Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I went into this film some weeks after its initial release and was informed of its content from a plethora of different sources. The general sentiment that I received was that it was good, great, fantastic, but with no qualification in regards to why it was good. The dissenting opinions, on the other hand, made it perfectly clear to me why they thought that it was bad. While this very amateur film critic leans ultimately towards the former perspective, we will nevertheless pay just as much attention to what was unnecessary, trite, absurd, or just downright awful about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

The very first thing that the viewer should realize when seeing this film is that it is not the same film as any of the Rings trilogy are; the original vision of The Hobbit narrative is one based more on the typical ‘fairy tale’ (almost to the point of being a children’s story) than on the meatier, darker, and altogether more seriously mythical content that constitutes The Lord of the Rings saga. To this end, we have no problems with Jackson’s execution. Everything about An Unexpected Journey, from the black Anglo humour of the three trolls to the slightly more whimsical Gandalf to the sonorous cleaning routine of a dozen raucous dwarves, tells us that this is a very different, a very much more playful, light-hearted sort of story than that which featured the deep gravity of uncertain kings and stubborn stewards.

As convincing as this moderate change of focus turns out to be, it does raise an unfortunate tension. There are a number of scenes that depict brutal, intensely realistic (in the technological sense) battles mirroring the savagery of the original trilogy; there is very little difference between these action sequences and those of The Lord of the Rings, except for the ways in which they end. In An Unexpected Journey, our heroes unfailingly emerge from every conflict, every impossible entanglement unharmed. Now, this could very well be explained by the fact that, as a more fairy tale oriented story, and as they are only following Tolkien’s outline, the company can be excused this fantastic imperviousness to mortal injury, even if the scenes are more or less identical in their portrayal to those of The Fellowship of the Ring - it was Tolkien, after all, who stabbed Frodo with a Morgul blade, threw Gandalf from the bridge of Khazad-dum, and mercilessly slew Boromir at the very moment of his redemption, all the while saving Thorin and co. from so much as a flesh wound. Indeed, during the film, as with the book, between splitting rocks, finding holes in the ground, and generally just showing up out of nowhere, I could not help but mentally alter the common phrase to Gandalf ex machina - such was the extent of the grey wizard’s salvific influence.

The problem, then, lies not so much with the source material, but in the way that it was implemented, most notably with Bilbo killing a warg, and later rushing to slay an orc and rescue Thorin thereby, despite acting throughout the film as though he had never before held a blade suited for more than slicing his dinner. That entire closing scene with the wargs and the ‘pale orc’ seemed to bear the burden of being the climax; that is to say, the director’s crew dressed it up, with dwarves nearly falling off the cliff, and then sprinting to attack the wargs, and then more falling off cliffs, merely with the view of creating another Amon Hen, when really a standoff, a cold stare between Thorin and his nemesis would have been, if less climactic, quite sufficient in itself.

This brings us to another complaint that I have heard, which is that there is a massive amount of seemingly new material added to the story, not least of which is this sanguine rivalry between some defiler orc and Thorin Oakenshield. While many could do without him entirely, I understand the role that the pale orc plays, which is to illuminate more of Thorin’s character, who is a much more prominent figure here than in the book; this is a good thing firstly because the film-makers do not satisfy the whole of Bilbo’s character, and secondly because the entire journey is built off of his personal vendettas and obligations. So, while he does offer a darker alternative to the fat, jolly old goblin king, the pale orc is necessary for deeper reasons, namely, to bring out the connection Thorin has to his forefathers, strengthening the roles that familial honour and the duties to one’s homeland play in the film. 

A film character who is entirely unnecessary, however, is Radagast the Brown, an ugly, hippy mage who succumbed to the stewardship of birds and rodents and all the other small creatures of the forest instead of keeping to his true wizardly vocation. The scene with the ghastly necromancer could have been fulfilled by a more minor character or by Gandalf himself while he was away the first time, perhaps, but the scene where he is driving his rabbit sleigh away from the wargs is simply ridiculous; besides being absurd from the very idea of it, Radagast is also a singularly horrible driver, leading the beasts straight to Thorin and the rest three or four times at least. Finally, the sheer logistics of his part is very questionable indeed if we simply consider the distance, the leagues between the point where Radagast meets Gandalf, the location of Dol Guldur, and the timing of the two events.

