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And speaking of Peter Jackson...

It's been twenty years since the release of the first film in his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. A youngster named Jack Butler, writing at National Review, gives what I think is a fairly good appraisal of the whole effort. I say that even though my own view is somewhat more negative than his. I think the article is subscriber-only, so I'll quote liberally from it:

It is widely acknowledged that there are many serious differences between Jackson’s adaptation and Tolkien’s novel. Answers vary, however, to the question whether Jackson’s work maintains Tolkien’s spirit or ruins it. Ian McKellen, who plays the noble wizard Gandalf, has remarked that “the enthusiasts who have read the novels over and over may notice every change but in doing so they will miss the point.” On the other hand, Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son and literary executor, complained that Jackson and his crew had “eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25.”

Who is right? Both — and neither. Some of Jackson’s innovations do make sense, at least when considered in light of the exigencies of filmmaking..... Other of Jackson’s changes are blatant concessions to Hollywood blockbuster sensibilities..... 

There are also some fairly egregious changes to certain characters....

Even more notable is the mutation of Aragorn. Jackson’s version is unsure whether he is worthy of assuming his kingly destiny. His story becomes much more a standard hero’s journey. Tolkien gives Aragorn the occasional stumble, but he is largely intent on his destiny from the moment we meet him. Jackson’s alteration of Aragorn partly recenters the movies on him and his internal conflict, somewhat shortchanging Frodo and the hobbits in their respective journeys.

Bradley J. Birzer, a Tolkien scholar and professor of history at Hillsdale College, believes that Tolkien would not have approved of the films. “They’re too violent and have too much action with not enough focus on the philosophical elements of the books,” Birzer has said. There is some truth to that observation, too. Some of the thematic depth of The Lord of the Rings, such as what Tolkien called its “fundamentally religious” (Catholic) nature, is mostly (though not entirely) subdued in Jackson’s trilogy.

Whatever the flaws of Jackson’s films, they captured Tolkien’s spirit and much of the work’s philosophical core. As [Tolkien scholar Tom] Shippey put it, they preserve some of Tolkien’s more important themes, such as “the need for pity as well as courage, the vulnerability of the good, the true cost of evil.”

Even an imperfect representation of that essence puts Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy leagues above much of the dreck that Hollywood produces today.... But whatever complaints one may have about it, the deserved and enduring popularity of his original trilogy will continue to point new generations of readers to Tolkien’s work. And that will remain a virtue in itself.

I'm sure I've said this before, but it's probably been a while, so: I found that the further I got from the films the less highly I thought of them. My view now is closer to Christopher Tolkien's and Bradley Birzer's, though I still acknowledge that the films have their virtues and are considerably "above much of the dreck that Hollywood produces today." And I've never wanted to see them again, not so much because I disliked them as because I didn't want Jackson's often misguided imagery to take over my mind completely. I've only been partly successful in that effort.

There's a line in one of John Berryman's Dream Songs in which "Ol' Possum," presumably T. S. Eliot, says that he seldom goes to the cinema, because it's too powerful--or words to that effect. I have no idea which of the several hundred Dream Songs that occurs in and don't want to look for it, though it's most likely in 77 Dream Songs which was once and probably still is his most popular book. ("Popular" of course is a much more limited thing in modern poetry than in, say, film. Or even in literary fiction.) I understand Eliot's reservation, though I indulge to excess in moving pictures on the much smaller screen in my house. The visual impact and persistence of cinematic images is extremely strong and often unwelcome.

I think Peter Jackson's conception of Aragorn, for instance, is seriously flawed, not only for the reasons given above but simply visually. And I suppose that's partly the fault of the actor. But at any rate I still have it in my head. And I'm still annoyed by that stubble which looks like about a week's worth of beard, and neither grows nor disappears. When I see a celebrity going around like that (it seems still fashionable) I want to say "Either grow a beard or shave, dammit."

At the turn of the year this blog will be eighteen years old. The very first post, January 4, 2004, was a brief review of the third film in Jackson's Lord of the Rings. I more or less agree with what I said there, though as I say I'm a little more negative now than I was then. I still think this is probably true:

...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.

I could have added, for clarity, "considering the nature of the movie industry."

*

Amazon, as you may have heard, is producing some kind of Tolkien-based film project. As you may also have heard, they advertised for an "intimacy coordinator" to work on it. It will be surprising if whatever they produce doesn't justify another sentence from that 2004 post:

I fully expected that the movie industry could not touch such a work without soiling it.

