Thursday, January 02, 2014

Peter Jackson, Epic Dwarves and Extraordinary Bodies

by J J Cohen

Steve Mentz has a great blog post (Just Get There: Hobbit 2 as Whitewater Epic) on the latest installment of the Hobbit trilogy. The piece is not only extraordinarily well written, it is hilarious. Read it! I want to reflect here a little on The Desolation of Smaug as (in Steve's apt words) "an epic whitewater serpent."

I knew what I was getting into when I signed up to go to the film, so I don't have any negativity about the thing -- yes, it is too long, too self-referential (return of the carrot eating man at the Prancing Pony!), too LotR part deux, too profligate in its goldbad fan fiction, but, whatever. Steve notes that The Hobbit (the book) is not an epic and never aspired to be, and its dwarves are -- in Tolkien's own words -- "not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money." Indeed, Tolkien's narrative is classic anti-epic (small in scale, resolutely non-heroic, deeply ambivalent about war). So Steve asks a rather profound question of genre and the epic-addled Peter Jackson film:
But Peter Jackson and his machinery will not be denied, and Hobbit 2: Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities walks, quacks, and breathes fire like an epic. How does he do it? What can epic make of a furry-footed hero and his vertically-challenged if facially hirsute comrades?
His blog post does an excellent job of mapping the story's progress as a flow: the there-and-back-again circularity of The Hobbit (novel) yields to the rushing rivers (of water, of gold) in the film. Steve's observation "Everything flows: is Jackson’s real Muse Heraclitus?" is spot-on.

As I watched the film I contemplated a related question, wondering if a children's book of such small scale (emphasized in its small characters) really could become an epic -- and then I wondered why I should wonder that. Who gets to be included in an epic, and who must be left out, or left to the edges? Why can't dwarves -- the characters Steve calls the "vertically-challenged if facially hirsute comrades" -- be epic heroes? Why are dwarves always, even in the sagas and medieval works, always bit players, never protagonists or heroes?

The dwarves have a much expanded role in the film, much larger than in the book, where they often seem like so much background to Bilbo's fussiness and adventuring. We all know that hobbits are not epic-worthy; that's the point of hobbits. They are the humane, domestic, tea-loving and diminutive figures around and for whom action swirls. Epic demands vastness of scale: wizards! trolls! ents! elves! oliphaunts! and other tall creatures! It also demands passion -- so we get the Aragorn-Arwen romance, much played up in the LotR films. Gimli son of Glóin tries his best to be part of the film's epic action, but he is always a little ridiculous, some light-hearted defeat of epic expectations offered in order to support those expectations. Gimli can't run as quickly as Aragorn and Legolas when they are reduced to a threesome and has to be scooped onto a horse. In one particularly awful scene at Helm's Deep he is hurled by Aragorn (that's the bar game of dwarf tossing being invoked; it's supposed to be funny but...). Gimli's love for Galadriel embarrasses even him  -- and is cutely tame as well (he gets a single hair from her; she is impossible as love-object, and that's the point). Dwarves are not sexual: their short and non-handsome bodies bar them from desire. Aragon tells Éowyn in the extended version of Two Towers that dwarf women can't be discerned from the males because they also have beards. Dwarves are small guys and it is funny when they try to act big. Epic has small space for them -- unlike hobbits, who are beloved, the ones with the good hearts and the jolly reminders of embodied life; their quiet life in the Shire provides the reason Epic Guys do what they do).

Think of Tyrion "the Imp" Lannister, the dwarf from Game of Thrones: he is hypersexual, a trait that is supposed to be repulsive and attractive. He knows he is not supposed to be eligible for sexual attraction, and yet he keeps on desiring, to the horror of some and the delight of others. He's a violent schemer, a charismatic monster, a mini Richard III, and he's appropriately loved-hated for that. He is not a "mythic" dwarf, not a member of a race: he is the disabled body in a court full of beautiful if wicked people. His disability is what makes him a freak and extraordinary to be stared at (to use three of Rosemarie Garland Thomson's terms for the spectacular work of disability).

