RSS

Monthly Archives: May 2017

Movie of the Day: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981)

I guess my view of the prophecies of Michel de Nostradamus – the 16th century French prophet who is said to have written down accurate predictions of at least 2000 years of forthcoming human events – holds about as much weight for me as The Da Vinci Code.  There are a lot of holes in the Nostradamus’ predictions so I tend to chalk it up as nothing more than an interesting curiosity.

The people behind the documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow don’t see it that way.  Here is a movie that offers a tiny bit of biography about the supposed prophet, and then cobbles together footage from every source under the sun in an effort to prove his accuracy.  Did he have fore-knowledge of the future?  Did he, while sitting in his secluded attic room in the 16th century accurately predict The French Revolution? Napoleon? The American Revolution? The Civil War? Hitler? World War II? The Atomic Bomb? The Kennedy Assassination? The Moon Landing?  Is he also right in his prediction about World War III and the end of the world?  Well, I don’t happen to think so, but I am confused about whether the movie does.  It spends 90 minutes reiterating that Nostradamus wrote down 2000 years worth of prophecies that came true and then adds a tag at the end to tell us that the producers of this film are actually less convinced of his accuracy than I am. At least they’re honest.

Hosted by Orson Welles, who sits in his stuffy office behind a desk smoking a cigar, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow attempts to lay out all of the major turning points of history by way of Nostradamus’ writing.  Before diving head-long into his predictions, we learn that Nostradamus was a hard-working student who had ambitions to be a doctor, but after losing his family in the plague, turned his ambitions toward writing down his predictions in something called “quatrains’, and hid his verses in anagrams and secret code in an effort to avoid being prosecuted for witchcraft.  Early on, we learn, he kissed the robes of a young Franciscan friar who would someday be Pope Sixtus V. He predicted that a king would die in a jousting tournament by having his eye poked out.  Later he was invited to the home of a dignitary where he accurately predicted which pig they would be eating for dinner. Yeah . . . okay.

The historical predictions put forth by Nostradamus are interesting, but the methods in which the movie presents them are, in a word, baffling.  Nothing is off limits here.  There is footage of the Kennedy assassination, the holocaust, The Moon Landing, the revolution in Iran.  Then, for events where there is no footage, sometimes actors are used in recreations and other times we get footage from old movies like War and Peace.  Sprinkled into the mix also are old newsreels, short films, documentary footage, color illustrations and cheap special effects shots from old science fiction movies.

The only center of logic in this chaotic mess is a very brief interview with former astronaut Edgar Mitchell who argues that the future is nothing more than our summation of present events. I would have liked to have heard more from him and less from Jean Dixon, who appears absurdly satisfied that she predicted the deaths of both Jack and Bobby Kennedy.  That’s before Welles informs us that we can see Nostradamus’ accuracy if we simply keep one eye on the quatrains and the other on our daily newspaper. For me, that’s just too much work. I think I’ll just let the future surprise me.

The movie also insists over and over that Nostradamus laid out a historical time line that revealed three men who would try to take over the world – Anti-Christs he called them. The first was Napoleon, the second was Hitler and the third is said to be a future tyrant who will come from the Middle East. This man, it is said, will plunge the world into a catastrophic war that will last 4 and 20 years, whatever that means.

That prediction lays out the film’s final act in which Nostradamus apparently predicted that a Middle Eastern Warrior in a blue turban would start World War III at or about May of 1988.  That leads to an embarrassingly silly scene with cheap sets right out of “Battlestar Galactica”, with the governments of both The Middle East and The United States firing nukes at each other until civilization is obliterated.  After that, the movie helpfully reminds us that Nostradamus predicted a thousand years of peace before the world ends in the year 3797.  Yet, even with all of his predictions, Nostradamus forgot to mention exactly how the world would come to an end.  I guess he wanted to save that spoiler for us to discover.

