The Phantom Menses

It's Only the Blood of Brothers That Flows Through Tolkien's Episode I

But between the various breaks for back story, the two false endings, Frodo's pair of near-death scenes, the attempts to establish motivation among the members of the Fellowship, and the tacked-on love story used as an excuse to squeeze in more of the Elven Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), the movie never really gels. In fact, it's dull. We want to root for the free peoples of the West--and man, Gandalf would make a soothing Donald Rumsfeld--but the theme of Frodo's inability to understand his historical mission is a little too close to George W. for comfort. (By The Two Towers next Christmas, we can expect that Frodo will have fully come into his own.)

Which doesn't mean that The Lord of the Rings ain't a sure thing with a certain segment of the population. Tolkien may have disdained the "smell" of literary allegory, but Frodo's journey of becoming has proven allegorical fodder for an astoundingly diverse array of fringe dwellers: language nerds, tree-huggers, techno-Utopians, peaceniks, Victorian reactionaries, acid heads, dragon slayers, and Robert Plant. All of which (except maybe Robert Plant) are effectively included in the sneering demographic sampling of geeks that New Line must snare in order to recoup its investment. When the Ring trailers started running last summer, the timing seemed ideal: Those D&D shut-ins from junior high had grown up to become the tech necromancers conjuring America's e-biz magick. Why shouldn't their dorkwad ur-myth become our new Star Wars? The demystifying nature of the dwindling economy would only add irony to one of Tolkien's favorite themes: the death of Edenic abundance (represented by the lushly agrarian Shire, which sort of looks like pre-famine Ireland) at the hands of modern industrial blight (represented by Sauron and his soot-breathing orc hordes).

Jackson may have a hard time manhandling the plot, but he studiously maps the book's boy-cult terrain. There are Volkan-like elves for the Trekkies; a weed-smoking Gandalf for Phishheads (who are advised to get as high as humanly possible before seeing this movie); a massive orc that looks like a cross between The Rock and one of the dudes in Slipknot; and giddy lil' hobbits that look as if they'd rather be questing off to audition for a new Britpop band than to save Middle Earth. And really, wouldn't you? Arrested young maleness being fantasy lit's elixir of life, Jackson has fused Tolkien's theme of heroic becoming with fantasy's rep as a bastion for the sniffly type. The movie is awash in pensive pink skies and nurturing green glens, watery wombscapes, and Robert Bly-in-tights male-bonding. The relationship between Frodo and his hobbit-savant, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), is especially sweet. In fact, the whole thing is wondrously homosocial: Excalibur by way of a Pantene ad.

Homosocial justice: Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'
New Line Cinema
Homosocial justice: Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'

There may be something a little subversive about an adventure flick that takes on conflicted maleness during a time of war. But a blockbuster wherein you see only two women in three hours--both looking like statues of the Blessed Virgin--is more than a little creepy. Tellingly, the main group of online Jackson-haters seems enraged by the fact that there are too many damn women in the movie. First among their list of textual betrayals is a scene in which Liv Tyler, as the Elf Princess, is sent to save Frodo from Sauron's host of Black Riders. (In the book, a male elf, Glorfindel, is given this task.) Later, the Fellowship is welcomed into Lothlórien, an enchanted forest full of effete, singing elves, and ruled by the film's other woman, Galadriel. Hungry to test Frodo's will, she asks for him to display the ring, and he hands it to her--which is heartening because the ring is supposed to turn anyone who possesses it into a craven lunatic. Galadriel immediately becomes drunk on the ring's power and morphs into a towering banshee mega-bitch with the voice of Satan. Then she has what appears to be an orgasm, cools out, passes the ring to Frodo, and retires to her chamber for a Tab and a facial. The next female voice we hear is that of bombast angel Enya, whose "May It Be" plays as Frodo and Samwise sail off into Episode II.

So the ur-myth is haunted by the ur-enemy: Girls will always be geekland's Mount Doom. It's a little disappointing that the pressures of post-Lucas trilogy-making didn't allow Jackson to do more with that theme, especially since his best movie, 1994's Heavenly Creatures, is a generous, horror-tweaked black comedy about two girls whose insular friendship gives their fantasy life an erotic dimension. But as indie-rock hobbits Ween once pointed out, there's no telling what might happen if you "get too close to my fantasy."

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