Archive for Star Wars

The Journal of the Whills

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 21, 2016 by dcairns

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Thanks to Danny Carr for lending me his massive STAR WARS making-of books. I find them fascinating, not because I’m a big fan anymore so much, but because of the insane amount of detail devoted to every part of the creative process. The sound editing stuff alone is fantastic. There are bits where, whatever your opinion of the films, you may find yourself impressed by Lucas’s determination/moxy/inventiveness/strategy, and bits where you might think him an idiot or a jerk.

Alhtough I sometimes enjoy mocking Lucas, nobody should be judged by their first drafts — unless first drafts is what they publish, as I usually do here — but the early versions of THE STAR WARS or THE JOURNAL OF THE WHILLS, to give it two of its early titles — are curiously unreadable things. Some of this is perhaps not Lucas’s fault — in summarising his plots, author J.W. Rinzler sometimes seems to be giving equal emphasis to everything, whether it’s a major plot point or merely a scenic effect, and he doesn’t go much into character motivation. This makes the long synopses feel like word soup — a bunch or people with funny names going from place to place, performing various actions, for no discernible reason. Still, we’re told that nobody at 20th Century Fox really understood what Lucas was up to, so this may in fact be a perfectly accurate condensation of his rough drafts.

Plus, there are lots of bits of business and character names (Mace Windy eventually turned into the slightly-more-dignified Mace Windu) that eventually got recycled in the prequels, and those really DO have that extraordinary narrative clumsiness — GO HERE — DO THING — MAKE SPEECH TO OTHER GUY — GO OVER THERE — CUT TO DIFFERENT PLANET — RUN! — FIGHT! — which seems to be Lucas’s default mode when he hasn’t put himself through the necessary hell to arrive at a coherent shape.

The first STAR WARS is really tight — even the apparent dead end of the Greedo-Jabba subplot provides essential motivation for Han in Act III. It’s important not so that he can have a lot of trouble in films 2 and 3 which is unrelated to the main action, but so that he can disappear and then reappear, delightfully, at the climax of Film 1. Contrast this with THE FORCE AWAKENS where Oscar Isaac pulls off an identical vanish-and-return strategy but WITH NO EXPLANATION WHATSOEVER.

For fun, I have reproduced some passages from Lucas’s disordered warblings, as rephrased by Rinzler, alongside some pastiche versions knocked off by me. Valueless and abstract prizes will be awarded to anyone who can tell which is which.

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In the war room, Skywalker tells his aide Montross to put everyone on alert, when Kane Starkiller and his son Annikin arrive. Kane asks Skywalker to take his son as the “Padawan Learner.” When Skywalker asks why, Kane reveals that his arm and chest are mechanical. “There is nothing left but my head and right arm. I’ve lost too much, Luke. I’m dying.” Suddenly Montross reports a giant asteroid or moon detaching itself from the Anchorhead system and heading their way. “It’s as big as our third moon.”

***

Artwo and Biggs locate the Kiber crystal and hide it Artwo’s exhaust unit. General Dodana and Deak Starkiller send them to Utapau to find Dai Nogas and apprise him of the battle plans. But Ogana is concerned that Seig Darklighter may be using the Force of Others to “channel death beams.” A Council of Seven is called to debate the next course of action, but Ogana secretly contacts Son Hhat and arranges a delivery of drones.

***

In the Palace of Lite the King and Queen watch two giant twin suns set in the green sky. Skywalker and Annikin arrive and report that Kane has gone to the spaceport of Gordon to meet an old friend, Han Solo, the Ureallian. Skywalker again pushes for war, but the king wants to get the approval of his allies first, and departs on a mission to Amsel to meet with the “full assembly.”

***

Rax Moda returns Akira’s lost lazersword to Binks, with the words “It served your Padawan well.” The Princess meets Luke’s twin brothers, Valorum and Ginch. All three set off by jetstick to Candowamp. There they find a tribe of Wookees, small, hooded creatures with glowing eyes. Valorum fights the Wookee leader Hoedack, using power staffs, but they later form an alliance. The Jedi leader, Aquilae, arrives by escape pod with important word from the Mouff System.

