Thursday, December 22, 2016

Film Essays: Lord of the Rings

The late SEK wrote a great deal of movie criticism for the center-liberal blog "Lawyers, Guns, and Money", the most thorough of which was his work on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. They are worth reading.

Part one.
Part two.

Part one ends with the conclusion:
[A]t this point it would behoove us to unify the generic conventions I've identified as succinctly as possible:
High fantasy consists of narratives in which singularly important people go on quests for tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes and all of that can be tracked on maps.
That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don't you think? If you don't, what essential features do you think I've missed?
And to some degree this is good analysis. You can see how these artistic features (shiny jewelry, pretty maps) play into political opinions like "what is important in the world" or "how can things be categorized." And the storytelling creates a clear divide between those "singularly important people" and the "anonymous hordes." (SEK would probably agree with me about the failure of dehumanizing these hordes.)

But in being condescending to the work, SEK's explanation misses some other very important key elements, ones that give high fantasy a much more human-like texture.

There sure are a lot of battles in the 6 film Lord of the Rings saga. What else do we know about them, besides this stuff about jewelry and maps. What about them doesn't make practical sense, and so therefore is probably there for thematic reasons.

Like every goddamn battle has the good guys on one side, more bad guys on the other side, and things are looking bad, and then in the middle of the battle more good guys swoop in and save the day.

It is ridiculous how often this happens. Two Towers. Return of the King. The third part of Hobbit. And not even just once per movie.

And militarily, this makes no sense. Armies are large, you can generally see them coming. They send riders ahead to let allies know they are coming. And even if these weren't true, the odds that over days or weeks of travel, they would happen to show up in the few hours, or even minutes when the tide depended on them, are astoundingly low (not to mention the far more common situation where no one comes to your aid.) And this happened in something like five out of five battles.

This is not to say that this impracticality is dumb, but only that it is significant. Tolkien and Jackson bend the laws of logistics in such blatant ways, to say what?

That friendship matters. That in your darkest hour, when you have given up hope (and only then) will the bonds of loyalty arrive to deliver you. The entire movie builds up to this climactic moment, when we can shout for the sudden arrival of an old friend.

This is not necessarily a good message. It preaches helplessness because there's nothing you can do to save yourself from evil but pray and hope. It tells us that the only people who deserve to be saved are those with ancient allies. And it reiterates a world where you never have to lose, because if you even lose once, the entire world will be lost beyond redemption.

But these are pretty key conventions of the genre as well.

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