Monday, July 31, 2006

Star Wars Retrospective: Part I (The Prequels)

It seems like hypocrisy to point out – in the opening sentence of a mammoth article on all three films, no less – that the Star Wars prequels (along with any other number of big-budget enterprises in the past few years, Matrix sequels and numerous Harry Potters among them) are among the most overly ballyhooed movies in recent memory (not to mention Star Wars in general). So why, you ask, am I giving them even more attention, with billions of dollars, thousands of reviews and endless fanboy debates having already come to pass?

For starters, I would like to tackle the more respectable original trilogy at some point on this blog, so it seems natural to cover all the films while I’m at it. Secondly, I’ve a younger brother with whom I will occasionally indulge his geeky prepubescent desires, and having just sat through the three most recent episodes of George Lucas’ saga, I may as well use the time invested to some sort of journalistic good. Finally, Star Wars represents, for me, part of my collective experience with cinema, and even though I have always generally liked the films, my adoration with them is at this point a thing of the past, and I feel that some sort of closure is needed so that, quite frankly, I can move the fuck on with my life. Antonioni awaits.

My cohort Paul Schrodt once described Star Wars as the greatest adult fantasy film(s) ever made, although his description was more intentionally derogatory than I might suggest. I’ve always enjoyed the films (particularly the first two), but with the mass hysteria accompanying the three most recent entries eroding away, so too has my passion for the saga. Approached without the cloud of the media spotlight (not to mention an increasingly dawning awareness as to the limitless possibilities of the motion picture medium), it doesn’t take much to see Star Wars for what it is: a well made piece of fluff. Entertainment value notwithstanding, the films are more easily likened to toys than films, and even the best toys wear out if played with too much. There is a place for every kind of film, and my aim is not to discredit Star Wars (nor its fans, for that matter, despite any generalized comments that might appear below), but to place it within a realistic context in the larger framework of cinematic history. In other words: the horizon doesn’t stop here, fanboys. There is no “holy trilogy.” Cinema is holy, period. Stop bitching about Greedo shooting first: get out and experience it.

A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back still sit proudly amidst the rest of my DVDs, although I doubt they will ever come close to returning to the level of adoration I once held for them (it is also worth mentioning that the rabid defensiveness of more pronounced Star Wars “fans” has largely scared me off as well, having once been nearly lynched for pointing out that I preferred E.T. to anything in George Lucas’ catalogue). Those first two entries are the only ones I will ever give full credence to. The prequels, while not entirely terrible, are far too synthetic to generate any long-lasting emotion, and frankly, as far as Return of the Jedi goes: Jabba’s palace gives me the heebie-jeebies in all the wrong ways, and the Ewoks irritate the shit out of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Later, after the appropriate revisitations, I will review the original trilogy and examine its own role in the world of film. For now, it’s on to Jake Lloyd, Jar-Jar and Hayden. Wish me luck.

The Phantom Menace (1999)

Of all the prequels, this is the one that the naysayers got right, but for all the wrong reasons. Fact: “Jedi” is an official religion in the United States. This kind of obsession indicates the amount of investment that people had in this, the most heavily anticipated movie of all time, and largely explains the vehemence of the backlash released upon George Lucas when his latest toy factory didn’t rekindle flames with the same intensity as they had been lit with twenty-two years prior. This feeds my misanthropy more than it saddens me as a cinephile, but what amuses me the most is the division between George Lucas’ take on his films and that of his fans. Far more humble than his products might suggest, Lucas is, more or less, a very lucky little boy who’s been able to play with some very expensive toys on the big screen and get paid lots of money to do so, and will freely admit how just how superior Kurosawa and Kubrick’s films are to his own without any disconcertment (one wonders how many of his fans have ever heard of them in the first place). The man knows what he does without any delusions of grandeur, and for that he has my respect.

