Monday, December 13, 2004

December 13 Part II

Response to watching The Fellowship of the Ring numerous times this past weekend (if you're not interested, skip the entire post -- it's long and I discuss my response to the piece as an audience member, a writer, and someone who works in the business -- but, most importantly, how it affects me on an archetypical/emotional level).

The interesting thing about watching this film a number of times is how it makes me redefine why I reach out towards specific pieces of work. For instance, I read mystery because I want to know that the murderer will come to justice, because it doesn’t always happen in life. I read romance (rarely) because I want the reassurance that two people can overcome their obstacles and love each other (even when I’m in a good relationship, I occasionally need this reassurance). I came to the Tolkien books years ago and to this film right now with an intense curiosity over a deep need for a very specific catharsis.

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of filmmaking. The vision and the attention to detail are astounding. It is a brilliant film and my comments refer to what it questions within me and is no way meant to say that something in the films should be different.

I had the same reaction to the female characters (as seen so far) in the film as I did in the books – frustration. I wanted more from them. I certainly appreciated Arwen’s ride carrying Frodo outriding the Ring Wraiths – but when she told Strider/Aragorn that she was a faster rider, I wanted just one more beat between the two of them – set in a two-shot – of acknowledgement – instead of the cutting from close-up to close-up which made the split second of reaction and acknowledgement lost in a cut. It went from her statement to his acquiescence without direct response, and that felt unnatural to me. In my opinion, that’s a director’s and/or editor’s choice, rather than an actor’s, and it didn’t work.

And the scene where Arwen says she will give up the immortal life to be with Strider/Aragorn – I felt it was heavy-handed. And it was very much written by a man, even though the screenplay was written by women. They stayed true to Tolkien’s version of the female characters. I don’t mean that in a gender-bashing way, I just mean what man wouldn’t want an elven woman to give up immortality for him? And it’s Tolkien’s wonderful world, so it’s up to him. But if it was up to me, hey, if I give up immortality for a man, I’m not letting him go off on a quest while I’m waiting in the bower. You better believe I’d be at his side with my sword drawn. And not because I’m brave, but because I’m damned stubborn. On top of that, if I was immortal, I’d wait until after the danger was past to give up my immortality. Just in case he does something careless and gets killed.

I wouldn’t have done that at eighteen, but I sure as heck would now.

Also, does that mean, in Tolkien’s world, that the soul doesn’t live past death? Because if the soul did continue past mortal death, it wouldn’t matter whether or not she gave up her immortality, because eventually, they’d be together anyway. Unless there are all sorts of rules governing conduct between elves and mortals which I don’t remember from the books that aren’t dealt with in the film.

Lucky for Strider he’s in love with someone who’s a bit more pliable created by Tolkien than a character created by me.

Also, when Aragorn agonizes over his father’s “weak blood”, I wanted to smack him upside the head. Not the actor, who did a beautiful job with his material, but the character. What about your mother?!!! I wanted to scream. You’d be dead without her valour. She got you out of harm’s way. She protected you by taking you to Rivendell. She showed incredible strength and wisdom. If you doubt your father’s legacy, draw from your mother, you self-involved moron! Considering how much I like this character, it was quite a strong reaction.

With both women, I felt there were too many “I’ll just stand here and shimmer” shots for my taste.

In the books, Strider/Aragorn was my favorite character, at least in the first two books. I remembered him having more of a sense of humour than allowed in the filmed version – the occasional, razor-sharp wit (not sarcasm or irony, as often masquerades as wit in action/adventure films), but true wit that came through in his dealings with the Hobbits, and I missed that in this film. Also, if I remember the books correctly, I was saddened, in some ways, by his character shift from Strider into fully being Aragorn, the King. Instead of growing into his kingship, the way Hal grows in King Henry V in Shakespeare’s plays, I felt that Strider had a real character shift in a way that felt unnatural to me. I’m interested to see how that’s handled in through the movies, and if, having a multi-dimensional man in the role, it will come across as growth rather than a switch.

Of course, it’s absolutely possible I’m mis-remembering the books. It’s been many years since I read them, and I’ve never re-read them because I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy them as much if I re-read them. However, I can see them from my desk.

What I thought was beautifully handled – and I credit the actor Viggo Mortensen with that sense of character and timing – is, near the end of the movie, when Frodo is so frightened that Strider/Aragorn is going to try to take the ring, as Boromir had. Frodo has the ring on his palm. Aragorn looks at it – he’s been worried that he’s as weak as his father when it comes to the ring’s power – and realizes it’s not the ring that’s the solution to what’s in his soul. It’s a slight flicker – the ultimate in subtlety, and the simplicity and relief as he kneels before Frodo and curls Frodo’s fingers around the ring – it’s my favorite type of moment. It’s an answer for both of them, and where their destinies diverge, and they both realize it. That is the moment where he becomes the King, and they both know it. That is the moment when he realizes he can claim his legacy without the corruption to which his father fell prey. Boromir may call him king slightly later, after the battle, but Aragorn becomes King when he places his word above the temptation of power. And he realizes that the ring has no power over him, the way it had power over his father. All of that happened in the merest flicker.

To me, that moment was the strongest point of the entire film.

As a playwright, when I work with actors, when you’ve got the right actor in the right role, you find you can eliminate many words because of the three dimensionality the actor brings to the role. I cut approximately 30% of a script when I work with the actors. And I cut it joyfully. If you’re very, very, VERY lucky, there’s a moment of purity and beauty that hits when the actor brings something so completely unexpected and unique to the moment – and often it’s simple and true – that goes so far beyond what the writer could put into words, but is what lies beneath the words. And, to me, that moment in the film between Strider and Frodo, is the moment.

