I took this picture of my library’s flagpole not long before a sudden and severe thunderstorm tore through the area, which is evident in the ominous clouds and shadows obscuring the otherwise vibrant colors on the flag.
This view brought to mind the final lines of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which I pondered a few years ago during the Kaepernick kneeling kerfuffle and remain resonant today:
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there
That flag survived the bombardment, and its survival was made evident by the bombardment itself.
You can pick the metaphor to represent what we’re living through now—just some turbulent weather or a straight-up bombardment. Either way, as a nation we’ve endured lots of them throughout history. (Today being Veteran’s Day is another reminder of this.) And yet our flag is still there.
I take comfort in Sam’s speech to Frodo near the end of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when they’re stuck in Osgiliath in a particularly dark moment:
It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.
Here’s hoping for sunnier days. (I do anticipate a brighter forecast starting on or around January 20.)
It’s been 15 years since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was released, prompting Filmspotting to dedicate an entire episode to the trilogy. And it’s been 10 years since I wrote my own appreciation of the films and the fond memories surrounding them. My feelings haven’t changed since then. In fact I have two more memories to add, both involving my wife.
Upon meeting we quickly discovered our mutual appreciation of the trilogy. Ipso facto, one of our first dates was a marathon viewing of all three films—extended editions of course. This happened amidst a blizzard so we went for snowy walks between films. Probably because of this foundational event, we ended up infusing LOTR into our wedding ceremony a few years later. We used “Concerning Hobbits” on repeat for the processional, then transitioned into the first part of “The Breaking of the Fellowship” (see below) for Jenny’s entrance.
Reader, I cried. Whether due to my beautiful bride or the music or the combination of both, it was a peak moment on the best day of my life.
So yeah, Lord of the Rings still means a lot to me. (Watching Lindsay Ellis dissect the tragedy of The Hobbit movies reinforced this all the more.) I have no idea what to expect from Amazon’s forthcoming TV series dedicated to Middle-earth, but it won’t affect my regard for the books or Peter Jackson’s original trilogy.
Top 5 Lord of the Rings moments
Picking just five moments out of 11.5 hours of film is a fool of a Took’s errand, but here are mine, in chronological order through the series.
This scene has been memed to death, but that doesn’t negate the sheer power of Gandalf’s last stand in Moria. For someone who knew nothing of the trilogy when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, this was a true gut punch.
Sean Bean, also a meme all-star and cinematic death champion, lends pathos and grace to the first true death in the fellowship. Boromir’s character arc might be the most interesting one in the first film.
From the aforementioned “Breaking of the Fellowship” scene in which Frodo sets off with Samwise. The quote is originally from a scene in Moria with a vastly different tone, but it’s repurposed here to stunning effect. (See also: “Alas, that these evil days should be mine,” a quote by King Théoden in the books that didn’t make the movie but expresses a similar sentiment.)
Eowyn’s later “I am no man” line gets all the (deserved) love, but this moment sets that one up. The princess, eager to fight but finally aware of the gravity of battle, summons the strength for Merry and herself, who both fight for more than themselves.
On the Fandom-Industrial Complex and Moving Forward from Back to the Future
The day Back to the Future fans have waited for is finally here. The thirty-year countdown to October 21, 2015, one of the most well-known dates in movie history (despite how often it has been incorrectly reported on the interwebs), is over . There’s been an ongoing celebration of the trilogy on the internet and in real life: this Wired dispatch by Jason Tanz, “Fandom Eats Itself at New York Comic Con,” spotlights the kind of reception a widely loved favorite like BTTF gets in the more insular (yet quickly expanding) world of nerd culture:
The rowdiest panel I attended was about the film Back In Time, a documentary about Back to the Future fans. The documentarians presented themselves as Back to the Future fans, but also as fans of other Back to the Future fans, like the guy who spent more than $500,000 to buy the original DeLorean time machine. The audience greeted the documentarians as celebrities too, making them fans of fans of fans of Back to the Future.
