Tolkien: A Very, Very Long Story – Part 1 – On the Screen vs. the Mind’s Eye

Okay, The Lord of the Rings, the big enchilada. Tolkien wrote about a half a million words about his war of the ring. His son Christopher has made a cottage industry of publishing every scrap of draft paper that his father ever scribbled and analyzing them as if they were papyrus palimpsests of the lost plays of Sophocles. In the last sixty plus years an unending stream of analysis both professional and personal has been generated about these books. Everything that could be said has been said and about a million times. So, what possible justification is there for me to add to the ocean?

Well, it’s my damn blog and I want to. So, without further ado…

I read the Lord of the Rings when I was about twelve. I was highly impressed. Obviously as I matured my opinion of the story was based on an evolving baseline of experience with fiction and personal experience of the world around me. Over the years my personal preferences among the various characters and scenes have altered somewhat. But my overall opinion of the work is still very high and very enthusiastic.
Over the course of the time I have been a fan of the Lord of the Rings, Hollywood has from time to time attempted to produce motion picture versions of it. Some of these were animated films. One was drawing superimposed over live action frames of film (Ralph Bakshi’s film). Recently a sophisticated live action and CGI combination was produced by Peter Jackson and managed to win the Academy Award for best picture. The relationship between these films and the text is the subject of this post.
I will state categorically that none of the film versions of the Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson’s version ever succeeded (except in very small sections) in capturing the feeling of the book. The inability to draw the viewer into the reality of the story was always too strong. But in the Jackson version it succeeded.

Okay, here come the qualifiers. Do not confuse the above statement with an unconditional endorsement of every aspect of the movie. There are any number of things about the movie that I object to (some extremely strenuously). For instance, Denethor is rendered as a terrible man. I do not think that reflects Tolkien’s intent or description. Also, some aspects of the treatment of Frodo and Sam’s friendship is oddly portrayed and off-putting. The super human abilities of Legolas seem exaggerated and some of the silly treatment of Gimli are annoying. A hundred little and not so little problems exist.

Getting that out of the way I will say that Jackson’s movies bring the Lord of the Rings alive. In a certain sense these films will give Tolkien’s work a chance to become part of the mythology of the whole human race. Because although millions of people have read the books, billions of people will see the movies. Not every viewer will be impacted deeply by the story but enough of the books comes across in the films that the films will act as an amplifier of the story in the digital realm we now inhabit. So, on balance the Jackson films are a net positive for the Tolkien lovers of the world.

I’ll cut this first Tolkien post short here. After all this is an endless pursuit. Best not to drone on too much. But I’ll end with my opinion on the best scene in the Jackson films. And I’ll specify I’m talking about the extended versions. The best scene is the Ride of the Rohirrim at the Battle of Minas Tirith. It was stirring and well done. Feel free to leave your opinion on the best scene in the comments.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

In the first installment of this post I documented my education into the real world of scientists, how they saved the world from giant mutated insects and invented important stuff like flying cars. That time period was the 1960s. It was a carefree time full of youthful high jinx such as race riots and the Manson Family. Fast forward thirty years to 1993. A little movie came out called Matinee. It was about the 1960s. The movie employs a device that I like to call “a movie within a movie.” It’s called that because within the movie you are watching there is a movie being watched by the characters in the movie! It’s a wild concept.

The name of this internal movie is MANT. That’s a portmanteau for man-ant. The eponymous victim of this movie has been transformed from a man into a hybrid man/ ant creature. Once again radiation is involved and eventually the MANT reaches gigantic proportions. And right on schedule arrives the scientist that has glasses and a beard and explains all the technical jargon about this scientific problem. And by an amazing coincidence it’s our old friend Dr. “You’re Wiser Than We Are” from “The Thing from Another World” (Robert Cornthwaite). I mean, what are the odds? He makes such valuable pronouncements as “human/insect mutations are far from an exact science” and “My friend, you’ve suffered some of the worst that our little friend the atom has to offer. It can power a city or level it!”