A fantasy series called The Wheel of Time is currently being released, one episode per week, on Amazon. Because of a general weakness for fantasy, I've watched the first couple of them. I don't recommend it to anyone who doesn't really like fantasy, and only with reservations there. And I don't want to bother saying anything more about it than that it's well-produced and socially conscious entertainment. The first of those is a compliment, the second is not.


The End of "The End"

Extremely idle question to which a very brief search did not yield an answer: when did movies stop saying "The End" at the end? 

Or maybe some of them still do, but I don't think I've seen it for a long time. 


If You've Thought About Subscribing to the Criterion Channel...

...but haven't, and/or if you like film noir, you might want to consider subscribing now. See this for their November new arrivals, which feature a lot of noir, including many with Robert Mitchum, who's the star (along with Jane Greer) of my favorite in this genre, Out of the Past. I wrote about it in the 52 Movies series.

Also among the new arrivals is Thunder Road, which appeared to be available on Netflix back when I first subscribed, when it was all or mostly DVDs by mail. I put on my list but it soon went into the "Saved" category, from which few titles seem to return. I've been wanting to see it again for years. I thought it was great when I was about twelve.


Martin Phipps: From the Soundtrack of The Crown

When I watched the series I was so struck by this segment that I went looking for the soundtrack. It's called "New Queen," with apparently semi-ironic intent, since it occurs at the end of Series 3, Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

I absolutely love that piece. I just wish it went on longer. There are other good things in the soundtrack but nothing grabbed me as much as this.

Here's the whole scene. I take it for granted that the series gives a picture in some ways false, but whatever might be said along that line, Olivia Colman's performance as Elizabeth is outstanding:


Two Killers

(Relatively minor SPOILERS)

When I learned, some time ago, that there is a movie based on Hemingway's short story "The Killers," I wanted to see it out of sheer curiosity. There really isn't very much to the story, and almost nothing happens. Two menacing men arrive in a small town. They menace people in a diner. They're in town to kill "the Swede." Nick Adams (this is one of the Nick Adams stories) goes to warn the Swede. The Swede says there's nothing he can do about it and waits for the men to come and kill him.

That's it, as far as the plot goes. There's a good deal more to the story, of course, but it's all character and atmosphere. There's not enough there to fill an hour or two of film time, so the movie, made in 1946 and starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, makes Hemingway's narrative a prelude to an entirely invented backstory. The Hemingway story is gotten out of the way in twenty minutes or so, and is really quite a good adaptation. By "good" I mean both that it's faithful to the original and that it's powerful in itself. 

The Swede (Lancaster) is done in as expected. Then it turns out that he left an insurance policy, and an investigator from the company is assigned the task of locating the beneficiary. In the course of that investigation he uncovers the complicated reasons for the killing. Not surprisingly, they involves gangsters and a femme fatale

It's classic film noir, so much so that when I checked In the Dark, a book about noir, to see if the movie is listed, I discovered that in fact it provides the cover photo. And if you like noir this is one you definitely need to see. It didn't displace Out of the Past as my favorite, but it's well up there in the ranks. I didn't recognize the names of the director and screenwriter, Robert Siodmak and Anthony Veiller, reportedly with some uncredited help from John Huston. It was the first big success for both Lancaster and Gardner. I can't offhand remember having seen the latter in anything else, and now I know why she was a major sex symbol. 

Having located the 1946 film on Netflix (DVD only), I was surprised to discover that there is a second version, made in 1964, and starring John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager play the menacing gunmen. To my taste it's not nearly as good, but I found it interesting as a contrast and an indication of the way film sensibilities were changing. The cinematography is flashier and more elaborate. The violence starts almost immediately. There's much more spectacle: the hero is not a boxer, as in the 1946 film, but a racecar driver, which provides lots of opportunity for noisy action. There's more emphasis on the killers themselves, who are given a psychopathic edge. And Angie Dickinson is a beautiful woman but she doesn't have the smoldering allure of Ava Gardner. It's in color, which the 1946 one is not, and although I certainly have a great love for black-and-white I don't think color is the reason, or not the main reason, for the lack of atmosphere, for the movie seeming flat compared to the earlier one. 

There is one remarkable thing about it: Ronald Reagan plays the bad guy, and he's surprisingly effective. It was his last film role; two years later he would be governor of California. I'm surprised that more wasn't made of his portrayal of this evil character when he was president, considering that he was as deeply loathed as Donald Trump by the same sorts of people. But then in the 1980s we didn't have ready access to old movies.

