Archive for December, 2014

Most people have the vague understanding that writing their name entirely in lower case characters is a claim to being avant-garde. However, few people have any idea why this connection is made, or exactly what it supposed to signify.

The practice dates to the 1920s. Back then, Germans had a bewildering selection of alphabets to write in, including Roman and Italic characters, cursive characters for handwriting, and black letter characters, all of which used both upper and lowercase characters. Black letter characters, or fraktur as they are sometimes called were especially popular because of the growing German nationalism, because they originated in Germany. However, they were the least legible of the selections and made for old-fashioned, often cluttered page designs.

In this situation, a small group of German typographers rebelled against the layout conventions of their day, advocating designs that were simple and minimalistic. Their ideas were codified in Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book The New Typography.

These ideas included the elimination of all the alphabets available to German typographers except lower case Roman. This choice was made because lower case Roman characters are not only simple, but also distinctive. Unlike with any upper case characters, lower case Roman characters have more distinctive characters, so much so that even if you only see an outline of a word, you can often make a good guess about what the word is.

Today, this idea seems trivial. But in the atmosphere of Germany, which was sliding towards Nazism, all the New Typography’s ideas seemed unpatriotic, even treasonous. In fact, under Hitler, Jan Tschichold was accused of “cultural Bolshevism,” and fled Germany one step ahead of his arrest to exile in Switzerland, and, after World War 2, in England. In other words, using only lower case Roman was daring and progressive, and both an artistic and a political statement.

As the New Typography became known, its ideas were adapted by Modernist designers of all sorts, even among those who had little idea of the justification for using only lower case Roman characters. By the time the idea reached the English-speaking world, only the practice was left, and its justification totally lost.

Today, using a lower case name still has the reputation for being avant-garde, even though after ninety years it is hardly new or daring, let alone any kind of political statement. In fact, ironically, many of the ideas of the New Typography are so far from the cutting edge that they are the nucleus of orthodox design and layout today.

However, one of the ideas that did not become standard was using only lower case Roman. By the mid-1930, many of the leading New Typographers had relaxed their original aesthetic position, falling into practices similar to those used in the English world. Tschichold himself eventually became the lead designer for Penguin Books, producing gem after small gem of typographic excellence for popular use – a worthy accomplishment, but hardly a radical one.

This history is mostly unknown, partly because typographer is an art that most people know little about, including many graphic designers. Even more importantly, although the English-speaking world was influenced by the New Typography, Jan Tschichold’s manifesto for the movement was first published in an English translation in 1998 – seventy years after its German publication.

However, when you know the story, one thing becomes clear: those who insist on only lower case are following a practice that is behind the times instead of ahead of ahead of them, and taking no political or aesthetic position where once the practice could actually be dangerous to their freedom in some places. Whatever meaning the practice might once had, for all they stand out as artistic or political radicals, they may as well be wearing black T-shirts and jeans.

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At the end of The Battle of the Five Armies, Gandalf describes Bilbo as a small fellow in a much larger world. The words are Tolkien’s, but while Tolkien has Bilbo reply, “Thank goodness,” making the description an indication of the self-knowledge he has gained, in the movie, the line does nothing except express Gandalf’s fondness for the hobbit as they part company. This false note is typical of the mis-steps that the movie makes, again and again.

As a writer and a producer, Jackson is at his best when he follows Tolkien most closely. For instance, in The Battle of the Five Armies, Bilbo’s return home in the middle of an auction of his goods to discover he has been declared dead expands Tokien’s brief description of the scene while preserving just the right comic touch. The unexpected arrival of Gandalf and thirteen dwarves at the start of the first movie also works, although Jackson’s version drags because he is less skilled at exposition than Tolkien.

Unfortunately, most of the time, Jackson seems to neither trust nor understand his source material. His favorite mode seems to be Grand Opera, full of world-sweeping events and high dramatics. This tone works in Lord of the Rings, partly because much of the trilogy has the same tone, and partly because when filming Lord of the Rings, Jackson still had the sense to include small intimate moments, and even to invent such incidents as the four hobbits silently toasting each other in the pub after they arrive home.

