– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Glenn and I began our discussion around noon, sharpish – and, after a short time spent conversating and what not about yesterday’s frenzied Australian newsday, we began proper.
The Filmist: Well, I saw The Fellowship of the Ring after it had just came out, and it had caused a pandemonium among everybody. And, being that at the time Peter Jackson was known for his ultra-boorish and campy horror movies, it seemed surprising to me that something like this should come from him. I’d read The Hobbit and the first book of the trilogy, so I was reasonably well caught-up, at the time. And, of 2001 – I think it was probably one of my favorite films of that year. Jackson’s previous stylistic flourishes informed the material in a way I hadn’t thought of before, and there was a sense of scale that hadn’t been seen in fantasy films in a long, long time – the vast attention to cultural detail, of composition, everything.
Match Cuts: When Fellowship was released, I remember being familiar with the books, but I hadn’t read any of them (shameful I know). Fellowship proved to be a more personal, character driven film that the rest of the trilogy, and it was wonderful seeing that dedication to character and the epic scale and detail you mentioned. It really re-invigorated the fantasy film, smart, violent, dangerous, chalk full of subtext.
F: Oh, don’t feel too ashamed over not having read the books – they’re obviously classics, but they can be a chore to get through, at times. Lots of singing. This is something that Jackson wisely trims, and thank goodness for that.
M: The thing about Fellowship that I will always remember is Jackson’s brilliant casting, his focus on facial expressions, pain, anger, hatred, love, something that deepens the already layered surface of the films, especially with Ian Holm, Viggo, and Samwise.
F: Oh, yes. There’s a real attention given to facial expressions, all throughout the film series – shots after Gandalf’s sacrifice in the first film of the Hobbits in anguish come to mind, especially.
There’s an archetypal quality to everything in the films, from the cinematography and even down into the staging – Gandalf really does, at first, anyway, recall Campbell’s “Wandering Old Man” trope, with his crooked back and weathered, parched face.
M: Yes, but these films are all about deception, perception overriding reality.
F: Yes – with his rebirth in the second films as a much more active and “virile” (which is Peter Jackson’s word, and it feels strange to apply it to McKellen) warrior.
M: What about the violence in these films? Jackson’s staging of the battles might be his biggest coup. I’ve never felt so immersed in a battle sequence of this style. Usually the coverage is so bland, but with each LOTR film, the audience gets a palpable feeling of being inside the battle.
F: Oh, certainly – there’s a grand, organized chaos to his battle sequences, and even a little bit of the intentional campiness found in his earlier films (“Toss me!”). Probably the Helm’s Deep sequence is the best example of this, I think – the way it’s almost completely sheltered by the wind and the rain, and the confusion inside the fortress, contrasted with the brutal organization of the forces without, which all goes to pot the minute they set forth at the walls.
M: The vividness and impact of all the battles also stems from our involvement and connection with these characters in peril. The stark contrast between good and evil never feels simplistic, and keeps evolving with the characters. As Frodo becomes more tempted, we see the complication of heroism, power, and control.
F: Certainly. In these films, character really is revealed on the gradient between good and evil. I also found it interesting how the role of the protagonist seems to shift almost casually onto Samwise, by the end of the trilogy. We meet him and he’s a kind of bumbling but well-meaning guy, a friend to our ostensible focus – but, by the end of the series, it’s he who has to climb his way up the mountain side, with Frodo unconscious on his back.
M: Samwise, is by far the most dimensional character in the films. He’s so much more than a devoted side kick. You’re absolutely right that he turns into the hero, kind of the unofficial savior of the free world.
F: I love that it’s him the films end on, finally content with a pair of kids running around his legs and a wife. And, thankfully – his portrayal is nothing like the one found in Bakshi’s animated film, that Jackson namedrops several times otherwise in the films.
M: My personal favorite of the bunch is Return of the King. The epic consideration of the world tipping over the edge into totalitarianism, and the massive attention to that detail you were talking about.
F: Yes, I think that’s probably my favorite, as well – with Merry and Pippin’s separate arcs finally joining together, and all of those seamlessly orchestrated battle sequences, and what they concerned. Aragorn I feel I should comment on, but oddly – his character is the least interesting in the films, for me.
M: Well, Viggo just oozes with authority and power, so he doesn’t have to do much to convince the viewer of his importance. His conflict just isn’t as interesting as the rest.
F: That’s true. And, speaking of – the glimpse we’d gotten of certain scenes from The Hobbit, all throughout the films – those really do a lot to pique your interest for this film (or, films) from Guillermo Del Toro. I wonder if we might see Ian Holm again.
M: As for del Toro, I am excited, I think he’s the perfect choice for The Hobbit, because that book is certainty dark enough to wander into Horror territory.
F: It’s also a fair bit more whimsical than any of the LOTR books, I think. Being as Tolkien was aiming for a younger audience, it’s much more of a children’s fable than the later installments, and considering Pan’s Labyrinth, I think something like that suits him very well.
M: For sure, and not being a fan of Pans, I look forward to del Toro growing in terms of character. His visuals are outstanding, but I’ve always had an issue with his treatment of character interactions, with the exception being the masterful Devil’s Backbone.
F: I can agree with that – I’ve never seen much to acclaim about the Hellboy films, either.
M: Should we shift?
F: Sure. And, since this is your film, might you send us off a-runnin’?
