Archive for July 31, 2003

I believe the children are our future

July 31, 2003

I wonder what Whitney would say about the kids of Palestine, then, who are being groomed into Jew-hating killbots at an alarmingly young age, as this heartrending slideshow by Charles Johnson makes clear. Even though I’m more sympathetic than many people towards the idea of a Palestinian state, it seems ludicrous to me to think that everything can be solved if Israel just makes enough concessions, when this is the kind of appalling child-abusing parallel universe so many Palestinians apparently live in. I guess the hope is that if by some miracle Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah and Al Aqsa Martyrs and their ilk are weakend politically, other, less insane Palestinians won’t be afraid to say, “You know what? I don’t think my three-year-old needs to hold an actual AK-47 and chant ‘Death to Israel.’ He’s got a birthday party to go to.”


July 31, 2003

Whoops! The other day I wrote something about a Bill Sherman article but forgot to link to it. Here ’tis, correctly hyperlinked and everything:

Following up on my “Don’t throw out the New X-Men with the Namor take on the current anti-Bill Jemas scuttlebut, Bill Sherman succinctly sums up The Trouble With New Marvel, and also puts it into some historical perspective.

Anecdotal irrelevance

July 31, 2003

I know I’ve been uncharacteristically harsh on fanboys lately, seeing as how I’m pretty much a fanboy myself, at least insofar as I still read and enjoy a good many superhero comics. But I think that just as I’ll argue passionately that superhero comics are not automatically junk–or automatically junk provided no one named Kirby, Ditko, Cole, or Moore was involved with them–I think it’s equally important to lambaste, mock, excoriate, ridicule, and otherwise make life unpleasant for people who read only superhero comics, or comics from superhero publishers, and have the audacity to claim they “like comics.” Besides the fact that you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you’re not reading more of the brilliant material that’s out there, you’re also doing actual comics fans a disservice by making us look stupid by association–by, I don’t know, saying that Outsiders #2 was the best comic to come out in a given week (thanks to ADD for pointing that out), or by trying to get your wife into comics by giving her a copy of Trouble as an example of comics with multi-dimensional characters. These are examples of either appalling ignorance or abyssmal taste, and I don’t think we (all comics readers, and this goes double for comics readers with blogs) should brook either of them. No, I’m not expecting everyone with JLA/Avengers on their pull list to run out and buy copies of Teratoid Heights, but going a little further afield than an Eye of the Storm book (or, for those truly radical types, Strangers in Paradise) is the least we should expect out of comics “journalists.”

What’s funny about my increasingly opinionated takes on comics is that a) I make my living, at least in part, dealing with comics companies and creators for A&F; b) I’m working pretty hard at becoming a comics creator myself. A while back I decided that I wasn’t going to ever put any of my comics opinions up for public consumption, because hey, if I were an accountant, I couldn’t go around talking about how much the partners at my firm suck in the pages of the CPA Journal. But at a certain point I realized I care too damn much about comics, and about my own artistic/creative/critical integrity, to soft-pedal this stuff. I’d like to think that most comics pros would appreciate a little tough love, since it shows you respect them enough to tell them the truth about their books; if Marvel’s drive to recruit comics journalists as writers for their Epic line is any indication, they might even believe you really do know what you’re talking about when it comes to what makes a good comic. Let’s hope this really is the case, for comics’ sake.

The Bogus Man

July 31, 2003

Johnny Bacardi offers up his own take on the music of Roxy Music. I think the fact that a couple of sentences about Roxy in an unrelated post of mine led to a big multi-site Roxy extravaganza is a fantastic argument in the blogosphere’s favor, don’t you?

