Friday, January 30, 2015

A Bad Movie disses Tolkien

So, several months back I saw some discussion online (I think on the MythSoc list) about a new movie that at one point spoke slightingly of Tolkien.  While the description sounded pretty bad, I wanted to suspend judgment until I had a chance to watch it for itself, both to confirm the quote and to make sure I got it in context. And it turns out to be just as bad as they said.

The movie in question is THE CONGRESS [2013], staring Robin Wright as an aging actress named 'Robin Wright'. Nearing the end of her career, she reluctantly agrees to sell rights to the studio to continue to make films using her digital image.

Although this sounds like descriptions I've read of Connie Willis's REMAKE [1995], the filmmakers instead credit Stanislaus Lem's THE FUTUROLOGICAL CONGRESS [1971], which I've also never read. In any case, Ari Folman, the director, says that he added the entire opening third of the film (the whole framing story regarding 'Robin Wright'); he also said that his film shd not be thought of as an adaptation of Lem's work but as having been inspired by it.

As for the Tolkien content, this comes in the scene, about thirty-two minutes into the 2-hour movie, in which 'Wright' is being badgered by her studio's executive to sign away all digital rights to her image. In need of the money, she eventually agrees but her agent stipulates a few reservations: no Nazis, no porn, no sci-fi. The executive  ("Jeff", a vicious parody of arrogant, clueless Hollywood tycoons in general and Miramax's Harvey Weinstein in particular*) protests that Nazis and Holocausts bring in awards but eventually waives the point. He insists, however, on the sci-fi as a big money maker, which leads to the following exchange:



[Agent] 
No sci-fi, Jeff. Sci-fi is a dumb genre in our opinion. She's never done sci-fi before. And she's not gonna do it now.

[Jeff]
Well if she'd done one sci-fi this contract would be worth six times as much!
No sci-fi, no contract.

['Robin Wright'] 
Then no contract.

[Jeff] 
Why? Why, sci-fi — Sci-fi's fantasy.


[Jeff]
 Do you know how many people read Lord of the Rings?
One-thousandth of a single percent, of the people
that went to see the movie, read the book.
And you wanna know why? Because it's one hell 
of a complicated read, that's why.
It's a nightmare to get through. it's boring!

[Agent]
Did you read it before you made the movie?

[Jeff]
ha ha. Are you kidding?
But I saw the movie. And that's why we make movies.



Aside from the obvious irony --- a character in a sci-fi movie deriding sci-fi movies -- this is wrong on so many levels. Granted that 'Jeff' is presented as an expert who doesn't really know what he's talking about, scriptwriter Forman** has picked an egregiously inappropriate example. If he were to go with, say, how many people have read THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ as opposed to how many have seen the film THE WIZARD OF OZ, or how many have seen Hitchcock's film PSYCHO vs how many have read Rbt Bloch's novel, his example might hold up better. Some books are buried by their movie adaptations, but THE LORD OF THE RINGS is not one of them.

Granted that the Tolkien movies were huge, world-wide hits (bringing in about a billion dollars each at the box office, plus another billion each through dvd sales, plus billions more through computer games and merchandising), his math simply doesn't work out for the simple reason that a LOT of people have read Tolkien. There's no way to know just how many, but estimates run to some one hundred and fifty million copies of THE LORD OF THE RINGS sold,*** and about another hundred million copies of THE HOBBIT. And while not everyone who's bought a copy has read it, there are many, many copies in libraries out there.

Now it's been a long time since I did much math, but given that the world population is now about seven billion people (7,000,000,000), one percent of that would be about seventy million (70,000,000). And a thousandth of that would be seventy thousand (70,000) -- which is obviously off to a massive, staggering degree so far as the number of people who've read Tolkien goes.  Or to look at it from the other direction, take a hundred and fifty million readers (150,000,000) and multiply by a thousandfold, which get us about a hundred and fifty billion (150,000,000,000). Then multiply that by a hundred for a total of fifteen trillion (15,000,000,000,000). In short, the movie's claiming that the number of people who've seen THE LORD OF THE RINGS movies massively exceeds the total world population.

No wonder the movie-making industry is notorious for 'Hollywood accounting'!

The natural conclusion is that the film-maker wanted to make a point about films reaching a massively larger audience than a work of literature -- a debatable point in itself, given that some books are far more successful than the movies based on them, while some movies are more popular than the book they're based on; it depends on the book and the movie -- and picked an egregiously inept example to try to make his point.


--John R.
current reading: THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS by Colin Dexter [1992]
today's song: Tecolote by Bread.

