Category: Movies

Concerning Tolkiens

A few weeks back, Tom Spurgeon had this to say:

[F]or some reason I ended up with this Christopher Tolkien Le Monde interview in my bookmarks folder. It's instructive to read something about a family wanting certain rights returned or better rewarded when most people really like what's been done with those rights as opposed to their either not caring or actively hating the result. One of the reasons a lot of our comics-related issue discussions remain unsophisticated is that we frequently choose to fight our battles along fundamental "I like it"/"I hate it" lines and then kind of furiously stare at the other issues involved until we can find a way to make them comply to our initial impression. It's no way to move forward.

He's not wrong. Given my established stance on creators' rights -- and creators' heirs' rights -- I'd be remiss in not confronting this conundrum.

Now, I like the movies. They're not perfect (The Two Towers, in particular, completely botches the narrative arc, overemphasizing the importance of Helm's Deep and an inexplicable new Osgiliath subplot while shunting the two actual climaxes of the book to the first act of the third movie -- and in one case, removing it from the theatrical cut entirely), but on the whole they're really pretty good. But yeah, there are some uncomfortable facts surrounding them.

To reiterate: my stance is that copyright law lasts far too long; in my opinion The Hobbit should have been public domain by now. But given that it isn't, we should respect the rights of the creators -- and given that, in this case, JRR Tolkien is no longer with us, we should respect the rights of his heirs. For legal purposes, the Tolkien Estate is JRR Tolkien.

But there are a couple of other factors at work here, too.

It was JRR himself who sold the film rights. Willingly, and with the intent to make sure his heirs were cared for financially.

That said, he was taken advantage of. Ever hear of the first ever Hobbit movie? It was made in a month, ran 12 minutes, and was only screened once -- because Tolkien's lawyers were incompetent, and left a loophole allowing the studio to retain the rights to Lord of the Rings as long as they produced a full-color film by a given deadline. Length and distribution were not specified; a 12-minute movie screened once satisfied the contract.

It wouldn't be the last time lawyers worked to game the system. Forty years later, Warner would produce the blockbuster Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and, through the usual Hollywood creative bookkeeping tactics, claim that it had not turned any profit and therefore they didn't owe any money to the Tolkien Estate. It took a lawsuit for the Estate to receive any money from the films.

(This is the point in any creators' rights debate where some corporate apologist inevitably explains to me that publicly-traded companies are beholden to their shareholders and therefore obligated to hoard as much money as humanly possible and do everything they can to avoid paying a single cent more than they have to. Why, it would be unethical for them not to try and get out of paying the Tolkien Estate! I welcome any such apologist to explain to me precisely how it was in Time Warner shareholders' best interest to expose the company to multiple lawsuits -- not just from the Tolkiens but from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who New Line also tried to stiff -- and trap The Hobbit in development hell for the better part of a decade, to the point where it appeared for quite some time that it wouldn't get made at all.)

And there's one more sad old saw that the apologists like to trot out: "Well, what did the heirs ever do?" That's one I see a lot in the conversations about the heirs of Jack Kirby, or Jerry Siegel, or Joe Shuster, et al.

I think it's a hollow argument. Creators do their work expecting to leave something for their families, and dismissing heirs outright effectively means giving luck-of-the-draw based on the age at which a person dies. (Do you believe Jack Kirby should have received money from The Avengers if he had lived to 95, and would have left that money to his children? If so, why do you believe his children don't deserve that money just because he died at 76? If not, then what the hell does it matter whether his heirs did the work or not, if you don't think the guy who did do the work shouldn't have been compensated for the adaptation?)

But even if you don't buy that line of reasoning, well, this is one case where "What did the heirs ever do?" is a pretty piss-poor rhetorical question. Because in this case the answer is "Assemble, edit, and publish about 30 of his books." Make no mistake -- Christopher Tolkien hasn't simply sat back and waited for checks to roll in; he has made it his life's work to get as much of his father's work into print as humanly possible. And it's not so simple as just finding old pages and retyping them -- many of the writings are fragmentary, and many would be incomprehensible without Christopher's extensive annotations. Without his work, Tolkien's body of published work would be far poorer.

