art beautiful

Bilbo Baggins and the Battle for the Beautiful

6:00:00 AMUnknown

I recently watched the final installment of The Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies. In this blog post, I don't dare give any of my very specific, yet unrefined remarks on the film itself. When the film ended and the credits rolled, my friends and I agreed that a cinematic legacy had ended, a legacy which symbolized an age of innocence, imagination and enchantment for our younger selves. That being said, unfortunately, I left the theater feeling certain that although the movies were entertaining and thrilling, something was missing.  

I will not go so far as to say that The Hobbit movies are rubbish - they are entertaining, action-packed and successfully depict the characters and the story that we grew up with. Despite The Hobbit trilogy being a set of "good movies," most would agree with me that the preceding Lord of the Rings trilogy was far grander. The Lord of the Rings films possess a unique quality which sets them apart, something which I could never put my finger on. The most obvious difference between the two trilogies is the subject matter. In The Hobbit, the heroes battle over gold; in The Lord of the Rings, the heroes fight Evil incarnate. The Hobbit is a bedtime story; The Lord of the Rings tells a tale of a more serious and solemn nature.  

This is a disturbing and tragic realization for me. I love reading and re-reading The Hobbit.  It is a fairy tale which invites younger readers to put down the common mediocre children’s story and delve deeper into a sophisticated tale of not just good guys versus bad guys, but the battle between avarice, pride, and greed and their formidable opponents humility, sacrifice, and love. The Hobbit encourages its readers to ask questions about the universe and wonder if there is something else out there, something transcending even Tolkien’s imagination. The Hobbit presents us with a hero who reminds us of ourselves. Bilbo is the average man, someone who loves to enjoy the luxuries of life in the comfort of his home, but is unexpectedly asked to make sacrifices for the good of others, to be made uncomfortable while standing up to his friends, and to become brave enough to speak out against evil, despite being alone and a long way from home.  

Yet, these distinctions were not the answer I was looking for.  wracked my brain, searching for a more concrete answer which would explain why The Hobbit films did not leave me dreaming at night of ethereal elvish hymns being solemnly sung while brave heroes challenged great foes. Unlike The Hobbit movies, The Lord of the Rings instilled in me a strong unquenchable desire for things which are not of this world. Although the characters, the sets, and the locations remained the same for both trilogies, in the future I imagine The Lord of the Rings will be placed upon a pedestal in my movie cabinet while I let dust collect on my three part Hobbit collection.  
Maybe I’m just a pompous college student bent on contributing my “heaven sent” two cents to any piece of cinema which attempts to adapt one of my favorite books to the screen. But I can only hope you do not perceive this blog post as such. It would have been easy for me to simply accept that all movies can’t be great movies and carry on with my evening, but I decided not to put my critical eyes to rest just yet. I decided to seek the aid of a far wiser expert in the realm of cinema: Russian movie maker, Andrey Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky is a legend in the film industry, a genuine cinema Yoda. When I read Tarkovsky’s thoughts on cinema, art, and beauty, I had finally found someone able to give me straight forward answers which not only spoke to my mind, but more importantly to the heart of a younger, more enchanted Annie Foster. Tarkovsky eloquently revealed the fundamental marks which make a work of cinema true art. For Tarkovsky the goal for all art: “is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what man lives for, what is the meaning of his existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.”(36) This sentiment made a whole lot of sense out of my relationship with art, literature, cinema, and Tolkien’s works. I’ve always been a daydreamer and the supernatural beauty of Tolkien’s fantastical realm gave me the ability to comprehend the existence of Beauty which transcends this world. In the words of Plato, my soul was given wings.     
Art is an instrument for man’s desire to know, to obtain knowledge of his purpose and to understand the things which lie outside himself. Art allows us to glimpse that which we desire most, what we as humans are ordered toward. Art “appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively and at a stroke all the laws of this world -- its beauty and ugliness, its compassion and cruelty, its infinity and its limitations.”(37) 
Art which lives up to these ideals not only acts as a catharsis for our senses, but more importantly nourishes our souls. Crime and Punishment arouses much deeper thoughts in me than does The Cat in the Hat. While both are works of literature and art, one possesses a higher degree of importance and meaning than the other. Unfortunately, our modern culture no longer recognizes these differences in quality. It is no longer “politically correct” to claim that one work of art is greater than another. Art in its truest, purest, and most transcendent form has become an almost extinct ideology. With regard to this modern dilemma, Tarkovsky writes, “I think that one of the saddest aspects of our time is the total destruction in people’s awareness of all that goes with a conscious sense of the beautiful.”(42) Believing in ideals is becoming passe as the rise and popularity of relativism pervades the definition of “good taste.” In the world of modern art, an unmade bed is held in the same high esteem as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.  

This is true for modern movie makers as well as movie goers. We have turned “art” into a commodity with a dollar sign. The artist serves the desires of the market, instead of the demands of the soul. “Modern mass culture, aimed at the ‘consumer’, the civilization of prosthetics, is crippling people’s souls, setting up barriers between man and the crucial questions of his existence, his consciousness of himself as a spiritual being.”(42) What I found lacking in The Hobbit is what is lacking in much of modern art - true, transcendent beauty. We have commercialized the Beautiful. Beauty no longer bears the role of enchantress because we no longer allow her to cast her spell. We no longer wish to press upon people transcendental ideals, and, therefore, we try to de-spiritualize both our audience and Beauty itself. “The beautiful is hidden from the eyes of those who are not searching for the truth”(pg. 42) explains Tarkovsky. Movie goers have become conditioned by the film industry to expect to leave the theater feeling entertained, thrilled, or aroused, but certainly not to leave pondering the infinite or the spiritual. This may be the seemingly abstract answer to my question - why The Hobbit movies lacked the supra-rational luster of the book or the previous trilogy. Many of us who have seen all three films have grown quite content with movies which simply entertain us with an overload of cool fighting scenes. We no longer look for profound moral lessons unless our professors make it extra credit. However, this is a reality I refuse to accept. I believe art and Beauty are of great importance, treasures human nature is inherently drawn towards. Therefore, artists are charged with a great task: to handle with care their vocation to Beauty. This task should not be taken lightly. This post was not written to argue over whether or not Tolkien’s works are Christian, but to argue for the true purpose of art. “The allotted function of art,” says Tarkovsky, “is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”(43) Ultimately, my studies have led me to the realization that Tolkien’s The Hobbit opens its reader’s eyes to a spiritual universe, an awakening catalyzed by the Beautiful. Unfortunately, Peter Jackson’s adaptation failed to enchant me, failed to bring me face to face with my mortality and the possibility of eternity.  

Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art, 36-43.

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