Category: Movies

The art of cinema.

Rewatching Star Wars

I recently rewatched Star Wars (the original movie, later — wrongly — called Episode IV: A New Hope). I’ve seen SW many, many times, but I hadn’t watched it again since the 2004 DVD release of the special edition. I really wanted to rewatch the original theatrical release, but I don’t have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition or the 2006 GOUT DVD. So, I had to suffer through the special edition hijinks while trying to recapture the original feeling of watching the movie new in 1977.

Here are some thoughts following the viewing. Most of this is all bleedingly obvious and some of it has been remarked upon by others, but I’ll put it here for what little help it might give to someone new to all this.

— The Special Edition cartoonizes the movie. It was certainly a far-out film way back then, with the cantina scene and beep-booping droids, but it had a reality, a solidity to it that is robbed by the SE additions.

See, part of the unique tone of SW in its original release was that here was a science-fiction movie shot with a documentarian’s sensibilities. The movie has a nuts-and-bolts materiality to it that we hadn’t seen in space fantasy movies before (sure, in hard sci-fi like 2001 and Silent Running, but not space opera). Lucas began his career with documentary shorts, and American Graffiti took that sensibility into a fictional recreation of his hot-rodding youth. His use of this style in SW is still, IMHO, underappreciated for its unique affect. It wasn’t just the detailed starship miniatures and grimy droids; it was also his camera’s eye: a documentarian’s eye.

The original release is real. The Special Edition is hyper-real. This ruins the effect.

— The movie was so damn exotic the first time around, with that sense of wonder that is special to fables of visits to far lands. It really puts us on Tatooine and shows us things we’ve never seen before. It seems so mundane now, but the first shot of the Jawa Sandcrawler is such a perfect, thrilling glimpse at a strange, rolling castle on a distance planet, reminding us viscerally that we’re someplace else. This effect is achieved because it is treated so mundanely. Again, it’s like a documentary.

— SW is very much the product of America’s first generation of film students. I don’t think it could have been conceived, much less made, by anyone who hadn’t grown up studying film the way Lucas and Spielberg did, with help from USC’s new film school.

The movie is a melange of tropes and film techniques from different genres thrown together under the umbrella of a space-fantasy setting. The A and B plots illustrate this:

The A plot — Luke Skywalker’s saga — is The Sword in the Stone. It’s a King Arthur tale of a noble boy raised by peasants who discovers his knightly, mystical destiny, mentored by a wizard. It’s his journey to inherit his father’s title, that of Jedi Knight.

The B plot — Han and Leia’s meeting — is Casablanca by way of screwball comedy. It’s the tale of a scoundrel with a heart of gold (like Bogart) who must realize that there really is something — someone — worth fighting for. But all this is disguised by the screwball comedy dialogue. Underneath the facade of Grant/Hepburn, Solo and Leia are much more Bogey/Bacall (as is made much clearer in Empire). Even if we never got Empire to elaborate on all this for us, it’s quite clear in the movie itself. All the fan speculation about a love triangle between Luke-Leia-Han missed that there were two stories here, and Luke’s could never really be part of the romance story. While there is an element of Robin Hood rescuing Maid Marion from the Sith of Nottingham, it’s there as part of Luke’s journey to knighthood. Knights in shining armor rescue princesses and maidens, but that’s just a McGuffin for action; actual romance would get in the way and make it all a different story.

There’s a C plot of sorts, too, which is C3PO and R2D2’s comedic road trip, a nod to Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello by way of Kurosawa’s peasants in The Hidden Fortress.

All these plots are all presented without meta or ironic sensibility — they’re earnest homages. It’s all played straight. There’s not even a wink to the audience to let them know that the filmmaker knows that it’s pastiche. This is part of the movie’s charm.

— The Force is a hodgepodge of 1970s California spirituality. Part Castaneda, part Esalen (with its Joseph Campbell connection), part EST, and part Alan-Watts zen. (It all feels rather zen and Japanese in Star Wars, but becomes more Taoist with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.) And, of course, California surfer philosophy: go with the flow, trust your feelings. Although the Jedi have a samurai aesthetic (Obi-Wan’s name, his robes, Kendo-style lightsaber duels), they are more Camelot than Kyoto.

