The Shining

the_shining_2If you ever find yourself stuck at home after a snowstorm, browsing through your streaming movie device, wondering what is exactly the right movie to watch, this is it.

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is about a man (Jack Nicholson) who’s hired to be the winter caretaker for an old hotel. He moves in with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his son just as all the other hotel employees are leaving for the winter. The three settle into their routines; the mom doing chores, the kid riding his Big Wheel around the empty hallways, and the dad trying to write a book. Then a snowstorm cuts off the hotel from the rest of the world, and things get weird.

Well, actually things had been getting weird from the first scene. It seems the previous winter caretaker went crazy and murdered his family. This was blamed on the effects of isolation. When the mom tells the kid they’re going to move into a hotel, the kid has bloody visions of the future. He says that an invisible little boy talks to him and shows him these images. Is that just his way of processing his precognitive powers? Or is he actually communicating with some other person who has future knowledge? Perhaps a future version of himself?

Also, was Jack crazy from the start or did he get possessed by the evil hotel ghosts? Stephen King (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) famously hated Kubrick’s version because it implied that Jack was on the cusp of a psychotic break before they ever got to the hotel. Apparently in the book, Jack is a decidedly good man who saves the day in the end by committing suicide.

But in the film, none of these questions are completely answered. The fact that many details are left unexplained gives the movie a greater sense of mystery. You watch it and you find yourself wondering, unsure. That’s how you should feel when you watch a horror movie. We know just enough to follow the story, i.e. over the course of their stay in the hotel, Jack becomes more and more unhinged and then tries to kill his family. That’s all we need.

In the place of clearly defined story details, we have a beautiful and eerie location, some truly haunting images, and three great performances from the lead actors. Nicholson is perfect in one of his most Jack-Nicholsony roles. (I especially like the scene where Shelley Duvall interrupts him while he’s “working.”) The son (Danny Lloyd) is creepily authentic as the Weird Kid who talks to himself and scares his therapist. I’ve heard criticisms of Shelley Duvall in this movie, but I think she is perfect too. The stilted, awkward way she delivers her lines make sense for her character; she’s playing the role of the devoted wife and mother but she’s actually barely repressing her fear of both her abusive husband and her seemingly deranged son. When Jack finally snaps, she does too, and all the terror she’s been holding back comes flooding out.

Let’s talk about the ending. Jack chases his son into a hedge maze where the boy outsmarts him and escapes, leaving his father trapped, where he freezes to death. This is a clear resolution to the overall story. There is a stinger at the end though. The final shot is a closeup of a photograph that shows Jack at a party at the hotel in 1921. Wtf is that supposed to mean? In his 2006 essay on “The Shining” Roger Ebert speculated that Jack may have been “absorbed into the past.” Sure? That’s as good a theory as any. But the meaning of that photo, like the other unexplained details, isn’t critical to understanding the plot. This is in contrast to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in which the whole ending is so vague that it doesn’t provide a resolution to the story. Don’t get me wrong, I love “2001” but it’s more of a work of art than a story.

With “The Shining” Kubrick gives you just enough details to craft a coherent plot, but leaves as many mysteries as possible, allowing that feeling of uncertainty and dread to build up inside you as  you watch it. A real snowstorm doesn’t hurt either.*


*A movie theater is also a nice place to see this film. “The Shining” is playing at IFC Center Jan. 22-23 and at Nitehawk Cinema Feb. 26-27. All screenings are at midnight (my favorite).

 

The Empire Strikes Back

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It’s December 31st, 2015, and by now everyone in the galaxy has seen “The Force Awakens.” I thought this would be a good time to revisit “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), aka the first sequel to “Star Wars” (1977). “Empire” is most notable for its originality – a rare quality in a sequel – and for taking some major risks.

Here’s where Lucas’s independence worked in his favor. If Disney had owned Lucasfilm back then, “Empire” might have mirrored “Star Wars” more closely. It might have been about the Rebels discovering a second Death Star under construction and Yoda would have been played by an elderly human who, like Obi-Wan, would have accompanied the heroes on their mission and dispensed occasional wisdom/Force training. (And incidentally, it probably would have been called “Star Wars 2.”)

