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The Fellowship of the Ring (Continued)

Yet the sexuality that only explicitly appears in a displaced, distorted form in Fellowship of the Rings floods the screen in symbols. In this preadolescent paradis perdu of initiation rites and holy quests straight out of Parsifal, sex cannot figure in propria persona but only allusively, as the decor of a dream state. (This movie is probably the most expensive nocturnal emission ever transferred to celluloid.) A recurrent visual motif associated with the ring resembles nothing so much as an enormous fiery vagina, while the ring itself, with all the dire warnings attached to playing around with it, is an only slightly less blatant libidinal metaphor.

The figurative flood reaches its height in a sequence that takes place towards the end, when the boys are boating down a river. There they encounter gigantic statues of the ancient kings, carven out of stone, before passing into a lake. Directly ahead lies a phallic pinnacle, and behind them a suspiciously narrow strait they have just navigated. Or should I say penetrated? Yawn. I can't imagine anyone other than an elderly psychoanalyst being impressed with such cheaply Freudian tomfoolery, but I have the bad feeling there are plenty of people out there responding with oh's and ah's. "How brilliant! How symbolic!" 

But those statues deserve a closer look. The effigies are depicted with their hands raised, apparently to ward off intruders. As the boys drift by, silently staring in astonishment, the film cuts to an incredibly ugly shot of the boat going past the huge sandaled foot of one of the kings. It might well occur to a novice director that a composition like this is only bearable if used for comic rather than reverential effect. This was the very first excerpt from Fellowship of the Ring I saw, and all I could think of was the great Chuck Jones parody of Jack and the Beanstalk, with Elmer Fudd as the giant. But at this moment, only incense burning is allowed in the theater, and no tittering about the movie offering something for everyone, including foot fetishists. 

The keynote is the discrepancy in size, but this is not exactly the Nietzschean "pathos of distance." What is the awe the boys feel towards these images except the admiration younger males feel for the superior physical endowments of older ones? And what are those warning gestures of the kings except the Fathers admonishing their sons not to poach on Mommy's territory? This symbolically fraught journey is carrying us much deeper into the land of puberty than Hearts of Atlantis ever managed to do. But where Hicks's movie shows puberty from an adult point of view, Fellowship of the Rings wants to pass off a teenager's limited vision of the world as myth.

Cultural regression, the retreat to the youth culture of the 1960s, goes hand in hand with  psychological regression, the retreat to puberty in the development of the individual. And in spite of its triumphant display of high tech cinematic tricks, Fellowship of the Rings is no less aesthetically regressive, perhaps even more so, by way of a detour that leads back to the1890s. After all, when was the last time in Western art that overripe, decoratively medieval settings and blonde androgynous angels were in vogue? But poster reproductions of Aubrey Beardsley drawings and other  fin de siècle artifacts were stock fixtures of hippie pads and student dorms in the era of the Vietnam War, just as were dog-eared copies of Lord of the Rings and Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf.

Yet what was art nouveau itself if not regressive, an attempt to reintroduce artisanal production in the era of mass manufacturing? And beyond that, to recover the realm of nature that was on its way to being totally assimilated by technology? And Fellowship of the Rings caters to both of these nostalgic fantasies by taking viewers back to a world in which good is represented by an idealized English village and by plunging them in natural vistas worthy of a National Geographic documentary, overripely photographed by Andrew Lesnie. In this world, just as specious as that of a Renaissance pastoral novel, but far more invidious, aesthetically and ideologically, unemployment does not exist and no one has to worry about suicide bombers.

In fact, the enthusiasm of the youth culture for art nouveau and its later kitschy derivates--in contrast to the relatively marginal interest in genuinely experimental art being produced in the 1960s--was as much symptomatic of its naive aesthetic sensibility as it was indicative of a fascinating process of cultural democratization. What had started at the end of the last century as an elite movement, the revolt of a handful of disenchanted artists against the relentless progress of industrialization, had finally made its way down to the masses and become a national fad in the homeland of free enterprise. But the young Americans of the 1960s in revolt against the monolithic edifice of advanced industrial capitalism in the name of flower power were unwittingly reenacting a battle that had been played out and lost decades before. Now Fellowship of the Rings is giving the baby boomers the chance to live out their fantasies a second time--for only the price of a movie admission.

Having said so many disparaging things about Fellowship of the Rings, I want to conclude with some words of praise for the cast, which I found to be the movie's strongest asset. Sir Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee are such a treat to watch that their performances are well worth the price of admission. No less impressive is Ian Holm as Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins. Liv Tyler is more ornamental than dramatic in the role of Arwen, but Cate Blanchett, who also narrates, is stunning as Galadriel. I only longed, as I did when I saw Marleen Gorris' shoddy adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway with Vanessa Redgrave's stellar interpretation of the lead role, to see these gifted thespians in a motion picture more worthy of their talents.

Among the younger players, I was quite impressed by Viggo Mortensen, whose abilities were largely wasted in Gus Van Sant's silly remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and who does an excellent job of playing Aragorn, the self-exiled heir to the kingdom of Gondor. Mortensen effectively projects the melancholy charm appropriate to a Byronic hero as do few actors I have seen in recent years; someone should consider casting him as Heathcliff. In a lesser role as Legolas, Orlando Bloom, looking like a Southern California surfer who has blundered into this enterprise by accident, makes the most elegantly sexy elf warrior anyone is ever likely to see on the screen.

At the risk of sounding too much like a curmudgeon, I took little pleasure in the performance of Elijah Wood as Frodo. With his wide eyes, and his little mug radiating juvenile naivete, he suffers nobly through all his travails as if he were the heroine of a bad silent melodrama. These days movie males, even at an early age, are so often depicted as foul-mouthed punks with an attitude that it is nearly as disconcerting to encounter this character with a heart of treacle as it would be to see Shirley Temple in Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también. But how I longed for that obnoxiously lovable urchin to lose his temper just once, and scream, "Screw the ring!"

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database

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