Sunday, January 27, 2013

In Defense of George

In anticipation of a visit to the Star Wars Identities Exhibit next Friday, the girls and I watched the film that started it all (also known as Episode IV: A New Hope) this afternoon.  I explained how George Lucas, for his third studio picture after THX-1138 and the far more popular and well received American Graffiti, had hoped to adapt the Flash Gordon serials of his youth, but was unable to obtain the rights to do so.

Having failed in this, he set out to create his own space opera, and influenced in equal parts by Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" and the films of Akira Kurosawa (especially The Hidden Fortress), managed to succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

Sure, looking back at how elements of the prequels and subsequent elements like the Clone Wars animated television series have diluted the brand for those of us who grew up on nothing but the original trilogy cuts an unforgiving silhouette of a man determined to wed art and commerce but unsure of how to do so.  But for all his foibles, and amidst all the celebrating and recriminating going on around the recent sale of his Lucasfilm studios to Disney, and the subsequent revelation that J.J Abrams will be directing a new Star Wars movie in the immediate future, it felt good to look back at the first film.  It might be good for us to recognize that George Lucas's success was far from accidental, however we may feel about his having squandered the potential of this particular franchise.

Cinematic Worldmaking - You can't say Star Wars as made on a shoestring budget, but the cantina scene in Star Wars shows a filmmaker and his colleagues pulling out all the stops to create a multi-species tableau in a way that future iterations of Star Trek and all their wrinkly foreheads never could.  It may have scored a C+ for effectiveness, given how few of the aliens had working mouths or eyes, but it certainly earns an A- for audacity.

Pictorial Chops - I'm sorry, but has anyone come up with a more iconic opening for a space picture than the ominous overtaking of the rebel blockade runner by the immensity of the Imperial Star Destroyer?  Watching that oppressive wedge descend from the top of the screen as well as the boarding action that follows makes we want to hop into my wayback machine to 1977 and just watch the faces of audience members having their minds blown.  After years of largely introspective, often insightful, but generally languid and recurrently boring science-fiction movies, someone had finally brought the scope and fun of the 1930s matinees back to the big screen!

Classic Tale - As the comic strip Penny Arcade has succinctly surmised, "Star Wars is about space wizards who live in the past-future." They're not wrong.  I tried to explain to the girls that there is only a hair's breadth difference between Star Wars and the story of King Arthur: young hero, secret heritage, elderly wizard mentor, magic sword, damsel in distress, impregnable castle... the list goes on.  Like James Cameron's Avatar, the familiarity of the story is part of what gives it lasting appeal.  Even without the prequels and such, the cultural footprint of Star Wars was never likely to be forgotten, in part because of the carefully measured timelessness of the tale.  If only the hairstyles were as immune to the march of years!

Used Future - To be honest, it is not as though there was a lot of competition at the time, but Lucas deserves come credit for presenting the first non-dystopian future where the technology looked used.  From the asymmetric (but still beautiful) Millennium Falcon with its scuffed interior and exposed cabling, to the scorch marks on the Incom T-65 Space Superiority Fighter (aka the X-Wing), Star Wars gave us a future with a past, where the spaceships and floating cars had mileage and a resale value, and maintenance was needed just to keep a ship in the air, not just to repair it after battle.

Steal from the Best - Many scenes from Star Wars echo Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress so perfectly as to practically be a homage, despite no credit being given.  Many of the shots from the climactic attack on the Death Star (especially the destruction of the attacking ships) were based on ones from The Battle of Britain.  While the lack of originality is unfortunate, you have to wonder how much added resonance this sort of attribution brought to the film, especially to young viewers like myself, who wouldn't see these other movies for years or even decades afterwards.

As a child in the fifth grade who had seen Star Wars multiple times over the summer, had you asked me what I would like to be when I grew up, I might have told you I was conflicted, since I couldn't decide between Jedi Knight or X-Wing pilot, and I was pretty sure only Luke Skywalker could be both.