Instead, the heroes were split up; Han and Leia were pursued by an obsessed Darth Vader and Luke traveled to a swamp for long, slow scenes in which a puppet taught him about the mystical workings of the universe. And the movie ends with one hero captured and another dismembered. This was the sequel to the biggest blockbuster of all time.

But it worked beautifully. It gave fans what they wanted, i.e. the characters they loved, but it scattered them throughout these worlds and situations we never would have imagined.

If you’re sensing a veiled criticism of “The Force Awakens,” you’re not far off. I loved a lot of choices that J.J. Abrams made, especially the return to practical effects and real sets. Story-wise they played it safe and basically mirrored the plot of “Star Wars” but, to be fair, the film had the weighty task of establishing a lot of new characters and conflicts. Its main objective was to make us care about the new cast of characters, and in this “The Force Awakens” succeeded where “The Phantom Menace” (1999) failed miserably. Rey, Poe, Kylo, and BB-8 all have their admirers now. I don’t recall legions of fans being won over by Qui-Gon, Amidala, and that CGI rabbit who shall not be named. So, much like “Star Wars,” “The Force Awakens” provided some fun visuals and introduced a host of heroes and villains that fans loved; mission accomplished. Some laziness in the plot can be forgiven. (This time.)

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Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”

And while we’re on the subject of risk taking, I want to point out again that Yoda was played by a puppet. This was unprecedented. While the Muppets were hugely popular by 1980, and performed alongside humans regularly, there was never any attempt to make them lifelike. The conceit in the Muppet universe is that these characters are just accepted as normal people even though they look like crazy puppets. Yoda, on the other hand (*wink*), was meant to be taken seriously as a living, breathing creature. The fact that they even tried this is commendable, but his enormous success as a character is astonishing.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is well regarded as one of the best sequels of all time. It reunited the characters from the first movie and tossed them into new territory. It introduced new characters that would come to be beloved. Most importantly, it took some major risks. Let’s just say, Episode VIII has a lot to live up to.

 

The AristoCats

aristocats 1

I recently watched Disney’s twentieth animated feature film “The AristoCats” (1970) and, strangely, I had a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. I hadn’t seen it in at least twenty years and a couple things stuck out to me right away: 1) the unpolished, I daresay sloppy, animation style, and 2) the way it wasted all of the dramatic and comedic possibilities of its premise.

For those who aren’t familiar, “The AristoCats” is about an elegant Parisian house cat (Duchess) and her three pampered kittens who get catnapped by an evil butler and deposited in the French countryside where they meet an alley cat (Thomas) who helps them find their way back to Paris. You can imagine the conflict already between a snobbish Duchess and a streetwise Thomas. Unfortunately for the story, Duchess is not a snob. She’s not bothered by meeting an alley cat. She not even really bothered by their predicament. It’s as if the writers were more interested in making Duchess likable, and making the story seem safe and happy, than in creating memorable characters with dramatic conflict.

The story could have played out like “It Happened One Night” with cats. In that movie, the rich, spoiled brat has to make her way to New York City without being caught by the agents of her wealthy father. She lacks all common sense and would either be captured or starved to death if not for the aid of the street-savvy newspaperman, whom she, of course, initially detests. Imagine the relationship between Duchess and Thomas starting out like this:

  • When they meet, Duchess is disgusted by Thomas’s smelly fur and coarse behavior. She insults him and he leaves after getting in a few insults of his own.
  • The kittens get in some kind of danger, Duchess calls for help, and Thomas returns, saving the kittens. Duchess realizes she needs help if they’re going to get home safe.
  • She tries to hire him as a guide, promising him, say, a lifetime supply of milk when they reach their home in Paris. Thomas is re-offended, tells her she could have just asked for help (this is straight out of “It Happened One Night”), but he’s hungry enough to accept the terms.
  • Now you have a slob and a snob, forced by circumstances to be together. This establishes a conflict, a potential for character growth, and is a natural set-up for a comedic love story.
It_Happened_One_Night

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, “It Happened One Night” (1934)

Giving the main characters some personality flaws also makes it easier to laugh at them. In the actual film, Duchess and Thomas are blandly likable and unfunny. If she were a snob, then it would be humorous to see how she would react to, say, falling into a muddy lake, having a flea jump on her, or having to sleep on the ground. And you can imagine a running joke about Thomas’s aroma, and how the kittens, especially the imperious Marie, might react to it. I’m imagining a remake with the youngest kitten, Berlioz, voiced by Anthony Quintal, giving Thomas tips on his appearance. But since the characters are lacking, the humor in the film has to come from other sources, like a dog biting a man on the butt.

