A CHRISTMAS POST. I'm dreaming of a wet Christmas....those miserable weather forecasters misled us again. Snow-freak that I am, I was looking forward to walking through a winter wonderland of a white Christmas. Nope. What a disappointment -- it's windy and raining and cold. The weather is like wet sheets flapping from clotheslines.
LORD OF THE RINGS. Since J.R.R. Tolkien was a serious Christian, and since I observe Christmas (I mean those words literally, as in "I observe-watch-apprehend Christmas") from the perspective of non-belief (atheism), foreign ancestry (Jewish) and infelicitous location (in the fleshpots of a commercial entrepot--but one strangely full of churches!), today's the day for my Lord of the Rings impressions. (Not a review--impressions.) Which I finally got to see, yesterday. Too sick to work, but not too sick to get out, I trudged up to the Metro on 98th street and caught a reduced-price matinee.
First things first: I've read some blogger reviews
and most of them are from serious Tolkien geeks who are intimately familiar with the books, and who compare the filmed adaptation to the works that became part of their interior landscape at an impressionable age. I'm not one. The Hobbit
thing to read when I was an adolescent; then you went onto the Rings trilogy, I guess. I say I guess because I thought that The Hobbit
was a big yawner, and never made it onto the Trilogy. (See under, "My Childhood Reading": post to come*). So this brain is nearly tabula rasa, as far as Tolkien is concerned. I was probably smoking weed while I read The Hobbit, yeah, man, I went through a heavy little hippie phase when I was fourteen man, I even went to a Dead concert at the Fillmore, man. Far out. (Actually, I was as much of a hippie as T Lo is in favor of affirmative action. But that's another post.)
This is not a standalone product. The makers of The Two Towers
simply take it for granted that you've seen the first installment and you'll see the last. Even so, it's a much better movie than the first one, which I found pompous and draggingly paced. This installment is like a train heading towards an unknown direction; the viewer is caught by the tremendous drive and momentum of the piece. Occasionally there's a pitstop for the viewer to catch his breath and then off we go. I found the movie impressive as a technical, logistics feat, and the production values were magnificent, but as a human document, it simply didn't register with me.
For one, all the characters were one-dimensional, cardboard and flat -- except the Gollum. Now, that
was a really fascinating character, wonderfully realized by the technical wizards of moviemaking. I began the film looking at the critter in horrified fascination; as it progressed, I wanted to see him more, because I found him (it?) technically fascinating, but also because he was interesting in a way that the other characters just weren't. (Chris: is it just me, or were their distinct Spielbergian overtones in this character? Or did Spielberg steal from Tolkien?)
Even in a technical slambang movie like this, acting matters. Aragorn is the hero; he's played by an empty, merely adequate actor. No, Chris, it's not because I took exception to Viggo Mortenson's silly spoutings about WWII on Charlie Rose. He's a gorgeous guy, but I simply don't think he's a very good actor. I'm not going to play casting director and make suggestions, but as the part was really underwritten, it takes someone with the ability to project heft and inner depth to make up for the script's deficiencies. The women were chosen mostly for their ability to look pretty while suffering nobly. (I'll do something about women in combat, a subject that interests me, later, but I wouldn't hold the fact that they didn't use women in the ultimate battle scene against the makers of the film. One assumes that women in Middle Earth -- in other words, the Middle Ages? -- were valued more for their fertility than for their battle prowess, especially the daughter of a king, whose bloodlines would be particularly precious.)
About the Hobbits. Chris disagrees with Roger Ebert about this. Not having read the books, I can't say whether the films downgrade their importance, but I'd agree with Chris that Frodo is the fulcrum of the movie, and the other two Hobbits' moral choices in favor of the necessary evil of war (sorry, can't recall their names) are crucial to the point of the movie: that evil must be resisted, even at cost to our own values. That said, the very graphic nature of the film medium weighted the action in favor of the battle sequences, which didn't include hobbits. Question: did anyone else think of the Hobbits as representative of the British working classes? With their regional accents and shorter, stockier stature, are they supposed to be the repository of sturdy British common sense and decent values?
Lastly, I was struck by the utter absence of Christianity in these adaptations and I wonder if that is the case with the books as well. The film was very violent; even the scenes that were not violent were pregnant with the possibilities of violence: the violence of nature, and of men both. This is not a criticism. Nature is violent. Human beings are violent. It's the job of artists to point this out. But in Christianity there is always the flickering possibility of redemption through belief in Christ. In this film, I don't see such possibilities. And I'm not sure whether this is a perversion of Tolkien's message or an accurate representation of it. If it is accurate, then that is mighty odd. I intend to read the Tolkien chapter of Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages
to see if there are any clues on this subject. If Tolkien, a passionate Catholic, purposely excised Christian belief from the deepest product of his imagination, was it a case of what Nabokov once called casting out the gargoyles?** If the latter, does that tell us that even Tolkien thought there were limits to Christianity?
As David Warren
This is what is so profound in the Christian message; not Christ's strength but his weakness. It is the root of the sympathy we are invited to feel for people who are sinners, and for people who are not like us. It shatters the ancient morality of "us versus them". It is the very source of what we mean by "enlightened", even those of us who are post-Christian.
But you see, in LoTR there is very much an "us versus them," as there was in World War II, and as there is between us and al Qa'ida. I find it puzzling that one of journalism's biggest supporters of the War on Terror ("if you are not with us, you are against us") should also be such a passionate Christian believer. I admire his Christian tenacity--but doesn't it conflict with his stated political beliefs? I bring this up not to pick a fight with David Warren, but to relate one Christian's profession of faith (which I believe to be an accurate description of the essence of Christianity) and contrast it to creation of another Christian.
