Friday, December 27, 2013

Dark Victory

A romantic melodrama about brain tumors and death, Dark Victory (1939; dir. Edmund Goulding) gives us fatal illness in a vein that makes it a welcome opportunity for proving one’s nobility.  With George Brent as a brain surgeon, a young Ronald Reagan as a perpetually drunk young friend, Humphrey Bogart as a horse trainer with an Irish brogue, and Bette Davis as the doomed young woman Judith Traherne, Dark Victory gives us death as only the rich can know it.  It’s a good death, too, one that involves no suffering, only a few hours of blindness until the final moment comes.  And it’s a kind and redemptive death too because Judy has the chance to win riding competitions, drink and smoke with abandon, offend all the people she doesn’t like, find love with the man she loves (not, surprisingly, the brain surgeon) and then to dump him bitterly only to seek his forgiveness and then to have a big wedding and then to run off to New Hampshire with him so they can live in a country cottage while he does brain research in an out building and she keeps house with servants and waits to die.

Davis apparently considered this film her favorite.  It was a great commercial success.  It’s not her best, however much money it might have made.  An actor is not always the best judge of her best work. 

A few random thoughts: the notion that a young woman can die happy and fulfilled with no pain and suffering from a brain tumor is offensively sappy.  When Judy realizes that her last moments are approaching, she hides her condition from her husband, who is about to leave for New York to present his research.  She tells him that she wishes to remain at home with her friend Ann, who has come to visit.  I don’t believe this.  So her husband leaves, and Judy lets him go, and Ann doesn’t let on that anything is amiss.  I don’t believe this either.  Then Judy orders Ann to leave too, so that she can show her courage and strength by dying alone.  But before she dismisses her, Judy orders Ann never to leave her husband’s side after she is gone, obviously setting her up for matrimony on the rebound. Ann weeps and runs hysterically away down the road, flapping her arms like a suffering bird (or so I imagined it).  What a friend. 

Davis’ acting is frenetic, nervous, and rapid delivery throughout.  Even when she isn’t insulting friends and behaving like a bitter doomed heroine, she isn’t particularly sympathetic.  This film was made in the days when doctors and patients could smoke together in medical offices, when everyone admired heavy drinking, when dying patients weren’t told of their condition, when the poor didn’t matter except as props for the rich, or as servants.

The lesson here is that everyone is going to die, some sooner than others, and that we all must use well the time we have remaining, so that we can die a good and noble death in the end.  We all should live the best we can.  No doubt there.  But if there is a good and noble death, I’d like to see it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, like all novels, is a work of imagination.  One reads it and creates within one’spersonal imagination a series of images that represent characters and places and events it contains.  Often these images may not connect with those provided by the writer, if indeed he has provided them (Tolkien did not, except in some maps of Middle Earth and surroundings).  I first read Tolkien in college.  On the wall of the places where I lived I kept a colorful and overactive map of Middle Earth, loosely based on Tolkien’s writings and his maps.  I no longer have the map, but it still colors my imagination when I read the books.

The appearance of the Peter Jackson films based on The Lord of the Rings and on The Hobbit, for those readers who were serious admirers of these works as novels, created a challenge.  Do we give up our personal images in favor of the film versions, or do we hold to our own vision and avoid the films entirely?  I was unwilling to miss the films, so I attempted a middle ground.  In many cases this was easy because of the inferiority of some of the films’ images, particularly of the orcs and trolls (who seemed cast-off monsters from Lost in Space or The Outer Limits television series).  But the powerfully evocative images of the hobbits and of the elves overrode whatever images I had developed of them.  In the case of the hobbits, I think Tolkien’s books and the films were fairly much in accord.

If we’re going to be purists, we have to be purists and hew entirely to the books or to the films.  I’m no purist.  I need both.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films have the disadvantage of coming out after the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first.  It was a much simpler, more elementary, even more juvenile venture than the trilogy that followed it.  Moreover, the events that it narrated precede and lead up to the events in the trilogy.  It was thus natural that one would first read The Hobbit and then move on to The Lord of the Rings.  The case is reversed for the films of these works.  Jackson’s trilogy preceded his Hobbit films.  And, of course, he decided to make The Hobbit a trilogy as well.  We will have to see what difference this makes.  It’s certainly clear from the first installment in the Hobbit trilogy that he has inserted a lot of extra story, much of it from The Silmarillion, some of his own creation.  The film is much darker than the book, and part of the reason may be that the LOR trilogy itself was so dark—it’s difficult put aside that darkness and go back to the relative light and innocence of The Hobbit.

So it’s unfortunate that the Hobbit films were made after the Lord of the Rings films.  It would have been better if the Hobbit films had been made first.  It would have been better to move forward from innocence and light to darkness and evil.  The finding of the ring, and Bilbo’s decision to hold on to it, is the Fall that makes the latter three novels inevitable.

Yet it’s fortunate the films were made, and we have to live with the order of their creation.  I’ve noted the many reviewer comments about the slowness of the first Hobbit installment (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012; dir. Peter Jackson).  Yes, it is a bit slow.  Yes, it departs considerably from the monolithic plot of Tolkien’s novel.  But it many ways it preserves the basic events and spirit of the novel and embellishes and adds to them.  I look forward to the second installment.