From the archives: J.R.R. Tolkien

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Both unlike indignity

Sunday, 30 April 2006 — 6:41pm | J.R.R. Tolkien, Jazz, Literature, Music, Pianism

I’ve been thinking about words.

I’m unabashedly a word-lover. One of the consequent afflictions of word-loving, though, is a passion for cute little alphabetic clumps that extends so far beyond their utility as meaning-carrying units that this utility becomes fully detachable. And as soon as one accepts that language can be beautiful in and of itself without having to communicate anything, one begins to see all kinds of instances where language in its meaningful state is intrusive and wholly unnecessary.

This is going to turn into a post where I make fun of hip-hop; but first, a few words about Tolkien.

I have, on one occasion or another, heard someone dismiss The Lord of the Rings on the grounds that Tolkien merely intended the mythology of Middle-Earth to serve as a playground for his invented languages. While not strictly untrue, this is an oversimplification and a misunderstanding. The way I read it, what Tolkien had claimed from the beginning is that the sound-patterns of a language – which would naturally include invented ones, since the meanings of individual lexical units are to some extent arbitrary – are able to contain and reflect the cultural history of a people, even a hypothetical people.

And so you have the Elves, whose unvoiced consonants slip and slide off the labiodental oh-so-gently, whereas the Orcs speak in abrasive, glottal coughs and hacks. In both the physical world and the speech-world, the Elves dance lightly, the Dwarves weigh themselves down; and the language and nomenclature of Rohan are lifted straight from Old English, so there’s no question about where that places them in Tolkien’s cosmos. (Allegorical conclusion: the French are beautiful and the Germans are ugly.) But the important thing is this: the mimetic position of each culture is discernible before meaning is introduced in the form of definitions.

This observation, and the illusion of authenticity that it permits when it comes to an invented tongue, separate Tolkien from all the cheap imitators who think dropping unpronounceable apostrophes everywhere is sufficient. For one thing, it makes no sense for an English-language narrator to anglicize everything except for the funny names, especially in a quasi-medieval setting reflecting an order of society organized around appropriation and homogeneity. I like to think of this as a case of contradictory suspensions of disbelief: how is it that English narrators speaking of a world in which English does not exist are somehow incapable of transliteration? Did they never have Peking Duck at the Turin Olympics?

But enough about bad fantasy. After all, this isn’t my area of special expertise. Talk to Wolf Wikeley, or better yet, watch My Fair Lady. Me, I just play keys.

At this juncture, I want to talk about what inspired this post in the first place. About three weeks ago, I comped a chart featuring my old schoolmate Ian Keteku, who now frolics on the Edmonton rap scene and goes by “Emcee E”. It was a surreal experience, and while in rehearsal, the pair of vocalists coordinating the shindig had to remind me on several occasions to keep the harmonies simple and not swing the time. It’s a struggle to let go of the upper structures and blue notes once you’ve internalized them, and I have no idea how Herbie Hancock ever managed to not only do it, but go on to record a hit single with Christina Aguilera. Then again, he’s Herbie Hancock.

Curiously, the last time Ian and I shared a stage was when he passed the microphone to me at my high school graduation banquet – a legendary evening that, roughly an hour later, went down in history (or down in flames). But the really bizarre thing about this whole scenario is somewhat more transparent.

Jazz guy. Rap guy. We’re not supposed to get along. Think of the Capulets and Montagues; now think of one of them as illiterate, and you’ve got it.

Two days earlier, Kenny Drew (not the one who played with Bird, but his son, who is also a pianist) wrote an article on All About Jazz entitled “What the F**k Happened to Black Popular Music?” – which, predictably, led to an explosive messageboard discussion about the decadence of American youth.

The animosity towards rap is uniquely strong in jazz circles for two reasons. First, rap has taken the place of jazz as the inspirational voice of black America, and there’s a certain cultural jealousy at work – jealousy in its second-most justified form (the first being an armed response to the Universal Constant of the Treachery of Women).

For my part, it is my learned opinion that jazz was, and is, a discovery, not an invention; it does not belong to black America, or America on the whole, any more than the moons of Jupiter belong to Italy. At the same time, I am not going to disrespect the forefathers of the great musical artform of the twentieth century by ignoring the hard fact that the syntax of jazz improvisation developed out of a specific ethnic milieu motivated by the desire to express a positive racial identity. The very problem is that once jazz was properly recognized as a universal construct, it lost its importance to African-American youth.

