Sunday, October 4, 2015

Preparations for Middle Earth

I'm adding a new country to my list later this month.

Actually, that's not technically true. I've set foot in New Zealand before, in the sense that I've been in one of its airports. I stopped over in Auckland on my first trip to Australia back in 2007, but I was bleary eyed and sleep deprived and it just looked like the inside of an airport.

But from October 14th to 18th, I'll actually be visiting the country, known to fans worldwide cinematically as the home of Middle Earth.

In fact, its status as the setting for Peter Jackson's six movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books is the primary reason we're going. We had always intended to visit New Zealand while we're living in Australia, as it's so close by and my wife has a good friend from high school who lives there, but what's actually prompting this visit is the visit of my mother and her boyfriend from the U.S. Her boyfriend is a huge fan of these books and movies, and it was always an unspoken precondition of him making the trip to Australia with her that they would also go to New Zealand. When push came to shove, though, my mom hesitated when she realized it would mean time away from her son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons, which would be particularly precious given that the total duration of their trip was only two weeks. So for a moment it looked like he was going to come all this way, this close to New Zealand, and then not actually get there.

We decided that couldn't happen, so proposed that all six of us spend five days and four nights in our neighboring country to the east. It's only a three-hour plane ride, and we may not get a better opportunity for our own visit, especially if we are planning to return to the U.S. sometime in 2016 or (more likely) 2017.

So on Thursday, October 15th, we will be touring Hobbiton and dreaming ourselves away into the world that Tolkien envisioned and Jackson brought to the screen. (Most of the landscape shots were actually on the south island, the one we won't be visiting, but we're trying not to focus on that part of it.)

I don't think we actually needed any preparation to excite us for this, but I scheduled some anyway in the form of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, my favorite of the six movies. We watched it Friday night.

Forthwith, some thoughts.

Taking it out of the realm of a joke

For a couple years now, I have been using a different one of the Lord of the Rings movies -- The Return of the King -- as a joke that I have long since beaten into the ground.

The joke goes something like this. It's late at night, probably after 10, and the subject comes up of whether my wife and I should try to watch something else or just yield to our palpable exhaustion. I am fond of saying, "Well, we could throw on Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Which of course is the longest of these movies at 201 minutes. And which we don't actually own anyway.

My wife may have cracked a smile the first time I made the joke. Now I just make it as callback to the other times I've made the joke and as a way of taking the piss out of myself for repeating jokes until they've lost any shred of their original humor value.

So when I emailed my wife suggesting a viewing of The Two Towers, I titled the email "Not a joke this time."

The 179-minute running time -- which turned out to be more like 165 before credits, and 173 after them -- still daunted us. However, I'm pleased to inform you that we made it through the whole thing without any signs of nodding off. That's the power of a good movie, I guess.

Starship Towers

When first considering my approach to writing about The Two Towers on my bog, I latched on to the idea of just how good the digital character of Gollum still looks, even 13 years after it was created. (How good Andy Serkis is, making Gollum one of the great movie characters of the 21st century, was another pleasant rediscovery.) So I considered writing a whole post focusing only on older movies whose digital effects still looked top notch.

The one that came instantly to mind was Starship Troopers, whose arachnids continue to seem as realistic and as ferocious as the day they were created, "way back" in 1997. I considered some other options (the Star Wars prequels, for example) before deciding that the arachnids and Gollum were the only ones I'd actually argue for passionately.

But then that got me thinking of some other narrative similarities between these two movies.

They both involve armies of humans fighting armies of mindless drones they can't understand, which are bent only on their destruction, and in fact on the very annihilation of their species. They both feature scenes in which these armies succeed in impregnating a fortress that was previously though to be impregnable, by pouring wave after wave of these drones at the fortress walls. They also both involve an attempt to neutralize the strength of these drone armies by defeating a certain queen or command center -- the "brain bug" in Starship Troopers, and Isengard in The Two Towers.

Only one, however, features the epic line "They sucked his brains out."

How old is John Rhys-Davies?

It had always subconsciously nagged at me that John Rhys-Davies, who played Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, plays Gimli in these movies. In short -- no pun intended during the discussion of a dwarf -- he would have seemed too old to play the part.

My assumption of Rhys-Davies' elderliness, however, is built on my assumption of how old he was when he played Sallah. I would have guessed that he was in his mid-40s then, which would put him in his mid-60s when playing Gimli. Not so old that he couldn't do it, but old enough that it seems like it would have struck a casting director as an odd choice for the role, especially since Rhys-Davies is not what you would call a star.

It turns out Rhys-Davies was only 37 for his first appearance as Sallah. What makes that especially strange is that he was two years younger than Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. I had always considered Sallah to have a slightly paternalistic relationship to Indy, but in light of these revelations, that's even more off base than it might otherwise have been.

