deborahjross: (piano)
Listening
In an earlier post, I talked about my enthusiasm for Peter Jackson’s films of The Lord of the Rings. One of the things I adored was Howard Shore’s music. I ran out and bought the CDs, of course. At first I listened to the music as a way of re-experiencing the movies. I’d done this with other movie music, like The Last of the Mohicans, Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, and all the work of Ennio Morricone. Romantic, evocative music fits the same slot in my brain as Mendelsohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” or his violin concerto, or Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” suite, or Borodin’s “In the Steppe of Central Asia” (one of the pieces I listened to while writing Shannivar). It’s narrative music, emotive rather than abstract, and I find it marvelous to write to.

Singing
When at long last it was my time to embark upon piano lessons, as a first-time older adult student, I grabbed a copy of the easy piano versions of The Lord of the Rings music. My goal was to play “Into the West.” I was one of those folks in the theater with tears down my cheeks as the song ended. But I was just starting out, I had zero self-confidence, and I wanted to make sure I had the skill to play it well. My teacher and I selected “In Dreams” (which is also the leitmotif for the hobbits) as one of my early pieces. Even in the easy version, it was a challenge. And it had words, words in a key within my limited vocal range.

Like others of my generation, I got caught in the folk scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even taught myself a few chords on the guitar. Although I enjoyed singing in a group, I had become convinced I had a terrible voice. I remember being told as a child that I couldn’t sing. So of course, my voice was strained, thin, unreliable in pitch. With the piano to support my voice, however, along with lots of practice when no one else was in the house, not to mention having an encouraging teacher, I learned how to breathe more deeply and relax my throat. The higher notes became easier and more clear. I added other songs and vocal exercises, which helped my confidence. “Wow,” my teacher said after one class, “who knew you had such a voice?”

Learning to sing in this way helped me to see places in my life I had “lost my voice.” When preparing for a parole hearing, when I needed to speak loud and clear, this was the song I came back to. Like so many other songs, it became more than a particular piece of music by association.

As I gained in skill, I played other pieces from the easy piano book and eventually arrived at “Into the West.” Then came the seven weeks I spent taking care of my best friend and her family as she died of ovarian cancer. I found a place near her home to walk, a mile round trip down a country lane, and did this two or three times a day. The brisk autumn air, the glorious colors, and the solitude (except for a few horses and goats) gave me a blessed break. I found myself singing as I walked, as I once had done as a child. One of the songs that came to me was “Into the West,” octave leap and all. I sang it terribly and with tremendous emotion, often alternating phrases and sobbing. It said so much I wanted to tell my friend, but it was for me, not for her, who was not at all a Tolkien fan. It wasn’t her kind of song, but mine. Even now, when I play it (I can’t sing the key the easy piano version is written in), it eases me through another layer of grief.Read more... )
deborahjross: (halidragon)
First and foremost, congratulations to the winners of the World Fantasy Award, and also to the finalists. Many splendid creations here.

Now this post will veer off in a highly personal direction, applying to no one but myself. I have read one of the winners and when I saw the title, I felt a little sick. Do not get me wrong -- the work absolutely deserved the award. It was highly original and superbly executed, a stellar addition to the field.

And it gave the the absolute shakes. There's no way I can see myself ever reading it again. Our local library got my copy.

I've talked with folks who write and love horror about my aversion to it, and I appreciate their point that horror gives us a way of regaining power over the things that terrify us. Once upon a time, I got a delicious thrill out of that adrenaline jolt and the weird, fascinating dark stuff. I don't anymore. I think my threshold has been permanently re-set, and the consequences of exceeding it are more tenacious.

So why am I not pushed over that edge by the violence in the Peter Jackson Middle Earth films? There's plenty of excitement and twenty ways to kill an orc, each sillier and bloodier than the one before, and characters I love in dire peril. Is it the fantastical setting? The characters, even nonhumans like Elves and Dwarves, don't feel unreal. Is it the knowledge that all will be well in the end, or as well as can be, given the price various characters play? I still cry at Boromir's death -- he didn't have a happy ending.

And yet, as I wrote in an earlier, watching the films, with all their flaws -- and also reading the books, albeit less vividly -- leaves me with a feeling of peace. Emotionally wrung-out, but brought to a good place by all the adventures I've gone along on.