The second peeve, and the more fundamental one, is that jazz is an extension of the accepted musical dimensions of melody, harmony and rhythm, whereas rap thrives on the absence of the first two and the minimalistic reduction of the third.

I’m not going to get into the discussion of whether or not rap is music. Hip-hop production is no small task, even if it constricts itself to a limited subset of possible syncopations in 4/4 time – which, at face value, isn’t too different from the rhythmic complexity of early swing. It’s just that one requires a MIDI keyboard and a handful of plagiarized samples, whereas the other requires an instrument and practice. But as with any artform, the EffortMeter is merely the first line of aesthetic defence, and leans heavily towards exclusion (or, in the case of aurora borealis at 28,000ft, religion).

The repetition of vowel sounds produces a series of resonances that could be characterized as a harmonic system of its own, though it’s no more sophisticated than Eliza Doolittle reciting nursery rhymes about the rain in Spain falling mainly in the plain or Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor tapping to “Moses supposes his toeses are roses” over half a century ago. And melodically speaking, there does exist a “correct” diction that distinguishes “good” rap from cheap imitation President’s Choice rap, though in either case, it still deserves a bad rap.

So the genre passes all three tests. I accept that rap is musical, in the same way that the ziplocked excrement of an underfed chihuahua decorated with parsley (the excrement, not the chihuahua) is edible. Technically, yeah… it’s just that I prefer the filet mignon, especially when it’s offered for the same market price.

And I will state, for clarity, that it’s not like all rap is intolerable simply because its musicality is relegated to technical excuses. I will concede that the most outstanding track on Bound Together, a tribute to the music of the Super Nintendo game Earthbound, is the rap remix “Da Black Market”. I will concede that for some reason, French rap is actually not bad; if it’s as full of crass proletarian gutterspeak as the English variant, I don’t know it. I will even concede that the sight of a shrimpy Japanese-Norwegian rugby player channelling the Wu-Tang Clan is hilarious.

However, I am going to identify a general cause behind all of this semantic infighting.

Contemporary popular music has a problem. It happens to be the same problem as the one in mainstream computer animation: there are too many goddamned words.

Rap is the extreme case: the distillation of music for the consumption of the lowest common denominator of the tone-deaf breakbeat bobblehead. Somehow, it always manages to stumble its way back to the but-it’s-poetry tagline excuse. But in almost every genre, there is this depressing tendency for kids with mad guitar chops to obscure their playing with vapid half-sung lyrics about love or death or whatever else is fashionable this afternoon on the bipolar planetoid of Kazaa, when the music is perfectly comfortable speaking for itself.

The meaning of the words is at most a supplement to the music, or a part of some larger dramatic mixed-media construction. The words do not equal the music in any respect apart from acting as signals in the soundspace. Remove the words, and you still have music. Remove the triumvirate of melody, harmony and rhythm, and the music is gone; lyrics are not information-preserving. There’s a reason we file operas by composer, not librettist.

Louis Armstrong recognized the self-sufficiency of melodic expression and invented scat. Annie Ross turned it into a joke and pioneered vocalese. And when jazz vocalists still anchor onto the old standards, the melodies suggest a template for creative interpretation, a crucible for the formation of a personal musical identity. The notes on the page by your Gershwin or Rodgers or Porter, and the words that fit them, are norms. What you listen for are the erratic deviations.

I don’t say this to exclude. I have a lot of respect for the burgeoning poetic tradition of the singer-songwriter, be it those who can sing (Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell) or those who can’t (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen). But in most cases, the words do not equal the music. They are separable, as lyricophiles consistently demonstrate; and that also implies, quite correctly, that the musical dimensions can be isolated. Unless, of course, the music is absent. Just as bad music can get in the way of well-meaning lyrics, bad poetry – or poor enunciation thereof – often obscures the music. And there’s way too much of both going around. Curiously, market forces are driven by the verbally empowered and musically illiterate, a subdivision that is disturbingly representative of consumer society at large where everybody hears and nobody listens.

