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Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

When the first installment of Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Rings, directed by Peter Jackson, came out at the end of last year, I passed on it. I was going to leave the country for an indeterminate period of time to work on board the USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74), and having only a brief time before my departure, I decided to spend my time and money on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky. One of these choices panned out and the other turned to be a total disappointment. But the quality of the Lynch was more than adequate compensation for the failure of the by no means humble Crowe.

But The Fellowship of the Rings never aroused my attention, especially since I had seen a trailer for it which left me totally indifferent. However, during my sojourn on the ship I ended up catching parts of Jackson's pseudo-epic, which was being presented on site TV. First, I saw one of the sequences that occurs towards the end; later, while sitting in ADP--computing central for the Stennis--waiting for a screen to load from the Internet, I suffered the fate of viewing more or less the entire last half of the movie. Although I had not expected to like The Fellowship of the Rings, I actually found myself repelled by it.

When I finally returned to San Diego at the end of May, I made a point of checking to find out if the film was still playing somewhere, so I could ascertain whether my reaction was simply a fluke or adversely influenced by the distracting circumstances in I which saw it. Now having had a chance to watch The Fellowship of the Rings in a more or less correct setting--a movie theater instead of a ship's television monitor--my dislike is if anything stronger than before. Yet I do not regret the effort. What I recognize now is that the film is quite effectively made, and even stylistically coherent in its peculiar way.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings is the first part of a screen adaptation--by Francis Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Jackson himself--of J.R.R. Tolkien's phenomenally successful ersatz allegorical romance. But this intransigently pretentious movie has been made on a grandiose scale, as if its creators had confused Richard Wagner's Ring with Tolkien's. In spite of The Fellowship of the Ring's fairytale subject matter, the spirits of the air do not seem to have presided over its birth. Portentous gloom dominates from beginning, to such an extent that I sometimes had the feeling I was looking at a bizarre remake of Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky in which the noble Russian peasants and evil Teutonic knights had been inexplicably replaced by elves and orcs.

In his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno sarcastically notes that Stefan George fancied he could produce a poetic effect by piling up words like "gold" or "carnelian" in a poem. Fellowship of the Ring goes in for the cinematic equivalent of this procedure on a hitherto unparalleled scale. Nothing like a simple shot exists anywhere in the film, and every last detail seems to have been digitally polished to the last degree. Yet no shot stands out in my memory. Even the first sequence I viewed on board on ship left me feeling more numbed than anything else. Nevertheless, it made me wonder what could account for the enormous success of the film. Was it only the cachet of the Tolkien books? 

Since the movie has a plot convoluted enough to put that of any Gothic novel to shame, I am not going to try to summarize it at any length. Nor am I going to attempt to do justice to Tolkien's division of his world into orders of beings such as hobbits, dwarves, and the like. Anyone who is interested will have no difficulty in finding Web sites dedicated to either Tolkien's books or the movie, any of which will do a far better job of synopsizing the action than I could ever hope to do. Suffice it to say that everything revolves around a ring as fatally cursed as the one in the Ring of the Nibelung, a ring that also supplies  the stake in a contest between two rival wizards, Gandalf and Saruman the White, played with great aplomb by Sir Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, respectively.

Early on, the ring falls into the hands of a youthful hobbit named Frodo Bliggins (Elijah Wood). But since no one can safely possess this bauble, disposing of it becomes as hot a question as figuring what to do with the radioactive isotope in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. About halfway through the movie, Frodo acquires a band of helpers to protect and aid him in this onerous task--the "fellowship" of the title. The film ends with Frodo and his best friend parted from their companions, but still on their way to get rid of the ring, thus paving the way for the next installment, to which The Fellowship of the Ring furnishes an extended prologue.

Regressive and oppressive are the most fitting adjectives to describe this movie. Tolkien's name already brings to mind associations with the 1960s, when Lord of the Rings became an "in" item. But Fellowship of the Ring has far deeper affinities with the period. Today, most of the overtly counter-cultural productions of the era like Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammel's Performance or Alexander Jodorowsky's El Topo come across as faded curios on a par with flaming youth movies of the 1920s. But Fellowship of the Rings is more of a 1960s motion picture than anything actually produced at that time. Jackson has made exactly the kind of movie an ambitious director might have made back then had all the high tech resources of film making in the year 2001 been available--and that difference is hardly insignificant.

Fellowship of the Ring's paranoid vision of a boy facing a world fraught with peril is ideologically a direct descendent of one of the most widespread fantasies of young Americans during the later years of the Vietnam War (see Easy Rider). But in the most direct celluloid transcriptions of that fantasy like Michelangelo Antonioni's eccentric Zabriskie Point, the hero was still a virile young dude in the mould of Montgomery Clift's Prewitt in From Here to Eternity or James Dean's Cal in East of Eden, a clear and present danger to all available father figures, literal or symbolic. 

However, Fellowship of the Ring alters the potentially disturbing potential of this fantasy beyond all recognition by pushing the age of the hero and his closest companions from early manhood back into the earlier teens. This "fellowship" looks like a pubescent boy band in medieval drag. And who would confuse the sweetly innocent Frodo with a rebel? This born role model hardly ever protests at all, only to inwardly whimper at the end about having had the ring thrust upon him. And then, not surprisingly, his superego Gandalf  springs up on screen in a subjective recollection to admonish the faltering boy of his duty, just like C.Aubrey Smith in a saga of Empire building from the 1930s. 

This little band of do-gooders seems to have been cooked up to please the folks out there who think rap and rock music are the root of all evil in contemporary American life. In an excruciating touch, Frodo's best friend constantly addresses him as "Mr. Frodo". Indeed! Even more revelatory is Fellowship of the Ring's treatment of sexuality. On the face of it, neither adult sexuality nor anything else adult penetrates into the chastely cloistered world of the movie. Although the film allows a bit of discrete courtship between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Arwen (Liv Tyler), all the feminine figures in Fellowship of the Ring appear garbed in white as if they were luminous embodiments of purity.

In this way, Fellowship of the Ring exploits one of the main themes in Hearts in Atlantis, the revulsion from adult sexuality, but goes much farther with it, as if sexual predators were lurking around every corner. Still early on, when Frodo and his sidekicks from the shire go into an inn where they are supposed to meet Gandalf, they find the place filled with leering, bearded older males, like a  lecherous motorcycle gang out in search of hot boy ass. A later episode in which Boromir (Sean Bean) and Frodo are alone together in the woods and Boromir tries to take the ring from the boy has equally obvious connotations of sexual assault when the older male approaches the younger seductively and then attacks him after Frodo proves wary of his intentions. But what attracts him more, taking the ring or the boy's cherry?

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Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database

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