Archive for George Lucas

Decisions, decisions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2013 by dcairns

Sternberg

“Directing a film,” said Buck Henry, “is like being pecked to death by ducks.” What he meant, if I dare parse the Great Man’s thought processes, is that the film director is beset from pre-dawn to magic hour and beyond with QUESTIONS, brought by actors, crew, executives (sometimes these are in the form of ORDERS, but directors prefer to see them as questions). What these questioners want from the director is DECISIONS. Film-making is decision-making. It’s more important to make a decision of some kind than it is to make a correct decision, which explains several entire careers.

Here are some decisions that could have gone another way.

1) Peter Mayhew, the tall hospital porter, was not originally cast as Chewbacca in STAR WARS. Kenny Baker was the first actor to play the part, because producer Gary Kurtz wanted to save money on fur. But in rehearsals,the diminutive Baker struggled to project the correct air of ursine authority. It didn’t seem likely that this four foot teddy bear could rip anybody’s arms out of their sockets. Even another teddy bear’s. It was too late to recruit fresh actors, so Lucas searched his cast for another suitable player, and immediately found the perfect man: Alec Guinness. But Guinness refused to play a role which would render him completely unrecognizable (“This frigging beard is bad enough,”) and replace all his dialogue with gargling grunts, so finally Mayhew got the role. He’d been finding the R2-D2 costume rather cramped anyway.

2) THE THIRD MAN was originally planned to take place on a sinking ship. “I was aiming for something akin to what Ronnie Neame eventually did with THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE,” said Carol Reed. “It was the perfect excuse for all those tilted camera angles.” When producer Alexander Korda insisted the film take place in Vienna, which is inland, to take advantage of some shares he had bought in a ferris wheel, Reed was initially despondent. But, by taking the metaphorical view that post-war Europe was itself a kind of sinking ship, he adapted his existing storyboard to the new locations without changing anything except metal walls for stone. He eventually admitted the change had been a positive one, and Cotten and Welles’ famous scene played better in the Volksprater than it would have in a dumb-waiter.

3) Much has been written about the colossal talent search to cast Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND, but it is less generally known that an almost equally huge hunt was staged to cast the part of Mammy. Everyone had agreed that Hattie McDaniel was the only actress who could play the role, but McDaniel had just signed with RKO to play a crime-fighting cook in a series of B-pictures. Having failed to find another performer with McDaniel’s subtlety of expression, the unit turned to production designer William Cameron Menzies to solve their problem. Menzies drew up blueprints for a mechanical mammy. “I was aiming for something a little like what Rob Bottin would make in TOTAL RECALL,” said Menzies, implausibly referencing a film made thirty-three years after his death. “You know, the fat lady costume that Arnie Schwartzenegger wears to get through customs?”

“I was going to put little Billy Barty in a mechanical Mammy. The long skirts would eliminate the need for legs: he would cycle away in there and thus operate a concealed tricycle. There would be a series of buttons he could push to make the eyes roll. We had a problem with the arms: Billy, being used to short arms, would wave them about too much, which was potentially dangerous. One time, Thomas Mitchell nearly lost an eye. Finally, we had the arms worked on wires by puppeteers.”

In the end, film history records that McDaniels’ culinary detective series was mysteriously cancelled, leaving her free to play Mammy after all. But there are persistent rumours that Menzies’ racially stereotyped robot appears in some shots. It has even been suggested than McDaniel won the Oscar for a role actually played by a dwarf-propelled replicant. The relevant pages of the David O. Selznick papers have been sealed by court order until 2039.

repulsion-coming-out-of-the-wall

4) When Roman Polanski was preparing REPULSION, he very much wanted to get Catherine Deneuve for the role of Carol, the Belgian manicurist who goes mad. So he included the strange detail of the soft walls, knowing well that she was currently living in a house made of silly putty. Women love rearranging the furniture, don’t they? (I’m generalizing, of course — but all women do this.) Deneuve had worked it out so she could actually tear down entire walls and rebuild them in fresh, blobby shapes. It used to drive David Bailey mad.

Niggaz With Altitude

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 31, 2012 by dcairns

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RED TAILS… oh dear oh dear. I think fans ought to be glad the STAR WARS franchise is out of George Lucas’s hands — it’s been apparent for some time that practically anybody could make a better, more tonally consistent STAR WARS film than Lucas himself. Is Joel Schumacher available? What’s that you say, he IS?

This was supposedly a dream project of the producer, but he doesn’t seem to have invested anything in it besides money — the dogfights are lovingly rendered (there were reports of some VFX shots looking unsatisfactory on the big screen, but it all looked dazzling on my TV, and slightly easier to follow than the later STAR WARSES) but the human interactions seem to be striving to obtain the long sought-after quality of zero dimensionality.

And at some point late in the game, it seems like everybody gave up caring at all. The opening action sequence is disfigured by having chunky red credits stamped over the middle of the screen, destroying suspense and engagement — I guess the movie doesn’t have a quieter scene the titles could go over, and laying them on black would be too old-school, but do we need opening titles at all? STAR WARS only has the name of the film at the beginning, as I recall.