Truly, we each see and read a different story. They are all colored by what we as individuals bring to them.
deborahjross: (dolomites)
It has often seemed to me that fans of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit) fall into two categories: those who adore Peter Jackson’s films and those who despise them. I fall into the former category and my husband into the latter. From our conversations, I have concluded that in most cases, it is impossible to change the other person’s mind (not to mention disrespectful to try). This is hardly a problem of cosmic importance, unless one person attempts to drag the other to all six extended cut versions of the movies or prevents the other person from enjoying them. Both sides put forth arguments and reasons, and they are entitled to them. I think just about everything that can be said has already been expounded upon.

I am firmly in the love-them camp. All the objections folks have are absolutely right, and have no relevance to my experience of the movies. The uncritical, immersive, “take me away” quality of my enjoyment of the films has definitely piqued my curiosity. What happens when I spend hours in Jackson’s Middle Earth?

In general, I am far less critical of visual media than of text. Because my own art form is prose, I have developed a keen internal editor and critic that may be regaled to the back seat but never entirely departs. I have no such filters for films or paintings. Only a horrifically bad film can destroy my suspension of disbelief, but horrifically bad films are enjoyable for quite different reasons than good ones.

I devoured Tolkien’s novels as a young adult, although I never wanted to run away to Middle Earth then. I found some aspects of the books frustrating: the “travelogue” passages were often tedious, I had no idea what Tom Bombadil was doing in the story, and I had trouble forming clear images of many of the places, for example Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, I joined the ranks of fans wearing buttons that said “Frodo Lives!” and “Beware the Balrog.” I stood in line to see the films by Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass (The Hobbit and The Return of the King), all of which I found unsatisfying. The hobbits and dwarves in the animated versions were silly, in bad need of haircuts, and the Bakshi film was just plain weird. The orcs looked like sabertoothed Sand People (from Star Wars), the Balrog was a costume from a bad opera, Boromir looked ridiculous in a Viking helmet, and none of the character moved in a natural way. Et cetera.

I had no idea who Peter Jackson was, but special effects had come a long way since the 1970s. Needless to say, I had excitement but not high hopes. I came prepared to see a live action version of the previous attempts. Five minutes into The Fellowship of the Ring, I was in love. The Jackson films “clicked” for me and brought the stories alive in ways that previous versions, even the original text, fell short.

This is not to say that everyone must feel the same way. Different media and different interpretations work for different people. I’m delighted that some folks prefer Tolkien’s text or even the animated versions. I am also delighted that this one form of presentation worked so well for me. When I go back and read the books, I can now immerse myself in the rich and varied landscapes of Middle Earth, and see and hear the characters.

After the extended editions of all three Ring movies came out on DVD (and I had watched all the commentaries and appendices), I set them aside. Every few years, however, I would watch them (3 movies over 2 days, usually, and when my husband – who is in the “doesn’t work for me” camp – was out of town). Either by happenstance or internal prompting, my schedule synchronized with the parole hearings of the man who raped and murdered my mother. That is, I’d gear up for the hearing, get re-traumatized no matter what precautions I took, come home and fall apart, and slowly put myself back together again. Some quality of the Jackson films spoke to me and offered itself as a healing tool.

I have some ideas of how this works. “Sanctuary” is one of them: a safe and glorious space, with companions who ensure I do not walk alone through the darkness. The defeat of evil when all hope is lost, with the crucial role of an act of mercy, a reminder to nurture my own capacity for compassion – for myself, for others. Lastly, the cathartic nature of the battle scenes.

This latter had not occurred to me until I was relating to an acquaintance that one of the ways I “let down” after a parole hearing was to watch the Jackson films. His response was that the films were way too violent for him (and he implied that exposure to violent scenes is in itself a destructive thing). As I thought about this, I realized that the re-triggering of past trauma, overlaid with new, painful revelations and the harrowing experience of entering a prison and seeing the perpetrator, left me saturated with feelings I had no way to discharge. Vigorous exercise was insufficient, and calming practices like yoga or meditation were too sedate. In years past, I practiced Chinese martial arts, particularly kung fu, but injuries and the absence of a studio ended that outlet 15 years ago.

On the other hand, if I allowed myself to enter into the world of the films, leaving my movie critic outside and immersing myself in the story, welcoming the psychological manipulation, I experienced a physical and emotional release. The length of the films gave me time to do this. The effect was to shorten the time of tension and restlessness. It was as if I had taken my own nightmares and thrown them into the fight scenes, and then done battle with them, with Aragorn and Gandalf and Eowyn and all the others at my side. And in the end, I came home with Sam to my own garden.

Now I can watch them – and The Hobbit movies as well – for escapist style entertainment, but there is always at least a hint of magic that lingers. The music has brought its own gifts, which I’ll share with you in a subsequent post.

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Deborah J. Ross

May 2017

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