Friday, January 08, 2010

Soderbergh’s Solaris

Solaris was first a 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem (which I have not read), then a 1972 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, and most recently a 2002 film by Stephen Soderbergh. I saw the 2002 film several years ago, maybe as many as five or six years. I knew nothing about it and just picked it off the shelf at Blockbuster because it looked like it might be an interesting and well-made sci-fi movie, without monsters, blood, and gore. I liked it—it was indeed interesting and well-made—but don’t remember being really enthusiastic.

Sometime within the past year or so I saw the Tarkovsky version and found it interesting but a little frustrating. I thought I had reviewed it here but apparently I didn’t; at least I can’t find the review. I do remember some discussion in the comments that made me want to see the Soderbergh adaptation again.

So a few nights ago I did, and was much more impressed. I recommend it. It really is very beautifully done. I can’t think of another science-fiction film that is such a visual pleasure, except for 2001, which seems to have been an influence. And the themes are powerful, more elemental than 2001’s: loss, remorse, second chances, and most of all the longing for forgiveness and eternal love. It would be a mistake to claim (as Christians are sometimes over-eager to do) that it can be appropriated entirely as a Christian work. But the longings it gives voice to are those to which the faith speaks.

I found the end quite moving and am probably going to watch the whole thing once more before sending it back to Netflix. It occurs to me that the number of movies I’ve watched more than once is probably not more than two dozen, and I wonder if there are others that would reveal more on a second and third viewing. I don’t expect to make a firm judgment on a piece of music until I’ve heard it several times, and most movies don’t merit that much attention, but perhaps I should give another chance to those that seem to have some substance but don’t really grab me on one viewing.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Five Movies


U.S. Catholics, at least, will recall a lot of fuss about this film when it came out in 2007. It was adopted and pushed by pro-life groups who may have done it some harm: they pushed it so hard, buying up whole showings of it etc., that they gave people the impression that it was just a message film. And of course some mainstream reviewers disliked it because of that pro-life slant, and probably many of them reacted to the pro-life push; outside of neo-Nazis and the like, there is no political group more hated by the liberal media.

Anyway, I certainly ended up with the impression that it was a well-intentioned message movie and probably not very good. My wife saw it and said it was pretty good, though she didn’t seem overly enthusiastic. But either she wanted to see it again or she wanted me to see it, because she put it on our Netflix list.

My verdict: it’s not a great movie, but it’s worth seeing. Yes, it’s sentimental, but it’s not shallow, which is the same way I would describe It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s not in that class, but as with Wonderful Life, you could say it’s a heartwarming feel-good movie that yet is willing to look into the abyss.

Here are two reviews from Catholic critics: Barb Nicolosi, who didn’t like it, and Steven Greydanus, who did. I think Nicolosi is overly harsh, by the way.

Becoming Jane & The Jane Austen Book Club

I was not especially enthusiastic about either of these, but I mention them because serious Jane Austen fans might find them interesting. But then they probably didn’t need me to tell them about them. The first is a heavily fictionalized biography of Austen herself. It’s not bad, but I doubt it has that much to do with Jane Austen, either. Anne Hathaway is a good actress but she’s the wrong person to play Jane Austen. I question whether any American actress under 40 can play any role without at least occasionally falling into Huffy American Girl mannerisms. I’ve talked to at least one serious JA fan who couldn’t stand it.

The other one is about a group of women who form a Jane Austen reading group and read all her novels, which are juxtaposed with their personal (i.e. romantic) lives. I don’t think it’s anything special, but I was not bored, as I had feared I might be. Many or most women would probably find it very enjoyable, and it manages not to completely twist Austen into contemporary positions that would have appalled and repulsed her. In fact Austen rescues one of the women from a tempting disaster.

A Simple Plan

One winter day in rural Minnesota, three men chase a dog into the woods and find a wrecked airplane, its dead pilot, and a large amount of money. They decide to keep the money. Things go downhill. This is as compelling a portrait of the power of evil as I’ve ever seen. You should see it, but I should warn you that it’s painful to watch, not because of the violence, of which there is some, but because of the tension. It’s brilliant, but it’s not a movie to relax with.