That’s one possibility, anyhow. The other one is the ego of the musician who feels the need to disrespect the audience by spelling out how it should feel and what everything means. That’s not poetry, it’s narcissism. And when the words are superficial blotches of noise designed to obscure an underlying monotony of composition, the practice is especially reprehensible.

I don’t deny that words can serve a very direct musical function, and in fact, that is what works in rap. That is what works in opera when you ignore the supertitles and listen to the enunciation of a foreign language, which is itself emotionally indicative of something. That is what works in John Coltrane when he chants along to Jimmy Garrison’s bass line in his spiritual “Acknowledgment”: a love supreme, a love supreme. Which is the dominant function, and which is the supplementary one? Here’s a clue: most of what you hear today has it the wrong way around.

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Phantom’s spirit and my voice (in one combined)

Thursday, 23 December 2004 — 9:44pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

I have seen both The Return of the King, Extended Edition, and The Phantom of the Opera. I’m going to analyse the second one first, because there is perhaps more to talk about – and that’s saying a lot. Mostly it comes of how the 250-minute cut of what was already a heavenly extravaganza solves pretty much every single niggling issue of initial adaptation-induced apprehension I had with the original cut. I quote from what I wrote a year ago:

ROTK may be the most successful of the three instalments in terms of not feeling harmed by its time constraints; but as with the first two, it has clearly set itself up to be a case where the DVD edition can and will eclipse the present cut for good. There are too many things that everybody knows were shot but mysteriously absent – the Mouth of Sauron, Merry being made Théoden’s squire, and at least one Gandalf-Nazgul confrontation – that ensure this will not end up being the preferred edition.

And it’s all there. Gandalf and the Witch-King face off, and it’s perfect. Merry is anointed as Théoden’s squire, and it’s perfect. The Houses of Healing make a brief appearance, and it’s perfect. The Corsairs of Umbar, the march across Mordor, Saruman and Grima’s fates (the omission of the Scouring aside, but to that I am already accustomed) – perfect. The Mouth of Sauron is damn well more than perfect. Like the other two Extended Editions, I am utterly baffled that I was ever okay with how some of these scenes were left out in spite of being filmed, and that Jackson still finds the theatrical editions to be more definitive. They’re not.

I am convinced Peter Jackson is Santa Claus. For three consecutive years, he has given me and countless others the Bestest Christmas Present Ever (or at least, for that particular holiday season). The Extended Edition could marginally qualify as a fourth. As further proof of the Kiwi director’s true identity, I offer the Elves.

But this year, my Christmas wish was for something that Jackson was not in a position to give. This year, the role of Cinematic Santa was entrusted to someone entirely less reliable, whose vision of one Harvey Dent played by Tommy Lee Jones was hardly up to par as far as legendary bearers of half-scarred faces are concerned.

Now, I think I’ve been a good boy all year, and all I asked for was this:

Joel Schumacher: please, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t screw up The Phantom of the Opera.

This is one of those Christmas moments where I got my wish fulfilled in such a way that I wonder if maybe I should have asked for more.

So to answer the implicit question – no, Joel Schumacher did not screw up The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, it is his best film. (Take that with a grain of salt, as I have heard him acclaimed for Tigerland, which I have not seen.) This is clearly leagues above anything else I have ever seen him do, and as expected. much of it is on the strength of the source material – but that is not to discredit what he contributed.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s flagship musical should stop reading here and go see it. I deliberately leave “it” ambiguous as to whether I refer to the stage production or the film, but know that the latter more than suffices as an endearing introduction to the material, and I think it will last, though you might not come out of it with an understanding of why some people are just so darned crazy about it. But you’ll love the songs.

Before you go, however, I would like to offer this piece of advice: do not expect Moulin Rouge! or Chicago. Phantom is a completely different animal, and the first of its kind to make its way to the silver screen in what history will remember and already remembers as the movie musical revival of the early 2000s. It is not a fun movie. You will not be observing the whirling dervish of “Sparkling Diamonds” or the finger-snapping, toe-tapping vaudeville joy of “Roxie.” Phantom has a closer attachment to reality, and its visual stylings are conventional. It’s supposed to be like that.