Twenty years after Raiders, that left Rhys-Davies a much more reasonable 57 when he first played Gimli. He's a relative spring chicken in a series that also features Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee ... and featured them both again in the Hobbit movies a full decade later.

The impact of a little Irish

As much as I think I would have been caught up by the events of The Two Towers regardless of any preconceived notions, those of you who know me or have read me will remember that I didn't particularly care for The Fellowship of the Ring when I first saw it. I have later come to like it much more, especially in the wake of the affection I developed for these movies after The Two Towers, which even continued to me holding two of the three Hobbit movies in high esteem. But The Two Towers presumably had to do a number of things to win my affection after the series took a misstep out of the gate.

After this viewing, I've decided that one of these things was its music.

Although I don't specifically recall Howard Shore's work in The Fellowship of the Ring, I don't remember it being nearly as inflected by Irish tradition as the Two Towers score is.

And because I find Irish music to be inherently melancholic, in a good way, I think that's a big part of why I became so invested in these characters in this installment. I found the long distance romance, carried out in dreams and visions, between Aragorn and Arwen to particularly benefit from this. The first time around, I didn't get why Liv Tyler's character was even in the movie. This time, when she has a smaller and much less essential role, I totally got the significance of it and her bond with Aragorn. In fact, the sequence in which she imagines a future life with a mortal like Aragorn, which ends in his inevitable death, may have been the very scene that erased any lingering doubts I may have had from Fellowship and fully got me on board the LOTR train.

And that sorrowful, lilting Irish score has everything to do with that. I'm a guy who thinks "Oh Danny Boy" is one of the most beautifully mournful songs ever written, so throw anything that's vaguely in that tradition at me and I'm putty in your hands.

That opening

I suspect the other thing that drew me right into this movie is its opening. I love that it takes us back into the first movie, the scene where Gandalf fights [the large horned beast, not looking up his name right now], and shows us stuff we didn't see the first time.

That he continues to fight this creature while falling -- and even eventually fights him atop a craggy, snow-covered mountaintop, which we don't discover until later in the film -- was cool enough. But what really gives me the chills, even now as I type this, is that shot where their falling, burning bodies illuminate a whole underground cave filled with water, which might be as big as the state of Delaware. It's a wonderful reminder of the scope -- not only of this world, but of this movie -- to see that they are really just a speck in the distance of this massive underground chamber.

"He fell"

Speaking of falling, and John Rhys-Davies, one of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Gimli reports to Eowyn what he believes is Aragorn's death during the Orc attack on the way to Helm's Deep.

"He fell,"  he tells Eowyn, his voice choked with emotion.

What I love about this line is that it can be read two ways. I was going to say "The first, most obvious reading," but now I'm not sure if either is more obvious, and that's what makes it so wonderful.

One reading is that he's using the word "fall" as a direct synonym for "die," as one would talk about "fallen soldiers" as the ones who died in battle. It's a more poetic and softer way to announce someone's death.

My preferred reading is that the emotion of the situation has made Gimli overly literal, as in "Aragorn literally fell over the side of a cliff," and you can imagine what happened to him as a result. It's like a child reporting the exact physical circumstances of the situation. "He fell" ... a long, long way to his death.

Fortunately, the movie lets all these characters off the hook for their emotional suffering by having Aragorn show up pretty soon after that. But it undoubtedly contributes to the emotional weight of this film that characters have to experience the deaths of friends, even if those characters are not actually dead. Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas also think for a moment that Merry and Pippin have been killed, and have a moment to consider themselves as failures to their friends. And that may also be a way that I appreciated this movie more than its predecessor, whose ending I thought was weakened significantly by the maudlin display of emotion after the turncoat Boromir is killed. These displays are more restrained ... even when the people who supposedly died are more deserving of our grief.

It's so damn quotable

And speaking of quotes, I was reminded just how many great ones there are in this movie. Which is especially surprising because I feel like the dialogue was one of the primary things people picked at in the new Hobbit movies.

Here's a small survey of the quotes that really resonate with me:

"Look for your friends, but do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands."

"The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Theoden King."

"Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth."

"Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not."

"Here you will dwell, bound to your grief, under the fading trees until all the world is changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent."

"War will make corpses of us all."

"What can men do against such reckless hate?"

"We come to honor that allegiance."

"There is no curse in Elvish, Entish or the tongues of men for this treachery."

"And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone."

"Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam."

How many of these lines are directly from Tolkien, though, I could not tell you. Well, I don't so much care if I'm getting Jackson and his three fellow scribes or the original author. All that matters to me is that this movie has collected them up and brought them to me.


New Zealand? Yeah, I'm ready.

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