The forgettable story and characters could have been mitigated by some beautiful animation that captured the elegance of Paris and the rustic beauty of the countryside. Sadly, the animation in “The AristoCats” is messy. It needs to be put in context though. We have to go back to 1959 when Disney released “Sleeping Beauty.” When you watch “Sleeping Beauty” you notice how crisp and sharp it looks. It resembles contemporary animation much more than the Disney features that followed it in the next two decades. This clean look is achieved by taking the animator’s rough sketches and painstakingly tracing them onto new sheets of paper, minus all of the animator’s stray marks. Those pages were then overlaid with animation cels and another artist would trace the cleaned-up drawings onto the cel using ink.

That attention to detail was tremendously expensive though. In the 1960s and 70s, Disney learned it could save time and money by using some technical trickery (xerography) to transfer the animators’ rough sketches directly onto animation cels. While this innovation saved the Disney animation studio (it likely would have been shut down otherwise), the resulting animation is riddled with stray marks and fuzzy edges. It looks unfinished. And cheap.

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Some say this is intentional, that it reflects the flazéda attitude of the 60s and 70s, as well as the thematic material in Disney’s films of that era. This is not a bad argument. Consider “The Sword in the Stone” (1963). It shares the Medieval setting of “Sleeping Beauty,” but their worlds are seen from starkly different perspectives. “Sleeping Beauty” tells the story of a beautiful princess and a handsome prince whose perfect lives are upheaved by an evil fairy. The crisp and clean look of the film emphasizes the perfection of the characters and their kingdom. “The Sword in the Stone” is about an awkward orphan boy, nicknamed Wart, who thinks his only talent is for screwing things up until he meets a wizard who teaches him to see his own value. Wart’s world isn’t perfect, and neither is he, and the rougher animation style seems to fit his hardscrabble existence.

I’d also agree that the xerographed animation could be appropriate in films like “The Jungle Book” (1967) and “Robin Hood” (1973), which are both essentially about a bunch of hippies who live in the wilderness. A rough and scrappy visual style is appropriate for their stories too.

Now consider “The AristoCats.” Here, the rough, and at times downright sloppy, xerographed animation doesn’t fit so well. The whole point is that these characters are aristocrats who live a perfect, glamorous life. For Pete’s sake, Maurice Chevalier was hauled out of retirement to sing their theme song. Their home in Paris and all the characters there should look every bit as crisp and clean as Sleeping Beauty’s castle, establishing a contrast between the beautiful world they come from and the harsh reality they’re exiled to.

Instead, the unfinished animation, with its errant marks and scribbled lines, makes all the characters look dirty and scruffy. If the film were called “The AlleyCats” and focused on Thomas and his gang, instead of Duchess and her kittens, then the animation style might work. But as it is, it makes you question not only the level of care put into this film, but whether the xerography in past films was truly intentional or just a lazy shortcut.

So, here is a film with a great premise that was never realized to its full potential, dramatically or artistically. Since everything in the world is getting remade and rebooted, I suggest upgrading “The AristoCats” since it’s one that could actually benefit from a retelling.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Special Edition)

Close-Encounters-of-the-Third-Kind

Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) is possibly the “Spielbergiest” of all the titles in the exalted director’s filmography. It tells the story of several people who experience strange encounters and then set out on a quest to discover the truth about them. But what is it exactly that makes one film Spielbergier than another? Let’s consider this…

1. Fantasy/Sci-Fi Element
While Spielberg has always had a love for historical dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln”), the name Spielberg still conjures images of giant sharks, alien visitors, dinosaurs, and mystical artifacts. I submit that a film with a fantasy or science fiction story is Spielbergier than one without, and “Close Encounters,” with its alien spaceship mystery, clearly qualifies.

2. Strong, Believable Characters
A Spielbergy story is propelled by, and elevated by, the characters. They feel real and relatable, and we don’t find ourselves waiting around for the next special effects sequence. The performances in “Close Encounters,” particularly by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, feel believable and naturalistic, and their characters are every bit as compelling as the effects.