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow is nothing more than a curiosity. Any attempt to take it seriously requires the kinds of fruitless insights than are often attached to things like The Da Vinci Code, Roswell or Bigfoot. I’m no skeptic but I had to smile at most of this. It is a professionally made film that probably takes its subject more seriously than it deserves. I find the predictions of Nostradamus to be a curious but not essential element to human history. He seemed to have a good track record even if he did predict that Ted Kennedy would become President of the United States in 1984. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Rango (2011)

Rango is a brilliant, insane act of genius. Here is an animated comedy that is outrageously funny, but also endearing, smart and strikingly original. It expands the art of animation by creating an entirely new world populated by well-defined characters and presents both with depth and detail and imagination. Its story lovingly borrows elements from great movies of the past, everything from Apocalypse Now to Chinatown to Stagecoach and A Fistful of Dollars, yet it has the crazy, madcap pace of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The story is wonderfully inspired. It involves the titular hero, a skinny, bug-eyed lizard who has spent most of his life alone playing in an aquarium until one day it falls out of a family car and crashes on the highway and he finds himself lost in the Nevada desert. He is Rango (with the voice of Johnny Depp), and through the winds of fate, he is blown into the tiny town of Dirt, a filthy burg populated by every western movie stereotype you can imagine, but played by a host of western varmints: turtles, ravens, prairie dogs, moles, rats, you name it. They are running out of water, which is kept stored in a 5 gallon water cooler jug. They need it for their very livelihood. Rango knows that Dirt has a problem and wants to be the guy that the townsfolk look up to even though their problems are much bigger than he initially realizes. His love interest, a rancher’s daughter named Beans (with the voice of Isla Fisher) is a little more intuitive than Rango and suspects that the water is being diverted and dumped into the desert.

The immediate threat to the town of dirt is the presence of a menacing hawk that flies overhead and threatens to eat the townsfolk for lunch. Rango – sort of by accident – kills the hawk and is degreed the town’s sheriff by Dirt’s Mayor, an aging turtle voiced by Ned Beatty. Excising the hawk, however, creates a larger problem. That comes in the (very impressive) form of a new villain named Big Snake Jake, voiced by Bill Nighy, who was afraid of the hawk but now has nothing to fear. He intimidates the population of Dirt with an underlying purpose that only gradually becomes clear. There is a lot going on in Rango, the plot is much larger and far more compelling than we are led to believe. In fact, the story, once it gets underway, is borrowed very wonderfully from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (the water part, not the incest). It took me a moment to realize that the character of The Mayor is actually designed to look and sound like John Huston’s Noah Cross and I smiled with great delight when he informs Rango about “The future, Mr. Rango. The future.”

The whole movie is like that. The more you know about movies and American myth, the deeper the movie’s roots go, and even if you don’t, the movie it still very entertaining. The story is full and generous It doesn’t telegraph it’s story in advance but reveals it gradually. At once it is a slapstick comedy, the next a wild western adventure and then a bizarre murder mystery. It creates an entire world based on western mythology and pays homage to great movies of the past without using pop culture references as a crutch.

The film is dazzling to look at. The texture of the western town has such depth and presence that you forget that all of this was manufactured by animators. There’s a great action sequence in the middle of the film in which the heroes are engaged in a gun battle int he middle of a canyon and you stop to remind yourself that this isn’t Monument Valley of all those John Wayne pictures.

The character designs are wonderful too, especially Rango, played with a sort-of Don Knotts flare right down to the Hawaiian shirt hanging from his bony frame. Johnny Depp provides the voice and it is really a good performance. Through his voice, he gives Rango as much personality and dimension as he did to Jack Sparrow or The Mad Hatter or Sweeney Todd. In fact all of the characters have a particular depth, they are all western movie types of all shapes and sizes, they are fun to watch and fun to listen to. I especially liked the presence and depth of Big Snake Jake, a rattlesnake who seems to have been inspired by Lee Van Cleef with his narrow eyes, his pencil-thin mustache and that bandolier strap wrapped around his limbless middle.