So, my question remains: is this film adaptation a faithful rendering of the original, in which case, is Tolkien saying that there are limits to Christian belief, which would be a self-immolating proposition, or is Peter Jackson's work a post-Christian mangling of Tolkien's creation?
Since I joked about the issue of race and LoTR in a previous post, I should mention that my impressions were if anything reinforced by this. LoTR is the product of the imagination of a Northern European Christian, and his standards of physical beauty are very prominent in this film. (I'm a Legolas fan too: it was looks all the way. All that blond, braided hair.
What a gorgeous ice-boy!****)
In re-reading this, I realize I've given the impression that I didn't like LoTR. I did. It was more than the sum of its parts, the product of an individual imagination (Peter Jackson), who expertly made it appear that the movie was a great collaborative effort.***
*briefly, I was passionate about early 20th century American fiction, not fantasy. Such a different interior landscape.
**Paraphrase, I am unable to locate the exact quote.
***I have revised my opinion of Gangs of NY
steadily downward since seeing it. I now think it was an atrocious cartoon, atrociously made.
****As Philip Roth observed in Portnoy's Complaint
about Christians in the Newark of his childhood: "so fresh, so cold, so blonde!" (But...the character's name is Legolas Greenleaf
(a changed name?) and the actor's name is Orlando Bloom
. Both mighty suspicious....
JEWISH VOTING PATTERNS. Haggai
has some valuable thoughts on this, as a followup to Meryl's comments. .
I contributed this:
Haggai: I agree with you that anti-Israel sentiment in the Democratic party is mainly a matter of a fringe element. (Oh, and Cynthia McKinney was not booted out as a result of Republican crossover votes. I read a refutation of that in some blog, citing stats. QS can look it up if he cares so much...)
If anything, traditionally the Democratic party has been more pro-Israel than the Republican party, but lately, it's a wash. (I wonder what the presence of Sununu will do?)
That said, Haggai, I think that Jews voting Democratic is as much a matter of housing patterns as anything else. Jews tend to live around other Jews; they are concentrated in the "blue" states where Democrats are prevalent. In order for a small group of people to have any impact they must vote as a bloc--it's a self-enforcing pattern that won't be broken unless the Democrats become openly hostile to Israel (unlikely).
Think of African-Americans. To the extent that they voted before 1964, they voted Republican. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we saw a sea-change and blacks flocked to the party that they rationally perceived was the vehicle for their interests. So it could happen with Jews and the Republican party, but only if the Dems decisively turn against Israel. That hasn't happened, and it won't. This, plus the fact that Jews live in areas where the Democratic party prevails, ensures that they won't vote Republican for a long time to come. If ever.
Addition: I was that rarity, a Jewish, female member of the Republican party, for about 18 months. Briefly, I was taken in by the McCain charisma (that's passed) and wanted to vote for him in the NY state primary. I must have changed registration in September 2000. And it wasn't easy. The Republican party in NY state is a closed, ugly little club controlled by party hacks. You can't just call up the local Republican club and ask for help. I finally got an application via the League of Women Voters. Alas, by the time the primary rolled around, I learned that I was ineligible to vote in the primary as a Republican, because I hadn't been a member long enough! Each state has its own rules. My best friend (non-practicing cradle Catholic), who is about as conservative and cynical as I am (comes with age), always warned me against changing parties: as a Republican, you have zero influence in New York City. It's true: the Republican's don't even bother to put up candidates for most positions, the city is such a one-party state. But I was adamant. I was sick of the Democrats. Time passed. I began to feel....not very at home in the Republican Party. It's hard to explain rationally--changing parties is like religious conversion. You can maybe retire from your birth religion, but to actually change to another one is a wrenching thing. Long before l'affaire T Lo, I was uncomfortable belonging to a party whose majority leader was a blow-dried segregationist Bible-thumping mouthpiece for rich guys. (Yes. I know. The Democrats are funded by the rich, too. Nolo contendere
About six months ago, I changed back. Thus ended my brief life as a Republican. I haven't changed my opinions, but I feel slightly more comfortable.
Another thought about Jewish voting patterns.
I've often heard it said: "Jews do so well under capitalism. Why do they show such a self-destructive bent towards socialistic systems?" Then comes the reply: "Judaism is a religion of social justice." Well, yeah, there's that. I think it's more basic. It's easy for us, who live comfortable lives and who have benefited from the riches of capitalism, to sing its praises. And I do, yes, I do. But let's remember that in the formative stages of a capitalist system, there are many injustices and brutalities. Dark, satanic mills and all that. This is not only repulsive to a sense of justice: it brings instability, which is threatening to a minority group.
Capitalism has historically meant not stability, but dynamic crisis, a swing between extremes. As a group of people that has suffered greatly from the periodic crises that have wracked capitalism, Jews as a group have reason to fear its excesses unmediated by social welfare safety nets, as much as they have reason to applaud it as individuals.
BOMB THEM WITH TELEVISION SETS? Must-read post
about the sitch in Baghdad/Iraq.
Salam suggests that some of us might know the meaning of the word "farhud" in Arabic. Yes, I do.
My one other Arabic word is warda, meaning flower, taught to me by a friend in Haifa. He picked it for me, and told me the meaning.
Salam brings up an important issue: the devaluation of the Iraqi dinar. What will happen to the middle class in the event of an American regency? Back in Vietnam days, the old days, when we used to hear the daily body count on every evening news show (does anybody else remember that?), a friend of my mother's used to say that we should have bombed them television sets. So, in the spirit of Roslyn B., I suggeste that this might be a time for us to try to, well, buy off the Iraqi intelligentsia. Reassure them that their assets will be safe under Uncle Sam. Salam, what do you go for?
I'd Millad Said oua Sana Saida.
I got that off Merry Christmas in 70 Languages.