Fandom is eating itself, but from the tone of the article and the culture at large you wouldn’t think this is a bad thing. Tanz describes the end of the panel, when the documentary filmmakers give away replicas of the specially produced Pepsi Perfect bottles featured in Part II to everyone in the audience. “Before the event,” he writes, “I had rolled my eyes at the promotion, a two-decade long-con of corporate sponsorship. But here, surrounded by red-vested Marties, whooping and stampeding toward the back of the hall, I couldn’t help but feel a begrudging thrill as I grabbed my goddamn bottle of Pepsi Perfect. What can I say? I guess I’m a fan.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say Back to the Future has been a foundational element of my life. I don’t remember when exactly I watched the trilogy, but middle school was when it caught on with a fury. Since then it’s embedded itself into my identity so thoroughly that I’ve heard from several friends and acquaintances that I’m the first person they think of to send BTTF-related articles, parodies, fake product announcements, and news bites of every stripe. It’s a distinction I’ve willingly cultivated over the years, what with my effusive writings on the subject, my collection of homemade and gifted memorabilia, my eager attendance at meet-and-greets with cast members, and my delight at two separate encounters (both arranged by my very accommodating father) with cosplaying Doc Browns.
So when I read articles like this, at the tail end of decades of brand-sponsored fandom, I’m conflicted. The incipient parade of new Star Wars films and its adjacent subculture has helped me see this phenomenon of superfandom from the outside. I’ve never been much of a Star Wars fan. This might be due to not watching them at an impressionable young age as I think was the case with many of its proponents. But, separating my impression of it from its iconic place in film history, I also don’t like them all that much. So when every scrap of news from the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm universe is alternately drooled over and dissected, I get that “uncanny valley” feeling of seeing another version of my BTTF-loving self that doesn’t quite feel right, that I’m prone to criticize or roll my eyes at without realizing how much it looks like me.
In a post called “Withdraw Into Yourself Forever,” Fredrik deBoer criticizes what I’ll call the fandom-industrial complex, the natural outgrowth of a cultural landscape littered with infinitely rebooted Superhero Brand franchises and their surrounding ecosystems that encourage you to keep on loving and buying it in perpetuity, and blur the lines between those two things. “It’s the creation,” deBoer writes, “of an economic, social, cultural, and even political infrastructure to convince you that your urge to dive deeper into the stuff you already like is always the correct feeling. It’s an ideology of taste that is totally unfettered by anachronistic compulsions to be more widely read, or to try new things, or to acquire a cultural literacy other than the stuff that you have always loved.” And it’s a phenomenon perfectly encapsulated in Wired’s dispatch from Comic Con.
I’m not advocating for consuming only new things or for abandoning the things you love simply because other people like them (nor do I think deBoer is). Rewatching favorite movies, or going back to an album that perfectly scores a moment or mood is a unique thrill—and that in our time is unbelievably easy to do. But I still try to subscribe to the tenets Alan Jacobs lays down in his great bookThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which I’ve adapted for moviegoing here:
Whim: Watch what you want, when you want to, without shame.
Aspiration: …but don’t get stuck watching the same stuff—branch out and seek to be a better watcher.
Upstream: Seek out the older works that inspired your favorites and be challenged to “swim upstream.” It might be challenging sometimes but the rewards will be greater than just coasting downstream.
Responsiveness: Don’t be afraid to take notes and respond to what you’re watching—make moviegoing matter.
Slow: You’ll miss the little things if you view moviegoing as simply uploading information. Slow down and you’ll absorb more.
Jacobs meant for these to be an approach to reading books, but taken together they work just as well for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to consumption of whatever culture you’re into. They’re also a challenge for myself, and a reminder of what other good I could be missing every time I return to Hill Valley, however weirdly charming it is.
