While this week’s series of entries has thus far deliberately excluded the experience of seeing the films for the most part, and may do so for the balance of the week, I’ve admitted their role as catalyst in prompting my renewed acquaintance with the books.
In the weeks leading up to the release of last year’s The Fellowship of the Ring, as each new trailer flashed before me, I was excited and pleased to note how the filmmakers and trailer editors had cut the previews to appeal both to general audience and knowledgeable fans. My wife began to express a great deal of interest in the film, something I was also happy about, as my canonically intellectual-geek tastes exclude, oh, lots of things that she finds rewarding, and not just chick flicks.
I think Speed is a drag. Although the scale of the film and Will Smith’s charm were not lost on me, I felt Independence Day was some sort of direct physical attack on my person. SUV Dependence Day is a better title. In other words, dear reader, if you’re a statistically representative member of the United States’ movie going populace, I hate every movie you love, give or take 80%. My wife, bless her, sees the worth in the vast majority of our great nation’s entertainment while I can’t get over the failure of Gummo at the box office. On our first date, I asked my wife to attend a documentary about Leni Riefenstahl, and Viv didn’t know who she was.
Not one of you is unfortunate to not have had the experience of attempting to explain who the filmmaker is and why I wanted to see the film to a person you barely know but wish to court. Rule of thumb: documentaries about Nazis are a poor choice for a first date.
So. It’s a rare and pleasing experience when my better half lets me know a film I’m looking forward to is one she wishes to see as well.
Eliding the film as promised, once we emerged from the theater, she couldn’t stop talking about it. Nor could I. Some part of this past week’s writing assumed linguistic form first in our discussions last December.
Naturally, being a plot-oriented filmgoer, she lingered on the affecting scene of the battle on the bridge at Khazad-Dum, and it’s emotional power in the film. That scene, and another powerful scene of battle which I remain silent upon in order to keep to my course, were much discussed between us.
Vivian has an amazing gift, not, I’ve been told, terribly uncommon among the children of immigrants. Television acted not only as behavioral and adaptive model for these kids, reinforcing the dominant culture’s values and assumption, but as a consequence, as a sort of surrogate family figure, providing comfort and stability when one’s parents expressed the stress and isolation of living in an alien culture.
Which is to say: my wife, she likes the telly. Being no dummy, she’s a natural plot predictor; it’s not uncommon for her to predict, accurately, the entire plot of a television show out loud from theme to credits before the first commercial break. Certain kinds of films that are strongly formulaic (if I were to name names, I’d say something disparaging about slasher flicks here) are also susceptible to her predictive powers.
Given that she can read the future of fictional characters on screens large and small with the veracity of the bruja she doesn’t even know she is, it was only a matter of time before she noticed how I would avoid answering troubling questions like, “What will they do now, without Gandalf? How can they expect to make it to, this, um, wherever it they’re going?”
Accusingly she turned to me.
“He’s not dead, is he? He’s coming back!“
She’d figured out the dirtiest trick that Tolkien plays on his readers. I, of course, suggested that it was not my place to lead her backstage, but that we did, of course, have a very early draft of the screenplay in the house.
“I knew it!” she crowed in triumph. “But won’t you just tell me?”
“If you are really curious, you can read the book,” I suggested, not very helpfully. Much to my surprise, after only minimal cajoling, she agreed.
However, she had a caveat. Reading in bed is her modus operandi, but she sensibly retains the habit of allowing herself to drop off when her eyelids droop, even if she’s reading! After having made little progress over a week, what with the dropping off after a sentence had been started as is traditional among her people (that’s a JOKE! Don’t hit me! OUCH), she flapped eyelashes at me in the manner that indicates a favor will be requested.
“Will you read to me?” she enquired mincingly.
I was too crafty for this gambit, pointing out how my mellifluous and dulcet monotone would surely lull her to sleep with despatch.
“Why don’t you read it to me instead?” I wondered, exhibiting my customary combination of laziness and chutzpah.
She drew back. A commitment to read nearly a thousand pages aloud is not given lightly. I pointed out that we could try it as an experiment, and if it proved onerous, we could renegotiate. These terms were accepted, and within a month, she’d completed the first book, reading at a respectable rate.
As part of the compromise, however, I was obliged to sing Tolkien’s poetic airs aloud to improvised melodies based on the Irish library I’d learned over the past five years or so.
And so it was that I came to appreciate what had always been merely irritating doggerel, annoying frippery preciously wedged into the narrative in indulgence of Tolkien’s penchant for trifles of verse. Make no mistake, I’m still no great fan. The verses feel forced and lack both the burnish of the genuinely antique and the passion of independently executed verse, developed not as stage prop but as an independent work of art.
But as stage props go, they are nicely crafted. I found, much to my surprise, that as I sang them I could make educated guesses about what sort of folk form to use behind the verses, and that their rhyming structures appeared to have been designed to fit the musical forms I’d been learning, vernacular fashion, for the past while.
A rhyme scheme might run ABAB or AA BB or AAB AAB or even ABABC; but found that a jig, or reel, or slip jig, or polka, or even other forms that I don’t know the names for (the commonly associated melodic form under the oldest Childe ballad, Henry Lee, for example, is one I don’t know the name of but was able to use), perfectly fit the Professor’s linguistic fancies.
It deepened my appreciation of the bones that Tolkien had built. The books feel familiar not only because of our open celebration of them, but because Tolkien’s attention to the craft he was nearly inventing – grafting fiction to the folk tradition – was the product of a deeply knowledgeable scholar, in a kind of literary special effect in which the actors are seamlessly ensconced within latex appurtenances crafted in the basement labs of an Oxford professor.
Triumphantly, and not without deep struggle in the second half of The Two Towers, as is traditional, Viv completed the entire book, all aloud, sometime in early November, as I recall.
Within a week or two, we’d watched the DVD of the film again at home; much to my pleasure, my wife found that the experience clearly deepened her appreciation for the film; and shortly thereafter we began another book. I hope that many of the books I enjoy will open to her in shared experience now.