“In other news, persons everywhere are coming to realise that there is no Father Christmas”

July 30, 2003

In their ongoing effort to destroy all that is good in the world, the folks at the BBC bring you this story (link courtesy of James Taranto) of how scientists have determined that there is no Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve been a fan of Nessie since I was very young (I was one of those people who had a not-so-temporary flirtation with the idea of growing up to be a cryptozoologist), so these reports are always pretty depressing for me to read. But nothing really tops the let-down I felt after actually visiting the Loch, during a travel-story assignment for A&F. The Loch and its surroundings are unbelievably gorgeous, the people are ridiculously friendly, and while in Scotland everyone subsists on the three food groups of meat, beer, and cream–that all goes in the plus column. But then you go to the Official Loch Ness Monster Museum. Don’t get me wrong, the museum’s great too; unfortunately it makes plesiosaur promises (in the form of every possible iteration of plesiosaur-themed merchandise imaginable), but then takes you on a voice-over’d tour of the history of the Nessie phenomenon that ends with the assertion that whatever legit sightings of large animals in the loch may have occurred were in all likelihood sightings of large sturgeons that wandered into the lake from the sea. There’s just an extra helping of disillusionment to be had when you’re told that the local myth-cum-tourist-attraction is just a big fish by an institution dedicated to perpetuating the attractiveness of said local myth-cum-tourist-attraction.

Oh well. Aleister Crowley and Jimmy Page believed in the damn thing enough to move there. Good enough for me, right?

Comix and match

July 30, 2003

Following up on my “Don’t throw out the New X-Men with the Namor take on the current anti-Bill Jemas scuttlebut, Bill Sherman succinctly sums up The Trouble With New Marvel, and also puts it into some historical perspective.

Speaking of the recent flare-up in the Marvel/DC cold war, DC is continuing to slowly leak out announcements about the high-profile creators it

She’s funny

July 30, 2003

Actual intra-Collins conversation about a test my doctor wants me to undergo:

SEAN: So now I have to smear some stool on this little sample card.

THE MISSUS: “Have to,” or “get to”?

Baby, bathwater

July 29, 2003

More on the Marvel rumor front: President Bill Jemas is rumored to have been taken out to the woodshed by Marvel head honcho Ike Perlmutter recently. According to this thread at (courtesy of Franklin Harris), an angry letter from retailer Matt Hawes was the reason for this.

I’m not necessarily nuts about everything Jemas has done with the company–lately he seems to have convinced himself that his formula for writing comics, as spelled out in the Epic submission guidelines and a special issue of his vanity comic Marville, is pure storytelling gold; I’m sorry, but anyone who wants to base the structure of every single comic they publish on the ghastly, overrated, good-idea-but-gutbustingly-stupid-execution Wolverine story Origin is just plain goofy–but he at least had the balls to stand up to the wretched contingent of die-hard fanboys (and their creepy uncles, the fanboy retailers) that would enjoy any shit served to them so long as no one changed Captain Mar-Vell’s haircut. Of course it’s up for debate how many of these long-overdue and 90% successful changes in content and creators were due to Jemas and how many were due to editors like Joe Quesada, Axel Alonso, and Stuart Moore (my money’s on the latter three), but Jemas had the mouth and the muscle to see that they could do their job, and for that we should be grateful.

Unfortunately, since many of the policy and publishing decisions made under Jemas’s watch have been unsuccessful either creatively (overhyped, often pretentious series like The Rawhide Kid, Namor, Captain America, 411, The Call of Duty, not to mention countless godawful ugly T&A covers, and the recent increase in top-down micromanagement-style editing), financially (woefully underrated series like The Truth, Soldier X, and even X-Statix to an extent), or retailer-relations wise (the constant “fuck yous” in Jemas’s press releases, the no-overprint, no-reprint policy), people who have some valid complaints but otherwise have no goddamn business dictating what makes for good comics are going to be listened to now that Jemas’s golden-boy image seems to have been tarnished with his superiors. This retailer, for example, seems to think that Axel Alonso, the best editor at the entire company (X-Statix, Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man) has no business working with superheroes. In other words, this retailer is on fucking crack. This is the same type of person who really, really wants to see the X-Men back in spandex uniforms, who wants the Hulk to yell “Hulk SMASH!” and fight the Bi-Beast in every issue, who thinks the Ultimate line is merely a pointless rehash of great superhero stories gone by (“give me something forward-thinking–like Earth X!”), who doesn’t want “The Homosexual Agenda” “promoted” or even talked about in the pages of, well, anything. It’s a shame that Jemas’s occasional screw-ups have left all the good that he and his team have done open to revision or destruction by nitwits like this.