The Road Home

Apparently one can assume that Zhang Yimou’s name on a film means that it is, if nothing else, visually beautiful. This is a very simple story, told with heartbreaking beauty (visually and dramatically). Really, I’m getting slightly teary-eyed just thinking about it. A young man is called home to his rural Chinese village upon the sudden death of his father. He tells the story of his parents’ courtship in a series of flashbacks. That’s it. I could probably watch it a dozen times.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Best Review of Angels and Demons

At All Manner of Thing. I meant to link to this a week or so ago when it first appeared, but got busy and forgot about it. Be sure to click on the “Any questions?” link and read CERN’s Q&A about the movie.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Teenagers From Outer Space

Make “teenagers” singular instead of plural, and the title would serve for a memoir of my adolescence. And actually this is a bit of one.

There was (still is) a railroad track about a hundred yards behind the house where I grew up, and there were still passenger trains. Though there was no proper station for our little hamlet—Greenbrier, Alabama—you could go stand by the track and flag the train down and ride to Decatur, fifteen miles or so away. When I was in my early teens, or maybe not quite there, two friends and I did this occasionally. On a Saturday afternoon I would catch the train at Greenbrier, and Johnny and Lynn (Lynn was a boy, too) would get on a few miles further at Belle Mina, and we would go to Decatur, walk uptown to the Princess Theater, see a movie, and catch the train home. It was a big thrill for us.

This was one of the movies I remember seeing on one of those trips. I was such a timid kid that it actually frightened me somewhat, which I suppose is why I remember it.

If the movie came out in 1959, I suppose we probably saw it no later than 1960, so I would have been only twelve, maybe only eleven. Or maybe the movies was several years old—I would have thought we were more like thirteen or fourteen. It says something about the different sort of world we lived in that we were allowed to take those little trips on our own.

I see there is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of this. Most of it’s on YouTube and it’s also on Netflix, as is the original. Do I really want to see it again, or shall I just leave my nostalgic memory alone?

I’ve sometimes thought of it over the years, since the late ’70s or so, when I became old enough to look back at my adolescence. The title began to seem almost prophetic of the madness that would break out a bit later in the ’60s. There’s something behind this, something we don’t understand.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Lives of Others, and the Lives of Others

You may have heard this film recommended; I’m pretty sure it’s been mentioned at least once in comments here. It was very highly praised a year or two ago when it came out. Set in 1984 in East Germany, it’s about a Stazi (secret police) official who finds himself sympathetic to a couple on whom he is spying, and gets involved in their lives. Well, “spying” doesn’t quite tell the whole story—the couple’s apartment is bugged, and the Stazi are listening to them 24 hours a day. Part of the effect of that movie is that you are left with an all-too-convincing sense of what that meant, and how it felt to know that it had been done to you.

We watched it last night, Monday night, and I’ll say no more about the plot—I’ll just say that it’s every bit as good as people have said, and you should see it. It’s only partly about politics, but its portrait of life in a totalitarian society is sobering and disturbing. Much of the world might have gone this way, and may yet.

Monday also saw Mr. Obama’s declaration of triumph on behalf of what he called “science” but which was actually a question of ethics, in which he declared, magisterially, that any moral reservation about the use of human embryos as raw material for medical treatment is an unfounded scruple to be dismissed with mild contempt. I suppose the mildness of the contempt is the reward, likely the only reward, of those who supported him in spite of their disagreement with him on this and other life-related matters, and who believed him when he said he would listen to them.

I had a dream sometime in the small hours which somehow involved three things: the anxious and paranoid atmosphere of the movie, Mr. Obama’s venture into ethics, and a counterfeit Catholic Church which featured more pomp and color than the real thing has these days—there were a lot of people in red and gold robes—but which was a fraud concealing something very evil. I can’t remember anything more specific about the dream, but the atmosphere of it troubled me off and on all day.

Update: Remembering a little more about that dream, I realized that this church-thing wasn’t really posing as the Catholic Church, but rather was a substitute for it. It was a dressing-up of secularism to satisfy the human need for ceremony and ritual, a structure built on and around nothing. And the evil thing that I sensed at the center was not some specific thing, some barbarous practice, but nothingness. There was something horrible—horrible in that indescribable dream way—about the lie involved, the trappings of devotion directed at the void. Something like the reaction I’ve always had to the Objective Room in That Hideous Strength.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

Inland Empire, or Fear of Bunnies

If you like David Lynch, and especially if you like Mulholland Drive but haven’t seen this, you’ll want to, although in my opinion it’s not as good. Although Mulholland is disjointed and obscure and contains a number of things that I never figured out, it does have a story which is intelligible in its broad outlines, and quite powerful (see my opinion here). Empire is more enigmatic, just as strange, just as disturbing, and half an hour longer (three hours). And although there appears to be a story in there somewhere, it’s only suggested, and it’s obscured by a great deal of disconnected Lynchian weirdness.