That’s the difficulty of figuring out this movie: it feels so traditional, like it treads on a well-worn path, but there’s something almost indescribable that makes it distinct. It’s tempting to say that it hearkens back to the Oscar-winning wide-shot period epics of the sixties, but it is entirely more serious, and in a way, more subdued in the isolation of its setting. Here, there is no Grand Tour of Salzburg (The Sound of Music), New York (West Side Story), London (My Fair Lady), London (Oliver!) or London (Mary Poppins). There is no orchestrally-backed Overture and Entr’acte – something I attribute to the impatience of modern audiences, but that’s a different can of worms entirely. Phantom takes place almost entirely in an opera house, and this actually precludes it from qualifying as a Big Movie, spectacular-spectacular to use the old vernacular. It’s perhaps aesthetically closest to Beauty and the Beast, except in live-action and without Gaston gulping down a dozen eggs at a time.

The comparisons just aren’t going to suffice, so let’s get into specifics.

I went into The Phantom of the Opera with an apprehension that seemed familiar, the origin of which was difficult to trace. Ten minutes in, I figured out where I had last experienced it: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s an easy feeling to describe once you have identified it. The sets are great, but you would venture that they look a lot better in person on the soundstage. The pace is perhaps a bit rushed, and it’s like the movie is fighting to get to the parts everyone wants to see. The director doesn’t move the camera entirely enough, the lighting is rather static in such a way that the photography lacks a distinct voice of its own, and you wonder if maybe this project should have gone to someone with true cinematic acumen like Santa Claus – er, Peter Jackson.

(In all seriousness, this would have been an amazing Peter Jackson film. Maybe I’m still riding the post-Extended Edition high, but it’s fun to match great directors to musicals that suit their style perfectly, and I think this is a match – albeit one that will never happen.)

The first screening never truly suffices when a film is based on a source that is near and dear to your heart, or has played an instrumental role in defining who you are as a person and what you look for in art. You see it the first time to get used to the methods and madness of the retelling, and unless there are major complaints that you absolutely cannot work around, you see it a second time to get past that baggage as best as you can and evaluate its lasting power as a self-contained entity. To that effect, I think I am beginning to develop a vocabulary of the common sensations that may or may not appear in films of this sort. Here follows a glossary of a few that apply.

Diagon Alley: The moment when a shaky adaptation finally eases you in and makes you think, hey, I think I’m really beginning to like this.

Quidditch: The would-be showstopper that everyone wanted to see, but was not in any way close to being the high point of the film.

The Mirror of Erised: The scene that is definitive enough a representation that it secures the film’s place as the definitive treatment of the source, unlikely to see a remake in a very long time, if ever.

Balrog Moment: The scene that was perfect, exactly as you imagined, and made you sit up in your chair and squeal with glee as you mouth those too-familiar words in sync with the actors on screen.

Hobbit Reduction Algorithm: When a translation to screen creates a perspectival drift that moves the centre of narrative gravity away from the characters in which it lay in the source material; this can be for both good or ill.

You will notice that these are all from The Philosopher’s Stone and The Fellowship of the Ring, but this is for the sake of clarity more than anything else. There are reams of other terms you can graft from the likes of Troy, and historical adaptations can provide a lexicon of their own.

With that brief preamble out of the way, let’s talk Phantom.

It opens in the same way Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ends, but going in the opposite direction – breathing life and motion into a grainy monochrome photograph that defines the aesthetic for all of the twentieth-century scenes. Yes, I said scenes – the 1919 auction is not alone in its depiction of the reminisces of the aging Raoul, though appropriately, it is the only part that features any dialogue. This sets the stage for the transition back to the timeframe of the main story with all the requisite elements – Lot 666, the chandelier coming back to life, and a very nice touch where the opera house floods with colour and the netting of spider’s silk melts away from the seats. On the whole, the transitions from 1919 to 1870 work a lot better than the other way around; fundamentally, they are not something that should be unfamiliar to anybody who remembers Titanic, but they serve their purpose on their own terms.

Through both the auction segment and our introduction to the various characters in the performance of Hannibal, everything was still a bit rushed and unsettled. When Carlotta (Minnie Driver) starts prancing about and being generally ridiculous, Driver plays her as such a caricature that one is unsure of whether it is intentional and praiseworthy or if it is too much. Later in “Notes” and “Prima Donna” the film provides the audience a better sense of where it wants to take Carlotta, but there is some initial discomfort.