P.S.: Did I mention that the movie was bad? The first third is slow and mannered, with the characters self-consciously delivering speeches rather than carrying on dialogue with each other.  The remaining (animated) two-thirds is incoherent, more stream of consciousness than anything else. It may have a plot, but if so the director doesn't feel any obligation to share it with the viewer.


*just to show that they're specifically targeting Weinstein, the fictional studio is called MIRAMOUNT in the movie, an obvious dig at Weinstein's MIRAMAX (as well as also Paramount).


**some of the blame shd probably go to script editor Ori Sivan, who really shd have fixed this.

And yes, they're counting all three volumes as one book, so this figure doesn't mean 50 million each of the three volumes but 150 sets or single-volume editions -- a truly staggering amount.




Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/28-15)

Thanks to beautiful gentle Cameo's adoption Tuesday night we're back to four cats today: MR TIZZYANUBUS AUGUSTUS (GUS), and bonded pair GUNNAR and GYPSY. And I think for the first time since I've been volunteering we have more male cats than female ones (three to one).

We started out the morning with long walks for all four cats. There was some anxious mewing at times but they're all starting to get the hang of it and I think enjoying getting out of the room. Gypsy kept climbing up on the big cushions along the back wall of the store and purring; she'd clearly like to take one of them 'home' with her. 

The new cat-stand and new arrangement of the room looks good. Anubus went into his favorite place, Tizzy settled atop the basket on the bench, which got him pretty close to where he used to go on the now-vanished catstand -- though he keeps thinking he can squeeze between the two uprights on that stand and keeps finding out he's wrong. Gypsy was out and about, while Gunnar enjoyed the cagetops. 

We had plenty of time for games. I discovered that Tizzy rather likes the gopher game. The feather duster was a winner with Gypsy, Tizzy, and Gunnar. The string game went over well with Gunnay, Gypsy, and Tizzy. And everybody loved the catnip.

Late in the morning when doing up the input/output sheets I noticed several people commenting on how much the cats liked the new feathers-on-a-string, so I broke that out and wow, were they right. All four cats were enthusiastic; even Anubus wanted to play, though since he didn't want to come out this meant I had to try to swish the feathers so that they'd land on his shelf inside the cabinet. Easier said than done. Still, they had a good time all around, and sad faces when it was time to go back into cages. 

Several visitors, plus the cats made some friends when out on their walks, but no one who seemed to be thinking about adoptions. 

All in all, a quiet morning.

--John R


P.S. And just as I'm finishing this up this Thursday evening comes news that we now have four new cats, bringing us back up to eight -- not far shy of a full room. Here's hoping the newcomers get along well with those already in Tukwila (a fairly easygoing bunch).

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Congratulations are in Order (THE JOURNAL OF TOLKIEN RESEARCH)

So, last week (Thursday?) I received word that the new online JOURNAL OF TOLKIEN RESEARCH has now launched, posting the first article* from their first volume at the following link:

http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/vol1/iss1/1/

It's good to see another venue for Tolkien scholarship, to join such journals as TOLKIEN STUDIES, MYTHLORE, MALLORN, VII, the JOURNAL OF INKLINGS STUDIES, et al. Unlike these more traditional publications, the JTR is electronic, with no print edition -- that is, as I understand it, it's more like a dedicated website than a print journal.  The editor is Brad Eden, organizer of the Tolkien track at Kalamazoo and also editor of two collections of Tolkien criticism: MIDDLE-EARTH MINSTREL (about music and Tolkien) and THE HOBBIT AND TOLKIEN'S MYTHOLOGY (which includes my own essay "Anchoring the Myth: The Impact of THE HOBBIT on Tolkien's Legendarium"). And the Review Editor is Doug Anderson, best known to Tolkien scholars for THE ANNOTATED HOBBIT and his work establishing the text of THE LORD OF THE RINGS but also widely published in fantasy and horror criticism (e.g. his anthologies of the works of Kenneth Morris and of Wm Hope Hodgson and, more recently, of Evangeline Walton**).

This being a new kind of format for a Tolkien journal,  it'll be interesting to see how that new model works, how often new pieces get posted, and the like. I hope they get a diverse and lively set of reviews up, since this is something I always enjoy in a journal (and find a prime source of suggested reading as well).   I also hope that at some point old issues cd be made available in shelf-able form for those among us who like our reference material within physical covers.

So, here's wishing them success in a new and interesting venture.

--John R.