I was fascinated by the changes I noted in Cornthwaite between the time he was in “The Thing” and “Mant”. No longer was he sympathetic toward the monsters. His allegiance had shifted back to humanity. I attributed this change to the smoldering resentment he felt after the Thing back-handed him into a wall in the earlier movie. Such ingratitude by the monster pushed our friend back into the Humanity First camp once again. I knew this was valuable information. I wrote it down!
Outside of the movie Mant (but inside of Matinee) a teenage girl (played by Lisa Jakub) is swept up in the drama surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis (and the premiere of Mant) in the southern Florida town of Key West. This girl is the daughter of beatniks and she has her world view changed by exposure to a young Navy brat who also happens to like horror movies. When the movie ends Lisa has gotten over her prejudices against military families and monster movies. What does this have to do with this post? Well it does link us back to the military but hang in there. I have another half-baked segue coming up.
Fast forward to 1998 and a blockbuster called Independence Day erupts onto the cinematic stage. Now it just so happens that there is an ex-Navy pilot named Russel Kay and by a strange coincidence (or is it) his daughter is played by Lisa Jakub! But her love of a navy brat in the last movie has landed her in this movie in a family headed by a delusional alcoholic ex-military flier. Although it’s not apparent how she feels about horror movies she definitely suffers some of the worst of what our friends the aliens have to offer. In Independence Day, the role of scientist is handled by Jeff Goldblum. He is an environmentalist computer scientist who’s always worried about recycling and is totally opposed to nuking the aliens. He’s worried that fallout is worse than extermination of the entire human race by death rays. But by the end of the movie he comes around and cheerfully nukes the aliens on their home base.
I was thinking of dragging this forward by following President Whitmore forward into Lake Placid (well the crocodile is very large) or following Jeff Goldblum into Jurassic Park and Independence Day 2 which has all kinds of scientific mumbo-jumbo and giant creatures but I’m getting tired.
Suffice it to say that even really stupid people and fat-headed scientists can see reality if monsters and giant insects start slapping them around.
And now my patient readers, the payoff.
All of this research has allowed me to formulate a unified theory of scientific behavior. Apparently all scientists are morons and can only learn about reality by being hit over the head by it. Therefore, I propose a new policy. Whenever a scientist dictates a policy based on fat-headed stupidity he should be forced to endure the solution himself until he either sees the error of his way or dies from the paradox of settled science.
For instance, if a climate scientist declares CO2 the death of the planet then he should not produce any of it himself. Now, I don’t propose that he cease breathing. Even though technically respiration is nothing but exchanging O2 for CO2. Let’s just let him slide on the breathing. But that’s all. No internal combustion engines or heating systems or electricity. In fact, nothing produced by technology supported by the industrial revolution. So that also eliminates batteries and solar cells and everything else made in a factory. And finally, I remind everyone that burning coal or oil or even wood produces CO2. So, this scientist is telling us to give up every bit of science going all the way back to the paleolithic age. So, let us limit our friend the scientist to killing fur-bearing animals and eating their flesh and wearing their pelts for warmth. Of course, he’s probably a vegan but we all have to make compromises when inconsistencies crop up.
That’s my plan in a nutshell. It should be amusing to see Al Gore dressed like Fred Flintstone and trying to catch a squirrel for breakfast.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 1

On Saturday afternoons when I was a kid I used to watch Million Dollar Movie on Channel 11 and was able to enjoy such science fiction classics as “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”  Right away I figured out that really big creatures that had been exposed to atomic radiation really liked to attack.  But as I became more sophisticated in my sci-fi viewing I eschewed such childish cinematic offerings in favor of more cerebral tales.  No more ridiculous giant crab stories.  I graduated to “Them” which is the realistic depiction of an attack by giant ants exposed to atomic radiation.  In this classic of the fifties I learned that scientists were old and wore glasses and looked like Santa Claus (except for the girl scientists who were young and didn’t even look like Mrs. Claus and tended to end up with the FBI agent who starred in the film, who in this case was James Arness of Gunsmoke fame).  And the best ones had British accents (or at worst New England accents).  Also, no matter what their area of specialization (e.g., physics, botany or myrmecology) they were all equally adept at battling giant creatures exposed to atomic radiation.  And they were full of esoteric and valuable information.  I found out that the plural of antenna wasn’t antennas but rather antennae!  This inspired in me a life-long love of the classical Greek and Latin languages.  And the most important characteristic of scientists was their love of knowledge.  Because of this thirst for knowledge, they were willing to venture into tunnels and basements where even the ubiquitous soldiers in their WWII vintage uniforms were afraid to go.  It also meant the scientists were very likely to be munched on by the mutant du jour of the story.  But you know, science.  So that is how I came to admire scientists.  They were cool and smart too.  And they always, always, always figured out how to kill the monsters.

