Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Notes on the Star Wars saga


For a purely affectionate visual tribute to the films, please visit The Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which will be posted an hour after this essay.

I grew up with Star Wars, like many others in my generation, and went through a period of obsession with the original trilogy, about four years before the prequels were unveiled. Aside from the entertainment value, and aside from the verve and imagination of the films themselves, I was fascinated by both the mythic scale of the storytelling and the devotion to detail that George Lucas displayed. In the latter case, I loved the sense of place and character cultivated by Lucas, so that an entire world seemed to continue offscreen. I also enjoyed tracking down the various backstories in the spin-off media, or else imagining these backstories on my own. As for the mythology, this was the powerful framework within which the films and the spin-offs could doodle: the Star Wars saga ignited my imagination by uniting both large-scale and small-scale storytelling. It was at once larger than life and filled with a sense of the lived-in.

The borrowed and cobbled mythology of the trilogy drew on numerous sources of course, but in referencing Greek tragedy, Roman history, and Eastern theology the saga was not just playing "me too", it was tapping into the rich stream of resonance, using these inspirations to get at the core experiences and ideas to which we eternally respond. For all the lavish special effects and straightforward drama, there remained a sense of the "offscreen" in the Star Wars films, a sense on which they thrived. This existed not just in the Hero's Journey archetypes which could be read into the work, but in terms of the work itself: the fact that the trilogy occurred in a declining era, on the margins of a vast universe. Its chronology ("Episode IV - VI") unfolded in the aftermath of a golden age, and its action often took us to the hidden nooks and crannies of the galaxy, the ice- or desert-world margins of a vast universe.


Eventually, with Return of the Jedi, the action was no longer so marginal: we saw the evil Emperor up close, and the buried Oedipal strains came rearing to the forefront in epic lightsaber battles. The climactic outcome was no less than the destruction of a galactic order and the redemption of that order's most evil enforcer. Still, if there was no longer so much "offscreen" there remained the rich, mythic, hidden history of everything we see: what Darth Vader was before he had become a black-clad supervillain, how the galaxy functioned before the Empire subjected it, what exactly the Clone Wars consisted of. This melancholy sense of nostalgia, infusing especially the original film, was best cultivated when all these mysteries remained hidden, yet of course one always hungers to kill the goose for its golden eggs.

In 1999, Lucas did just that. With his prequel trilogy he laid out in (often excessive) detail who Anakin Skywalker was, what the Old Republic looked like, and just how exactly the Clone Wars came about. With these revelations, it was inevitable that some of the magic was to be lost, but we can't just pin the widespread disappointment on inevitability. Lucas' particular presentation also frustrated many viewers - what had once seemed archetypal now seemed pedantic, what had seemed larger-than-life now embarrassingly overblown, what had seemed suggestive and creative now excessive and literal. I saw The Phantom Menace numerous times in the theaters (it didn't hurt that I had a crush on Natalie Portman) but never bought it on video and couldn't shake the sense of not quite getting what I was looking for, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise. By the time the next couple movies came out, I went to the movies, found myself increasingly satisfied with each episode, and promptly forgot about them. In this, I was like many other people for whom, after all the hype, the prequels landed like duds, only making us appreciate the originals all the more, longing for our lost sense of wonder in the process.

Yet there's still something there, and if I can't count myself a fan of the prequels, or even an especially unqualified admirer of the third and most successful of them, they are worth re-examining. The notes which follow are cursory and fragmentary, a couple paragraphs on each film, based on my reflections after watching all six films close together. This exercise, which I had eagerly anticipated when the prequels were announced, was something I lost interest in once I realized how uneasily the two trilogies sit side-by-side, in terms of storytelling, style, and spirit. Yet I finally set up a viewing of the whole saga over a few days, several months ago. My inspiration was Bob Clark's in-depth, enthusiastic review of Attack of the Clones (he has already written a piece on The Phantom Menace, and one on Revenge of the Sith is supposedly in the wings). If you want a real meaty examination of these movies, please visit Bob's work. My musings here are brief, and their primary purpose is to serve as a more skeptical, analytical flipside to the bit of mythologizing I am indulging in with "The Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker." While the tragedy of the fallen Jedi shines through in individual images, it doesn't quite play for me watching the movies themselves. Here's why (among other observations):

____________________


The Phantom Menace

I have seen no Star Wars film - indeed, no film period - more times on the big screen and yet The Phantom Menace remains my least favorite Star Wars film. It reduces the grand mythology of the saga to petty bureaucratic squabbles, renders the characterizations (already broadly drawn) in near-cartoon form, and in numerous ways effaces the sense of a vast, intricate, universe in favor of a CGI-cluttered merry-go-round spinning to the tune of "it's a small world after all." It has the boy who grows up to be Darth Vader building C-3PO and meeting R2-D2, as if we're playing an incestuous round of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which everyone can be connected in multiple ways in a few steps. The whole fun of the first Star Wars was in the way this ragtag hodgepodge of characters wound up together - but Phantom Menace renders this excitement moot by linking them all from the get-go. Prequels are already going to suffer from a sense of the inevitable, but Lucas exacerbates this here. He even places little Anakin Skywalker on the same isolated desert planet that his restless son will yearn to escape years later - apparently in Star Wars, all roads lead back to Tatooine.

What's tiresome about all this is that it makes the prequel, rather than its own entity, a limp puppet of the original movies. But when the film tries to cut its strings, it fares no better. Its story, about a trade dispute, is without interest, its comic relief tiresome, its attempts at fresh mythology labored and resolutely un-magical. The Phantom Menace finds itself at once too dependent upon the original trilogy and too dim an echo of their charms. One senses that this chapter in the saga was not very necessary, that perhaps it should have served as prologue to Episode I rather than its entirety; and that Lucas and his collaborators were mostly interested in experimenting with new effects and setting the stage for their later adventures. Perhaps this is why the digital effects, groundbreaking for the time, now seem so aggressively artificial. The final battle, between two armies entirely composed of animated creatures, plays like an extended and not-very-interesting video game, in which the viewer has no control and must passively watch the synthetic graphics cascade across the screen. The result seems to be essentially test footage disguised as a feature film.

The Phantom Menace, if approached without any knowledge of or interest in the Star Wars saga, can perhaps be enjoyed as a mildly engaging swashbuckler, though even then Jar-Jar Binks, muddled political intrigue, and excessive computer animation often intrude on the entertainment. Perhaps its best defense is as the calm before the storm, the deceptively lightweight intro which plants the seeds for the richer melodrama to unfold. Rather than view the past as a golden age, it sees it as a comfortably mundane reality, later romanticized and idealized in an era which actually contained a stronger pathos and energy. Seen in this light, Phantom Menace is the obligatory small beginning from which great things can emerge. That said, "obligatory" is hardly a sterling commendation.

Attack of the Clones

Some hold this to be the worst of all Star Wars films, but in many ways it's an improvement on Episode I. For one thing, George Lucas has improved as a director. He had not stood behind the camera for over twenty years prior to The Phantom Menace; in which time the intensely cinematic auteur of THX 1138 had been reduced to rather unimaginatively staging long sequences of dialogue with sundry whirligigs hovering about the frame in vain attempts to import life to the proceedings. But Clones, shot digitally, is less blocky than Menace, and its first few scenes hum along with a verve and energy Episode I could never summon. It also helps that we're entering a darker, richer world along with our protagonist. Most of the action takes place on the city-world of Coruscant, the only planet to emerge in the prequels with any real force of personality (perhaps because, in films which mostly eschew natural settings for digital ones, Coruscant is the only one which is supposed to be manmade).

There's also some enticing intrigue, with a few overt nods to noir. Here the movie, with its dabbling on the dark side and premonitions of political chaos, has a chance to fashion an intriguing narrative that can stand on its own two feet even while engaging with the three pre-existing myths of the prequel universe: the Old Republic, the Clone Wars, and the Fall of the Jedi. Yet, like Phantom Menace, Clones falls prey to irrelevant and uninteresting storylines - the first half is absorbing, but the movie grinds to a halt when about a dozen successive climaxes convulse and demolish its initially intricate development. Even more unfortunately, the film drops the ball on the only storyline that really matters - Anakin's slow march to the dark side and that black suit. Hayden Christensen's performance is monotonous and embarrassing, and Lucas' dialogue is as sorry as his direction of actors. The romance with Padme is destroyed by terrible lines, wooden delivery, and Hallmark-y mise en scene. The aborted reunion with his mother and subsequent vengeful indulgence play more effectively, but we've already been so distanced from the characters that its effect is somewhat muted.

The problem here is that lingering sense of the "obligatory." Both Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are haunted by necessity, and constantly strive to prove themselves in a way the original trilogy never had to. Lucas doesn't seem up to the dramatic challenge, and so romance dissolves into cheap cliches, foreshadowing appears rote, and digressions come off more like evasions.

Revenge of the Sith

By far the best of the prequels, and the only one that feels necessary to the myth. Indeed, of all six Star Wars films, this is the one most reliant upon the central thread (Anakin's trajectory from Jedi to Dark Knight and eventually to redeemed, weakened old man). This proves both its strength and its weakness. On the one hand, this devotion to the grand tragedy gives the movie a sense of purpose sorely lacking in Episodes I or II (which, in the interest of effective storytelling, should have been either eliminated or reduced to an introduction for Episode III). The action has a centrality and weight non-existent in any other Star Wars movie, and the film is surprisingly up to the challenge in most regards.

Just as Lucas the director of Attack of the Clones was light years ahead of Lucas the director of Phantom Menace, so Revenge of the Sith glows with a rich palette and crackles with a narrative economy that Lucas seems to have finally re-discovered. The movie is not plodding at all, and six years after The Phantom Menace, that's a major accomplishment. What's more, particularly in silent, purely visual passages where clunky dialogue is not expected to convey all of his ideas, Lucas manages to summon up the emotional catharsis and turmoil we've been starved for so long. Ironically, this occurs not so much in the literally explosive battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi, nor the final transformation into Vader, however iconic. It is embedded earlier in the movie, when the shift towards evil is entirely interior; all the more reason to applaud it. Finally, the saga seems ready to assume the mythological mantle it has been eyeing for three films.

