Galadriel goes to market

Galadriel goes to market

One of the English loan-words that Japanese people misuse slightly in a really cute way is gorgeous (ゴージャス). In Japanese gorgeous refers not to something really nice, but to something that is overdone or just a bit too much – not necessarily unappealing or unattractive, but just a bit too much. I’ve heard the word applied to appearance, food and even writing (e.g. scientific writing should not be gorgeous). It’s often associated with the stylistic choices of young women of a certain social class, and also with hostesses. It’s not necessarily a marker of class or taste, and not deployed in a particularly judgmental way, but it suggests a certain immaturity or inelegance in taste, something that’s acceptable in young women but not for example something one would respect in an adult[1].

The Hobbit: Battle of Five Armies is the cinematic showcase for this word. It’s too long, the battle scenes especially are unnecessarily embellished, and the heroism is over the top and over-frequent. Almost every moment of it is also great fun. These battle scenes are the kind of battles where you can imagine seven impossible maneouvres before breakfast, where enormous and terrifying trolls are killed with a single knife stroke, and where a war pig can be more terrifying than a giant. There are even sand worms! As battles go it’s a tour de force, the entire movie is basically one long series of battles, with maybe two brief pauses to discuss the importance of family and tasteless jewellery. The centerpiece battles – between the Uruk Hai and the dwarven heroes – are masterfully done and very enjoyable, but they’re so over the top as to be ridiculous. They’re also good examples of exactly what gorgeous means: for example, Legolas’s prancing up the collapsing tower is precisely how I imagine an elf to be able to move against the laws of nature, it’s the right thing to be in this kind of movie, but it is dropped into the middle of such a long-running series of epic-level feats that instead of being stunning and impressive, it’s just another blister of impossibilities on the back of your retina.

In this regard the movie can be contrasted very effectively with other works from the same series. The final battle between the fellowship and the Uruk Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, is a masterclass in how to turn a classic role-playing battle into believable cinema. It depicts a group of high-level characters at the peak of their power pulling themselves out of what is basically a lethal ambush by overwhelming numbers, with minimal losses. They do things we know are physically impossible, but they aren’t so far from impossible that we are lifted out of the feeling of the battle by them, and they aren’t so fast-flowing that they become overwhelming in their fantasticality. That battle is heroic fantasy at its finest, patently unrealistic but completely believable in the context of the world, and really engaging. The battles in the Battle of Five Armies are so full of over-the-top heroics and impossibilities that they become less an exercise in story-telling and heroic fantasy and more of an exercise in braggadocio by everyone involved. Yes, I want to see my fantasy heroes do impossible things; I want to see victories against overwhelming odds; I want to know that these people are not normal, not like me, doing things I can’t do. I don’t want this experience to be transformed into marveling at the ingenuity of the movie’s creator’s rather than its characters.

Just as a young hostess’s style can be so gorgeous that it becomes a self-evident performance of beauty rather than beauty itself, so this movie has turned heroic fantasy into a performance of itself, rather than a performance for its fans.

And don’t get me mistaken, I am a fan. The Hobbit is not a particularly interesting or enjoyable book, and Peter Jackson had pretty thin gruel to work with in making this part of the epic; he also had to please a group of tantrum-prone true-believers with an immature and shallow approach to the work. Given how dark and grim the later Lord of the Rings movies turned, he also had to find a way to leaven the silly boys-own-adventure style of the main plot with some kind of nod to the growing shadows. By choosing to work in the unwritten parts of the original story – Gandalf’s exploration of Mirkwood and the battle with the necromancer, for example – I think he has made the story more engrossing and enjoyable. He has also managed to present us with a breathtaking and splendid vision of Middle Earth, carved out of New Zealand, that has been more or less consistent across six diverse movies, and has stuck very closely to the aesthetic vision of Tolkien’s main visual interpreters. He managed to lift the dwarves from their shallow representation in the book and Snow White-style triviality in popular culture into serious, adult figures without falling on the cheap Jewish or Scottish stereotypes that often get attached to them, and for this all Tolkien fans should be eternally grateful. The dwarves are excellent, and as dwarves should be – dour, hard working, tough, narrow-minded and loyal. They look like adults and adventurers, and unlike Gimli (or Dwain in this movie) they don’t get turned into comedy sideshows. The Hobbit would have been an utter disaster if it had been made by someone trying to be loyal to the original book and the needs of the fans, it would have been a single stupid movie involving 12 characterless technicolor idiots and a dude in a pointy hat, cocking up everything they do.

Furthermore, The Hobbit is a rare example of a movie that manages to make a dragon a central part of it without cocking it up monumentally, which every other movie except Dragonslayer and Reign of Fire has managed to do. Smaug is an evil, cunning, wily and deeply sinister monster of terrifying power, and as soon as he is let loose on Dale you can see why armies of dwarves would fall before one of these things. His supreme arrogance, coupled with his incredible power and complete disregard for mortals and their feeble efforts, is a joy to behold. This is how a dragon should be! But even here we see Jackson falling for the gorgeous: the simple tale of Smaug’s death gets padded out with an unnecessary piece of sentimentality and impossibility, and a spot of slightly out of place (but nonetheless enjoyable) humour. Nothing in this movie just jumps, or just climbs, or just dies. Not even Smaug.

Still, I didn’t sign up for the last instalment in this epic so I could see a handful of orcs get their arses kicked by some woodland sprites and a few technicolor stereotypes in a backwoods scrap. I signed up for a monumental battle between the noble forces of good and the deepest evil ever conceived, and that’s what I got – in spades. The Orc leaders and Uruk Hai champions were awesome, the dwarven and elven battle scenes were spectacular, the troll stormtroopers impressive and exciting (though like every other stormtrooper, remarkably easy to kill …), the desperation of the human defenders grim and hopeless. This is a two-plus hour rollercoaster of well-deserved death and slaughter, and though you will at times find yourself thinking “what were they thinking?” and marvelling more at the movie-makers’ ingenuity than the actual traits of the people on the screen, you’ll still love every minute of it.

But it is too gorgeous.

fn1: Remembering that in modern Japan the word “adult” is increasingly coming to mean a person over 30, and there is even a growing fashion trend for otona (大人) that is specifically aimed at offering classy but still pretty and sexy clothes to women aged in their 30s and 40s. This style is largely the opposite of gorgeous.

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