i) Last summer, Jeremy Pierce had an interesting thread on Facebook regarding the Star Wars prequels. Summarizing his position, he thinks critics have a double standard. The prequels have similar strengths and weaknesses as the original Trilogy. He suggests that, to some extent, their double standard is due to the fact that viewers remember the original Trilogy through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia, based on when they saw it. Having see it first, at the right age, that's their gold standard.
In this post I will use Star Wars as a launchpad to opine about cinematic art. Movies are the major popular art form in 20C, and going strong in the 21C. I should say at the outset that I'm not a Star Wars geek.
ii) I don't think the original trilogy is better than the prequels. I don't think Return of the Jedi is better than the prequels. Rather, I think the first two installments (Star Wars Episode: A New Hope; The Empire Strikes Back) are better than the prequels.
I don't hate the prequels. Rather, I think they represent wasted potential. All that great CGI without any of the basic elements of good storytelling, other than exotic settings. For instance, The Phantom Menace has a great underwater city. That's the sort of thing Lucas excels at. But it can't redeem the lack of good storytelling.
iii) When I first saw Star Wars: A New Hope, it had wince-inducing moments. The main reason I give the first two installments a pass despite noticeable flaws is because I think they have compensatory virtues lacking in the prequels and Return of the Jedi.
Let's take an example of what I mean by compensatory virtues. In The Cincinnati Kid, the film is centered on a poker game. However, you can't stretch a poker game into a feature length film. So it has a longish prologue. You could lop of the first third without much loss.
The memorable part of the film is the poker game. Poker has its own drama. But what makes it truly enjoyable is the cast, with Steve McQueen as the Kid, Edward G. Robinson as the Man, Joan Blondell as Lady Fingers, and Karl Malden as Shooter. That's what makes it a great film of its kind. And that's despite the fact that the film is uneven. Gets off to a banal start.
But you don't really care about that. It's a boring, forgettable set-up for the main course.
Take another example: I suspect the reason the Star Wars franchise has a certain amount of juvenile humor is not because Lucas is writing with juvenile viewers in mind, but because his own sense of humor is juvenile.
Compare that to Iron Man. One of the refreshing things about Iron Man is that, in some respects, it has a genuinely grown-up viewpoint. That's rare in a film market that's geared to youth.
Take the banter and rapport between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. That works so well because Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow are both talented performers who don't look like high school students, and who clearly enjoy working with each other. They really hit it off.
And there are some other witty scenes in the film, sans Paltrow. But I think formulaic confrontation near the end is boring. And the scene of Stark chanced by F-22 Raptors is boring. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable in spite of that because of other, better scenes.
iv) Which brings me to general criteria. There are some common criteria by which I judge any film, viz. plot, dialogue, characterization, setting, ideas, acting.
Of course, no director, however talented, is equally good at everything. Every great director has a unique skill set.
In addition, some of these criteria are more important than others, depending on the kind of film. Which brings me to the next point:
I also judge a film by the standards of genre, viz. action, comedy, Western, war, horror, film noire, science fiction, coming of age. Whether it's great, good, average, or bad depends in part on the requirements of the genre: what a film of that genre is supposed to do. What it can do. The potentials and limitations of the genre. Whether it hit the target it was aiming for.
v) Apropos (iv), consider three films with Humphrey Bogart: The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and Key Largo. People who love classic films typically love those films.
Yet, if you think about it, those are preposterous films. In terms of plot, dialogue, and characters, they are wildly implausible.
Yet that's a large part of what people like about them. Classy escapism. Sometimes we like realistic films, and sometimes we like surrealistic films.
These three films are hokey as hell, but that's part of the fun. The juicy acting, quotable dialogue, outlandish characters, outlandish plots. It's not the least bit lifelike, and therein lies the appeal.
That's only a flaw if a film is supposed to be realistic. If the subject matter is supposed to be lifelike.
vi) To consider another criterion, take the flawed masterpiece. By that I mean an artistic failure by a great director (or novelist). But here's the catch: a lesser film by a greater artist may be a greater film than a better film by a lesser artist.
Even if a great director falls short of what he was aiming for, he can still reach heights that a lesser artist cannot begin to attain. It may be a very uneven film, but it will have arresting scenes. The parts will be greater than the whole. Flashes of greatness will offset the weaker material.
vii) Apropos (vi), from start to finish, Casino Royale is a very successful film of its kind. Careful, consistent , detailed craftsmanship. No weak links. That kind of discipline is rare in cinematography. So many movies, even big budget movies, are pretty slipshod.
Yet Casino Royale can only be as good as the genre. A Bond film has a hard ceiling of excellence. With all the loving effort in the world, A Bond film can only rise so high. Classy, but shallow and ephemeral.
