Friday, January 22, 2010

Where is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy on the 'Best of the Decade' lists?

Since I stepped away from regular criticism more than 20 years ago, I freely admit that my ability to see more 'challenging' films has declined (made more difficult by the fact I live outside of Toronto now and these films never make it to either my local cinema or DVD shop). So it would be unfair and dishonest to address the shortcomings (or strengths) of TIFF Cinematheque's Best of the Decade List since I've only seen a small handful of the pictures. Besides, my cohort Shlomo has already done a fine job eviscerating it, so what's the point of repeating?

I'll only make one comment before I get to the point of my piece: a major work of art that is missing from the List. Critics or curators who make lists that refuse to even acknowledge commercial cinema are as ridiculous and narrow-minded as people who only go to the movies so they can 'check their brains at the door' and think flicks like Transformer 2: Revenge of the Fallen, or The Dark Knight, are The. Best. Movies. Ever. There is no difference. On one hand, the James Quandts of the world will turn up their noses at anything that might be considered 'commercial,' while the others would run screaming from the theatre at the first sign of a subtitle. Me? I can get just as jonesed by a cinematic essay by Chris Marker, such as Sans Soleil or La Jetée, as I can by zombie flicks like Shaun of the Dead or 28 Weeks Later.

I have a much more open-minded approach to cinema than either of these groups. Which brings me to what I consider a major travesty of TIFF Cinematheque's List. Where is Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy? And a second question. Why are the three films now being universally ridiculed? (See Andrew O’Hehir's recent review at

A week before Fellowship of the Rings opened commercially in 2001, my wife and I were fortunate to be invited to the Canadian premiere (a day after the North American debut) of the film. Jackson and John Rhys-Davies were on hand to introduce the film, which was thrilling in itself. To this day, I still remember my wife's perfect three-word review of the film as the credits started to roll. She turned to me, her eyes shining, and said, "That was majestic."

And it was. Jackson took what I consider a long and plodding book (no, I'm not a Tolkein fan -- in fact, I think that Tolkein may have been a fine writer, but he was no novelist) and crafted a work of almost unalloyed perfection. His, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens' masterful screenplay for this and the other two films - The Two Towers and The Return of the King (one large film, really) - condensed, reorganized and reconfigured Tolkein's work without ever losing the essence of the books. The cast was impeccable (his decision to replace Stuart Townsend with Viggo Mortenson was wise), his locations magical, his use of CGI effects enhanced the story rather than overwhelming it and his visual alchemy just plain worked. Okay, the films were not without their flaws (yes, the multiple endings of The Return of the King was a bit much -- it was even worse in the novel). Over the course of nine plus hours not every frame was going to ring true (no pun intended). But many moments in the three films stick with me to this day: in the first film, the Fellowship having just lost Gandalf in the Mines of Moria, stagger stunned and confused across the landscape completely lost; in the second, the battle of Helm's Deep; and in the third, the lighting of the signal fires across the country side, are just three of the moments that continue to resonate. So, why now, seven years after the last film was released, do these pictures not get the love they deserve?

Part of it is envy; part of it is the genre. After a monster success like Lord of the Rings, some folks secretly want the filmmaker to fail, so they look for anything to denigrate the trilogy that made the filmmaker's reputation. In Jackson's case, he started out making comic splatter films, such as Dead-Alive (aka Braindead), on micro budgets. He was one of 'the tribe'; he had street cred (whatever the hell that really means). But now he's betrayed that and must be brought down because he dared to achieve commercial success (they ignore the artistic success of these films). And then there's the genre. "All them there funny orcs and hobbits. That's stuff I left behind when I was a pimply faced teenager" might be the attitude. This interpretation ignores that the movies, in the guise of a 'fantasy film,' are not really about orcs and hobbits. They're simply set in that world. The films really are universal in their depiction of love, the pain of loss, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a just cause, bravery, cowardice, etc. These are deeply emotional and heartfelt films within their 'epic' structure. Why they are not heralded as probably THE finest achievement of the first decade of this century is frankly beyond me.

Pauline Kael, in her review of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, perhaps summed up best what Jackson has achieved with these films: "The artist-initiated epic is an obsessive testing of possibilities, and often it comes out of an overwhelming desire to express what the artist thinks are the unconscious needs of the public. It comes, too, from a conviction, or a hope, that if you give popular audiences the greatest you have in you they will respond." If Kael had lived, I'm convinced that upon viewing these films she would have felt completely comfortable replaying these words.

My prediction -- a prediction I won't live to witness -- is that at the end of this century these three films will be looked upon as the "majestic" achievements they are, and most of the films on TIFF Cinematheque's pretentious list will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

1 comment:

  1. My theory is that critics were so disgusted at New Line for ignoring Ripley's Game and putting all their bucks into LOTR that the critics decided to ignore LOTR for this accolade.