***

General Skywalker receives word that Whitsun, who had disappeared, has just been admitted to MedVac. They rush to the emergency room, where Whitsun says that the bad guys are just behind him–“A giant space fortress” is on its way, he explains. The general sends Annikin to pick up Princess Leia. At the Academy, Annikin retrieves Leia but not the handmaidens, one of whom remains as a decoy.

***

The robots eventually find their way to a  moisture ranch owned by Luke’s uncle and aunt, Owen and Beru Lars. They meet there Luke’s young twin brothers, Biggs and Windy, and his sixteen-year-old cousin, Leia, the daughter of Owen and Beru. The robots explain that they are looking for “Angel Blue,” the code name for Luke. When they meet Luke Starkiller, he interrupts his laser sword training to introduce himself as “the Skywalker.”

***

While the old man looks for the Kiber Crystal, the others rescue the princess, which doesn’t go smoothly. “She’s a tough babe: doesn’t appreciate their help–a trap? Han punches her in the face and Chewbacca carries her out?” They then have to face the Dia Noga and have various adventures, while the old man gets the crystal, at which point the Sith Knights “become ill.”

Art by Ralph McQuarrie.

Static

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 6, 2016 by dcairns

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Another day, another bad John Frankenheimer movie. But he directs the shit out of all of them, I have to say — total commitment.

YEAR OF THE GUN. A film about Italy’s Red Brigade, made from an American perspective with a British screenwriter and producer seems an odd proposition, especially in 1991. The film is set in 1978 but is petrified of seeming like a period movie — the seventies didn’t come back into style until the late nineties so there are lots of students with short hair in this. The only obvious attempt at evoking period is to have the protags take shelter in a cinema showing STAR WARS — composer Bill Conti, he of the cheesy synths, attempts a tinny paraphrase of John Williams in the lobby, which is hilarious.

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The British input may account for the hero’s lack of heroism — harking back to Graham Greene, we like our American heroes baffled and impotent. But Holly Martins in THE THIRD MAN is also funny and sweet. Here we have Andrew McCarthy, whose character isn’t dumb like Holly, but isn’t endearing either. McCarthy doesn’t burn with screen charisma, and looks like a baby potato, but may be underrated as an actor — he does extremely good outrage. He just doesn’t pull us in, and the script gives us no reason to care  — we have to wait for Sharon Stone to turn up, which takes ages, and then things do get a bit more exciting. Seeing this, I wonder she didn’t really get noticed earlier. Frankenheimer responds to her ferocity.

No dutch tilts in this one, but some extreme deep focus and wide angle lenses and slomo and a lot of sweeping camera moves. None of which redeems the lacklustre and unfocused narrative — I don’t think the script is underdeveloped, I suspect it’s been overcooked with too many notes and rewrites. The sex scenes are awful — Frankenheimer applies himself with gusto, but they have no plot role to serve, they’re like the potter’s wheel interludes on old TV, only with tits.

Frankenheimer movies either end with violence — like, BANG! bad guy dead The End — or they end with television. Like a man obsessed, Frankenheimer couldn’t help returning to his first medium, which he had been forced out of by James T Aubrey. This one has Dick Cavett turn up at the end to interview the protagonists, a pointless and distracting bit of gimmickry, accompanied by Frankenheimer’s favourite device, the frame-within-a-drame TV set…

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Close in on TV screen. Static. Everything always comes back to white noise with Frankenheimer — the roar of emptiness.

Reboot of the Jedi

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I was going to be all noble and abstain from seeing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS because I am an adult. I have managed to avoid giving George Lucas any of my money since the first mangling of the original STAR WARS with CGI characters dropped into it at random, though this was partially by luck rather than design — a friend acquired a bootleg of THE PHANTOM MENACE before it came out and I abandoned all ethical principles and said what the hell and watched it and was damned glad I hadn’t thrown my money away on that load of tripe.

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But Fiona wanted to see this one, because it has the original actors in it a bit and so it connects more convincingly to any residual fondness one has for the original trilogy… and she had an unexpectedly emotional response to it. Funnily enough, I had just come from a costume fitting with the magnificent thespian Gavin Mitchell, who reported that he saw the movie while rather tired but his girlfriend got really emotional. Same thing. Is this a STAR WARS film that works better for girls? No bad thing, since the first film was so boysie (and so white) as one female fan wrote, ruefully, “One wonders if Princess Leia had anyone to play with when she was small.”

