Saturday, August 15, 2009


The Elves have it easy. They're immortal, first of all. This doesn't mean they can't be killed; they can. But if they're not murdered they'll live forever. And, perhaps more importantly, if they are killed they know what happens to them: their souls go to the Halls of Mandos, where they wait. Kind of like the ghosts in Pac-man.

Furthermore, the angels (the Valar) love them and will do just about anything for them. The world the Elves are created into is innocent, and as soon as the Valar hear the Elves have popped up they rush to meet them and welcome them with open arms into Eden. Once there, as we've seen, the Elves figure out a way to screw things up - by making Things - but it's important to note that, while this dip into materialism ultimately dooms the Elves, and can thus be likened unto Original Sin, it's not characterized as a Transgression. The Valar never say to the Elves, hey, don't make a Silmaril. And in fact when the Elves make Silmarils, the Valar think they're pretty cool.

Men don't have it so easy. The world they're created into is one already under the sway of Morgoth, and no angels come running to see how they're doing, much less Elves.

Furthermore, and this is the big difference, Men die. They die no matter what: slain, sure, but also of old age. And when they die, they really die. The Elves don't know what happens to them. The Valar don't know what happens to them.

Now the Valar and the Elves insist that this is a gift the creator gave Men. "Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy" (p. 42). But try telling Men that: Hey, you know, you're going to die, and we've got no clue where you're going. Us? We're going back to Eden, but you? Tough titty. But don't get all sore about it: it's a gift, don't you know.

This gift, we're told, is part and parcel with Men's nature, which is to "seek beyond the world and...find no rest therein" and thus to escape fate, which rules the Elves - Men are free, in other words, in a way that Elves are not. Free, but given precious little guidance, it seems, save what they can beg from the Elves, if they're content to serve the Elves as stalwart followers - and let's remember that the Elves call them "Atani...the Second People; but they called them also Hildor, the Followers, and many other names: Apanónar, the After-born, Engwar, the Sickly, and Fírimar, the Mortals; and they named them the Usurpers, the Strangers, and the Inscrutable, the Self-cursed, the Heavy-handed, the Night-fearers, the Children of the Sun" (p. 103).

Men, we're told, are easily seduced by Morgoth and then Sauron, who play upon Men's fears. Fear of, it seems, death above all. And in the story of Numenor, we get an up-close view of how this works. And it works ironically.

So the Quenta Silmarillion tells us how the Elves screwed up. They mostly evacuate Middle-Earth in the wake of their disastrous experiment in living outside Eden. Then the Valar feel guilty for all the stalwart Men who died fighting at the Elves' side - Men didn't make the Silmarils, after all - and they give these faithful Men an island, Westernesse, or Numenor.

This is Men's Eden, a land of peace and plenty. But unlike the Elves in Valinor, Men don't dwell with the Angels. Numenor is a formidable distance from Valinor. And here's where Tolkien uses the apple motif from Genesis. Eden/Valinor is on earth: if Men sail west from Westernesse long enough they'll reach it. In fact they can see it from their highest tower on a clear day. But the Valar set a ban on them, that they're to never sail west out of sight of their own shores, and above all they're never supposed to sail to Valinor.

Here's Eden: but you can't go there. Now this is, like the apple, the kind of rule that's just begging to be broken. And of course Sauron shows up and starts playing on Men's fears, pointing out that the Valar and Elves in Valinor are immortal, and why aren' t Men? Why do they forbid Men to go to Valinor and share in that immortality? And so of course eventually the Numenoreans do, and that's all she wrote: the Valar sink Numenor, and the remnant of Men, the only ones who didn't want to eat the apple (so to speak) flee to Middle-Earth.

So that's the condition of Men in Tolkien. They're subject to Death. Nobody seems to know why, or in fact just what Death is to Men. They're told, once in a while, to take it on faith that Death is a gift, but just what kind of gift nobody's sure - and it's not like the Elves are in any hurry to find out for them. Men are afraid of Death, and it makes them weak and persuadable. Elves look down on them for this, as does the narrator of every Tolkien story I've read (and I haven't plunged into the History of Middle-Earth yet). And yet nobody seems to offer Men much help in overcoming their weakness, or understanding it.

It seems like a pretty sorry lot indeed, and from the point of view of The Silmarillion, it is, since The Silmarillion is a pretty quendicentric book. And yet I suspect that in the final analysis, all the Elven-immortality stuff, all the Valar/Valinor/Iluvatar stuff, is there precisely to create this gloomy outlook for men. I suppose I think it's an anthropocentric literature, after all. In the end what Tolkien's after most of all is that dark Norse worldview, where Men are doomed, end of story. Only against that kind of grim metaphysical backdrop can we see true heroism. Think of how many times in LOTR Aragorn or another human says something like "I keep no hope for myself." That fatalism is what comes through most strongly in Tolkien. To me, at least.

