Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Tolkien Giveth -

"When we started out I was in the 1940s
Simplify the politics, marvel at the architecture
[...]
We almost forgot
Every building is a shop
Every person is a shopper"

Metric - Parkdale


I have just ordered all three Lord of the Rings extended version DVDs. This is weird. Granted I bought them used but still, I don't normally purchase this sort of commodity, excluding a couple of impulse disks from the one-dollar bin at the library. Maybe I'm just falling for a corporate plot to make the Hobbit movies so corpse-rapingly terrible that we'll all desperately grasp at the older movies for a decent breath of Rivendell air, but I don't care. I'm guessing this is as good as it's going to get for the next few decades and I want a memento of the brief period of time when it all went right for a change.

Science fiction, fantasy, comic books, computer games and imaginative geeky subculture in general has mostly been treated by Hollywood as a sideshow at best. Usually the only interest the mass-media shows in post-mundane entertainment is to run stories about religious con-men terrifying their sheep by equating Harry Potter with the antichrist or the ever-popular "blame games for all your kids' problems" routine. Yet at the turn of the millennium (with computing power at the height of its practical magnification in usefulness) movie pushers found themselves in possession of several kings' ransoms' worth of special effect studios whose abilities were wasted on the latest flick about a bad-boy violent cop cleaning the city of ethnically convenient street gangs.

This is the only way I can explain the sudden rush fifteen years ago to begin making good escapist movies. Not that there hadn't been, let's say... Batman adaptations galore in the past, but they were generally cheap and always marketed in an insultingly patronizing manner to the six-year-old crowd. The X-men / Batman / Spiderman cartoons of the nineties were, paradoxically, much more mature and interesting than any live-action superhero movies regardless of higher budgets. As for science fiction, when it was not assumed to be "kid stuff" it was assumed to be nothing more than acid-trip material and handed over to the likes of David Lynch. Fantasy? Forget about it. Except for cheap gore-spattered hamfests like zombie series and a few stilted, low-budget (even by animation standards at the time) cartoons of Watership Down and The Hobbit, fantasy did not exist in public consciousness. It was an inexplicable label on a bookstore shelf where teenagers hung out and nothing more. Mention it in public as an adult and people started making phone calls to the local insane asylum to return their escapee.
Aside from a few aberrantly good mistakes like Blade Runner, Terminator 2, the Interview With the Vampire adaptation or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the only interaction the public at large was allowed to have with such material for decades was to denigrate it.

Then suddenly it's 1999 and studios start tripping over each other to make a big name out of flashy live-action special effects adaptations of old or new escapism. The Matrix, one superhero movie after another, Pitch Black, A.I., Equilibrium, Underworld, Pirates-of-the-freakin-Carribbean even, after decades of being treated as mental disorders, speculative or escapist genres were finally getting serious treatments in Hollywood. Ah, but all of it centers on just one high point, doesn't it? One name did more than others in anglophone literature to revive the spirit of old legends, to disentangle escapism from the official definition of insanity, and when The Fellowship of the Ring swept the Oscars, shit finally got real, yo. Suddenly it was legit. Suddenly you didn't have to say that copy on the shelf was for your future children, or you're just keeping it for childhood nostalgia's sake or it's just there as book-ends for your John Grisham and Agatha Christie collection. Good imaginative movies were good marketing campaigns and for a decade afterwards benefited from a constant flow of big investment.

Now I guess it's over. Just as the first Lord of the Rings movie broke the dam for the various attempts (some successful, some not) to legitimize various forms of geeky entertainment, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the deliberate destruction of The Hobbit marks the point we'll all look back to decades from now as the corporate world's decision to rein geeky entertainment back to the realm of cheap derision and children's toy advertising. The various superhero movie series have gradually degraded back to their standard 1960s camp quality and science fiction has been increasingly militarized back down to Starship Troopers levels. As for fantasy, Game of Thrones might still be going strong, but that's mostly as a sexual fantasy. I doubt anyone's asking for a Fevre Dream adaptation. It's over. Back to cop movies and rom-coms, everyone, nothing to see here. Go about your mundane lives to the tune of mundane fantasies.

The corporate bigwigs have finally remembered that rather than sustain and compete in quality it's safer, cheaper and more profitable to maintain low standards, to engineer an unimaginative, undiscerning mass of consumers. So, yeah, I bought the damn LotR movies. I want a reminder that for a little while, imagination actually had a shot at the public eye.

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