Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

The importance of being Frodo

First task of 2004: seeing The Return of the King. I wanted to catch it as soon as it came out, but believe me, you have to call in a mountain of babysitting favours to see a three and a half hour movie, especially if you want to grab dinner as well. Thank heavens for the very understanding babysitting collective, who galloped to the rescue like the Riders of Rohan.

Assuming that the film was still playing to full houses, we did a cunning thing, and decided to see it at the Magic Johnson Theater complex just up the road in Harlem (opened in mid-2000 as part of a drive to commercially revitalise 125th St), instead of down at Lincoln Center or Times Square. This turned out to be a totally brilliant idea, for at least three reasons.

Firstly, with the enhanced orange alert still in place, 125th St seemed like less of a likely target for rascally terrorists. It’s not exactly crowded with tourists, especially at nighttime, and besides, the theatre is over the road from the excellently named Nation of Islam-run restaurant No Pork on My Fork.

Secondly – eschewing the porkless fork -- we could fortify ourselves for the long film ahead with the best fried chicken and fried pork chops in the world, or at least this part of it, at the charming M & G Diner on the corner of Morningside Avenue and 125th St. The corn biscuits are heavenly and the lemonade delish, but the jukebox and the sweet serving ladies are the best.

Thirdly, the brisk twenty-minute walk between our place and the theater was just the ticket for getting our wiggles out before we sat down, and for reviving our immobile legs afterwards.

Then there was a fourth effect I hadn’t bargained on: a totally different viewing experience from last time. Although we didn’t know this when we prudently booked tickets online before the show, we had the place pretty much to ourselves. The audience seemed to be mostly kids, including a very excitable pair in front of us, of whom more later.

When the lights went down, instead of the usual witty little film about switching off your cellphone, we were treated to a personal message from Magic himself, welcoming us to the show, reminding us to "respect our community theater," and stipulating no hats, no (gang) colours, no guns.

The admonitions seemed ridiculously outdated – as far as I know, the latest gang shooting in the neighbourhood was a strictly, er, family event at an Italian restaurant in East Harlem, when one chap objected to another chap hectoring the after-dinner soprano.

Still, Busytot’s dad sheepishly removed his black fedora, and I checked my pockets while having a flashback to the time we crossed the US-Canadian border and the customs guys asked if we were carrying anything “for our personal protection.” Er, tampons? I offered, while my companion muttered something about condoms. Turns out they meant hardware, if you know what I mean.

Hats doffed and weaponry stowed safely under the seat, we sat back to enjoy the show. Everyone else sat forward. Unlike the reverential hush you get downtown, with plenty of supplementary shushing for anyone who dares utter a word, this small crowd had plenty to say. It was like being in amongst the enthusiastic groundlings at the Globe Theatre, and once I got used to it, I loved it.

It was partly that people were explaining events to anyone who hadn't seen the first two films (or like me, couldn't remember much of them), but there was also a fair amount of ongoing backchat. Gollum was a particular favourite for derisive or approving commentary, but when brave Eowyn (spoiler alert!) heroically hacked off the head of the naughty Nazgul, the theatre went wild: “You go, girl!” And later, when Sam beaned Gollum with a handy rock, the kids in front of me collapsed in hysterical giggles. “You see that?!” They were stoked, and at the end, couldn’t stop talking about it. “Oh man, I thought this film would suck! But it was excellent!” they enthused. “Damn, I might have to go read the books now!”

Note: minor spoilers follow – just thought I’d better warn the three people in the world who haven’t yet seen the film or read the books.

I enjoyed the film as much as the kids did, especially the stirring pre-battle speeches and the set-piece fighty bits. Interweaving Pippin’s plaintive song with the massacre of the Rohirrim was a particularly gorgeous and Kurosawa-like touch. Cackling, mood-swinging Andy Serkis as Gollum continues to give the definitive onscreen portrait of toddlerhood. Once again, lots of excellent 70s hair on display (as noted here a year ago, and recently by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker and Charlotte O'Sullivan in the Independent), but frankly Aragorn wasn’t nearly as hunky once he got his hands on whatever shampoo it was that Arwen was advertising in her slo-mo soft-focus moments.