Both films are available as a set from Criterion, and Netflix, as noted, has the set. Here are the trailers. 


Twin Peaks Revisited

(Spoilers!)

It's hard for me to believe that it's been over three years since I finished Twin Peaks: The Return and stated my intention to re-watch the original series and Fire Walk With Me. Here's what I said at the time: "fascinating but disappointing."

So I finally got back to this plan a month or two ago, accepting the fact that I would have to "buy" the series on Amazon if I wanted to stream it rather than spend a lot of time waiting for Netflix DVDs to travel back and forth. I made it through the episode in season 2 where the identity of the murderer is revealed, then watched Fire Walk With Me (on DVD).

I still love the TV series, though I will admit, with a little sadness, that some of the bloom is off the rose now. I suppose part of the delight of my first viewing was the unexpectedness of so much of it--the juxtaposition of the normal and two kinds of strange, the dark and the silly. Even the darker parts have an element of...not exactly silly, but of parody or caricature, as in the decor and atmosphere of One Eyed Jack's, and for that matter even the Black Lodge, with its "modern" furniture. Obviously startling juxtapositions can't continue to startle, though they certainly still amuse. Why were all those people in uniform--Navy, I think?--bouncing balls all over the Great Northern?

The movie, on the other hand, seems even better than I remember, but it is quite different from the series. The DVD that Netflix sent includes a thirty-minute documentary made in 2000 in which most of the major actors are interviewed. Several of them, most strongly Peggy Lipton (Norma), weren't happy with the film's seriousness and darkness, the absence of the comic-but-respectful treatment of what she refers to as "small-town values" in the series.

And whether one approves or disapproves, she's right about the difference. The movie is unlike the series in that it's almost entirely serious and dark. There's not much of the whimsy of the series, less depiction of young romance, more of sex. I don't recall anything comparable to, for instance, the video of Laura and Donna larking girlishly on their outing with James, early in the original series. There's a lot more of what we think of as normal-for-Lynch weirdness, like the mysterious boy wearing a bird mask, and the Black Lodge. There's no old-fashioned wise Major Briggs, and Agent Cooper is a more straightforwardly serious character, whom we see less of than in the series (partly because Kyle McLachlan was concerned about being typecast). And it gets pretty violent, close to horror movie territory at times. It's just not lovable in the way the series is.

But this is a movie, with a time limit of a couple of hours or so, necessarily focused pretty tightly, unless it's to be just another episode in a long and wandering story. A number of the plot threads from the series are either missing or only lightly alluded to. It delves deeply into Laura's character and the things which torment her, including the entity called Bob, and succeeds, which is not a fun ride. Laura is more clearly a lost soul here, in the sense that she is further gone in corruption than we saw in the series. But she's not so lost that she doesn't know it, as witnessed by her outraged intervention when Donna attempts to follow her path. And if I understand it correctly part of the reason for her death wish is that she wants to prevent Bob from taking possession of her.

There's a lot of interesting information in the Wikipedia article on the film. I was especially interested in the critical reception, which was initially quite bad but has grown more positive over the years. Count me on the positive side. I think it's powerful and profound, and although I haven't seen all of Lynch's work, of what I have seen I would only rank Mulholland Drive higher--maybe. I admit to being a little bit annoyed about a few things that I couldn't make sense of. What exactly does it mean in the last scene that Mike demands Leland's "pain and suffering"? I thought Mike had renounced the murder and spiritual cannibalism he had practiced with Bob. Or is it really Mike? I'm generally confused about Mike and The Man From Another Place. 

I had entirely forgotten a great deal from my last viewing of Fire Walk. Two especially powerful moments stand out: Ronette's prayer in the train car, and this exchange between Laura and James not long before her murder:

James: What's wrong with us? We have everything.
Laura: Everything but everything.

That seems a fitting summary of what's happened to Western civilization over the past century or so. And particularly so for Americans of Lynch's generation, and mine. I've wondered if Lynch's work will always appeal more to those of us who recall the pre-sexual-revolution, pre-Sixties culture of the U.S. But I do know of at least one person born in the '70s who likes it as much as I do.

I noticed two very small things that are very interesting in light of Twin Peaks: The Return. In an early scene, when the mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie with a bad southern accent) appears and delivers a strange rant, he says "I'm not going to talk about Judy." And one of the young people, maybe Donna, says "Laura's mother is kind of spooky," or something like that. Did Lynch already have in mind that there was an evil entity called Judy associated with Laura's mother, or did he develop that idea after the fact, and take the name from that seemingly insignificant bit in the movie?