Star Wars engendered in me a love of films and curiosity about how they are made that persists to this day.  It also created a curiosity about warrior cultures, especially the samurai of feudal Japan, which affected a lot of my learning and interests throughout my adolescence, and even into college.  Ben Kenobi's admiration of the lightsaber as being "Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster, but an elegant weapon for a more civilized age," was the lament of a Meiji-era samurai, facing obsolescence as gunpowder came to the fore.  His admonition to Luke to trust his feelings, to have faith in the force, was Lucas' own belief that "technology cannot save us", at least, not by itself.

Watching the force, an admittedly tenuous concept from the original trilogy, distilled into sentient micro-organisms dwelling in the bloodstreams of potential Jedi in the first prequel, was disappointing to me to be sure.  It didn't eradicate the joy of watching Qui-Gon Jinn and young Obi-Wan Kenobi derail an invasion all by themselves, or the satisfaction of watching a pupil avenge his master in the third act.  Watching Lucas struggle with the difficulties of bringing a legendary character such as Darth Vader through his adolescence and into a murderous adulthood though, that was too much to bear.  I haven't called myself a fan in years, and only saw the third prequel, Revenge of the Sith, last year, seven years after it arrived in theaters.

To be fair, the prequels and tv show have kept the brand alive and vibrant in a way that nostalgia alone never could, and the universe has remained a colourful and exciting place to explore in these mediums as well as video and computer games, toys and action figures, comics and novels.  In the end, it is (or at least was) Lucas's sandbox, so if he wants to build forts in it or just poop in it, that is up to him, right?

Forgetting for a moment the various editions, Han shooting first (or not), and the multitude of leaps needed to tie together a convoluted and arbitrary timeline and bloodline, the original trilogy, and especially that first film, still have a sense of wonder that a lot of other films have struggled to capture.  

There is still a lot of merit in visiting that far, far away galaxy from a long time ago, and I hope that with new hands on the lightspeed throttle, I might enjoy returning there again in a couple of years.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Miserables

I don't know if I would call myself a fan of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel, but I have seen three different productions of it, ranging from an astonishingly well-done high school version up to the national touring company that rolled through Edmonton years ago, and I have enjoyed them all.

Knowing that the musical's original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, is behind the recent theatrical release (or adaptation's adaptation as I like to call it), and that the stars all have varying degrees of singing ability and pedigree, it should be no surprise that the movie version of Les Miserables is well worth seeing, no matter how familiar you are with the original.

Obviously, you have to have at least a tolerance of the musical format; if you are one of those sad cases who feels obliged to point out how 'unrealistic' it is for people to burst into song, and where is that music coming from anyways?, you might as well give this one a miss, and go back to not wondering about how Stallone never needs to reload, or why stupid victims are needed to advance the plot for almost every horror movie.

The rest of us can be astonished at just how well Catwoman, Gladiator and Wolverine can carry a tune, and marvel even more at the fact that they are not lip syncing to a pre-recorded track. The performances were captured live, while the singers used tiny earphones to listen to a piano accompanist out of microphone range. This way, the performers could set the tempo, the pianist could compensate, and then the orchestral score was layered in over top.

Now, there are plenty of movies it is worthwhile for even blind people to see, or hear at least, but I don't know if this is one of them. Musical purists might be better served by listening to the Broadway or London cast recording instead. Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) takes full advantage of the medium, and fills the screen with shots of both impressive physical scale (like the opening scene, where Jean Val Jean (Hugh Jackman) and his work crew have been moved from the stage musical's generic field labours to the herculean task of hauling a massive ship into drydock) and compelling emotion (Anne Hathaway's haunting rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, which, while not accomplished on the first take as was rumoured, was done in one take with absolutely no cuts).

The acting is uniformly excellent: Russell Crowe's Javert is full of conflicted menace, Hathaway's Fantine is relentlessly tragic, and Jackman's Valjean is as compelling as any of the iterations I've come across, especially during his Soliloquy. Being able to emote was a face 27 feet tall gives the filmic medium a distinct advantage, just as being able to follow them on a chase through the streets, or into the sewers of Paris is. None of the stars can belt it out of the park like a Colm Wilkinson (who appears as the Bishop), but getting a good singing performance out of an actor can be a lot easier than the other way around. If you don't believe me, the Brothers Gibb in Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Cub Band stand as exhibits A through C. At any rate, you end up with some tremendously moving scenes that stand up favourably to anything I've seen on stage. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter also do a wonderful turn as the larcenous and scene-stealing Thernardiers.