— I also want to throw in some thoughts on The Empire Strikes Back, and how it deepens the first film’s plots by changing their register.

Luke’s A plot becomes a kung-fu movie initiation that then deepens into a Gothic/Oedipal drama, with the weight of a dark family heritage now bearing down upon Luke. It still continues the Arthurian tale begun in the first film, but reverses a key element of the saga. In the original tales, the king’s son — Mordred — is the bad seed who destroys Camelot. Now, in Empire, the father — Vader — is the dark one who already destroyed Camelot (the Old Republic) and it’s his son who must restore the Waste Land galaxy. By Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes a Perceval/Galahad, whose grail quest must heal the wounded dark king/father.

Leia and Han’s B plot moves from screwball comedy back to Casablanca. This time, however, Rick/Han is caught by the Nazis/Empire, because his friend Louis/Lando changed sides too late.

Continuity is King — the King is Dead! All Hail the King!

Fans of created universes (*Star Wars*, *Star Trek*, the World of Darkness, *Forgotten Realms*, etc., etc.) love continuity, those thousands of details and “historical” events that convince readers/watchers/players that the world has internal *consistency*, a hallmark for being “real.”

But for creators, continuity can become a shackle. Certainly, it initially provides for the type of limits — the enclosed box — that can spur creative solutions. Alan Moore, for instance, is renowned for his ability to reinvent characters without rewriting old continuity, such as he did with *Swamp Thing*: he peels back layers of realization, showing that the new version was always there, waiting for its cue. Geoff Johns did the same when he brought back Hal Jordan in *Green Lantern*, brilliantly re-envisioning the sad Parallax affair in such a way that it opened up whole new vistas of metaphysics for the title. But still… continuity that gets too tight, too specific, can restrict creativity, especially if the editorial department isn’t willing to let creatives do the sort of radical Moore-ian or Johns-ian twists that can reinvigorate tired, stale old storylines.

All that preamble is to say: Let’s talk about *Star Wars: the Force Awakens*. The new owners have thrown out years of continuity-based stories that appeared in comics, novels, and video games. Why? Because the new filmmakers didn’t want to tell those stories. They had their own. And, especially in the case of Star Wars, the movies are the central core, with all other media subservient to its imperial dictates.

The sort of continuity “reboot” has happened many times in comics, with the DC’s ’80s *Crisis on Infinite Earths* perhaps being the first full-scale universe reboot (rather than individual title reboot). Later, we saw Marvel introduce separate universes (the New Universe, and then the Ultimates) rather than break up their core continuity. But now *Battleworlds* and *Secret Wars II* have torn all that up, just as DC’s the New 52 and then *Convergence* rewrote the DC universe (again).

I’ve had some experience with this, when we ended the “classic” World of Darkness in the mid-‘00s and introduced newly visioned takes on modern-day vampires, werewolves, and wizards. We learned the same lesson I know the comics guys learned (despite their continuing to bust up their worlds): Every crack in continuity splits the fanbase. Some people stay with the original, even if it means no longer buying new products, and some buy into the new stuff. (This same splitting happens with new RPG editions, even if the continuity change is merely an advance of the “metaplot”.)

All the benefits of continuity — a shared, sprawling universe in which all stories are facets of the universe’s single story, growing the fanbase with each new spinoff — are belied by the raw fact of continuity’s lifecycle: Creators will one day have to tear it all down, and with it might go the fanbase that ensured its success.

Fans come to love certain characters, places, plots. When they’re taken away, it leaves an empty place, a void. Of course they get angry, now that they have to confront death, a reminder of their own mortality. All things must pass. *It’s not fair — I read to escape such hard realities*!

So, fans: Use these lessons, these little deaths, as esoteric gifts, invitations to rehearse your own eventual ultimate letting go. Things come, things go, and then come again.

You’ll fall in love again. Some day there will be a new property (who knows? it might be the reboot of the old property!) that will grab you and suck you in, soaking you in all sorts of spinoff tales: movies, books, comics, games.

And then, it too will pass. And another will rise to take its place. Continuity is fleeting. Creativity is forever, universes without end.