And yet. It feels deeply unpatriotic to even whisper a criticism, but certain scenes rang hollow for me -- like, say, the tower that tumbles and collapses in on itself at the end of the film. Yes, that’s generally how tall buildings fall down, but there’s no denying that it is a horribly familiar visual echo. Somehow, if it’s a bad (black) tower and there’s only one of them, it’s meant to be all right?

As Jonathan Romney points out (also in the Independent), either you buy this black-and-white universe of stark good and evil, or you don’t, and Peter Jackson has given us the gospel according to Tolkien:

The meaning of Tolkien's Manichaeism has been much commented on since the trilogy was first published, but given the mood of our own age, there's something not quite palatable about all these intrepid, largely beautiful Europeans boldly fending off the nameless, numberless hordes from the other side of the world, legions of dark-skinned sans-culottes with tribal drums. Hearing Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) giving his rousing God-for-Harry speech before battle, calling the "men of the West" to stand firm, you feel that either this is a very nasty film altogether or that, more likely, Jackson simply isn't interested in the overtones.


More than once I found myself thinking, would it have killed the film-makers to render up a multi-hued Race of Men? Some elves of many colours? I know, I know, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is inescapably a ex-post-facto myth of Albion, but you don’t always have to be a total slave to period authenticity. If the hyperbolically inauthentic faux ancient Greece of Xena, Warrior Princess could regularly feature resplendently un-Aryan Valkyries and warriors, and stage productions here regularly cast good ol' Charlie Brown as a black man, you’d think Middle Earth and its audience could manage a dark hobbit or two. Possibly even a pretty orc here and there.

I also could have done without the drawn-out return to the luridly bucolic Shire, especially all that buxom heterosexual business of winking and smirking and fiddle-playing and generally settling down and getting hobbit mortgages. Poor old moony Frodo, throbbingly yet triumphantly abased, like the exiled Oscar Wilde, moaning

in extremis

“Either that ring goes or I do,” while writing the

Ballad of Mt Doom

and stroking his unhealed wound in a kind of masochistic rapture... but with no-one in the Shire to appreciate his particular damaged glamour. No wonder he has to hop a boat for the west with twinkly old Gandalf and the ambiguous elves.

Oh sure. Frodo’s not in the least bit gay and neither, of course, is

Elijah

. In fact, there are no sexual subplots at all, let alone

secret diaries

about them.

(Actually, on a related note, I’m still grumpy about the potentially very sweet Love, Actually, which didn’t manage to come up with a single plotline that was not totally straight or driven by male desire – and, come to think of it, whose only self-actualising female character is pretty much indistinguishable from Shelob, the comically voracious

giant spider in LOTR:ROTK. Grrr! At least

Phillipa Boyens

and Fran Walsh admit to being fully and humorously aware of the

dodgy sexual politics

of the LOTR source material they had to work with).

But I digress. Indisputably, the film works beautifully as spectacle, and there are some cute film in-jokes: there's a visual reference to

The Good Son

, the cheesy kiddie noir film Elijah Wood did with Macaulay Culkin quite some time ago; and the bit where Sam clocks Gollum with a rock was straight out of

Heavenly Creatures

.

And I did shed a tear of pure empathy at the scene that really makes this a classic New Zealand film. Not the lighting of the signal fires along the Southern Alps, with aerial shots recalling that 1970 split-screen classic "This is New Zealand" with the uplifting Finlandia soundtrack. I'm talking about the moment that wraps up what I think of as the brain drain sub-plot.

The conquering hobbits, having traveled to the ends of the earth and saved the world from certain destruction, are celebrating with a quiet pint in the pub -- when suddenly their achievements are totally eclipsed by the arrival of an impressive vegetable. Such a familiar scenario: there you are, fresh off the plane, downing a cold one with your old mates, modestly admitting to having cured cancer or taught yoga to Madonna or climbed Mt Everest while you were away, and suddenly everyone’s all “Oooh, look at the giant pumpkin!” ...