Phantom finally shows off its first shining moment when Christine sings “Think Of Me,” and you realize that there is absolutely nothing to worry about on the casting front here. Emmy Rossum owns the role – she has the voice, the looks, the age, the demeanour, the talent. It’s a joy to see her break into song. This is less of a Diagon Alley than the satisfactory clearing of a hurdle that one is right to be concerned about upon entering the cinema, but take it and like it, because there is a lot to like.

“Angel of Music” draws no complaints, and makes for as good an expository device as it does onstage, if not better on account of the movie’s freedom of movement between sets. It possesses a lovely melody to begin with, and when the lights go out in the opera house as we approach the Phantom’s revelation in the mirror, we begin to get a sense of what a lavish and delicate production this is when it tries to be.

Then we get to the title song, “The Phantom of the Opera,” as the Phantom leads Christine into the catacombs. This is, in a word, Quidditch. In fact, the sequence retains something that the film should have dispensed with, which is the original orchestration. In my mind, it should have kept the organ, but none of that percussive eighties texture with a hint of electric guitar. Film gives you the ability to use a much better orchestra than the one you can typically afford to deploy in the pit, and it is puzzling that Phantom takes advantage of it almost everywhere but here. Some of Christine’s lines are also done in voiceover, almost with the air of internal monologue, and it lacks that visual drawing power of the lips that most take for granted until it is gone.

In the Phantom’s lair comes his signature solo, “Music of the Night” – and it is safe to say that depending on how discerning a listener you are, this is the make-it-or-break-it moment insofar as Gerard Butler is concerned – that is, if you have already gotten over just how young he is. His voice is haunting enough to set up the Phantom as a character, providing him with the emotive capability that he cannot express facially because half of his visage is concealed under the mask – but haunting does not equal powerful, and it is easy to wish the Phantom had a bit more stage presence.

For “Music of the Night,” though, Butler does his job. The real concern in this scene is a cinematographic one. The lair is lit by hundreds of candles, but even so, it had no business being that bright. This scene needed some shadow. In fact, it begged for it. It looks like the Hogwarts Great Hall, and it needed to feel much, much darker. The brightness does not stop the scene from being magical, though, and when Christine faints in the Phantom’s arms, the softness pays its dues.

And then we come to “Notes.” This is Diagon Alley, the turning point where Phantom gets so good that it drains away that tendency to criticize everything about it, no matter how good a time you are actually having. “Notes” is superb, and André and Firmin (Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds, respectively) are an electric pair here and for the rest of their numbers in the movie.

At this point I want to skip ahead and identify what I think is as much of a Balrog Moment as a member of the audience, Lloyd Webber buff or otherwise, is going to find in this movie. There’s snow on the rooftop when Raoul and Christine make their way there, and it sets the stage for the glorious perfection that is “All I Ask Of You.” The full orchestra swells, just as I asked. The song is as beautiful as it always was, one of the most memorable duets to see the light of Broadway. But it’s the ambience of the mise en scène that takes a great song and weaves it into a truly beautiful scene. The number is simple, but lovely, and is probably the most outwardly romantic scene in any movie this year, with the possible and highly arguable exception of Peter Parker and Mary-Jane with their backs to the web near the end of Spider-Man 2.

“All I Ask Of You” captures exactly what it is that makes the best movie musicals shine: not only does the film capture the spirit of its source material, it adds to it and makes it better by taking advantage of a certain cinematic freedom, and sets the song to pretty pictures. Here, the film cries out with a voice of its own beyond what Lloyd Webber so generously provided, a voice that had up to that point been largely kept to a whisper.

You will notice that there is no mention of a chandelier so far. It falls, but not when you expect; this is actually not a reprehensible plot change at all, given that the lack of an intermission would have dulled the effect of a midpoint chandelier disaster anyhow. The repercussions are hardly noticeable.