There is so much to Rango that I haven’t even touched on, I could go on and on about it. Here is a movie that has so many wonderful things in it, and such wonderful humor (There are many very big laughs here) just in the way the characters are presented and the way they talk to each other that you find yourself feeling that you feel that your second or third viewing will reveal things that you missed the first time around. I wish more animated films were this ambitious. Here is a movie so generous with its story, its visual texture and its characters that it is an example of what great animation can be.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Life, Above All (2010)

Oliver Schmitz’s Life, Above All is a very touching human drama. It is deeply effective, sad without being maudlin, heartbreaking without feeling phony, and hopeful for all the right reasons. It is a film from South Africa, about Africans, speaking Sotho (a bantu language spoken in South Africa) rather than simply having all the actors speak English. Most refreshingly, this is a film that focuses on women, African woman, not as women who stand behind men or behind White women. These African women are strong, well-drawn and, like the women of The Color Purple, are allowed to occupy the center of their own story.

Based on the award-winning book “Chanda’s Secret” by Allan Stratton, Life, Above All focuses on 12 year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), who is wise beyond her years and far more mature than the elders that surround her. She and her family live in the small community of Elandsdoorn, a South African village on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Life in the village is quiet, and peaceful despite the political unrest and guerrilla warfare just over the horizon. Chanda stands as the strong center of her family, which is coming apart under the weight of grief over the death of her younger sister. Chanda’s mother Lillian (Lerato Mvelase) slips into a deep depression and her stepfather Jonah (Aubrey Poolo) chooses to waste himself away in bars and whore houses. Therefore it is left to Chanda to take charge of her mother and two younger siblings.

Chanda’s problems begin when her mother becomes ill. The neighbors immediately assume that the illness is caused by AIDS and grow paranoid and suspicious. This child is caring for a woman who has developed a plague soon after her daughter has died and they think it will destroy them all (it never occurs to them that the sickness may have come from Jonah). A friendly neighbor called Auntie Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) tries to help by urging Lillian to leave. But Chanda is too caring and too stubborn to give in.

Chanda is what makes the film work. Played by first time actor Khmotso Manyaka, she is a force to be reckoned with. She is intelligent, undaunted and never stops asking questions. She has a view of the world that peers under the surface to see the truth that is being hidden. She is bold enough to ask tough questions and keep asking even when the adults would simply pat her on the head and send her in the other direction. There is a brilliant moment deep in the film when she takes her mother to a local doctor and focuses on his degrees hanging on the wall. Based on the framed documents – written in English, which the villagers cannot read – it is clear that this man isn’t a doctor, merely a man who sells herbal placebos.

Chanda is also willing to take chances. She refuses to move her mother out of the village, despite stern warning and is further bold enough to associate with a school friend who has run off to make money in prostitution and returns with AIDS. Chanda doesn’t turn her back on the girl but invites her into the home as a kind of safe haven.

What I like about Life Above All is that it raises a lot of difficult issues about fear and prejudice and does so through the eyes of a girl who is like no young person I have ever met. This isn’t a precocious kid but a wise young girl who will, when she grows up, become a great humanitarian, a politician, a doctor, or an activist.

My only reservation is that I am not sure I was completely sold on the ending in which Chanda is threatened by neighbors in the village who are angry over her decision to take people into her home who have AIDS. Their position is that having these people in their midst will curse the village and bring about their doom. The problem is that the movie allows the scene to develop into a passionate speech about tolerance, and the townspeople are sold on this speech. I don’t believe that such prejudice can be undone simply by a passionate speech. To one or two people, maybe, but not to a mob of thirty. Still, that limitation aside, this is a very good drama, tightly told and with characters that we come to know and care about.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Mom’s Night Out (2014)

There are no laughs in Moms’ Night Out.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  Maybe there’s a smile, but that’s not exactly high praise.  When you can say that about a comedy, it pretty much empties out the entire picture.  Here’s a movie in which the only comic highpoint is a shout-out to Pinterest – it does them no favors.