Watching The Phantom Menace again, however, had me more inclined to reach for a bottle of Excedrin than to comment on Lucas’ down-to-earth attitude. Forgoing the carefree, ramshackle feeling of the original three films (more than anything, I always admired their complete lack of pretension), Episode I suggests that Lucas watched Barry Lyndon before every day on the set, in turn poorly replicating its artifice whilst disastrously mixing it with typical Star Wars juvenility. Stuffy and deadly self-serious in all the wrong ways, The Phantom Menace seems to think it necessary to lay down the beginnings of its pre-anticipated saga with the utmost seriousness lest it not appear legitimate, while the numerous appeals to childhood glee stick out with all the glamour of an unkempt tumor. The overly touted pod race is a visceral bore (watch Ben-Hur instead, please), but things pick up considerably, if only briefly, when Lucas indulges his phallic symbolism with a fiery light saber battle between Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon Jinn (a very good performance, perhaps, in a different film) and Ray Park’s insidious Darth Maul. Otherwise, by assuming no responsibility for establishing the pseudo-mythic undertones approximated by the original films (discounting the sad attempt at a scientific explanation for “the force”), The Phantom Menace’s pulse stops dead almost immediately from the outset. This is Star Wars given the period piece approach, and it’s an ordeal worthy of Mel Gibson.

Attack of the Clones (2002)

The first half of Episode II feels like leftovers from its predecessor; aside from a visually exhilarating chase through a high-rise cityscape, the film is bogged down with empty rhetoric, wannabe political exposition, and a love story hobbled together from the romantic junk drawer. Lucas has wisely lowered the sense of self-importance this time around, but somebody forgot to pass the memo onto the cast, the majority of whose deadweight acting is bad in all the right space-opera ways but far too wooden to elicit the earnest silliness it hopes for. Here, only Christopher Lee survives the blue screen world, his tongue placed in cheek just enough to convince us that he’s actually part of this long ago, far away world. Like Episode I, the landscapes are stunning and beautiful and the imagined creatures effectively realized, but to what extent do they serve within such an empty vessel (although, admittedly, Kamino’s cloners are perhaps the sexiest thing to appear in any sci-fi movie of recent memory)? Hayden Christensen’s angry ruminations as (a pre-Darth Vader) Anakin are the stuff of bad high school theater classes; angry moping and love stricken pontifications will have to suffice as the seeds for the screen’s most (undeservingly) infamous villain.

Ultimately, though, the first half stands as Lucas merely arranging his chess pieces for the climactic showdown, a visually delectable series of action set pieces that wonderfully captures the sprightly “gee whiz” sensibility Star Wars is rightly known for, with relentless efficiency. The heroes and villains are both exaggerated manifestations of good and evil, a good thing considering just how silly the whole toy factory is when you strip it of its cultural ramifications. Lucas’ sense of action and visual composition is masterful enough to compensate for his actors’ overall lack of enthusiasm, although Yoda certainly gets it on in all the right ways when he finally breaks out his own piece in a Tasmanian Devil-esque duel (after an all-too brief showdown between Lee’s Count Dooku and Anakin that showcases some of the most exciting usage of contrasting blues and reds since Terminator 2). To quote Ed Gonzalez of Slant: “It's a frank reminder that Lucas' toys always look better when keeping mum and waving their sticks around.”

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Lucas admitted during his press interviews for Episode III that out of the entire back story he envisioned to the original Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith encompassed about 60% of it, meaning that episodes I and II were a mere 20% each, padded out to feature length. I’ve always been surprised that this didn’t incite more anger from fanboys, although I doubt that information, were it known in both 1999 and 2002, would have prevented them from seeing the films anyway. Nonetheless, the drug-out, overly expositional nature of the first two prequels was only exacerbated more so in retrospect by the fact that Revenge of the Sith contains nary a dull moment. This was the story that Lucas wanted to tell when he first set out to make the prequel trilogy, and it shows; Episode III satiates its audience with the viscerally lined sense of nostalgia they crave while also setting up the plot of the original films with broad-sweeping earnestness. That it’s also a bit transparent and childish simply goes along with the territory; Episode III wisely mines theses faults for subversive grandiosity rather than attempting to pad them out.