3. Children in Danger
Spielberg regularly puts children directly in the path of whatever malevolent force is at work in his movies, be it the shark in “Jaws,” the creepy government agents in “E.T.,” or the dinosaurs of the “Jurassic Park” films. “Close Encounters” is no exception, featuring a toddler who is ripped from his mother’s desperate grasp and whisked away in a UFO.

4. Oohs and Ahhs
The quintessential Spielberg shot is “People Looking.” You know the one. The characters are frozen in awe. They stare at something amazing. The camera is low and either pulls in closer or pans from one person to the next. And there’s always an underlying tension; Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) summed this up perfectly in Spielberg’s “The Lost World” (1997): “Yeah, ‘Ooh, ahh!’ That’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.”

close encounters people looking

People Looking

By the end of “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ motivations are still unclear. The Encounter is filled with both awe and tension. Would the aliens extend a hand in friendship or the business end of a death ray?

5. A Personal Connection
Perhaps the main reason “Close Encounters” feels so Spielbergy is the director’s long personal connection to the subject matter. Spielberg traces the origins of the story to his childhood when he viewed a meteor shower with his dad. Later, at age 17, he made a full length film about alien encounters, from which he recreated several sequences, and even specific shots, for “Close Encounters.”

The result is an incredibly rich film that connected with audiences despite being released in the wake of the first “Star Wars” craze. It is essential viewing for fans of science fiction, Spielberg, or generally any human who enjoys motion pictures.

Surprisingly, Spielberg was never quite satisfied with “Close Encounters.” His editing process had been cut short by Columbia Pictures when, on the brink of financial ruin and in desperate need of a hit, the studio insisted on rushing his alien movie to theaters in time for Christmas ’77. The move saved the studio, but Spielberg was left unhappy.

Enter the 1980 Special Edition. This redo was the result of a compromise between the studio and the director. Spielberg would get to tinker with the edit, adding a scene here and trimming a scene there, producing a cut that he was satisfied with. In return, he would create an all-new sequence for the ending, depicting the inside of the alien mothership, which the studio could tease in the marketing campaign for the film’s reissue (see the Special Edition trailer below). Spielberg later admitted this was a mistake, that it ruined some of the mystique of the aliens, and he removed the offending sequence from the third and final official version in 1998.

Thus, the 1980 Special Edition is widely regarded as the lousiest of the three extant versions, but aside from the superfluous ending, the other changes actually improved the pacing and character development, and in a film packed with memorable images, the Special Edition included a new one: the discovery of the cargo vessel in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

Whether you prefer the Theatrical Version, the Special Edition, or the Collector’s Edition is a matter of taste, but they are really only minor variations. The core of the “Close Encounters” story remains the same in all of them. You identify with the characters, you marvel at the aliens. As you watch, you become frozen. Your eyes are wide and your mouth is slightly agape. Perhaps more than with any of his other films, you feel the full impact of the Spielberg touch, which transforms his audience into his favorite shot.

NYC Film Guide: March 2015 (Part 2)

more snow 😐

The snow has returned to NYC and I’m back with the second half of Things to See in March. Again, check out the Film Guide for a full list of old movies playing in NYC, but here are some more highlights…

The most important film screening this month is obviously “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990) at my beloved Nitehawk Cinema. It’s part of their “Lil’ Terrors” series, which also includes “Ghoulies” (1984) and “Critters” (1986).

“Gremlins 2” was a long time coming. Its predecessor was released to enormous success, but director Joe Dante apparently had no interest in making a sequel. After six years of cajoling from Warner Bros, and a promise that he could do whatever crazy thing he wanted, he finally relented.

The end product certainly has the feeling of a film untouched by nervous studio executive hands. One doubts that the gremlins’ Busby Berkeley production number would have even been filmed if the studio had had any say. The unhinged madness is what makes this movie so special though.

That, and it features one of the best puppets ever built for the movies. I mean it. Any list of great puppets is incomplete without the Brain Gremlin.