*a look at elements of the Orpheus/Eurydice legend in the Luthien and Beren story.
**cf. his 'Tolkien and Fantasy' blog (http://tolkienandfantasy.blogspot.com/) and also the site Wormwoodiana (http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/), to which he is a contributor.

A Book I Won't Be Reading

So, they've just announced that the first Stieg Larsson book not by Stieg Larsson is due out in August.  I won't be buying, or reading it.

I enjoyed the three-book series by Larsson himself (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST),* scarifying as it was in places, but there's no need to read faux-Larsson books.  Not only did Larsson (inadvertently) down pen at a good stopping place, but the whole 'V. C. Andrews (TM)' trends needs to be discouraged whenever possible.

For those who feel otherwise, here's the link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/27/sequel-stieg-larsson-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo-trilogy-out-august

--John R.


*as well as the movies based on them -- the original Swedish ones starring Noomi Rapace, that is, not the Hollywoodized Daniel Craig remake.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Newest Publication!

So, a few days ago I got the news that my newest publication is now out, the essay "The Missing Women: Tolkien's Lifelong Committment to Women's Higher Education", which appears in the collection PERILOUS AND FAIR: WOMEN IN THE WORKS AND LIFE OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN,* ed. Leslie A. Donavan and Janet Brennan Croft, from the Mythopoeic Press.  There doesn't seem to be any entry up for it yet on the Mythopoeic Press site (http://www.mythsoc.org/press/), though it's available for order through amazon.com:

http://www.amazon.com/Perilous-Fair-Women-Works-Tolkien/dp/1887726012/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422412015&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=preilous+and+fair

I have not yet gotten my author's copy, but gather it shd soon be available as a e-book as well.


I have to say, I'm delighted to have this essay finally be in print. It's an idea I've had for years; at least since I first learned that there was now a J. R. R. Tolkien Professor at Oxford, an endowed chair, and that it was attached to one of the women's colleges (this wd have been about the time of the 1992 centenary conference or possibly before).  I kept waiting for someone better qualified than myself to write it. Ideally the author of this topic shd be a woman, an academic familiar with the Oxford system, preferably English and of an older generation. I'm none of these things, but eventually concluded that if I didn't do it myself it just wasn't going to get done. I hope that at the least I've started the ball rolling; raised the topic so that others now can join in and carry it in more directions than I cd in a single piece -- it's really more a topic for a book than an essay, though I did my best within what space I had. I think this all the more likely because when I delivered it at the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo the year before last (May 2013), the comments I got on it from people who came up and talked with me afterwards all took the form of pointed out more examples I could use, things that would add to and expand my case.

In brief, I argue against the widespread notion that Tolkien was a man who spent most of his time, by choice, in exclusively male company. As a corollary of that, I lay out the evidence that Tolkien was throughout his entire career a staunch supporter of women pursuing advanced degrees (a viewpoint not universal at Oxford in his day -- C. S. Lewis being an unabashed advocate of the opposite view).

As for the book as a whole, I remember the bad old days when critics of Tolkien used to glibly talk about how Tolkien didn't have any female characters -- something true of THE HOBBIT but not so much of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention THE SILMARILLION.  The advent of the Jackson films did a lot to challenge that preconception: those who felt Jackson had gotten the characters of Arwen or Galadriel or Eowyn wrong were moved to discuss what they felt these characters' true natures to be, and that discussion, having long since drifted from film-and-text comparisons back to purely literary discussion, shows no sign of stopping anytime soon, as the contents of this collection show.

I'm looking forward to getting my copy so I can read through my fellow contributors' contributions. It shd be enlightening.

--John R.

current reading: THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: An Inspector Morse novel by Colin Dexter [1992]
current dvd: AMERICAN RADICAL: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein [2009]

*I think my essay's inclusion is the reason for the 'and life' in the title;  I think mine is the only biographical piece in this collection.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Cat Report (W. 1/21-15)

So, with the adoption of little SPIDER MONKEY (now 'Ebony') to a v. good home, we're now down to five cats. This allows for a certain roominess, with the cats not being too crowded. And it shows: now that last weeks' newcomers are settling in the hissing has stopped as everyone has found some favorite places.

With there only being five cats, I was able to walk them all, one by one. Mr. TIZZY's walk was lengthy but uneventful. ANUBUS found out how to open the front door and was all for going out to have a look-see at the great outdoors; I had to dissuade him. CAMEO discovered the big cushions along the back wall and thought she'd like to climb up on them and, once up, to settle down and enjoy all the cushiness. She was a little indignant at having to move. All in all, she did very well. GYPSY, after some initial suspicion, also had a good time exploring, and a still better time coming back in (or so I assume from all the purring when she came back in). GUNNAR was v. nervous and squirmed when held but was somewhat braver when on his own furry feet. 

