Magazine article The New Yorker

Full Circle; the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

Full Circle; the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

This is what happened when a fellow-critic and I emerged, on December 11th, from a screening of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." It had started well before noon, and the skies were practically dark by the time we staggered out. The movie, the last of a trilogy, runs almost three and a half hours, but, if you factor in the emotional buildup, the crammed ticket line, and the decompression period that will be required afterward, you are talking about an entire day ripped from your mortal life.

So there we were, fresh from the battles of Middle-earth, nursing our punished eardrums, when what did we see? A throng of youth, six or seven deep, caged behind barricades, lining the route from the movie theatre. Like pleading spirits in Dante's Purgatory, they stretched out their arms, beseeching us to sign their programs, their curling copies of Tolkien, and, for all I know, their naked limbs. Bear in mind that this was a press screening, and that these boys and girls were forcing themselves upon movie reviewers--by and large, a profession that spends remarkably little time fending off the attention of groupies. Indeed, there is a body of opinion which holds that we should carry little bells, like lepers in the Middle Ages, to warn respectable citizens of our foul approach. The question is: If this was the press screening, what the hell were the premieres like? Why did a hundred thousand people cram the route to the theatre when the film first showed in Wellington, New Zealand, on December 1st? Did the kids tear the clothes off Orlando Bloom, the svelte incarnation of Legolas? Is Sir Ian McKellen prepared to be mobbed, on a regular basis, on red carpets all over the world? In short, what is going on?

As Alfred Hitchcock said to one of his leading ladies, "It's only a movie, Ingrid." The nub of "The Return of the King" is a ring of simple design but unrivalled potency, which must be destroyed before it falls into the grasp of Sauron--a character so purely villainous that, under union rules, he is played not by an actor but by a single eye, blazing from the top of a tower. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his sidekick Sam (Sean Astin) are two-thirds through their appointed mission, which is to bear the ring to Mordor and cast it into the maw of Mount Doom, at which point the power will cut out completely in Michigan, Cleveland, and other parts of Middle-earth up to and including New Jersey. At the same time, most of those who, in the first installment, joined together to form the Fellowship of the Ring are still toiling in the service of truth, beauty, and horsemanship. We have Arwen (Liv Tyler), an elven princess, of whom it is written in ancient runes that she must be viewed in naught but soft focus and, if possible, on the brink of tears; Legolas the elf, the most unflustered blond to grace our screens since Veronica Lake; Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), a pair of slightly annoying hobbits who spent much of the previous film, "The Two Towers," being hugged by the boughs of enormous trees, and who are now offered the chance to redeem themselves at ground level, in battle; and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a dwarf of twofold purpose. First, he is an axeman, hewing cold cuts from the midriffs of selected villains, and, second, he is a funnyman, slicing through the loftiness of the enterprise with his peremptory vows of action. "Certainty of death--small chance of success--what are we waiting for?" he asks cheerfully on the eve of conflict, sounding like a toughened version of Dickens's Mr. Jingle.

Then, we have men, a solemn race. Tolkien may be charting the victory, familiar from a hundred fairy tales, of good over evil, but such mastery comes at a melancholy price, for it marks the end of one age--that of wizardry, elvishness, and free trips on the backs of giant eagles--and the dawning of another. From now on, men will rule Middle-earth, and one senses, both in Tolkien and in Peter Jackson's adaptation, a wistful belief that life, though fair and wisely governed, will be much less of a blast. …

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