The Brain Gremlin, "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990)

The Brain Gremlin, “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” (1990)

On the surface he looks like any other of his kin, but both in the story and as a puppet, he has one major difference: his ability to speak intelligently. The next time you see this movie, and by all means go to the midnight screening at the Nitehawk, pay attention to his lip articulation. This puppet’s mouth achieves two things that lesser puppets often struggle with: variety of movement and speed. That is, he can move his lips and mouth in a seemingly endless combination of ways, much like a human mouth, and he can do so very quickly, which is crucial to realizing an intelligent, verbose character.

The result is a puppet that delivers a believable performance. I would argue it does so even better than a modern CGI character could because it has the added benefit of being on set, of interacting with the environment and the actors. Its physical reality enhances its believability. That’s not to say all puppets outperform CGI characters, but this one is sophisticated enough to do so.

This month you can see another classic sequel of the early 90s, “Batman Returns” (1992), playing at IFC Center. What a different world were the nineteen-nineties, when this was considered mainstream summer blockbuster superhero fare. It now seems more closely related to the Batman TV show from the 60s than to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Director Tim Burton delivered the humor and campiness from the 60s but painted them with darker tones. The result is a Batman movie that captures the moodiness of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City, but is still a fun adventure instead of a loud, depressing ordeal.

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Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, “Batman Returns” (1992)

My next three picks are all fun adventures too, so maybe I’m biased.

Sundays mornings at Film Forum always have a touch of whimsy, thanks to Film Forum Jr., their ongoing series of kid-friendly screenings. But don’t expect insipid saccharine “kid movies.” This series is for budding film lovers, not easily traumatized crybabies or their overly protective parents. Last year I saw “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) here. Sure, an Indiana Jones adventure seems appropriate for little kids, but this is the one where God melted those Nazis’ faces.

Formerly at Film Forum Jr.

Formerly at Film Forum Jr.

This month at Film Forum Jr., little cinephiles will be treated to two fine examples of screenplay construction. Foremost is a screening of Robert Zemeckis’s “Back to the Future” (1985). They may be a little weirded out by Lea Thompson accidentally trying to have sex with her son, but they’ll get over it. From its novel premise to classic characters and brisk pacing, this screenplay, by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, earned its place in many a Screenwriting 101 course.

“Chicken Run” (2000) is also playing at Film Forum Jr. this month. A more traditional kids movie in the sense that it’s animated, but one of the first things that happens is the (offscreen) beheading of a minor character. This isn’t notable for its gruesomeness; it provides a real sense of peril and a strong motivation for the main character. And a motivated main character, even if she’s a chicken, is the foundation of a strong screenplay.

Michael J. Fox, "Back to the Future" (1985)

Michael J. Fox, “Back to the Future” (1985)

And speaking of strongly motivated characters in peril, we trek to Queens for one of my favorite Hitchcock films, “North by Northwest” (1959) at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s screening in their series Required Viewing: Mad Men‘s Movie Influences, and the lineage connecting Cary Grant’s suave ad man to John Hamm’s is clear. They’re in the same profession at the same time, both models of coolness under pressure, both love drinking in the daytime, and they’re both ensnared in webs of mistaken, or stolen, identity.

The surface differences between the two men illustrate the different tones of Mad Men and “North by Northwest.” Where Don Draper is severe and broody, Roger Thornhill is quippy and sarcastic. That’s because Hitchcock wasn’t making a serious drama. Although considered one of the greatest directors of all time, he never aimed to make “important” movies. He wanted to entertain. “North by Northwest” is funny, exciting, and sexy – everything you want from a night at the movies.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, "North by Northwest (1959)

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, “North by Northwest (1959)

I always leave “North by Northwest” wanting to take a cross-country train ride and meet a mysterious blond while sipping martinis in the dining car. Then I remember that train rides are dull and the dining cars only serve food wrapped in plastic.

Ah, the magic of the movies.

NYC Film Guide: March 2015 (Part 1)

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Current mood

When I first moved to New York from California, I looked forward to March as the official end of winter. This is a trap. As all seasoned northeasterners know, spring only technically begins in March. Cold weather will linger for a couple more months yet, and March is arguably the worst because by this point your patience for snow and ice has worn thin.

On the upside, it gives you a good excuse to shelter inside a movie theater. Below are some highlights of things to see in March, and check out my Film Guide for a full calendar of upcoming revival screenings.

