Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Two Towers

The two kinds of commentaries

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The Principal and the Pauper

There are two sorts of commentary tracks. The first kind is recorded shortly after a movie or television season is finished, or even while it’s still being edited or mixed, and before it comes out in theaters. Because their memories of the production are still vivid, the participants tend to be a little giddy, even punch drunk, and their feelings about the movie are raw: “The wound is still open,” as Jonathan Franzen put it to Slate. They don’t have any distance, and they remember everything, which means that they can easily get sidetracked into irrelevant detail. They don’t yet know what is and isn’t important. Most of all, they don’t know how the film did with viewers or critics, so their commentary becomes a kind of time capsule, sometimes laden with irony. The second kind of commentary is recorded long after the fact, either for a special edition, for the release of an older movie in a new format, or for a television series that is catching up with its early episodes. These tend to be less predictable in quality: while commentaries on recent work all start to sound more or less the same, the ones that reach deeper into the past are either disappointingly superficial or hugely insightful, without much room in between. Memories inevitably fade with time, but this can also allow the artist to be more honest about the result, and the knowledge of how the work was ultimately received adds another layer of interest. (For instance, one of my favorite commentaries from The Simpsons is for “The Principal and the Pauper,” with writer Ken Keeler and others ranting against the fans who declared it—preemptively, it seems safe to say—the worst episode ever.)

Perhaps most interesting of all are the audio commentaries that begin as the first kind, but end up as the second. You can hear it on the bonus features for The Lord of the Rings, in which, if memory serves, Peter Jackson and his cowriters start by talking about a movie that they finished years ago, continue by discussing a movie that they haven’t finished editing yet, and end by recording their comments for The Return of the King after it won the Oscar for Best Picture. (This leads to moments like the one for The Two Towers in which Jackson lays out his reasoning for pushing the confrontation with Saruman to the next movie—which wound up being cut for the theatrical release.) You also see it, on a more modest level, on the author’s commentaries I’ve just finished writing for my three novels. I began the commentary on The Icon Thief way back on April 30, 2012, or less than two months after the book itself came out. At the time, City of Exiles was still half a year away from being released, and I was just beginning the first draft of the novel that I still thought would be called The Scythian. I had a bit of distance from The Icon Thief, since I’d written a whole book and started another in the meantime, but I was still close enough that I remembered pretty much everything from the writing process. In my earliest posts, you can sense me trying to strike the right balance between providing specific anecdotes about the novel itself to offering more general thoughts on storytelling, while using the book mostly as a source of examples. And I eventually reached a compromise that I hoped would allow those who had actually read the book to learn something about how it was put together, while still being useful to those who hadn’t.

Peter Jackson

As a result, the commentaries began to stray further from the books themselves, usually returning to the novel under discussion only in the final paragraph. I did this partly to keep the posts accessible to nonreaders, but also because my own relationship with the material had changed. Yesterday, when I posted the last entry in my commentary on Eternal Empire, almost four years had passed since I finished the first draft of that novel. Four years is a long time, and it’s even longer in writing terms. If every new project puts a wall between you and the previous one, a series of barricades stands between these novels and me: I’ve since worked on a couple of book-length manuscripts that never got off the ground, a bunch of short stories, a lot of occasional writing, and my ongoing nonfiction project. With each new endeavor, the memory of the earlier ones grows dimmer, and when I go back to look at Eternal Empire now, not only do I barely remember writing it, but I’m often surprised by my own plot. This estrangement from a work that consumed a year of my life is a little sad, but it’s also unavoidable: you can’t keep all this information in your head and still stay sane. Amnesia is a coping strategy. We’re all programmed to forget many of our experiences—as well as our past selves—to free up capacity for the present. A novel is different, because it exists in a form outside the brain. Any book is a piece of its writer, and it can be as disorienting to revisit it as it is to read an old diary. As François Mauriac put it: “It is as painful as reading old letters…We touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.” I’m not quite at that point with Eternal Empire, but I’ll sometimes read a whole series of chapters and think to myself, where did that come from?

Under the circumstances, I should count myself lucky that I’m still reasonably happy with how these novels turned out, since I have no choice but to be objective about it. There are things that I’d love to change, of course: sections that run too long, others that seem underdeveloped, conceits that seem too precious or farfetched or convenient. At times, I can see myself taking the easy way out, going with a shortcut or ignoring a possible implication because I lacked the time or energy to do it justice. (I don’t necessarily regret this: half of any writing project involves conserving your resources for when it really matters.) But I’m also surprised by good ideas or connections that seem to have come from outside of me, as if, to use Isaac Asimov’s phrase, I were writing over my own head. Occasionally, I’ll have trouble following my own logic, and the result is less a commentary than a forensic reconstruction of what I must have been thinking at the time. But if I find it hard to remember my reasoning today, it’s easier now than it will be next year, or after another decade. As I suspected at the time, the commentary exists more for me than for anybody else. It’s where I wrote down my feelings about a series of novels that once dominated my life, and which now seem like a distant memory. While I didn’t devote nearly as many hours to these commentaries as I did to the books themselves, they were written over a comparable stretch of time. And now that I’ve gotten to the point of writing a commentary on my commentary—well, it’s pretty clear that it’s time to stop.

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

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