I bring up Tyrion, a "real" dwarf, because it struck me as I watched the Hobbit 2 that the film is in part a disability epic. That is, it tries to imagine epic within a non-normate field of vision, from a point of view that is not the traditional gaze of the camera/viewer. The film imagines the world that exists for people who are not Epically Tall elves, men and wizards without diminishing it, without making it cute, domestic, and precious like a hobbit hole and its gardens. A figure that is not tall is not out of place here, and is not made juvenile or naive. What happens when scale and point of view are forced to adjust, so that bodies supposed to be ridiculous and not overly martial and not at all sexual reveal themselves to be all those things? What of a world in which a dwarf can be battle-machine not in a way that offers whimsical contrast with an adept elf (Gimli and Legolas), but straightforwardly and without contrast (dwarves versus orcs during the epic whitewater fight through Mirkwood)? What of a world in which being a dwarf does not necessarily entail inhabiting a disfigured body (though admittedly, it does for many: facial prostheses are used for the majority of the dwarves)? What of a world that might even allow one dwarf to love his wife and little boy enough to carry a portrait of them (Glóin), another to be a doppelganger for Strider (Thorin), and a third to be so smoking hot that an elf maiden and legions of fans (23,800 on FB) fall in love with him (Kili)?

Maybe Jackson's inability not to epicalize The Hobbit has actually accomplished something extraordinary: a tale in which non-normate bodies need not be ridiculous, and an adjustment of epic's point of view. Perhaps the cinematic gaze here re-orients epic, away from the tall and conventionally beautiful people who are its usual eye candy, thereby making it a suitable genre for extraordinary bodies. Instead of the well-blazed trail of anti-epic, Jackson forces the genre to recenter its point of view.



Karl Steel said...

Great post. I'm so glad we're seeing the end of the 'Hobbit 2 sucks' posts (Roberts started us off well, then things got unwell for a while).

I love your take on it, so much so that I'm going to propose another, more modest:

many filmic action heroes are famously short: Tom Cruise is 5' 7"; Sylvester Stallone 5' 9½; Daniel Craig 5' 10"; Vin Diesel 5' 11¾; and Bruce Willis, a scant six feet.

TINY PEOPLE, all of them.

That's my argument and I'm sticking to it.

The trick, then, is for Jackson to show the dwarves as short ON FILM, a medium that famously messes with our sense of height. Gillian Anderson is 7 inches shorter than David Duchovney, but you're never know it from watching the X Files. Patrick Stewart is actually only about 2 inches tall, which is how he can squeeze into youtube (5'10", actually, but still tiny to a monster like me).

What I'm suggesting is that the shifting sense of dwarven height -- the sense of 'normalcy' when they're talking to each other or running from the dragon, the shock of seeing one standing next to an elf -- is Jackson's comment on the way that film creates its own scales. By design, we never know our tall our actors are (until we check IMDb); they COULD all be hobbits, or giants, for all we know.

James Mitchell said...

But isn't it true also that the film involves an interplay of different biological species, whereas more traditional pop cultural representations attempt mainly to caricature extremes of human appearance. The Jolly Green Giant is just your normal kind of guy if grossly oversized, while Snow White's dwarves are cutely clad pygmies exhibiting harmless behaviors: ultimately the deviants are all humanoid and thus sui generis, they just look a little different, even if you're Tyrian Lannister.

The Hobbit is for me more like a traditional animal fable, where despite irreconcilable differences all creatures seem to speak the same language -- an elf can interrogate an orc, even if orcs are psychopathically violent and suffer from acute dental problems. The otherness is stringently and evolutionarily biomorphic. If we could talk to predatory animals would we able to come to terms somehow?

The integrationist species-interplay forms the only message in the film: Legolas and Dauriel desert the xenophobic elf king, who rules a world that is as aesthetically irresistible as it is fascist. In this respect it resembles the James Cameron Avatar film, where predatory capitalism makes possible in reaction an ethically responsible approach to the aliens, or more recently in Ender's Game, where male militancy is similarly decried in favor of "understanding" the otherness of the other.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I like that, Karl, and it certainly captures the spirit of the LotR films as well -- especially as Gandalf meets with Frodo and a height difference that isn't that great is made to seem immense. That's all in the same spirit of film making that makes it seem Tom Cruise is taller than he really is, even if he has to stand on a box sometimes to seem that way.There's a famous goof up scene from Fellowship where the hobbits are standing by a railing in Rivendell ... and it is chest high to them. Jackson's playing with scale causes some vertiginous shifts, and that's part of the fun.