The original Star Wars trilogy was more of a western-placed fantasy than it was pure science fiction, and while Revenge of the Sith’s obsession with space battles, aliens and droids is more incidental to its genre than it is necessary to its plot, the film is the one most fittingly described as a “space opera” out of the entire six-movie track. Practically bursting at the seams with vivid emotions, this episode doesn’t aim for anything in the way of nuance, instead opting to bold and italicize its characters and their relationships, and its all the better for it. Here, the actors finally get it right, in that they actually appear to be genuinely enjoying themselves (previously, one imagined Lucas just off camera with a pitchfork behind their backs), although that’s not to say the film is devoid of the occasionally embarrassing iteration (particularly any dramatically intended use of the word “no”) or flat-out cheesy line of dialogue (to be fair, nothing here bests Episode II’s unintentionally hilarious bit about sand, although the constant use of “younglings” comes close).

From the bravura opening sequence, Revenge of the Sith shamelessly indulges into the adventurous derring-do of its heroes’ exploits, while the epic scale second half is anything but lacking in kinetic action and frothy character conflict. Even as the inevitable (Anakin’s turn to the dark side and subsequent transformation into Darth Vader) approaches, Lucas’ interest in the complexities of good and evil (which culminate in a passive jab at Dubya, whose actions as President truly represent an eerie instance of life imitating art), as well as the frilled, no-holds-barred earnestness of the cast, allows interest vested in the outcome to remain even when we know that no other path is open. Perhaps unintentionally, this entry demythologizes its predecessors through its (relatively) restrained execution, positing enough importance to justify its existence but lacking the arrogance to suggest it is any sort of be-all, end-all creation. Now, if only Lucas’ minions would adopt the same attitude, the world would be a much better place.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Fountain

If I could only see one more movie this year, this would be it.

October can't come soon enough.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dog Days and Newfound Opportunities

It's not even August yet, but here the heat is absolutely brutal. Pairing that with everything else that makes up what I call my life, I haven't had much time to update lately, although the movie watching has still been consistent as always. I suppose I'll have to start writing more frequently, though, what with Nick Schager now including me in his links section and Jim Emerson sighting this blog recently after my contribution to his "Opening Shots" project. Links to both articles on his blog are available below.

King of the Mash-Ups
Opening Shots: Fight Club

On another note, Slant Magazine writer Paul Schrodt recently invited me to contribute on a site he just created, The Stranger Song, which will feature reviews, articles and musings on film and pop culture. I've already contributed a write-up of the excellent An Inconvenient Truth, and plan on updating there more frequently as well.

With senior year approaching rapidly, I have an Honors Project staring me in the face with very little tangible research yet done on it. My topic: the relationship between gay representations in the media and related political discourse (or: How does Brokeback Mountain exacerbate Dubya's xenophobia?). My aim is, in the next few days, to begin my headfirst dive into this topic in terms of both reading and writing, and to document my progress through this blog. Updates might not be everyday depending on how much is actually written, but I hope to provide at least several new paragraphs on a regular basis in regards to my findings. Thoughts, discussion, encouragement and berating are all perfectly acceptable.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I’ve always been one to refute the classically naïve claim of “it’s just a movie” (or its many derivatives) whenever such is brought up in response to criticisms about immorality or prejudice present in a film. Whether intended strictly for entertainment or not, films, existing as part of a larger cultural framework, are anything but an area of removed social neutrality: as much as any other human creation, they capture and reflect portions of the world in which they are created, and must be held accountable for that which they come to represent. This is something I fear is too often overlooked, as mainstream entertainment and other cultural outlets mindlessly stimulate the sedative masses, often without sufficient awareness of their subtle yet far-reaching effects: vigilantly, I keep my eyes peeled to see how these forms have and continue to shape the world we live in.

Such notions hovered closely above my contemplative head whilst recently re-watching D.W. Griffith’s silent Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation. As heralded as it is for its technical artistry and medium innovation, it is equally as derided for, among other questionable qualities, its bigoted portrayal of race relations. It’s far-reaching story covers the years-long events that befall two American families before, during and after the civil war. The depictions of and attitudes held towards African Americans in the film range from laughably cartoonish to outright offensive in the extreme, while the plot ultimately glorifies the KKK and the violence perpetuated by the organization in a manner that would have most unprepared viewers quickly squirming in their seats. Certainly, it is something of a hurdle to cover for even the most experienced film lover, but it is one that must be tackled nonetheless. Riots and theatrical boycotts have dogged the film from day one, even amidst more recent, strictly historical presentations. While these demonstrations are rooted from a desire to correct the social ills present in the movie, they also do it a disservice by refusing it full admittance to the marketplace of ideas that is cinematic culture. In order for its ideas to be truly denounced, the film must be openly visible in the first place.