“Masquerade” is as grand an ensemble offering as it needs to be, but it also shows a lot of restraint. More than anything, it demonstrates that Phantom is a song musical, not a song-and-dance musical. There is no showstopping choreography, but whether or not it would fit in the first place is a different matter. Upon the Phantom’s disappearance in a burst of flame like a certain Wicked Witch of the West we know, there is the interesting filmic addition of Raoul attempting to follow him, but winding up in a hall of mirrors that brings Enter the Dragon to mind. Yes, I kid you not – The Phantom of the Opera has a visual reference to Bruce Lee. But when you consider the mirror motif in the play, which translates exceptionally well to the film version, it makes a lot of sense.

Weirdness abounds when we get to Madame Giry’s retelling of her first childhood encounter with the Phantom, a story she recounts to Raoul. It is not one of the better scenes in the movie. While the visual rendition of the backstory is a serviceable substitute for generating sympathy for the Phantom’s condition – as opposed to it emanating wholly from his presence onscreen – it is not an example of the wonderment that occurs when movies augment what is provided by their sources. This is a very different kind of augmentation than the atmospheric direction of “All I Ask Of You,” – a less effective kind.

I am a completely satisfied customer with the entire sequence at the cemetery, for much of the same reasons as I was with “All I Ask Of You” – again, there’s snow, pretty colours, Emmy Rossum’s sonorous voice, and some images worth framing, or at least adopting as your computer desktop wallpaper. This is the “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” like how the mixed bag that was The Philosopher’s Stone delighted us with the Mirror of Erised. A beautiful song, a beautiful scene – but with two adaptation issues to note. The first is that the Phantom does not shoot fire. Instead, he engages Raoul in a duel – good fencing in a movie where you don’t expect to see good fencing, though the way it ends is maybe a tad sloppy.

The second is that when Raoul rides into the cemetary, and the Phantom’s voice is speaking to Christine, he warns her, “That is not the ghost of your father!” The problem is, in the context of the film, none of us thought it was – and that makes it a curious line, as it is the only trace that remains of a slightly more explicit motif in the play, something that had to be eliminated by necessity here because the Phantom is so much younger.

And so we come to Don Juan Triumphant and “The Point of No Return.” Here the major difference between stage and film comes out. On stage, what part of the action you see is up to you and your decision of what to focus your eyes upon. On film, the editing room is in control, and seeing the reaction shots adds a lot of tension. Now, Piangi and the Phantom look so different in this scene that there is absolutely no believable way anybody could confuse the two, but the film works around this in an interesting way. The implication seems to be that gradually, everybody – André, Firmin, Raoul, the police – realize that things are getting wrong and wronger, but they sit in their boxes utterly powerless to do anything about it. Christine is the only one who can, and when she pulls off the mask, you get the tension-and-release dynamic of a well-staged sequence.

As Phantom nears its conclusion and the title character takes Christine into the catacombs one last time, there is the obviation that Gerard Butler’s best scenes are with the mask off. The scarring is subdued – again, the Phantom is no Harvey Dent, and rightly so – but enough that it amplifies Butler’s range of expression and finally encourages some audience sympathy for the broken man he portrays. After spending most of the movie relegated to a minimal role by a Hobbit Reduction Algorithm of sorts, the Phantom finally takes centre stage.

It all comes together very well, though as in “Music of the Night,” the Phantom’s lair is very brightly lit. In the play, it is just as full of candles, but the thing about a stage performance is that everything around the stage is shrouded in darkness, and it produces a certain level of intimacy that is not missing here, but certainly subdued.

One expects the credits to roll after the score hits its final cadence, the Phantom exits and everything fades to black – so it’s a shock when we are suddenly thrust back into 1919, with the old Raoul visiting Christine’s grave. It is at first a questionable decision, but is actually a very nice bookend of a touch when you see what Raoul finds there.

So, with that out of the way, let us formulate a holistic impression.

The cast ranges from arguably good (Butler as the Phantom, Carlotta) to perfect (Emmy Rossum as Christine, André and Firmin). Patrick Wilson as Raoul is a mixed bag – he’s great when he sings or plays off his chemistry with Rossum, but when he speaks, he is less effective. But whether or not a Phantom fan will like this adaptation really depends on his or her comfort with Gerard Butler, be it his youth, the timidity of his voice next to Michael Crawford’s more thunderous moments or how little screentime he has.