The directors here are The Erwin Brothers whose apparent goal is to bring the kind of Hangover-style antics to a Christian-based audience without all the immoral filth. It’s a nice gesture, but in restraining the comedy their movie comes off like a limp sitcom pilot – the kind that doesn’t get picked up. With this, and last year’s anti-abortion misfire October Baby, it is clear that the Erwin Brothers need to work on the filmmaking before they try to send a message.  This time they’ve made a low-impact comedy so generic that it might as well have come stamped with a barcode.

The story deals with three mothers whose mental states have reached a boiling point. Primary is Allyson (Sarah Drew from “Grey’s Anatomy”) a frustrated ball of neurosis who is surrounded by three kids that are driving her insane. It is clear that she needs some time to herself, but her moods are so animated and manic that a reasonable person might suggest a Zoloft. At her side is her loving, but immature husband Sean (Sean Astin) a well-meaning Joe whose obsession with video games is not helping his wife’s mental state.

Allyson is flanked by two BFF’s. There’s Izzy (Andrea Logan White), Allyson’s childhood friend whose husband Marco (Robert Amaya) is a wimp with a pathological fear of luchadores, bikers and his own children (that’s suppose to be funny). And there’s Sondra (Patricia Heaton), a good-hearted, pressed-and-polished pastor’s wife who is dealing with a budding teenage daughter who comes home with a revealing denim skirt that would embarrass Miley Cyrus.

The connective tissue of these women is that they’re being driven mad by their off-spring and by the grown children that they call husbands. They decide that they need a night off from Mommy-hood, which sounds reasonable except that the husbands promptly lose the children, leading to a long series of slapstick scenes that climax in an arrest at which time we get some come-to-Jesus emotional pep talk about how wonderful it is to be parent. The mother’s night out is simply one of those Murphy’s Law situations that starts with a snafu with the dinner reservations and ends with a police car chase down the interstate. It steals and pillages every Bad Night Out movie from The Blues Brothers to The Hangover to After Hours to Adventures in Babysitting to Date Night. Yet, this movie is a whimper in the company of those films. It tries nothing new and goes no place fast.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the comedy were based on well-written characters. All of the characters are written as caricatures. The women are shrewish nags who are never seen relating to their children – they’re more of an annoyance. The men are seen as irresponsible over-grown children who can’t take care of their off-spring for one night without a child being abandoned at a tattoo parlor. The message: mother’s stay home because your men are incompetent.

Even at a technical level, this movie flops over and dies. The cutesy-poo musical score twists and winds around the comic dialogue like a feux laugh-track before an emotional moment in which the emo-music twists even harder. We’re led by the ears to how we’re supposed to feel.

And yet, even that isn’t the worst thing about this movie. It was filmed last year in Birmingham, Alabama – my home – but it is only a backdrop. We see fly-overs that include glimpses of Vulcan, the Harbert Building, City Federal, Birmingham Southern College and various sites downtown. The car chase take place on 2nd Avenue South. Yet, no one ever mentions Birmingham or any of its landmarks. The city isn’t celebrated at all, nor is it ever mentioned by name. It might as well take place in generic town anywhere in the world. You might hope for some kind of loving tribute that does for Birmingham what Ferris Bueller’s Day Off did for Chicago. That movie, which is also about three friends who take some time off, was first and foremost about characters. It loved its characters, its dialogue and its city. Moms’ Night Out is a pitiful shadow of an idea. John Hughes, where are you when we need you?

 
 

Movie of the Day: Let’s Be Cops (2014)

Let’s Be Cops is a movie that flops over and dies before it even gets under way. The premise alone puts a nail in its coffin.  It’s about two born losers who acquire police uniforms and then discover that everyone mistakes them for the real thing – even other cops. From the get-go, I couldn’t clear the thought from my mind, that the film’s heroes are committing a crime that, I think, is a felony in L.A. Added to that, the movie came out at the same moment that the Michael Brown shooting was drawing protests. Bad timing is one thing, bad taste is something else.  The studio had time to re-schedule, just saying.