First stop: BAM’s ongoing series “Black & White ‘Scope: American Cinema.” From their website:

Behold some of the most stunningly photographed films of all time. In the late 1950s, sumptuous black and white met CinemaScope. The result was a cinematic era that married the dramatic chiaroscuro of monochrome with the expressive freedom of the widescreen frame. Lensed by some of film history’s most renowned cinematographers—James Wong Howe, Joseph LaShelle, and Gordon Willis, among others—these shimmering black-and-white beauties demand to be seen on the big screen. (bam.org)

This series has several titles that jumped out at me, but I’m most excited about “The Tarnished Angels” (1957). I’m a sucker for Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, and this one features Dorothy Malone who previously caught my attention in Sirk’s “Written on the Wind” (1956), in a performance that must have influenced the early career of Ann-Margret.

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Dorothy Malone in “The Tarnished Angels” (1957)

And if it’s melodrama you’re after, you’ll have to check out “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) at the Nitehawk, featuring Liz Taylor doing one of the best movie screams of all time. This is part of their March brunch series “Committed,” a selection of films set in mental institutions. This series also includes one of my favorite silent films, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). A creepy exploration of the dark corners of German Expressionism, it’s perhaps the closest anyone’s ever come to capturing a nightmare on film. Perfect brunch fare, right?

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“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)

I love silent movies. They float between dreamy and nightmarish. Silent filmmakers didn’t bother trying to replicate the real world. What would be the point? They created their own worlds, they experimented, they pushed and expanded the boundaries of their craft. For about ten or fifteen years. Then they disappeared. Usurped forever by talkies.

My admiration for silent films may be in tandem with my love of history. These “moving pictures” are so old they feel like relics. One of the oldest, “The Birth of a Nation,” celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year and is part of Film Forum’s D.W. Griffith retrospective. This is a film that serious lovers of cinema need to see and appreciate. Griffith pioneered the use of close-ups, intercuts, and other techniques that are so fundamental to filmmaking that it’s hard to imagine that movies ever existed without them.

A casual viewer will be oblivious to Griffith’s genius. I mean that not as an insult to casual moviegoers, but as a compliment to Griffith. His greatest achievement is that the innovations in his films are no longer visible. He designed the grammar for a universal language – the language of film – and the generations that followed him have completely absorbed and internalized it.

Its technical aspects aside, “The Birth of a Nation” is a challenging film to watch. Griffith apparently had no idea he was making a racist manifesto, and spent the rest of his career apologizing for it, most famously with his three-hour epic “Intolerance” (1916), also in Film Forum’s retrospective. And his love stories have a gentle sweetness about them that make you wonder about the man who contained such multitudes.

D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith

“It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean?” So said Edie Beale in “Grey Gardens” (1975), also on view at Film Forum this month. Here is a documentary about how living people can turn into relics. It unfolds as a fable about two women who retreat inside their East Hampton mansion, reasoning that if they never see that the world has changed, they can imagine that it hasn’t.

“Grey Gardens” is a cautionary tale. Edith Beale, the elder, tells her daughter Edie, “You’re in the world. You’re not out of the world.” But it’s only true in the sense that they occupy space. They stopped living in time, and paid the price. Their mansion rots and falls apart, and their minds don’t fare any better. One watches this film with mouth agape as these two former aristocrats lounge in a room full of garbage and pretend that cat food is liver pâté.

Edie Beale

Edie Beale

This reminds me, I need to return to the world of time. There’s a lot more to see in March, so I’ll post an addendum soon.

–Reedley

Star Wars

Star-Wars-Movie-Poster-1977-originalSomehow I managed to not see “Star Wars” (1977) until I was in high school, sometime in the mid-90s. Even at that late date it, watching it for the first time was like receiving a blow to the head.

Here is a film that grabs you by the shirt collar and hurls you on an interplanetary adventure that is, above all, fun. And somehow it was plunked into the middle of the 1970s. Its closest cinematic relatives, the “Flash Gordon” serials, existed forty years prior, and by 1977, fun and adventure had all but disappeared from the movies. “Star Wars” can be credited for reviving them.

That begins to explain its importance in cinematic history. But why does it continue to connect with audiences? I grew up in the wake of its release, and my childhood was packed with fantasy adventure films that were inspired by it. If anything, it should have appeared dated, even slow-paced, by the time I got around to seeing it. Instead, it became one of my favorite films.