Actually, that brings up another point entirely: the Hobbit movie isn't simply an adaptation of The Hobbit. It includes material from Unfinished Tales -- a book which I'm fairly confident Warner, MGM, et al do not have the movie rights to.

Now, I'm sure Warner's got very expensive lawyers on this. And maybe I'm misremembering -- it's been years since I read Unfinished Tales, longer since I read Lord of the Rings, longer still since I read The Hobbit. Maybe the LotR appendices have enough information about the Fall of Erebor, how Thorin earned the name Oakenshield, Gandalf's meeting with Thráin, and the White Council that Jackson, Walsh, Boyens, and del Toro can plausibly claim that they only adapted material from The Hobbit and LotR -- but if I were the Tolkien Estate's lawyers, I'd be poring over the movie right now looking for material from Unfinished Tales and any other posthumously-published Tolkien work that the studios never bought the rights for.

All that said? I like the LotR films and the Hobbit film. I'm sorry that Christopher Tolkien wishes they didn't exist, and I feel a little bad about that. I feel worse still about how the studios have treated the Tolkien Estate, and I believe it's genuinely unconscionable that they tried to stiff them out of compensation for the films. And yes, I suspect that the latest movie does adapt material from books it's not legally allowed to. (I'm also none too happy about the reports of union-busting and animal mistreatment, come to that.)

Stuff like this is personal. I believe that, for example, The Avengers hit a point where I couldn't in good conscience pay to see the movie; I believe that The Hobbit, despite the caveats above, did not. I believe the point that Tolkien's heirs do get a substantial amount of money from their father's work -- even if they had to go to court for some of it -- while Kirby's and Heck's heirs don't is a major reason for that. Spurgeon's point is intriguing -- but I really do like to think I've formed my opinions based on the circumstances of the dispute, and not simply looked for facts that made me feel good about seeing a movie I already wanted to see.

tl;dr I think The Hobbit was pretty great. There are some uncomfortable things going on behind the scenes and we should think about those. Personally I don't think they justify a boycott -- but everyone should be aware of them, consider them, and come to their own conclusions.

Concerning Hobbits

Well, I really liked The Hobbit. Though I'm a Tolkien geek (let's go through the list: read all the appendices in LotR, read The Silmarillion twice, Unfinished Tales, both volumes of The Book of Lost Tales, and The Lays of Beleriand; I've got a couple more books in the set that I haven't gotten around to because you can only read so many different versions of The Children of Húrin before you need a break) and I can understand the mixed reviews from people whose hearts aren't filled with joy at hearing Gandalf's semantic deconstruction of the phrase "Good morning."

Let me start off by saying, I saw the IMAX 3D version, but not the HFR version -- my local IMAX is still equipped with a film projector, no digital. (As such I didn't see the Star Trek feature or any trailers, either.) So I can't speak to HFR. The comments I've heard from family who have range from "It didn't make much difference" to "It gave me a headache, and the CG characters looked great but the human actors looked terrible."

All that said: there are plenty of other eccentricities to the film, and while I think they all come out okay, I can see why there's disagreement.

(Spoilers follow. Though I think they're pretty minor, all things considered.)

Foremost, It's the first of three three-hour movies adapted from a book that could be comfortably translated to 90 minutes.

And, related, it achieves that length by padding it out with tonally-inconsistent material from other books.

Much of which includes appearances by characters who aren't in the book, most of them from the LotR films.

Truth be told, I'm okay with all those things.

First: the reality is, while The Hobbit the book is a standalone novel which was published prior to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit the films are prequels to an already-successful movie trilogy. There are different expectations here -- and for continuity's sake, the audience wants to see familiar actors reprising their roles.

That said, none of it felt tacked-on to me. Even the framing sequence with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood -- well, okay, so it seems to imply that Bilbo wrote the whole book in a single day and that seems pretty nutty, but aside from that, it provides a sense of continuity with the LotR films, and also allows Holm to narrate the Dwarves' backstory.

