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January 11, 2004

Good Lord: Wherever you see it, there's no disguising the quality

I imagine most people saw a midnight showing of Return of the King in a glitzy theater with booming surround sound. Nerds filed their way left and right in full attire as wizards and elves. There were eighty minutes of previews for every movie New Line is even thinking about making. Fans eagerly discussed upcoming scenes, clutching their dog-earned Tolkien copies like Bibles, but promptly shut up (or emitted girlish screams of glee) when the film began. Three hours and twenty minutes later, all were pleased.

This, unfortunately, was not my experience. When the film opened, I was bagging groceries in Fosston, MN. In a town of 1500, a theater is definitely a good thing. It gives the teenagers something to do besides drive wildly drunk on dirt roads. However, Fosston's theater is much too cozy to provide the overwhelming screen size and ear-splitting surround sound that ROTK demands. The nearest city with an adequate theater is 50 miles away, which would have been fine, if Minnesota were not an icy hell. The snowdrifts keep you soaked from the knees down, the highways are better navigated with Zambonis, and the wind works fiercely to erase any hint of a tan.

I had to make do with the Fosston theater—but at the very least I could see ROTK opening day, right? Wrong. The theater only offered two showings, and I missed both to work 11 to 8 that day at the grocery store. I briefly considered asking my boss if I could leave early, but somehow I didn't think he'd understand. A previous employee was laid off for ditching work to clean his flooding house, and I wanted to see a movie about hobbits at the earliest possible second? I envisioned a long, analogy-filled speech about "getting my priorities straight" and promptly erased the thought from my head.

Even harder than the wait, though, was interacting with Fosston high schoolers, who were all lucky enough to get out of school to see the movie on opening day. With my excitement at an all-time high, I rushed up to them at work, sputtering, "How'djalikeit?" Glaring at me uneasily, they adjusted their Korn t-shirts and muttered, "Long. Boring. And it, like, ended five times." Flabbergasted, I asked them to elaborate, and they complied, repeating "long," "boring," and "bad ending" in slightly louder and more irritated tones. I tried valiantly to explain the intricacies of the "multiple endings."

"OK, it's misleading," I cried, "but Frodo leaving on the elf-ships is largely the point of the movie. His innocence is forever tainted by the ring—in war, there's loss on both sides! It's one of Tolkien's themes!" Their inevitable response: "Frodo, yeah, he's so gay…he and Sam should get a fuckin' room. Ha!"

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. In Fosston, "high art" is limited to Corky Romano and Bad Boys 2. I endured their complaints, though, and made it into the theater Thursday night with my 13-year-old sister, who, after reading the books three times, now knows them better than I do. Unfortunately, before the trailers started, we were subjected to an endless parade of low-budget commercials for family-owned businesses in Fosston. Accompanying these were two "Fosston Trivia" questions, which cycled over and over again, until you started feeling like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. It's a good thing the movie started, or I might have rushed to the local deli to check out their "exciting array of varieties" and gush about how long Fosston had its goddamn airport.

Nobody in the audience was dressed up as hobbits or orcs, but honestly, I wish they had been. A set of pear-shaped brothers sat behind me. They periodically scratched their bald heads and embarked on loud analyses of exactly how the book differed from the movie. I briefly considered turning around and snapping, "Hey, here's another difference—it's a friggin' movie!" However, I was too distracted by the pixie-ish four-year-old sitting next to me, who would study the screen intensely with cold blue eyes every few minutes and shout, "That's Gandalf! That's Frodo!" It wasn't quiet in the theater until nearly an hour into the film, at which point all the elderly people fell dead asleep, filling the room with their resounding snores. Thankfully, everyone came together in the end to applaud the movie, then rose from their chairs and trudged with a stony silence towards the door.

I shouldn't complain, though, because the film was pretty incredible. Gollum sets a new standard for CGI characters, and his psychological dilemma distinguishes the movie in a way that a spastic light saber battle never could. Ian McKellen delivers a set of flawless monologues, and Sean Astin rebounds from his decidedly corny Two Towers speech with a performance filled with heart. There are moments when the movie drags, of course; before the jaw-dropping Battle of Pelennor Fields, you become painfully aware that Peter Jackson is juggling fifteen characters. Also, at 3 hours, 20 minutes, and no intermission, you probably have to pee, leaving you with only one alternative: Wait for the Arwen scene.

I'm very thankful for seeing the film in Fosston, though. Quoting the movie at work with the select few who liked it gave me a nice break from all the banality. We conducted shameless Gollum impressions and recreated the Battle of Pelennor Fields in the backroom with two-wheelers and packages of toilet paper. Hell, I even had fun talking to the people who didn't like the movie. "Perhaps you should read the books," I advised a Rings-hater filling a mop bucket in the maintenance room. "They're excellent."

"No way," he retorted. "That classic shit is boring as fuck. I like Michael Crichton." "Yes," I replied, "there's nothing better than one-dimensional characters and science gone wrong." As I spun around on one foot, I realized I'd have about five minutes before the sarcasm set in and the bear gave chase. Until then, I dreamed about seeing the movie in Chicago—a dream that will probably come true.