It's very hard for the modern mind to wrap itself around, I think. Men get a raw deal, but they're not allowed to point that out. There's no heroic rebellion in Tolkien, no hint that Men are at all justified in fearing death, desiring immortality, or in any way being discontented with their lot. Tolkien was in many ways a Romantic, I believe, but there's no trace in him of the Romantic identification with Satan.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quenta Silmarillion

The centerpiece and longest part of The Silmarillion is the "Quenta Silmarillion," or "History of the Silmarils." To say it's dry would be accurate. Much of it reads like the begats in the Bible. Which is appropriate, since it's essentially a history of the Elves from their creation to the end of their dominion on Earth.

Why, then, is it not called "Quenta Quendi" or something like that?

Instead, it's called the History of the Silmarils, those three stones made by one of the first elves, Fëanor, into which he put the light and power of the Two Trees, i.e., of the most mysticalest of the mystical ecstatic godnature of the Tolkien equivalent of the Garden of Eden, or something like that. See, Morgoth (Sauron's daddy) steals the Silmarils, and Fëanor and his sons swear to get them back, and never let anyone else have them. This oath basically guides the rest of Elven history, leading most of the Elves out of Eden and into the world, and at the same time introducing murder into Elvenkind; it's no exaggeration to say that Fëanor's sons' obsession with this oath leads to the utter downfall of the Elves.

Obviously, the Silmarils are connected with Tolkien's version of Original Sin. They get you kicked out of the Garden. But what is it about the Silmarils - it's not like the apple in Genesis, where it's put right in front of you and you're told not to eat it (Tolkien saves this motif for the men of Numenor). It's not a temptation.

No, the Elves' original sin is making things. Fëanor makes the Silmarils, and they're wonderful - even the Valar (the angels of Eden) love them. But once the light of the Trees has gone from being a ubiquitous phenomenon to a (mostly) self-contained thing that can be possessed, well, then it's all over but the weeping. If you can possess it, then somebody else can want to possess it, and kill you for it.

In short, I think the Elves' original sin is objects. Things. This is never quite spelled out, but it's all there in the Silmarils. The Elves are immortal, and they have what seems to readers an infinite capacity for apprehending beauty. They should be content just to be. But they aren't. They set about making things, the Silmarils. Making things is beneath Elves, or should be. Later we get an echo of the Silmaril making in the figure of Eöl, who has learned smithying from the dwarves, and who becomes a sort of foreboding, unElvish figure. But really, he's not that much different from Fëanor.

Sauron with his rings is another echo, and this is how Silmarillion can help make sense of LOTR. When Sauron made his rings he imbued them with his power. This made them powerful tools, but of course it made him hugely vulnerable.

You make a thing thinking it's going to be an increase for you, but instead it diminishes you.

Materialism. That's the big sin in Tolkien, isn't it?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Glory (1989)

Watched Glory tonight; hadn't seen it in ages. Mrs. Sgt. T. had never seen it, which is why we put it in the Netflix queue; eight years in Boston, passing the Shaw memorial on the corner of Boston Common any number of times, seeing his name on the wall in Memorial Hall at Harvard any number of times, I figured we ought to take a look at the film (again/finally).

While it was climbing to the top of our queue (mostly filled with Star Trek, The Wire, Sopranos, and Firefly discs right now), as it happens I've gotten hooked on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, and he's been on a Civil War kick, writing a lot especially about the colored regiments in the Union army. (Here's a sample of what he writes. He's always thought-provoking.)

So this means I was a little better equipped this time around to see the flaws in this movie's approach. I mean, Shaw's story is inspiring, but it's also clearly being used as a flag around which white audiences can rally - we see him from the inside, so to speak, seeing his family and prior war experiences, while we only see any of the black soldiers from the outside, knowing them only by how they behave in the regiment, or what they tell us about their background. (Shaw's childhood friend Thomas is almost an exception.) Which isn't much. Why couldn't we have a movie about colored regiments that tells it from their point of view?

On the other hand, I don't think this failing makes it a worthless movie. I don't like faulting works of art for not being different works of art: Glory does some things, doesn't do other things, and what it does, it does pretty well. Chokes me up, maybe even in spite of myself.

And, importantly, I think it's aware of the shortcomings of its approach: there's that wonderful scene between Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick, where Denzel's character points out how his people aren't really going to win the war. Shaw's written as aware enough to realize he's right, and says:

"It stinks, I suppose."

Denzel: "Stinks bad. And we all covered up in it too. I mean, ain't nobody clean, sir. Be nice to get clean, though."

Doesn't that about sum it up?

James Bond review: The World Is Not Enough (1999)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Neither is Denise Richards.

BOND, JAMES BOND: Brosnan continues his run of stellar performances. He owns the character at this point. The one innovation here is that Bond is nursing a dislocated shoulder through the whole film - the Chinatown touch, and a welcome one, adding intimations of physical vincibility to the emotional vulnerability Brosnan has already established in the character. But Brosnan’s 007 is as intense and grim as ever - the producers were resisting the temptation to lighten Bond’s demeanor – even as he handles the one-liners with panache.

That being said, the movie feels like rather a departure from the last two, with less ironic distance. This film sports a very involved plot that expects itself to be taken entirely seriously. The best Bonds walk a fine line, balancing a subtle sense of self-parody with a brash confidence in their own utter coolness. In this one, the irony was so downplayed that for a while I feared it was crossing into overkill (MI6’s Scottish headquarters? really?). It’s closest to Thunderball in that respect. And in the end, just like Thunderball, this movie ends up succeeding because of the ambitions of its plot. It works. It drags you along pell-mell.

