Reactions to The Hobbit Trailer

It was just a few days past the tenth anniversary of Middle Earth’s first arrival in theaters with Fellowship of the Ring in December 2001. Yesterday, Peter Jackson and company unveiled an astonishing Christmas gift for the vast fans of Middle Earth: the first trailer for the much-anticipated film The Hobbit. “Tolkien” and “The Hobbit” were nearly instantly trending topics on Twitter, and Facebook shares of the trailer were running rampant, as it quickly racked up 3 or 4 million views on YouTube.

This took me by complete surprise. I had seen glimpses of news in recent months that filming had finally begun after years of delays, setbacks, and complications, but I was unaware that the production was even remotely far enough along to have a 2.5 minutes worth of fully edited film. Anyway, I’ve watched the trailer three times now, and while we have about fifty-one weeks to go which means half of these shots may not even make it to the final film, I still have an array of scattered thoughts that I would like to put down on pixel.

1. Bilbo Baggins. I generally think that the casting was fantastic for the Lord of the Rings movies. I watch the films ten years later and still think about how awesome almost all of the major and semi-major characters look, act, and feel on the screen. Obviously Ian Holm could not join the hunt for Smaug’s treasure, what with the event taking place sixty years earlier in the timeline in addition to the decade of Earth time that has passed since the filming. But I think I’m going to like Martin Freeman as the younger Bilbo. His facial expressions in a couple of the trailer shots remind me of Billy Boyd as Pipkin.

2. The Dwarves. The Dwarves look very different from what I was expecting. This is probably partly due to my faulty imagination refusing to remember that Tolkien’s hobbits are actually shorter than his dwarves. But I always kind of pictured them as being a little more bumbly and stocky or something and not quite so grand and warrior-ish. Especially Thorin Oakenshield. Since I was twelve years old Thorin has lived in my head as a short but powerful, beefy, gritty kind of guy, and not the tall, lanky guy in the trailer… you know, less like animated Attack-of-the-Clones Obi-Wan Kenobi and more like Mr. T or something. But hey, it’s been three years since I last read the book so my imagination’s probably a little off even before figuring in Jackson’s adaptive spirit. I’m sure I’ll learn to love these guys, especially those prosthetic dwarvish noses and whatnot.

3. The Setting. The world in the trailer clips feels just like the Middle Earth we all fell in love with ten years ago, right down to the color palette. The vibrant green of the Shire, the subdued brown of Bag End, the cold blues of the outside world at night with Gandalf’s robe, beard, and staff pointing the way… The continuity of the world is impeccable – not that we had any doubt with this being in Peter Jackson’s hands. Any quibbling about altered plot has always been more than excused (in my opinion) by the exquisite representation of the world in which the plot takes place. Jackson’s Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings breathes like Tolkien’s, and it looks like The Hobbit will do the same. And yet… there’s something a little funny about it all too, since Jackson’s doing it backwards, and the Middle Earth of Tolkien’s The Hobbit wasn’t quite the same Middle Earth as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I don’t mean that it’s discontinuous, but the world wasn’t so dark and epic yet, and it looks like Jackon is turning the epic-ness to the max on this one. It might not quite be the simple, light-hearted tale of a bumbling hobbit joining some dwarves on a little adventure. But, after all, there is danger. Spiders. Dragons. War. Why not make it as epic as possible, right?

4. The Plot. Speaking of dragons, I didn’t notice a single hint of Smaug in all those frames. Maybe his CGI costume just isn’t ready yet (anybody else excited about LOTR-style graphics plus the last ten years of computing advances?), but I didn’t notice any Battle of Five Armies either. Unless I missed something obvious, I think the trailer suggests that the film really will trace approximately the first half of the book, putting to rest some Internet speculation over the years that the second film would cover some other section of Tolkien’s Middle Earth history. After all, its official title is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, to be followed by The Hobbit: There and Back Again.

5. Galadriel. It should come as no surprise that Jackson wanted to bring back as many original LOTR actors as possible to maximize the continuity and the tie-ins. So when you hear that Orlando Bloom is reprising Legolas and you know that Bilbo and the dwarves end up hanging out with Legolas’s father Thranduil, well, that’s not too much of a stretch to stick him in there, I guess. But Cate Blanchett as Galadriel? She’s not in The Hobbit book at all. But she’s in the trailer. At least twice.. including one clip where she’s disturbingly fingering Ian McKellan’s white hair… OK, Jackson. I’m no Tolkien purist. You got me to swallow pretty much everything you did in LOTR (though I’m still really, really, really, really glad you never ended up bringing Liv Tyler to Helm’s Deep). Now I’m willing to cut you a lot of slack with The Hobbit storyline to smooth out complicated backstory for unfamiliar audiences and whatnot, but you better have something really good going on with Galadriel here. Really good.