The idiots involved are Ryan (Jake Johnson) and Justin (Damon Wayans, Jr.), who have nothing in common but are best buddies because the plot requires it. They are gum on the shoe of life, a minor indifference to bullies, thugs, mobsters, creeps and hot women which, according to this movie, makes up most of civilization.

Justin works at a video game company and I’m not exactly sure what Ryan does. There’s a scene where he walks onto a field and starts coaching kids, but it is soon revealed that he’s actually not suppose to be there – that’s actually a joke. Funny? No. Creepy? You bet.

The plot gets going because Justin is in possession of two police uniforms as part of his presentation for a new game about cops, and Ryan gets the idea of wearing them to their college reunion, which they thought would be a costume party but turns out to be a masquerade ball. Naturally, everyone is intimidated by the uniforms, and Ryan gets the idea to keep up the charade. Ryan buys a police car off Ebay.  I checked.  You can do that.  The one that I saw was listed at about $17,000.  Where this guys would get the money to just buy a car off Ebay is a question I am apparently not suppose to ask.  Why anyone is allowed to buy a police car off Ebay is a question that’s been rolling around in my brain for days.  What happened to this country?

What follows is a long, tasteless and unfunny series of gags in which Ryan and Justin – wearing badges – pull over drunks, crash sorority houses, and pose as strippers. Meanwhile they get in trouble with local mobsters and dodge legit cops who must be the most oblivious people on the face of the earth. No one ever check badge number or calls them before a superior.

Meanwhile the chemistry between Justin and Ryan remains at about a 0.1. The rhythm of these guys is that Ryan get excited about doing cop stuff and Justin tells him no but goes along anyway – lather, rinse, repeat. And that’s the whole movie, just repetition. There’s some business about a hard core mobster (James D’Arcy) who wants these guys dead, but you don’t care about plot, do you?

All of this wouldn’t bother me if the movie were funny, but it’s not. All I kept thinking was that these guys are committing a felony that should end with the two of them behind bars. Naturally, the movie ends with an action climax followed by a happy ending, at least for them. Me? I’m out 104 minutes of my life. Where’s my justice? There oughta be a law.

 
 

Movie of the Day: Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie (2012)

I have to admit that ever since news of his death from lung cancer in 2001, I hadn’t given much thought to Morton Downey, Jr. Not to seem unkind, but truthfully, there wasn’t much to think about. Downey’s legacy in television history is so forgettable that the subsequent generation has no idea who he was. If you’ve ever seen “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” you probably have an idea why.

For 20 months from 1987 to 1989, Downey ran a self-titled TV talk show that was part-riot, part-circus, a little bit Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and a dash of Michael Moore. What would come of his show would be an example, not for others to follow, but for others to correct upon. Downey’s show was a loud, obnoxious and fairly monotonous platform of screaming and bullying, the format of which (he said) was to give a voice to the silent majority.  Actually, it was a textbook case of ratings at any cost – Downey wasn’t shy about this.  It was a platform for cheer-leading sensationalistic bad behavior. His audience, comprised mostly of young college kids, behaved as if they were attending a hockey game.  Downey screamed in the faces of every kind of guest from vegans to the gun nuts to the KKK and even celebrity guests like Ron Paul and Alan Dershowitz. Famously, he clashed with Al Sharpton over the Tawana Brawley incident, in which the young woman falsely claimed that she was raped left for dead by six white men and then covered in hate slogans and feces.  The story would be exposed as a fraud, and it would be the first of several incidents that would bring the show to a sudden stop.

The new documentary “Évocateur: The Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” examines Downey’s brief rise and quick demise from television. This is a professionally-made, talking-head documentary that features interviews with former colleagues, family and friends who try to help us get inside Downey’s head to figure out what drew him to become the screaming meemie of late-night television and what personal demons drew him to television and what led to his eventual downfall.