I’m not breaking up with BTTF. I married a Jennifer, for Doc’s sake. In 2015 no less . Our first dance was to the movie version of “Earth Angel,” which was immediately followed by a group dance with our bridal party to “Power of Love.” I think I’ve fulfilled my density. The trilogy will always be there for me to enjoy. But the hegemony it has enjoyed over my identity has begun to wane. I don’t want to withdraw into Back to the Future forever. I’m so grateful for its place in my cultural biography and for its fraternity of enthusiastic fans, but I’ve got the same blank page Marty and Jennifer got at the end of the trilogy when Doc says their future hasn’t been written yet, that it would be whatever they made it.
It’s time to explore a new future, and today is as good a time as any to begin doing so.
Footnotes 1.I think November 5, 1955, is the more important date, but who’s asking? 2.Believe it or not, this didn’t dawn on me until a few months before the wedding, which unfortunately didn’t happen in the Chapel O’ Love.
I’ve heard patrons say this to me or other librarians at the information desk so many times. And every time, I want to respond: “That’s what we’re here for!” Maybe we at the desk were talking to each other, or typing on the computer, or reading a trade journal, or even just sitting there waiting to answer a question. Whatever it is, patrons often feel they’re being a bother by asking questions when in fact answering questions is literally the librarian’s job. It’s what we enjoy doing and get paid for. But either they don’t get it or we’re not doing a good enough job making that known.
This could be a design problem: old-school reference desks, which are quickly falling out of fashion, can be imposing, alienating beasts. Libraries of all kinds that have been around a while probably have those hefty wooden desks, long and encompassing like ramparts of Reference Castle, with the lofty librarians holding the front line against the swarming public. Librarian’s Domain: None Shall Pass! Or, at desks that seem to sink into the earth, like Bilbo Baggins at Bag End we burrow in behind computer screens or stand-up signage and treat interruptions (“except on party business”) as inconveniences rather than essential.
Many libraries have done away with the traditional info desk altogether. They take a “roving reference” approach, which either has librarians stand at a table a la the Apple Store or sends them onto the floor with an iPad to actively help people find what they’re looking for. I’d love to hear from other librarians who do this about how well it works. Do patrons feel more at ease if they’re approached by staff? Do you feel like you work at Best Buy? I’d love to see data from two libraries of similar size who take these different reference approaches. Does one get more questions over the other?
As a patron I enjoy being able to browse undisturbed and, being a librarian myself, usually don’t need help getting around or finding something. But I’m also not afraid to approach the desk, and neither should you. Regardless of what the desk looks like, librarians are responsible for answering questions and patrons are responsible for asking them. We can’t read your mind, and we can’t help you until we know what you need help with.
So please: Bother us. Early and often. Whatever else we’re doing at the desk, however game we look for whatever you’re about to ask, ask it—no matter what it is.
(And don’t even get me started on “This is probably a stupid question, but…”)
Sometimes we as moviegoers have to let movies affect us in ways we cannot explain or control. One of those ways is through music. Whether it is an epic orchestral theme or a lone piano suite, music in the movies can make the difference in how I respond to the story. Listening to a CD of movie themes got me thinking about my favorite movie moments that were made better because of their music. There are many such moments, but here are a few that stand out.
Cast Away: Saying farewell to Wilson
When Chuck (Tom Hanks) finally leaves the island four years after crash-landing there, he is mistakenly separated from his beloved anthropomorphized volleyball but can’t retrieve him. There is no music for the entire film until that time, about 50 minutes in. So when the soft strings finally come in, we feel the catharsis the same as Chuck as he paddles away. The theme itself, by Forrest Gump and Back to the Future composer Alan Silvestri, is so tender and affecting.
WALL-E: Eva and WALL-E’s space dance
I’m glad Pixar has basically locked down Thomas Newman for their film scores, because every one he does its magical, including The Green Mile, American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption, and Finding Nemo. In a film full of cute moments between the robotic protagonists, the impromptu, extinguisher-propelled ballet may be the cutest.