I took some exception to the insertion of a new song, Suddenly, as an obvious means of garnering Oscar momentum with an Original Song, but was mollified upon discovering that it was written by the original songwriters. And besides, it isn't as though it is a bad song, but I found myself being really critically minded towards its inclusion, what with the movie already running two-and-a-half hours and all. Les Mis was originally planned as a four hour movie, with the battle in the third act running 15 minutes on its own. As it sits, I think the film balances the epic and the intimate pretty much perfectly. Go, and bring a tissue or two.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


I attended a workshop yesterday at my church, and as one of the exercises, we were asked to select a picture from an assortment of fruit images. The idea was to select one that you felt reflected you in some fashion, and then share with one other person what your rationale was.

I took a picture of a sliced kiwi fruit, and walked over to Philip, asking why he had chosen a pear. "Well, it could be because of my shape," he began, "but honestly, a pear has a lot of the same characteristics as an apple, so it is familiar, but it is different enough that it isn't so...I don't know, common?" I nodded in agreement. "Why did you take a kiwi?"

"They're fuzzy and a little funny looking, but still good," I replied. "They're not quite sweet, not quite sour, and often they are at their best when paired with something else, like strawberry-kiwi juice."

"Not bad," said Philip.

"Thanks. I thought we had to explain our choice to the whole group though; if I'd known it was just going to be us, I would have taken the strawberry."

He cocked an eyebrow and asked, "Why's that?"

"Because knowing how they are fertilized, it is encouraging to know that sometimes a bunch of bullshit can produce something pretty sweet."

During Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf responded to a reporter's suggestion of something completely unrealistic by saying, "I would categorize that statement as bovine scatology."

Dad had a set of moose antlers on a plaque in our family room when I was a child. I was too young to understand that the accreditation on the plaque stating it had been shot by my father with a .22 long rifle at a distance of 300 yards was patently absurd; even if the bullet could reach the beast at that range, it would be an annoyance and not a threat. He chided me about it in my teens one time; "C'mon Stephen, I would have thought the inscription gave it away, the one that says 'Excreta Taurus Fulgeat Sapientum'."

"I don't read Latin, Dad; what's it mean?"

"I was told it comes across as 'Bullshit Baffles Brains'..."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Snownah Hex

Glory was at a slumber party last night, so when we picked her up after church, she was happy that Fenya had brought her a gingerbread snowman from this morning's activity. When she brought it into the house Fenya said, "Sorry Glory, but your snowman turned out looking like Jonah Hex."

Now, I knew his eyes were a little lopsided, but I thought it unlikely that the mouth shared Hex's disfigured grimace as well, but as I peered over, darned if I couldn't make out the resemblance! (Technically I guess it is a mirror image, but still, for happenstance it's pretty close, I thought.)

"Don't you think so too Mama?" Fenya asked, but Audrey just looked bewildered.

"Your mother doesn't know who that is sweetie." I explained. "Aww," said Fenya.

I took a lot away from this tiny (and surprisingly typical) exchange:

  1. The accuracy and perception of Fenya's characterization.
  2. The charming juxtaposition of a jolly confectionery snowman and a disfigured, macabre comic book bounty hunter.
  3. The fact that my eldest could end up being a pop culture monster, if only we paid more attention to the things that are popular now.
  4. Her sadness that her mother neither recognized nor appreciated the reference.
It's unfortunate to me that from a reference standpoint, far more people will now recognize this character from the recent (and apparently lacklustre) movie, as opposed to his true origins in DC Comics.
As a kid, I had a number of comic digests featuring the adventures of Jonah Hex, a cunning, ruthless and horribly disfigured bounty hunter. His adventures in post-Civil War America started out heavily inspired by the recent 'spaghetti westerns' of the time, eschewing the matinee idol looks of previous comic book cowboys like the Rawhide Kid in favour of an unshaven anti-hero, similar to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.

