LOTR and Torben Grodal

Somewhere buried in the hours of extended features in the Lord of the Rings box set, director Peter Jackson says that he hopes his films will inspire 9-year-old boys to become filmmakers, just as he was inspired at that age by the original King Kong (no wonder he went on to remake it).

Well, I may not be 9 or a boy, but The Lord of the Rings was the one film that made me think seriously about working in film. My sister and best friend and I have watched LOTR hundreds of times. We crack up at Pippin’s “second breakfast? Elevensies?” inquiry, and love turning to each other and saying “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” And ever since my 14-year-old self marveled at the “how” of the scale models of Helm’s Deep and Andy Serkis’s motion-capture suit, I have wanted to know the “why” of films. Now, at least for this trilogy, I have an answer.

Last week, the University of Copenhagen celebrated Professor Torben Grodal’s 70th birthday with a hyggelig symposium (in typical academic fashion). David Bordwell gave a pitch perfect presentation on mystery in 1940s Hollywood in his honor, and fellow Danish colleagues critiqued some of Grodal’s most influential articles. As a major player in cognitive and evolutionary film theory, Torben has published 3 or 4 articles consistently, each year, since 1968. Talk about prolific.

One of these recent articles, called “Tapping into Our Tribal Heritage: The Lord of the Rings and Brain Evolution” (available here) is especially resonant for me, because it proclaims that The Lord of the Rings film trilogy is basically the best thing ever (at least for evolutionary film theorists). He argues that the trilogy activates and uses the seven major emotional systems as its narrative and emotional core: the anger-aggression system, the fear system, the sexual lust system, the care-and-bonding system, the panic system, the play system, and the seeking system.

At its most powerful center is fear – in the form of a huge eye, Sauron. In the face of that evil eye comes an epic narrative about male bonding, adventure, heroism, fear, reward, and fantasy. Grodal writes, “a central motor of the fascination of the trilogy is that it evokes basic mammalian emotional systems which produce strong interest in salient scenes.” I think he’s right; it’s a combination of fascination and emotion that raises our experience to something innate and instinctual. We care deeply about the characters, while we simultaneously admire them for being braver than we could ever be.

So, again, cinema leaves its mark on me. It’s great to know that there’s a reason why I don’t get sick of LOTR after the 356th viewing!

This is why I love Girls.

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