What Makes Bond Bond: “How far is that rig from the terminal? And how fast is it traveling?” Bond can solve word problems – in his head.

What Makes Pierce Brosnan Pierce Brosnan: The X-ray Spex. The best Bond gadget, bar none, but watch how Pierce handles it: he knows he’s embodying the fantasy of every boy who ever perused the back pages of a comic book in the ‘70s, when they still had ads for such things (right next to the Sea Monkeys), and he makes the most of it, leering at the girls. But he still has class.

BAD GUYS: For the first time in Brosnan’s reign, the producers really play with the formula here. And in real time, when I saw this in 1999, I was confused by it. Robert Carlyle’s Renard was billed as the villain, probably so as not to give away Elektra’s surprise. But if you see the movie expecting Renard to be the main villain and Bond’s opposite, you’ll be disappointed: these are expectations the character can’t support. Renard’s kind of tough, but not very charismatic.

But eventually you realize that he’s not the overarching villain of the piece - Elektra is. And she’s a great villain - a touch of sadism, a touch of madness, to complement her grandiose schemes. Her schemes, meanwhile, given their personal and local nature, are a refreshing variation on the typical rule-the-world Bond plot.

Once Elektra’s given pride of place in the pantheon of nasties, Renard makes more sense - he’s really the henchman. And he’s a good one, menacing but not overpowering. And, like his mistress, he’s a complex character: by the end, we’ve seen him tortured by the suspicion that, deep down, Elektra prefers Bond. Not to mention the implication that his lack of tactile sensation equals impotence. By the time he dies, we feel sorry for him.

GRATUITOUS SEX: GS3 again, three for three. In addition to Elektra and Dr. Jones, we get, of course, the MI6 doctor (Serena Scott Thomas) who clears him for duty. In the Close But No Cigar department, there’s also Maria Grazia Cucinotta.

Elektra King, as we’ve seen, is the main villain in TWINE, but she’s also the main Bond Girl. She’s a damsel in distress for the first half of the movie and a dangerous megalomaniac for the second. The very definition of a femme fatale. Sophie Marceau is marvelous: she’s a world-class beauty, and a great actress: she does an excellent job of conveying the complex feelings of this character. She’s bent on destruction, but right up to the end there are hints that she wants to be saved (?) - the smile she flashes when Bond escapes at the end and begins to truly foil her plans suggests that maybe she still hopes he’ll take her away from all this, or at least come back and make love to her again.

In contrast we have Denise Richards, surely the poorest choice for a Bond Girl in recent memory, and possibly overall. She’s undeniably sexy, but in a plastic bimbo sort of way that’s utterly inappropriate for the Bond movies. And she can’t act worth a damn. She’s utterly unconvincing as a “nuclear physicist,” but she doesn’t compensate (like, say, Lois Chiles in Moonraker) with any particular style or flair. She’s not even very good at the sort of lame plot-advancing dialogue she has to handle. The character’s name (Christmas Jones) did allow for a couple of good double entendres at the end, though.

AND VIOLENCE: The precredit sequence pretty much takes that part of the formula as far as it can go. Not one but two great action sequences in not one but two glamorous locations. When the opening credits finally start you sit up in surprise, forgetting that the movie proper hadn’t already started.

But my favorite action sequence this time around is the shootout at the caviar factory. Lots of meaningless destruction in an unusual locale, and it takes 007’s obsession with fine dining to a logical extreme.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Those X-ray Spex. Did I say how brilliant they are? And Brosnan looks fantastic in them, to boot.

Other than that, the gadgets kind of recede into the background in this film. A fancy new car, which is used once and then destroyed spectacularly. There is big news here, though: a farewell to Q. Odd how they planned it into the script, not only introducing a potential replacement but giving Desmond Llewellyn that eerie exit. Q will be missed, but they couldn’t have made a better choice for a successor than John Cleese. He does frosty disapproval perfectly, and his gift for physical comedy held great promise for future Q sequences. Too bad he only appeared once more.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Bilbao, London, Scotland, Azerbaijan, Turkey. One of the more peripatetic Bonds.

ETC.: Another masterpiece of a title sequence, exploiting the psychedelic and sensual qualities of light and oil… Garbage’s theme song is a worthy successor to Sheryl Crow’s, all old-school seduction despite the techno flourishes evident elsewhere on the soundtrack. No song over the end credits, however, which is disappointing… The title, of course, is a nice nod to the fanboys, as you have to have seen OHMSS to really get it… The regulars are in fine fettle, and it’s nice to see Tanner and Robertson back again; M gets to do some fieldwork, even, which is a nice touch. And Zukovsky makes a welcome return; it’s a pity they killed him off, though. Don’t know why they did that. In my alternate universe, where Brosnan made three more Bonds, Zukovsky comes back at least twice, to great effect each time… The only real weak spot is Denise Richards, but she’s enough to dock the film a point…

RATING: 006.