After everyone was back inside I tried to tempt Tizzy with a game, but he wasn't much interested. He shifted from the cat-stand by the door to the bench, where he found himself face-to-face with Gypsy; neither hissed, I'm glad to say. Then he passed right by Cameo (again, with neither hissing) to claim his favorite spot: the cat-stand by the cabinet (the top level today, given that Cameo was already on the level he usually chooses). 

Cameo lazed about on the mid-level of the same cat-stand. Gypsy stalked a bug that may have been imaginary (though in any case she had a good time pursuing it). Gunnar found the fresh catnip in my bag, dragged it out, and eviscerated the little bag it was in, strewing it all about  so everybody could have a share. And there was much rejoicing. 


Gypsy and Gunnar have learned how to use the steps to go up and come down from Cagetop Land. Gunnar, the most active and alert cat in the room today, discovered Anubus's secret place (behind the blankets on the top shelf in the cabinet) and tried to work out how to get in there and share that spot but couldn't figure it out. I'd say he's well on his way to asserting himself as Boss Cat, mainly through all the other cats not caring one way or the other.


Just before the cats went into their cages,  a PetsMart employee came in with three little pouches of cat-treats that someone had just given the room's cats for a donation. Cameo recognized them for what they were right away and came straight over to turn on the charm and ask for one. I felt bad not giving her one, but last I knew we morning cleaner/socializers weren't to give the cats any treats -- I assume that still holds?

When it was time for everyone to go back inside at end of shift, I noticed that Cameo was water-dipping her food. Or, to be more accurate, she'd take a bite of cat-kibble then turn her head to the left, over the water bowl. A piece or two would drop into the water, and she'd fish it out and eat if off her paw. She did this time and time again, over and over. A bit odd, but very cute.

And that's about it for another week. We've got a good set of cats -- no psycho-kitties, not too crowded, with the cats more inclined to ignore each other than get into tussles or hiss-offs.  Here's hoping more adoptions are in the offing soon, esp. for Tizzy and Anubus, who've been with us about two months now.

--John R.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My Confederate Ancestor

So, I've long known that my great-great grandfather, James Shelton Rateliff, fought in the Civil War -- after all, I've visited his grave near Hope, Arkansas, which is marked not with a headstone but with a Confederate cross. I knew the family was living in Mississippi at the time and moved to Arkansas (via NW Louisiana) immediately following the war (I assume to escape the famine that swept the South following the collapse of the Confederacy*). According to family legend, he spent time in a prisoner of war, but lacking information about where in Mississippi he came from I've been unable to trace the family further back.

Until this week, when I was poking about online and finally found a reference to J.S.R. and his Confederate career. I still don't know what unit he belonged to, but apparently he enlisted on May 9th 1862 in Monroe, Louisiana (I would have assumed some Mississippi regiment) and was indeed a prisoner of war, albeit briefly. According to the posted information, which I have yet to confirm, he served in the siege of Vicksburg (a truly horrific episode, often overlooked in accounts of the war, which tend to focus on events back east). After the town surrendered, he was taken prisoner (on July 4th, 1863) but surprisingly was released just two days later "after signing an Oath of Loyalty" (July 6th, 1863). Initially I thought it a bit odd that, having captured the town, the victorious Yankees simply let all the defenders go home, unless it was plain that the starved defenders were simply clearly in no shape to pose a threat to anybody. But a little further reading shows that this was standard practice during the first half of the war -- in fact, apparently most of the men who surrendered at Vicksburg made their way to Mobile, where they were re-armed.

I know some about the Mississippi River campaign from living in Arkansas and having visited both Shiloh (a crucial Southern defeat) and Vicksburg back in my Boy Scout days; now I'll have to find out more. If the posted information is right, he signed up just after the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), but I'm not sure what the Army of Mississippi was doing in the year between Shiloh and the surrender of Vicksburg. I also don't know whether my great-great grandfather was one of those who showed up at Mobile a month after leaving Vicksburg -- if so, he may have taken part in the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and the rest of the (ultimately futile) effort to stop Sherman.

But, at any rate, I now have a starting point; a place to begin and explore outwards from. It'll be interesting to see what I can uncover about the rest of this ancestor's military career once he got caught up in the bloodiest war we've ever fought.

--John R.


*in the words of the song,
"In the winter of '65
We were hungry
just barely alive"
--Joan Baez, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"