But I'm also wondering what happens when the less tall access to the world is inhabited not as a place of adorable, domestic and humorous (if also sturdy) contrast to the larger, more epic frames. In LotR the small scale of the hobbits emphasizes their precarity: they are constantly in danger, and that peril is made clear from their POV. That's not the tactic of the Hobbit films though with its non-domestic, non-cute dwarves: a small scale gets inhabited and it KICKS ASS. Sometimes, at least. No contrast to epic so much as epic rescaled.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

James, I take your point ... it is about interspecies being, of course, and much of the action unfolds from the POV of men or elves, and that is what we expect. But what's interesting about the film to me is that when it inhabits how the world is accessed through the dwarves it does so without juvenilizing the frame, or making it homey. Think of Snow White's dwarves, who are big kids in need of a mother figure. Think of the hobbits, who are well domesticated children, with their naps and their eating schedules and their life of small pleasures. Not so these dwarves, at least: there is a kind of species difference (even while all species become versions of human, admittedly: it's just that one of the those versions yields something like disabled access).

James Mitchell said...

Did you notice, Jeffrey, that the motion picture rating board rated the film PG-13 for "violence" and for scenes depicting "smoking"? It was never exactly clear what was in that pipeweed to begin with, so the hobbits might be less "homey" than we thought! Clearly they're starting to make the film board uncomfortable, and because there is successively less smoking in each of the films,I bet there won't be any at all in the next.

I should have mentioned that the different species available in Middle Earth are forcibly united only due to the battle against EVIL (= mid-20th c. fascism, as some say); otherwise one supposes they would remain in their undialectical state and have nothing at all to do with each other. As in the sci-fi movies and in Hegelian terms, it is evil that generates its own negation.

Steve Mentz said...

Fun stuff! I enjoy the notion of dwarf-epic, though if I wasn't taking the kids sledding today I might pick at the status of dwarves in JRRT: like Ents, they are an early-made semi-false start, made by Aule not Illuvatar, right? A half side-step away from Elves & Men? Gimli is more heroic in prose than on screen: he wins the orc-count at Helm's Deep, I think. Assorted flavors of semi-epic and anti-epic in circulation in Middle Earth, though w/o really attenuating the basic dominance of the epic/tragic/nostalgic mode.

Ben Fritzson said...

Nice post, but I think you might have one of the details wrong. The Gimli-tossing scene from the Helm's Deep sequence isn't a reference to bad bar behavior (at least not at all directly), but is instead a reference to a related line in The Fellowship of the Ring; near the end of the Moria sequence, when they're on the long collapsing stairway, Aragorn tosses some of the hobbits across a gap and moves to do the same to Gimli who objects, gruffly exclaiming, "Nobody tosses a dwarf!" before attempting to make the jump on his own (before failing and being saved by his beard).

It may be an undignified line, but it's not as nasty as you seem to see it.

Ben Fritzson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Bérubé said...

Fascinating post ... I think this is a really productive/provocative reading of the film. Just one disability-related caveat-- as in LOTR, significant facial disfigurement is an index of depravity and vastly diminished cognitive capacity. Orcs, obviously, but the trolls are even worse (in Fellowship as in Hobbit 1: The Inhobbiting).

Michael Bérubé said...

And of course no discussion of smoking in Middle-Earth would be complete without this classic:

Karl Steel said...

"moves to do the same to Gimli who objects, gruffly exclaiming, "Nobody tosses a dwarf!" before attempting to make the jump on his own (before failing and being saved by his beard)."

although that just shifts the problem. The words "toss" and "dwarf" can't be used in the same sentence without there being some allusion to dwarf-tossing. What's threatened in LOTR1 is realized, unfortunately, in LOTR2.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl: For someone who *claims* not to know about Tolkien, you certainly have the "dwarf + toss" allusions in LOTR1 and LOTR2 down to a T. I'd agree that there can't NOT be an allusion to dwarf-tossing here which makes the chummy Aragorn-Gimli banter less funny.

@Jeffrey: Great posting here (v. interesting reworking of Rosemarie's notions of "beholding" here), and this piggybacks (weird verb, I know) from Steve's posting nicely. Steve already notes Brantley Bryant's work on epic heroism in Jackson's LOTR trilogy -- but what interests me here is actually how Jackson's Hobbit1 and Hobbit2 might chart a number of concurrent trajectories for "little guy heroism" here. Dwarves and Hobbits are little creatures but have different *cultural* and genre-mapped value-systems that inflect how they can inhabit the "norms" of (male, human) heroism. Structures of reoriented "scale" and POV of epic (dwarves) -- but also a reworking of the unlikely/reluctant underdog-heroes of romance (hobbits).