Basically, Dirk Deppey is right, as usual. In a semi-rant (scroll down) the point of which is mainly that retailers are insane if they don’t start stocking manga in a big way and advertising that fact in an even bigger one, Dirk points out the following:

QUOTE: “..where the Direct Market is concerned, the customer is in fact fatally wrong. I have long maintained that the biggest problem facing the comic-book industry is its idiotic status as a network of one-genre shops, as retailers chase after the hardcore superhero readers to the contemptuous exclusion of everyone else.”

Marvel has not been perfect in this regard–witness their recent scuttling of creator-owned books in their new Epic line and their insistence that what books remain be, at most, superhero books in genre drag, just for instance–but Jemas, Quesada, Alonso et al have at least tried to move superhero comics beyond what they’d been for God knows how fucking long, using them in a far more creative fashion than normal (i.e they’re doing a little more than answering questions like “If Storm was, like, really mad, could she out-lightning Thor? And, uh, do you think, um, that her top might come off if she did?”). Or as Jemas put it in one of the sharper moments in his Marville storytelling guidelines (I’m paraphrasing here:”‘Wouldn’t it be cool if Dr. Octopus’s tentacles were made of adamantium? Wouldn’t it be cool if the Hulk turned small and smart and gray?’ No, that wouldn’t be cool–that would be stupid. That’s a comic about other comics. If you’re going to use superpowers, use them to say something about the character, about life, not about other comic books.”

Unfortunately, rather than reigning in Jemas’s excesses, the current “Lynch Bill” movement aims at least as much, if not more so, to curtail the good things he’s done, from employing Axel Alonso to putting the X-Men in clothing reasonable people might actually wear. A huge chunk of the anti-Bill contingent wants their comic books about comic books back, and they don’t care if in getting them they shoot the industry in the face.

I think one of the reasons that, sadly, this incredibly stupid Team Stupid Fanboy Comics initiative might work is the current Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee story arc on Batman. Loeb and Lee are both good-but-not-great fan-favorite creators, and they’ve teamed up to produce a storyline that’s basically the comics equivalent of a big old Vanilla Coke–flavorful, sure, but it’s all calories and no nutrition. No new ground is being broken, no interesting exploration of the characters’ lives and psyches is being undertaken. It’s basically Batman running around encountering every single villain and supporting character he’s ever known, while visions of twelve billion rendering lines per page dance in his head. In other words, it’s a continuity-wonk splash-page-junkie fanboy’s wet dream come true. And this dopily entertaining thing is the number one comic book month after month after month. It’s exactly what the fanboys want–the appearance of a shakeup (“They got Loeb! They got Lee! Those are big-name creators! It’s got to be good!”) with none of the unpleasant aftertaste (i.e. no reality, no satire, no politics, no change in tone, no symbolism, no depth, no real character work, no advancement of the characters’ lives–no shakeup at all, in other words).

For the last few years, Grant Morrison’s complex, subversive pop masterpiece New X-Men has been the model for success. Now it’s Batman, a Jerry Bruckheimer movie in comics form.

There couldn’t be a worse time for Bill Jemas’s feet to turn to clay.

A writer needs rules like a fish needs a bicycle

July 29, 2003

One of the toughest aspects of writing in college is treading that fine line between listening to advice from better writers with a lot more experience than you and doing whatever the hell your professor tells you to do in order to get a good grade no matter what it does to the story you want to tell. It’s very difficult to find your own voice, be true to that voice, listen to and incorporate the criticism and advice that instructors offer, ignore the bits of it that don’t work for you or your story, AND try to grow as an artist all at the same time. In the end, you’ve got to trust your muse.

This is why I agree with Stuart Moore (not, surprisingly enough, all that frequent an occurrence) when he says that Robert McKee’s much-ballyhooed how-to guide for screenwriters (and now comics writers) Story is a crock of shit. I’m sure there’s good points in there–just like there’s plenty of good points in the Bill Jemas comics-writing rules mentioned below–but the notion that it would behoove every writer on Earth to follow the same road-map into Storytelling Nirvana is almost too ludicrous to be taken seriously. Just to give one example (one I may go into at some length one day), the fourth season of The Sopranos was torn to shreds by critics who ostensibly are looking for something unique-different-personal-passionate, yet freaked out because it didn’t follow some boring three-act formula where everything happened for a reason and everything tied together at the end. Eff that, my friends. Rules are important sometimes–we don’t want writers running around thinking they can put any damn thing on the page and that it’s instant gold, and this includes myself–but rules are made not just to be broken, but to be ignored entirely. Half the problem of superhero comics to begin with is following rules that should have been tossed out decades ago. McKee’s Story cult isn’t going to help that process by any stretch of the imagination.