I like Lynchian weirdness, but I began to get exasperated with it here. I can only see so many hypnotic dream-edging-into-nightmare snippets before my hunger for narrative sense begins to make me impatient with the repeated stops and starts; every time things seemed to be falling into place they went off in some new and crazy direction. There’s an entire parallel sub-…something…I was going to say sub-plot but, like the main thread, it only seems like a series of hints and suggestions, scenes cut randomly from a normal movie.

And there’s the matter of tension. Lynch is a master at creating a sense of menace and foreboding, and he keeps you thinking that something terrible is going to happen at any moment. Three hours of that kind of tension is exhausting.

I found the thing fascinating, but in the end was more or less of the same mind as the Los Angeles Times critic who wrote “the film, which begins promisingly, disappears down so many rabbit holes (one of them involving actual rabbits) that eventually it just disappears for good.”

I wouldn’t say it quite disappears for good. I should mention that there seems to be an overarching theme here which is, on an elemental level, very much in keeping with the Christian view of things, though I don’t assume this is deliberate: I mean the themes of sin, guilt, punishment, and redemption. Or, on second thought, maybe it is deliberate: the last scene is accompanied by an old folk hymn, “Sinner Man.”  I should also mention that Laura Dern’s performance is strikingly good, if only with respect to its range.

Oh, and about those rabbits: this crew makes frequent appearances. That picture only suggest the foreboding emptiness that suffuses their little stage.

I’m not sure I want to see this again, but I may. Lynch’s world is alluring in a way that is probably not very healthy. I’m also not sure whether I want to see the other two highly regarded Lynch works that I haven’t seen, Lost Highway and Wild At Heart, as they’re said to be more explicitly violent than the others.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

I picked this up on a whim at the library a couple of weeks ago, when my daughter was home from college and the only Netflix movies we had at home were very serious, heavy things (e.g The Machinist). This looked like a pleasant light romance that all three of us—wife, daughter, and self—might enjoy.

It is that, but if you look at it right it’s more than that. I don’t want to say very much about the plot lest I give too much away, but it opens out onto love, death, and eternity.


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Machinist

This is an open, spoilers-allowed post for discussion of the movie The Machinist (link should take you to the Netflix description, but note: there are spoilers in the reviews.) If you haven’t seen it but think you might want to, don’t read the comments here. Also, if you comment, please tag your comment as being part of this thread, since I can’t get the HaloScan feature that includes post names in Recent Comments to work.

I would, by the way, recommend the movie, with the proviso that it's very dark and sometimes disturbing; one scene especially is quite gruesome.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Few More Thoughts About Hollywood

To repeat what I said in response to Mary Ann’s question in the comments: I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Hollywood never hits the mark; I was generalizing pretty widely. I do think it happens more often that Hollywood does something good when it aims no higher than entertainment, and produces some kind of resonance almost by accident. It may be that this happens less often than it used to, since Hollywood takes itself more seriously now and also is attached (as I noted) to the more unhealthy trends of contemporary art generally: the crassness, hostility, and so forth. And I think, too, that the awesome technology now available to Hollywood must produce a sort of inertial force in the direction of big, loud, and dumb (propensities which seriously damaged The Lord of the Rings for me). And because the technology is expensive it requires that the filmmaker try to appeal to the largest possible audience.

Likewise, I didn’t mean to imply that the consciously arty is necessarily better. I can’t think of an example offhand, but I have no doubt that determinedly artistic/intellectual filmmakers have made pretentious junk which is far less worthwhile than a first-rate pop film like Star Wars (choose your own example if you don’t agree about that one). Bergman himself occasionally skates close the edge in this respect, and there probably have been lesser talents ruined by his influence.

I feel a little bad about slagging Children of Men, since its pro-life view and Christian resonance (which may be unintentional, judging by something or other I read) deserve some credit when Hollywood often does so much worse, and a lot of Christians—people, as I said, whose judgment I respect—liked it a lot. If I had seen it in a theater I might very well have been as moved as they were. I watched it on dvd, with a small picture and bad sound. (By the way, my failure to respond to it was not because I thought it misrepresented the book, although it did—I’ve read the book but was not much taken with it, either.)

