“I liked the volcano,” declares Reed Martin, enthusiastically. “I really believed in it. And that big spider, that was great! I think I actually jumped.
We stand up, partially dazed following three-and-a-half hours in a movie theater. After establishing a mutual, immediate need for caffeine, we exit the multiplex and begin to probe the guts of the cavernous adjoining shopping mall, in search of coffee. Martin – actor, author, and sometime accordionist – is best known as “the Funny Bald Guy” of the infamous intellectual comedy troupe, the Reduced Shakespeare Company. For a quarter-century, the RSC has been taking Western Civilization’s favorite stuff (Shakespeare’s plays; Wagner’s Ring Cycle; American and world history; the Bible), shrinking it down into scandalous, 90-minute, on-stage comedy extravaganzas. This afternoon, as we wander the mall among Gap stores and kiosks selling custom license-plate frames, Martin – a former Ringling Bros. Clown – continues to list a few of his favorite things from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Just days away from that film’s anticipated victory at the Academy Awards, Martin has just experienced it for the first time.
“I liked the lumpy evil guy. Was he an orc? The one who looked like the Toxic Avenger,” he announces, brightly, “and I also liked that flaming iron pig-head the orcs use to batter down the doors of the castle. It was like some creepy decoration from a really bad barbecue joint. It scared me. I liked it. But I couldn’t figure out why everyone was whispering all the time. And tell me this, is that Elrond guy related in any way to L. Ron Hubbard, ‘cause I think there are a lot of similarities.”
I’ve invited Martin to see “Return of the King” today, in part because he’s never seen any of the films (how is that possible?), but mainly because Lord of the Rings is one of the works covered by the RSC (comprised also of Austin Tichenor and Matt Croke) in their newest stage show, “All the Great Books (abridged).”
“Actually,” Martin explains, sheepishly, “we cover Lord of the Rings by saying we’re not going to cover it. In the show, we set out to perform the 88 greatest books in Western Literature, theoretically, in a remedial literature course with the audience as students. We’re the substitute teachers because the regular teacher has been, uh, trampled to death- at a J.K. Rowling book signing – so we have to cover these 88 books in two hours, and Matt starts looking at the syllabus and goes, ‘Hey wait a minute! Lord of the Rings isn’t on here!’ And I go, ‘No, nor is the Communist Manifesto!’ to which Austen says, ‘That’s right. No fantasy.’ And that’s how we handle Lord of the Rings.
“Of course,” he adds, “I’ve never actually read the Lord of the Rings.”
I am stunned. “You’ve written a show about the greatest books ever written,” I point out, “but you’ve never read Tolkien?”
“Well, I did read The Hobbit, when I was really young,” he says. “But it must have really scarred me, because after that I couldn’t work up the desire to read the other ones. I did like the movie, though.”
“Especially the volcano,” I remember.
“Love that volcano,” he grins.
Moments later, it’s my turn to stun Reed Martin, when I inform him that ever since the release of ROTK, certain people have been throwing “Frodo Parties,” watching the extended DVD editions of the first two movies, then rushing to the theater for the big-screen conclusion.
“That’s . . . what? Ten hours of movie?” he asks.
“652 minutes,” I reply. “Just shy of eleven hours.”
“Oh my god! That’s almost as big an epic as sitting through all five Planet of the Apes movies,” he exclaims, asking, “Have you ever sat through a full Ape-a-thon?”
Um, yes, I have, and it turns out the combined running time of all five Ape movies is a mere 501 minutes, while the LOTR films (if you count the extended versions) run almost three hours longer than that.
“Wow! You know,” recalls Martin, “I once went to a theater and watched all four Beatles movies back-to-back – ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ ‘Help!,’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘Let It Be’.” Of that 347-minute marathon, Martin says, “I didn’t make it all the way, through. I mean, I stayed, but I fell asleep.”
“So then,” I ask. “If you were in charge of condensing Lord of the Rings into a manageable running length, how would you handle it?”
“Let’s see, to reduce Lord of the Rings . . .” Martin murmurs, “I guess the first thing I’d do is make that volcano a whole lot closer. If Mordor was right next to the Shire, you could do the story in one two-hour movie. Gandalf says, ‘Here, Frodo, you must carry the ring,’ and Frodo goes, ‘Oops! Dropped it in the volcano!’ End of story. Nice and short.”
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
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