We learn that he was a bitter man, the son of a celebrated Irish Tenor (whom his son loathed) who was a friend and neighbor of the Kennedys. The junior Downey grew up in the shadow of his old man, even attempting to launch a singing career of his own. His singing voice was competent but unremarkable. His looks weren’t exactly top drawer either. He bore a strange resemblance to Don Knotts. Despite his familial legacy, Downey would become a walking irony. He would make his living destroying his voice, by screaming on television and chain-smoking four packs a day.

Downey would prop himself up as the voice of the angry right-wing Republican, sort of an Archie Bunker with a lectern – even down to the smoking habit and the white collared shirts. His show wasn’t exactly insightful. Fellow talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael remarks that his show was “that prurient excitement of not-nice people saying not-nice things.” His show would turn talk shows on their heads. The common thread of talk shows in the mid-80s was the polite, conversational style of Phil Donahue, Merv Griffin and a newly minted Chicago-based neophyte named Oprah Winfrey.

The difference between Downey and his contemporaries (even Springer) is that they stayed off-stage, letting the audience run the circus. The mistake was that Downey tried to play the role of ringmaster, lion-tamer and lion, and so the show had nowhere to go. His singular quest was ratings and he got them, until the television audience grew tired of the act. The movie doesn’t shy away from the facts of why the show – and Downey’s career – came to an bitter end.

The movie finds some measure of pity for Downey, but it never backs down from the fact that he was the propagator of his own downfall, particularly with the Tawana Brawly incident. After the demise of his show, Downey would try to make headlines
by falsely claiming to have been beaten up by skinheads in an airport men’s room. After that, nothing he could do would peak anyone’s interest, not even an attempt to become the damaged voice of anti-smoking when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.  When he died in 2001, the public reaction was barely a whimper.  The result of this documentary is the pitiful, but not unmoving, story of a man who built his house on sand and got caught in his own trap.

 
 

Hokey Religions, Ancient Weapons: Star Wars turns 40

If my passion for movies were a galaxy then Star Wars would most certainly be its brightest star.  George Lucas’ seminal masterwork landed on America forty years ago today and its impact has never left us.  It has certainly never left the panoply of my life.  It’s still there in much the same way that it was when I first saw it.  It’s been a constant companion for these four decades – heck it was at my wedding!

At the time of its release, Star Wars was easy to write off, a kiddie matinee piece with a silly plot and lots of action, but its burst of creative thinking made it something more.  The movie sent such shockwaves through the culture that four decades later we still haven’t quite gotten over it – we can feel its effects.  And for one tiny five year-old living out there on the western arm of Arkansas, the movie bred a grand and glorious love affair with the movies that continues to this very day.

Star Wars is an experience, something rare, something special.  As Roger Ebert noted, it is not just a movie but a place in the mind.  Forty years later it has risen above being just a movie and has become part of our cultural heritage.  It is grand mythology, the inheritance of those of us lucky enough to have spent our formative years as tenants of the last third of the twentieth century.  Certainly, it has become fashionable to make fun of it, but to dismiss it is overlook its impact.  Take a look around you, at the movies you’ve been watching for the last three decades; at the video games; at the high tech; look at the television you’ve been watching.  It all owes something to Star Wars.

Like all great movies, Star Wars was a product of creative thinking and good timing – and, as we know, in show business timing is everything.  The late seventies were a strange time for creativity in Hollywood.  The studio system that had given birth to Hollywood in the early part of the century had, by the late 60s, broken down giving rise to a vast number of creative filmmakers who would usher in the age of the auteur, wherein the director was placed on a pedestal as the creative engine that drove their vision to greatness.  You might have heard of some of these young bucks: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Woody Allen, John Cassavetes and, yes, even George Lucas.