“Now you think we overreacted?”

July 29, 2003

This quote from Flirting with Disaster was brought to you today by anti-war doctrinaire libertarian comicsblogger Jim Henley, who blows a motherloving gasket over the admittedly unpleasant capture of an Iraqi general’s family by US forces in order to prompt that general to turn himself in. Jim starts bandying about words like “taking hostages” and “abominaton” and “evil,” without pausing for breath long enough to consider that a) The family, since they in all likelihood had information about a suspect’s whereabouts, would have been appropriate to bring downtown and question during a criminal investigation in America, let alone in a war zone; b) the family was never in any real danger since American forces don’t execute, torture, or indefinitely imprison non-combatants, unlike certain other forces we could mention; c) the note left for the general–“If you want your family released, turn yourself in”–was a lie: the family would have been released eventually, the implied threat was just that–implied–and again, even in criminal investigations in America, authorities are allowed to lie to suspects, and again, this is a war zone. Sorry, Jim, but saying “this isn’t moral equivalence, it’s simple fact!” don’t make it so.

So much anti-war thought is myopically focused on the metaphorical letter of the law when it’s the spirit that matters, only to turn around and attribute the purest of motives to our enemies when all their actions and words say otherwise.


July 29, 2003

Steven Den Beste has an excellent post today, in which he tries to explain the almost inexplicable failure of the anti-war left to affect the implementation of their preferred policies in any way.

Money quote:

“I think that there may have been some sort of deep feeling that if only those demonstrating against the war could somehow adequately communicate how strongly they opposed the war, that this would be enough to convince the rest of us to give up the entire enterprise. If the validity of a point of view is entirely a function of the sincerity with which it is held, then if enough people are emphatic enough about their sincerity, they should prevail for that reason alone.”

Battle of the Big Two

July 28, 2003

Rich Johnston’s rumor column is a real bonanza of Marvel & DC gossip this week. Things seem to have reached a tipping point in the battle between the two companies.

For the past three years or so, Marvel, under the direction of Editor in Chief Joe Quesada (with assists from former DC/Vertigo editors Axel Alonso and, up until a year or so ago, Stuart Moore), have done their damndest to become the “cool” publisher, wooing some of the biggest (and occasionally best) mainstream writers and artists, putting them on the big-name superhero’s books, and letting them run wild. Though fanboy reaction has been decidedly mixed (“How dare they screw with my favorite tights-wearing do-gooder!”), New Marvel has generated more sales, publicity, critical acclaim, and (most importantly) damn good books than any superhero-company regime in recent memory. (Brian Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil, Bruce Jones’s Hulk, Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men and The Ultimates, Pete Milligan’s X-Statix (nee X-Force), (to a lesser extent) J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man, and (to an enormous extent) Grant Morrison’s New X-Men are seen as having led the charge.) Comparatively conservative AOLTW division DC responded largely by playing dead, occasionally growing a star in their Vertigo or Wildstorm subdivisions only (usually) to see those stars snatched up by Marvel’s creator-friendly editorial regime.

Recently, things have changed. Marvel President Bill Jemas, never one to shirk from rubbing fans or retailers the wrong way if he thought it was good for the company, is now thought to be doing the same with creators through his increasingly intrusive editorial hand. Jemas himself is probably caught in the crossfire between the more money-minded Hollywood side of Marvel (where the real cash is harvested anyway) and the comparatively ars gratia artis publishing wing. Meanwhile, DC’s new Editorial VP, Dan DiDio, has made it his goal to ape the old Joe Q. business model, fighting to get big creators, give them big money, assign them to big characters, and tell the bigwigs at DC and AOL to leave them the hell alone. This has paid off with a slew of big-name superhero guys signing “exclusive” contracts with DC in recent months and, especially, the past couple of weeks. In the crazy world of comics publishing, exclusives don’t mean as much as you’d think they might–allowances are usually made for work already promised to other publishers; occasionally work is allowed to be done for indie companies, the main point being “Don’t work for The Other Big Company”; sometimes creators work so slowly that despite being “exclusive” with a company, said company may go months or even over a year without actually publishing any of their work–but still, they’re a barometer of which way the mainstream’s superstars think the wind is blowing. Lately, it’s been blowing in DC’s direction, with tons of high-profile projects either announced or rumored to be in the works. All told, DC has either gotten or is said to be gunning for Art Adams, Chuck Austen, Brian Azzarello, Chris Bachalo, Mark Bagley, Brian Bendis, Bryan Hitch, Bruce Jones, Adam Kubert, Jeph Loeb, Alex Maleev, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Eduardo Risso, Greg Rucka, Tim Sale, Mark Waid, and Bill Willingham, just to name some–a far cry from the company’s previous don’t-rock-the-boat approach to its big characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern et al).