In The Hobbit text, Bilbo is the only member of the party who experiences serious character development from start to finish; his is meant to be the point of view which best relates to the typical modern reader estranged from the world of fantasy and high adventure.  As Bilbo steps out his front door, as he takes the long road and encounters all sorts of strange and exciting things, so do we, familiarizing ourselves with Middle-earth vicariously through this oddly bourgeois creature. At the beginning, Bilbo is thoroughly unacquainted with the world at large, thinking that Gandalf, for example, is merely some wandering trickster with delightful fireworks, not a mysteriously powerful wizard who has come with the decisive aim to turn the hobbit’s comfortable life into a very uncomfortable one. The film does a manageable job of illustrating this crisis, this crucial meeting point of Bilbo’s old life and the one he is about to begin; we clearly understand the attraction of his simple, easy life and his desire to keep it, but we also are made to perceive that there is more to life than fending off nosy neighbors and being home in time for dinner. Gandalf has come to relieve Bilbo of his routines and habits in order to draw out some of his higher, more heroic qualities (‘When did doilies and your mother’s dishes become so important to you?’).

Now, while the kindly wizard has indeed come to shake the bourgeois out of Bilbo’s life, he does not mean for it to stay out, for all of his cozy domesticity and distinct comforts to vanish and be gone forever. There is this one scene while the company is at Rivendell, and Gandalf, in defense of his choice to bring an apparently lowly hobbit along, says, ‘Saruman believes only great power can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found that it is the small deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay’. There is a definite Chestertonian presence felt in these words, which mean that it is the persistence of every-day activity and the simple acts of ‘love and kindness’ of ordinary individuals that serves to ‘keep the darkness at bay’; it is as though the very average Bilbo represents the ideas of homeland and peaceful normalcy to keep the candle alight, to remind both his fellow companions and the viewers of what they are campaigning for in the face of all the terrors that the road might bring them. There is a Chesterton quote that applies here: ‘The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.’ Bilbo tells us that he misses his books, that he often thinks of home, but he keeps going any way, not only because he is beginning to like the adventure, but because he wants Thorin and his people to have the same things that he has, namely, consistently good food, perpetual security, and a place to call home.

What I do find problematic about An Unexpected Journey is that there was generally too much activity going on. Aside from the time spent in Bilbo’s hole-in-the-ground and their all-too-brief rest in Rivendell (my personal favourite segments of the film), there was virtually continuous action; from battling trolls to enduring the impetuous whims of stone giants to running up trees there was hardly a moment to spare for reflection and strong, revealing dialogue. Yes, we received the history of Thorin, and yes, we hear a lot of foreshadowing about this necromancer of Dol Guldur, but there was not nearly enough time spent towards the art of conversation, of capturing the real thoughts of the hobbit protagonist, which is additionally disappointing considering how wonderfully, how charmingly he is portrayed by Martin Freeman. The exchange between himself and the Gollum creature is another highlight of the film, but it does not quite touch on the hobbit’s actual nature until, building off of a dominant theme of The Lord of the Rings, he shows him mercy and, according to Gandalf, reveals the ‘truer courage’. This, however, is again done through action, without any thoughtful consideration that might have offered us a more profound insight into the event.

A further complaint is with the overall cinematography, with the ‘world-making’ of Middle-earth. Whereas the Rings trilogy presented this amazing, awesome, and thoroughly otherworldly environment that left us without a doubt as to this place’s factual existence, An Unexpected Journey does not quite capture the same level of realism; there is something missing in the structure – it is as though they relied on the strength of precursor films to carry this film as well, unwilling or unable to contribute something more to this adaptation to make it uniquely  ‘Hobbit-esque’. This is highly unfortunate because, while The Lord of the Rings had this elaborate, epic superstructure underlying the narrative, enforcing every activity, every conversation with a powerful realness, An Unexpected Journey lacks the same immense atmospheric strength, which only leaves us doubting every occurrence, remembering all the while that, yeah, this is just a fairy tale after all. I will remark that certain things, like the Eden-like peace of Rivendell, the seemingly supernatural beauty of Galadriel, the obligatory top-of-the-mountain travel montage with the heroic dwarven refrain ringing out, even the CGI (usually a more unfortunate element of this film) of the three trolls were excellent accomplishments; these were things that were closest to the sublime grandeur, the ‘fantastic realism’ of the original trilogy.

Speaking of the music, we are in two minds in regard to the overall quality of the soundtrack. On the one hand, the score was too dependent on those of the three prior films, unwilling for the most part (as with the cinematography) to endeavour into new territory, to breach new motifs. One part that I found particularly distasteful was when Thorin rushed the pale orc near the end of the movie and we hear the eerie, serenely angelic theme from the song ‘Isengard Unleashed’ when the Ents rose up to conquer the masters of industry; in The Two Towers it was a moment that actually moved me to tears, such was its triumphant power and precise artistic feeling, but when Thorin attacked the orc it was a cheap imitation, especially treacherous to me considering the fact that he was utterly humiliated by his opponent. On the other hand, the Dwarf motif was really strong, majestic, exactly what we would expect from a company of hard, earthen comrades led by royalty; I had shivers coursing down my back when they first sung their hymn in Bilbo’s home. I can certainly see why they relied so heavily on their original score – it suits Middle-earth, and is simply a brilliant piece of music (one of the best in film history). So if they would have just created a new dramatic motif for Thorin, or at least for his climactic moment, and perhaps concentrated a bit more on original material for the rest, I would really have no serious complaints at all about the music.