Jonah Hex was fast on the draw, and a deadly shot with either his twin Dragoons or a repeating Winchester, but his most deadly weapon was clearly his mind and both his tactical and strategic savvy. Any time you saw some owlhoot draw down on Hhex's silhouette and pull the trigger, long time readers would chuckle to themselves, knowing this rube had actually just shot a comrade that Hex had tied into his saddle and dressed in his battered old Confederate army jacket (although, even as a young man, I wondered how he kept finding tailors to wash out the blood and patch the numerous bullet holes...).

My favourite though, was how an adversary in a saloon might get the drop on Hex's back, only to have him turn around while lighting a stick of dynamite from his cigar. The TNT would be revealed to be a dud of some fashion, but only after Jonah used the momentary surprise to draw and fire, which would usually result in more bounty income.

Being a comic book, Jonah Hex could venture into stories that western movie and TV shows were unlikely to touch, like the one where he allies himself with a Meiji period samurai looking for his daughter. This may be the high water mark for me in terms of the number of fanboy elements hit; comic/western/history/samurai has probably only ever been trumped by the Kung-fu/action/comedy/romance/monster movie/ghost story Big Trouble In Little China.

Later on, as interest in comic book westerns waned, Hex saw himself reinvented; first, as a time traveling, post apocalyptic warrior (of which, the less said, the better), and later on as a western bounty hunter again, but in tales full of supernatural overtones. Most recently, as part of DC Comics universal reboot, Jonah Hex has teamed with Gotham City psychologist Amadeus Arkham (founder and eventual inhabitant of the infamous Arkham Asylum in the Batman comics), grappling with ruthless and depraved secret societies as he tracks a trio of murderous brothers from the plains to this strange city.

Sadly, I no longer have my trove of Jonah Hex digests, so Fenya mostly knows The character from his guest appearances in the DC Animated Universe, which makes it surprising that she would so quickly envision his visage on what would appear to most of us to be a fairly cheery snowman cookie. Still, even a ruthless and deformed western anti-hero can have a role to play during the holidays, wouldn't you think?

Uh, those boots in the corner of the cover notwithstanding, that is.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Lincoln, aka West Wing 1864

I should have wanted to see this movie more than I did, but as with so many 'worthy' films, like The King's Speech, I resisted seeing Lincoln a little bit, like a child resisting the need to eat his vegetables.

On the face of it, such foot-dragging is ridiculous: I am a big fan of Steven Spielberg, and of Daniel Day Lewis, an an ardent explorer of the American Civil War, and an admirer of Lincoln.  The obvious Oscar-baitiness of the film may be a factor, but as a film fan, that's a little disingenuous too, as it turns out a lot of Best Picture nominees turn out to be pretty good movies to boot, and Lincoln certainly is. It's not for everyone, to be sure, and haters of politics would do well to stay away, but those of us who find dramatic interpretation of the machinations behind legislation to be entertaining are well served indeed.

Lincoln feels a bit anachronistic at times, but not so much because it is a period picture, but because of the languid pace, and the length of some of the shots.  There are no sweeping panoramas nor epic crane shots; Audrey mentioned afterwards how so much of the film could be staged as a play, and I can assure you that acting teachers and casting directors will be hearing bits of Lincoln in the years to come.  Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, do some masterful work in light and shadow, without feeling like they are showing off, with the possible exception of one bit of lens flare, for which I will forgive them.  Fans of 1970's cinema (like myself) will very likely find much to enjoy.

This movie is not a cradle to grave biopic (thank goodness), focusing its attention on a specific portion of Abraham Lincoln's  life: his Herculean efforts to pass the 13th amendment to the American constitution and thus abolish slavery.  As a sometimes sympathizer with the South, I have sometimes posited the question, "If the War of Northern Aggression was only, or even primarily, about slavery, why did Lincoln until 1863 before passing the Emancipation Proclamation?  And why did it only apply to the Confederacy?"  Two deftly rendered scenes answer this complex question succinctly, and paint a very vivid picture of the tenuous political standing of a principled man who will end up having to choose between ending slavery, or ending a bloody and divisive war.