Down to Earth: Thoughts on Cuaron’s “Gravity”

Since Alfonso Cuaron has just won the Best Director Oscar for “Gravity,” I thought I would republish this post I wrote after I’d seen the film. (Originally posted to my other blog, The Secret Commonwealth.)

WARNING: SPOILERS!

Beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring, and adrenaline-triggering: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is all these things.

It’s also an elegy for space and a farewell to the dream of human expansion into space. For those reared in the space age, there’s still a romanticism and a hope that our future and our evolution (read: our transcendence) lies in outer space. That age is over. NASA’s shuttles are grounded and there are no public plans for the next step. Robots on Mars are interesting, but don’t engage our full imaginative faculties like a manned mission.

Gravity is the final trip. Here it all goes to hell. The trigger event — curiously synchronous to the NSA story burning through the headlines when the film was released — is a Russian missile destroying one of that country’s spy satellites, to keep it out of other hands. This sets off a chain reaction that destroys everything — the last shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Chinese space station, along with scores of communication satellites. All our footholds in space are destroyed, as well as our worldwide communications net. (Presumably, some satellites in lower orbits remain, but the metaphor here is that spying has destroyed that dream, too — no more frontier Internet freedom.)

Also gone, drifting away from us slowly, just like the old astronauts who are dying one by one, each year of old age (Scott Carpenter just the day before I wrote this), is George Clooney’s character. The last astronaut, a Captain Kirk ladies’ man figure. With him go our dreams of new frontiers.

Sandra Bullock doesn’t actually survive — not as the Dr. Stone she was at the start of the film. She undergoes a rebirth. When she enters the ISS and sheds her space suit, she curls into a fetal position, complete with a hose behind her giving the impression of an umbilical cord. But unlike the Star Fetus in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who promised a birth into some new and transcendent form, Bullock’s fetal form is destined not Up but Down.

After floating for a blissful time, she comes to and shoots through the tight birth canal of the station to finally eject from the womb into the cradling arms of her new mother — the Russian Soyuz capsule. (Hey, didn’t they start this whole mess in the first place?)

But her infancy is short-lived. Her new mother — the machine — is cold and non-nurturing. Indeed, she’s actually dead in space. Bullock can’t survive here, emotionally or physically. She prepares to die but is jolted back to life by the ghost of the space age. As we all know from Apollo 13, the superpower of the astronaut is ingenuity-in-crisis. George Clooney’s shade (her fantasy of his return) clues Bullock in on what she needs to do: jury rig the tech, humanize it through the human faculty of imagination and foresight. He is able to literally point her in the right direction and give her the kick she needs to leave this already-dead substitute mother.

Her new destination, her last hope, is in Descent, falling from the stars, an Icarus whose humility promises to deliver her home: the Chinese space station and its capsule. It is heating up as it begins re-entry, and she must use a fire extinguisher to reach it. Waiting in her escape capsule is the smiling face of the Buddha, a sign that no matter what happens now, she has achieved at least a degree of peace with herself, and a reminder to let go of attachments to the past.

She falls and sinks into the ocean, but is nearly drowned by her old skin. She must once more shed her astronaut self — her space suit — to escape its weight (the pull of the past, those wonderful dreams of breaking free from this fragile globe to Find the Father) and emerge, free, into the air, in the arms of the real mother. Not a spiteful, jealous mother angry that her children would try to leave her, but a patient, long-suffering, beautiful (especially when seen from space as the sun rises), life-giving Great Mother, tolerant of all her children’s dreams and folly.

Bullock slowly, unsteadily, regains her legs, readjusting to gravity, standing on Earth once more, as the only home where she — and we — can possibly live in an age where the skies are now closed to us, where we are now and forever within gravity’s pull.

UPDATE:

I posted a bit hastily; I feel I’d be remiss to not elaborate a bit on the motherhood theme as it concerns Bullock’s character directly, since it is the emotional core of the film.

Bullock has been betrayed by gravity — it murdered her child. Her daughter fell down and hit her head and died.

