The Hobbit

Dave and our friend Trenton and I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on Saturday night.

We all liked it a lot. The acting is terrific and the adaptation from the novel strikes me as absolutely brilliant. OK, if you go in wanting to see the novel literally and faithfully brought to the screen, you’re likely to be disappointed. That seems to be what is going on with a lot of the reviewers who have panned it: From their reviews, a lot of them seem to have gone in already having decided what an adaptation of The Hobbit has to be, namely a fairly short movie aimed at children, as the novel is. They came into the theater having made up their minds that the novel is too slight to support a trilogy of movies and that this was therefore obviously going to be an overblown movie disaster, and they wanted to write that review so badly that they didn’t notice that what was on the screen was the sort of movie they’d already decided could not possibly work, and it was working.

On the other hand, if, like me, you’ve always found The Hobbit to be an odd and somewhat unsatisfying prologue to The Lord of the Rings, a much slighter book and too twee by half, very Beowulf-meets-Winnie-the-Pooh, then you might be predisposed to be blown away. The novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may be set in the same world and be by the same writer, but they don’t really go together, don’t feel like they’re cut from the same cloth. And yet — at least judging from this first part — these two movie trilogies are going to end up feeling like two halves of one whole.

The filmmakers have found a way to retell the story of The Hobbit not as a children’s tale but in the style of the movie LOTR. The scenes they’ve added give the story and characters more weight and depth, make connections between what’s happening here and what will happen in LOTR, fill in linking pieces of the history, and so on.

They’ve changed some incidents so that they make use of the same visual language as LOTR, in a few cases even repeating an image to stress a point. For example, the first time Bilbo accidentally puts on the Ring, it happens when he stumbles and falls in a visual echo of the scene in LOTR in which Frodo falls in the Prancing Pony, and it seemed to me to be a wonderful stroke, pointing up the connection between the two events and making the point that here, too, the Ring is actually trying somehow to slip onto the finger of whoever it wants to be its next bearer. This is the sort of ominous point that is never made in the novel of The Hobbit — logically enough, as Tolkien didn’t know yet where he was going with the fantasy world he was creating. In the movie, though, the connections are made, and we can see how the things that happen in The Hobbit and the decisions that are made are eventually going to lead to the story of LOTR. Many of these connections are things that you’d only understand if you’d studied the two novels pretty carefully and/or read the various appendices and ancillary books. I think it’s a good thing to incorporate them into the movies.

The score has plenty of new music, along with new leitmotifs for Thorin and Erebor and Radagast and so on, so I have no idea what some of the reviewers are talking about saying that it’s all just recycled music from LOTR. The score does use themes that are familiar from LOTR for the Ring and the Shire and so on, but even then, they’re often varied in new ways.

We saw the movie in 3-D at 24 frames per second. I didn’t think the 3-D seemed to be adding anything. From what I’ve heard, I’m just as happy not seeing the movie at 48 fps.

The one way in which the movie felt overmuch to me was the number and length of the battles. (This was true for me of the movie of Return of the King, too. For that matter, it’s true for me of the book of Return of the King. In a technical way, I appreciate how skillfully Tolkien’s prose takes on more and more of the noble manner and form of Old English poetry à la Beowulf in the battle scenes in ROTK; but in practice, I find that it makes for some especially draggy reading to place so near the end of a very long book).

But still — the battle with the goblins underground is brilliantly and intricately planned and executed, like a huge comic set piece out of a Jackie Chan martial arts movie (only with probably twenty times the budget). And the battle at the end does make for a very strong finish to the movie. The filmmakers make it more important than it is in the novel, and move a crucial incident from later in the novel to this point, so that the movie ends with some emotional weight, some significant development in a couple of the central characters. It totally worked for me as a strong ending to the movie.

So even though my overall feeling at the end of the movie was that my appetite for battle scenes had been more than sated, I’m not sure exactly what I’d want to trim away, either.

(My experience as a writer has been that when there’s too much of one element like this, the natural reaction is to want to start cutting at the point where the audience begins to tire of it. However, this is — in my experience, anyway — usually where you shouldn’t cut much. Instead, you want to be trimming things away much earlier, even though this is the section of your story where that element is still working well, so that if you lose any dramatic weight as a result, you lose it in your early scenes and keep it in your late scenes. So maybe there’s some battling early on that could have been shortened. It would probably take several viewings of the movie, though, to begin to have a worthwhile opinion about what exactly to trim.)

Later: I appreciate the new visitors to this site, but please note that this website is a personal online journal, and that neither this entry nor any other you find here is a review. If you can’t deal with the fact that I’m writing here pretty much off the top of my head and that I ramble whenever I feel like it and often don’t take the time to shape my entries into cogent formal arguments, then you’re probably looking for some other website, not this one.