But one Saturday, Million Dollar Movie was playing another sci-fi film, “The Thing from Another World.”  I was suspicious at first.  If it was from another world how did it get here?  Had it been exposed to atomic radiation?  Would there be enough scientists?  These doubts plagued me.  But I decided to give it a whirl.  Encouraging signs emerged quickly.  The creature was indeed radioactive and there was a whole passel of scientists assigned to this movie.  One of them even had a New England accent so things seemed to check out.  And reassuringly the US military was available for monster eradication duty once the scientists had done the heavy lifting of analysis.  Early on a problem arose.  This creature was man shaped.  He was bald and had strange hands with hypodermic finger nails.  But he was no more than eight feet tall.  This was highly irregular and seemed to throw into doubt his qualifications for his own movie.  Also the scientists in this movie were extremely assertive and gave the military officers a lot of lip.  And it seemed they didn’t know their primary function, figure out how to kill the monster.  This was very confusing.  The leader of the scientists kept saying that regardless of how many humans the creature killed, science demanded that no force should be used against it.  He kept saying (in a really annoying intonation) that the creature “is wiser than we are” and that “it’s our duty to die to preserve the knowledge this creature possesses.”  Even as a youngster I intuited that this head scientist was what we called back then “a loser.”  How could this be?  He was a scientist!  He had the answers.  I found this very puzzling and dispiriting.  I searched for some reason for this failure on the scientist’s part to want to kill the monster.  Eventually I developed an hypothesis based on a detailed comparison of “Them” and “The Thing from Another World.”  At first glance nothing jumped out.  But once I checked the cast members it all became clear.  As mentioned above, in “Them” the part of the FBI Agent and eventual boyfriend of the scientist’s daughter is played by James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame.  It turned out that the part of the Thing was played by none other than James Arness!  Well obviously if Arness was the prospective son-in-law of one scientist, then it stood to reason that a fellow scientist would not turn on him.  What was at work here was the kind of professional courtesy that, for instance, police confer on each other’s family members.  Now it made perfect sense.  Crisis averted.  I could become a scientist without becoming a loser.  But I was troubled by all that talk of monsters being wiser than us.  And not killing them but instead letting them kill us.  It was very strange.

Fast forward forty years.  I work as an engineer.  I am surrounded by R&D PhDs.  They all look and sound like the head scientist in “The Thing from Another World.”  They drive Priuses and have Tolerance and Coexist, Bernie and Free Tibet bumper stickers on their cars.  And suddenly it all makes sense.

Scientists Real and Imagined – Part 2

Dead Pool: A Short Movie Review

So, I’m not a comic book guy. I don’t have a dog in DC vs Marvel. I despise the X-Men. It seems to be some thinly disguised stand-in for every grievance group’s revenge wet dream (OUR SPECIALNESS IS OUR SUPER POWER!!!). Iron Man and Captain America have been fun. But it’s only a matter of time until Joss Whedon consigns them to gender re-assignment surgery and makes them a lesbian couple. Now they’ve even ruined Batman and Superman. All they do is whine and brood about how tough it is to be invulnerable or a billionaire. Wow.

So it is with great joy that I announce that there is at least one super hero who is having fun. Dead Pool. I’d never heard of him before this movie (remember, not a comic book guy). I heard some good word of mouth from friends so I was hopeful. But other than the fact that it wasn’t for kids I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Being hopelessly old, I rented the DVD from what used to be called Netflix and last night I watched it.

I’ll say from the very opening scene (which includes some very amusing credits) right up to the final credits it entertains the hell out of you. It’s funny, obscene, funny, violent, funny, clever and just plain funny. All the major characters and even some pretty minor ones are excellent. The action scenes are well done and exciting. The dialog is outstanding. The plot is pretty much the usual meaningless super-hero origin story but Dead Pool hasn’t decided that his suffering will elevate him to a noble avenger. He’s just a really pissed off jerk bent on revenge. It’s perfect.

His attitude toward everyone (good, bad or just bystander) is the same, “I’m gonna do some really dangerous stuff to kill a lot of people I really don’t like. Sorry I didn’t warn everyone else but I really don’t care because I’m basically a selfish jerk.” It’s wonderful.

One of the best features of the character is his constant mockery of movie conventions. At a certain point Dead Pool (played hilariously by Ryan Reynolds) recruits two X-Men characters to help him save his girl (portrayed by the still incredibly hot Firefly alumna, Morena Baccarin). But he does it with as little grace and gratitude as humanly possible. One of the X-Men characters is named ( I kid you not) Negasonic Teen Warhead and is a rather short girl with a slightly stubbly shaved head. Sort of the epitome of the surly teen girl super hero. He mocks her incessantly sometimes pretending she’s Sinead O’Connor. Then he taunts her thus, “Look! I’m a teenage girl! I’d rather be anywhere than here! I’m all about long, sullen silences, followed by mean comments, followed by more silences. So what’s it gonna be? Long, sullen silence or mean comment? Go on.” This may be the most refreshing thing I’ve seen in a sci-fi movie in twenty years.

All in all a first rate comic book movie presentation. Long live Dead Pool. I just wonder if a sequel is possible.