Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Another Tuesday, another 4-hour stretch of watching "Lord of the Rings" in theaters. The first time I saw this movie, me mum took me out of school in the middle of the day so we could catch the very first screening on the day the movie opened. This was on the Big Island, so there were no midnight screenings, but she probably would have taken me to see it then if there were. "I know what's important to you," she said. I love me mum.

The second movie of the trilogy, "The Two Towers," is considered by some (I'm glad this is the Internet and I don't need to back up this claim with any real numbers) to be the best of the set because it happens in the middle of all the action and doesn't have any of the slow set up of "Fellowship" or the long denouement of "Return of the King." It's just swords, battles, and creepy goblins for three hours, at least in the theatrical version. The problem with the extended edition is that most of the added scenes are the slow, character- and world-building bits that were really interesting to me when I was deep in my LOTR obsession, but now I feel like they mess with the pacing of the movie and slow it way, way down. I was in the theater for over two hours before the big battle sequence at Helms Deep even began! That's a bit excessive when you can't stop the movie at the halfway point to have a biscuit and a cuppa, which may be why there were a lot more candy wrappers rustling in the theater this time around. Everyone learned their lesson from last week.

One big problem with "The Two Towers" extended edition is, I'm sorry to say, the extra scenes with Merry and Pippin. When TTTEE first came out, I was really excited to see more of the duo, because their adventures in Fangorn Forest with the Ents were my favorite part of the book. I liked seeing those adventures realized on screen. However, after several years of not watching the movies OR reading the books, I find their extra scenes are just too at odds with the tone of the rest of the movie. The slow pacing and the casual jocularity of the characters' relationship belongs more to "Fellowship" than to "TTT." Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas are battling to the death with Saruman's forces, Sam and Frodo are adrift in enemy territory with only a schizophrenic little freak to guide them, and Merry and Pippin are--hanging out drinking magical tree-water? The theatrical version played it just right, because Merry and Pippin went straight from being prisoners of war to trying to convince the Ents to join the battle, knowing that every precious moment the Ents deliberated, innocents were dying. The extended edition adds scenes that actually squander the suspense built up in the first two story lines, and almost trivialize Merry and Pippin's role in the wider story.

Speaking of scenes that just don't fit, poor, poor Eowyn. She is EXTREMELY ill-served by the addition of extra scenes between her and Aragorn. In the theatrical version, she's a capable, stalwart woman of the court, holding strong against the war on her doorstep and the treachery within her own household even as she rages against the societal constraints that prevent her from fighting for her kingdom. She weeps when her cousin and the heir to the throne dies, but even in her grief, she resists the allure of Grima Wormtongue, a man who was able to ensnare the king with his words but cannot sway the princess. When Aragorn calls her "a shieldmaiden of Rohan," you believe that this is a true woman warrior who could conceivably be a better match for him than Arwen. The extra scenes waste all of that and turn Eowyn into a weepy, simpering little fool who throws herself at a man who seems rightly embarrassed at her increasingly desperate bids for his approval. Even worse, some of these scenes are set right next to extra flashbacks between Aragorn and Arwen, which cruelly highlight Eowyn's deficiencies as a character and make it even clearer that her romantic efforts are wasted. In their attempt to give the character some depth, the filmmakers actually flatten Eowyn out and turned her into a romantic comedy cliche. Very disappointing.

But enough fangirl bitching. Let's talk about an extra scene that not only worked, but should have been included in the theatrical version. Faramir of Gondor, the younger brother of the Fellowship's Boromir, gets a long flashback that shows the brothers and their father Denethor hanging out before Borormir leaves to visit Rivendell and eventually join the Fellowship. Boromir is a prominent character in "Fellowship," and Denethor figures heavily into the events of "Return of the King," so TTT is obviously meant to be Faramir's chance to shine. In the theatrical version, we don't know a lot about Faramir. He seems pretty capable at killing enemies and being all Robin Hood-y in the forest, and when he finds out that Frodo has the Ring, he quickly pulls a Boromir and decides to take the Ring to Gondor, which probably seems like a good idea when you're the last line of defense against Mordor and you're living inside a waterfall. But Faramir is NOT Boromir-lite, and the flashback shows an entirely different motivation for the character's actions. It's the only scene we ever get between all three family members, and considering how much influence they all have on each other and how strongly their storyline comes into play in "Return", I really feel that this should have made it to the original cut. Their whole situation is so Shakespearean: Denethor loves Boromir more than Faramir, and both brothers know this but love each other, which makes Boromir ashamed of his status as favorite and Faramir both jealous of his brother and ashamed of his jealousy. When Faramir decides to take Frodo and the Ring to Gondor, he's doing it because he wants to honor Boromir's memory, but also to please his father and show Denethor that he, Faramir, is plenty awesome and could do what Boromir could not. It's hard to fault him when we've seen what Denethor thinks of his younger son. "Do not trouble me about Faramir, I know his uses and they are few." Gee, thanks Dad.