Also, you may like to know that I have seen The Hobbit a few more times and no longer feel that there are too many battle scenes or that they go on too long. I can see why it felt that way on my first viewing, because the movie is complicated and has many layers, and I didn’t catch a lot of the subtler stuff the first time through. So a lot of the richness of the story didn’t fully register with me, the simpler elements like the battles made a stronger effect, and I wasn’t seeing the movie’s proportions very well. On more viewings, however, I have come to understand more of the many threads that are woven into the movie, and I find that the battles now feel right to me.

I hope that the extended version will use the extra screen time to point up some of the subtler elements more. If those things had been spelled out better, I think the movie would not have felt a little battle-heavy to me the first time through.

Michael Chekhov


Anyway, the reason I brought up Spellbound is that it led me to take Michael Chekhov’s To the Director and Playwright down from the shelf and browse through it. I haven’t looked at that book in a very long time. Chekhov has a delightful and important comic role in the movie as the elderly psychoanalyst who was once Constance’s teacher. The actor was the nephew of the great playwright, and he was a very respected actor and acting teacher, first in Moscow and then in other countries, eventually settling down in Hollywood.

220px-Michael_Chekhov_1910хThe picture above is Chekhov as Dr. Brulov in Spellbound; to the left is one of him as a very serious-looking young man.

The book, To the Director and Playwright, is actually a collection of some of his writing and lectures compiled by an editor after his death. It actually doesn’t contain all that much that is especially for the playwright, it seems to me, even though that’s why I bought it in the first place. What he has to say is mostly about creating characters and individual scenes that contain theatrical life, and he writes about them from the point of view of how the director and actors will think about these things. This is all very good and valuable for the playwright to know, certainly; you have to create characters and scenes that will give your director and actors the basis for doing their jobs well. But it nevertheless seems to me that these things are not at the heart of the playwright’s job, and that Chekhov didn’t say much about the larger structural matters that the playwright needs to understand in order to be able to sustain that feeling of theatrical life over the course of two to three hours.

Still, it’s a very good book, with a lot of good stuff in it, and now I want to reread it and find some of Chekhov’s other books and lectures as well.

Here’s a passage I like very much, as apt to playwriting — and to life itself, for that matter — as it is to acting and directing:

There are many things around us which we feel are ugly, unsympathetic, unpleasant, and our impulse is to shun them, have nothing to do with them. That is an understandable, atavistic, animal reaction. But suppose the very next time you encounter something unpleasant you try to find in it at least a grain of something which is not ugly or repulsive. I don’t mean this as plain blind optimism; it literally is possible to discover something good or pleasant in everything unpleasant. It might be so minuscule that is is almost microscopic, or it might even be something intangible, but finding it will be extremely worth while. This act of kindness, this perceptive, artistic form of love, will help you to understand why no character on stage can ever be all black. In order to like and enjoy even the most hateful of our character creations, we must see in them or endow them with something admirable.

Still another suggestion: Listen to conversations and discussions of people around you and pay particular attention to the way they utter such possessive words as “I,” “mine,” “to my way of thinking,” “in my opinion,” etc. Frequently, they put more emphasis on those than on the things they have to say. Your impulse is to be highly critical of their egotism. But if you stopped to view this failing in a charitable light, you would soon be asking yourself, “Don’t I measure the thoughts and opinions of others through the prism of my own agreement or disagreement?” I don’t mean to say that nobody should express opinions; without them no discussion or conversation would be possible. What I am suggesting is that we curb this small ego within our own selves. The best way to treat it is with a gentle and tolerable humor; laugh at it, but without your justifiable sarcasm or cynicism. Learn to laugh at and discourage your petty ego because it is one of the numerous foibles that work in opposition to selfless love. Our kind of love, the creative person’s love, must be all-pervading and expand us; the small egos of our life only contract us.

Spellbound and The Girl of the Golden West

Dave and I watched Hitchcock’s Spellbound Friday night. I’ve been a Hitchcock buff since my childhood and I’ve seen Spellbound many times before, but evidently not in some years, because I noticed some things in it I don’t remember noticing before. Including a really startling number of structural correspondences and similarities with Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West.

Think about it: Independent, strong-willed Minnie Falconer/Dr. Constance Petersen has been wooed without success by a number of the men in her community (the mining camp/the hospital), including the local sheriff/her supervisor at the hospital, but has turned them all down — and then falls hard for the handsome newcomer Dick Johnson/Dr. Anthony Edwardes. Then she learns that the man she has fallen for is in fact an imposter and wanted for murder. But she knows in her heart that it can’t be true, and when a group of men, including the local sheriff, come to her room one evening to warn her and show her a photograph that proves the man is not who he says he is, she conceals what she knows from them, even though she could help them capture him if she wanted to. Instead, she works to save his life and make things right with the law, so they can marry and start a new life together.