Now, gravity is the force of attraction exerted by the earth, the Great Mother, in her embrace of her children. This is the dark side of the mother. Bullock freezes up inside and seeks to escape the mother’s embrace in space, where the temperature matches that of her heart and where she can forget her own motherhood. But as she discovers, and as the film specifically tells us in text at the very start, nothing can live in space. Life belongs below, on Earth.

Bullock has to reconcile her mother’s grief with her need for life and the Great Mother.

UPDATE 2:

My brother brought this to my attention: Bullock’s barking like a dog in her lonely capsule is an homage to poor little Laika, the first dog in space, who died drifting away just as Bullock seemed fated to do. (Or so we were told for years. It was revealed later that she died within hours of overheating, a fate Bullock also escapes.)

It always made me sad that they’d launch Laika up but there without a way to get her back down. The Old Yeller of the space age.

Do We Deserve Godzilla?

Here’s a trailer for the new remake: Godzilla

Very Western. That’s okay, I suppose. As someone who grew up watching Godzilla movies on tv (and one in the theater in its original US run), you could make an argument that the nuclear lizard is as much as ours now as Japan’s. But it’s a weak argument. To a 1970s kid, Godzilla was a cool monster. To a 1950s Japanese kid, Godzilla was a personification of the horror that nuclear technology had delivered on Japan and the Japanese psyche.

So, what’s the point of the new film? We know who Godzilla is, but what is he? What is he now, to us privileged Americans? (Of course, this film will be released worldwide and so become the “experiential property” of millions of viewers, but the viewpoint characters are still American.) An article I read implies that he represents the “horrors of war”. For whom? Our wars come back to us secondhand, through the PTSD and mangled bodies of our vets, but they don’t devastate our cities and wipe out whole families in one strike.

Is Godzilla the revenge of the drone? Not likely. It’s a stretch, since he’s not remote by any means — he’s is Presence itself, whereas drones are more about brief incursions from afar and all-seeing eyes.

I fear that what this movie is “about” is yet another expression of American’s new identity: the innocent victim. Since 9-11, the number of movies where cities are collapsed is near astronomical. Those two airplanes and two towers are mythologically magnified into giant monsters (Cloverfield, Peter Jackson’s King Kong), rogue Kryptonians (Man of Steel), friendly car robots vs. evil airplane robots (Transformers), etc., etc. That event keeps reverberating through our psyches and warping our culture and our politics. We keep rehearsing it over and over again in slightly new guises, like a trauma victim who cannot stop reliving the memory, trying to make some sense of it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not commenting on 9-11 itself. I’m simply speculating on the ripples that event keeps sending through our mythological unconscious, which in modern America is most typically displayed to us from our pop culture outlets: movies and comics, primarily. (Music somewhat, but it’s more fleeting here, and tv is still too advertiser driven to truthfully give expression to the deep rumblings of our culture’s psychic turbulence.)

So… do we deserve Godzilla? Can he become a proper voice for our trauma, or is this just cultural and commercial appropriation, cynically using the parallels to sell tickets and toys? I guess it remains to be seen.

UPDATE: There’s a new trailer out. It certainly looks like we deserve Godzilla now, as a parable for nature’s revenge against technosploitation (i.e., civilization). Having “Heisenberg” be the narrator of our doom is a nice touch.

UPDATE 2: I’ve seen the movie, and we certainly deserved a better Godzilla movie than this. Oh, the ol’ lizard looks good and his fights with the MUTOs are cool and all, but by the time we really get to them we’ve had to sit through sheer boredom. The movie begins very promisingly, but as soon as the body bag on Bryan Cranston’s character is zipped up, the movie goes into a long slump without his animating presence (he’s just a great actor to watch). The actor who plays Cranston’s character’s son is pure cardboard. Maybe his complete lack of affect is intentional, since the kid was traumatized early on, but it makes for bad drama here.

Regardless, Godzilla here is apparently Earth’s protector against… giant bugs? Huh? He’s some sort of atavism from the past who rises up to fight and kill any other atavisms before going back to bed? If he was a force of balance (as one of the characters says), why isn’t he “balancing” us back into the stone age? Now, I like the idea of ancient giants who eat radiation — that seems like “balance.” But… they’re the bad guys. Godzilla’s job is to kill them, and our job is… to keep making radiation now that we’re free to do so? I don’t get it.