Princess Leia is STILL small, but she’s now a general. Han Solo is back to smuggling, the marriage thing having not quite worked out. Best of all, there are new characters, who actually have characters, unlike the entire cast of the prequels. John Boyega plays Finn, a disaffected stormtrooper — someone with actual demonstrable integrity, who rejects the politics he’s been raised with — nobody else in the films has such nobility. Daisy Ridley plays Rey (I think that’s short for Reysie Diddly, although it may also be a nod to the maker of another celebrated trilogy). Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the only one of these kids with a surname, and does a lot well with very little writing to support him. It had been uncertain, looking at his previous performances, whether the brooding O.I. could pull off lightly likeable, but he does it here. Oh, and bad guy Adam Driver, he of the massive face, a co-star of O.I.’s from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is excellent too. J.J. Abrams has by now made a lot more films than Lucas had when he made the first film in the saga franchise, and has certainly shown a lot more care than Lucas lavished on the prequels. And he has a surer sense of what STAR WARS films need to be like. I swear, when that two-headed sports commentator turned up in PHANTOM MENACE…

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Abrams’ great vice is his tendency to pass off remakes as reboots, so here we get secret plans hidden in a droid, yet another, an even bigger death star, Luke as the lost Jedi master in place of Obi-Wan, and a climax which intercuts a dogfight with a light-sabre duel. Plus a desert planet which might as well be Tatooine but isn’t, and a snowy planet that isn’t Hoth. The sense of deja vu is entirely intentional, but I would certainly have liked to see the filmmakers invent more — there are some striking background characters, but they stay in the background. And the filmmakers’ imaginations seem constrained, as if they can’t really imagine all this stuff they’ve imagined. The new death star is the size of a planet, but when the heroes land there next to one particular building they have to destroy, they quickly bump into the one person they’re looking for. It’s a small world after all.

The relentless compaction extends to time also — take a stop-watch with you and see how long elapses between the terrible news that the death star will be able to destroy everybody in two minutes, and the eventual solution to that narrative problem. We’re very used to this kind of trick in movies — the bomb timer that keeps doubling back on itself — but I swear it’s about fifteen minutes this time.

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Things Abrams definitely does better than Lucas:

The dialogue. With the aid of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Larry Kasdan and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE guy Michael Arndt, Abrams has written (sparse) dialogue which doesn’t make you want to chew your own jaw off.

No midi-chlorians. Interestingly, midi-chlorians are the reason that, whenever you meet a Jedi knight, they smell like swimming pools.

Action. Lucas has recently tended to equate “excitement” with “shitloads of things buzzing about” whereas Abrams favours coherence, and has a pleasing tendency to make each shot do more than one thing, tying the scene together with images that develop and move, enhancing the sense of context at every turn.

Domnhall Gleeson with his permanent expression of “Ooh, matron!” camp outrage. So nice to find an actor making a bold choice and sticking to it.

Emotion. Even in the first/fourth film (the film that was called STAR WARS), Lucas rather shrank from emotion. John Williams provides a soaring Wagnerian leitmotif when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, but since there hasn’t been a single hint of human warmth between Luke and his kin, this can only do so much. A comparison with THE SEARCHERS, from which Lucas has borrowed this moment, shows how much is lacking — or avoided. This kind of thing has caused me to equate the word “operatic” with the phenomenon of “gesturing grandly at a supposed emotion without actually making you feel anything” — which I don’t think is the original meaning of the term. In amidst the frenetic running about, Abrams’ characters build up some actual affection — Reysie Diddly and John Bodeya are particularly useful here.

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But the reason Fiona had such a strong emotional response to the movie is that it reminded her of the original, which made her want to make movies at age 11. And maybe it was more the publicity booklet we both owned, which drew shrewd connections to everything from METROPOLIS to SILENT RUNNING, highlighted behind-the-scenes activities, and unpicked the creative process.

Meeting these characters again could be glibly compared to meeting people you grew up with, but really they haven’t grown up. It’s like meeting someone from your childhood and finding they haven’t matured at all. It’s cheering, in a nostalgic way, for a little while (135 minutes may be pushing it), to meet people incapable of growth or development, whose world doesn’t change. I don’t know why it should be so, but whenever friends meet Fiona & I after a while apart, they assure us that it is.

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