WFUV VS. WFMU: The Two Towers

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"Iím glad thatís over!" a woman behind me said, exasperated, when the noisy battle of cartoon blood and carnage finally subsided in Ralph Bakshiís 1978 The Lord of the Ringsóand the movie still hadnít ended. Thereís much more tolerance for things Tolkien these days; the nearly half-hour battle sequence in which 10,000 computer-animated troops storm the fortress at Barad-dur in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers gets viewed with respect more than awe. Director-writer Peter Jackson has locked in on the imagination of todayís moviegoing audience in ways Ralph Bakshi could only dream. Bakshi had the ambition but not the technology; Jackson has both.

Digital optics have delivered to Jackson the means of transferring the fantasy of one medium to another. I donít mean that last yearís successful launch of Jacksonís Tolkien trilogy with The Fellowship of the Ring proved his fidelity to J.R.R. Tolkienís novels, but that popularity came from Jackson hitting upon the right, modish visualization of the gothic epic. If Jacksonís trilogy represents a triumph of something more than marketing (as I suppose it must), it is that of a filmmaker emerging from the margins of occult/sci-fi/fantasy to a central cultural position. Heís done it by bringing the videogame to cinemaóand with a straight face. No teenager (or childish adult) could ask for more.

Jackson benefits from groundwork laid down by George Lucasí Star Wars adventure flicks, the reality-twisted phantasms of The Matrix and the ubiquitous two-dimensional illusions of PlayStation, Sega and XBox. There really has been a revolution in the cultural standard of popular fantasy; Bakshi anticipated it, but his cartoon format was outstripped by Industrial Light & Magicís realistic fabrications. It took a couple decades of progressive technology to satisfy dungeons-and-dragons whimsy to the point that itís no longer considered kidsí stuff. People are mightily impressed by Jacksonís movies, more than they ever were by Ray Harryhausenís The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts, even though the appeal is the same. The difference is the way Jackson creates his saga; heís serious. Itís a style of creativity unlike the playfulness of such grown men as Harryhausen and George Pal (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine). Jackson is a triumphant nerd, claiming his Y2K prerogative to indulge in a three-hour, $100 million reverieósquared.

The Two Towers has more verve than The Fellowship of the Rings, which flatfootedly introduced Tolkienís eccentric characters and strange worldsóthe Middle Earth setting resembling a costume party gone berserk and into the Twilight Zone. Here, Jackson hits his stride; virtually every new sequence features a splendid subsidiary character in the puppet-show, horror-movie spirit of the films Jackson made before he landed this once-in-a-lifetime commission. (Only a third-rate culture like New Zealandís would think a folly such as this was an artistic advance.) Jacksonís script (actually a four-person collaboration) more clearly partitions the parallel plots: Hobbits Frodo (perfectly wide-eyed Elijah Wood) and Sam (husky, loyal Sean Astin) pick up a warped creature, Gollum (Andy Serkis), who guides them to the Black Gates of Mordor where the cursed/powerful ring Frodo carries must be destroyed. In another part of Middle Earth, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the Elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) enter Rohan, a kingdom cursed by evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). With the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the trio fights to restore Rohanís legitimate ruler. Elsewhere, two other Hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), escape their captors and venture through the Fangorn Forest accompanied by walking, talking ancient trees.

This second installment is powered by Jacksonís fanciful ingenuity. Orson Welles joked about movies being "the biggest train set a boy ever had," but Jackson has created the biggest videogame our culture has ever seen. From individual creatures like the gray-skinned, green-eyed Gollum and the regal, wizened, grotesque trees to that relentless, pounding, soaring battle scene, The Two Towers has an undeniable, obsessive quality. It suggests the mindset of a kid transfixed at his videogame keyboard, because each of Jacksonís visions moves with similar awkward flimsiness, yet shows genuine panache. CGI isnít perfect yet so, thankfully, some old-fashioned imagination takes over, filling inóalmost humanizingóthe nonsense. Serkisí Gollum is a real performance, as sui-generis as Douglas Rainís vocalizing HAL in 2001. This tortured, ambivalent miscreant is enslaved to Frodo, yet plots to kill him. While recalling Jewish mysticism, Gollum also evokes Shakespeareís Caliban, a pitiable, malevolent figure, richly anguished. The animistic trees, led by Treebeard, call up childhood memories of Babes in Toyland and The Wizard of Oz successfully realized. And Brad Dourif appears as Wormtongue, Sarumanís spy usurping Rohanís throne; heís like Mordred in Camelot but monstrously stylized to suggest both Richard III and Ivan the Terrible.

Hereís the oddest thing about The Two Towers: Despite all the otherworldly evocation and cultural references, Jacksonís enterprise is not about Myth. Yes, he tangles pronouncements and mysticism and historic simulacra, but none of it translates into metaphor or allegory. Tolkienís books might, but Jacksonís films work only on the superficial level of a spectacular. Last year your average review of Lord of the Rings never discussed what it was about because itís about nothing. Thatís why critical enthusiasm was reduced to the level of teenage gawking. Here, a narrator intones, "[There] are the stories that meant something, that stayed with you because they were holding on to something. Thereís some goodness in the world and itís worth fighting for." But thatís so generic it can be a decal on The Two Towers DVD box as well as the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City videogame.

While acknowledging Jacksonís achievement (Iíve never before seen an idiotic vision this thorough), it is important to distinguish it from the fantasy films that artfully enrich an adultís consciousness. Kino Video has recently released a marvelous restoration of Fritz Langís 1924 Nibelungen saga on DVD. Each part of Langís two-part epic (Siegfried and Kriemheldís Revenge) dealt with myth as a national, personal onusónot simply adolescent fright or wonder. But Jacksonís vision is on a scale you can fold away on floppy disc. It doesnít linger like Langís imagery. Jackson lacks Murnauís richness, Eisensteinís vastness, Peckinpahís rhythm, Bertolucciís splendor; he begs comparison with those greats, yet falls substantially short.

The Two Towersí videogame essence doesnít carry the weight of those directorsí historical representation, or of films depicting mankindís struggle. Before videogames, pop artists understood the importance of using fantasy to explain daily mysteries, rather than distract people in mass or individual solipsism. With Jackson, Aragornís romantic flashbacks are merely gauzy, not a convincing test of manís basic desiresówhich was the genius of John Boormanís Excalibur, connecting English and Germanic mythologies based on sensual evocations from medieval art to Klimt and Burne-Jones recreations. Even Werner Herzogís recent film Invincible demonstrated the personal interpretation of myth for political and spiritual meanings. Thatís the difference between a work of adult seriousness and a film of adolescent frivolity. The only trouble with Jacksonís fantasy so far is that it never feels like (emotional) reality. And though the three-hour stretch of The Two Towers is certainly watchable, when it is finally over you donít run and tell your friends about it. Thereís no feeling like you get from Nibelungen, Close Encounters, Excalibur or even Femme Fatale that without knowing this film you donít know art or life.

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