Momentum began gathering in earnest at the San Diego Comic-Con, where DC took advantage of Marvel’s reduced presence by announcing exclusive contracts with Rucka, Sale, Loeb, and (the big shocker) Morrison. Things promise to reach critical mass in two weeks at Chicago’s WizardWorld convention, where both companies (Marvel will have a pretty big contingent on hand this time) promise huge announcements. ADDTF just might have a couple of representatives on hand, and they’re waiting with bated breath for the fireworks to start.

In his column, Johnston points out that even the most thorough poaching of Marvel by DC could turn out good for the former company, freeing up room on the big books for the up-and-comers currently working with smaller characters in the Tsunami and Epic lines. If such a promotion comes hand-in-hand with less interference from corporate or editorial, this might all well be a blessing in disguise.

Please take my hand

July 28, 2003

Erik Braunn, guitarist for Iron Butterfly and riff-wielder for “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” is dead.

Let us pause for 17 minutes of quiet reflection.

R. Fiore vs. elitism

July 28, 2003

‘Nevertheless, “hating” Casablanca doesn

Doomsday for the Marvel Movie Doomsday Theory?

July 27, 2003

According to the Comics Continuum (link courtesy of Markisan Naso), Marvel’s Hollywood head honcho, Avi Arad, said plans continue apace for Elektra, Iron Man, Deathlok, The Fantastic Four, Blade 3, The Punisher, Spider-Man 2, and (dum dum DUM!) Hulk 2. In other words, the kinda sorta disappointing showing of Hulk 1 (again, I’ll just say that I don’t know how anyone in their right mind expected this weird, weird film to make Spider-Man box) was not a deathblow to the Marvel Movie Money Machine, as some are beginning to theorize (love how that link is subtitled “freefall,” Dirk!). ‘Course, it remains to be seen how well each of these projects will do, but the gravy train’s still rollin’. Moreover, as Jim Henley points out, you don’t need movie tie-ins to make big bank off superhero licensing–just ask DC Comics! (On the other hand, you may not need them–but it helps.)

My take? I don’t see “superhero-comic-book movies” as a trend, because unlike other recently deceased Hollywood fads (teen movies, self-reflexive pop-culture-reference-laden horror films), the superhero flicks produced so far are sufficiently differentiated from one another to offer distinct moviegoing experiences for the audience, even if only because the biggest of the characters (Spider-Man, the Hulk) are already familiar enough with the audience to qualify as individual experiences simply by virtue of their lead characters alone. Aside from that, Spider-Man was a rollicking adventure for kids and young teenagers that captured the retro vibe grown-up fans were looking for; Daredevil was a dark, operatic take on a pulp hero that most viewers weren’t already familiar with as a comic-book superperson; the Blade movies were action-horror that few people associate with the superhero genre anyway; Hulk was a weird “term-paper blockbuster,” and moreover was more King Kong than Superman; the X-Men movies were sci-fi action with enough queer theory thrown in to keep things interesting for the hipsters and, again, less awareness of the franchise’s comic-book roots; The Punisher could go one of two ways: a supergrim Death Wish kind of movie or a live-action Road Runner cartoon a la Garth Ennis’s early issues on the comic series; Fantastic Four is rumored to be either sci-fi adventure or a sci-fi tinged suburban dramedy–either way, not too Super; Elektra is a hot-chick-kicks-ass movie waiting to happen; Deathlok will most likely be a black Terminator; Iron Man I’ve heard they’ll be selling as James Bond with more gadgets; I know it’s not Marvel, but even the relatively bomb-y League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would have been number one at the box office its opening weekend had its studio not made the dumbass decision to release it against another period quasi-fantasy swashbuckler–one with the full might of Disney behind it–The Pirates of the Carribean, and again, civilians have no clue that League was a comic book first.

