Friday, October 23, 2015

How many stars for Star Wars?

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.  


  1. Jar Jar is barely in Attack of the Clones. He serves as the dupe for Palpatine, but he doesn't do much else. I don't think he even appears in Revenge of the Sith. The reality is that he's just the C3P0 of the prequels. When I watched the original trilogy again, I was just as annoyed at C3P0 as I ever was at Jar Jar, but the difference is that he's in all six movies and is coming back for the next set. He's even pretty present in Clone Wars in any Amidala episodes, and he takes center stage in a few. The Jar Jar episodes of that show are usually better than the Droid ones, except when it's R2 without C3P0.

  2. I do think the overall storyline of the prequels is every bit as interesting as the overall storyline of the original trilogy. Lucas is terrible at dialogue writing and at directing. He's excellent at scene setting and big ideas. We agree on all that. But where I think we disagree is that you think he's terrible at overall storyline, and I think he's pretty good at that but just not good at executing it with an actual script or with directing.

    1. Well, lots of folks know more about the subject than I do, but from what I've read, Alan Dean Foster ghostwrote the Star Wars novelization, which Lucas plundered for the screenplay.

      Now, I've also read that Lucas basically cobbled together the story for the first installment by working the mythical archetypes of Joseph Campbell into the narrative.

      I don't know which version of events is correct, or if there's cross-pollination.

      You're not really supposed to write a story by starting with mythical archetypes. That's a paint-by-numbers method. Rather, you're just supposed to write a story. And a good story may naturally evoke some mythic archetypes. But that's not a conscious creative process.

      Since, however, Star Wars (the first installment in the franchise) was a movie and not a novel, it didn't have to make it on purely literary values. Kinda like opera, where the music, staging, and singers often compensates for the deficient libretto.

      What I've read about how The Empire Strikes Back also suggests to me that Lucas is not a natural storyteller:

      As literary critics like C. S. Lewis and Northrop Frye have noted, there's a sense in which all our stories are variations on some core stories. We keep retelling the same stories.

      So it's the execution that sets apart a natural storyteller from a hack.

    2. Hm, I don't know how good Lucas is even at coming up with an "overall storyline":

      1. One thing that's evident is the tremendous shift in themes between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy focused on Luke Skywalker's journey as a young kid from an out of the way planet who became a hero (Jedi) and helped save the galaxy. A boyish adventure yarn.

      The prequels focused on Anakin's tragic fall from Jedi to Sith lord. Indeed, from the "chosen one" who was prophesied to "bring balance to the Force." A failed messianic figure. More Shakespearean tragedy than adventure story.

      But what holds these two together given such thematic disparities? Thematically speaking, the original trilogy and prequels might as well be two entirely different epic tales. To run them together seems like Lucas is trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Thematically they don't really fit together very smoothly, I don't think.

      2. I suppose what holds them together is that they're really the story of a single family, the Skywalkers. Father and son (and daughter, etc.). I think that's probably the "overall storyline" which best unites the two at least in Lucas' mind. The father falls, the son redeems. The son saves the father (and everyone else).

      Yet how artistically "good" (e.g. original, creative) is this "overall storyline" involving the Skywalker family or dynasty? It seems more like it's an afterthought by Lucas than an original vision. In fact, more like he's making things up as he goes along.

      Sure, Lucas has said he has always envisioned at least nine movies in the Star Wars franchise, in three different trilogies. But I also remember reading that at one point Lucas wanted one of the trilogies or maybe all of them to be mostly about the Wookies. I think he's changed his "overall storyline" a few times and in fairly significant ways. Anyway, point being, this again seems to indicate the "overall storyline" is an unfinished product, a work in progress, always under construction.

      That's not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. But I think it does somewhat cast doubt on the idea that Lucas had a great story tell which he had envisioned "a long time ago." It seems more like for years or decades he was trying to figure out a great story to tell (in contrast to how to tell a great story, which he hadn't even worked out it seems).

      3. I suppose a story about the fall and rise of a family was done well in The Godfather trilogy. The second film in particular told two stories, one involving Al Pacino as Vito Corleone's son where he's losing control over "the family business," and the second involving Robert DeNiro as a young Vito Corleone rising to become "the godfather." The juxtaposition of these two stories side by side in a single film was part of the film's genius.

      By the way, I've read Francis Ford Coppola and Lucas were good friends at one point, and that Lucas greatly admired Coppola. No idea if they're still good friends today. So this is pure speculation on my part, maybe bordering on wild speculation, but I wonder if Lucas wasn't trying to make Star Wars into something like The Godfather trilogy? Of course, Coppola is a far better director than Lucas in terms of storytelling.

    3. Lucas has admitted that he never really had nine stories, just the original trilogy and then just the prequels.

      I think you're missing the actual story as badly as the Jedi in the prequels did. They had an excuse, because they hadn't known what would happen in Return of the Jedi. We have no such excuse. We've seen Anakin overthrown the emperor and restore balance to the Force. There's no reason for anyone who has seen Episode VI to think Anakin was a failed Messiah. That prophesy was fulfilled but just not, as Yoda said at one point in one of the prequels, in the way that Qui-Gon was understanding it.

