Saturday, December 15, 2012

Forty-eight reasons to see The Hobbit

It seems that nearly everyone has some angle of wariness related to The Hobbit.

A friend of mine phrased one of these angles of wariness very succinctly earlier this week on Facebook:

"Just bought our tickets for The Hobbit. I'm excited to see it (and the other movies), but I'm pretty unconvinced that you need 2 hours and 45 minutes to tell 1/3 of a 300-page novel."

I've also heard that the credits alone run for 16 minutes. So even though I usually like sitting through as many of the credits as time will allow, at least I know I can get out of there in 2:29 for this one, if need be.

However, my own greatest source of wariness about the movie has now become the biggest reason I'm interested in seeing it.

Yep, the infamous 48 frames per second projection rate.

I won't rehash the flogged-nearly-to-death discussion of the strengths (few?) and weaknesses (many?) of this gambit by Peter Jackson, but in case you don't know what I'm talking about at all: Almost every movie you've ever seen was shot at 24 frames per second. With twice as many frames per second, the image is far more crisp and there's less blurring. Most people don't notice the blurring of 24 fps, in part because it's been the standard practice throughout history. But 24 fps is part of the reason why some people don't like 3D -- they find the image darker, and it leaves them feeling queasy. The faster projection rate is supposed to fix those problems, but it has a side effect that some people hate and some people embrace: The images look hyper-real, to the extent that it sometimes makes them look cheap, like they were shot on video, or (as I have often referred to it) belong on some bad BBC show from the 1970s.

I'm wary about having my own experience of The Hobbit ruined if I find this technique distracting, as I always have in the past when my TV has been on a setting that mimics 48 fps (or actually uses 48 fps -- I don't pretend to understand all the technical details). But I've decided that I owe it to myself to see it this way, in 3D, for one simple reason:

How often do you go to the movies and see something new? I'm not talking about new in terms of plot, subject matter or narrative structure -- but something new in terms of technique?

Even if my viewing of The Hobbit is destined to be a failure, I want to expose myself to this new paradigm, which some people have said will be the future of how movies are made, and others say will go the way of the dodo bird once these three movies have come and gone. 

After all, wouldn't you have wanted to go see The Jazz Singer in the theater, if you had been there in 1927 when it came out? Wouldn't you have been so exhilarated by hearing Al Jolson's voice that you would have nearly wept? Or what about nine years before that (I'm just now learning this bit of trivia, mid-way through this paragraph, whose order I am nonetheless not going to restructure to be chronological), when a silent film called Cupid Angling was the first color feature? You could say the same thing about the first animated movie, the first 3D movie, even the first movie where you saw nudity, depending on how far you want to stretch the notion of what constitutes something truly "new." There was even a thing called Smell-O-Vision once. If I'd been around then, I would have been the first one in line. (It would have been the 1960 movie Scent of Mystery, the only film ever to use this obviously unsuccessful and impractical gimmick.)

I'm not saying The Hobbit is going to represent this kind of sea change, but I'm also not saying it isn't. And since all of the techniques listed above predate 1960, that just tells you how rare it is to get something truly "new" -- and therefore, how important it is, as serious film fans, to embrace our opportunities to experience these new things when we do get the chance.

In fact, in trying to find examples from my own life as a film fan, I'm forced to choose viewing experiences that contained far less revolutionary changes in what we experience with films. Unsurprisingly, most relate directly to visual effects. I'm thinking of the T-1000 in Terminator 2, with its unprecedented (to me) use of digital technology. I'm thinking of the first time I saw a Pixar movie, Toy Story; I was so impressed that I saw it again the next day. I'm thinking of the first movie I saw on an IMAX screen. I'm thinking of Avatar, which was clearly an evolutionary step forward in how realistic and immersive 3D can be.

What these viewings all have in common, though, is that the change I was witnessing was undoubtedly a positive thing. Even though Avatar left me a little disappointed overall, that's primarily because I couldn't separate my experience of its visuals from my experience of its story. A movie like The Hobbit threatens to make that separation all the harder to achieve, except this time it would probably the story that's good and the visuals that aren't so. 

Still, I'm not so in love with Middle Earth that I can't take this risk. Because another concern I have about The Hobbit is not just its bloated length, but the fact that it's a prequel to events that I think most people would argue are far more dramatic and have far greater stakes -- if only because there are certain characters you just know will survive. If you think Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf or Gollum might die in these movies, you obviously haven't seen the LOTR trilogy. And there are a half-dozen other characters who appear in these new films who also appear in the trilogy that comes later in Tokien's chronology. (Let's just hope they do a convincing job making the actors look younger, which is already an early problem I've noted with Ian McKellan.) When I watched the Rankin/Bass Hobbit from the 1970s, I always remember thinking it seemed pretty light and goofy -- and that wasn't just because of the animation style. Even back when I was a kid, I sensed the story's lack of dramatic weight. There's a reason Jackson started with Lord of the Rings and not this.

So I'm the perfect candidate to seek out my local 48 fps showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I'm not some Tolkien nerd who has only one chance for this film to make its first impression on me, and can't afford to blow it at the risk of my geek soul. And besides, the most interesting outcome for me might be to hate the 48 fps but still like the movie. As much as anything, I'm curious to see if there is a definite correlation between the way the movie looks and the impression it has on me as a piece of narrative art. It would be a similar experiment to making yourself watch Avatar for the first time on an iphone. Okay, better example of a spectacle whose story is actually a success: It would be like making yourself watch Titanic for the first time on an iphone. 

In a way, the verdict is already in on The Hobbit, anyway. Regardless of its fps, it isn't wowing critics in terms of its quality as a film, as it's been conspicuously absent from the year-end awards that Peter Jackson made his bitch the first time around. Most conspicuously, yesterday's Golden Globe nominations didn't feature a single mention of The Hobbit, at least in the major categories I perused. That's ouch-worthy.

But however you choose to consume it, here's hoping that you get something out of The Hobbit that reminds you even in some small way of the original trilogy, which I consider to be one of the great achievements in film history, even though I'm not a Tolkien nerd. We should be glad there's an artist out there with the vision and ambition to give these films such a lavish big-screen realization -- whether he launches a new cinematic paradigm or not.

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