On the other hand, if the film suffers from this burden, it's because it can't exist without the mythology. In this way, it is the reverse of the next film, the original Star Wars, which spawned the mythology but exists as a masterpiece entirely on its own terms. There's simply no way to approach Revenge of the Sith on its own; even taken as the fall of an arrogant, troubled young man it needs the knowledge of what comes later (the cool malevolence of Vader, the similar restlessness of his son) to give it power. And, as with all the other prequels, the film is hindered whenever it opens its mouth - in particular, constant references to "younglings" completely mitigates the powerful shock greeting our hero's murder of children, and a climactic "Nooooooooooo!" is an embarrassing introduction to Darth Vader, no matter how one tries to spin it. Ultimately, whatever its flaws, Revenge of the Sith is the linchpin of the saga's mythology: its reputation must rise or fall on the importance of that mythology.

A New Hope

Ironically, it is the fourth "episode," the first film in the whole series, which makes me question that very importance. After all, there is no tormented father-son relationship in Star Wars, the good/evil divide is simplistically binary (unlike in Revenge of the Sith, where it is rich and provocative), and the movie's predominant mood is not serious mythologizing but infectious, boyishly enthusiastic good cheer. That the movie works so marvellously, and is in many ways more satisfying than any other in the saga, makes one wonder if the mythology isn't more of a burden than a gift. One loves Star Wars not because of its place in the overall story (Vader is, for all intents and purposes, a supporting character) but for reasons entirely irrelevant to this.

Watching the movie as the fourth episode in a six-part saga only reinforced this impression. Immediately I was taken out of the "bigger picture" (which had just been amplified to the nth degree in Revenge of the Sith) and thrust into a simpler, purer pleasure. This may be due in part to the film's reputation, and my own experience with it, so that it becomes impossible to see simply as a chapter in an ongoing tale. But I think the film itself entails this response, so that even a viewer unfamiliar with the context of its release (say, a child experiencing all six films for the first time) would feel something is out of place here, that somehow Episode IV does not logically flow from Episode III.

The difference is not only in tone and narrative focus, but in style. In some ways, this is justifiable. Both the time period and the subject matter of the prequels entail a different approach than Star Wars'. The prequels take place in the center of the action, at a time of unity, however crumbling, and peace, however precarious (the Clone Wars occur mostly offscreen, between Episodes II and III). As such, it seems natural to indulge sweeping, fast-paced visuals and an aesthetic focused on centrality rather than ephemera and diversion. And yet - the world of Star Wars is so stark in comparison to the prequels, its scenes at once less bustling and more lived-in, that the transition comes as a complete shock. The slick digital effects and fast cuts of Episodes I-III simply don't exist in the same universe as the sturdier models and mattes, the more classical shooting style of the original and best Star Wars.

That said, the Special Editions (which I'm not fond of in most respects) do make the original trilogy seem more of a piece with the prequels - particularly in the case of the first movie, which received the most extensive reworking (and which probably needed it the most to look "up-to-date"). In addition to the cosmetic changes which make the trilogy seem sleeker and more digital, there are dramatic insertions which tie the old films into the new. Among them...

The Empire Strikes Back

...The replacement of Clive Revill with Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor in Episode V. Revill's performance was more imperious and restrained than McDiarmid's cackling, hammy turn, which made its debut in Return of the Jedi and was reprised in the prequels. Still, in terms of tying Vader's obsession with Luke Skywalker to Vader's own fall from grace years earlier, McDiarmid-as-Emperor works wonders. Indeed, overall Empire Strikes Back is a return to the Star Wars mythology, and well it should be as it basically invented said mythology. It did so at the risk of taking itself too seriously, and thus losing the joyous, reckless sense of carefree gusto which powered the previous film - but it's hard to see any other path a sequel to Star Wars could have taken. No follow-up could ever re-capture the magic, best then to invent a mythology.

What we have here is a refocus on the essential drama of Anakin/Vader as opposed to the adventurous charms of our universe (in Star Wars, the story essentially serves as an engine to explore this wonderful world Lucas has crafted, whereas in Empire the story is clearly and emphatically in the foreground). Ultimately, because in 1980 Lucas (or at least Lucas and his screenwriting collaborators Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett, whose input is questionable) was a more adult writer than in 2005, and because he was not constrained by obligations to a 25-year-old scenario, Empire Strikes Back is the most comfortably mature Star Wars film. Irvin Kirshner's direction may also contribute a great deal to this maturity - certainly the actors are more comfortable with him than any other Wars director. He also seems less interested in paying constant tribute to favorite films and stories than Lucas; Kirshner allows the story to unfold more or less on its own terms.

My opinion and impression of this film have fluctuated over the years. Initially, when I was a kid, it seemed a bit cold and grey - I preferred Return of the Jedi with its nonstop action and Wagnerian climactic confrontation. Later I warmed up to Empire's impressively dark atmosphere; it's probably the Star Wars film most suited to adolescents, with moody visuals and a feverishly haunted worldview. Eventually, clothing the Star Wars universe in self-serious adult garb seemed to me a slightly foolhardy gesture, and my affection returned to the more lighthearted spirit of the enterprise, now best conveyed to me in the original Star Wars. And yet recently returning to the film to grab screen-captures, I was impressed anew with its gorgeous visual palette and the genuine drama it manages to wring from its space opera. The duel between Vader and Luke, capped with one of the most famous revelations in cinema history, still has the power to awe and intimidate its audience - The Empire Strikes Back certainly can't be discounted.

Return of the Jedi

Next to Revenge of the Sith, to which title it bears a not-even-slightly coincidental resemblance, Return of the Jedi is the most essential keystone in the Star Wars mythology. Like Sith, Jedi thrives on an acquaintance with the bigger story. I first saw it at a summer camp when I was about eight years old. Never having seen the other Star Wars films, I was left out in the cold by the movie's self-assured, waste-no-time intro and as the kids around me cheered the arrival of each familiar character onscreen, I began to despise the movie. Later, after familiarizing myself with its universe, it was for a time my favorite.

In most aspects of its story, Jedi is rather weak. Jabba's palace is good, decadent, Orientalist fun. But the rescue of Han is still a bit smug (maybe it's the lingering aftereffects of that camp viewing), the Ewoks are as silly if hardly as bothersome as their reputation suggests, and all the space battles have a been-there, done-that feel. Richard Marquand does not impress us with a unique outlook on the universe as Kirshner did; he's there to deliver the goods, and it's impossible to imagine how David Lynch - Lucas' first choice - would have squeezed himself into the paradigms the screenplay permits. Yoda, whose comic presence livened up Empire after a shaky start, is here reduced to a brief cameo; meanwhile, the reveal that Leia is Luke's sister begins the trend of tying up every loose end, a trend which would climax with Anakin inhabiting Luke's home planet and building C-3PO from scratch.

And yet, I like Jedi, and find it a satisfying conclusion to the saga because the father-son drama pays off and the redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the most important part of the mythology next to his fall, manages - through some miracle - to work. (I can't explain why it's possible to read conflicting emotions into a frozen black mask which physically looks no different in the last scene than in any other, but it is. Perhaps it's the lighting, the cutting, or the composition - or perhaps David Prowse, who inhabited the cumbersome costume, was a better actor than ever given credit for, imbuing each slight movement with a calculation and gravity.) Watching this sequence, in which McDiarmid's wickedly over-the-top performance is both a campy delight and a dramatically effective touchstone, I'm always brought back to the Wang Center in Boston, 1993.

That spring my father took me to see all three films on the big screen (the prequels still existing only in some never-never-land of fevered Star Wars fans' fervent wishes). It was a few years before Star Wars' great revival in the mass media, and half a decade before the Special Editions would make theatrical screenings of the saga de rigeur. As such, this was a special occasion - and it was treated as such by everyone in the audience, greeting each character's first appearance with the appropriate applause or booing. (I've only had one audience experience as memorable as this in a movie theater: attending the 20th anniversary re-release of Scarface in Times Square, a very different audience greeted the film with standing ovations, playful calls-and-responses, and throaty cheers when Pacino capped particularly egregious foes.)

As the third and final film reached its conclusion, with Vader looking back and forth between his son and his master, finally breaking out of the role he's played resolutely for three films, the whole theater broke out into thunderous acclamation. This was a moment of supreme catharsis, enabled by the cultivation of a mythos, an identification with the characters onscreen, and a hidden history. It was with this moment in mind that I always hoped to view the entire saga as one singular piece, a monumental work documenting the epic rise, fall, and redemption of an antihero, unfolding across detailed worlds, amongst intricate subplots, over decades of transformation, and against the backdrop of a galactic conflagration. As I found myself disappointed with the late entries in the grand mythology, and perhaps as I grew up in general and began to suspect that Star Wars was perhaps not the best vessel after all for this sort of epic tragedy, I drew away from this desire.

Yet it never disappeared completely. And if, after my recent viewings, I can't say I achieved this ambition entirely, I did come closer to it. While I don't think the six films can ever play as one complete story - partly because of the prequels' limitations and compromises, partly because creating history after the fact was always bound to be a doomed gesture - I'm glad I took the opportunity to approach that synthesis. In the end, the full saga will continue to play out in the only place it ever could, well offscreen: in our imaginations.



Postscript: I see that, while at least fleetingly mentioning almost every other Star Wars character, I inadvertently ignored Chewbacca. Well, what do you want me to do, give him a goddamn medal??


This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

60 comments :

Stephen said...

"This melancholy sense of nostalgia, infusing especially the original film, was best cultivated when all these mysteries remained hidden, yet of course one always hungers to kill the goose for its golden eggs."

I find it hard to argue, intellectually, with so much of what you write MovieMan.

I see that the dialogue is hammy in the prequels, I see that the plot is ploddingly and perhaps clumsily unravelled and I see that much of the magical mythology is brought crashing down to earth.

But I still think they are great films. Not despite of the flaws but regardless of them. I think the simple power of the tale, John Williams' music, the speed of the narration all add up to something irresistible.