Now compare that to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. It gets off to a very slow start. You could lop off the first third of the film. It only picks up interest when we get to Bodega Bay. Except for Jessica Tandy, the actors are merely serviceable.
The film centers on three great set-pieces: three bird attacks. (There's an upstairs scene I could analyze, but these three are sufficient to illustrate the point.)
In the first case, Lydia visits a neighbor. As she enters the kitchen, the audience can see a row of chipped teacups hanging on the cupboard. That foreshadows what she will find in the bedroom: her neighbor with his eyes pecked out.
The chipped teacups is a masterstroke by a great director. A simple, subtle, ominous cue. A way to build suspense.
A third scene takes place in and around a restaurant. There a know-it-all ornithologist delivers an unctuous homily on how the rumors about dangerous birds is alarmist scare-mongering. But her timing is unfortunate, for it is followed by a devastating bird attack.
Then you have a second scene, the most memorable, at the school. Inside, the kids are singing a song. Reflects the innocence of child. Outside, Melanie is waiting impatiently for school to end so that she can warn the teacher. Distracted, as she smokes a cigarette, Malanie oblivious to birds amassing behind her on the jungle gym. But the audience is facing the jungle gym. It's viewpoint is literally opposite hers. The audience can see what she can't–the looming threat. That's a classic example of dramatic tension, where the audience knows something a character does not.
Finally, Melanie observes a bird approaching. She follows it with her eyes as it circles around her. At that point she suddenly sees the massed birds. There's the juxtaposition of a few simple elements to generate this classic scene.
In fairness, Hitchcock needed to space these out to maximize the impact. If he ran them together, it wouldn't have the same effect. The fact that the rest of the film isn't on the same plane is to some degree a necessity. Some things can only be in high relief if the rest is flat.
Compared to a well-oiled production like Casino Royale, The Birds is very uneven. Yet a few scenes like this elevate it to a class part from Casino Royale. With a few deft strokes and pacing, Hitchcock created an unforgettable experience. Images that forever stay in the mind.
viii) Returning to Star Wars, the prequels get bogged down in exposition. How Anakin Skywalker became evil.
Now you might say that's the point of the backstory. It's suppose to fill in the details.
But that goes to the question of how seriously we're supposed to take Star Wars. A franchise can ruin the original idea when it becomes self-important.
You can do serious. There's nothing wrong with that. Take Blade Runner. But that illustrates the problem with the prequels. Blade Runner works on its own level. But it's a different kind of film. Star Wars will collapse under too much gravitas. It becomes silly and boring at the same time.
ix) To put it another way, much of what's enjoyable in the first two installments was the vicarious appeal. Especially for a male audience, it would sure be fun to go places like that and do stuff like that. This is why some young men join the Air Force (to fly fighter jets) or join the Navy (to see the world).
By contrast, I think the prequels lost most of that vicarious appeal. They are too stuffy, too pedantic, too bureaucratic.
In the prequels, I never forget that this is CGI. Yet in good storytelling, CGI shouldn't call attention to itself as CGI.
x) Why do fans hate Jar Jar Binks? Aside from the fact that they just dislike the character, their antipathy was magnified by the further fact that Lucas carried it over into two more installments, just to show that he didn't care what his fans thought. A typical director is more responsive to fans. If they like a minor character, he may make that a major character. Take C-Man in the X-Files. Conversely, if they hate a character, the director will phase it out.
Now, a director has no obligation to cater to his constituency. It's easy to imagine creative artists who don't work with a particular audience in mind. For instance, C. S. Lewis once said he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia for his younger self–the kinds of stories he himself wanted to read as a young boy.
In that sense, a creative artist can be his own audience. He does it to please himself, not to please others. If others like it, too, then he can make a living that way.
The fact remains, though, that Lucas is a businessman in the entertainment industry. He's entitled to do whatever he likes in his films, but by the same token, the consumer is entitled to pick and choose.
xi) Why do fans dislike Hayden Christensen so much? I don't think it's simply or primarily because he's a bad actor. Rather, I think it's because he's a pretty boy, and his bad acting draws attention to the fact that Lucas chose him purely as chickbait.
The core audience for SF is male. Normal males don't go to movies to see pretty boys. There's a visceral, instinctive revulsion to that. And it's even worse when a dandy is miscast as an action hero. By contrast, Mark Hamill is a Navy brat. For all his limitations as an actor, he's a cut above Christensen.
It's possible for an actor to rise above that. Brad Pitt was a pretty boy, but he often played against type, and he has the talent as an actor and director to play interesting roles and make interesting films.