But The Hobbit is all about intimate moments. The whole point of The Hobbit is that Bilbo is not a hero, and takes a long time to achieve the small heroism that he eventually accomplishes. Jackson, though, ignores most of this tone to replace it with Grand Opera. Almost the entire third movie is Grand Opera, in which a battle that Tolkien barely describes occupies the entire movie to the point that it becomes a kind of fantasy war porn, a tiresome collection of scenes that add up to nothing. Compare The Battle of the Five armies to the Rohan’s arrival at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King, in which the ensuing battle is about defining moments for several of the characters, and you see the lack of purpose in The Battle of the Five Armies immediately.

Part of the problem, of course, is that one movie of material has to be stretched to fill three – a mistake so basic that it should have been restrained regardless of commercial motivations. Some of this expansion is legitimate, although the expulsion of The Necromancer / Sauron from Mirkwood take place in a way that is far from the spirit of Tolkien. However, most of the filler material does not work even so much as that episode manages.

The trouble is, much of the filler is thin to start with, and Jackson seems unable to invent enough to make it interesting. For example, he adds an orc chieftain’s feud with Thorin, the leader of the dwarfs, but fails to flesh it out, leaving the orcs to thrust themselves into already dramatic scenes, with the chieftain shouting such redundant device to his cohorts as “After them!” and “Kill them!” (as though orcs would ever invite Bilbo and the dwarves to tea).

Other pieces of filler are so bizarre that they become ludicrous. When I saw the first movie, the entire audience burst out laughing at Radaghast’s rabbit-driven sled – and it was not a good-humored laugh, but a laugh of rejection. Similarly, when the elf king shows up in the third movie riding what is either a moose or a horse with decorative antlers, I felt the movie had degenerated into a Canadian beer commercial. By the time I saw Dain arrive on a giant pig, or watched the dwarfs clinging to armored mountain goats as they bounced up a mountain, I was throwing back my head and laughing at the inappropriateness of it all.

Somehow, I don’t think that was the reaction that Jackson intended. But it was an indication of how much his judgment has slipped in recent years.

Another major mis-step was the introduction of the elf woman Tauriel and her love for one of the younger dwarfs. What Jackson seems to have missed is that The Hobbit is a children’s story, so the fact that all the main characters are male tends not to matter. Love and sexuality simply don’t enter into the plot. You don’t watch Tolkien movies for the love scenes any more than you watch Marx Brother movies for the inevitable lovers’ sub-plot.

Nor is Jackson’s effort to fix what doesn’t need fixing particularly skillful, since, despite the hints of a love triangle with Legolas, Tauriel remains a flat character so defined by the men in her life that she is more insulting than the absence of women could ever be. Unlike Arwen, whose appearances in Lord of the Rings made for the slowest parts of the movie trilogies, Tauriel is not even allowed to be the tragic figure of an immortal in love with a mortal.

All this would be bad enough by itself, but Jackson’s storytelling seems to have deserted him as much as his invention, leaving him to repeat himself endlessly. Just like the first Lord of the Rings movie tantalized with only glimpses of Gollum, so the first Hobbit movie tantalizes with glimpses of the dragon. All the underground battles involve collapsing bridges and violations of the rules of physics. Main characters fall, are loomed over by a foe, and are saved at the last second by the approach of another character. Gandalf duels with a figure of evil, and is imprisoned.

Jackson’s repertoire is so limited that, near the end of the third movie, he even has the orcs tunneling with giant worms, as though that had somehow drifted into the movie from some forgotten footage of Dune. Jackson’s repetition of tropes is so predictable that he seems an honorary member of Bilbo’s expanded family; while Tolkien describes the Bagginses as being so conventional that you could tell what they would think on any given subject without the bother of asking them, so you can tell how Jackson will develop a scene without the bother of watching it.

Such shortcomings might matter less in any other film adaptation. But The Hobbit is both a classic and a cult book, and another version is unlikely to be made any time soon. Under these conditions, Jackson has an obligation to be true to the spirit of his source material. He should not be expected to use all of the book’s dialogue or events, movies being different from novels, but he can be expected to be true to the spirit of the book, and not just borrow its highly marketable name.

But Jackson only intermittently connects with the spirit of the book. Instead of producing movies that can stand beside the book, all he manages is overblown and easily forgotten nonsense.

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