M: Yes, yes, my pleasure. I’m a big fan of lyricism in film, no surprise I love Malick, Gordon Green, so Dominick’s imaging of the Western legend Jesse James bowled me over in terms of pacing. The visual framework echoed that of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, while the poetic musings of the characters and voice over was definitely influenced by Malick. What did you make of the film on first impression?
F: Well, I first saw it around August of this year – so, fairly recently – and, just like you, it really took me aback, partly because of several of the things that you mentioned but also because of Brad Pitt’s performance, and that of young Casey Affleck. The entire film seems to be about disillusionment, and Affleck brings that so clearly into the light.
M: The contrast between Ford’s nostalgic obsession with Western mythology and his realization of personal inconsequence makes this performance incredible. The first scene between Bob and Frank James really shows this dichotomy.
F: Even just in the way that the film begins, with the narrator presenting us these mythologized Jesse James stories, just before we meet the characters. In a lot of ways, he – Bob – reminds me a lot of the modern day comic-book collector. Although, he does kind of have an excuse for not showering, given the time period.
M: The pain in Affleck’s eyes is something to behold. To come in contact with your hero, only to find how human he really is. How wrong your impression of him has been. And to see that shift, complimented by Deakins’ visuals, creates this re-imaging of the Western that hasn’t been matched in recent years.
F: Speaking of Deakins’ cinematography – it’s a shame he didn’t win the nomination for Best Cinematography, that year. His enhancement of the blacks all throughout the film, and his emphasizing of the train, all of that. And, it’s really one of the only recent films I can think of that’s managed to use bleach bypass in a way that was not only not faintly annoying, but intriguing.
M: Well, the blurring of the image really complicates the idea of history on film. Nothing is certain, everything is changing, up for interpretation. The gray areas of history re-written.
F: Yes. It’s almost dreamlike, even, which gives the whole film a “wafting” feeling, if I’m not being too unclear. The defined borders on the edge of the frames have been removed, and now anything can happen, as you’d said.
M: I think this filmmaking approach allows the viewer to experience the beauties the Western has to offer, but also the tragedy, the revenge so prominent in the genre, the epic scale battling inside each character.
F: If I can recall, Deakins calls it “Deakinization.” Hee hee hee.
F: But, I agree – and, in that way, it also reminds me a little of the HBO series Deadwood, with the emphasis being placed on demythologization of the West, and here a particular Western figure.
M: Deadwood’s an interesting comparison, since it treats more of a collective angst within the creation of the American town, and Jesse James uses the same, dirty, texture driven visuals to illustrate the interior struggle of a man unable to reconcile his identity.
F: Yes. To be fair, however, this film could have used some Swearengen. He should be in every Western, I think. I don’t care if he fits, just put him in there.
M: What about Dominick’s attention to the supporting characters in the film, those played by Garrett Dillahunt (another Deadwood guy) and Paul Schneider.
F: That’s true, I hadn’t noticed that. I’m wondering if there was a conscious influence of the former on the latter, now. You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned Terence Malick on our way in to this film, because according to several places, the director actually mentioned him as a direct influence on the lyrical style of this film, as well as it’s examination of fame.
M: I think Malick, aside from Kubrick, Scorsese, and Tarantino, might be the most influential American filmmaker of the last 30 years. And he’s only made 4 films. The ambiguity in his movies really fascinates people, both critics an d filmmakers, and Dominick is certainly addressing these issues in his own film.
F: Yes – ambiguity really seems to run rampant through every main character, in this film. Jesse, on the brink of insanity. Bob, with his fanboy fanaticism.
M: It’s as if intelligence, or at least free thinking, is comparable to torment and death, just take Bob’s ambitions, and Dillahunt’s Ed, and Jesse’s paranoia. All add up to suffering in the face of expectations and personal drive. The entire film is a mosaic of emotional suffering, when faced with legacy, importance, and family.
F: Family really seems to take it’s toll on Jesse in particular, and this adds to the ambiguity of his character – it’s almost a tri-fold. He’s divided between a dedicated and protective family man, who conversely refuses to let his family know who he is, while at the same time he’s infected with such brutal paranoia that he can barely work at his chosen profession as it is.
M: Yes, and the disconnection with his older brother plays into this. I think the failure of the opening robbery is instrumental in dictating each character. It really shows the perception of Jesse and Frank’s legend versus the reality of their decline. The fact they are using rubes and bumpkins to rob a seemingly unprotected train.
F: Yes – I’m trying to search for a modern-day analogy for Bob, and how all of this stark reality would appear to him. Aha! It’s the impact that all of this has on him, and then consequently being hired to assassinate this idol of his, that really drives him off the deep end.
M: Not to mention the impact it has on Jesse, who starts to have delusions of grandeur, posturing for these minor Western characters as if his fan base has dwindled so far.
I’m fascinated by the film’s epilogue. The due it gives to Bob’s slow fall from grace. And the use of freeze frames which is really kind of jarring. Forcing us to face Bob as a complex human being.
F: And, then he’s moi’dered by Edward O’Kelley.
M: But we don’t get to see this act, just Bob’s face right before.
F: Yes. Powerful, I think.
M: So against the grain in terms of story telling. This film really respects the viewer to piece together the story, and for each of us it’s a different interpretation of the Old West.
F: Indeed. I just can’t wait for the sequel, myself.
M: What sequel is that?
F: The Assassination of Jesse James 2 – Assassination Harder.
M: Absolutely, where they battle in hell.
F: And, Gandalf is there, too.
Next week, at MatchCuts, we’ll be looking at two ostensibly dissimilar films about loneliness, Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy and Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E. Don’t miss it, folks.