It’s A Wonderful Life is a good example of Hollywood at its best. Sure, it’s sentimental and sometimes more than a bit cheesy, but the basic story is not at all sentimental. A man reluctantly spends his life doing something he didn’t really want to do because he thought it was the right thing to do, and then even that blows up in his face, confronting him with the possibility that his life has been utterly wasted. This is not sissy stuff, and it’s powerfully done, within the basic terms of the techniques of the day. And the feel-good ending, which might be considered a little much, is just a coda: the real resolution is when George Bailey recognizes the gift of life, any life, and chooses it.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Here is the flying bag scene from American Beauty (embedding disabled, so you have to click over to YouTube). It’s even better than I remembered. In fact it’s great. Too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to it.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Versus Hollywood

Sunday Night Journal — December 14, 2008

I said a few days ago that I would try to articulate the reasons why there aren’t very many Hollywood movies that I really care about. I don’t think I can construct an intellectually coherent argument based on the specifics of film-making, because I don’t know much about it, and I have a limited store of examples ready to hand, so all I can really do is describe what works for me and what doesn’t. In the interests of simplicity I’m not going to precede everything I say with “in my opinion,” but you can assume it as a qualification to any dogmatic-sounding pronouncement.

By “Hollywood” I suppose I mean the mainstream film industry. I don’t know any more about it as an industry than I do about the process of film-making, so let’s just say I mean the usual stuff that’s shown in the average multiplex across the U.S.A., and I suppose probably in Europe, too.  And I don’t mean just the movies of our own time but of the American film industry for most of its lifetime.

As I thought about this question in odd moments over the past few days, certain words kept occurring to me: big; loud; crude; cartoonish. Followed by unconvincing; unbelievable; shallow; heavy-handed; sensationalistic. The one that turns up most often is crude—not crude in the sense of being vulgar, but in the sense of being clumsy. Hollywood movies are like comic books to me. I can get very caught up in them while I’m watching them, but the impression usually dissipates quickly and leaves no lasting impression. They rarely touch anything very deep in me. They often leave me impressed with their means but indifferent to their ends.

All this seems obviously applicable to the sort of movie that doesn’t really purport to be anything more than entertainment: Spiderman, for instance, which I like, or the original Star Wars, which I love. But for me it’s also mostly true for the more serious ones. In fact, I tend to prefer the merely entertaining, because Hollywood’s ability to mount an impressive spectacle is unrivaled, but when it tries to get serious it usually fails, because it just doesn’t have a subtle enough touch. Its efforts to be deep and serious are also frequently undermined because it is tainted, or perhaps I should say poisoned, by the same cultural illness that has weakened the other arts: a simple-minded political and social leftism, a quasi-religious devotion to the sexual revolution, a tendency to take mindlessness and violence as proof of authenticity, etc. But even without those I don’t think Hollywood would do much better. If I imagine it dominated by right-wing jingoists I don’t imagine myself liking its products any better.

Thanks to Netflix, I’ve probably watched more movies in the past two years than I had in the previous ten. Almost every one that really moved me, or that at least interested me so much that I wanted to watch it again, was either a foreign and very un-Hollywood-ish film like Bergman’s Winter Light or a low-budget American one like Napoleon Dynamite (which I think I’ve seen three times, and could watch with pleasure right now).

Rarely do I encounter  in Hollywood movies people or situations that seem real; all seems exaggerated and superficial. I know that a lot of the actors in Hollywood movies are very skilled, and yet they generally seem to me to be striking a series of attitudes and poses. I conjecture, then, that the directors want it this way. The apparent need for simple conflict and simple action drives out subtlety and ambiguity and keeps one’s attention on the surface. There’s a lot of excitement, but not much sense of seeing into the real depth of the human situation.

I’ll let my reaction to The Children of Men serve as one instance of the pattern. (SPOILERS follow.)

It’s a story set in a dystopian near-future in which the human race has suddenly become physically unable to reproduce. (It’s “based” on the P.D. James novel, but it really only uses the one idea.) A lot of people whose judgment I respect found it very moving and profound. But for me it was just an action movie—busy, fast, loud, and violent—and pretty good on those terms; I didn’t dislike it, but it failed to move me.

