December 15th, 2003


I just returned from seeing my second Lord of the Rings "special edition" of the week.

I think Fellowship of the Ring benefitted a little more from the extra footage than The Two Towers, but both were stronger being longer. In particular, the extended versions clarify otherwise hard-to-grasp plot details, like where the horse that rescues Aragorn after the warg attack comes from.

What I want to write about now, though, are the "inappropriate" thoughts I had during the films. No matter how much you are into the act of watching a film, reading a book, or -- God forbid -- having sex, there will be moments when your thoughts drift strangely away from the supposed object of your attention.

We like to pretend that this drifting happens a lot less than it does, often to the detriment of our self-understanding.

I'm always telling my students to "pay attention to the frame," meaning everything that surrounds the reading or viewing of some piece of art. The word "frame" provides a handy metaphor, even when it also refers to an actual frame as well.

But I wish I had a word that would capture the way in which everything that surrounds a text actually seeps into it like water into a crack in the foundation. We don't usually notice the crack, but things are a bit too damp inside.

My interest in "inappropriate" thoughts is bound up with my interest in identification. I think we can learn as much, maybe more, from the moment when we drift as we can from the moments when we are locked into our target.

(And, yes, I use the military metaphor deliberately: there's something predatory about attention.)

Anyway, I'm good at staying focused during the act, but much worse at staying focused during the act of reading or viewing.

I was trying so hard to take in all the details in the films, to compare the experience of seeing the extended versions with that of seeing them the first time around -- I saw each one twice during their initial theatrical release -- yet still had moments where my mind wandered.

I think Peter Jackson would be pretty happy to know that Liv Tyler's face induced a dreamy feeling.

But what would he think about the fact that, during Fellowship of the Ring, when the company is about to leave Rivendell and Aragorn nods, ever so subtly, at Arwen, I suddenly remembered my pre-school trip with my parents to, where was it, New Britain to get my set of blocks from Creative Playthings.

The memory of that long drive is one of my earliest that comes back regularly. Why seeing this touching film moment should retrieve it again is beyond me, though.

Perhaps the oddest part is that I seemed to have a split consciousness during the scene. I was noticing how effective the subtle nod is and thinking about its implications for the development of Aragorn's character, even as I was recalling the block-purchasing expedition.

I realize, mind you, that part of the reason why Lord of the Rings is particularly suited to eliciting this sort of remembrance is that I have read the books at several different junctures in life. They function more like a song you hear over and over than like a film you see once and file away.

I suppose I could speculate about the persistence of that early block memory.

Freud would probably be inclined to examine the words themselves: it's not far from "block memory" to "memory block," after all. And building blocks are not lacking in metaphoric resonance either.

Could the realization that this is probably the last time Aragorn and Arwen will set eyes on each other have something to do with my recollection?

Why am I so drawn to stories about beings who reject their immortality for the love of a mortal, as in Wings of Desire?

I've been fixating for a while on the set of blocks in Skylar's pre-school classroom, since they are the same ones I had as a child.

When I told her this one day, she looked at me with a mischievous glint and said, "Why don't you steal them, daddy?"

The fact that my own set of blocks has been dispersed is something I think about more than I should. Yet I made no effort to find any of them on our trip, even though I rummaged through my parents' house for all manner of memorabilia.

Maybe the scene in Fellowship of the Ring triggered the memory because those blocks were the raw materials of many boyhood fantasies, just as Lord of the Rings provided the building blocks for teenage ones.

The more I type, the more intensely I recall the dark avocado walls of my room in Pennsylvania and the experience of lying in the crib looking at the ceiling and wallpaper.

And that thought, in turn, brings to mind two other long trips to make a purchase. My parents drove to Princeton to get me my "big kid" bed and then did the same for my sister. I recall the latter trip better, but the first one is more loaded with emotion.

I guess my train of thought has brought me to the point where I declare that it's time for bed.
  • Current Music
    California Stars - Billy Bragg and Wilco - Mermaid Avenue