House of Flying Daggers, Memento, and a Few More Thoughts on The Lord of the Rings Movie Trilogy

Paul R. Potts

Note: in the year 2022, “Netflix movie” means something quite different. Back in 2006, Netflix was not a video streaming service, but a service to rent DVDs by mail.

Two of our recent rentals from Netflix were House of Flying Daggers and Memento. Aside from the inherent difficulties of trying to concentrate on a movie with a two-year-old running around the living room, both of them were fantastic films. I’d rate them both among the top ten movies of the last few years.

Memento

There’s a Laurie Anderson performance piece called “Three Songs for Paper, Film, and Video.” In it, she speaks these words:

In the detective novel, the hero is dead at the very beginning. So you don’t have to deal with human nature at all. Only the slow accumulation of data.

Memento is a story that comes together through the slow accumulation of data, but it reveals much about human nature. Its big structural innovation is that it is assembled backwards in time, as a series of short vignettes, with each successive sequence slightly overlapping the start of the previous sequence. So, given three consecutive events, A, B, and C, Memento shows all of C, then B followed by the very start of C, and then A followed by the very start of B. This sounds complicated, like this is some sort of experimental art film, but one gets used to it very quickly, and figuring it all out is a lot of fun.

The main character in Memento has suffered a head injury and exhibits a form of anterograde amnesia. In retrograde amnesia, the victim loses memories or information accumulated prior to the injury or illness. Our hero can remember his life prior to the date of his injury, and thus knows his name and has a general knowledge of his surroundings, but he can’t form new long-term, or even short-term memories. His world has shrunk in time to only what is happening in the moment. When he falls asleep, or gets distracted, or even just when his mind wanders, he forgets what he is doing. He has acquaintances, but each time he meets them he does not remember meeting them before. They may be lying to him; they may be using him for their own purposes. Each time he meets one of them, he has to flip through his Polaroid photographs and review his notes.

As the story unfolds, we have the feeling that it is up to us to keep track of the details the character can’t keep track of. It’s an uncomfortable feeling; I wound up taking notes myself. However, the mystery of Memento is not really something to solve like a puzzle. It comes into focus when we understand the way that the main character creates his own reality by carefully deciding which bread crumbs he will leave for himself. And although the main character is allegedly attempting to solve a murder mystery, we come to realize that his deeper purpose may be to give himself a reason to continue living, the next time he has forgotten everything.

House of Flying Daggers

That same Laurie Anderson piece continues:

In science fiction, the hero just flies in at the very beginning. He can bend steel with his bare hands. He can walk in zero gravity. He can see right through lead doors. But no one asks how he is able to do these things. They just say, “Look! He’s walking in zero gravity.” So you don’t have to deal with human nature at all.

House of Flying operates on several levels: as an adventure film filled with impossibly elegant and inhumanly precise martial arts moves, it is without parallel. The fighting and dance sequences are stunning. The fighters fly. Of course this is wire work, and it is not terribly realistic, in that it defies physics. But only a nitpicker could actually care; one can’t take it literally. It is ballet, and moving poetry. But in the midst of all this jaw-dropping stunt work, we come to learn much about very human characters.

If you just want to watch a fun fight film, you could go watch Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx, or one of my personal favorite action adventures, The Transporter. House of Flying Daggers rises above those action movies because it also involves complex political intrigue. No one seems to trust one another; no one seems to be trustworthy; no one’s motivations appear to be what they ought to be. The characters are constantly making unexpected turns, and it requires considerable concentration to keep up. You’ll find yourself guessing what is really going on, and then changing your guess again and again. You’ll probably be slightly wrong, again and again, which is refreshing given the utter predictability of a typical film script.

House of Flying Daggers also has some of the best foley work I’ve ever heard in a motion picture, bar none. The score is Eastern and has a period “feel” without resorting to musical cliché. The costumes are gorgeous, the outdoor sequences lush and impossibly lovely. The film turns into a road movie on horseback and in the canopy of a bamboo forest, with a surprising love triangle, and a devastatingly brutal fight sequence. This fight scene, which ought to be studied by any filmmaker aspiring to shoot a fight, begins with the stereotypical glamorization of violence, then passes into a work of acrobatic art, then then reaches a plateau of violence and suffering that completely transcends the trivialization of violence in the film so far. Watching it awakens your senses and sympathies and re-sensitizes you to violence and pain all over again. You realize that even beautiful violence is still violence. And the more the characters fight, the more they regret the necessity of fighting.