I actually gained appreciation of the original trilogy via the Prequels as I was never much of a fan of the first three.

It's great to read a (very well-written) piece on Star Wars that has no prejudice - no fanboy rose-tinted spectacles and no contrarian axe to grind.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Stephen. My reaction to Star Wars is indeed a combination of some remove and a memory of being head-over-heels immersed/obsessed with the whole universe for years (albeit somewhat before the prequels, which is partly why it may be hard for me to mentally integrate them). Glad you appreciated my take here - and it's interesting to see someone who came to the trilogy (to a certain extent) through the prequels. I'd be interested to hear more on that, actually, if you ever wrote a piece about it...

Bob Clark said...

This is a great, honest take on the films, Joel. In the final analysis, the original film is probably the strongest of them all, but for reasons I'll probably never really be able to fully articulate, I'm almost finally to the conclusion that TPM might be my favorite of them all. Granted, by and large both it and AOTC aren't entirely necessary to the main story-- indeed, Lucas' talent for setting things in medeas res makes ROTS a valid starting point, not requiring that much more set-up than its own opening crawl-- but I think that's one of the reasons I like them. They may travel on the periphery of the SW mythos, but that gives them a tremendous creative liberty as well. Lucas takes a leisurely, scenic route on the way to Anakin's transformation, with plenty of narrative pit-stops for pure visual-cinematic divergences and minor fairy-tale musings. In its whole, "Star Wars" is something like one of those medieval cabinet-paintings which open up to portray some great event from history or the Bible in various tableau illustrations-- naturally only one or two occupy center stage and a majority of the viewer's vision, with the others bookending the rest on the borders (Bosch's tryptich gardens of Eden, Earthly Delights and Hell is a good example of this).

As such, you could easily argue that TPM and AOTC are the episodes which fall into that category, simply spinning a tale whose meat and substance could probably be assumed by an intelligent viewer of the remaining four films. Yet still, I love those movies for all their aesthetic embellishments (all that time on planet Naboo is ravishing, especially when you realize that Anakin seduces Padme on the same spot that Bond convalesces with Vesper). I love their regal air and courtly manners, their political meanderings and cinematic tapestry. I can relate to Anakin's emotional anxiety just as much as most other viewers fail (or refuse to) respond to it. I adore all the cinematic allusions, artistic impersonations and even time wasted on digitally conjured tangants. These are the movies I watch when I want to remind myself why I love movies, and though I can appreciate opinions to the contrary or voices that continually herald perennial favorites like ESB to the forefront (I still like that movie, mostly for the clarity of Luke and Vader's mythic quests and Peter Suschitzky's stunning cinematography, but most of the hokey Han & Leia schtick that Kershner encourages gets on my nerves after a while) in my heart, these are the episodes that continually provoke me to keep reexamining the series, and Lucas' career as a whole. I only wish that he'd make good on his promise to go back and return to the avant-garde of "THX 1138", but even if he never does, I'm glad he took us back to the good ol' GFFA.

By the way, I'm reading this on the same day that I bought a Darth Maul lapel pin, just to show you where I'm coming from.

MovieMan0283 said...

Glad you appreciated it. It's funny too how I'm tougher on Phantom Menace than any other film, yet I've seen it more times than any other in the theater (a record that will probably stand, at least for a long time, particularly as I hardly go to the theater anymore). Maybe the two are related?

Still, I think I'd have major issues with it & Clones regardless. I sympathize with many of your points but for me, for whatever reason, I get them out of Sith so the first two feel a little superfluous. I can't wait to read your Sith piece though - any idea when that might go up? In particular, I'm fascinated by your and Stephen's experience of re-discovering or re-appreciating the original trilogy through the prism of the prequels, since my own experience was so opposite.

Who I'd really like to hear from? A little kid (now grown, or at least enough to articulate his experience) who saw the prequels first, maybe didn't even realize the chronology of their making: how did they like the films overall, what was their reaction when they DID realize how they were made, how did that change their experience with the saga?

I'd say we're not at the point where it's possible for an adult or older teenager to have had this experience (at least in terms of all 3 prequels) but we're almost there. A particularly articulate 13-year-old would have been 8 when Sith came out. Maybe in a few years...

Tony Dayoub said...

Forget Chewie. Did you even mention Han?

Good piece, MovieMan. I like the personal reminiscences interspersed throughout. I contend there's a reason the first film feels so unique in the saga. While I'm sure Lucas had plenty of backstory to guide his efforts and those of the actor's, I'm certain this only became a saga once he started cashing in on the phenomenon. I remember the first tentative steps towards the movie's ancillary success in the action figure arena. Before STAR WARS, the biggest successes (modest by comparison) in this area were PLANET OF THE APES and SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN. Then SW comes along and there is a demand for all of these figures after the first series ofthem sells out. Lucas held all of the licensing rights because 20th Century Fox didn't have the foresight to hold onto them given the middling success of their APES franchise in the licensing world.

More figures to represent all of the characters in the movie were needed, but with practically no costume changes for the main characters and few supporting characters outside of the cantina aliens, the only solution was to expand the universe. So all of the sudden, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE is tacked onto the opening crawl (it wasn't there on its initial release) during a rerelease shortly before EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

Licensing was the catalyst for expanding the universe, and once commerce becomes the motivation for "art," you start getting diminishing returns.

PS: That being said, EMPIRE is definitely the best and most mature of all of the entries. Lucas contibuted the plotting, but much of the dialogue was contributed by Kasdan (THE BIG CHILL) and Brackett (THE BIG SLEEP) who both have an ear for the kind of voices heard in mature adult relationships. In fact, Kershner tells of Harrison Ford improvising the famous bit as he's getting frozen where Leia says, "I love you," and he responds, "I know." Lucas wasn't sure it would work, and almost made them change it back to "I love you, too." It took Ford, Kershner, and some others on set to convince him it would be the only way it'd play before he allowed it.

MovieMan0283 said...

Well I did mention the "rescue of Han" but yeah, Solo must have been in carbonite for most of this essay...

Great cynical observations here! When Lucas talks about his master plans for the whole saga going back to the early 70s I always remember his appearance in the '78 Making of Star Wars doc, in which he states "Well, Star Wars was supposed to be a one-off, but..."

Lucas definitely has a tin ear for dialogue, but American Graffiti & Star Wars both have a wry, enjoyable sense of humor. On AG he had collaborators (Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, according to IMDb) but SW was supposedly done alone. The dialogue there is silly, but always fun and delivered with either a sense of irony or winning sincerity.

J.D. said...

I would just like to echo others' comments that is an incredibly well-written in-depth essay on these films! You really did a fantastic job nailing down what makes them work (or not work) for you.

I grew up with the original trilogy so they will always have a nostalgic soft spot in my heart. While I do think that EMPIRE is probably the best film of the entire series in terms of scope, technical expertise, etc., I still have a soft spot for A NEW HOPE. There is a wistful idealism mixed with rousing adventure that gets me every time. I'm not too crazy about RETURN OF THE JEDI - too many muppets for my tastes but it does have a lot going for it, including the whole Jabba takedown at the beginning and the incredibly exciting space battle at the film's climax.

As for the prequels, I really felt cheated by them. I remember the anticipation level when I saw that first trailer for THE PHANTOM MENACE and then lining up opening day to see it and being crushed at how disappointing it was. How could Lucas make so many missteps when he got it so right in the original trilogy? I think it comes down to the fact that he decided t write and direct the prequels, which was a big mistake IMO. What makes the original films work so well is that his vision was filtered through talented others like Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kirscher, etc. They brought something else to the table that complemented Lucas' vision. With the prequels, it's all Lucas, unfiltered and without anyone keeping him in check.

Anyways, I really dig this post. Fantastic stuff.

Bob Clark said...

My favorite dialogue from Lucas is mostly from "THX 1138"-- I love the absurdist, static flavor to it. The curious thing about the Prequels is how much Lucas apparently tried to get old collaborators to help him with the script, even as far back as TPM-- everyone from Kasdan, Katz & Hyuck (who both polished the ANH script) and even heavy hitters like Frank Darabont and David Hare (whom Lucas even offered a co-director position, to work with the actors), but everybody passed him up on it, thinking he didn't need any help. It would seem that before TPM's release, the only person with a realistic image of Lucas' abilities was Lucas himself.

At any rate, I have no qualms looking at his faults as a screenwriter while still admiring his work as a director-- it just bothers me when people overlook the faults of other filmmakers to pile on one hyperbole after another. Nobody seemed to have a problem with the tin-ear dialogue of James Cameron's "Avatar" (though I suspect it won't belong before critics wake up and experience some belated morning-after regrets there). Right now the golden child is Christopher Nolan, and while he can sure write circles around most other fantasists, that's about ALL he can do. I'll take Lucas and his imperfections over them and theirs in a heartbeat.

Oddly, I think ROTS is the prequel that suffers the most for me at times, primarily because I notice such a strong departure in its design aesthetic. I really love the work that Doug Chiang did on TPM and AOTC, and it was a shame to see him leave the series (and for what-- to help with the effects of "The Polar Express" and keep working on that damn "Robotica" book with Orson Scott Card?) and missed the distinctive look he brought to the table. I also miss Lucas' on-location photography-- one of his great unsung talents has been finding both natural and manmade locations in the real world to stand in for his various sci-fi landscapes (the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture of "THX 1138", the Italian palaces of Naboo), and it's nowhere in ROTS. Still, the movie has a lot going for it.

Also, of all the characters from the series, I think Han is the one I outgrew the most. Yeah, he's fun and all, but even as a kid if I wanted to watch Harrison Ford play the hero I'd put on an Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan flick before one of these.

MovieMan0283 said...

J.D., this is why is still strikes me as ironic that Lucas pretty much singlehandedly crafted Star Wars (at least from the creative end), which to me is the best of the saga. Maybe it's that, when he tries to make things "serious" he either falls flat or needs collaborators. (Then again, Phantom Menace isn't very serious - though it is trying hard to fit into the whole mythology, which is its own problem.)