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What puts the tin lid on it is the subtitles for the German characters, which are apparently intended for the hard of hearing, since we not only get the translation, but the helpful parenthesis “[in German]“. In case we were confused. I look forward to the next edit of STAR WARS where Greedo’s subtitles supply us with useful information about which precise alien tongue he is jabbering in. Actually, no I don’t, because Lucas isn’t likely to be rejigging STAR WARS any more. I *slightly* look forward to Disney one day making the original, authentic cut of the first STAR WARS available again, but we may have to wait a while for that.

Lucas is best out of it, and he’s to be applauded  for giving the money to charity. He leaves behind three interesting, decent movies (THX, GRAFFITI, STAR WARS), those nightmarish prequels, and this interestingly awful thing.

But I’m telling you the plot.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2012 by dcairns

“Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no-one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story, we say: ‘And then?’ If it is in a plot, we ask: ‘Why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by ‘And then – and then -’ they can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.”

~ EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel.

I’m enjoying Forster’s book of lectures, which I’ve dabbled with before but never read cover to cover. Obviously he’s snobbish about the movie-public above, and he’s writing in 1927 when clearly elaborate plotting was to be found all over the screen. I wonder when Forster had last been to the flickers? But I also wonder if the pure story he speaks of, that which requires nothing from the viewer but expectation of the next stimulating event, really exists except as a sort of platonic ideal.

(Also, I’ve also felt that the word STORY had a grander sound than the word PLOT, so I’m almost inclined to reverse Forster’s terminology, but that would get confusing. So, in his terms a story is a linear sequence of related events, whereas a plot is a structured sequence of causally related events.)

The first STAR WARS certainly depends a lot on the appeal of pure story. Alec Guinness, frowning at the poor dialogue and hackneyed characters, was on the point of discarding it, he says, when he realized he wanted to know what happened next. And if that were so, he further realized, the thing had a shot at being successful. Wisely, as it turned out, he agreed to be in it.

But STAR WARS is plotted. At the beginning, we meet the robots, we see the princess captured, we escape with the robots and meet the hero. His path eventually brings him into contact with the princess, and he rescues her. This is all linear, and we use the robots as POV characters to pull us through the different strands of the story. But Lucas also cuts away from them to action involving the villains and the princess. This is so that we are reminded they’re in the film — and so that we can anticipate the adventure which will occur when the different plot threads weave together. If the film were mere story, it would be enough to simply follow the robots to Luke, then follow Luke. No doubt when he meets Leia and Darth we’d be surprised, because we’d have forgotten they were in the film, but from a STORY point of view that would be fine. In Hitchcockian terms, Lucas defuses that surprise in favour of suspense, which gives greater value over a longer period of screen time.

So if even STAR WARS uses plot mechanics, can the plotless film be said to exist? Even the most moronic video-game movie uses goals, often in a kind of treasure-hunt scenario. The constant succession of stimulating action sequences satisfies those who only require visceral excitement, but a causal connection has been established, a purpose to all the striving and strife. Critics who describe the modern action spectaculars as plotless are usually responding to a surface impression rather than really analysing how the things function. Such films tend to use very flat characterisation (to use Forster’s term: but even flat characters, he notes, have their uses) and any development or alteration of these characters is usually unconvincing and rote (because the screenwriters are following the Syd Field road map rather than feeling the landscape with their own senses). But plot is something they all have, usually extending even to the TWIST, where a goodie turns out to be a baddie or apparent salvation turns out to be a trap.

Forster’s own example is the Thousand and One Nights, which is odd because you can’t hook a “tyrannical sultan” merely with a string of interesting events — for him to keenly anticipate further developments, you need to engage his intelligence with puzzles, something needs to be at stake. If the hero is buried up to his neck in sand and the tide is coming in, you can’t be concerned unless you visualize what is supposed to happen next.

For a narrative in which memory and anticipation and intelligence are irrelevant, you kind of have to look to FELLINI SATYRICON — and the result is far more avant-garde, and a way far more interesting, than STAR WARS. Anticipating what will happen next will get you nowhere, because what happens next is always going to be whatever Fellini thinks would be most delightful or strange. Occasionally narrative questions are produced, dangled, and very occasionally answered, but actual dramatic tension is really beside the point. Forster complains that mere stories like Walter Scott’s often drag in death or marriage to provide a totally arbitrary conclusion, but Fellini’s non-ending is even more abrupt — he essentially just abandons the story. He does it beautifully, and makes us feel that the ensuing scenes are lost to history, and his inconclusive conclusion is more profound than Lucas’s Leni Riefenstahl borrowings could ever be, or were ever intended to be. THAT’S a story — as Homer Simpson once put it, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

But I wonder what Forster would have thought of it?

I don’t know what he’d have thought of this, either — but it’s the source of my post title. The late Kenny Everett as Cupid Stunt, on and with Michael Parkinson.

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