      The real story of the entire six movies is Anakin's rise to power and loss of himself and all he cared about, only to end up fulfilling the prophecy and find satisfaction in the end, despite all the wrong he had done.

    4. If it's true "Lucas has admitted that he never really had nine stories, just the original trilogy and then just the prequels," then the "overall storyline" was indeed a work in progress. That's fine, and I have no significant objection here.

      If it's true I'm "missing the actual story as badly as the Jedi in the prequels did," then is this necessarily due entirely to me? Perhaps another (concurrent) possibility is it's due to the fact that the storyline in Lucas' movies isn't so evident, which implicates Lucas to some degree as well. It may have been Lucas' intention to make the entire six movies about Anakin's rise, fall, and redemption. But I think we can distinguish between Lucas' intention with what he wanted his movies to be about and what his movies actually were about. Yes, I have a responsibility as a viewer to what's viewed, to be as reasonably receptive as I can be and so forth, but likewise the artist has certain responsibilities to their audience as well.

  3. Just a few comments:

    1. I once read a biography on Lucas. This was back in high school when I was way too enamored with Star Wars. As I recall from the bio, Lucas grew up in Modesto.

    I don't recall if I've ever been to Modesto itself. Maybe once. Unfortunately it's not a very memorable place. But I've certainly driven by and around the area many times. It's just east of the 5 freeway which I often drove.

    Modesto is neither Northern California nor Southern California, but in the Central Valley. Fertile farmland. Very hot in the summer, cold in the winter. Probably a pretty boring place to grow up, especially back in Lucas' day.

    2. However, there are also long stretches of flat tractless land in and around the city. Again, probably boring for most, but perfect for someone like Lucas who loved cars and racing cars. Or maybe more likely fixing up and racing cars would've really been the only fun thing for a teenage boy in Modesto to do.

    3. Anyway, as I recall from the bio, Lucas' first love was racing cars. Perhaps Lucas had a knack for fixing up and/or building cars. Tinkering with machines. Mechanical aptitude. Perhaps this is reflected in the technical wizardry of his films (e.g. pod races, droids).

    I think we as Americans, especially out West, just love cars. Unlike say the UK and Europe which have opted more for subways or light rails within cities and trains outside.

    Part of this may be due to distance. In the UK and Europe cities and nations are much closer together. Out in the Western parts of the US cities are spread far apart.

    There's likewise a sense of freedom and independence with driving cars which I think is very American.

    As is the aptitude and comfort with mechanics, engineering, and technology. We're a practical, get the job done sort of people.

    4. Not to mention many parts of Tatooine might as well have been filmed in the deserts around Modesto.

    5. Modesto would've been too small of a world for Lucas. He had to have been restless and anxious to get out and see the rest of the world (like many boys). I think this is reflected in Luke (an intentional nod to Lucas himself i.e. Luke and Lucas are the same name etymologically?) Skywalker's youthful wanderlust and impatience to get off of the planet and explore the rest of the universe. A sense of boyish adventure.

    6. Yet there's also a sense of sweet innocence and naivety in Luke Skywalker. The gee whiz, aw shucks, wide-eyed boy. Perhaps this reflects Lucas' own feelings at the time he made Star Wars, but before he had made it big in Hollywood.

    And I recall Lucas' close friends (including people like Spielberg) saying how shy Lucas was or perhaps still is. Lucas was a small town boy. A kid who grew up in a "city" but a "city" in farm country.

    1. 7. Given all this, there's a very sort of all-American quality to the first Star Wars movie i.e. A New Hope. That's what was very appealing about the first film (at least to me). The big dreams, the "new hope."

      The first Star Wars echoed Lucas' own journey from a Modesto kid fixing up and racing cars to Lucas hoping to see the rest of the world and put his stamp on the world.

      But this is also the same journey many Americans take or long to take. It reflects Lucas' own journey as well as the journey of many Americans.

      Hence its broad appeal, I suspect.

      8. However, I think in terms of a story this was all Lucas really had to say to the world. He told all he had to tell in the first Star Wars movie. He had just one story, one vision, that's all.

      So it was a prudent decision for Lucas to relegate the directing and filling in of the details of the story to other directors and screenwriters in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

      Unfortunately Lucas took the helm again in the prequels.

      9. I think a big part of the reason the prequels became so self-important (and thus far less enjoyable to most) was because Lucas imbibed too much Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, etc. Lucas took his own Star Wars universe far too seriously as mythos, which is far too heavy a load for something as light as Star Wars to carry.

      Just my two cents', which is probably all it's worth! :-)

    2. 10. I don't think you should have ended on an odd number.

    3. I was trying to stay in the single digits. ;-)