Lord of theRings: The wholetrilogy
I’d argue the LOTR score is the most necessary and perfect ever. Howard Shore’s compositions are practically supporting characters in themselves. There are many stand-out moments in that trilogy for me, but there are two that would not have worked without a musical backing:
The first is in Fellowship of the Ring after Gandalf falls into the Mines of Moria as the fellowship looks on helplessly. It is a shocking and grievous moment, but the lone mournful soprano voice over the somber choir does not overwhelm it. It allows us to rest on the sadness if just for a moment.
The second is in Return of the King in one of the many endings, after Aragorn becomes the new king and the four hobbits bow to him. He stops them and says, in recognition of their sacrifices, that they bow to no one. Then the whole crowd bows down to them and the main theme of the trilogy swells one last time, representing the grandest end of an epic adventure.
Once: The breakup song
Once has quickly become my favorite film “musical” more so than real musicals because the music interweaves with the story so seamlessly without the awkward transitions between dialogue and song. In a movie with so many good moments, I still have to choose the scene when the Guy plays the song “Lies” while watching home video of him and his ex-girlfriend. He is still heartbroken, and the song backs him up in that.
Video unavailable, but here’s the audio:
The Truman Show: The end
The piano-heavy score by Philip Glass and Burkhard Dallwitz mixes classical standards with original compositions, adding whimsy and sophistication to Peter Weir’s allegorical tale. The best moment, though, comes at the end when Truman finally hits the wall, literally and metaphorically. It is a culmination of everything Truman has been through and we as the viewers wait in anticipation for how he handles the moment. It’s as good an ending as I’ve ever seen in any movie.
Remember the Titans: The final game
The music throughout the movie builds little by little, but it isn’t until the final game when the orchestra is at full-blast. Trevor Rabin’s score builds with the tension of the final game, but the moment I always remember is when Coaches Boone and Yost exchange congratulations at the end of the game and hold up the ball together. It is a triumphant moment for the team and for the music.
The Turner Classic Movies channel is showing Academy Award winning films all day every day this month in a series called “31 Days of Oscar.” I watched Lord of the Rings: Return of the King last night and realized something.
I would remember that trilogy for the rest of my life.
I hadn’t read the books before I saw the first movie. I remember seeing the trailer and being very intrigued. Then I saw the movie and knew I had seen something incredible. I was in 8th grade when Fellowship came out. After that, my friend Tim and I became obsessive teen fanboys. He had read the trilogy plus the supplemental materials before, but we enjoyed the movies together.
I kept a daily countdown until the release of The Two Towers. Every day in chemistry class I would tell my friend Chris how many days were left; he wouldn’t care, but I couldn’t care enough. We bought our tickets in advance and went opening weekend I believe.
We repeated the same process for Return of the King, except I read all of the books before I saw it. I simply could not wait until December to find out what happened. (I’ve read the trilogy twice through since then.) So seeing Return, I had a different perspective, yet I enjoyed it as much as I did the others.
I remember being picked up from school with Tim by my sister Elise. Tim was just crawling into the back seat when Elise began to accelerate. Tim’s foot was not yet in the door, so it got caught beneath the moving tires for a moment. He was pretty jarred, but he made it, and we made to the theater to enjoy what we knew would be the final run-through of our annual ritual. Though we could extend our ritual further with the release of the extended DVDs. I’ve since watched the entire trilogy straight through with Tim—good times.
Lord of the Rings went on to box office and Oscar glory, but it also won the hearts of many youth. My dad never caught on to it; the weird names and twisting plot makes it hard for the Boomers to latch onto it. But it is essentially the Star Wars of my generation. Filmmakers will try for its revolutionary special effects and cultural impact for years. But above all, I will always associate LOTR with the fondness of my youth.
I will think of the great epic story, the lovable heroes, and the grand magic of cinema that creates a world out of nothing to entertain and enlighten the child in everyone.