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Monday, December 15, 2003
"NOT AN OUNCE"

I realized that I never wrote follow-up comments after the ROTR junket last week. Principally, that was because I saw Peter Pan the same evening, and the happy entertaining experience of that latter film made me reticent about revisiting Return of the Tedium. I know I promised to write a real review, and if I didn't have seven Azusa Pacific term papers, a book proposal, fifty Christmas cards to write and 95 NEA applications to pore through in the next week, I would feel better about setting a date for that.

Let me say this by way of review... There is a monumental scope about the LOTR series that is certainly estimable. All of the elements of the spectacle aspect are hugely impressive and awe-inspiring. The score is soaring. The costumes are fabulous. The effects are stunningly executed. The cinematography - if not lyrical in its composition and imagery - is still highly competent.

On the down side in terms of production values, I really didn't think much of the acting as everybody is either gazing or crying most of the time - extremes of portrayal that Jackson, as a horror film director has come by honestly, I guess. The script is overlong. Structurally, there are several scenes that could and should have been cut, and many moments in scenes that could and should have been shorter. Particularly the last half hour of the film is problematic in that it ties up several stories that the film hadn't dealt with at all. That Sam gets married, for example, may be all well and good in the book, but it is not the story that the film was telling, so it should have been cut.

Writer Fran Walsh shared my sense of this during the junket. She wondered out loud if they shouldn't have left several of the endings out of the film.

So, let me be clear. The spectacle of ROTK is impressive and awe-inspiring. If the film wins the Best Picture Oscar for this achievement, I will shrug and be without outrage.

However, in the end, the film does not amount to that much in terms of story and theme. The notion that good guys will be the ones who fight back when bad guys are about to annilhate them would fall into my category of being a bad theme. A good movie theme is one that can be argued. Hence, a good theme would be "Is any one good?" A BAD movie theme would be "Murder is bad."

I hear hoards of blinking-eyed LOTR fans foisting all kinds of profound Christian themes on the movies. I use AS MY SOURCE for the theme of the project the words of the director of the project himself. At the junket for the Return of the King, one of the writers asked Jackson how much interest he had in fleshing out the Christian themes in the story, Jackson replied, "Not an ounce."

"NOT AN OUNCE."

Non ounciam. Non ounce pas. Nien onze. Niew ouzkew pftusk.

When I pressed him further to identify what the theme of the work was for him, Jackson gave the usual spiel about not wanting to send a message. Then, he shrugged and said, "I guess if it is about anything for me, it would be about environmentalism." He suggested that Tolkien wrote the books with a sense of horror about what the Industrial Revolution was doing to the English countryside.

When I complain that the movies lack a thematic unity, and that they seem rambling and unfocussed, this is what I mean.

Now, certainly, artists, as vessels of communication between the Creator and the world, don't have to apprehend and understand all the themes that are present in their own work. But it certainly helps a project if the director is on board with a theme. It will be reinforced and heightened with many flourishes. It will mean the necessary elimination of many other herrings that would take the story in other directions. Good directions in themselves, maybe, but not, ultimately the direction that would heighten and support the principle theme.

Secondly, in that the LOTR films are based on a work that purportedly has strong Christian themes, the films will probably have some kind of residue of these themes. You would have to work very hard, for example, to film the Sermon on the Mount, without some aroma of the Christ coming through. My sense of Jackson and his collaborators was that they were intent on preserving themes that were in the book -- even if they would never articulate them or ascribe to them. I will grant that there is much more than "an ounce" of Christianity in the films. It is just important to note that the preservation of the same was of zero concern to the director. "Not an ounce."

For those to have ears to hear, hear. For the rest of you, enjoy the film - and tell yourself it is not an over-hyped, over-produced spectacle that doesn't amount to much. I'm happy for you.