These differences may look superficial to people heavily invested in the theory that you can’t mine anything worthwhile out of the spandex-wearing set, but the average person (as I’ve said time and again) does not share this anti-superhero bias, and if a superhero movie is unique and interesting enough, they’ll go see it.

Shout-out to Univision

July 27, 2003

…for proving to me that The Money Pit is almost as funny in Spanish as it is in English. God, what a funny movie. The part where Tom Hanks laughs at the bathtub that fell through the floor may be my favorite scene in any comedy ever.

Maybe I’m biased…

July 26, 2003

…but holy crap, is this adorable or what?

Like a Goddamn Top

July 26, 2003

Read this story about how the seige on the Tweedle-Dee & Tweedle-Dum Hussein’s final hideout has led to a bonanza of intelligence and tips, including one that enabled the capture of Saddam’s bodyguards. Then read the last two paragraphs of the main section, brought to you by Reuters. I’ll paraphrase: “While this may seem like good news, EVERYTHING ACTUALLY JUST SUCKS.” The overall opinion of Iraqis is asserted with no corroboration, no justification, no documentation; a completely unrelated story is tacked on just for shits and giggles at the Americans’ expense. Both are 100% pure spin. It’d almost be breathtaking, if it weren’t so insulting.

Newsblogging is the future, baby. When I spin stuff, I link to the source so you can spin it right back at me.


July 26, 2003

He might not even know we exist, but Gary Groth’s getting quite a lot of attention from the comics blogosphere over his recent critical call to arms. Alan David Doane (whose writing is always sharp, even when it’s 180-degrees from my own POV, and who moreover has yet to give me a hard time about having the initials ADD in my blogbreviation) offers a brief take on Groth’s return to the pages of The Comics Journal. At this point, there seems to be something of a consensus forming about the piece: We all wanted to like it, and we all did, sorta. His heart and mind were both in the right place, but something about the essay seems to have left us all a little let down. I’d liken it to an opened bottle of soda you left in the fridge while you were on vacation. You made sure to screw the cap on extra tight, and the fridge was extra cold, and when you get back from the airport you’re all dehydrated from the recycled air on the plane and you pour a glass and take a big gulp and ahhhh! Delightfully chilly refreshment… except that it’s a little… flat. Alan, Bill Sherman, and I all applauded Gary’s sentiment, but each of us seemed to be looking for a little something more. I think we all also agree that the additional essays on criticism by Greg Cwiklik and Rich Kreiner that flanked Groth’s piece (not to mention actual good criticism in action, in the form of by Darcy Sullivan and Daniel Holloway, as well as the hugely rewarding interview with Mad-man Will Elder conducted by Groth himself) provided just such a little something.

Also worthy of note in Doane’s piece is his lament that the Journal is “not entirely holding the moral high ground when it comes to providing critical analysis of worthwhile, groundbreaking works.” It turns out that Journal editor Milo George is well aware of this fact–indeed, it’s part of his plan! This thread on the Journal’s message board indicates that timely reviews of even major works are not a priority at George’s Journal. As someone who believes that (for better, in most cases; for worse, in some) the Journal is the magazine of record for the comics medium, it upsets me to see that a premium is not placed on documenting the works that define the state-of-the-art-form as they come out. Important books can wait months or even more than a year before being discussed in the Journal’s pages, and though I may be simply back-seat editing at this point (it’s just the editor in me; I happen to think the Journal’s as good now as it’s been since I’ve been reading it), I think the comics-reading public’s the poorer for this–to say nothing of the creators of the work in question, who surely feel the dearth of good print criticism as dearly as we do, or of the Journal itself, which I believe would be more of a living, breathing thing if it were an up-to-date chronicle of the medium’s best (and worst).