I guess I'll finish out the second series, though I agree with what seems to be the nearly universal view that the show deteriorates. And watch The Return again?...I don't know...I guess. What I'd really like to see is Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces, ninety minutes worth of footage that didn't make it into Fire Walk. But it doesn't seem to be available at the moment, either on DVD or streaming. 


John Darnielle: Universal Harvester

JohnDarnielle-UniversalHarvester2

John Darnielle, as you may know, is the principal in The Mountain Goats. In effect, he is the mountain goat, as the band seems to be (or at least to have been for some time), essentially a one-man project consisting of Darnielle and various accompanists. He's a brilliant (and astonishingly prolific) songwriter, and the great strength of his songwriting is in the lyrics. This is his second novel; I have not read the first, Wolf In White Van.

When a friend passed this book along to me after having read it himself and, if I understood him, not expecting to read it again, I wasn't sure that I would ever read it. Why not? Well, contemporary fiction is not my great interest, and I had low expectations, including the impression (of unknown origin) that it would be a whimsical, ironic, and gently humorous look at small and mundane things, somewhat along the lines of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone stories. I enjoyed those at the time, but the time was decades ago now, and I have not wanted to revisit them, and have no particular desire to read anything else of the sort. And--the strongest reason, I guess--the ability to write a good song is not necessarily accompanied by the ability to put words on a page effectively.

And I might well not have read Universal Harvester if the recent release of a new Mountain Goats album, Dark In Here, which I haven't heard, had not been the occasion of a conversation which resulted in my lending the book to someone else, and his reaction causing me to have a look at it myself.

I was not altogether mistaken in expecting something Keillor-esque. The story takes place in small towns in Iowa (their placement is significant, and a map is helpful). And the characters are small people, mostly young, limited in the scope of their knowledge and ambition. Set in the late '90s, it begins in a video rental store (the Video Hut) with a young man named Jeremy who is one of the two clerks who are the only staff apart from the owner. Jeremy is twenty-two years old and still suffering from the loss of his mother in an auto accident when he was sixteen. He lives with his still-grieving father; they get by, not knowing quite what to do with themselves. Jeremy is getting a little old to be working in a video store.

Much of the novel might be said with reasonable accuracy to be in Keillor mode. The people are portrayed with charm and a little irony, the ways of the place observed keenly, with a bit of humor and a distinct melancholy but no unkindness. But then it switches into another mode, a much darker one. Into the Video Hut one morning comes a girl named Stephanie, returning a tape, and hesitatingly, vaguely, telling Jeremy that something is wrong with it.

She didn't set her tape down; instead, she held it in her hand, chest-high, a little away from her body.

"There's something on this one" she said.

Jeremy thinks she's complaining about the movie (Targets, a 1968 movie in which Boris Karloff appeared, shortly before his death).

Stephanie looked a little blankly at Jeremy, measuring him, then said, "No, it's a great movie. I've seen it before.".... "It's the tape, there's something on it."

"I can credit your account," said Jeremy.

Stephanie put on her measuring face again and seemed to decide Jeremy wasn't going to understand. "No, it's fine," she said. "Never mind. Maybe tell Sarah Jane about it, though, OK?"

(Sarah Jane is the store's owner.) Jeremy puts the tape aside and forgets about it. A few days later another customer brings in another tape, with a similar complaint. Some days go by before anyone looks into the problem, but eventually Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane have watched two of the tapes, separately or together, and what they find disturbs them. Spliced into the movies are bits of home video shot in what seems to be a barn or shed. In one case it's several minutes of nothing, just the empty place. Others involve mild violence, or near-violence: a hooded and silent figure doing odd, slightly demeaning things; a person or persons hidden under a tarp, seeming to struggle, and receiving several kicks.

More similarly modified tapes are discovered. Most of the interpolations aren't actually violent, but they're menacing, not only in their content but in their apparently random appearances in apparently random movies. Jeremy, Stephanie, and Sarah Jane begin to search for their source. Mixed with the deftly rendered personal stories and situations of these characters now is an element of dread: these scenes are real, and they do not seem to be staged, and they seem filled with dread, though nothing very dreadful actually happens in them.

So perhaps this is going to be a horror story, or a thriller. Then the tricksy stuff begins: the narrator intrudes on a scene to say that there is another version of it, in which this happens instead of that. Repeatedly the story walks up to what promises to be a revelation, then veers away to something else. There's a great deal--too much for my taste--of shifting around in time: something is about to happen, the scene shifts, and sometime later we learn something about the thing that was about to happen. All very cinematic--consciously so, I would guess, since movies are central to the story.