Which brings me to the motivation of the characters. They are drawn by duty: oaths and loyalties which impel them, and ultimately a desire to choose their own destinies, even if that destiny is also a doom. They are not modern characters; they do not have complicated anxieties and phobias and selfish needs. They have iron loyalties and near-godlike abilities and a level of discipline that is almost impossible to comprehend.

Which brings me back to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings

I’ve been reading at a book of essays on the films, edited by Janet Brennan Croft, called Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s quite a worthwhile book, and with a few exceptions, I’ve enjoyed all the essays in it.

It is said that to fully understand an argument you have to initially alter your world view to accept the argument. As I read these essays, most of which are strongly critical of Peter Jackson’s adaptation, I find myself agreeing with each author — provisionally. I then undergo a kind of mental snap, and begin playing devil’s advocate, coming up with reasons that the author is wrong. It’s an interesting exercise. This dialogue with the critics, for me, is the fun part of reading any sort of criticism.

One of the arguments that recurs in several of the essays is that in modernizing several of Tolkien’s characters — especially in giving them frailties and weaknesses and self-doubt — Jackson made his adaptation untrue to the books. In particular, Jackson’s Gimli, while still heroic and strong, is given lines and behavior which Tolkien never wrote, making his character seem to exist largely to provide comic relief.

Some of this is true to the book — Gimli did have a friendly rivalry with Legolas, as they both kept count of the number of orcs that each killed. But some of it is not. Tolkien’s Gimli was not a buffoon. He is not overcome by tears when he encounters Balin’s tomb in Moria. Jackson takes similar liberties with Aragorn — his Aragorn tells Arwen that things are not going to work out between them, and tells Elrond of his ambivalence towards assuming the kingship. Jackson’s Faramir is temporarily seduced by the ring and takes Frodo and Sam with him to Osgiliath with the intention of taking them the rest of the way to Minas Tirith. Tolkien’s Faramir, with some of the blood of Númenor in his veins is, like Aragorn, not so easily seduced. Tolkien’s characters may be flawed — Boromir as Jackson portrays him is quite true to the original text — but they are not ambivalent and plagued by self-doubt.

It is possible to make the case that in modernizing the portrayal of Aragorn and Gimli, and even Gandalf, Jackson helped make Tolkien’s tale acceptable to a modern audience. This pre-supposes that a modern audience would not understand, and thus would not empathize with, characters that have uncomplicated loyalties and clear, strong motivations.

This may be true for some audience members, unaccustomed to more traditional modes of heroic characterization, but the success of House of Flying Daggers and Memento seems to prove otherwise. Although most of us never take blood oaths and would not fight to the death to uphold them, we feel a piercing sympathy for the characters that do have these qualities. In fact, their simple motives makes them even more meaningful and easier to appreciate. And while most of us will never suffer from a complicated amnesia, any thoughtful person grown to wisdom will eventually understand the necessity of self-delusion and the way that we choose to shape our own realities every day in order to avoid paralyzing indecision.

While Jackson’s films succeed on some levels, I believe the alteration of Tolkien’s characters was an unnecessary exercise and ultimately weakens the films. Jackson clearly believed it to be necessary: this may have been more of a function of the compromises he had to make to get the film released by New Line. I’m not privy to the negotiations involved, but such an expensive endeavor is inevitably compromised and a studio will generally insist that a project of such magnitude take few chances that might risk revenue. Someone along the way apparently believed that the application of modern screenwriting tropes to The Lord of the Rings increased its chances for popular success, and so it was done. This unfortunately turned several of Tolkien’s heroic characters into weaklings, and so we were not given the chance to see if a truer film adaptation, in which a hero remains a hero and does not need psychoanalysis, would also have found an appreciative audience.

Jackson’s films are complicated creations, and I find them to be worth watching over and over again. While there are many points in the film in which Jackson undermines the story, there are also many points in which Jackson places the characters in scenes Tolkien never wrote, but in which the characters’ behavior is perfectly in keeping with Tolkien’s vision. And while Jackson’s love of monsters and horror-movie tropes tilted his vision in many places towards an action film, I don’t find this interpretation to be invalid, just different than my own.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 17, 2006

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