Which I suppose brings me to the point of extraneous material: while this film pads out The Hobbit with material from other books (mostly Unfinished Tales), it adapts that material faithfully. There are some liberties here and there (like the White Council meeting in Rivendell instead of Lothlórien), but on the whole it's true to the backstory that Tolkien wrote.

And the thing is, considering The Hobbit as prequel instead of a standalone work, it's important to include the portions of the story that lead into Lord of the Rings. The Necromancer in Dol Guldur? Not only does that story lay the groundwork for LotR, it's also central to Gandalf's motivation. Why is the world's greatest wizard interested in thirteen Dwarves' quest to slay a dragon? Because he doesn't want Sauron to have a dragon. In The Hobbit as a standalone work, that's not really important -- Gandalf's just a mysterious and eccentric old wizard -- but coming from Lord of the Rings first, people are bound to wonder just what he's doing with Thorin's company, and where he's going all those times he wanders off. (And I'm hoping the sequels delve a little deeper into his meeting with Thráin.)

And to that end, bringing in Galadriel and Saruman for a powwow isn't just a tacked-on scene -- it's part of Gandalf's story. And moving it from Lothlórien to Rivendell makes good narrative sense. Plus it gives the movie a chance to depict Elrond in a way that's more consistent with Lord of the Rings -- because let's be honest here, in the books Elrond in The Hobbit and Elrond in LotR may as well be different characters.

(Poor old Christopher Lee, by the way -- he's really not looking so good. And am I correct in thinking he was green-screened in and wasn't even filmed in the same room with the other three actors? Nevertheless, it was good to see him and I'm glad he was in good enough health to shoot the scene.)

The downside, I suppose, is that it does bring in those tonal inconsistencies I mentioned. The Hobbit is a children's fairytale, while Lord of the Rings is an epic myth. They're very different books, written for different audiences -- and the movie version of The Hobbit tries to be both.

Personally I think it succeeds -- I think it does a great job of mixing the light elements of the Bilbo story with the darker ones of Gandalf's, and the Dwarves' backstory -- but I'll acknowledge there's something regrettable about a Hobbit movie that you wouldn't want to take your kids to see, lest the on-screen decapitation of Thrór give them nightmares.

That said, I'm perfectly all right with the trolls resembling the Three Stooges and the Great Goblin being a disgusting, bullfrog-throated wretch played by Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries. There may be some fans (casual or Serious) who don't care for those depictions, but I think they fit the story just fine.

And then there's Radagast. His part of the story is probably the biggest departure from Tolkien's work, but, perhaps not coincidentally, was my favorite. Sylvester McCoy plays him as a wonderfully batty character who is nonetheless wise and compassionate -- not to mention a damn fine wizard. And Gandalf's respect for him, and Saruman's lack thereof, perfectly encapsulate the difference between those two characters: Gandalf sees the value in those who seem humble, meek, weak, or just plain weird, while Saruman's arrogance blinds him to the nature of true power. It's the same mistake he makes in judging Hobbits (though that's got the added dash of hypocrisy that he's quite happy to drink their wine and smoke their pipe-weed).

Which I suppose brings me to another criticism: We've seen this all before. Bilbo's opening narration about the fall of Erebor mirrors Galadriel's narration about the fall of Sauron in Fellowship of the Ring; the battle outside the gates of Moria looks an awful lot like that battle, too. (An aside: nice touch having Balin tell the story of the Dwarves' attempt to recapture Moria. I'm guessing most of the audience won't make the connection to Balin's Tomb in Fellowship, but it's a good bit for the fans.) The escape from Goblin Town is like the escape from Khazad-Dûm re-staged as a comedy. Hell, they even work Weathertop in there.

So, for all of that, I can see how this movie can feel like more of the same -- redundant, maybe even unnecessary.

But for my part, it didn't seem that way -- in fact, I'd say I really enjoyed the hell out of it.

Django Unchained

Nobody makes a revenge flick like Quentin Tarantino.

