Thursday, May 19, 2005

Episode VIII: Too Long This Post Is, Hmmmm

So, as we established the other day, I'm a big dork, but not a purist. I like the original Star Wars films so much - without crossing the line into thinking they're sacred - that I'm not even as hard on the new ones as most people. Much of the magic is gone, sure, and the writing pretty much blows, but they're still new Star Wars movies. They look and sound pretty, there are some interesting pieces of history falling into a story we already know, and of course I'll watch Ewan McGregor in pretty much anything, even if he doesn't get naked.

From yesterday's Salon: "For years fans of the 'Star Wars' series have been trying to convince us nonbelievers -- and, to an extent, themselves -- that George Lucas is a genius whose work plumbs deep universal themes.... Somehow, a series that began as an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek amusement has turned into a runaway train wreck of convoluted yet facile mythology, one that inexplicably invites, but can't support, constant defense as a serious work. It's not enough that the 'Star Wars' movies are the work of an occasionally clever but mostly simple-minded auteur-wannabe; they've also been hijacked by zealots who insist on assigning weight and meaning to every idiotic frame, spoiling the fun even for average moviegoers who simply have a nostalgic fondness for the original trilogy."

That's pretty on-target for me - even though I'm a more rabid fan than a nostalgic average moviegoer, I'd never call any of these films high art. They're fun. Big-themed, big-budgeted, occasionally pretentious, but basically pulpy action movies with mostly sub-Shatner acting ("...My sister has it. Yesit'syouLeia." "I know. SomehowI've...alwaysknown."). I'm not looking for depth, I'm looking for multiplex escapism, with a little emotion thrown in for good measure, just to remind me I'm watching something more epic than, say Face Off.

Much has been made about the new stuff being more childish, but remember that we were children when we saw the original films. For all the adult themes that are certainly there, my fandom began as a five-year-old's enthusiasm, and playing with action figures. There were surely adults who saw Star Wars and loved it, but I think it's safe to say that the majority of us who grew into scary fans were kids at the start. Still, the original films didn't go out of their way to include the now-obligatory "funny" scene, or the toy-ready creature. I could even make a case for the Ewoks, who were cuddly but also quite cleverly violent, and their deaths are certainly not played for laughs. On the other hand, George Lucas invented the kind of mass-marketing, media tie-in, toy residuals business that Hollywood has become. In 1977 there was little precedent. Now I wouldn't be surprised if McDonald's had a Depression Meal to go with the new Woody Allen movie, with a little Freud doll inside (and I would totally buy that). The point is, it's a different time, and movies are different. The originals hold up, but that's not the same as saying they could be made in the same way today. I don't think they could.

Of course that doesn't excuse plain old bad filmmaking, which transcends time. When I saw Episode I I was too excited to see a lot of its flaws, but even that couldn't save Jar Jar, Watto and the Trade Federation. Jar Jar doesn't make me mad on principle - there's totally room for a kid-friendly, CGI character, and for a storyline about separate factions (the Gungans and the...Nabooians?) coming together against a common enemy. And his position combined with his naïveté set important things in motion in Episode II. But good lord, did he have to be that?? Did he have to be so damn annoying and vaguely racist, and did there have to be so damn much of him?? Even worse was the battle sequence where the Gungans win essentially by accident, falling over themselves in "funny" ways that happen to blow things up. Including, occasionally, themselves. The violence in the original trilogy was sometimes whimsical (see the Ewoks and C3PO) but never comic to the point of having no stakes whatsoever (see Jar Jar and C3PO). Throw the curiously "Arab" Watto and the curiously "Chinese" Trade Federation guys into the mix, and it seems Lucas has some issues, and not just as an artist. Plus, you make your chief bad guys the Trade Federation?? I mean, sure, nefarious corporations are old hat, but these guys have an army!! So, for that matter, does the Banking Clan. What the hell??

Aaaaanyway, that said, I still didn't hate the damn thing. There was plenty to get excited about. And then I made the mistake of seeing it again. Excitement gone, it was not an enjoyable film the second time around. And the biggest reason for that was that Lucas desperately needs an editor. Episode IV was an even 2 hours (plus 5 minutes in the special edition). Episode I is 133 minutes, and Episode II is 143! It seems to me that Lucas just thinks everything he does is brilliant, and in fact much of it, well, isn't. And it's just bad storytelling. Cool as the podrace sequence is, it didn't need to be so long. Neither did the endless underwater journey or the climactic battle. Not no Jar Jar necessarily, but for the love of god, less of him!

Episode II suffers from the same need for cuts, but it's definitely better, if only because it's grown up a little. There's the one sequence that seems to be lifted straight from Super Mario Brothers and destined to be played on the X Box, but not much else in the way of pandering for merchandise. I genuinely liked the complicated politics, sure to go over children's heads. Palpatine starting a war just so he can take power, whichever side wins? That's good stuff! Eeeeeevil. It's hard to tell at time who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and the Jedi don't know they're essentially working for the wrong side. More good stuff.

