Friday, September 30, 2005

On 3-hour films, plus random comments

Last weekend, for three days in a row, I watched films that hovered around the 3-hour mark. The first, Les Amants réguliers (Garrel, 2005) was quite good though I had some minor reservations. The second, The Cardinal (Preminger, 1963--on DVD) was a near-masterpiece though I thought it fell into very problematic territory (dramatically & politically) in its final minutes. The third, The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003--also on DVD, original cut) has a lot that can be said about it, and unless it's intelligent and well-stated, probably is a lot more than it deserves to have said about it. I make no claims that my thoughts will be intelligent and well-stated, but that's why I'm putting them in a blog entry and not in an article.

I was struck at the differences in Les Amants and The Cardinal for how they clarified each other's organizational strategies. Both are unified by a distinctive aesthetic: highly 'textural' and intimate, immediate scenes splayed out over 175 minutes in the Garrel, versus a leisurely-paced but highly purposeful narrative progression, brushed in bold (but masterly, and often subtle) strokes ... for 175 minutes ... in the Preminger. But the aesthetic, not to mention thematic & philosophical, unity of the former work only comes about when viewed a posteriori, and dialectically, I think. There is no conventionally satisfying progression, simply a flow whose essence changes drastically (but not suddenly) in the early May scenes and those right after, and which changes (more subtly still) in the early post-May scenes and late post-May scenes. It's all about tone and texture really, and the power of tiny nuances on grand scales. The Cardinal doesn't seem to operate on this same wavelength, and instead offers an Olympian-scaled 'regular' narrative. The interplay between past and present, so important in both films, is more explicit in Preminger's; this is largely because of its sense of iconographic ingenuity. A moment like the one where young Romy Schneider, about to meet her young American priest (whose profane yearnings might cause him to leave the priesthood for her), sees her object of affection (Tom Tryon in the title role) in a cafe--only he rises to his feet, mercilessly, wearing his collar for the first time in two years. Preminger knows how to hit all those big, smashing, orchestral notes with perfect balance: the past would never be such a looming and physical monstrosity in the Garrel film (at least not this particular one). This is because The Cardinal, like almost all Hollywood narrative (great, awful, or in between) is not dialectical, and not opaque. One doesn't hold in one's head the contrasting experiential flows between 'the past' (at one point in a film) and 'the present' (at another point), as with Les Amants réguliers, and deduce the greater meanings and aspects of the work from the interplay. The interplay is there, and obviated, in something like The Cardinal.

As for the third installment in the Tolkien trilogy: some background. I never saw the second film, and I saw the first one in theaters, remember kind of liking it, but don't really recall the film at all. I read half of Tolkien's opus when I was younger (I couldn't get past that notorious "middle section of The Two Towers"). From the ages of, roughly, 9 to 13, however, I was a big fan of sword-and-sorcery novels, usually the mass market, commercial stuff. When I realized that open enchantment with elves and swords might prevent me from having girlfriends or sitting with cool kids at lunch, I torpedoed the hobby ... if not quite the affection. To this day, I have an uneasy fascination with tales of myth & valor that involve magic and derivative names of kingdoms. 'Uneasy' because if I ever revisit it--flipping through old paperbacks of mine, for instance--I find that I hate the stuff as much as I love it, and am as annoyed as I am riveted. (I actually feel a little bit of the same way with some of the more literary figures in the SF&F fields: the work of people like China Miéville or Gene Wolfe or Jack Vance, which I've sampled lately, has proven disappointing even when I like it quite a bit.) All this is to say that I have a more complicated personal relationship to that much-scorned area of "fantasy" than to other areas of 'junk' fiction.

What is interesting is how Peter Jackson's adaptations, as expansive and epic as they may be or seem to audiences, are pretty severe abridgements of Tolkien's work. Jackson is not a filmmaker without talent (the one film of his I've seen that doesn't have hobbits is Heavenly Creatures, and I liked that one a lot--probably would like it still if I saw it today). So the enormous Battle at Pelennor Fields (its buildup and aftermath included), which takes up something like two hours, is fine narrative filmmaking, with strong pacing and rhythm. I enjoyed it, I felt that "sense of wonder" that we're no doubt meant to feel, and so on. But what I didn't like about the film has a lot in common with why and how Jackson has "abridged" Tolkien. Not this film's specific elisions because, as I said, I haven't even read the third part of The Lord of the Rings. But the ethos which justifies the choices Jackson made as to how to tell this story in his way. There are some things which might boil down to taste: the pristine, New Age-y compositions that mar a lot of the film (especially beginning and end) might appear unspeakably beautiful to someone else, I suppose--on par with Terrence Malick. OK. But there is a certain infusion of modern "attitude" to the film that undercuts the timelessness which has been so unhonorably ladled upon this 'epic masterpiece.' For instance, the scene in which Eowyn kills the Witch-King, who was to not to die by any man's hand. "I am no man!" she says with relish as she kills him. Tolkien's original text, which I looked over to compare, presents a very different event (I wish I had it here to quote). She says something along the lines of, 'No living man am I. You look upon a woman. [And more.]' And the violence of this moment is presented clumsily, almost luckily. Eowyn "stands up" to the Witch-King in Tolkien's text with great fear, which is poignant, whereas she is a badass and a strong role model for young viewers (tm) in the film, which is thrilling.

I am not a believer that a film adaptation should hew to the text, nor do I think that we should be making films which replicate Tolkien's retrograde gender politics. But Jackson's effort smacks of tokenism to me. Here is this film trilogy, with slightly beefed up roles for its grand total of three female characters, which basically doesn't 'alter' Tolkien or really 'update' him--it doesn't even present him in such a way that we could "read against the presumed grain" as I think we can with Milius' Conan. It simply puts Tolkien through a processor for today's audience, translating all that can be kept into the form of a product to reach the hearts and wallets of millions.

There are readers of this blog who like these films a lot, I'm sure. And I'm not dismissing them--I don't think they're horrible films whatever my reservations. But I also cannot for the life of me understand their massive appeal. I don't think they're magical, I don't think they're "finally the real deal." They seem very much like products of their time for the global market, constructed with all the CGI loveliness & darkness that money can buy, with romance and comic relief inserted according to today's conventions amidst a 'danger/safety/danger/safety' narrative--one which was of course taken from Tolkien, but which again goes to serve a sensationalist mentality. What might I be missing that speaks in the films' favor? Or have I been to lenient on the films as it is?

OK, as if this wasn't already the longest post I've probably ever written, I have a few random notes and gripes. In the space of a week NYC will have two different Kiju Yoshida (aka Yoshishige Yoshida) films playing--Love Affair at Akitsu Spa and A Story Written with Water. Finally! In both cases I will have to miss them, the former because I will be staying in Martha's Vineyard next weekend, the latter because I have a ticket for Hong's Tale of Cinema that afternoon. Damn it. Also, I thought of another father/daughter duo in which case I might cherish the daughter's work more--Asia Argento. I've only seen a few Dario films, and only one by Asia, but cult canons bedamned, I'd rather see Scarlet Diva again than, say, Suspiria. Asia Argento is one of my favorite people in the cinema.