Down Time: Carmen Maria Machado On Lord of the Rings

Down Time: Carmen Maria Machado On Lord of the Rings
Photo:Art Streiber / AUGUST

Down Time is a Jezebel series in which we ask our favorite artists and authors what art, books, and activities they’re turning to in this moment of isolation and uncertainty. Author Carmen Maria Machado spoke to Jezebel about rewatching an old favorite movie series, Lord of the Rings.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I’m rewatching the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I haven’t seen in a really long time. I saw the first one in theaters, maybe about 15 times. [Laughs] I was a little bit of a nut about Lord of the Rings when I was a young teen. I have the extended editions on DVD, we put them on and they [are] even longer than the originals, you need two separate discs for the full movie.

There’s something soothing about it, hearing the music makes me feel very calm. There’s a lot of pleasantness in it. The answer I want to give is it’s about a group of people in a world that’s coming apart and I don’t know if it’s quite that simple. I think it’s just comforting. If you look at the things it has to say about what it means to be a person in a time of great trials and tribulations, it’s not particularly insightful: do your part, there’s no one too small to help out. But there’s something very familiar about it.

It’s also very queer, it feels so gay to me. [Laughs] There’s so many relationships, so many little bromances and tenderness between men, which is not necessarily gay, [but] it feels gay to me. I think everything is gay. As an adult, I would not have nearly so much tolerance for a movie with only one or two women in it across three, four-hour-long movies, but there’s something just lovely about [the series.] I hadn’t seen them in probably ten years. My wife and I were saying we should figure out something to do in the evenings and we were thinking about themes of movies. We were actually doing musicals for a while, we watched Cats with the new cast, which was horrible and then we watched the 1990s version of Gypsy with Bette Midler which was great.

It’s funny because I actually started off the pandemic watching Outbreak and Contagion like a complete idiot, but in a way it was satisfying. There are different ways to sort of use art to confront your anxiety and your fear. One of them is to dive headfirst into it, which is generally what I do in my life and my practice. I’m such a baby and I’m so anxious, I have hypochondria, and so it made no sense to watch those things but in a way it made it feel sort of manageable, like I had control over this piece of it. And I feel like the idea [of] fiction being escapist is not particularly useful. I don’t think just because it’s set in another world that means it’s escapist, it’s just a way of taking pieces of the human condition and moving them somewhere else so that they can be confronted externally instead of internally.

I think the escapist element for me is the nostalgia, because I do think it taps into this feeling of what it meant to be in a theater and watching those movies when I was a kid. When I saw the first one in theaters at 14 or 15, I never left a theater before feeling so changed. There’s something so powerful about that sensation and I feel like now watching it is reminding me of how it felt sort of at every step. The escapist part isn’t the story itself, that it’s set in Middle-earth or that it’s fantasy, it’s what it was like to feel that sense of potential when I was 14 or 15 years old.

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