Another parallel: In both cases, the couple’s first kiss is marked by a door opening (well, several doors opening in the case of Spellbound, and no snow), which in both cases is a metaphor for the heroine’s opening herself up to physical passion for the first time.

Did Hecht notice the parallels in the two stories and model some of his scenes on scenes in the Belasco play? I don’t know, but there seem to me to be just enough similarities to make that entirely plausible. And I doubt there’s any way Hecht didn’t know the Belasco play — it had been too huge a hit.

Brave and Magic Mike

Dave and I saw Brave two nights ago, and Magic Mike last night. I enjoyed both of them, though in different ways of course.

Brave has been resonating deeply with me the more I think back on it — I wouldn’t be too surprised if I end up thinking of it as one of my favorite animated movies ever, up there with Pinocchio and Spirited Away. Brave has a lot going on, a lot of levels of meaning weaving in and out of each other — an engaging story, myth, comedy, psychology, spirit. Some of the character animation in the second half of the movie is as on target and touching as any I can remember. The story is well constructed and touches on a number of themes very close to my heart — the place of myths and legends and dreams in our lives, healing broken relationships, inner transformations. And there’s a wonderful, heartfelt twist at the end that I loved but can’t say anything about without giving it away.

Magic Mike is a better movie than we were expecting a movie about male strippers to be, well done and likable and not cheesy at all. The script is surprisingly good, with a lot of genuine humor and well-drawn characters. The acting is good, low key but natural and convincing. The story is simple but engaging. And the dancing is really spectacular. Channing Tatum’s dancing in particular is amazing and exciting even apart from the fact that he’s stripping while doing it — he’s OK when he’s speaking lines, but he’s downright awesome when he’s flying around the dance stage.

Weekend Update: Listener Puzzle and Harry Potter 7

I finished this week’s Listener puzzle, “OZ and WR” by Theod, on Friday evening. There’s a Playfair cipher involved in this one: Four answers must be encrypted before being entered, and you don’t know what the keyword for the cipher is, so you have to crack the cipher by comparing the answers for these four clues with what you can get of their encrypted versions from the crossing letters in the grid.

Until you’ve cracked the cipher, then, these four words must be solved without any help from crossing letters. I left these four to work on later after I’d solved the rest.

It didn’t take me all that long to fill the rest of the grid, but I could only figure out two of the four Playfair entries. I figured that that wasn’t going to be nearly enough information to crack the cipher, and that I’d be stuck until I could solve at least one of the other two. But when I finally took a crack at the cipher with the information I had, I was surprised to find that it was enough to give me what were almost certainly the first, fifth, and sixth letters of the keyword and an additional three-letter sequence that was likely to be somewhere in it. That was plenty, and the keyword and the rest of the puzzle fell quickly after that.

Dave and I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 at home Saturday night and then saw Part 2 in a theater Sunday night. It’s a beautiful pair of movies — one gorgeously shot scene after another, terrific acting all around — but as with all the other movies in the series, I was rarely swept up in it. The story is full of exciting sequences, but it also rambles a lot and contains a lot of derivative and predictable elements. I especially kept being reminded of this or that plot element or scene from The Lord of the Rings, both the book and the movie. Characters are thin and mostly defined by their quirks — one apiece for the minor characters, two or three for the major ones — and though many of these quirks are surprising and whimsical, once you know what they are, there’s no more surprise left and you can see well in advance how they will respond to each new situation that arises.

I’m sure the series is magical if you come to it at the right age and without having read or seen a lot of similar stories already, but I am so not in that group.

Nine, the Movie

Dave and I watched Nine a couple nights ago on DVD. We’d seen it when it first came out in the theaters and it was something of a disappointment to me, because I like the musical a lot and I thought that, while a lot of things in the movie were terrific, there were also a lot that seemed clunky. There were a lot of changes I couldn’t figure out the reason for, and while God knows I’m not going to be the one to object to taking liberties with a work you’re adapting, it didn’t seem like the changes were as good as what was being left out, which is a problem.

I’m also all too aware, though, that I come to the movie with all sorts of preconceptions based on my knowledge of the stage musical, and it’s easy not to see what’s really up there on the screen when I’m comparing against my memories.

I liked the movie better the second time, though I still don’t think it works all the way through. What seems to me to be the biggest problem is that the makers of the movie want to tell a somewhat different story than the stage musical does, in which the central character has a somewhat different struggle. This oversimplifies things but it seems to me that, in a nutshell, Guido’s problems in the stage musical come from his wanting everything indiscriminately, and not being able to make choices and decide what’s most important to him, and let go of the lesser things in order to hold on to the important ones; whereas the story in the movie seems to be trying to tell the story of Guido as an artist who has so mixed up his own identity with his fame and success, and is so frightened of losing it, that he’s gotten stuck trying to recreate his earlier successes and is afraid to take chances, afraid to be authentic and spontaneous not just in his art but in his personal life.

