Han Shoots Last
Movies can do a lot of different things for us, from giving us 90 minutes away from stress to providing a skeleton on which we build lives. The films that matter to me are these latter ones. Much of what we think of evil, nobility and love we gather from films to attach to events in our lives.
At a high level, the filmmaker’s concern is to find a balance between the familiar and the novel. You need the familiar because this is how you give the viewer hooks to follow what you do. You need some novelty to matter, to engage. The original Star Wars (now called episode IV) was revolutionary in the balance it picked.
It was in no existing genre, though it looks like science fiction, and is shaped like westerns. Lucas decided to go deeper than what existed in film, and go to what in the 70s was a popular notion, universal myths. Good and evil, fraternal conflict, the nature of loyalty, even the balance between inherited and earned advantage.
In going outside of movie genre for these was novel. Just as novel was what he picked for prior movies, being purely cinematic compositions. There is a robust literature on which of Lucas’ shots came from which cinematically successful films. The choices are interesting, and even revealing. The point is that the hooks he gave us to engage with the film were accepted cinematic conventions without story associations.
The story itself came from something deeper than film vaults. This was new and charmed us. Many of us truly did ingest key notions of self, evil, nobility, worth and love from this. Kasden was wise enough to drill hard on the myth in the second film, hammering hard on the purest points of the myth. The director simply moved more toward noir conventions and we hardened our associations with the myth.
The third film basically coasted on what was then new cinematic technology, but was an acceptable conclusion, mostly to be forgotten except for key plot points. Lucas had no where to go from there. He had to continue but with no novelty, no new mythic or cinematic elements to work with. So we got humor, political intrigue and by then pretty common CGI. His original fans were disappointed. What Disney bought was the hopes many of us had to advance our lives beyond the template that gave us the environment we live in today. Most of us are ill equipped to evolve our basic framework, so we look to religion, film and the overlap between the two. Politicians are mere performers in this context.
So what did i think of the new Star Wars film I say on opening night? I’d say it had none of the novelty we need, we were looking for. It basically restated the first two films with all the key elements, roles and even hardware. While Abrams is well known (with Woody Allen) for cinematic references, all of these were not from the deep canon, but from action films, save the Apocalypse Now warriors in the sun sun shot. Thankfully, he respected the lack of camera acknowledgment and keep the lens flares and frame shakes to a minimum.
Where to go from here? If Disney’s handling of the Marvel franchise is a guide, we go nowhere, other than bigger and funnier. Less human, more remote from our lives. More oriented toward licensed products.
Pixar’s fate is a bit worse. We’ll still have competent stories absent of the crutches of evil, but we’ve lost that spark.
We are at a crossroads, and it all comes down to whether Luke takes the saber from his daughter and like his namesake rewrites the Jesus story to suit an audience that wants more to build lives on.
This is worth watching in my scheme, but the worth is all in suspense.
Luke Rewrites Matthew
This is a replacement comment for the one written on opening night. I’ve had a chance to see it again, this time in 3D, and of course think about it.
The big picture here is that the creative team made a modern film in the sense that it is folded, meaning it is about itself and how it presents other films. There are hundreds of examples of this of course, but this is the biggest movie in history, so something important is going on.
In thousands of comments here, I’ve remarked on this new development, where more and more films have introspective dynamics. We are changing how we think, managing thoughts on at least two levels: the story and the story about the story, or how the story is presented. There is real power in this, because such introspection is a half step away from seeing yourself while being yourself, and that is half a step away from what might be called living the force.
An example: the story in this film had to recycle elements from the previous ones (actually just the first two). What is our heroine about but literally scavenging elements from the prior films? Throughout, the term ‘scavenger’ is used as an insult but Rey carries it proudly. She clearly knows something about herself we don’t.
Our first scene with her matters. We have been transported with captured Poe into the hanger bay of a star destroyer, which Poe finds impressive. Immediately after, we have Rey rappelling into an identical bay from the last Star Wars saga. She will later fly through this and other parts of that wreckage.
About the handling of space. Other than story details, this had to have been much chewed over, because since the original films, our conventions of what a camera is have changed. The original two films were themselves intended to be retro in how they handled the camera. In 1977, the techniques attributed to Hitchcock and Welles were common, where the camera was no longer passive. It became our representative in the film, subtly indicating what we would do if we were there, or what role we would play. The camera could be curious, for instance, show revulsion or fascination. Lucas chose to have the camera be as it was in the 40’s. This is one reason dePalma and Coppola thought the movie stunk. But that and the practical effects worked for us, indeed became part of what we loved.
Now flash forward to a time where no action movie can be made without the active camera, the camera as our representative. What balance does Abrams find, but to have two film philosophies interwoven. In all the ‘character’ scenes, the effects are mostly practical and the camera is retro. In all the action scenes, the effects are mostly GCI and the camera is the modern one. The difference is striking because Lucas used a 1930 Howard Hughes dogfight movie as his template for the space battles. Here we still have spacecraft moving as if they were biplanes moving fast, but the weaves among them and among the camera are modern. (This was pioneered by Pixar, and their direct influence is obvious in the 3D version.)
One final observation on the story reflecting the film itself. When Lucas and Kurtz invented the characters for the first film, they paid a lot of attention to archetypes. Most commonly cited is the work of Joseph Campbell but they more deeply studied the most popular of these, the Jesus story. (They didn’t mention this for obvious reasons.) Think of Mark as history and each of the following gospels as episodes that added to the story.
Mark (without the later ending) is about a preacher of parables with no special birth and no resurrection. Matthew in the next episode adds a virgin birth, influence from Persia and Egypt (then considered magical) and rising from the dead. Where Mark had him in the Nazarene desert, Matthew brought him into cosmic battle.
The third episode written as ‘history’ emphasized Jesus role in building an order of followers, whose collective adherence to (lets call it) the force will sweep over the planet and redeem it. The devil appears here with his own order, the ‘first order’ chronologically created.
One might assume that the name Luke Skywalker was random, or that it mirrored Lucas’ name. But this is not the case, and this is something Kasdan understood. All he did was give us the Jesus story filtered through Kurosawa.
Why mention this? Because Kasdan is again on the case and what he does is metaphorically overlay Luke on Matthew, giving us both.
Posted in 2015
Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.