Plastic Fantastic


“Much that once was is lost” is the poignant opening phrase in Peter Jackson’s long-awaited, mega-million-dollar production of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Absent fidelity may be less the issue than temps perdu — there’s an elegiac tone to this lavish first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s cult trilogy.

Robustly ranging from the cozy nook of a hobbit’s parlor to the blasted pitch-pots of darkest Mordor, visualizing Nordic elves and subhuman, blue-faced orcs, staging wizard wars with the panache of a Hong Kong master and building slowly to a boffo ending, Peter Jackson’s adaptation is certainly successful on its own terms. Like the animated skeletons in a Ray Harryhausen adventure flick, the relics have come to life. With the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, American critics of a particular age (and possibly gender) have their own Harry Potter.

Indeed, watching the smoky, twisted images of the computer-generated masses in hand-to-hand combat with decomposing goblins or listening to the wit and wisdom of Gandalf the Grey (an unrecognizable Ian McKellen), I was forced to acknowledge the degree to which Tolkien’s imaginary universe had impressed itself on my 12-year-old brain — and, despite the timeless struggle between good and evil, how little that mattered to me now. For me, the trilogy’s appeal was exemplified by its maps, the invented languages, and the hundred pages of appendices at the back of the final volume. Unlike C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Tolkien’s Middle Earth has no discernible religion. The book itself is a sacred text — which is to say, it proposes the world as a text, a literary analogue to the abstract pleasures found in the purely statistical universe of baseball.

Back in the day, the whole idea of a Lord of the Rings movie would have seemed a desecration. Where Ralph Bakshi’s ill-fated and largely forgotten animated version lacked gravitas, Jackson has marshaled all manner of digital wizardry in the service of Tolkien’s pre-technological fantasy of doughty little creatures defeating the forces of absolute evil. The effects are more literal than literary and less archaic than newfangled. Utopia exists: Not only have Ian Holm, who plays Bilbo Baggins, and Elijah Wood, as his nephew Frodo, been reduced to an imaginary hobbit height of three feet, but Liv Tyler’s Elvish princess seems to have enjoyed some sort of virtual liposuction. Indeed, impossible crane shots notwithstanding, everything feels visually enhanced. Even the unnaturally green and rolling New Zealand landscape has seemingly been improved with impossible gorges and canyons.

Although the Elvish settlement of Rivendell resembles an Alpine ski lodge for garden gnomes, and the more rustic Elves of Mirkwood would appear to dwell in a kind of tree house expansion of the Enchanted Tiki Room, the movie only rarely achieves a sense of kitsch grandeur — as in the image of colossal statues in the river mist. More often, it’s a cluttered attic of cloying pre-Raphaelite visual notions. The equivalent of Tolkien’s often turgid descriptions, a single Jackson image is likely to include falling leaves, cascading water, and streaming sunlight (not to mention the sound of panpipes in the gloaming). The strongest sequence is virtually monochromatic, for being set amid the ruined columns of a vast underground city.

The phantom zone where Frodo finds himself whenever he slips on the sinister ring he is charged to destroy is similarly restrained — a blurry, blustery realm of negative images. I was amused to see that these include noisily suggestive cutaways to the fiery slit of doom that is the object of the quest, but then I’m no longer a believer. (My faith was shaken back in high school when I flippantly referred to The Lord of the Rings as the greatest novel of the 20th century and a friend’s older brother asked if I was talking about The Magic Mountain.) Still, it’s a religion I remember, particularly as a spell cast over the more fanciful wing of the ’60s counterculture. What happened to those “Frodo Lives” pins, the anti-war graffiti written in Elvish, the underground newspapers with names like Gandalf’s Garden, the fey psychedelic troubadours singing songs of Middle Earth?

The metaphors were surely relevant. I doubt I’m the only one to survive a lysergic experience in which the world was unpleasantly divided between hobbits and orcs or who recognized Richard Nixon as some sort of miserable Gollum. How much fun it would have been to see a real desecration of Tolkien that periodized the trilogy’s cosmic adventures by having them played out inside the brain of some acid-ripped hippie — the Fellowship leaving the snug communes of northern Vermont on a perilous mission to cast the “ring of power” into the boiler of some fetid East Village basement. But that would defeat the entire concept of timeless fantasy.

In the essay “On Fairy-stories,” written in the late ’30s at the time that the idea for The Lord of the Rings was taking shape, Tolkien argued that “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds was the heart of the desire of Faërie.” Some will surely find a parallel between Tolkien’s cosmic struggle and our own current crusade, but reference to this world is the last thing that The Fellowship of the Ring wishes to make.

For Tolkien, fairy tales were not concerned with possibility so much as desirability: “If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded…” In that sense, Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik is an even more authentic fairy story, dealing as it does with the yearning for what is impossible and a rebellion against the real.