6. The songs. Now if you’re getting too distraught about the potential shredding of the sacred plot, take a moment to revel in the song we see the dwarves singing. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is full of the main characters singing songs while they’re resting and while they’re traveling and while they’re doing pretty much anything; Jackson’s is almost song-less. I don’t really begrudge that too much; it’s pretty comical to imagine Orlando breaking out into song in the middle of the films’ intense sequences, and the songs that do exist – like Billy Boyd’s performance before King Theoden – are downright brilliant. But it is incredibly encouraging to see Thorin and the dwarves singing one of their songs in Bag End, and the subdued, a capella minor melody (it’s almost Jewish in flavor) fits the mood perfectly. I’m hoping the cheeky kitchen-cleaning song will make it into the film too (Chip the glasses and crack the plates… That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates…) but I’m not holding my breath! (Still, there’s always the extended versions…)

7. Three dimensions. One final thought… In the last frame of the trailer I see the notation “Experience it in IMAX 3D and Real 3D.” I had hoped that the film might escape what I consider to be a silly and hopefully passing fad involving annoying glasses that must be worn for two hours to experience five minutes’s worth of moderately exciting visual enhancement. But that’s just my opinion; I’m sure a lot of people out there like 3D movies. Hopefully the 3D part of this movie will exceed my (low) expectations. Hopefully I won’t have to spend $15 on a ticket by the time this comes out… if there’s a non-3D option near me, I might take it. But we’ll see.

Anyway, those are a lot of words for a mere one hundred and fifty one seconds of motion picture. I am sure I will have many more as the next year unfolds. Until then, we will simply count down to December 14, 2012…

(If you feel the need to rejoice over every new rumor or leaked still shot, yes, still exists!)


Reactions to Exit Through The Gift Shop

I knew very little about Exit Through The Gift Shop prior to seeing it, except that it was generally considered very “good” among lots of “indie” circles. I didn’t even know it was a documentary until it began. So I was able to go into it with essentially no pre-conceived notions about the film, and I came out of it with a lot of interesting and conflicting feelings and ideas. (If you would like to do the same, do not read on until you have seen it.)

Exit Through The Gift Shop primarily tells the story of Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Frenchman with a video camera who stumbles onto a continent-spanning underground street art scene and then stumbles onto hosting his own gallery show that is either a complete work of genius or a complete farce – or perhaps both. With no real artistic experience to speak of, Guetta remortgages his clothing store to pay designers to flesh out his random ideas – like a profile of Batman’s grandfather “Bat papi,” or a picture of Elvis cradling a Fisherprice toy gun instead of a guitar. He sets up a gallery inside a huge warehouse and pours on a huge amount of hype. With a little help from his sympathetic street art friends who prevent the event from turning into a disaster, thousands of people line up outside and Guetta ends up selling these parodic pieces of “art” to enthusiastic visitors for tens of thousands of dollars. A quote from Banksy’s former spokesman sums up the feeling: “I think the joke is on… I don’t know who the joke is on, really. I don’t even know if there is a joke.

The central unspoken question of the film seems to be that unanswerable philosophic classic, “What is art?” And its relative: “What makes art valuable?” The film seems to encourage you to think that Guetta’s work is essentially a sham of copycatted riffing, Photoshopped parody, and an overall sense of unoriginality. Now there wasn’t really anything wrong with all of this from an economic standpoint. As my wife pointed out, while Guetta paid his designers day rates and made out with all the profits, he also took on all the risk of the project – much like a filmmaker paying a crew to flesh out his artistic vision. And yet I can’t shake the gut feeling that something is not as it should be.

There’s an almost-snooty posturing out there that declares that a lot of stuff that passes for “modern art” these days is basically crap, from the black dot on a white canvas to Duchamp’s toilet (figuratively and literally!). I find that line of thinking very attractive and would point to Guetta’s work as another example. Slapping a pirate eyepatch on Mona Lisa – come on, that’s not art! But it’s hard to argue such a view since art is so subjective by its very nature. The street artists didn’t seem to think Guetta’s work was art. They probably think their custom stencils and printed images are better than the gang symbols and profane babble of “low-level” graffiti vandals, but those graffiti vandals might think their own work is art. And the guy that owns the defaced building or the guy cleaning it up might think none of it is art! (The movie avoids discussing the costs of the uninvited alterations of both public and private property.) If people like it, then it is art to them, right? So who cares if I think it’s all just the work of a talentless hack if there are people that convince themselves to find enjoyment and value in it, right?

Time for a little economic segue. When considering what something is worth, the layman’s answer is “whatever someone is willing to pay for it.” So if someone’s willing to pay thousands of dollars for a ten-minute Photoshop job, then it’s worth thousands of dollars, right? Well, kind of. But that’s only one side of the transaction; there is also the cost of replacement. When you own something, it doesn’t matter what you paid for it five years ago. That was its value then. Now the traditional answer for its value today is whatever price you would be willing to sell it for today. But if you don’t want to sell it, its value is simply whatever it would cost to buy a new one (because above that price you would be willing to sell it to the sucker and just buy yourself a new one). And if you lose or break something, your net worth does not decrease by the amount you originally paid for that thing, but by the amount that you have to expend to replace it.