I never felt that the film showed any real sense of what the end of fertility meant; the troubles of the society it depicted seemed to be based more on current politics than on the infertility plague. I never had a strong sense of the inner lives and motivations of the characters. I never felt any sense of engagement with the obvious questions about the significance of human life raised by the central plot device. The miracle pregnancy seemed only a MacGuffin justifying chases and gun battles. Within ten minutes of the end of the movie, I had stopped thinking about it; a few weeks later the only scenes that remained very strongly with me were the poignant and gentle moments between the Michael Caine character and his catatonic wife.

And that pretty much sums up my view of Hollywood: even the movies that are not action movies seem to be a product of the same sensibility. American Beauty comes to mind. Its treatment of suburban-consumerist malaise seemed superficial and clumsy, reaching strenuously for obvious conclusions and crude shocks. As with Children, little of it remained with me for very long; almost the only thing I remember now is the long shot of some lightweight bit of debris—a plastic bag?—being floated about by a breeze.

It occurs to me that my complaint could be summed up in one word: sentimentality. Sentimentality in art is sometimes defined as the effort to extort rather than earn emotion. Present-day Hollywood has changed dramatically since the late ‘60s, and seems to pride itself on its toughness and honesty. But I don’t know that there’s been a fundamental aesthetic change; sentimentality, in the broadest sense, seems a constant.

I’m quite sure I’m being unfair here to some movies I haven’t seen, but these are some of the reasons why I haven’t seen them. And while writing this I remembered an exception: Tender Mercies.

Coincidentally, just as I was about to post this, Francesca Murphy, commenting in another thread, seems to anticipate and respond to me:

Film is a medium both crude and brilliant. One has got a few seconds to communicate to the thickest dolt a sense of pathos, or of expectation. All the tracking signals in film have to be larger than life, because it's art for everyman.

I think this is true of what I’m calling Hollywood films, and perhaps it has to be this way: expensive films require large audiences. I don’t think it has to be true of film in general as an art form. But Bergman isn’t art for everyman.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Two Movies That Could Hardly Be More Different from Each Other

And I liked the wrong one.

Movie #1: Into Great Silence, German Die Grosse Stille, which, if I remember my high school German correctly, is simply The Great Silence, which I like better.

I’m going to have to be the first Catholic I know to be unenthusiastic about this lengthy (almost three hours) visit to one of the most famous monasteries in the world, the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. Well, one of the first two Catholics, anyway—my wife shared my opinion. We had to force ourselves to watch it all the way to the end. The first time we tried it, I fell asleep after forty minutes or so. We tried it again a few days later, backing up to the point where I had fallen asleep. After half an hour or so we were both getting sleepy and gave up. At the next attempt, a week or so later, we made it up to roughly the 90-minute mark, and she fell asleep. A couple of weeks went by before we decided (well, actually, I was determined, and she came along reluctantly) that we would make one last push. This time we made it all the way to the end.

This film is very, or rather very, beautiful, but it has no narrative at all, and—this is maybe what made it so difficult for us—often not even a coherent sense of connection from one scene to the next. After our first failed attempt my wife referred to it sardonically as “Sesame Street Monastery.” Like Sesame Street, it’s a sequence of vignettes ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes in length, and there is often no transition or apparent connection, other than the monastery, between one and the next.

I think it would work in a theater. The images are rich and striking, and I can well imagine that if they were the size of a wall they would be hypnotic. Maybe on a large and detailed TV they would work similarly. But we were looking at it on an ordinary CRT television from across the room, and it just didn’t hold our attention. It was made worse by the fact that many scenes are very dimly lit, and the shiny reflective surface of a CRT always makes those problematic. It was only toward the end, when one of the monks is allowed to speak and the thing somehow comes together, that we began to feel as we were supposed to feel throughout.

Here, for instance, is what the film company says about it: “One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, Into Great Silence dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life.”

I’m sorry, it didn’t do that at all for me. Here’s the official web site, where you can get some sense of what it’s like.

Movie #2: Mulholland Drive. This is one of only two or three David Lynch films I’ve seen, and by far the best. It’s weird, of course; sometimes disturbing, of course; often mysterious and in fact baffling. And it also has that odd Lynchian quality that I’ve called “bent nostalgia” which I suspect is effective only on Americans of a certain age. Some of Lynch’s fans seem to regard it as his masterpiece. I don’t know about that, but I’m not likely to forget it.

I think I’m glad I didn’t see this one in a theater—it might have been too much, too creepy. There is not much violence, but there is a pervasively menacing feel about it. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because to know very much of it in advance would seriously spoil one’s first viewing. I’ll just say that it concerns a young woman who has come to Hollywood to make her way as an actress. And it will not make you feel good about Hollywood.