In his fourth feature, Svankmajer has transposed a grotesque Czech folktale about a childless couple who raise a tree stump as their baby to contemporary Prague. Filled with strollers, the city is likewise an incubator for fantasy. The storklike, uptight Karel (Jan Hartl) discovers babies inside melons and sees infants in the marketplace, fished from tanks, weighed, and wrapped in newspapers to go. To tease his pining wife, Bozena (Veronika Zilková), Karel uproots a tree stump and presents it to her. Bozena is totally accepting — outfitting the stump with baby clothes, tenderly bathing and beatifically nursing it until her little Otik comes to life.

This comic horror story rivals A.I. as the year’s creepiest representation of maternal love — partly because it naturalizes the Frankenstein story in terms of human procreation. We’re all monsters — although there hasn’t been much since the flayed, mewling creature in David Lynch’s Eraserhead to equal this gnarly on-screen offspring. Svankmajer’s baby, however, is not so frail. A product of herky-jerky single-frame animation, the stump is outfitted with a real tongue. The voracious embodiment of infantile orality, Otik recalls the horror of mindless creation — he’s a sprig of the rampant jungle growth that so horrified the narrator of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Bozena wheels her swaddled baby through the neighborhood until the creature sprouts teeth and develops an appetite for meat; thereafter, Otik has to be kept home and fed with bags of groceries. A social worker arrives in search of the baby she hears is locked in the apartment. “Don’t worry, I won’t eat him,” she assures Bozena. Ha. A curious neighbor girl consults her fairy-tale book and figures out what’s going on. (Svankmajer presents this version of the Otik story as a series of animated cut-outs.) The child wants a baby of her own and, unfazed by the bloody mess Otik leaves behind, takes it upon herself to feed the carnivorous tree. “Are you going to eat like that with dirty roots?” she scolds him.

Otik aside, Svankmajer’s movie contains relatively little animation. It is, however, filled with outrageous textural sight gags, particularly the persistent match-cuts from babies to food. The mode is alchemical and the emotions are beneath primitive — the subject, as the Czech surrealist has remarked, is the “materialization of desire.” At 127 minutes, Little Otik may be overlong, but the excessive length contributes to its realness — its uncanny ambition to bring objects to life.

Five films by a key Svankmajer precursor, the Soviet puppet animator Alexandr Ptushko (1900-73), are scheduled for Christmas week screening at the Walter Reade. The Stone Flower, a special prizewinner at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946, opens the retro. Resplendently shot in captured German Agfacolor, this somewhat pompous fairy tale is a hodgepodge of stilted folklore, operetta romance, studio “nature,” and fantastic glitz. The hero is an ambitious young craftsman seduced away from his village sweetheart by the supernatural Queen of the Copper Mountain. There’s a self-reflexive subtext, but unlike Svankmajer, Ptushko doesn’t much unpack the notion of giving life to stone. What he does ultimately uncork is the mountain queen’s sparkly multi-colored grotto — a garish yet modest Méliès-like underworld that would hardly seem out of place in Brighton Beach.

“Coming from the Soviet Union,” Time wrote back in 1947, The Stone Flower is “almost as newsworthy as a man’s teeth coming to grips in the seat of a dog’s pants.” Perhaps not that kind of news story, the Ptushko series does include restored 35mm prints of Sadko, a 1953 Arabian Nights fantasy released here a decade later by American International Pictures (recut and dubbed by the young Francis Coppola) as The Magic Voyage of Sinbad; the 1967 Gogol adaption, Viy; and Ptushko’s 1972 swan song Ruslan and Lyudmila, from a poem by Pushkin. Although Viy ends with a hilarious mixed-media Walpurgisnacht, the freshest of Ptushko’s features remains his first: The New Gulliver (1935), in which an idealistic Young Pioneer, awarded a copy of Gulliver’s Travels for his diligence, falls asleep and dreams himself in Lilliput.

A small sensation when it was released in the U.S. in 1935, The New Gulliver was widely compared to Walt Disney’s contemporary “Silly Symphonies.” (The first American animated feature was still two years from release.) Technically, however, The New Gulliver is closer to King Kong — or rather to King Kong in reverse. A human actor mixes it up with some 3000 puppets, most of them around three inches high. Variously made of clay, rubber, metal, wood, and cloth, each puppet had from two to 300 heads, depending on its expressions. Thus the puppets had to be manipulated and shifted, frame by frame, in a highly labor-intensive technique Ptushko called “multiplication.”

Highly individuated, chattering little creatures, the Lilliputians are ruled by a stupid king who lip-synchs his speeches to a phonograph record. More pageant than propaganda, the movie is filled with performances. The showstopper has an openmouthed chorus cavorting behind the inane tenor trilling an ode to his “Lilliputshka love.” As in the 1924 spectacular Aelita, Queen of Mars, the Soviet visitor leads a successful proletarian uprising. Waking to the achieved revolution of the Stalin era, the new Gulliver shakes his head in wonderment: “How big this life is.” As they would be saying in Moscow a year after the movie’s release, “Today, the fairy tale is reality.”

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