Now back to the art world. The problem I and many others have with a lot of modern art is not so much that other people place a different value on it than we do. They are free to do that (and we are free to think they are suckers). The problem with modern art is that a lot of it seems to have a very low cost of replacement. We look at a lot of modern art and think, “Come on, even I could do something like that. This piece of artwork takes no talent. It has an extremely low cost of replacement!” These reactions mirror my reactions to a lot of songs that get played on popular radio. “Come on, even I could write rhymes like that. This is so unoriginal and formulaic and so easy to replace, and yet so many people like it!” I feel like good artwork requires talent and has a high cost of replacement; no one else can make art as good as that talented artist.

Of course, the art still has to “look good.” You could spend days writing the alphabet over and over in tiny lettering all over the walls of a house, and that would have a very high cost of replacement, but that wouldn’t make it valuable modern art (well, actually.. these days.. maybe you should go for it!). Similarly, a talented metal guitarist could churn out an extremely technical riff that still isn’t pleasant to listen to. High quality ingredients don’t guarantee a high quality meal, but they allow a potential for higher quality that can be maximized by the talented cook. That’s why the cheese slices from the $3 bag at the grocery store taste a lot better than the ones from the $1 bag. Except the cheese industry is competitive enough that the cheap cheese has a lower cost of replacement than the expensive cheese. With modern art (and popular music), sometimes it seems to me like people are paying big bucks for dollar cheese and thinking they’re getting a good deal when they could get much better cheese for the same price or get almost anyone to make the same dollar cheese for way cheaper. But then I sound like a cheese snob. After all, maybe we all just have different tastes in cheese…


Reactions To Ray

We watched the film Ray the other day, and a few things struck me. [BIOGRAPHICAL SPOILERS BELOW]

1. The life of Ray Charles bore many striking similarities to the life of Johnny Cash – at least as presented in the respective films Ray and Walk the Line, which I generally understand to have portrayed most of the fundamental historical events correctly.

Ray Charles lived 1930 to 2004 and Ray released in 2004. Johnny Cash lived 1932 to 2003 and Walk the Line was released in 2005. Both men lost a brother at a young age. Both men married young. Both men began successful touring music careers in their respective genres, partly by combining sounds in new ways. Both men had affairs and became addicted to drugs while touring. And both men more or less recovered and continued to make music into their seventies until they died. They had different skin colors and different genres, but they led remarkably similar lives.

2. At the height of his career, Ray Charles is portrayed as an immensely popular musician (again, just like Johnny Cash). I wonder if the future will hold such iconic superstars the way that the past did. For awhile now I’ve seen how technology is leading to an increasing “fracturing” of culture. On the supply side, the barriers to entry for producing a record or a movie for much lower now, and more people can do it than just the few that get lucky enough to get the big dollars and promotions. Thus, on the demand side, people can consume any niche of content that they want, as opposed to just the few songs that got played on the radio. (There are positive and negative arguments about the consequences of this fracturing – right now I’m just observing that it’s happening.) There used to be a few TV shows that a large percentage of Americans would watch and talk about; now there are dozens or even hundreds and it’s a big deal if a show gets a few million of America’s three hundred million to watch it. I had a college professor say that there’s no single book or movie she can reference anymore as a metaphor for explaining some concept – not everyone has seen Star Wars these days.

I don’t think modern music has any single artist that is big enough to captivate the nation, or the world, like Ray Charles or Johnny Cash – and certainly not The Beatles, who are famous for having singles that did not reach #1 for the sole reason that three or four other Beatles songs were topping the charts at the same time. Mumford & Sons are no Bob Dylan. Katy Perry and Lady GaGa are no Michael Jackson. Justin Bieber is no Elvis Presley. (Or do you think there’s a bit of selection bias going on? If I keep pointing out a bunch of old artists that used to be “super big” – what about The Beach Boys – how big could any one of them have really been? Two decades from now what will be saying about the 90’s and 00’s? “Nirvana captured the heart of the nation…”)

3. I was struck by the swiftness at which society can change. In 1961, blacks were still separated from whites at concerts and forced to watch from the “back of the bus,” so to speak. Ray Charles refused to play a segregated show in Georgia and was actually banned from playing in the state. Only eighteen years later, the Georgia legislature held a ceremony officially apologizing for the past as a “symbol of reconciliation” – and I suspect that this formal apology was following a societal shift that occurred even sooner. This has implications not only for another heavy subject of Ray’s film and life – the use of illegal drugs – but for many other things as well. In general I think it gives me a reason to be perpetually optimistic about society; no matter how bad you think things are getting it could turn around very fast.

Have you seen Ray or read elsewhere on the life of Ray Charles? What does it make you think about?


Film Review: Food, Inc.

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a screening of the documentary Food, Inc. I am still shaping my economic worldview, and as the film seemed to be pointing out problems in the food industry, I was interested in the attitudes the film would take towards massive food corporations, the government, and the market.

The film caters to liberal-leaning health-conscious organic types, and while I anticipated an anti-corporate government-embracing slant, I was pleasantly surprised to find a reasonable balance. I did not entirely agree with the film’s claims or position, but it generally vindicated the power of consumers in the market and the dangers of government intervention, while giving me things to consider about the capacity of corporations for abuse within our version of capitalism.

Continue reading “Film Review: Food, Inc.”