And nobody makes a movie with racists as the villains, while simultaneously having just a little too much fun depicting racism, as Quentin Tarantino.

Frankly I think reviews are a little superfluous. Quentin Tarantino is a known quantity. If you've ever seen one of his movies, you have a pretty good idea whether or not you're going to like Django Unchained. And if you haven't seen one of his movies, go watch Pulp Fiction.

Business

Frank Zappa: Portrait of the Artist as a Businessman, by Rob Partridge and Paul Phillips, Cream, 1972. Courtesy once again of afka.net.

Frank discusses the business side of things. He was certainly a much savvier and more thorough businessman than most rock artists, then or now -- but his comments about what a good deal he has with Warner Brothers are an indication that he still had some hard lessons left to learn; he'd be singing a much different tune a few years later.

XBMC Frodo

Updated to the latest XBMC beta. It messed up most of my show icons and watched/unwatched status, and for some reason defaulted my sound output to a virtual device instead of the output I'd had it set to previously, but I've got it mostly-fixed now.

There really is a lot to love about XBMC -- it's certainly the best software I've found for easily indexing a video library -- but man it sure is fiddly.

But hopefully this version will fix the previous "stable" version's habit of locking up my system and my video output and forcing me to log out and back in to fix it.

Best/Worst of Times, etc.

Yesterday I talked about Karen Berger's imminent departure from Vertigo, the disappointment I feel as a Vertigo fan, and the excitement I feel wondering what she'll do next.

And you know, that's kind of the perfect metaphor for what it feels like to be a comics fan in general right now. There's just so much bullshit -- but there's so much gold, too.

Since the 1940's, the American comics industry has gone through a regular, 20-year boom-bust cycle. We're in an odd-numbered decade, so if the pattern continues that means we've got another bust coming. And while I think Marvel and especially DC are full-speed-ahead on stupid management decisions to cause the next one, this one's not going to be like the others -- it's going to be smaller, it's going to be confined to those two major publishers, and it's going to happen even as their characters and brands increase in popularity.

Now, both companies seem dead-set on repeating most of the worst excesses of the 1990's -- variant covers, new #1's, big summer crossovers, increasingly muddled continuity reboots, Jim Lee -- and don't seem to get the idea that this is going to go much like it did in the '90's, with a brief boost to sales followed by a crash as everybody gets sick of this crap. DC, in particular, is currently being run by bean counters at Warner who think their best shot at relevance is pushing the Reset button on their universe again and putting out prequels to Watchmen.

Even still, DC's still managing to put out some great books. Dial H is fantastic, Demon Knights is a joy, and Animal Man and Frankenstein were both pretty great until they muddled into an unnecessary crossover. I really don't think it's a coincidence that the best books coming out of DC are the ones that are subject to the least corporate interference and are the least subject to the whims of shared-universe continuity.

And that's just DC proper. Take the the industry as a whole and there's a stunning variety of wild, beautiful, original books -- Saga, Chew, Manhattan Projects, The Massive, to name just a few. There are even some wonderful licensed books -- Adventure Time, Popeye, Godzilla: The Half-Century War. Prophet shows that even a 1990's Liefeld property can turn into a brilliant, offbeat science fiction series worthy of classic Heavy Metal. Dark Horse Presents demonstrates the depth and breadth of modern comics at its greatest, at 80 pages for $8 a month.

And that's just the new stuff. As far as classic comics, there's an embarrassment of riches. When I gave my cousin a copy of The Completely Mad Don Martin -- a collection of the cartoonist's entire Mad output, in two oversized hardcover books in a slipcase, weighing in at about 25 pounds -- my uncle looked at it and said "Did you ever think you'd see anything like this?" The mere idea that, in two generations, Mad has gone from being dismissed as trash to being given reverential treatment.

