(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2003)
I’ll admit to a slight jealousy of people who completely immerse themselves in a fictional world: who watch the movies or TV shows until they’ve memorized them, read every relevant publication, start their own websites, passionately debate minutiae with fellow fans, attend conventions and – if their dreams come true – get married to someone who’s just as nuts about the whole thing as they are. Currently, of course, the main focus for such activity is the second Lord of the Rings movie – The Two Towers. To me, it’s just another movie at best, and that’s the healthier approach to it, all things considered. I do hate to miss out on a good time though.
I’ve been through various obsessions with one mythology or another, with all the symptoms: the list making, the cataloguing, the accumulation of memorabilia. As a kid, I was into Disney – really into Disney. At 5 or 6, I could tell you who provided the voices for all the characters, and I was pretty well up on the animators too. That evaporated when I was 7 or 8, to be replaced by the British TV show Doctor Who.
Getting into movies
For those who don’t know, this was a weekly half-hour show chronicling the adventures of a “Time Lord” who traveled through space and time in a spacecraft that, from the outside, looked like an old-fashioned police phone booth (Doctor Who is the sole reason why anyone under the age of 40 knows there were ever such things as police phone booths). Whenever the lead actor quit the role, the Doctor would regenerate into a new body and personality, thus allowing the show a new lease of life. My primary interest in it coincided with the dashing Jon Pertwee, after whom the actors became ever more lightweight. The show petered out in the mid-90s, although one often reads about plans for a revival, or a big screen version.
This broadened into an interest in science fiction generally. I’ve read a lot of Asimov and Heinlein and the others, but all before the age of 11 or 12. Of course, much of the genre is quite violent and/or sexual, so I was really getting away with something. Then, around the time of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, I became a Trekker. This seems now like a backward step – I think maybe keeping up with the entire genre was too arduous. I started buying movie magazines just for the Trek articles, and it’s really around then that I became seriously interested in film as a whole.
I can still remember drawing up one of my first film want-to-see lists, which included such gems as Private Benjamin and Hopscotch. The first adult-rated movie I sneaked into was Altered States; the second was Heaven’s Gate. Of course, Heaven’s Gate is famous for being a movie that no one went to see, so my wayward streak must already have been taking shape. I got into foreign movies around the same time, and since then – for over twenty years now – I’ve kept my passion for film burning pretty steadily. My records show there was a period of several months in 1984 when I hardly watched any movies at all, but I’ve completely forgotten what that was all about.
The main characteristic of my film thing has been a desire to see just about everything, which has consistently kept me from multiple viewings, intensive background reading, or from watching all those extras that come with DVDs (I’ve never listened to any of the commentary tracks on any of the disks I own). I’ve written before about the fatigue that sometimes accompanies this tendency. Without question, I’d like to linger more, to contemplate, to debate, to go back, to look again. But I haven’t done the latter since Bamboozled. A friend of mine recently went to see Talk to Her twice within the same week, placing a second viewing ahead of The Hours and Gangs of New York and About Schmidt and numerous other recent releases he hadn’t seen. This struck me as a Don Quixote-like endeavor – noble, and completely impractical.
Even so, I think I generally squeeze out some reasonable engagement with what a movie is all about (otherwise of course, there really would be no point at all). But I’m not best suited to films of sprawling complexities and multi-layered back stories and dozens of characters – the kind of movie where aficionados pore over detailed notes on the web and compare it to the book in painstaking detail. I went to see the first Lord of the Rings film, with its lengthy opening narrative about the origin of the rings and the lords of darkness, throwing around names and defining the parameters of its imaginary universe. I remember saying to myself: what the hell is all this about. By the time it got to Bilbo Baggins and his eleventy-first birthday, I’d had enough already. But I stayed, for the dullest sixteen – uh, sorry, three hours of last year.
I swore I wouldn’t be coming back for the other two movies and by golly I meant it. Nothing about the reviews for The Two Towers changed my mind. But then, just like its predecessor, it started to get nominated for awards – Golden Globes, and then Oscars. And I couldn’t stand not seeing one of the five Oscar-nominated movies – I haven’t been in that position for decades. So I went for it, despite severe misgivings.
The Two Towers
It helped that by the time I got round to it the theater was almost empty. I could spread out and enjoy the extra-large supply of snacks I’d smuggled in. Initially, I wondered whether I’d have enough to get me through the experience. The movie starts up right where its predecessor left off, with no recap or summary, and I’ve forgotten most of what I needed to know.
But ultimately it didn’t matter. The Two Towers is essentially a series of one-off action sequences, with far less exposition and dialogue than the first movie. It’s all well staged, and on this occasion I found myself better able to appreciate the unique fusion of spectacularly authentic New Zealand landscapes with digital and other wizardry: it’s a far more tangible-feeling fantasy than most of the genre. New cast members like Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto add to the gravity and nuance that others detected in the first film. On the whole, it didn’t feel like a minute over, well, three hours.
Of course, the only reason I enjoyed the film is that it allowed me to ignore all the Tolkienish elements I have no patience for. Whether this makes it a good or a bad adaptation, I don’t know. I would go online and research what the Tolkien crowd is saying about it, but I don’t have the time.