When I first read the books, Faramir was hands-down my favorite character because he possessed such clarity and insight into the whole war for Middle Earth situation happening all around him. He's the only one to openly suggest that war has no true winners and that violence, even violence for a good cause, is a fundamentally evil thing. Everyone else, even the hobbits, are so concerned with the tasks in front of them and are trying so hard to just stay alive that they never stop to reflect like Faramir does. This is fine, because it's sword and sorcery and no one really wants to read a book or watch a movie about a bunch of hippies sitting around talking about war and peace. We want to see some burly warriors kicking ass and taking names. But what sets LOTR apart from all of the other fantasy that followed it was Tolkien's willingness to give Faramir's concerns about the true cost of war as much credence as any other character's perspective. In the movie, Faramir says bitterly, "War will make corpses of us all," which is a little simplistic rendition of his viewpoint, but a pretty audacious thing to say when you've just killed a bunch of dudes and their elephant. In the book, he explains himself at length: "But I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend." (Full disclosure, this was my quote in my senior high school yearbook, because yes, I am a massive nerd.) Either way, this is a peaceful little dude at heart, clinging to his compassion and humanity in a world where such traits will only get you a quick Orcblade in the gut.

After Mum and I watched TTT, I mentioned offhand that her nickname for me, My Precious, was the same name Gollum gives the Ring. "I know," Mum replied, "where do you think I got that name for you?" Which is sweet, but also kind of creepy.

I don't have a lot to say about the extra scenes with Sam, Frodo and Gollum, mostly because I didn't notice any. I know there were some added, but it's been so long since I saw the theatrical version, and that whole storyline is so well plotted and paced, that it just slides by without notice, which is great. If the filmmakers have done their jobs right, there should be seamless integration, not clumsy plot-hindering side adventures (Merry and Pippin) or glaring omissions (happy family time with Denethor & Sons). Anyway, I've got some stuff to say about the character of Gollum, but I'll save it for "Return of the King."

Oh, and one last thing: watching these movies in the theater again is a strange experience because you get large audience reactions to stuff that you've long since regulated to the solitary entertainment part of your brain. "Fellowship" had a lot of people giggling at Legolas's lines for reasons I couldn't figure out (maybe because he tends to be Captain Obvious when he speaks). And TTT got a lot of giggles in Sam and Frodo's climactic scene, when Frodo has his sword against Sam's throat and Sam implores, "Don't you know your Sam?"

Now, I know why people were laughing: haha, Frodo and Sam are gay for each other! But here's the thing. And maybe this is just because I live in New York City and I'm interested in queer theory, but that scene is not gay. In a case like this, sexuality lies in the context of the viewer. Maybe someone could construe the relationship between Frodo and Sam as homoerotic, but only if they have never seen any entertainment with ACTUAL gay characters in it before. For those people, allow me to give you a visual aid.

This is not gay.

This is gay and the most used picture on this site.
In the interests of gender parity, this is also gay.
See the difference? Just so we're clear, deep and abiding friendship between two people of the same sex does not mean said people are gay. It is a nasty and pernicious byproduct of our patriarchal culture that men and women (but mostly men) are not permitted any physical displays of love and affection, such as hugging, or allowed to share deep emotions, such as vulnerability, with friends of the same sex lest they be damned as "gay." This only happens when being gay is considered a bad or transgressive act by society, which doesn't just hurt gay people, but straight people, too, because we find ourselves denied the basic comfort of holding a good friend's hand. Individuals may find that they have to actively battle against such negative societal messages within the space of their own mind in order to break free of such constraints and NOT ruin the most goddamn poignant scene in one of my favorite movies because you can't handle any hint of teh queer.

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