This is, in my opinion, an absolutely terrific and completely valid take on the story and the character. In some ways it’s a better, sharper approach to the story and character than the stage musical takes. The moviemakers dropped a lot of terrific songs from the stage musical, and added a few new ones, and I think that’s appropriate; but it would have been even better if they’d dropped more and added more new ones. The problem is that in too many cases the points that the songs are making are not central to the story any more, they’re just diversions, and the points that are central to the story — as it is now being told in this movie — are made in the dialogue instead.

That puts all the weight in the wrong places. In a musical, the songs seize all the attention, all the focus, all the emphasis. They can’t help but do that. So you want to make use of the songs to emphasize whatever it is that is most important for the audience to notice and understand and concentrate on in order to follow the story and be caught up by it and moved by it.

Many times while watching Nine I found myself thinking, why did they keep this song from the stage musical when it no longer has an important function in the story as it’s being told here? “Guido’s Song” for example is shoehorned into a new situation, the character’s inner thoughts at a bullshit press conference, and while the situation really does cry out for a song for Guido at this point, and while “Guido’s Song” is a brilliant piece of character drawing, it’s drawing a different character from a different story, not the Guido we need to understand here, as this movie is telling this story.

Similarly, the thread of the story in the stage version that gives the “Folies Bergère” number its reason for being has been entirely scrapped. In the stage version, this number presents a hilariously inappropriate suggestion (that Guido should make a movie musical) from a producer who is entirely unsympathetic to Guido’s work, but because Guido has signed a contract, he has to find a way to deal with it — how he tries to do this is an important thread in the stage version. In the movie, though, this song doesn’t come from the producer (and in any case the character of the producer is completely changed); the song is presented as a sympathetic suggestion from Guido’s costume designer, who is a good friend, and it’s framed so that the suggestion is not that he should make a musical specifically, but that he should more generally include more simple entertainment in his movies. It’s turned into a really fabulous musical number on the screen, too, and yet in its attractive new context it’s really just a big red herring. This long, wonderful, compelling musical number inevitably focuses our attention on the question of whether this advice would in fact give Guido a way out of his problems, and it leads us to expect that the story ahead of us is going to turn on this issue in some way. But as it happens, this is a false expectation; the problems that arise to torment Guido as the story develops are not connected with this issue at all, if we try to understand them as being connected with this issue we will end up bewildered, and in fact neither the costume designer nor anybody else ever brings this particular issue up again.

So why go to so much trouble to focus our attention on a side issue? It’s like taking highlighter pens and using them to highlight the digressions on the page rather than the main points. Even if the colors are beautiful, the highlighting makes it harder, not easier, for a reader to get focused on what’s really important.

I also found myself several times listening to a few lines of dialogue and thinking, There! That’s the main point of this scene, right there! Why isn’t this what the song in this scene is about?

So, as much as I love the stage version, and as little of the score as they kept, I found myself thinking by the end of the movie the second time around that they should have kept even less, and written a lot more new songs tailored to this new story about Guido that they wanted to tell.

Out Cold

I’ve been laid low since Friday by a pretty bad cold — mild but persistent fever, awful achiness and hypersensitivity all over, runny nose. I usually get over this sort of thing in a day with huge doses of vitamin C (1000 mg every hour), painkiller as needed, and sleeping until it goes away. This one, though, has hung on for four days now, despite plenty of the C and plenty of sleep. The fever was finally gone this morning, but I’m still achy all over and still sniffly.

I haven’t accomplished all that much this weekend other than reading in bed (I’m about two-thirds through James Branch Cabell’s Cream of the Jest right now), doing an old Listener puzzle (which I downloaded from the archive after this week’s turned out to be so easily finished), taking baths, drinking hot tea and various fizzy powdered remedies dissolved in hot water, and a lot of napping. I did get it together enough yesterday do get outside for a little bit and do a little laundry and bake a quiche for dinner, but even that little bit of exertion was about all I could manage the whole day.

Dave and I had planned to go back to see Giant Bones one more time this weekend before it closed, but obviously I was in no shape to do that, dammit. I’d really have liked to see it again, but oh well. We did stay up last night and watch Jacques Tati’s last movie, Trafic on DVD. I’m a big fan of Tati’s movies but I’d never seen this one before this; it seemed to me to be one of his weakest, right down there with Jour de Fête. Some funny scenes, but it never really seemed to take off.

Of course, both Jour de Fête and Play Time seemed that way to me the first time I saw each of them, and yet on repeated viewings Jour de Fête never got any better while Play Time now seems to me to be a masterpiece. So who knows, maybe I’ll like Trafic better if I get around to watching it again.