I went into this film knowing that I would enjoy it enormously; such is the firmness of the grasp that Tolkien’s ‘legendarium’ has on my imagination, and such is my confidence in Peter Jackson and his own minions. I was not wrong, not in the slightest, and that is firstly because I am indeed so fascinated by this mythical cosmos that anything that explores it with even the faintest touch of an artist meets my expectations; secondly because it is simply a good film – we must of course recall the magnificence of The Lord of the Rings in reviewing The Hobbit series, but we should hardly write off the latter simply because it falls short of the former, especially considering the fact that there were two largely divergent aims in each project. Thirdly, and most importantly, this work is badly needed for the overwhelming mechanization of today’s modern society; besieged by the media, swarming commercialization, meaningless occupations, and boring love lives, we crave for a higher order of ideas to elevate ourselves, to ameliorate whatever personal crises our industrial environment imposes on us and organize reality in a more intelligible way. As a worker of sublimely mythical art, J.R.R. Tolkien is unrivalled in the last hundred years; his grandiose poetry has opened up the imaginations of generations, allowing us to see greater aspects of life, of things seemingly more real than life itself. The arena of adventure, and the sort of heroism that calls for common goodness in the face of the harshest adversity, are totally relevant for the 21st Century man; he has only to enact them, to actively interpret these symbols in his own unique way to increase his livelihood thereby.

Contemporary culture is overrun by mindless bloodshed, spiritually and morally perverse sexual images, ‘heroes’ for whom currency is the highest goal, vanities of the most extreme – Tolkien’s work, even diluted through the medium of film, is an healthy escape from this collective disease, a deep breath of fresh air that clears the mind of irrelevant nonsense and enables the imagination to witness a sweeter state of being, if only for a couple hours at a time.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Poetic Commentary: Sailing to Byzantium

'Sailing to Byzantium' ~ W.B. Yeats

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is the poetic result of a determined ambition to create a series of strong dichotomies that are all related to one another in a single principal: they all reflect the old philosophical, somewhat Gnostic dilemma of time versus the timeless. These dichotomies are pitted against each other, martially juxtaposed over the rich imagery and almost musical tone of the narrative: the physical world is but the terrestrial playground for the intelligible reality; the fundaments of human existence are the equivalent to those of animals if the precepts of intelligence are absent; and the denizens of time and space are hopelessly mired in the cycles of death and decay so long as the eternal soul lies beyond our grasp.

Yeats launches his assault upon the material cosmos with the weaponry of a Manichaean, striking down the supports of the purely natural world by pronouncing that their place in the universe is directionless, unjustified, and that the advocates and practitioners of such a path are condemned to a hollow life; the very emptiness of this state is its only utility since its very depravity has actually driven the speaker away in order to seek out broader and more authentic realms of being. Crying out for some kind of enlightenment or transcendence over his immediate conditions, the speaker beckons the sages, the muses, the whole pantheon of eternity to be the sole inhabitants of his consciousness to relieve himself of time’s great pressures; by overcoming his sensual aspect, and by merging himself entirely with the greater dimensions of pure intellect, the speaker has conceived that he will be finally released from the wrathful wailing, the tragic eulogies of ordinary life.

This prominent dualism exhibited by Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is as ambitious as it is wasteful. Although the speaker insightfully detects the a priori meaninglessness of physical, sensual reality, and how it is manifestly inferior to the direct and intelligible joys of the ‘holy reality’ above, he is keenly unaware of their positive and reconciled relationship. The full extent of his ignorance is evident in the imagining of a magnificent golden sculpture as the future host of his liberated, eternal spirit; he has effectively come from an abrasive iconoclasm of living images caught in the vicissitudes of this mortal sphere only to arrive at the feet of a great golden idol. In following his line of logic, the speaker has come to the contradictory conclusion that a splendid persistence in time is the most desired outcome, that only an immortal body could suit his immortal soul; the problem with this is that intellectual reality can and indeed must be at one with sensual reality; the problem with this is that God became man not to dilute his own substance, but so that men could become gods through the possibility of a divine body.