The common thread running through all of these creative minds was the desire to make their own films without the hands of a thousand money-minded studio executives putting their hands in the creative soup.  Often that meant auteur directors butting heads with the money men.  Star Wars was no different.  During production no one had any faith in what executives at 20th Century Fox were calling “that science movie.”  Production was hit with so many problems that the studio put up a tax shelter and was already making deals to sell the film to television.  The distributor couldn’t get theaters to buy the film unless they sold it as a package deal with a movie that they thought was destined to be a blockbuster – The Other Side of Midnight – Seen it?  Me neither.

But then the public got a look at “that science movie” and beyond all expectations Star Wars  shocked the world, becoming a $700 million worldwide phenomenon.  No one had ever seen anything like it before.  It was the containment of all the story elements that we’d been familiar with from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Saturday serials, World War II movies and the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrapped up in a package that infused the hip-cool sarcastic tone of the times.  Star Wars was bred from Lucas’ inability to obtain the rights to Flash Gordon.  It forced him to turn in a different direction and dive into his talent for what we now refer to as “universe building.”   The movie pulled us away from our own experience and took us to a new place while still holding on to the cinematic elements that we were familiar with.

One of the shockwaves that Star Wars sent through the culture was a reassessment of what the public wanted to see.  At this moment many of the most successful films were personal dramas – Rocky, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, The Last Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, American Graffiti.  Up to this point in the decade, the most important genre pieces had been The Exorcist and Jaws.  Yet, science fiction seemed to flounder.  Wallowing as a nameless cinematic genre that blossomed in the wake of World War II, the science fiction genre had an uneasy time getting on its feet.  It flourished in books where the mind could regender the words into images, but on screen it was held back by the limits of visual effects and un-adventurous storytelling

Most sci-fi films were cheap knock-offs made for the drive-in crowds but were only occasionally about anything important.  Those that come to mind were The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Most sci-fi movies seemed bound to earth-born problems and warned us about the fate of our world.  Star Wars was different.  It pulled away from our world and took us to a new place, a different place where war was still prevalent but it was a universe that felt as lived-in as our own.  Here, you could walk through a busy small town and see aliens of every size and shape but it was no big deal.  They were on their way somewhere and so were you.  You could be best buddies with a six foot dog whose only vocabulary was made up of grunts and howls.  You could go out to the edge of your property and buy a couple of robots to help with the chores.  And you could jump aboard a spaceship and pop over to the next planet to smuggle some spice or maybe deliver precious cargo – for a price, of course.  There were politics here, broken down by an evil entity sweeping away the peacemakers and keeping factions in line by building a weapon capable of rendering a single planet to dust.

Lucas offers a story that we can easily get comfortable with. He offers character types and gives them bold personalities: The callow youth, the hot-shot, the wise old wizard, the beautiful princess (needing to be rescued, of course) and the loyal support of the muscle and the bickering comic relief. He offers a villainous enterprise not a million miles removed from the Nazi regime.  He places his heroes in the path of overwhelming odds so that tiniest dot in the universe ends up making massive a dent in the villain’s evil plan.

What Lucas had that other filmmakers in this genre did not was an eye for detail, and detail is key.  It might have been easy to hammer together a series of cardboard sets and have actors stand in front of them but it was something else to go to the trouble to create a desert town populated by humans, aliens, creatures and droids packed into the background so that entire frame was populated.  Not every alien was trying to eat your brain, most were just trying to eek out a living.

Lucas’ team also developed what has been called the “used future”, realizing that automobiles in his fantasy world should look used and rusted and aged, not sleek and looking as it if were created before the camera was turned on.  You could see the logic of how everything worked – you could see bolts and screws, and also grime.  Look at Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder which has a thick coat of rust and dirt and a paint job that suggests it has spent it’s entire existence sitting in the hot sun.  Also note Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, a rusty hulk that seems hammered together from spare parts (the best in-joke is that the heroes keep noting how shoddy it looks even as it is constantly saving their butts).  The villain is a hulking figure in a black mask who can choke his underlings without even touching them – but we (correctly) sense that the real measure of his strength is being held back.