Another favorite moment happened in the mines, when Boromir and Aragorn barricade the door against the Orc onslaught. Sean Bean brilliantly tosses the line at Mortensen, “They have a cave troll” with the wry undertone of “why would I think this day would get any better?” that just made me howl with laughter.

I’d heard so much hype about Orlando Bloom as Legolas. While he had plenty of time to stand there looking lean and elven and shoot arrows and fight, I hope there’s more character development in the next two movies. There’s obviously a bond with Strider and an ease and respect between them, but I wanted to know more, and I remembered him quite differently from the books. I felt a great deal of the hype was projected, as opposed to what I actually saw on the screen. It’s obvious he has classical theatre training, but he didn’t get much chance to use it.

The actors’ physicality is something I find interesting. The way Strider moves is very defined – an ease within his body, an aloofness while at the same time being engaged in whatever he’s doing, a very specific walk. It makes me want to see more of Mortensen’s work to see if he created this physicality specifically for the role, or if it’s simply the way he moves. I know his work slightly from Witness, but I don’t remember the physicality. I was too frustrated by Kelly McGillis to retain much of the rest of the film. Dominic Monaghan, who plays Merry and is now on Lost, has some of the same reflexive physical characteristics in both roles, yet there are also other carefully defined physicalities separating the two roles. I find that type of work interesting. Some actors do it intuitively and some consciously work on it. If you look at Johnny Depp’s variety of roles, there’s a fluidity to his movements --- even when they’re staccato – that are almost dancer-like. It’s always true to the character, yet it’s very much his unique physicality.

When an actor can communicate with stillness – that’s when you know you have someone brilliant at the craft.

There’s also some continuity cheating – especially in the shots between Frodo and Galadriel – that bothered me. If you’re going to cheat where they are in relation to the cauldron, make a point of it, don’t just do it and think I won’t notice, because I will.

Continuity jumps happened several times and jolted me, but felt the most unnatural in the Frodo/Galadriel scene.

And I’m sorry, but after such a physical fight with Gandalf, there is no way that Saruman’s manicure would remain intact. I don’t care how powerful a wizard he is, he’s gonna break a nail or two. And, if you’re going to give the guy long nails, at least differentiate strongly between Saruman and Galadriel. His nail colour was more pearlescent and hers was more of a cream/beige tone, but there was still too much similarity. It’s pretty much the only cosmetic choice with which I disagreed, but it stood out enough to distract me..

Continuity is something that drives me crazy in film. Because I’ve worked it and I’m so aware of it, when it’s off, it bothers me and jolts me out of the world. I hate working continuity – it’s an absolute pain in the ass – but it’s so important to the final product.

I’m interested in seeing the second two films in the trilogy, and I’m interested in the outtakes and additional material on the DVDs Actually, there are several scenes where I’d like to see a variety of takes, because I have a feeling I might have chosen different ones. But hey, Peter Jackson won the Oscar and I didn’t, so it’s not like I’m necessarily right. I’m just curious.

There are two pass-the-Cheese-Whiz lines that I love anyway. The first is when Arwen is in the river, about to call up its power and says to the Ring Wraiths, “If you want him, come and claim him!” with the sword drawn and all. If she showed that same steely spirit in the scenes with Aragorn, I’d have believed their relationship. The second is near the end, when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli plan to go after the captured Merry and Pippin and Aragon says, “We travel light. Let’s hunt some Orc.” I laughed so hard I fell off my seat, and each time I saw it, I laughed harder. I mean that as a compliment, not a criticism. It was just the right note to hit after the tensions in the previous scene and the foreshadowing of what’s to come.

In general, the chemistry amongst the actors is so beautiful. They’re completely true to their characters and completely giving to each other. Sean Bean made so Boromir so much more interesting and complex than he came across in the book (the added dimension of having a living, breathing, good actor in the role). He brought the dynamic of this man feeling his soul eaten away and not knowing what to do. And Aragorn understands what is happening with a bit of “there for the grace of God go I.” Because of the time I’ve spent in the UK, I’ve seen a good bit of Bean’s work and enjoy it tremendously.

Also, it makes me want a new type of fantasy tale – one where the male and female protagonists’ quests are balanced. Yes, it’s important for each gender to have quest tales to which to relate – but, ultimately, I find most of them unsatisfying, no matter how true they stay to archetype. I want to see a male character and a female character journey together and grow into themselves together – not, once the quest is over, settling into a domesticity that is abnormal for both of them.

The end of the quest is merely the start of a new journey, not only the end of a particular growth process. And, so often the characters throw away all that growth to be conventional. I find it unsatisfying.

Maybe I would find what I’m looking for delving more deeply into the tale of the Scottish warrior goddess Scathatch, who only trained men, while her male protégés trained women. Maybe I’m looking for something that’s more in tune with such a type of polarity.

There’s so much I like and admire about the film, but, ultimately, it left me emotionally unsatisfied. And not just because it’s the first third of a trilogy. It has nothing to do with the depth of the creative commitment or the truth of the books – it’s simply that there’s something missing from the original story that I, personally, need in order to feel satisfied. I respect and admire what the piece achieves. They raised the bar enormously for this genre. And the commitment of the actors is something one can only dream of in many pieces. This is a movie (and probably a trilogy) that I will watch many times. But I did not achieve the catharsis I came to the piece of which I had need.


At 1:47 PM, Blogger Michelle Miles said...

I haven't read the books (I started, but couldn't get through them). I *love* the movies. LOVE LOVE LOVE. I'm in total and complete love with Aragorn. Viggo Mortensen did a beautiful job. The second film picks right up where the first one left off. I remember sitting in the theater when Two Towers started and I was immediately riveted. I loved your observations of the film and it makes me want to go back and watch it all over again. I only got to see the first 17 minutes (the prologue with Cate Blanchett's narration) last night. That is one of my most favorite parts.


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