Bob, given the unique nature of SW's live-action/CGI texture, I'm not sure what Chiang's credit means in fact: was he sort of a composite art director/digital landscaper for the first two films? At any rate, I like Sith the best, looks-wise, out of the trilogy because it seems the least impeded by "business". Those middle scenes with Anakin turning to the dark side in the sleek corridors of Coruscant are effective in part because they're relatively austere and controlled. Menace & Clones get too cluttered for me - I like the detailed design when we're dealing with lived-in sets (like in the original Star Wars) but it becomes wearisome to me when it's just animators filling the nooks and crannies of a universe without much weight. I kind of feel that, if the whole environment is going to be digital, it might as well be stark (Coruscant is "buys" but in a sort of anyonymous, ominous way).

Funny anecdotes there about the collaborators - I hadn't heard that! (I did know Tom Stoppard helped out on Clones, but it's almost like he condescended and said, "Oh you want bad dialogue in the Star Wars style, right? Ok, I can give you that..."

Bob Clark said...

Re: Stoppard-- I've lost a lot of respect for him after how he, Robert Harris and Michael Apted whitewashed Alan Turing out of the story of "Enigma". The man was a brilliant Allied code-breaker, a visionary theorist in the realm of artificial-intelligence, and a tragic martyr of anti-gay persecution. As a game designer, I find it not only morally offensive but just plain disappointing that nobody thought he was worth more than the standard formula of movie romance. Too bad.

Anyway, Chiang was for the first two Prequels what Ralph McQuarie was for the original trilogy, and watching ROTS without his touch is a little like wondering what "Jedi" would've been like without the elder concept painter. I really love Chiang's designs throughout TPM and AOTC, all of it a strange balance of belle-epoque grandness and streamlined art-deco. It's a wonderfully idiosynchratic aesthetic that fits right in with Lucas' imagination-- the hyroglyphic battle-droids, the donut-shaped Trade Federation vessels, not to mention pretty much everything on Coruscant. Granted, the ILM design-crew of ROTS doesn't do a bad job, but at their best moments they're merely re-using locations and characters that Chiang had a hand in designing, or seemingly emulating his style (as with the very "Robitica"-esque General Grevious). New locations are, for the most part, a little drab (I'd love to see what Chiang would've done with the fabled volcano planet of Mustafar), but at the end of the day it's all okay. Chiang's absence isn't a deal breaker for me, but it's there nonetheless.

JD-- even with his flawed work on scripts and with actors, I think the Prequels are far in a way much better than they would've been had Lucas "filtered down" his vision as he had on ESB (ROTJ, it's widely recognized, was pretty much his all the way, with Marquand more or less as a figurehead). The fact that he stepped in to do these himself rather than delegating shows how personal these were to him, first and foremost, and that personal touch really shows when it comes to the direction of their many and myriad action set-pieces. Call it hyperbole if you will, but with the possible exception of master Bond-smith Martin Campbell, I'd nominate Lucas as the best action-director of the past thirty years, his level-headed yet imaginative stuff far superior to the incoherence of Greengrass' "Bourne" movies and their ilk. Yeah, so his dialogue kinda sucks, but when the characters quit talking, I'm the one who's left speechless.

Max said...

Joel-
Great essay! I agree about the uselessness of the first two prequels - there's none of the breathless fun that's present in the first movie, which is a key element of the great premise of the film serials. At least that's how the great serial films appear to me - there's an ebb and flow to the drama and mythology to fit one piece nicely into the next (while not too harshly conflicting with the last). This is why SW:ESB is my favorite of all the films - it retains the fun of the first film (the asteroid belt chase in particular), keeps a great, even pace leading to a brilliant climax, and isn't bogged down by lengthy, overwrought character introductions (SW:ANH has some great character intros, I'm more referring to SW:EP1). There's a sureness to the material and the feel, more than any of the other films (at least to me) of being invested in the entire world. You don't need to know what the rest of the rebellion is doing all the time, because that extra baggage is ONLY THERE to serve the arc of the characters. It's a convenient throughline against which the characters can evolve. This is something that the prequels are lacking - you can't say easily what the prequels are about in a general way. The clone wars, the trade federations, there's nothing against which the characters struggle, or at least everything they DO struggle against seems trite and ultimately meaningless. Who cares what the Trade Federation has to do with the Clone Wars? There's too many characters to introduce, too many small plotlines to try and tie up, that you lose all sense of the grand picture (which is ostensibly what the prequels were supposed to enhance). The fall of Anakin didn't need the further elaboration the prequels provide - the redemption of Darth Vader was compelling enough.

MovieMan0283 said...

Bob, I've heard you mention the Enigma thing before; though I'm familiar with Turing I knew nothing about this movie. Looking up the movie on Netflix, it sounds like they didn't just shortshrift him, but excluded him from the film altogether. Is that correct?

My commendation for Sith should probably be seen mostly as going for Coruscant (though you fairly point out the template was established in I & II, I still think Sith uses it best and I kind of like that weird amorphous blob-show thing they're watching, even if it makes no sense as a mass spectacle...). Agreed that they don't really do much with the volcano planet.

MovieMan0283 said...

Max, thanks! Since we last discussed ESB, I've come around closer to your way of thinking again. SW is still my favorite but ESB has a certain grandeur, especially in the climactic duel (though Yoda is a lot of fun, Hoth doesn't do so much for me anymore). I like the way the film explores the darker side of Lucas' universe - not just in theme but in texture; the long hallways and deep metal caverns of SW are mostly sets and matte paintings which characters run through; in ESB there's a long, drawn-out fight in the intimidatingly gigantic bowels of Bespin, and suddenly the technological backbone of the universe seems so much more intimidating and vast.

I agree with most of the rest of your observations - episodes I & II feel like footnotes to the saga and even III, which contains the central event of the story, sometimes has the feel of a prologue. In part, it's due to coming in after one knows the story (and that goes for Lucas writing as well) but it's also for the reason you mention - there's less of an integration between the larger story and the smaller stories than there is in ESB or even ROTJ.

Max said...

Joel-
The environment is another aspect of the prequels that seems somewhat forgotten about. In the original 3 the environments seem organic to the story - in RTJ, it makes visual sense to have the rebels positioned against the empire in a wild forest environment - that feeds right into many cultural touchpoints regarding a general conception of a popular rebellion against an evil empire (shades of the Sandanistas, no? Or perhaps you prefer the Cubans). In Ep. III, when Obi-Wan fights Anakin, it takes place on a volcanic planet - because he's an angry guy? That's not servicing the story, that's talking down to the audience.

MovieMan0283 said...

Sandinistas would certainly be apropos given the time period. I never thought about the relation of environment to theme (though I've certainly thought about it in relation to mood - ice, swamp, and cool, impersonal city in the clouds certainly add to & even help create the darker mood of ESB). But you raise an interesting point there; to me the only worlds in the prequels which really click (besides Ep. II' Tatooine which borrows its significance from ANH) are Coruscant, and that rainy planet where they're building the clones - I love the wispy alien creatures on that one too. Otherwise, and maybe it's the CGI, nothing really sticks. And I think Tatooine's resonance as an outlier planet on the furthest margins of the universe is completely destroyed by planting Vader there in Episode I. But I'm tempted to call Coruscant the one unmitigated triumph of the film (even though it had already been conjured up in prose and picture by years of spin-off media).

Bob Clark said...

By and large, I'd say that the whole idea of planets as external theme thing is somewhat subtler in the prequels, but no less present. Naboo's Italian locations was one of the first thing that floored me about TPM and AOTC, providing us with a lot of beautiful Visconti-esque imagery and loaded atmospherics. It establishes the world of the prequels as one that's defined by the central hubs of civilized culture, rather than its outskirts. The whole old-world Euorpean flavor is key for a story about the slow turn from democracy to dictatorship, mirroring the political declines of Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy (indeed, the Visconti connection becomes even clearer when you look at "The Leopard" as another story about aristicracy in its twilight years as harbinger of fascist chaos to come). It's also an ideal setting for the medievalist courtly romance between Anakin and Padme. And hey, if you squint a little at all the Italian architecture and green domes, it looks just a little bit like Portmerion, AKA The Village...

Joel's already talked about Coruscant. The idea of a city-planet is interesting enough, but Lucas goes the extra mile by coming up with plenty of cool locations and vistas, and then putting them to good use in a number of clever action sequences throughout (okay, in TPM people just stand around talking, but it's still shot gorgeously). I dig the allusions to "Blade Runner" and "Metropolis" throughout, and even the jokey "American Graffiti" moment in the AOTC diner. One thing that's cool about Coruscant is just how much of it was actually built-- a lot of fans complained about the lack of miniatures for most of the starships throughout the Prequels, but it turns out that ILM was putting most of their model-muscle into building whole worlds and planetscapes instead. There's a great three-dimensional physicality to the locations of the PT that isn't quite there in most of the matte-paintings of the original trilogy.

Kamino is cool as a rainswept, sci-fi equivalent for film-noir and gothic alike-- I especially love the "THX 1138" look to the interiors (and fear it may be the closest we get to Lucas returning to his roots). Geonosis at first glance is just another desert planet, but it's grown on me since-- with its its Saturnine rings and Mars-red soil it's a cool mash-up of worlds from our own solar system, and the Gaudi-inspired design of its inhabitants' dwellings makes it a cool reference point for art and cinema alike, if you're familiar with Teshigahara's documentary on the Catalan architect. Finally, that droid-factory sequence is great both as a visceral piece of cinema and a visual foreshadowing of things to come (I really wish Lucas had kept it up his sleeve for ROTS, though-- it would've made a great set-piece for Mustafar).

As for the new worlds of ROTS-- I'll admit, here Lucas threw a little too much at us, and most of them don't really sink in. Utapau (the sinkhole planet), Kashyyk (the Wookie planet) and Mustafar (the volcano planet) are the only ones that really register, but even those are cursory compared to the other worlds of the series. Part of this is due to the quickened pace of the film-- we're really moving too fast to get a foothold anywhere, which is why most of our time is spent on Coruscant, which by now is well developed and familiar territory. I like how much of Mustafar's sights is actually taken from real-life footage of volcanic eruptions from around the time of filming. I wish that world, already so built up in the imaginations of "Star Wars" fans for years, had been given a more central role in the story, just so we could have more time to spend there and so it could develop a real atmosphere, instead of relying on the reputation of fabled memory. Still, Lucas makes far better use of the volcanic environment than Jackson did in "Return of the King", so I'll give him that.