Phantom is different from most other musical adaptations in that it is told almost entirely in song. Whereas screenwriters such as Ernest Lehman once added clever and quotable lines aplenty that fleshed out the exposition, and the Fosse duo of Cabaret and Chicago were not all-out musicals so much as they were regular films with the occasional stage act, Phantom has little to no spoken dialogue. Aside from the chandelier and some cosmetic things like the lack of pyrotechnics at the graveyard, the film version hardly ever diverges from its source – but at the same time, it adds very little. Whenever it dares to infuse a scene with a personal touch, as it does in “All I Ask of You” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” it amazes. “Notes” draws part of its elegance from Schumacher’s willingness to spread out his cast across his lavish sets, move them around, and move the camera with them.

The end result is that the film omits almost nothing, but adds very little – and that is perhaps its greatest source of disappointment. This is a very good movie, and one that I could see myself treasuring for some time to come – though further viewings will test that theory. But most of what is so good about it rides on the coattails of what Andrew Lloyd Webber already created. That is fine in the sense that I would imagine that Lloyd Webber is very satisfied with the end result, and most of the Fan Base of the Opera will be as well, depending on how militant they are about Butler not having Michael Crawford’s voice. It is really too bad that Schumacher offers such a faithful rendition already, but like Chris Columbus in The Philosopher’s Stone, sticks to the source in such a way that he does not dare offer anything for film buffs who find joy in movie magic beyond what the medium of origin has to offer – and this time, Alfonso Cuaron isn’t going to hop in and do it right two films later.

I am disappointed that The Phantom of the Opera, a great film with melodies you want to sing along with once you have the privacy of a home theatre and the DVD, is not one of the all-time classics in the pantheon of legendary movies. I am disappointed that it doesn’t gut you and rip out your still-beating heart like West Side Story. I am disappointed that it doesn’t stand a chance in holy hell of being a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon to rival the stage production.

But that’s the spoiled brat talking, who leaves no cookies by the fire and still expects Peter Jackson to send a masterpiece down the chimney. In the end, I got my wish. Joel Schumacher did not screw up; far from it, his film of The Phantom of the Opera is a keeper. Do yourself a favour and see it.

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Hobbits and demon-children

Saturday, 3 April 2004 — 11:44pm | Adaptations, Film, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

As I pointed out in the preceding post, April Fool’s came and went without anything truly worth mentioning on a humour front except for the odd joke only comprehensible to CUSID debaters, but these guys thought it would be clever to use it as a launchpad for a letter-writing campaign to get a film of The Hobbit greenlit for production. As it is an initiative by, the most-read Tolkien website on the Internet (and with good reason), it already has a few thousand supporters in its pocket. Remember, this is the same site that strikes fear into the hearts of those who dare to include The Lord of the Rings in any poll, for fear of being swamped. Any obscure site it links to on the front page can expect to have bandwidth trouble for weeks.

But popularity aside, people should really take a few steps back and wonder if a film adaptation of The Hobbit – even (or especially) one by Peter Jackson – is really that great an idea. The book is a very linear and episodic adventure in many ways, which could land it in the same adaptation trap as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. While it’s been turned into everything from a stage production to a video game with varying degrees of success, the prospect of a top-notch film project is, at this time, unconvincing. At the same time, there is the danger of the film having to choose between being faithful to the oft-forgotten fact that the novel is a children’s story, and the demands of the audience demographic riding the post-The Return of the King fallout. In terms of playing to the audience and fulfilling expectations, it faces the same challenges as the Star Wars prequels have thus far. As far as a Jackson film goes, the reason why so many fans are clamouring for one is out of the desire for stylistic continuity. But The Hobbit has little stylistic continuity with The Lord of the Rings in the first place, except for perhaps the first eight chapters of the latter, from which Jackson took arguably the biggest departure.

I saw Hellboy tonight and was suitably entertained, if not outright impressed. It never sinks down to being outright nauseating and oblivious to basic cinematic technique like some Leagues we know, but also feels second-class in the face of the A-list adaptations of the Marvel renaissance. Aside from an incomprehensible villain-story that boils down to a lot of occult symbols, reincarnation and an apocalyptic desire to set the entire world on fire, it was an entertaining piece and worth two hours of my time. I will elaborate further if I ever get around to it, but between Home on the Range, The Alamo, Kill Bill, The Punisher and a whole lot of exams, April is going to be a busy month.