Daniel Day Lewis does a masterful characterization of the title character, capturing both the eloquence and humor, the statesman and the family man, with a stillness missing from a lot of modern films.  It is hard to reconcile Honest Abe and Bill the Butcher (from Scorcese's Gangs of New York) as being portrayed by the same man, but there it is.  With no films or video to rely upon, Lewis is free to create an interpretation of Lincoln which is very likely to shape how the man is seen in the mind's eye for years to come.

Sally Field is a sympathetic, yet challenging Mary Todd Lincoln, who disappears into her role almost as easily as her on-screen husband, despite being 20 years his senior.  The real joy for me, though, is in the supporting characters, most especially Tommy Lee Jones as the aging, crotchety, yet razor-sharp abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens.  His exchanges with Lincoln, among others, are what made me feel most like I was watching a period interpretation of The West Wing.  James Spader's turn as 'political enabler' W. N. Bilbo is also highly entertaining.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of politics in this movie, as Lincoln must maneuver and manipulate various factions and individuals in a very short period of time, if he is to have any hope of turning some of the lame duck Democrats (shocking how easy it is to forget that Lincoln was a Republican, isn't it?) to his cause and gain the two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives he needs.  Most of the story is taken from the book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which I will now begin searching for.

The fact that such a complicated story can be both clear and compelling is a testimonial to Tony Kushner's adapted screenplay, and though dated and sometimes ponderous, there are times when the dialogue is simply sparkling, and makes me long for a time when words spoken were oftentimes more considered than they often are today.  But there is also a personal story of a man trying to reconcile his household between a son who feels compelled to go to war, and the mother whose sanity mightn't bear the loss of a second son.

In short, if you can tolerate what is, at its heart, a political film, you are in for a treat: a great story, well told and well acted, about a pivotal point in not only North American, but human history.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Faith of Mathesar

I had the opportunity to watch Galaxy Quest again over the holidays, with someone who had never seen it before, which made the entire experience that much more enjoyable.  It is a tightly written comedy wrapped around a very passable adventure story (which apparently is how it was initially presented to the producers, with the comedy arriving later on) which is pushed to greater heights by a wonderful cast, most especially Alan Rickman.  There are even a couple of touching moments, slid deftly in between the farce and the spectacle.

It's a fun movie to watch, especially if you happen to be a bit of a nerd, because then you can catch little reflections of yourself in almost every character: from the fanboys trying to ascribe a consistency and meaning to their favourite entertainment, to the existential crisis of the actors who find themselves wondering what impression their work may have left on others, or even themselves.

I've seen it many times before, and I'm sure I will watch it again, but reflecting on it this time got me thinking about faith.

In the film, the alien Thermians have patterned their society and technology based on what they have seen on the television series Galaxy Quest, a thinly (like, we're talking onion skin here) veiled analog to Star Trek.  Unfortunately, they have no concept of art, or artifice, or even lying, so they are convinced that the contrived adventures, last minute escapes and indomitable courage they have witnessed in these 'historical documents' are all legitimate.  After convincing Jason Nesmith, the actor who plays Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), to join them in negotiating peace with their tormentor, Sarris, the other actors (mostly begrudgingly) follow suit, only to find themselves horribly out of their element, and facing not only their own demise, but the possible destruction of an entire species looking to them for their salvation.  Heavy stuff for a spoof comedy!

The dramatic turning point comes when the sadistic Sarris clues in to the truth of the situation, and makes 'Taggart' tell the Thermian commander Mathesar (brilliantly played by Enrico Colantoni) that they have been lying to him, and that not only are they not the heroes, but there never were any heroes, there wasn't even a ship.  It's a good bit, full of existential angst, and is the emotional lynchpin that the second act uses to slingshot us into the third.  If you've never seen it, go away and watch it, then come back and finish reading this later, there's a spoiler storm a-brewing.  If you just want a reminder, take a few minutes to watch this video:

There is a lot to take in here: Sarris's declaration that the humans have far more harm to the Thermians than he ever could, Mathesar's insistence that there is a ship, and that it cannot be a model because inside he has seen many rooms, and finally, Nesmith's persistence that no, there is no ship, no crew, no agency protecting the galaxy, and that everything Mathesar and his people have staked their lives and civilization on is a lie.

