Today after a week of being houseless I’m getting on a big jet plane…not the first time in the last two years, by any means, but this is by way of a more permanent move to San Francisco. More permanent means ‘about a year, with trips back to NZ whenever anyone pays me to be there.’

So where does that leave the so-called ‘Middle Earth Tours’ aka Red Carpet Movie Tours? In safe hands, I believe. Last weekend in between packing up my house and my bags, I took part in a weekend training session for the prospective tour guides. I couldn’t hope for a more exciting and motivated group of people. Listening to them pool their knowledge and spark ideas off each other, I felt that they were capable of great things and were committed to making our dream of providing tours of NZ for Tolkien fans come true.

As for the movie we have waited so long to see….well, I doubt I can add much that’s new or fresh to the great things that have been said already, but I’ll try.

I was lucky enough to see the film a few days early at the nearly-completed Embassy theatre in Wellington with the SFX crew. I couldn’t have wished for better company. Richard Taylor, head of WetaFX, gave a thank-you speech to the assembly before the film started, and both there and at the low-key dinner beforehand it was clear how much loyalty he inspired. Like PJ, he seems to know everybody’s name and what they are doing and more than that, who they are in themselves.

It was a priviledge to be in such an assembly of talent. In a radio interview Richard gave earlier in the day, he said that LOTR wasn’t just a movie, it was one of the greatest gatherings of talented NZers we had ever seen, or something to that effect. Not just Kiwis though – people have come from all over the world to be part of this. It is, according to the Weta people I talked to, the greatest job in the world. Most of them also complained that they could be paid better elsewhere, but so far few people have found that sufficient incentive to leave.

Two predictions I made right at the beginning in my first Tehanu’s Note: One came to pass, one did not. I predicted that film is where things are AT in terms of defining the art and culture of this century and the last. This is to us what Baroque music or Impressionism were in their time to the West. It is cinema that will sum up our times and our tastes for all posterity, just as the Tang bronzes or Easter Island statues tell us about those people in that time.

I have read more than one review that has echoed that thought since the ‘Fellowship’ came out, and it’s because of this: making a film like this is a miraculous collaborative effort, and it can’t happen without drawing in a whole lot of things that are unique to us and to the times in which we live and the technology that we have available. It’s not that music and art and architecture are dying out but that they are less a reflection of ourselves than the very best in cinema. And Peter Jackson’s film was pushing the envelope of what it is possible to do in that medium.

My second prediction was that such a collection of highly talented individuals would be impossible to direct – it would be like herding cats. I was wrong. I have met both Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson twice now (but I have NEVER had dinner with Barrie Osborne, one piece of journalistic license that’s taken on a life of its own!) – anyway, seeing them in action it’s clear that they have a kind of magic touch with people. As a result there was a very special warmth and excitement at the crew screening I attended. We stayed to the end of the credits and applauded everyone’s name at the end, and later I heard how hard Richard and his partner Tania had fought to make sure that everyone in Weta was named and listed under their particular contribution. It’s things like that that make them special: fighting for the people in their company who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice! Insisting that everyone who took part be valued.

Richard and Tania were gracious to me, which I intrepreted as a sign of respect to all of you who are reading this, since I was there to represent you, the fans who have been followers and well-wishers of this production.

Anyway, the movie itself? To me it was like a great novel, so many-layered that I knew I couldn’t take it all in. I wanted only to dwell on each actor’s face and yet I also wanted to just look at the costumes, or bathe my eyes in the backgrounds. I can’t tell you how odd it is to be able to recognise unique things about the place where I was born in a fantasy movie, and it’s more poignant to me now since I don’t know when I will next see those mountains, those green hills, those mossy forests of southern beech. So my own home becomes a fantasy of the past.

As I watched, I found myself chuckling with delight at the wit or grace with which certain things were handled – thinking ‘Well done!’ and so on. You do that when the people who did the work are around you!

I loved it all. The movie varied in tone and pace, and I think that’s just one of the things about it that takes some getting used to. Sometimes it goes all heroic-epic and the music swells up into a big climax of trumpets and horns, the heroes fight off impossible odds and escape a terrific battering without even limping slightly afterwards. It’s all a bit much, I start to think (especially the music) and then suddenly the movie’s tone changes to something more intimate, focussing on a wonderfully subtle moment on an actor’s face. I think some people will not like this. But Jackson is saying (as Tolkien did) ‘You can do this. You can subvert the genre, you can move from stereotype to individual and back again, you can put in slapstick humour where it’s not expected and still move back from there to absolute tension and seriousness. You can make the rules.’

Did I like the SFX? Yes. That is not so say that they are perfect. Rivendell (the backdrop) looked painted, little things like that. Though a sense of unreality might be expected of a place like Rivendell.

The compression of the story? It worked for me. I think that people who now go and read the books will find it a whole box of treasures when they learn about the things that the movie left out; to one who knows the book, well, it’s different but interesting.

The book has two points of relaxation that the film changed so that they continued the build-up of tension. In the film, Bree is no resting-place. Everything looms over the hobbits, the people are large and threatening, the weather is vile, and they are propelled by events into leaving immediately without meeting any of the joviality of Barliman Butterbur and the Breefolk at the bar.

Similarly, there’s no relief in Lothlorien. The elves remain tense, strange and threatening. I’m not sure of Cate Blanchett – she tips over from imperious to plain weird. I’d love to ask a LOTR newbie if they got what was going on there.

I liked the way the tension inherent in the situation between Strider and Boromir was played up. It’s in the books, but it’s subtle. It made for a dramatically interesting conflict. Others have complained that the relationship and characters of Gimli and Legolas are barely touched on; I thought it was necessary to make Strider and Boromir’s story take the lead for a time and let Gimli and Legolas’ story develop in the next movie, so there’s another point of human interest to distinguish it.

Elijah Wood – great, I thought. After the beginning, he looks to be slightly in shock a lot of the time. That makes the moments when he relaxes and recovers his hobbitish ease (like with Sam, at the end) all the more telling. Or the moments where he’s being decisive rather than reactive. It’s hard for him – it’s not in his nature to be a hero. Some people found him too passive, (he spends a lot of time boggling at the horror of it all) but I’m giving him time to change over the next two movies.

It’s a hoot seeing with people who are HIGHLY critical of the details they designed, and highly appreciative of each others’ work. Major applause for some of the great feats of FX work, of course. It was like being in an orchestra – to an outsider, it’s pretty incomprehensible what the players choose to pick apart or commend and they themselves are not always in agreement about the success of a performance – it rather depends on how well their part went. But overall everyone’s faces had a look of dazed joy after the film was over. Mine too.