The rules of Randomisation:
1. Select a film on DVD. Eclectic choices are encouraged.
2. Using a random number generator, select three frames from the film. So, if the film is 100 minutes long, enter the numbers 1 and 100 into the randomiser and it will select three figures. Capture the frames which occur on the DVD on the minute mark. You might want to cut out the titles and end credits if they’re just text.
3. Use the three frames as a starting point for discussing the film. Focus on the composition of the image, the content of the frame and, if you’re familiar with it, how it might fit into the rest of the film’s narrative or visual style. The random selection of frames will hopefully force you out of habitual preoccupations and selective analysis and make you focus on points of the film you might otherwise have ignored. Sometimes the frames will be very revealing and illustrative of the film’s central themes, and sometimes they will seem inconsequential, but you will always find something to say about them, even if it wasn’t what you instinctively wanted to say about the film in the first place.
What fun for the Easter holidays. A trilogy of randomised posts, and since these are extended editions of the films, I’ll be using four frames from each instead of the usual three. The Lord of the Rings; The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in the series is 192 minutes long if I cut out the end credits (which last for 25 minutes!). As usual, the frame grabs are randomly selected. Here’s hoping for some interesting images from the following minute marks: 27, 94, 166 and the bonus number … 180. I should say that I’m not an expert on these films, nor a devoted fan, so you might find these posts arrive from an unusual and productive angle, or you might hate, hate, hate me as a result…
Whenever I start these randomisation posts, I worry that I’ll be stuck with a bunch of pictures of people’s faces and struggle to say anything about them. The actor’s face seems to do its own thing, distinct from the composition and design of the rest of the film, and film scholars are rarely equipped to comment on bits of human beings that are not “cinematic” in the sense that the meaning of the shot arises from the dynamic combination of elements in a deliberate arrangement around the frame. The face serves its own agenda of mimicking the required emotions of the scene: it’s important to the plot but not especially interesting to analyse, since it is usually required to be illustrative of the character’s feelings. Bilbo Baggins’ is the trilogy’s veteran adventurer. A former owner of the ring, he is a figure who Frodo admires, an owner of the Ring whose degeneration into a craven and unending yearning for it, like a reformed alcoholic whose every experience is diminished by comparison to the internalised fulfilment he felt when he wore it serves as a measuring pole for Frodo’s own decline. There’s a jump-out-of-the-skin moment later on where his face erupts in a vampiric explosion of desire for its allure which must colour any viewer’s perception of his otherwise avuncular countenace. Here is almost pleading with Gandalf that he be allowed to keep the ring, but it is not a look of submission, but a reluctant admission of defeat. His upward eyeline is a clever-clever enforcement of the tricksy illusions that show the difference in height between Bilbo and Gandalf; lots of techniques are used in this and other scenes between Hobbits and other, larger species: midget doubles, forced perspective, digital compositing etc., but this is the simplest of all cinematic effects. The camera looks down on Bilbo, just at will look up to Gandalf in the reverse shot.
The sheer number and variety of locations in these films is daunting to the uninitiated. For those already well-versed in Tolkien’s imagined environments, one of the pleasures must come from seeing those places realised and rendered as a coherent, explorable world. The sheer compendious nature of the DVD collections is designed to supplement this sense of a place that is knowable through knowledge of the details. The linearity of the narrative, branching to follow the characters various pathways back to the same point, makes it a real journey film; mapping Middle Earth is a fan’s obsession, holding the films’ world in mind as a conceivable environment whose disparate locales hang in palpable tension with one another. Director Peter Jackson actually segregates his various spaces by applying different aesthetics to them. This is Rivendell, and it is a land of soft focus, magic-hour light, like a slightly cheap dream sequence. The elves seem to have the most privileged lifestyle of all; immortal, beautiful, pert-nosed (though seemingly incapable of conversing in anything other than lyrical, portentous terms). They hide well their boredom at the foibles of their mortal companions. This composition shows the Elves’ home as neatly arranged, autumnal (with an air of spring paradoxically ever-present) and ceremonial. Digital compositing allows little Frodo to appear at the centre of the scene to address the council, but the illusion is never quite perfect. I’ve often argued that the tell-tale traces of special effects are not crippling flaws, but meaning-forming circumstances that add their own subtextual inflections to a scene. In this case, Frodo’s difference and separation is accentuated by the slightly ill fit of his inclusion in the shot. Though the spectator is invited to appreciate the achievement of a seamless composition, the response is just as likely to be one which sees Frodo as ontologically distant from his “fellowship”.
Now, be honest. If you weren’t an avid adherent of Tolkien’s world, and you wanted to know a bit about Galadriel (because the films don’t tell us a lot), and you started with Wikipedia, you’d be slightly put off by the following description:
It’s like being at a friend-of-a-friend’s family gathering. The genealogical backstory lends convincing depth, an age that exceeds the limits of the text itself. This kind of expanded awareness, supplementing an onscreen depiction with a network of cross-references and paratexts, eludes me, so I’m stuck with gleaning something from the graphic depiction of Cate Blanchett bursting into a sudden revelation of power, usually hidden behind an ethereal and motherly beauty that lingers over Frodo like a fairy-godmother’s beneficence throughout the trilogy. Exploding into blue, a near-negative image, she gives away the sublimated, dictatorial omnipotence of the elves for an enduring instant. The lines of light could be seen as emanating from her, or alternatively sucking into her, a fearsome impression of potency that could so easily be corrupted by the temptation of the Ring.
It’s impressive that I got all the way through the film (thanks to the vicissitudes of random number generation) without seeing any images of fighting. This last picture shows Lurtz, leader of the Uruk-hai, being felled by Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) before he can finish off the mortally wounded Boromir (Sean Bean). I seem to recall that the trilogy is packed to the gills with these last-minute rescues, where a main character is saved from the threat of a death by mauling or hacking with micro-seconds to spare, but I may have imagined or exaggerated this. The motion blur here shows Lurtz being knocked out of his central position in the frame, his power thwarted. This is a trilogy of films in which evil is ugly: its inner nastiness is outwardly mainefest; it paints its face; it doesn’t brush its teeth; it snarls, sneers and relishes violence, while the heroes look pained and exerted by their requirement to kill. Thus we are made to mourn the losses on one side, and accept or ignore the massacres on the other. Actor Lawrence Makoare plays two other roles in the trilogy, the Witchking and Orc leader Gothmog. Is it troubling that a Maori man is used as such a transferable embodiment of unredeemed evil?
Lord of the Rings official site.
Fansite The One Ring.
Kristin Thomson’s The Frodo Franchise website.
The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Network.
Erik Davis, “The Fellowship of the Ring” at Wired.
Suzanne Scott, “The Scouring of the Saga.“
CADAIR: Lord of the Rings research at the University of Aberystwyth.
Lord of the Rings articles at The Guardian.
Adaptation analysis at Books to Box Office.