The first film to exceed the 100-minute mark (the most complete prints clocking in at over three hours), The Birth of a Nation is arguably the single most artistically important and influential film ever made, a fact that makes it’s social offenses all the more awkward to swallow. Griffith was among a handful of directors working at the time to forge what came to be the early framework for all of cinema, and it would be a near-impossible challenge to find any elements of modern film that did not originate with or near Griffith’s 1915 undertaking. Because the film sits at the foundation of an entire worldly medium that followed in its wake, coming to terms with its dark side is equally as important as appreciating the artistic originality and supreme craft at hand. Any work, however offensive or even potentially dangerous, has the fundamental right to exist, and having been absorbed into the culture it created so effectively, The Birth of a Nation demands attention. The last fate such a film should suffer is to be ignored.

Seen purely in terms of entertainment factor, The Birth of a Nation is nearly as effective today as it was over eighty years ago, its silent conventions and acting mannerisms as much a part of its creation as any other component, completely natural for those accustomed to pre-talkie filmmaking. Nearly as rich in characters and wide in storytelling scope as any number of other modern blockbuster epics (Gone With the Wind, Titanic), the film is a whirlwind of emotional outpouring as it captures the emotional devastation and social turmoil of war, retaining both intimacy and grandeur in its presentation of a story with both great social breadth and intimate personal details. Griffith’s employment of long shots to emphasize action and spectacle are enthralling, while the close shots of actors finely exhibit the radiantly emotional performances at hand. Much of what is at hand here has been accepted cinematic custom for decades, but despite it’s antiquity, The Birth of a Nation is so full-bodied that it almost completely retains its power to stimulate, despite its innovations long since passing down into accepted cliché.

As well as reflecting the now-unacceptable racist attitudes that circulated at the time, The Birth of a Nation examines the social divide wrought on the nation during the Civil War. The two main families, the Camerons and the Stonemans, harken from the south and north, respectively. Economic fallout and the violent rebellions of former slaves plague the Confederacy both during and after the war. The Camerons former lifestyle is eradicated when the freed slaves are given the vote and, with the help of the corrupt radicals, immediately begin to take over the government formerly of the white man. In anguish over the destruction of his people, Ben Cameron (in a moment of inspiration in such horrifically bad taste that only the most offensive moments ever aired on “South Park” can begin to rival its, albeit unintended at the time, humor) establishes the Ku Klux Klan to reinstate the dominance of the proud Aryan race.

To denounce the film outright may seem instinctive for many viewers, and while justifiable so, it also condescends to the context of the time period the film comes to us from. To watch The Birth of a Nation is to experience an American perspective nearly a century in hindsight: one that is indeed hateful, but one that was also commonplace at the time. The black characters in the film are viewed as less-than-human, generally posited against the proper behavior of the white folk as being rowdy, crude and generally lacking in the most basic of social skills (or even the desire to adopt them in the first place). Black extras are typically used in background shots or for larger mobs; as was customary at the time, white actors in blackface were used for the more major roles held by black characters. The blackface makeup looks quite fake and intentionally so, and it is this quality that largely embodies the blind attitudes held by the film and its makers: the bigotry is incredibly obvious and, detached from the proceedings, quite patently absurd.

That today’s audiences have the privilege of more easily recognizing this fact is indeed a blessing, but greater awareness of the atrocities of the past is anything but a call to cover them up or to forget them. It is the responsibility of modern film culture to preserve this telling artifact so that future audiences might better understand the irremovable blemishes on American history. The Birth of a Nation is often regarded as a masterpiece, and such a statement is not entirely unjustifiable. To understand and appreciate the artistry is not to immediately condone its beliefs, and an outright refusal to even engage the work only encourages a perpetuation of those same offensive ideals; without confronting and coming to terms with them, we only allow for them to reappear later, having not yet been adequately dealt with. That the film embodies darker times that have since been largely triumphed over only makes its continued engagement and appreciation more crucial; The Birth of a Nation links the divide between American past and American present, and allows us to better overcome the sins of both eras by more fully understanding where we’ve come from and, ultimately, where we’re going.