Eighty-four pages in, Part Two begins, and we are in the story of a woman who, a few days after Christmas in 1972, abandons her husband and young daughter to join a Christian cult. You'll note that there are now two instances of a lost mother.

The stories do come together, and I guess most of this back-and-forth, up-and-back movement lies in the general area of modern fictional technique. (Or is it post-modern?--I'm not competent to say.) But it becomes frustrating, in spite of the charm of the details, because (in addition to there being too much of it) too many questions remain unanswered. Or at least seem to. When I closed the book I felt annoyed that I still didn't know exactly what had happened. And then I wondered whether anything at all had happened: had I just experienced a far more sophisticated execution of the "it was all just a dream" trick that has always seemed to me a cheap one? I am not a fan of The Wizard of Oz.

Having pondered it a bit more, I think I do know what happened, though I'm not certain, and even if I'm right about the big picture there are still a good many puzzling details that I'm not pleased not to see cleared up. Moreover, I think one could construct an argument that is at least plausible that almost none of the narrative actually occurred. Ambiguity and subtlety are good things, but I think Universal Harvester may go a bit too far in those directions.

Still, I give it a qualified recommendation. There is much to enjoy, and a fair amount that is strongly moving. And perhaps you will catch on more quickly than I did; I was long ago forced to recognize that I can be somewhat thick. I'll give you one bit of advice: pay very close attention when the narrator says "I", or otherwise refers to him/her self.

In any case, there's no doubt that John Darnielle's gifts as a writer extend to fiction.


Kurosawa's Ran

I finished Kristin Lavransdatter last week and have a half-written post about it, but have had unexpected demands on my time this week and haven't been able to finish it. In the meantime, just a quick note about this film.

What a magnificent epic! I really didn't know what to expect. I only knew that it's  considered one of Kurosawa's most important works, and that its plot is based loosely on King Lear. According to Wikipedia, Kurosawa was already working on the story when he first encountered Lear, and that for him it originated with a Japanese story about a king who had three sons. In any case there are a lot of clear parallels with Lear, but it's not simply a retelling of the story in a medieval Japanese setting. 

I'll restrain myself from going further, and also from gushing, and just say that if you like Kurosawa's work at all and haven't seen this one, you must. Apparently he had a huge budget to work with, and obviously a great deal of money and time went into it, as it features several large and complex battle scenes. Among other things it's an enthralling visual spectacle, not only in the big scenes but in smaller and intimate ones as well. 

The title, by the way, puzzled me a bit, as it isn't the name of any character. Again according to Wikipedia:

The complex and variant etymology for the word Ran used as the title has been variously translated as "chaos", "rebellion", or "revolt"; or to mean "disturbed" or "confused".

Kuroran.jpg
Theater poster, from Wikimedia: Fair Use, Link


About Endlessness

That's in italics because it's the name of the movie. I read this very intriguing review this morning, and may even go so far as to check local theaters to see if it shows here, which is probably unlikely.

In 75 concise minutes (as long as any movie needs to be), About Endlessness is completely provocative and satisfying. Each sketch dramatizes a random incident in a Scandinavian city. These scenes, stylizing the real and the imaginary, are light as air — capriccios that go to the heart of human experience.

It's by a Swedish director, Roy Andersson, whose name I don't recall having seen before, but based on the review I think I might like his other work in addition to this one. Of course it helps that the reviewer invokes the near-sacred name of Ingmar Bergman.

I wouldn't agree that 75 minutes is enough for any movie, but it strikes me as a reasonable target for most.

Here's the trailer:

 


Ozu: Late Spring

As I expected, I liked it more this time. Such a simple story: a widower and his daughter, who's getting on into her twenties. He wants her to get married--or does he? She doesn't want to get married--or does she? The resolution of the situation is fairly straightforward, and deeply poignant. 

Knowing that the film was released in 1949 made me wonder about the conditions under which it was made--I mean both the physical and psychological conditions, the war having ended only four years earlier and the country still under occupation. There is no direct reference to the war or the occupation, which seemed puzzling. According to Wikipedia, filmmakers--and everyone, I suppose--were subject to a certain amount of censorship by the Allies, which explains this curious absence. A few images like this one are implicit references to the occupation:

Late_Spring_Coke

You'll notice that the sign is in English. A bit after this moment the two bicyclists pass a sign giving the load limit of the road, also in English.