My wife and I were so taken by it that we watched it a second time a day or two after the first. Many elements of the plot remained, and remain, cryptic, and I suspect that the legion of people who have attempted to figure it all out are wasting their time, because I’m not convinced all the mysterious pieces really fit together logically, but rather are there to create visual and emotional impact. And I’m not convinced that it adds up to a profound philosophical statement, as some of Bergman’s similarly cryptic work often seems to do. But it was, especially on second viewing, very moving and, like I said, I don’t think I’ll forget it.

I recommend it only with caution. Some would find its menace too disturbing, and I should mention, too, that there are a couple of somewhat graphic lesbian sex scenes, which I have to admit are artistically justifiable, although they could just as well have been less pornographic.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Island (Ostrov)

You need to see this movie. Not the American one made in 2005—which may be good, I don’t know—but the Russian one made in 2006. I’m not going to take the time to describe or explain it; I’ll just say that it’s Christianity with no damn bullshit whatsoever, and you should see it. Pardon my language, but I think it’s appropriate.


Sunday, January 04, 2004

The Return of the King

Sunday Night Journal — January 4, 2004

I finally went to see The Return of the King. I have to begin any discussion of the Peter Jackson’s filmed version of The Lord of the Rings with the observation that it surely is the best possible screen treatment of the book. I do not mean that in a philosophical Panglossian but rather in a very straightforward sense: it is the best for which we could reasonably have hoped. When I first heard that Hollywood was planning a big-budget (to say the least) version of the book, my first thought was that I would not see it. I fully expected that the movie industry could not touch such a work without soiling it.

As I heard more about the project, I began to hope that I might be mistaken. I was pleased to admit, after The Fellowship of the Ring, that I was indeed mistaken, and that the films were going to be at least respectful of Tolkien’s vision. Peter Jackson deserves quite a lot of praise for this. I am happy to be able to say that my numerous criticisms of the films do not include the one I most expected to level—that of a fundamental misunderstanding and distortion—and are instead concerned with specific decisions and strategies.

After Fellowship, I spent, like most devotees of the book, a fair amount of time (too much, my wife would say) analyzing the rights and wrongs of the film: which cast members were and were not well-suited to their roles, which aspects of Middle Earth were and were not portrayed fittingly, which liberties taken with the story were and were not justified. After The Two Towers we had pretty much exhausted that topic—I certainly had— and I find that without going over all that ground again I really do not have a great deal to say about The Return of the King.

It is at least as good as any of the others. It eliminates a few of the most annoying things in the first two, most notably the propensity for making Gimli far too broadly comic and, worse, a vehicle for anachronisms not only intrusive but stupid (e.g. “Nobody tosses a dwarf!”). It suffers as much as they from the requirement that much be left out, for which the filmmakers are not to blame, and from an overall tendency to make everything as loud and spectacular as possible, for which they must surely be at least partially to blame. I would like to think that some of this was against Jackson’s better judgment, and done to help insure the box-office success required to justify the film’s enormous cost and allow him to continue in the business. Whatever the reason, the entire series contains a lot of lily-gilding, if that is not too delicate a term to use for such heavy-handed work. The films seem driven by a compulsion to overstate and overdo, to crowd every possible moment with action, to pile more and yet more noisy dangers, yet more unconvincing physical stunts, onto the story: the combat between Saruman and Gandalf in Fellowship, which ought to have been something subtle; the endless fight with the cave-troll; the unnecessary and unbelievable leaps among the falling stairs in Moria; Frodo’s standard Hollywood fall-and-hang-by-the-fingers at the Crack of Doom. All of this imparts a cartoonish quality to much of the film and has exactly the opposite of its intended effect on me: rather than compelling my attention it breaks the spell, and provokes the rolling of eyes.

But let that go. As Terry Teachout said recently in National Review, Hollywood does not make movies for people who read books. The films are not the book, and never could be, even with the best of intentions and the greatest of skill. But with all their flaws they still attain a vision of pure and noble heroism, and they leave one with images of “beauties that burn like ice and pierce like swords,” if I am correctly recalling C. S. Lewis’ praise. Thanks be to God. And it is time I read the book again.

By the way, my friend Daniel Nichols suggests that the films might rightly have been billed as “The Lord of the Rings, starring New Zealand.”

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