Dazzling, Sure, but to What Effect?

Here in New Zealand, Peter Jackson is the man of the moment. His managerial capacities and showman's instincts have allowed him, as we like to think of it, to beat Hollywood's hotshots at their own game. He has given hundreds of inventive New Zealanders worthwhile, lucrative work and enhanced our tourist industry. Personally, I think he deserves a knighthood as much as his fellow countrymen, Sir Edmund Hillary or Sir Ernest Rutherford.

So when I add that the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy is, as a work of cinematic art, ham-fisted, shallow, bombastic and laughably overrated, don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking Jackson and his hard-working team. The larger issue is Hollywood and the degraded state of big-budget movies.

Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" represents the victory of special effects over dramatic art. Of course, special effects have been with cinema since the beginning. Georges Melies' droll 1902 "A Trip to the Moon," the first sci-fi movie, contained enchanting trick photography. Audiences were astonished by the 1932 "King Kong" (a stop-action model) and gawked at the dinosaurs (live lizards) that Victor Mature battled in the 1940 "One Million B.C." Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" showed that special-effects models can be beautiful, and computer-generated effects entered film in a big way with "Jurassic Park, "Titanic" and "The Matrix."

But the sense of amazement that special effects can induce tends to be short-lived. Filmgoers grow tired of the same kinds of effects, and then want more. The space travel shots of "Stars Wars" now seem trite, and the dinosaurs of "Jurassic Park," particularly in the final sequences of that movie, look creaky and artificial.

Audience habituation means that effects wizards are locked in the upward spiral of an endless special-effects arms race, with demands for bigger explosions, uglier villains, more frenzied and realistic violence, ear-splitting noises and ever-expanding battle scenes. A computer-generated crowd, according to the rule, must not be smaller than the crowds in last month's blockbusters.

The "Rings" trilogy is a case in point. Take away the frenetic effects from this unremarkable action-adventure fantasy and there is not enough on screen to keep even a subnormal human mind alive.

The narrative drags for long stretches. Acting? Elijah Wood plays Frodo with a repertoire of two wide-eyed expressions: his shocked-happy face and his shocked-hurt face. Women, as we'd expect from a geek epic, are merely an annoyance. As Clive James remarked, Middle-Earth is "a place where even Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler come to be boring." And the good, stout men of this movie are not much better, strutting around sententiously as they intone J.R.R. Tolkien's pseudo-Shakespearean inversions ("This way lies danger," etc.).

Next month we'll get yet another remake of Homer's "Iliad," this time with Brad Pitt as Achilles. Expect the computer-generated bone-crunching, flesh-slicing battle scenes to exceed in quantity of pixel-soldiers and pints of fake blood those in either "Gladiator" or "Rings." That's what the special-effects arms race is all about. And that's why the upward spiral of special effects has yielded a downward spiral in the story-telling quality of big-budget movies.

Talking about the theater of his own time, Aristotle listed the elements that go into a good drama. The least important, he argued, was "spectacle" -- the staging, fancy costumes and special stage effects (such as the deus ex machina) the Greeks used in their theaters. Most crucial for intense dramatic experience was an effective plot and interesting characters. Except for the technology escalation, not much has changed in 2,500 years. Ignore Aristotle's advice, push spectacle to the top of the list, and you end up with such over-computerized, incoherent drivel as the recent versions of "The Hulk" or "Charlie's Angels."

Time was when celluloid images captured in the initial shoot formed the basic, intractable material from which a film editor worked. No more. Borrowing from the pumped-up visual rhetoric of TV commercials and video games, editors now recolor images, alter motion and add or delete whole objects, including characters, from scenes.

This has enabled a move toward cartoonish intensification. Thus in "Pirates of the Caribbean," the pirate ship is required to be portrayed as the blackest, most humongous ship ever seen. Sword fights must be tweaked so sparks and flashes accompany the clanging of blades. A treasure in a cave is not a chest of coins but an underground mountain of gold and jewels, and so forth. The computer, which had offered directors and editors creative freedom, has ended up delivering juvenile fantasy to audiences.

Films promise so much. Yet what have they delivered? Between 1939 and 1942, barely a decade after the advent of sound, Hollywood was able to produce "Citizen Kane," "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "His Girl Friday," "Casablanca," "Fantasia" and "The Maltese Falcon." Ask yourself, how much better have movies gotten since then?

"The Wizard of Oz," like "Rings," is a fantasy-adventure plotted around a quest. It has Munchkins for its Hobbits, flying monkeys for its Orcs, a malevolent witch who lives in a castle, even humanoid trees. Its 1939 special effects are not there to astonish so much as to push the action along. "The Wizard of Oz" possesses an eternal freshness, its witty, beautifully paced tale told with singing and dancing actors of phenomenal talent: Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr. Who can remember anything out of Howard Shore's vapid, overblown score for "Lord of the Rings"? Who can forget Harold Arlen's for "The Wizard of Oz"?

Add it all up -- acting talent, script, pacing, humor -- and you have in "The Wizard of Oz" an essential feature completely missing in "Lord of the Rings": charm.

Frankly, I have never looked at my watch as often during a movie as I did in "The Return of the King." Toward the end, I found myself desperately cheering on the giant spider in hope of getting home early. Eat Frodo! Eat him!

If the obsession with expensive technology and shallow effects is to ruin Hollywood film as an art form, by all means let the deed be carried out with the help of talented New Zealanders. The visual effects, costumes and makeup Oscars for "Lord of the Rings" are richly deserved. But beyond that, are these movies, or any of the over-technologized films of our epoch, of lasting value? Let's get a grip.

Denis Dutton teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He grew up in North Hollywood.

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