Third Party Politics

Stare masters: Sean Astin and Elijah Wood in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'
New Line Cinema

A recent New York Times Magazine cover story promised that, for left-leaning yutes, joining the Howard Dean campaign affords the best chance to make smart friends, get laid, and do something meaningful in life. Yes, in this teched-up X-Box world of sprawling McMansions, where human contact has all the warmth of a card swipe, the Dean machine's cyber-fellowship aims to harness the very instruments of atomization to fashion a buzzing hive of the best and brightest--a sort of flash-mob West Wing, a listserv Lord of the Rings.

Enabling a grassroots backlash against such techno-coddled individualism, the Rings trilogy has come along at exactly the right moment. What director Peter Jackson and collaborator/wife Fran Walsh hoped would be a guaranteed audience of fantasy geeks, former hippie boomers, and Harry Potter kids is now augmented by myriad napsters and friendsters looking for a community and a cause--some of them old enough, perhaps, to have naively celebrated the Clinton victory of '92, to have believed they could humanize the workplace during the fin de siècle dot-com boom, to have welled up for Nader in 2000, and to have subsequently licked their wounds in the glow of marathon Aaron Sorkin teleplays.

Let's face it: Riding with the Fellowship to Mordor would be a dream job. Like those witty West Wing-ers, members of our own cabinet are committed to something righteous; they read each other's minds and march to each other's beats. You can imagine the white wizard Gandalf moving through the White House halls with press secretary C.J. Cregg in purposeful glide, decorously exchanging pithy directives, locking eyes, and taking sudden, zipless leave.

Obviously, Tolkien wasn't writing this stuff to mollify isolated millennial idealists. Eschewing "allegory," he was still playing around with the palimpsest of British mythohistory, slyly abstracting his personal trauma from World War I (the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers famously recall the faces of the deceased he witnessed in flooded trenches) and digesting the fresh brutality of its '40s sequel. His "Men of the West" defended their landed-gentry hierarchies and rural fiefdoms; industry and even democracy were suspect enemies of his preferred gentility.

Finding a 21st-century political message in the films is more complicated. Surely some Righties see it as a post-9/11 clash between Good and Evil, with Sauron as the faceless eye of "global terror." But Mordor's panopticon surveillance, behemoth military superiority, ravenous imperialism, industrial tinder-lust, subjugation of dependent entities, and environmental poisoning look more like First World avarice than atavistic fundamentalism. Which works just fine for Jackson and his collaborators, who seem more interested in telling a story about community--about collective endeavor, about forging allegiance out of suspicion, honoring discrete languages while cobbling together a common one, communicating with a sentient natural world, respecting the role of doubt. Along the way, they take pains to emphasize Tolkien's tender accounts of male-buddy frisson, to revel in the triumph of the sword-fighting Eowen of Rohan, and to highlight Tolkien's pity for depleted addict Gollum and corrupted wizard Saruman.

Working on Rings was a dream job, too: Four-plus years of collegelike inquiry--vision, revision, problem solving, inspiration, and astonishment, as we know from the four-disc expanded-edition DVDs and relentless behind-the-scenes teases on TV. The documentaries and commentaries attest that, from the casting of the fellowship to the rigorous screenwriting choices and the charmed combination of manic acting and CGI, the personal bonding involved in bringing Rings to life mirrored the emotional journey of the story itself. And the accessible packaging of this underlying backstage narrative has made it as common to be a huge fan of the Jackson & Co. workplace fantasy as of the films.

The Return of the King bears the burden of tying up the saga and disbanding the collective, and handles both duties reasonably well, moving from the gray ruins of Isengard to the besieged cities of Gondor, and, of course, following Frodo and Sam to the roiling fires of Mount Doom. The film's opening bit, a green and sunny flashback featuring an undigitized Andy Serkis as Gollum, illuminates the bucolic origins of the corrupted monster and makes for a nice shock when we're suddenly plunged back into the night-for-night darkness of near-devastation. Granted, if I never see blue and orange again in my life, it'll be too soon. But we knew that was going to be the palette: The fellowship is now this close to Mordor, where the sun don't shine. Plus, the filmmakers have to up the ante on those battle scenes. The battle for Middle Earth can't be trumped by Helms Deep--and that was a dark blue blowout itself.


As Tolkien fans probably anticipated, some of the memorable bits from the second book have been pushed to the third film. The seduction of Pippin by Saruman's portal-like crystal ball palantir shows up here, as does Sam and Frodo's battle with the spider Shelob--a female eating machine crafted by Tolkien with a rare misogynistic bitterness that Jackson takes pains to avoid (though Gollum's shudder at the thought of her "tunnel" remains in knowing homage).

So, too, the sexual innuendo is extended in this last installment. Run end to end, the longing stares between members of our fellowship--Aragorn and Legolas, Legolas and Gimli, Pippin and Merry, and, of course, Frodo and Sam--would probably top half an hour. Viggo Mortenson's Aragorn dreams of Liv Tyler's Arwen and wakes up drawing his saber; and when elf leader Elrond arrives with the forged sword of Elendil for Aragorn, it's a long one, indeed (though word is that Gandalf's is even longer). A scene that's sure to provide repeat viewing for NAMBLA members features Ian McKellan's Gandalf and Billy Boyd's Pippin spending some quality time on horseback. As for our poor, lovelorn female characters, Tyler's Arwen is still trapped in a perfume ad, but the tenacity of Miranda Otto's "shieldmaiden" Eowen is a Nazgul-whupping blast.

Watching The Return of the King gives you a curiously postmodern feeling--an anticipation of the commentaries, the making-ofs, the post-game assessments. It has become so natural by now to have instant access to all the explanations of intent that a working draft of them hovers as ghostly accompaniment to the screening itself. We know we can expect another special edition DVD featuring a new cut of The Return of the King. And no doubt they'll eventually release the full experience--all three director's cuts back to back--with new commentaries and documentaries in which talking heads assess the movies' impact on the culture, and actors and crew retrospectively reflect on the process in its entirety. And lots of us will probably spring for it.

On the Two Towers commentary track, talking over an extra scene that delves deeper into Gondor's leadership crisis on the eve of war, Jackson and Walsh, along with co-writer Philippa Boyens, joke that they could go on making Rings films each and every year, drawing on the exhaustive backstories that Tolkien provides. They also muse about the possibility of rearranging the whole thing in chronological order (like the famous DVD Easter egg that flipped Memento forward), and then suggest that Final Cut Pro-savvy fans take a shot at doing it for them. Where George Lucas would seem to prefer suing the perpetrators of phantom edits, these artists thrive on irreverent populism. Howard Dean is shrewd in seeking to match the Rings trilogy's contemporaneity and cred.

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