In the middle of a goofy sci-fi comedy, they tune out the action and the laughs for a handful of minutes, and frankly suck all the fun out of the room, leaving the viewer, like Mathesar, in a dark and confusing place.  But then something interesting happens; in fact, a bunch of interesting things happen.

Nesmith improvises an escape plan that utilizes the talents of his colleagues, and then begins formulating a counterattack in precisely the way a good commander would.  He inspires, delegates, and takes personal risks to insure the safety of 'his' ship and crew.

Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who detests the sci-fi trappings he has been forced to endure in his work, especially the warrior culture of his alien race, encounters a Thermian who has not only modeled his life after them, but found meaning and success in doing so.  The catchphrase which has been a millstone around his neck becomes a touching benediction to the one person in the universe who may actually believe in it, and, we hope, can take comfort in the fact that by Grabthar's Hammer, he truly will be avenged.

The other ersatz members of the crew pull together and support each other in a manner we've seen played out on starship bridges for over four decades now; in keeping with the mantra of their own show, they never give up, never surrender.

Of course they triumph in the end, this is not a documentary, and the reason we love happy endings in our entertainments is because there seem to be all too damned few of them in real life.  Mathesar returns to the bridge, complimenting the commander on his cunning ploy to convince Sarris that these humans were not the brave and loyal crew the Thermians knew them to be.  His faith has been rewarded, and they soon part ways.

Now there are a couple of ways of looking at this situation, the easiest being that the Thermians are guileless rubes whose naivete almost resulted in their extinction, and who only manage to survive to the end credits through the barest margins of blind chance.

The harder way is to acknowledge that, in the end, the actors who portrayed the fictitious crew of a made-up spaceship are as brave and loyal and resourceful as their on-screen counterparts, and that the tools given to them by the aliens they inspired with their fictions are sufficient to win them the day.  From Mathesar's perspective, Nesmith's assertion that their ship is only a few inches long, is completely ludicrous; after all, they are standing right in it, aren't they?

Sarris's condemnation of the harm done by the humans to the Thermians is extremely short-sighted when you consider that somehow these actors (and writers, and special effects and make -up artists etc.) have inspired an alien race to build things that should not work.  Thankfully, they didn't know it was impossible when they did it.

I've felt like Mathesar at times, clinging to my belief in things I can't display or prove, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence.  And I should say here that I don't just mean God or religion or spirituality or the soul.   I know some philosophers think of God as a construct, a stand-in for our limited understanding of the infinite, and that if He didn't exist, it would be necessary to create Him.  But there are other constructs like that, which we cannot prove or disprove, and have to take on faith : justice, for one.  Love, for another.

After their civilization was nearly destroyed, the Thermians discovered the Galaxy Quest broadcasts, and found within their simple heroism and complicated idealism a means of re-purposing themselves.  The fact that the actual events might never have transpired has little to do with the values presented, or the benefits received.  Their ability to take something patently fake and make it real reminds me of the Discordian teaching that 'all things are true, even false things'.

On the television series Babylon 5, another science-fiction television character has said, "Faith manages."  The fact that the words were written by an atheist does not make them any less profound, or true, just ironic.

Still, we can't rule out the possibility that I have wandered into the same fanboy trap as Justin Long's character, searching through blueprints and schematics and star charts, as much a theologian as an engineer,  looking for a meaning that perhaps isn't there...

Brandon Wheeger: But I want you to know that I'm not a complete brain case, okay? I understand completely that it's just a TV show. I know there's no beryllium sphere... 
Jason Nesmith: Hold it. 
Brandon Wheeger: no digital conveyor, no ship... 
Jason Nesmith: Stop for a second, stop. It's all real. 
Brandon Wheeger: Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it! I knew it! 

...or perhaps is hidden in there after all.