Rule them all

July 26, 2003

I’ve now watched The Fellowship of the Ring so many times it’s like a form of comfort food for me. Having a three-and-a-half hour version of your favorite movie comes in handy when your wife is out of town and you only get about 15 channels that aren’t Spanish or Home Shopping. Today I was watching it with the director & writer commentary track playing, and it’s still a tremendously entertaining film, in part because of the incredible level of detail and love (they wouldn’t have bothered with the former if they hadn’t had the latter) invested into every shot by the production team. A few brief musings three of my favorite moments in the film:

1) The post-Moria mourning scene. If I had to guess, I’d say it was this sequence that made moviegoers realize they weren’t just watching a great action film, but a great film, period. Most action movies gloss over the death of even the most important characters, content with someone shouting “Noooo!”, then having someone else pat them on the back, toss them a cold one, say “He was a good soldier,” and then it’s back to ass-kicking. Here we emerge from the incredibly intense and dark underground realm of Moria into an otherworldly, blindingly white hill, the sun blazing down. The diegetic sound is removed, leaving us instead with a single mournful boy-soprano voice singing a song of grief. The individual reactions to the fall of Gandalf by each member of the Fellowship are catalogued in uncomfortably intimite close-ups: Gimli the Dwarf enraged, struggling to return to the mines and slay the orcs who brought them to this sorry pass; Boromir of Gondor, holding Gimli back, his face showing that he knows only too well how futile the seeking of vengeance would be; Sam the Hobbit, collapsing to the ground in sorrow; Merry & Pippin, clinging to each other, seeming to wonder just how culpable their silly antics were in their friend’s death; Legolas the Elf, a look of stunned surprise on his face, one totally unaccustomed to seeing the death of a friend up close; Frodo, who in the words of director Peter Jackson has a look of grief on his face “so powerful that it should frighten the audience”; Aragorn the ranger, who allows himself only a moment of pure sorrow before reluctantly assuming the mantle of leadership placed upon him by his fallen friend. Boromir says of the hobbits, “Give them a moment, for pity’s sake,” but Aragorn insists on spurring them on, knowing that the orcs on their heels will show no pity should they catch up to the greiving fellowship. The performances are amazing, but the imagery alone–the white light, the barren hill–say almost all that needs to be said. This was when everything clicked for me, sitting there in the theater: “This isn’t just great–it’s a masterpiece.”

2) I first saw the Moria mines sequence in a press screening several months before the release of the film. That 15-20 minute chunk was released and shown at Cannes, and then at select locations for members of the media. I saw it in New York with a friend, and when we left–completely floored, of course–he said “This is the first movie that captures the sheer scale of good fantasy. Moria was exactly as big on the screen as it was in my head.” For me, the shot that established this scale once and for all was not the big reveal of the Great Hall, but the arrow’s-eye-view shot of the orc archer as he gets killed by Legolas. At this point, you’ve had some more or less vertical overhead shots that simply show the space immediately surrounding where our heroes are running down the ancient staircase in the Mines, or shots taken from right among them. Suddenly you’re strapped onto an arrow, flung hundreds of yards over an enormous chasm, and ram right into an orc’s forehead. We then switch to a shot from right behind the orc–or where he used to be, because he’s plummeting deep in to the chasm the arc of the arrow just described. Using strictly intrafilmic means–the arrow, the body of the orc–Jackson defines the space of the Mines breathtakingly. This shot sequence didn’t receive nearly the level of attention of the equally brilliant Orthanc “helicopter” shot, in which the camera panned over the gates of Isengard, past the fiery pits in which Saruman’s orcs were working, up the tower of Orthanc on the wings of Gandalf’s friend the moth, then rocketed back down the tower deep underground and stopped at an orc swordsmith’s anvil. It may not have been nearly as showy, but it was just as effective, and for me, perhaps even more impressive.

3) Another smart bit of film wonkery came at the very end of the scene on the snowy mountainside in which Boromir reluctantly returns the Ring to Frodo after the hobbit drops it. As Boromir turns his back from Frodo after handing it off and mussing his hair, his shield clanks against his back with a THUD. That simple foley-art sound effect force the audience to notice Boromir’s distinctive round shield–which we next notice near the very end of the film, when its simple presence near the base of a tree is used to indicate ominously that Boromir has gone off from the Fellowship to track down Frodo. One split-second sound effect does the work of probably thirty seconds exposition. Fantastic.