While on the subject of Dark Horse Comics, I have yet to acquire The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #1, which was finally released in late February after months of legal delays. Considering the extent to which this here writer has been eagerly anticipating the title since its announcement, a purchase, reading and review are more than a little overdue.

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Eleven for eleven

Sunday, 29 February 2004 — 11:05pm | Adaptations, Film, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature, Oscars

That was the most predictable Oscar ceremony ever, but at the same time, entirely devoid of controversy. Most of the vitriol this year can be directed at the shortlisting stage, and was already covered in the previous post.

If there was one film to finally hit the eleven mark again, it was The Return of the King. The clean sweep was clear as soon as it took Adapted Screenplay, the one that was most likely going to hold a consolation vote. But in the context of rewarding the entire trilogy – for after all, it is one movie, only with a split release sequence – well done, Academy.

The big question is, what conceivable project will next hit the eleven mark, or even break it? This may not be as impossible as it seems, given that The Return of the King was a rare winner that received no acting nominations. The sweep, though, could be attributed to both the onus to compensate for the losses of the first two – something that should have been done from the start, and was three years in the making – and a weaker, less competitive field this year. Facing facts for a moment, if The Lord of the Rings was not in the running, it would be a much tighter race, with the well-crafted but just shy of worthy Mystic River taking the prize, but win counts maxing out at five or six. Needless to say, it would be indicative of a relatively sparse year. On the other hand, if that opened the door to Finding Nemo, I would not complain – until it failed to win, that is. But this is all idle speculation.

To hit such an astronomical nomination count, let alone a win count, you need to work with built-in epic material from the start. Ben-Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings are all epic pageantry material. The Last Samurai, on the other hand, is not. It needs to be something that makes everything before it look small.

That said, the one to watch out for next year is Troy, not because it will get eleven Oscars or even eleven nominations, but because it is based on exactly the kind of source material that should poise itself for those numbers, from possibly the one cinematogenic storyteller bigger than Tolkien. But it doesn’t have ten hours to work with, now does it?

What we can expect in the film industry over the next few years is an influx of people trying to make the next Rings, like certain attempts to make the next Titanic (see: Pearl Harbor). The attempted-epic market already saturated itself this year, so let’s not see this trend spiral out of control.

The moment of the evening, of course, was Michael Moore in the midst of a “fictitious war” in the Pelennor Fields.

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The amazing disappearing month of December

Friday, 9 January 2004 — 12:54pm | Adaptations, Film, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

One would think that December would be the zenith of this online record, given the sheer volume of material to discuss; unfortunately, the overwhelming quantity of happenings – for good or ill – ultimately mitigated the publication of anything useful on this here page.

Based on the unlikely assumption that the entire readership has, in fact, not abandoned this page and left it for dead like a Students’ Union VP on Khao San Road, some updates are in order.

First things first: No, I have not seen Cold Mountain, Master and Commander, The Last Samurai or Lost In Translation. This abnormal deficiency of Oscar-season movie criticism, or any criticism at all, will hopefully change over the weekend. One must remember, however, that Laziness Conquers All – a certainty as physically entrenched as the Law of Ropes.

Yes, I did see The Return of the King, albeit only a single-digit number of times. Apparently there was an expectation that after surviving the marathon known only as Trilogy Tuesday, I would immediately write a detailed scene-by-scene analysis of the entire film – geek’s prerogative, one might say. I actually did this; immediately after returning from the cinema, I wrote two comprehensive analyses on the Entmoot forums – some rambly general first impressions and the rather more comprehensible adaptation notes. It has been suggested that I post these more permanently and prominently. This may or may not happen.

Coming up soon, should I have time to do it this weekend amidst catching up on the current state of cinema and editing the next UADS newsletter, will be an annotated photo album detailing various misadventures in Inchon and Bangkok, followed by the World Universities Debating Championships in Singapore.

Eventually I will do some kind of 2003 wrap-up, which will quite predictably be full of praising The Wind Waker and Finding Nemo and determining whether or not they compensated for an otherwise pretty bleak year. Don’t hold me to this.

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