Bob Clark said...

As for Sandinistas or Cubans-- hasn't Lucas said for years that the Rebels and Ewoks in ROTJ were inspired by the Viet Cong? Still, right political alley. As has often been observed, one man's terrorist is another man's Rebel Alliance. Funny that the OT was so stridently embraced by the right, however, while the PT is pretty unmistakably leftist (though thankfully, much less obnoxiously than Cameron's "Avatar"). One more reason I love the prequels-- the bad guys are all EEEEEEEVIL capitalists and intergalactic neo-cons.

Regarding Turing-- yeah, that's what I meant, how he's removed entirely from the story of how the Allied forces cracked the Enigma machine. It's just plain cowardly, because it's obvious that he was blanked out just so the story could have a heterosexual romance subplot. Alan Turing's one of the lesser recognized geniuses of the 20th century, and one whose story deserves to be told not just for the shameful way he was betrayed by the very government he helped to preserve and driven to suicide, but also for the monumental leaps in science and popular imagination that he helped inspire. He deserves to be up there with Galileo as a brilliant scientist victimized by the state, and remembered as such. Instead, all we get is a movie where some fictional guy gets to hook up with Kate Winslet. Bullshit.

Oh and Joel-- I'm sorry I didn't mention this earlier, but many thanks for mentioning (and linking!) my articles on TPM and AOTC in the article. I'm happy if those managed to be the trigger for this re-examining of the films. The Prequels were one of the biggest (and, given the current crop of franchise-reboots out there, most influential) cinematic events of the past few decades, and they deserve a closer examination, be it critical or favorable. Here's to another look, from whatever perspective.

MovieMan0283 said...

No problem, Bob - you still haven't said when/if ROTS will drop though!

Bob Clark said...

Ha, that'll be a while yet. Between my everyday life, trying to design games and the planned sci-fi countdown I have over at Wonders, finding time to write another massive "Star Wars" essay is gonna be a little tricky. The first two each took a couple months to research, plan out, write and edit, and as such they averaged to one a year. So a conservative estimate would be that I'll probably begin writing it in the fall, and look to post it early next winter. It could be longer or sooner, though, depending upon if there's any interesting Lucas related stuff-- "Red Tails" is coming out soon, so maybe around then. But no promises.

I'll admit, I'm not in as much of a hurry to rush out and defend ROTS as I was for the others, because there's already a pretty strong concensus out there that the movie was good. With TPM and AOTC, I was driven primarily by my passion not only to analyze and pontificate on two of my favorite movies, but also to encourage people to take a second look at films that were more or less maligned by critics at large (yet not by audiences). It's like my "Heaven's Gate" essay-- pretty much everybody hates that movie, so I have that much more reason to explain why and how much I love it. By contrast, I'm not really sweating over the prospect of writing about "The Deer Hunter" anytime soon...

J.D. said...

Bob Clark:

I don't disagree that these films are deeply personal to Lucas and I can see why he wanted to take more control on the prequels. Financially, he could afford to, big time and that gave him all the freedom he wanted. I just think that left to his own devices, his faults become more glaringly obvious as opposed to letting others help guide his vision.

As for action directors, I wouldn't rank Lucas nearly as highly. Not when you have the likes of Kathryn Bigelow (one of the best out there, IMO), Michael Mann (the action seq. in HEAT are incredible) and Hong Kong-era John Woo out there that make Lucas look pretty antiquated. Hell, I would even rank Robert Rodriguez above him in terms of actual orchestration and editing of action sequences. Much like Walter Hill back in the day, Rodriguez has an innate understanding of how the rhythms of editing can convey the rush and excitement of action. And I just don't get that as much with Lucas... except maybe A NEW HOPE which is fantastic and all of the action sequences are amazing orchestrated, esp. the legendary assault on the Death Star.

MovieMan0283 said...

Well, I look forward to it! I love to hear that you're taking your time; there's a few posts I've tinkered with over extended periods but nothing to that extent. But if I do that canonical series, and I'm moving closer to doing so, it would be intensive attention to each film discussed, not months but certainly an extremely focused week or two (with research, multiple viewings, and then multiple drafts of each piece). Much as I enjoy rapid-fire blogging, it's nice to see more care taken too at times.

Bob Clark said...

JD-- Bigelow's recieving a lot of well earned respect for "The Hurt Locker" and her career as a whole is being rediscovered as a part of that, but as strong as her work is, I wouldn't really say she's a terribly imaginative at shooting or choreographing action on its own. She's clever at dressing it up with inventive new ways and mash-ups-- the modern hill-billy vampires of "Near Dark", the free-spirited president-mask wearing surfer bandits of "Point Break"-- but without a firm footing in a relatable, down-to-earth set-piece, she more or less loses her grasp. "Strange Days" is a good case of an interesting movie that gets in over its head after a while with its naive combination of Gibson-esque cyberpunk and Rodney King-era social justice, but its on-the-ground action isn't very interesting. "The Hurt Locker" had a lot going for it in terms of the novelty of a bomb-squad movie (can't believe that hasn't really been done before, except maybe "Speed") and the purity of its sequences-- a big reason that movie worked, however, is she didn't let an overriding narrative arc get in the way. It's made up of smaller episodic units that resonates a bit more realistically than some overblown mess like "Green Zone". At any rate, she's a talented director, but her action is still a little rote, compared to the spirit she injects into it.

Mann is an interesting case, but while I'd say he's one of the most important American directors, I wouldn't call him a top action-director per se. Most of his films' action are dominated by shootouts, and no matter how handsomely shot or ambitiously scaled they are, it's impossible to deny that the shootout is pretty much the easiest of all modern action tropes to pull off. "Heat"'s signature LA robbery sequence is probably the definitive shootout of the past twenty years, I'll grant you that, but since then all he's really done is refine the basic logistics of that sequence-- "Collateral" was mostly doing the same thing in more close-quarter settings, greatly helped by the advent of DV, and "Miami Vice" added a hardened SWAT military layer of brutal realism to it, something that "Heat" with its style and chic sometimes loses out on. "Public Enemies" had some cool ideas, but he didn't really pull them off-- the "nighttime shootout lit by tommy-gun flares" sounds epic on paper, but on film (by any definition, high or otherwise) it just doesn't register well enough to work. If you had to ask me what his all-time best action movie was, altogether, I'd go back further and say "Last of the Mohicans", a movie that takes Mann out of his modern-day element and forces him to mix with a lot of different styles and energy. It has action on a lot of different scales, including frontiers-man rifle shootouts, 18th century military sieges and one-on-one combat hand-to-hand combat. Much more impressive than just a whole lot of automatic gunfire.

Bob Clark said...

I suppose one of the things that impresses me most in an action-director is to see the range of different kinds of sequences they can pull off. Lucas has impressed me more than most anyone else this decade because he's done pretty much everything-- shoot-outs, chases, sword duels, fistfights, dogfights and largescale military battles, very often intercutting between several sequences at the same time, and covering everything with a great command of scope and geography. Only a couple of other directors have shown this kind of ambition and finesse lately-- Martin Campbell's done some absolutely brilliant work in his Bond and Zorro films, as well as inventive sequences in stuff like "Edge of Darkness" (he very well might be the best action-director of the past 30 years); the Wachowskis maintained a dexterous balance of martial-arts, chases, gunplay and sci-fi robot action in their "Matrix" trilogy, and while a lot of it feels a little rote after a while, it's still better than all the incoherent "Bourne" nonsense.

Other directors have basically honed in on one or two kinds of action-scenes in the interest of perfecting just that one thing-- Ridley Scott's become a late master of largescale war epics of a diverse collection of time periods (he's the director Peter Jackson wishes he could be in his redundant, over-the-top and impersonal big-army battles from the LOTR movies); Zhang Yimou has proven himself an expert at crafting artsy and emotional martial-arts movies, the type that outdo the anemic chamber drama of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"; even Tom Tykwer made the mother-of-all chase movies in "Run Lola Run" and the best movie shoot-out since "Heat" in the Guggenheim centerpiece of "The International" (EON Productions, PLEASE give this man a Bond movie to direct). I'd still put Lucas or Campbell over these guys for the most part, but they all have their merits.

MovieMan0283 said...

>>"The Hurt Locker" had a lot going for it in terms of the novelty of a bomb-squad movie (can't believe that hasn't really been done before, except maybe "Speed")

Don't forget Blown Away!

J.D. said...

Bob Clark:

Well, with Bigelow, I find her a much more accomplished director than the material she often picks. They almost always seem riddled with flaws and sometimes she is able to transcend the material through sheer force of will and expertise. Case in point: POINT BREAK which is a film fueled by an admittedly silly premise and cliched characters but somehow still manages to be enjoyable as hell and I think that is due in large part to how Bigelow conveys the action in several sequences, most impressively the car chase which mutates into a foot chase. By placing us right into the action, we are much more invested in what's going on and it is much more exciting. I just don't see anything on par with anything Lucas has done. And if that wasn't enough. Bigelow tops that sequence with the one that opens STRANGE DAYS. I certainly wouldn't argue with your assessment of the film - it recycles all the Cyberpunk conventions that were already in Gibson, et al's books but she certainly livened things up with the action sequences which were incredible. I feel that THE HURT LOCKER is her most accomplished film where she finally got material that was up to speed with her techniques and I thought it was interesting how she approached every bomb defusing sequence differently so that the varying camerawork helped make each sequence distinctive. So, I would say on a specific, sequence-by-sequence basis, I would rank Bigelow more proficient than Lucas. As a film as a whole? Well, you might have a case there.

J.D. said...

Bob Clark:

As for Mann... I can see your point. I think it is unfair to label him an action director. His films do features some pretty impressive action sequences but I think that character and plot drive his films more than the action.

