I’ve heard so far, it sounds like del Toro is planning to make the monster movie to end all monster movies. Let’s all hope that he gets the chance.

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