Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Best - Directors of All Time #8 - Peter Jackson

photo by Stefan Servos

-The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
-The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
-The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
-The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
-The Frighteners

-Heavenly Creatures
-King Kong

-Meet the Feebles
-The Lovely Bones

Peter Jackson has the kind of career that I think most amateur film-makers would love.  He started out making low-budget horror/monster flicks, and eventually worked his way up to an Academy Award Winning director.  What is quite incredible is how you can see Jackson taking elements from his earlier movies and incorporating them into his later ones.

Of his very early work, the only one I've seen is Meet the Feebles.  This is a messed up version of the Muppets that involves murder, drugs, sex (all with puppets), etc.  I was repulsed by it, despite its incredibly creative nature.  His next movie also had a repellent topic, Heavenly Creatures, which was about the real life case of 2 New Zealand teens in the '50's who murdered one of their mothers.  But this was the first truly mature work of Jackson's filmography.  He got us into the heads of these mentally unbalanced outsiders, but he never let us forget the horror of the crime which they committed.  In fact, he uses a dreamy slow motion as the two girls move toward the murder, but then switches to a jolting steady cam when the reality and ugliness of the act takes place.  This movie was also the first use of Weta Digital, which he would use to great effect on The Lord of the Rings.  The effects are very good for their day, but the important part is that Jackson uses the effects as a means, not an end.  The special effects further pull you into the insane world of the two girls.

His last pre-Lord of the Rings movie was The Frighteners.  Not only is this movie a step up in his use of digital effects, but he is able to very deftly do a tonal shift.  The beginning of the movie feels almost akin to Ghostbusters.  By the end, it has shifted into a full blown-horror movie.  And each step felt very natural to that end.

But, of course, the main reason he is on this list is for his time in Middle Earth.  Besides the wide scope, gorgeous cinematography, and fantastic acting that we find, the most important thing Jackson does is that he takes Middle Earth seriously.  He treated the film not as if he was trying to create a fantasy movie but as if he were trying re-create an actual time in history.  The costumes were worn.  The homes looked lived-in.  But most importantly, the actors seemed very real.  That is all from Peter Jackson.  And that is a rare thing.  Just look at the other big budget fantasy that came out around the same time: Dungeons and Dragons.  It is remarkable how bad that movie looks now in comparison, mostly because they treated their fantasy world literally like a joke.   Even if you look at the Star Wars prequels, you can see a lot of the actors wearing their costumes like costumes.  In Jackson's movies they wear them like honored uniforms or everyday dress.  Jackson never talked down to us.

The power, though is in his ability to convey emotion.  The Return of the King is in my top 10 movies of all time not only for its visual and technical achievements, but for its depth and wonderful catharsis.  I get chills as the Rohirim shout "Death!"  I feel my heart swell when Sam says "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you!"  I hold on tight when he says again, "Don't you let go!"  (an aside:  It is criminal that Sean Astin did not win an Oscar for this performance)  And I well up when Aragorn says, "You bow to no one," and they all kneel.  These are just delights for the eye and ear.  They are food for the heart and soul.  Even in his lesser follow ups like King Kong, which was overlong and over-wrought, there were some truly beautiful, powerful scenes with the creature.

Peter Jackson has had an impact on film culture not seen since the heyday of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  As of now he still has 2 more Hobbit movies to release.  And while the first one was much lighter in content, I have a feeling, the next ones are going to match his earlier masterpieces in strength and depth.

We'll see.

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