And you make a good point that Mann doesn't really diversify his action. He is basically all about the shoot-out and I do find it interesting to see how he's refined and tweaked it over the course of the films. With PUBLIC ENEMIES he went to great lengths to mak the shoot-outs as realistic as possible.

But you're right other things, like fist-fights, etc. really don't fact too much into his films. Alto, you make some excellent points about THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS. To be honest, I hadn't really thought of that but there are some interesting things going on in that film and perhaps Mann, being taken out of his comfort zone of the urban crime film was forced to be more creative and diverse on MOHICANS. Interesting food for thought!

Bob Clark said...

Re: Bigelow's best moments in "Point Break" and "Strange Days"-- granted, I think she does her best work when the scale and scope are low to the ground, so she can hit it running. Just as her films are at their strongest when they rely on episodic storytelling, rather than large narrative arcs (this is what kills "Strange Days"-- you just can't tie up the loose threads of LA race relations, pre-millenial end of the world angst, cyberpunk paranoia and various layers of unrequited grunge-fueled love without at least three or four crucial plot devices breaking along the way), her action sequences themselves are best when she breaks them down into concrete moment-to-moment chunks that we can digest individually, never really having a clear idea of where it's going to lead or when it all will end. It's dynamic, yes, and to that end I can see how the simplicity can be attractive to an audience (and helpful to her, as a director). But with so many other directors aiming for more ambitious heights in terms of what action they wish to present and how to do so, I can't rank her above Lucas, even with her best work. Still, what she does, she does brilliantly-- nobody does worm's-eye-view cinema better than she.

"Public Enemies" doesn't work for me, in the final analysis-- Mann's trying to hard to rekindle his old-style (bringing back old collaborators Spinotti and Goldenthal) while relying on his new one (digital video-a-go-go, even in a 30's period piece), and his handling of the actors is wretched (Johnny Depp at his mumbly worst and Christian Bale again showing how boring he is when he isn't playing some kind of psychopath). The day-light action and some of the composition is good, but for the most part it's a fumble. I don't know what else to say about it.

I can understand your enthusiasm for the way he's refined and perfected the art of movie shoot-outs over the years. I feel the same way about Lucas with intercut action sequences ("Inception" with its dream-within-a-dream nonsense owes a lot to the conditional set-pieces of ROTJ and TPM) and especially with fencing. Say whatever you like about the faults of "The Phantom Menace", but I'd argue its three-way lightsaber duel at the end as possibly the best of all movie sword fights, easily on par with "Heat" and its showstopping bank robbery sequence.

Regarding Rodriguez, who you brought up before-- "El Mariachi" has its charm, as you can really sense the creative hunger in its director. Beyond that, the only movie of his that works for me is "From Dusk Till Dawn", and that's mostly for Tarantino's script (QT has shown a fair amount of talent in action lately, himself).

MovieMan0283 said...

I'd love to see either - or both - of you devote a post or two to formal analysis of an action scene (maybe you already have). Myself, I don't really watch that many action films anymore and even when I did, I responded more viscerally than intellectually. I'd love to read a sober, cerebral take on what makes these sequences work viscerally; I'm sure there are a lot out there but this dialogue between you two here has renewed my curiosity.

I find that I've never placed much importance on geographical orientation in action scenes - though I'm very big on editing, it's more from a kinesthetic/rhythmic point of view than a meticulous, building-a-world perspective. As such, I'd be really keen to step back and look at sequences - particularly action sequences from that view. I know it's been a major complaint of critics and many action-film junkies that 00s cinema has taken the logic out of fight sequences. I don't really like the Bournification of action movies either, but it's less because it's hard to follow and more because I just find it boring (though subconsciously the two may be related, I think it has more to do with individual shots - i.e. a recent preference for close-ups and handheld - than the relations of shots to one another).

Bob Clark said...

Joel-- first of all, I totally understand the view you're coming from, and myself can easily enjoy an action sequence whose premium is more on the look and feel of the shots and editing more than the logistics of the action sequence itself. You can have a sequence that's mostly an aesthetic experience, or on the narrative one (style or substance, call it what you like), and at the best of times, both at once.

I suppose my primary complaint with a lot of modern action directors (Greengrass, Bay, Nolan) is that even when they think they're adequately conveying one or the other, they're really accomplishing neither. Movies like "The Bourne Supremacy", "Transformers" and "The Dark Knight" often contain action sequences that aren't clearly covered or cut, but also aren't particularly attractively framed, lit or edited. They substitute disorientation through cheap verite tricks and stylings for genuine atmosphere, either through concrete scene-work or abstract tone poetry. Some of the best work from guys like Ridley Scott or Michael Mann haven't been particularly clear on all the geographical details or moment-to-moment logistics of their action-- I couldn't follow half of the mayhem in "Black Hawk Down", but at least it was all framed and edited enough for the footage to coalesce somewhat attractively.

MovieMan0283 said...

Excellent points. Btw, I'd be especially interested in hearing your analysis of an action sequence - or several - since you're a gamer, and hence predisposed to dwell upon the creation of a space in which the action is unfolding, rather than just the action itself.

Bob Clark said...

Interesting that you should say that, Joel, because as a gamer/designer, I'm actually much more invested in the action itself than the space it's taking place in. To be sure, in most games the player's orientation and movement is important, but only as far as it affects the the game's action, determined by the player's activity within its rule-set. Things like goals & objectives, challenges & obstacles, stratagies and hail-marys; these can all be articulated into hardline binary conditions--switches with states of "on" and "off", "yes" or "no", "win" or "lose"-- which are the basic vernacular of any game design, digital or otherwise.

Therefore, it's possible to have plenty of dynamic activity within a game without actually having much interaction with the representation of physical space-- just take a look at most "Final Fantasy" style role-playing games, where battles are determined by turn-based menus. I've followed this example in my own games, actually, for portraying conversations as an RPG style turn-based battle, limiting the player's choices down to a twin-set binary conditions of "Yes" or "No" and "Question" or "Answer". This generates another space for the game to take place in, or rather, it underlines the space it always has-- psychological space, rather than phsyical. Sure, we're used to a lot of running, jumping and standing still in our games and tend to define them as such, but that's really only a fraction of what they can do.

As for analyzing an action scene, I have a couple in mind that I think I might just do in the next week as an experiment. I could go with the obvious choice of TPM's "Duel of the Fates", which is a dear favorite of mine; this decade saw a great movie shootout in the Guggenheim sequence of "The International"; plus, I've always wanted to write-up the underappreciated martial-arts gem that is the reconstructed version of Bruce Lee's original "Game of Death". At the same time, I'm thinking of a few non-violence oriented action sequences as well, things that aren't based on person-to-person conflict, but I'd say fit all the criteria needed for a good action sequence-- the first that comes to mind, and the one that made me think of this, is the opening sequence of the "Lost" pilot episode. But we'll see.

MovieMan0283 said...

Sounds great, Bob. I'd love to read The International one particularly (having already read your thoughts on TPM, if not this specific scene). I've never seen International but keep hearing it touted as an underrated actioner; I'd love to hear more.

As for gaming, I guess what I had in mind was not so much the primary role of creating a space but rather the fact that one has to create a space at all, one which can be explored through multiple facets (shades of Inception, and indeed it was your own mention of video games in conjunction with film that brought the association to mind). This is something that fascinates me, though I don't know anything about gaming I'm a big walker in real life, and the notion of creating a universe which can then be investigated and unveiled fascinates me.

Bob Clark said...

Sorry, but odds are it'll be either TPM, "Lost", or if I'm really feeling adventurous, "Game of Death". The first I can pretty much write with my eyes closed, the second I can easily watch again for reference on DVD, and the third I can watch on YouTube or something. As much as I really like "The International", I haven't actually purchased it yet, primarily because I'd like to see the price of the blu-ray edition go down, but also because it shows on cable (in widescreen!) fairly regularly.

So in other words, I guess, look forward to reading lots more about Darth Maul's lightsaber or Jack's eyeball fairly soon.

J.D. said...

Bob Clark:

I agree with your sentiments about STRANGE DAYS and Bigelow's inability to tie up the loose plot threads. The ending is what kills it for me. For the entire film it seems to be building to the big race riot and then Angela Bassett's character gets beaten by white cops and you think that everyone is gonna crazy and burn the city down and it NEVER happens. Instead, we get this sappy love moment between her and Ralph Fiennes' character and the cliched finale of the corrupt cops. *yawn* Any good will that the film had up to that point was killed off by this pat, unrealistic ending.

As for PUBLIC ENEMIES, I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I thought that Depp was very good in this one playing a charismatic gangster with a smirk and a twinkle in his eye. I do agree with you that Bale was kinda wasted in this role and really didn't have much to do amazingly enough. I wish that the film was more balanced much like HEAT was between the cops and the crooks.

As for Rodriguez, I'm glad you mentioned FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. I'm always reminded by how exciting and dynamic the editing is of the opening sequence when Clooney and QT shoot-up that gas station. The edits are timed so perfectly and have this almost staccato effect that is married very well with the music that this entire prologue could be a short film unto itself. I think that Rodriguez is quite obviously a fan of action films and you can see it in all of his films, like how DESPERADO is a homage to John Woo action films and PLANET TERROR was his love letter to John Carpenter.

Of the current crop, I would say that Greengrass and Nolan are my faves/the best. I know people rag on Greengrass for his excessive use of shaky, hand-held cameras but I believe that this is a homage to the same kind of technique in THE FRENCH CONNECTION. I also think that the disorientation that one feels watching the fight scenes in the BOURNE films is intentional. You are supposed to feel displaced and get caught up in the quick, chaotic vibe. Personally, I find the fight scenes in that film very visceral and the car chases (esp. in the second BOURNE film I believe) to have a real, you-are-there feel to them which I love.

As for Nolan, he is an easy target because he has become so revered. And while the action sequences in BATMAN BEGINS where decent but nothing particularly spectacular, I felt that THE DARK KNIGHT was a huge jump in quality, from the HEAT-esque bank heist at the beginning to the exciting chase through the streets of Chicago culminating in that trailer truck being flipped. I had no problem following what was going on, where everything was, etc. It seemed to me to be very cleanly filmed and choreographed. It's funny but as Greengrass seems inspired by Friedkin-era FRENCH CONNECTION, I almost feel like Nolan is inspired by Friedkin-era TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. when it comes to his action sequences in DARK KNIGHT.