I think the reason has something to do with the film’s “used future” aesthetic. That is, it places us in a fully realized alien galaxy. Technology is worn and battered. Locations are dirty. Each alien has a unique culture. In the “Star Wars” universe, each object, each location, each character, and the galaxy as a whole, has a history. At each moment it teases the imagination with glimpses of these stories left untold.

“Star Wars” tells of how young Luke Skywalker left his family farm to pursue the legacy of his starship pilot father. This unfolds within the context of a galactic civil war, of which we only learn about obliquely. For all its expansiveness, “Star Wars” is indeed only a small “episode,” if you will, of a larger saga. It raises tantalizing questions. Who is the man behind Darth Vader’s mask? Who is the Emperor, and how did he come to power? What exactly happened to Luke’s father? What is Hyperspace? What was Alderaan like? Who is Jabba? And on and on.

Of course, the success of “Star Wars” resulted in sequels, comic books, novels, video games, TV series, encyclopedias, and databases that provide officially licensed answers to any question about any minor character, ship, or location. But what a magical time it must have been when all you had was your memory of this two-hourlong movie, your handful of action figures, and your imagination.

It’s no wonder so many fans felt personally betrayed by the prequel trilogy. They spent two decades dreaming up stories about Anakin Skywalker and the twisted Senator who rose to power and became Emperor. Even if it had been a competent motion picture it would have disappointed many fans, but its spectacular failure on the most basic levels sent a shockwave of despair through the nerd-space continuum.

c3p0

One small example: C-3PO, my favorite character from “Star Wars.” A sensible backstory for him would have included: 1) his manufacture, or at least the mention of his manufacture, by a galactic robotics corporation, 2) his original owner, who would have been a wealthy individual or business, i.e. someone who could afford cutting edge technology and who would have need for a protocol droid, and 3) the development of his persnickety personality as a result of this privileged lifestyle.

If we accept the existing plot of “The Phantom Menace” for the time being, it would have been much more satisfying for C-3PO to have been the property of Queen Amidala, or even the Trade Federation. In fact, one of the first characters we meet in Episode 1 was a protocol droid in the employ of the Neimoidians. What a perfect role that would have been for C-3PO, especially since he was the first character we meet in the opening scene of “Star Wars.”

Imagine that he somehow gets caught up in the Jedis’ escape from the Trade Federation and is dragged from his comfortable, climate-controlled ship on this adventure into space and onto the wild, dangerous, muddy swamps of Naboo. He would hate it, and complain endlessly, as he should. Then he would meet R2-D2 on the Naboo cruiser and learn something about bravery from him. Over the course of the film, 3PO would develop a repressed admiration for the little droid and we would see the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

As a bonus, C-3PO’s presence in the sidekick role would have completely eliminated the need for Jar Jar Binks.

But instead of this, C-3PO was built by a slave boy on a poor, remote desert planet. For some reason, the boy wanted to build an exact replica of a protocol droid. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t capitalize on the character’s established traits. That’s the prequel trilogy in a nutshell.

We can hope that J.J. Abrams makes better use of his opportunity. Here again, the fans have been imagining the future of these characters for three decades now, and in very few months we will finally see the official story of what happened after the fall of the Empire.

So what will happen to 3PO? Well, he’ll be a 70-ish-year-old droid at this point. His hardware is probably obsolete. Newer protocol droids can probably translate 6 billion forms of communication and have sleeker designs with more fluid limbs that allow them to perform more tasks. Perhaps they’d be programmed to be more friendly and easy-going. This would infuriate 3PO even more. The antagonism between 3PO and his newer model could make a great comedic subplot.

I imagine the offspring of Han and Leia having varied reactions to him. One would be baffled, another would gush over his retro design. When the time came for their adventure, they might even consider leaving him behind. Their grandparents’ quaint robots are fine to keep around for nostalgic value, but on a dangerous mission they would be an encumbrance. But somehow or other, he’d get involved with the story and would eventually get a chance to triumph over his replacement.

We will see. One thing is certain: the endless stories thought up in the imaginations of countless moviegoers will continue for decades to come. All thanks to George Lucas and his silly space adventure film.