A few days ago, I posted a long review of The Return of the King, after noting that I had reservations about the critical judgments I formed while watching the movie for review. In essence, I did not find myself as emotionally involved in the film on first seeing as I had expected to be; and therefore the specific critical complaints I noted as I viewed the film were both unbalanced in the overall viewing experience and, I suspected, invalid in that they reflected a specific variety of aesthetic experience that differed radically from seeing film either as a straight recreational experience or from approaching the work as a serious, independent, original work of art.
When I see a film for review I generally try not to learn anything about it in advance – something that’s harder than you’d think – because I think that engaging with the film based on expectations – for the stars, writer, director, or effects budget – will make it more difficult to observe myself in the process of absorbing the work, and therefore more likely to reflect not my perceptions in the review but rather those expected of me in the social context, not necessarily the perceptions hoped for by the marketing team for the film but probably not honestly my own vision and experience.
I believe that this phenomenon, of writing to meet social expectations in a review, is the single most widespread and execrable problem in contemporary critical writing, both academic and journalistic. In popular film criticism generally it’s clearest in two manifestations, first, the unduly adulatory review (and attendant flack quotes), and second, the contextually dismissive review (formerly most commonly associated with genre flicks). In either case the critic’s motivation to praise or condemn a film is conditioned not so much by the actual quality or personal viewing experience of the film as by the feedback the critic expects or hopes to receive or avoid.
While I don’t think I was afflicted with either of these problems as I sat down to see the film, I certainly was not ignorant of the film’s context – indeed, of the films I’ve seen over the past few years, it was probably the film I knew the most about heading into the theater, and I believe that this trap sprung on me as I started to watch the film. I’ve never pretended to apply the purist approach to Jackson’s films, as Tolkien’s books are quite literally the first thing I ever read, and it’s clear that while the Jackson team exercised filmmakers’ privilege in re-tailoring the plots and characters they were working with, they were also following Tolkien’s lead and – repeated disavowals on their part aside – both expected and intended that the films would be measured by obsessive nit-pickers against the source material. Therefore I was consciously intending to compare the film, in a general way, to the book from which it was drawn.
However, the experience of The Two Towers‘ quite major plot and character divergence from the book led me to approach the comparison with skepticism, as I firmly believe that the redefinition of Faramir’s character and the nonsensical addition of the scenes set in Osgiliath call into question the benefit of the doubt extended to the filmmakers in the wake of the first film. Thus, when I sat down, I was prepared to note more problems and anticipated them (although I’d resigned myself to the excision, however regretful, of the Wild Men and the Scouring of the Shire). What I had not expected or prepared for was the effect that skeptical note-taking had on me emotionally – I was far from immersed in the film and simply never caught it’s emotional rhythms, something that in itself disappointed me.
The tremendous response I experienced to seeing the first film – far and away the most amazing emotional reaction to a film in the theater I’ve ever had – went a very long way toward setting expectations for Jackson to meet on the next two films. While The Two Towers disappointed, somewhat, my disappointment didn’t interfere with my emotional involvement in the film. When The Return of the King ended, I had a smaller, less pointed list of nit-pickery – the main beef I had was with the over-determined depiction of Denethor, something both required by and telegraphed in The Two Towers‘ redefinition of Faramir – yet I felt uninvolved and disappointed.
My awareness of this distancing became acute when listening to Aragorn’s speech at the Black Gate, as I noted in the longer review posted here earlier. Instead of reacting to the speech within the context of the drama, of the film, I heard it with my own ears, and applied it to the context of my own values and to the political realities of the present day, and it made me shift uncomfortably in my seat. It’s possible that Jackson’s decision to include a bit of straight-up anti-war propaganda in the scene where Pippin sings was as counterbalance to the stem-winding call to duty that Aragorn’s speech is intended to provide. If that was a part of the justification, it was a poor one. It invites the viewer to analyze the political values presented in the film and Tolkien’s work as well.
I think it’s safe to say that most viewers of the film and readers of the book are not monarchists and question the advisability of genocide. Yet, Tolkien adopts mythic approaches and Manichean definitions where entire races are in fact literally evil. These values are presented as belonging to the individuals, characters, and societies that he so carefully detailed in the tiniest particular. It’s hard to argue that the obsessive and realistic detailing of the one thing can possibly mean anything other than that the Manichean idea is meant to be taken at face value. Others more knowledgeable than I, however, don’t subscribe to that idea, and I guess neither do I. But it is an incoherence, in a way, just as the problem of evil is in our own, real, world.
It was a mistake to invite my political values to the table. I regret it, as it undermined the experience of the film. As noted, Jackson helped invite them in; but I’m confident that if I had not been taking notes and generally diligently attempting to fulfill my role as a film critic the film would have been better for it. I suppose that is a sort of newbie thing that all critics have to learn, and so I’m glad to know it now. The second time I saw the film, I did catch the emotional rhythm, thankfully; I look forward to a future viewing, and, of course, to the extended DVD of the final film (which, word has it, will be 4 hours and 50 minutes long, a full hour added to the theatrical version).