J.D. said...

I'd also like to add, I just watched RONIN again - the John Frankenheimer film and it has to have some the best choreographed, most exciting car chases in recent memory. Also it has pretty diverse collection of action sequences - car chase, gun battles, fights - all staged incredibly well in a way that you always know what's going on, who's who, etc. Such a great film.

Bob Clark said...

JD-- I'm continually saddened and amazed by how people tend to overlook Frankenheimer, one of the true American greats. "Birdman of Alcatraz", "The Manchurian Candidate", "Seconds", "Grand Prix"-- if he were responsible for just any one of those, he'd have easily earned a hefty reputation, but to have done all of those, and more besides? Classic. Sure, not all his movies were perfect ("Seven Days in May" has potential, but is a pretty limp follow-up to TMC, even with the solid acting and Serling's script) and some of them were just plain awful ("Reindeer Games", anyone?). But even most of his lousy movies were pretty good ("Black Sunday" is cool, as is the Marlon Brando-with-the-leash-off "Island of Dr. Moreau").

"Ronin" is by no means the equal of his best films, but it's damn near close. The script by (an uncredited) David Mamet is cracklingy clever and entertaining. The performances from the international cast all provide firm grounding. And it goes without saying, but the action, suspense and chases are all out of the part hits. Great, classy action movie.

Re: Rodriguez-- I think that he might be the one filmmaker out there who may have actually been ruined by the advent of DV. Lucas, Mann, even Tarantino-- these guys all brought something to the new digital realm and new what they were doing. Rodriguez obviously gained a lot of independence in terms of studios and effects, not having to rely on big FX houses to provide the visuals he needed for his increasingly ambitious fare (as seen in, say, "The Faculty", one of his last really solid movies, though one can see him bristling at the overly formulaic patterns of the high-school conventions). Maybe it's just that he had an intimate understanding of celluloid that isn't there with DV, or maybe it's that he's become too self-reliant with limited tech, but the end result of his latest films (kiddie shtick like "Spy Kids" mixed with that strained and awful adaptation of "Sin City") just isn't on the same level as his previous stuff. I can see where his "Grindhouse" experiment was an homage to Carpenter, mere homage isn't quite enough for me (and frankly, Carpenter was only really all that good for about a ten or fifteen year stretch, anyway).

Oh, and I can say that I officially stopped caring about the "Machete" movie when it turned out the story is all about an evil Steven Segal, and not about evil Jeff Fahey & De Niro against an illegal-immigrant uprising (that special Cinco De Mayo trailer looked like it had it all-- "We didn't cross the border! The border crossed us!").

Bob Clark said...

The Friedkin connection is interesting, but I think it's a false impression. For Nolan-- yeah, maybe there's a semi-resemblance to "Live and Die in LA", but remember, the big influence for him is Michael Mann, whose style Friedkin shamelessly aped in that movie (re the TDK action-- the chases are okay, the robbery's fine, and maybe the Hong Kong sequence is passable, but everything else is just incoherent, especially when the fancy cell-phone sonar doohickey comes into play).

As for Greengrass-- I think he was just carrying over the docu-verite style he used on "Bloody Sunday" into the "Bourne" franchise because it's what he knew how to do, not for any real reason. It works okay for historical recreations like the aforementioned film or his 9/11 movie, but for the action genre, it all just gets too hectic. It's especially a poor choice for the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, where all the extra horizontal space really isn't condusive to all the movin' and shakin'. And frankly, beyond his camerawork, I just don't find the actual action in the films themselves to be all that inspired-- they're just a bunch of rather sedate fistfights and car chases compared to the crazy imagination at work in the past two Bond films (yes, even "Quantum of Solace", which reeks of Bourne-ification, has more going for it).

As for "Strange Days"-- I actually think the love moment with Fiennes and Basset is okay. At least he's gotten the albatross that was Juliette Lewis off from around his neck and fallen in love with a real woman, instead of a whiney, manipulative little girl.

J.D. said...

Bob Clark:

I agree with you about Frankenheimer being underrated as a director but then he was one of those guys that didn't bring much attention to himself or promote himself as some kind of auteur like someone like Tarantino does. In many respects, Frankenheimer was a journeyman director a damn good one at that.

Btw. I like BLACK SUNDAY as well. I finally caught up with it a few months ago and was really taken by it. An exciting thriller to be sure with a fantastic performance by Robert Shaw.

As for Rodriguez, I actually diagree with you and feel that the advent of DV has actually freed him up as a filmmaker. But then, I am a bit of a Rodriguez apologist. I don't claim him to be any kind of great auteur but for the kinds of films he makes, I think he does a dynamite job on them. He uses DV to make slick looking films on the cheap and his studio set up down in Austin is quite incredible so that he isn't reliant on the studios except for distribution.

I do agree with you that the SPY KIDS film do nothing for me but I feel that SIN CITY was a major accomplishment for him and in terms of fidelity with the source material is unmatched (even moreso than the slavish adaptation of WATCHMEN) but I know of your feelings about that film. I also find PLANET TERROR to be his most accomplished film to date, not just in terms of technique (the digital altering of the film to make it look scratchy and crappy was inspired) but also in terms of content. And it just a plain, fun, entertaining ride with some energetic action sequences.

That's too bad you feel that way about MACHETE. I'm still anticipating this one if only for the eclectic cast and the grindhouse/cheesy Cannon films from the 1980s vibe that the trailers exude. Again, it should be a fun ride, I think.

J.D. said...

As for Friedkin's influence on Nolan, you're right there really isn't much there (maybe a bit of FRENCH CONNECTION on the frenetic action in BATMAN BEGINS) but as far as THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION goes, it's all about Michael Mann. And he certainly has been very open about his influence.

That's interesting about your feelings about the use of hand-held cameras for action and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio not being a good mix. I can see what you're saying, I guess it doesn't bother me all that much. I do agree with you about the last two Bond films which I enjoyed greatly despite relying a little too much on the BOURNE style of action.

Max said...

To go back to Star Wars "One Last Time..." here's a great interview with the prodcucer of ESB:
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2010/08/star-wars-was-born-a-long-time-ago-but-not-all-that-far-far-away-in-1972-filmmakers-george-lucas-and-gary-kurtz-wer.html

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, Max - I'll check it out. The process and success of Star Wars has become so sanctified by Lucasfilm PR that it would be refreshing to hear someone else's take on the matter...

Tony Dayoub said...

A quick follow-up to my earlier comment in which I proposed, "While I'm sure Lucas had plenty of backstory to guide his efforts and those of the actor's, I'm certain this only became a saga once he started cashing in on the phenomenon."

In an LA Times story published on Thursday, Gary Kurtz, producer of the first two STAR WARS films, admits, "The toy business began to drive the [Lucasfilm] empire. It’s a shame. They make three times as much on toys as they do on films. It’s natural to make decisions that protect the toy business, but that’s not the best thing for making quality films."

He gets into this at length here.

Bob Clark said...

I've heard the Gary Kurtz "ROTJ was going to be dark, gritty and tragic before George Lucas ruined it" story before, and I'm personally going to pass this time around. I've always thought that the right decision was made to let the movie end the original trilogy on a positive note with Vader's redemption, that in this case a happy ending was not only earned and deserved, but absolutely necessary. And the idea of Han Solo or Lando Calrissian just strikes me as a cheap move to me, and I'm glad it wasn't followed up on. I've always found it odd that the biggest fans of characters like these are the ones wished they had died the most.

Belated note to JD-- I understand your appreciation of Rodriguez; partly I'm not enamored of him because I'm not enamored of that particular grindhouse era to begin with. As for the Bond movies-- "Casino Royale" is like the anti-Bourne, complete classic Martin Campbell imagination and coverage. "Quantum of Solace" coasts a bit on Bourne-isms, but even then Marc Foster injects more creativity into the proceedings. I loved the "Tosca" sequence.

MovieMan0283 said...

Wow, two mentions of the Kurtz story, now I guess I have to check it out (along with all the other articles/blog posts I've been bookmarking and planning to get to for the past week or two). I'm increasingly intrigued.

Bob, you can probably count me in the Han'd-be-better-off-dead category. But then I'm a sucker for martyrs and tragic outcomes, probably the Catholic in me...

MovieMan0283 said...

Fascinating stuff - but I'd take some of it with as much of a grain of salt as I take Lucas' comments. I had always heard that Star Wars did NOT open with the "Episode IV" and that the crawl was redone later, but as I wasn't around in '77 I can't attest to that. And the attempt of the L.A. Times to make it as if he and Lucas are equally responsible for Star Wars seems a bit revisionist to me; this isn't Ub Iwerks and naming "The Empire Strikes Back" isn't exactly like designing Mickey Mouse...

Tony Dayoub said...

...the attempt of the L.A. Times to make it as if he and Lucas are equally responsible for Star Wars seems a bit revisionist to me...

True, but what I took from the article was further evidence of my theory. George Lucas' primary motivation (after the release of the first film, and arguably the second) was capitalizing on the merchandising returns rather than expressing himself artistically. I suppose a cynic could accuse most mainstream filmmakers of the same motivation. But one can see a Coppola or Scorsese (and even a Spielberg) balance their artistic and commercial concerns more evenly than Lucas seems to.

...I've always found it odd that the biggest fans of characters like these are the ones wished they had died the most....

This seems like a rather odd thing to bring up. Dramatic cohesion should supersede affection for a character. There's nothing "cheap" about fulfilling the demands of dramatic foreshadowing. Freezing Han is one instance of this. From a dramatic standpoint, Luke's hero worship of this big brother figure also implies the young warrior can only truly come out of Han's shadow if his idol were to die. In any case, I don't think Han's ultimate fate would affect the way I feel about the character. But it definitely could have given some emotional heft to ROJ's weak rehash of the original film's climax.

Bob Clark said...

