I was almost put off going to see this biopic because of Mark Kermode’s review, which made it sound like nothing more than a series of crudely-drawn parallels between Tolkien’s life and his work. But I found the film far more subtle than that, perhaps because I already knew those parallels — the way the Fellowship of the Ring could be seen as owing something to Tolkien’s close friendships with his fellows in the “Tea Club and Barrovian Society”, for instance, which only ended with their deaths in the First World War, or the obvious influence of the war itself. The way that dark figures like dragons and Black Riders form from the smoke, fire and devastation of a First World War battlefield — as seen through a trench-fevered Tolkien’s eyes — wasn’t just a nice touch, I thought it was the whole point of the film.

(It even managed to convince me of one more parallel, though I don’t know how factually accurate it might be: as the fevered Tolkien searches the trenches for his friend, Geoffrey Smith, he’s made to seem like a ring-weary Frodo being supported by his Sam Gamgee-like batman, Private Sam Hodges, struggling through Mordor.)

I think part of the trouble any Tolkien biopic will have is that the image we (I, anyway) have of him is as an old, betweeded, pipe-smoking don, mumbling to himself in Elvish and very much not writing about women. It’s a point emphasised by Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, where, once Tolkien is ensconced as a professor at Oxford about a third of the way into that book, Carpenter says: “And after this, you might say, nothing else really happened.” And it’s the “nothing else really happened” Tolkien I tend to think of. The fact that Tolkien was, at one time, passionate about changing the world, and deeply in love with the woman he married — the fact that he was, at one time, a young man — seems difficult to grasp, so any film of his life can’t help but feel an exaggeration or romanticisation. (This film surely owes a lot to John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War, much more so, I’d think, than the Carpenter biography.)

But biopics have to work as stories at the same time as they’re serving as biographies, and Tolkien is an origin story, not a full biography. It’s about the experiences that led up to the writing of The Lord of the Rings — or, rather, The Hobbit, because it ends with him writing the famous opening sentence to that book. I think, overall, the film makes a good artistic point about the formation of Tolkien as a writer, and though by no means a definitive biopic — I really wanted to see Tolkien at the end of his life, bothered by hippies turning up on his lawn, brandishing copies of the Ballantine paperback whose cover he hated — it was certainly more than the TV movie style box-ticking exercise Mark Kermode implied.


Jacob’s Ladder

Jacobs Ladder posterIn a perfect world, I’d never listen to, or read, film reviews. One of the best cinema-going experiences I ever had came as a result of an impulse decision to go and see a film I knew nothing about. It was, I think, 1991, I had a Wednesday afternoon off, and I just happened to overhear one person saying to another “…this film called Jacob’s Ladder…” Right, I thought, I’ll go and see this film called Jacob’s Ladder. Somehow, I even managed to walk into the cinema without seeing the poster, so I really had no idea what sort of film it was going to be.

Jacobs Ladder 01

I sat down (in a mostly empty theatre — a circumstance which added a certain efficacy to some of the film’s early scenes) and at first thought, “Oh dear, it’s about Vietnam.” I’m not a great one for war films, generally. But then it changed from being about Vietnam to Tim Robbins waking up on a subway train thinking he’s missed his stop, getting up and going into the next carriage to ask a starey-eyed woman if he’s missed it (and she just stares at him), and then noticing a drunk lying on a seat by the door. As he gets off the train at the next stop, Tim Robbins notices that the drunk seems to have a tail. I thought, “What the hell’s going on?” But, in a good way. And, partly because Tim Robbins’ character was also obviously thinking, “What the hell’s going on?” (though, for him, in more of a bad way), it soon became obvious that this film, Jacob’s Ladder, was the perfect film for me to go and see without knowing anything about it, because it was a film all about finding out what the film itself was about. And, as it was full of weird, unsettling, spooky, or even horrific moments (faceless men leering from a car that’s almost run you over, a heaving party at which Tim Robbins’ girlfriend seems to be dancing — or more than dancing — with a demon, a nightmare gurney-journey into the nether bowels of a rather unhealthy hospital, Macauley Culkin), it was, as luck would have it, just the sort of thing I liked anyway. Jacob’s Ladder has since become a favourite film, one that works just as well now I know what it’s about, but I always remember, whenever I watch it, how much I enjoyed that initial viewing for never having seen a trailer, or heard a review.

Jacobs Ladder 02

Ever since, although I do listen to and read film reviews (Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s podcast is a Saturday afternoon after-work fixture), I initially only pay attention as far as finding out the bare basics of what a new film is about, then, if I decide it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see, I add it to my LoveFilm list and don’t concentrate much on the details, unless it sounds like a real stinker. (And Mark Kermode tends to let you know if it’s a real stinker. Vociferously.)

Pan's Labyrinth posterA case in point is Pan’s Labyrinth. I remember seeing the mere mention of the title of this film in Empire magazine about a year before it came out, and instantly knew I was going to have to see it. After that, I avoided, as much as possible, any mention of what it was going to be about, and was deeply rewarded. Pan’s Labyrinth was, amazingly, so much more than I could have ever hoped it would be.

But with Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth I was lucky. Because I also thought, from a brief summary, that Sucker Punch might be a film I’d like. After all, it seemed to mix the escape-into-fantasy-worlds and psychodrama strands of Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth, so how could it fail? Well, by being a loose anthology of sub-adolescent pop video fight-outs with no plot, sensibility, emotion or meaning, is how. I should have listened to Dr Kermode. He hated it from the start. I didn’t watch this film, I endured it.

In a perfect world, some benevolent, perhaps web-based, vendor of books, films and music would somehow, perhaps through analysing my copious purchase history, get to know exactly what books, films and music I like, and issue increasingly spot-on recommendations, so I could repeat that Jacob’s Ladder/Pan’s Labyrinth experience on a daily basis. But though I’ve been dutifully rating my purchases from Amazon, and plugging my reading habits into Goodreads for some time now, still, whenever I look at the sort of thing they recommend I find myself thinking, “On what planet is this what I might like..?” I mean, they haven’t even worked out the basics, yet. (For instance, that though I buy Doctor Who DVDs, I don’t buy the new series. Guh! And my buying a Woody Allen box-set may mean I’m interested in the man’s films, but that doesn’t mean I like them so much I’d want to buy them again individually. And why, oh why, can’t LoveFilm let me forget last year’s foray into Carry On films? It’s practically all they’ve been recommending since!)

Perhaps it’s that, if even I can’t define the thing I’m looking for in films, books, and music, in each of my many moods & wants — the best way I can think of describing it is “humanity, and magic” — how can I expect a computer (devoid of humanity and magic as it is) to understand?

Or perhaps it’s that adjective, benevolent, I got wrong?