There's so much in print -- Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse, Carl Barks's Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, exhaustive collections of Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Prince Valiant, Mary Perkins On Stage, Pogo, Tintin. You can get the complete Bone in a single black-and-white volume or a dozen color trades from Scholastic. Love and Rockets is collected in paperbacks or hardcovers, pick your Poison River. The other day I was at the library and saw a huge hardback collection of Walter Simonson's entire Thor run (only the worthy may lift it). There are glorious hardcover collections highlighting the work of Kirby, Ditko, Wood, Davis, Kurtzman, Wolverton, Eisner -- the choices are staggering.

And that's just the stuff that's in print.

You wanna talk about digital? You can buy the entirety of Quantum and Woody right the fuck now (and there's a rumor of two finished-but-never-published issues on the way too). Sure, digital comics has its issues -- DRM and the inevitable platform fragmentation and compatibility problems that DRM causes -- but it's still early days and that stuff'll get ironed out.

And that's just the stuff you have to pay for. Head on over to a site like Digital Comic Museum and you can gaze upon thousands of public-domain comics, completely free of charge.

And that's just the stuff that's available legally.

You want a comic that, for various rights reasons, will never be reprinted? Jack Kirby's 2001? Moore, Bissette, Veitch, et al's 1963? The infamous Air Pirates Funnies? Can't stop the signal; they're easier to find now than they were when they were in print.

So, all in all? It's plenty easy to get frustrated with the direction DC and Marvel are going in. It's easy to foresee their readership tanking and bringing on another crash and panic. But Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are still Hollywood blockbusters; their publishers aren't going away -- and even if they vanished overnight, there would be so much good stuff left to fill the vacuum that I, for one, wouldn't miss them...much.

Truth is, for all the bullshit, I don't think there's ever been a better time to be a comics fan -- not even the 1940's.


And I shouldn't have to say this, but just to be perfectly clear: I am absolutely not advocating illegally downloading comics that are commercially available. Support publishers you like. Support creators you like. Support your local comic shop.

And if you download a work that's out-of-print, or otherwise acquire a book that doesn't benefit the creators or their families, it's a good idea to buy something that does. You like 2001 (or, for that matter, any of Kirby's Marvel work)? Buy Kirby: Genesis and send some money his family's way. Like 1963? Pick up some Swamp Thing trades, and keep an eye out for Bissette's Tales of the Uncanny.

Or whatever it is you're into. Bottom line? Find something you love, support the people who make it happen, and tell your friends.

Peefeeyatko

A documentary by Henning Lohner. Uploaded by, yes, tomtiddler1.

It's a fascinating look at Zappa and his passions -- the mad scientist/monster movie angle is a good choice; Zappa notes in The Real Frank Zappa Book that his first impression on seeing a picture of Edgard Varèse was that he looked like a mad scientist. Zappa was a mad scientist too -- and really this documentary is devoted primarily to his experimentation with new technology, and his determination to reach perfection unattainable by mere mortals and their human error.

That and just making crazy noises.

Underground Merchandising

In the words of uploader and co-director Ed Seeman:

This three minute film was created by Frank Zappa and Me in the late 60's to illustrate the art of UNDERGROUND MERCHANDISING of his album FRAK OUT! [sic] It was the begining of our filming relationship that lasted two years and became the initial shooting for UNCLE MEAT. This opening was shot at the Garrick Theater in Greenwich Village.
I did all the shooting for the next two years with a silent camera so that Frank could score it himself.
To read the whole story check out my Zappa web site at www.edseeman.com/zappa

R&B

Zappa and childhood friend Denny Walley talk about his early blues influences.

Another documentary from the Dutch station VPRO -- man, those guys must love him.

This one appears to be a 2007 doc called Frank Zappa: Pioneer of the Future of Music. At a glance I can't find any place to purchase it legally, which is a shame -- if you know of any, please let me know and I'll gladly link to the store.


Edit 2012-12-29: I've posted the entirety of the documentary.

More Zappa on Politics

This'll probably be the last one of these for awhile.

Per uploader dannen59, "It's from an Austrian documentary called´╗┐ "Das Beste von Frank Zappa - 20 Jahre Extravaganza 1969-1989"."

In a parallel universe somewhere, the 1992 election featured Bush, Clinton, Perot, Zappa, and Nader. A man can dream...