Luke's hero worship of Han? I don't really get that at all from the films, frankly. Han's really nothing more than a foil for Luke, and though they learn to be friends over the first film and display camraderie in the second and third, they don't really have much to do with one another overall. SW fandom in general has a huge hero-worship complex regarding Han, and maybe they wish he were dead just so they could get past it themselves.

Anyway, killing Han would've been redundant in the light of his carbonite-freezing in ESB, and that's what would've made it cheap. Lando could've been killed off as a surogate to add some sense of sacrifice, but that might've ignited another race-relation firestorm, killing off the token black character. Frankly, I think there's enough heft in the way that Vader's death is treated.

And yeah, I'd definitely accuse Spielberg of crass marketing tactics before Lucas. At least Lucas is being consistent-- even as far back as THX he described himself as "a toymaker who makes films", so in the end it's just a continuation of an admitted interest, rather than a moneymaking scheme entirely. As for Coppola-- save for "The Conversation" and "Apocalypse Now", the only good movies he's ever directed are the mercenary money-makers, ironically. Most of his experimental stuff like "One From the Heart" aren't really all that good.

MovieMan0283 said...

The only part I agree with you on here, Bob (well, except for that killing Lando would be a bad idea) is that unfreezing Han from carbonite and THEN killing him would have been redundant. The freezing should have been the end of him, but then that should have been established in ESB - it probably wouldn't have worked if suddenly they revealed that he was done for after the suspense in ROTJ. So in that sense they put themselves in a bind by not snuffing him out in Empire.

But I still lean towards Tony's opinion that Han's post-freezing career was a rather limp anticlimax. Ford didn't even look like he wanted to be there. The real solution would have been to make him act heroically in Empire, so that his death/freezing attained a sacrificial aspect, making him an unexpected martyr in the end. The whole I'm-gonna-be-a-hero thing in Return just felt weak.

Bob Clark said...

Well, Ford DID want Han to die, just to get out of the series. That's partly where this whole thing started, in his own wishful thinking. And yeah, Han doesn't really have much to do in the movie after being rescued, but I'm okay with that, as it makes him less of a distraction for Luke's ascendant role (a big reason I prefer ROTJ), as well as Lando's redemptive turn. And again, maybe the fact that I'm okay with all this is partly due to my not really being a huge fan of Han to begin with. I'm also still trying to understand how Luke was in "hero worship" of Solo, at all, when the only person he ever looks up to at all in the series is Obi-Wan.

Stephen said...

MovieMan,

I've written a piece on The Phantom Menace if you're interested, equal parts critical and praising.

Joseph said...

Loved reading your post. I forgot that Lynch was originally asked to direct Return of the Jedi. That would have been quite the clash between creative minds. :)

MovieMan0283 said...

I can't even vaguely imagine it. Would Lynch have submitted to being a director-for-hire? To the extent that Lucas would have required? I can't imagine he would have lasted the whole production, to be honest.

Tony Dayoub said...

Lest we forget, Lynch was (at around the same time) submitting to Giada's mom and grandpa as a director-for-hire on DUNE. Sure some of his personality creeps through rather wonderfully in what is ultimately a failure. But the best thing to come out of that fiasco is Lynch's decision to never again go forward on a project without "final cut." As he said in his interview in GREAT DIRECTORS, for a director not to have final cut is, "...dying the death, dying the death."

Bob Clark said...

David Cronenberg was also contacted, I believe (ironic, considering he teamed up with Peter Suschitzky based on his work in ESB). Perhaps Lucas saw like minds in the two of them, having been burned a little from his experience Irvin Kershner (I still find it hard to hold him wholly responsible for "Empire", based on the quality, or lack thereof, in his other movies). What he really needed in the end was a pure puppet director, though, and Marquand sufficed there perfectly (although he actually directed decent movies on his own-- "Jagged Edge" is the one Joe Ezterhas movie that doesn't feel completely trashy, even if some of the trashier ones are better).

At the end of the day-- Lucas should've just directed V and VI by his own damn self so we wouldn't have to keep asking stupid questions like these.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm kind of glad he didn't given the rest of his track record.

Bob Clark said...

Tony, my point is that the difference would've been minimal, to say the least. I believe that in full.

Bob Clark said...

Tony, just thought of something regarding Luke and hero worship. There was never anything like that with Han, but come to think of it, there was somebody other than Obi-Wan that Luke looked up to as a big-brother figure in the original trilogy-- Biggs, who died in the Battle of Yavin. So, there you go.

Now, what if Lucas had decided to kill of Wedge?

Tony Dayoub said...

Bob, I think your interpretation of the Luke/Han dynamic suffers a bit from being spectacularly on-the-nose. Yes, the films' text does provide ample evidence of Luke's admiration for Obi Wan and Biggs. But burrow into the subtext and you'll find Obi Wan only represents a surrogate father for Luke in a way Uncle Owen never did. Luke sees the attainment of his dreams for adventure personified in Obi Wan's confidence and experience as a Jedi. In Biggs, he doesn't so much see an older brother as he envies a peer who is "living the dream."

But from the moment Obi Wan sets up Luke's father to him as an expert pilot in STAR WARS, Lucas is hoping we'll see some of this in the roguish pilot, Han Solo. True, Luke is reluctant about his attraction to Solo because he sees the pilot nonchalantly squandering his talent in the service of selfish personal gain (like Anakin did in a past life to the dismay of the idealistic Obi Wan, and young Obi Wan did to the dismay of the older, experienced Qui Gon... history repests itself). But the confidence, and sex appeal, Solo so easily exudes (especially to Luke's then-object of desire, Leia... ewww) is something he secretly aspires to.

Whether he admits it or not, the subtext is clear that Luke looks up to Han for possessing his own innate talent yet making up his own rules concerning how he uses it. Han's not a joiner, and perhaps this is what informs Luke's training to ultimately make him the most successful Jedi of all. See, all of the rest of the like-minded Jedi could not stop Sidious/the Emperor. And even the independent and messianic maverick Anakin also failed when he turned to the dark side. But despite Yoda's warnings, Luke is able to harness the recklessness he picks up (even unconsciously) from Han without letting it overwhelm him like Anakin did. And his unique application of this contrarian approach allows Luke to defeat his father and through him, the Emperor. Luke represents a new breed of Jedi that can harness the force without ignoring his emotions, all to great success. And in many ways, it is because of what he picks up from Han.

Bob Clark said...

Tony, the only real deeper dimension I see in the Luke/Han pairing is sibling rivalry. Luke doesn't look up to Han's rogueish qualities or seek to emulate them so much as he competes with them, and at the very best learns to reconcile. They learn to work together and accept one another as friends and equals, each focusing on their own talents and contributions to the effort (and story, to boot).

Your bringing up Anakin as a supposedly maverick spirit reminds me of a connection I once had between the saga and the "Godfather" movies. One of the things I found really interesting in Coppola's films was how he presented Vito Corleone as a man with all the necessary gifts to be a great leader-- psychological strength, emotional sensitivity, intellectual cunning and a capability for cold-blooded violence. Each of his sons only ever recieves one of these gifts-- Michael is cool and controlled, but withdrawn to the point of sociopathy; Sonny is strongwilled and stronger tempered, but without the dispassionate intellectual reserves to keep him calm; Fredo is deeply loving and caring, but without the psychological strength necessary to keep himself from twisting that emotional sensitivity into a liability; even Tom Hagen proves himself to be smart, warm and passionate, but not violent enough to be a real leader (like Mike says, he's not a wartime consigliere). The "Godfather" movies paint a tragedy that arises when a leader has some of the traits necessary to govern, but not all of them.

The "Star Wars" movies are different, on the other hand. They show how having only a few traits can be good, and how having all of them can be just as dangerous, if not more so. Han and Luke are strong characters because their roles in the story are in different areas, and don't really overlap. Luke can be the boyish, mythic apprentice on his hero's journey to vanquish the bad guy, while Han can be the dashing rogue who has all the fun and gets the girl. As portrayed in the Prequels, Anakin's failing is that he's trying to be both things at once, and in the end it brings him and all around him to ruin.

It's interesting that you compare Qui-Gon's disapproval of Obi-Wan to Obi-Wan's of Anakin, and Luke's of Han. In this case, I think you have it the wrong way around-- Qui-Gon isn't disapproving of his Padawan learner because he's reckless, selfish or being overly rebellious. In a sense, it's quite the opposite-- Qui-Gon is disappointed in Obi-Wan because, in the Prequels and especially TPM, Kenobi is kind of a square. He believes in the Jedi party-line unquestionably, unable to see past their strict, dogmatic teachings in lieu of a more hollistic view of the Force. Qui-Gon might actually be my favorite character in the series because he's a quintessential Jedi and Rebel all at once-- he doesn't sit on the Council thanks to his unorthodox manners, and he doesn't care. He sees the bigger picture, and in that sense his death at the hands of Darth Maul really is significant because it robs Anakin of the one person who might've been able to lead him on the right path. Anakin falls as much as anything else because his rebellious attitude is slowly but surely beaten out of him by Obi-Wan and the other Jedi, whereas it probably could've been nurtured and channeled into healthier expressions. He goes from being the reckless apprentice who follows his heart to a loyal servant who does what he's told, and that's exactly when Palpatine pounces on him, putting him in a critical double-bind. Had Qui-Gon been teaching him along a more open-minded and independent path, he might've been able to see through the old liar's tricks and think for himself.

Bob Clark said...

Qui-Gon is the real maverick figure of the PT, and perhaps the ideal image of wisdom throughout. What makes Han and Luke grow isn't that they learn from each other and become more alike, but rather that they become more different. Luke doesn't gain any recklessness from Han (he already had enough of that to begin with) so much as he purges himself of it, by the time of ROTJ. Each one is a foil to the other, and stands in contrast to bolster both as strong, fully dimensional characters. Part of it is they carry different burdens-- Han the romantic hero, Luke the mythic hero-- neither really seeking to emulate the other. Their differences make them stronger, rather than weaker, as happens with the Corleone family.

But again, I'm not really a big Han fan, so I'm disinclined to see him in the same light as you.