Star Wars rides familiar rails only to the degree that we are familiar with its good vs. evil elements.  I mentioned that this was the right movie for the right time and its rebellious spirit was a model for the mid-seventies.  America, just out of the cultural rebellion of the 1960 had garnered a dismissiveness of authority at large.  In the case of this movie, it presents that element only to the degree that organized authority has ballooned into a Nazi-style regime – right down to the uniforms.  The order, the proclamations, and the plans can be seen as parallel to Hitler’s regime, right up to their development of a devastating weapon capable of excising whole civilizations at will.

Yet, there is another element of the anti-authority that Star Wars is famous for, and that’s it’s upending of Hollywood tradition.  Lucas broke the rules by eliminating the opening credits (he paid a fine and then promptly dropped out of The Director’s Guild).  The story took place in the past but looks like the future.  He starts in the middle of the series progresses his saga forward then turns back and tells the preceding story up to the point where this film begins.

By starting in the middle he develops a story that already has a rich history with characters that are fleshed out to the point that we are always interested in their relationships.  He develops a warrior spirit that is passed on from one generation to the next, from an old wizard Ben Kenobi, who is the keeper of a dying zen religion – The Force – that favors patience and a clear-head over mindless, random violence.  He imparts it upon the young Luke Skywalker, a callow youth hungry for adventure that we only slowly understand is the one who will bring about the end of the Nazi-like Galactic Empire.  The friends he takes along on his journey start as bold character types (a hotshot loner, a loyal dog-like companion, a feisty revolutionary and a pair of Laurel and Hardy-style bickering robots) but eventually their personality become more refined and we care about their journey.  Lucas was generous in these details.

He was also generous in the landscapes that allow us to feel that we are in a place, and not on a set.  We aren’t on a transplanted Earth, but on a terrain very far from anything we know – yet it looks familiar.  Everyone is the movie works, everyone has to make money.  Everyone has to survive.  The Jawas survive by selling droids.  The Farmers survive by bringing a harvest (of water, I suppose).  The smugglers survive by moving cargo from one place to another.  Even the Sand People survive by stealing and scavenging.  There are tiny elements too: the desert rats, the giant lizards that function like horses, the tiny mouse droids and even a bulbous robot whose only apparent function is to deliver a truth drug.  They all function to build a world that feels alive and Lucas’ generosity is even more potent when you realize that none of this was completely necessary.  The rebel spirit of Lucas’ creativity is what set it apart.

And YET, even with that rebel spirit, one of the most unfortunate legacies left behind by Star Wars is that it would bring an end to the rebel spirit of American filmmaking.  It’s success would help to usher an end to the era of personal filmmaking and bring back the studio-driven projects that everyone thought had gone away.  It brought about a blockbuster mentality that we are still living through.  In many ways, Hollywood has been trying to recapture the success of Star Wars ever since – even Lucas himself failed to recapture it.

Yet, it set set in place something is both a blessing and a curse, the culture’s dependency on forming an identity based around a product (and before you say anything, I’m guilty of this too).  Whether it be Star Wars or Star Trek or Pokemon or video games or even SpongeBob, we have bred a culture that is dependent on it’s personal interests as identity.  Is it a bad thing?  I don’t know, but it seems to have bred from the phenomenon wrought by Star Wars.

In her book “The Princess Diarist,” Carrie Fisher has possibly the best analysis of the film’s impact: “Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.”

Of course, you can’t blame the movie for its impact.  It left a feeling in much of the culture to stay connected to it.  Certainly, I stayed connected to it.  When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things . . . except Star WarsLike the film industry itself, I have been looking to recapture that experience again.  Whenever I step into a movie theater, even faced with an impending cinematic disaster, some small piece of my mind hopes that maybe this will be the moment when I discover a film that will have the same impact on me.

Alas, Star Wars was a once in a lifetime experience that has colonized my imagination and poured off the screen in a way that no film experience ever has.  That’s why I come back to it time and again.  It’s the brightest star in my cinematic galaxy and it’s impact will be with me, always.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on 05/25/2017 in Blog