But then there's all that pesky dialogue. Really, one of the smartest things Lucas ever did was hand off screenplay duties (not to mention directing) to other people for Empire and Jedi, and I don't know why he didn't do it here. He'd still come up with the story, and obviously keep very tight control on how it turned out, as he does with everything from comic books to video games, but we might have been spared some of the torture of the Anakin/Padme love scenes. I mean, here are two talented, likeable young actors (actually, I hate Natalie Portman but the rest of the world seems to disagree with me), in a beautiful setting (a real one, mind you, CGI-free, just two kids in a field) and they couldn't be more wooden if they were, um, made of wood.

Anyway, after the Episode I experience, I was afraid to watch Attack of the Clones again, preferring to hold on to the relative enjoyment of the first time. But as today drew closer, I realized that I remembered very little of the plot. Which, really, isn't a good thing. Did anyone really need the title crawl to tell them what had happened between chapters of the first trilogy? But anyway I decided to take a chance and rent the DVD. To my great surprise, I enjoyed it more. The plot is really complicated in many respects, and a second viewing actually fleshed some of the details I'd missed the first time. Even the Anakin/Padme stuff didn't bother me as much, as I was less occupied with thinking, "Dear lord, make them stop talking" and instead focused on some interesting seeds being sown in Anakin's character.

On the other hand, watching it again also brought out the plot holes big enough to pilot a star destroyer through. Obi-Wan discovers that some Jedi thought long dead had commissioned a clone army without anyone's order or permission...and nobody questions this? In fact, Palpatine immediately puts the army to good use...and nobody questions that?? Even worse, they find Jango Fett working for the cloners (presumably under orders of the Senate, presumably the good guys), then follow him to another planet where he's working for the unfortunately named Count Dooku (presumably the bad guy), and no one ever questions how and why it is that he's playing both sides? Not even Yoda? And who in her right mind would think that Jar Jar is an appropriate proxy for a senator??

One comment I've heard a lot lately is that everything will fall into place when we see Episode III. True, writing the beginning of a story everyone knows - essentially writing towards the middle of something - is tricky, and I'm sure a lot of the holes will be filled in. But no matter how good it is, it won't make up for bad filmmaking. I really doubt that Jar Jar and the Banking Coalition will play a major role in the fall of the Jedi, so why did we have to spend so much time with them?! And if it were any other series, we wouldn't stand for it. If the first one is bad, the third one doesn't get made! That said, I'm excited for tonight. I can't help it. The music will play and I'll get tingles. We're seeing it at the Ziegfeld, the only old-school single-screen house left in New York, and from Empire to Moulin Rouge where I've had some of my most formative moviegoing experiences. And hopefully the really big nerds all saw it at midnight, so there won't be too much audience participation.

Now that the series is complete, I'm curious to see what happens when they're watched in order from I to VI. When Episode I came out George Lucas said that he'd always intended to tell Anakin's story, not Luke's. It's a complete and total revision of history, since in the 80s he'd said he planned to make a third trilogy, set after Jedi, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, since Anakin's rise, fall and redemption is not a bad story to tell.

But for me, half the fun of the new movies (okay, most of the fun) comes from the little winks and nods to the originals, and the knowledge of things to come. Much of it is heavy-handed, but I can't help getting a kick out of Palpatine calling baby Anakin "Young Skywalker," Obi-Wan telling Anakin, "I have a feeling you'll be the death of me," or the first time we hear the music that will become Luke's theme, or the Imperial March. There's great portent (perhaps too much) given to underwritten lines because we already know who will live, who will die, and who will turn to the Dark Side (and who's already there). Will someone watching the series for the first time (who happens to have spent the last 20 years in a cave), who doesn't know Anakin's destiny, understand or care about any of this?

On the other hand, unlike the way we watched the films the first time around, if we watch the newer ones first the writing will steadily improve as we go!

I recently caught a bit of Empire on TV, and was astonished to find myself getting chills during Luke and Vader's confrontation after Luke loses his hand. I wondered if the scene would have the same impact if, even if you're watching it for the first time, you've known for four movies already that Vader is Luke's father. Of course, I've seen it dozens of times and it still excites me, so I guess it probably will. I'm able to defend them to some degree, but there's not a single moment like that in Episodes I and II.

I know I should know better, but I'm still hopeful there will be one in III. For $10.50 I ought to hope for more than that, but if there's one thing Lucas has done completely successfully, it's engender a frightening level of loyalty and anticipation. Like I said, I'm hooked, and no matter how many times I'm disappointed I'll keep coming back for more. Hopefully this time will be different. And even if it's not, at least it will be the last!

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