Atlantic Monthly and Journalism: Like Oil and Water

Few things are more tedious in entertainment media than the ritual bashing of George Lucas, retired filmmaker and billionaire philanthropist. The latest entry comes in the form of backhanded half-praise from Katie Kilkenny of Atlantic Magazine in her article Selling the Soul of Star Wars. While claiming to “defend” the man who created the series, the writer works from the assumption that the accusations against George Lucas are based in fact when they are basted in smug stupidity.

Laziness on my part precludes me from writing a full piece in response, so I’ll just have to do it web forum debator style:

Selling the Soul of Star Wars
By Katie Kilkenny

When Disney announced that it was releasing a new Star Wars trilogy, many fans, understandably, pumped their hands in the air and yelled “Nooooo!” What was once a cool Hollywood maverick of a saga had already been brand-extended nearly past recognition: first with the CGI-“enhanced” versions of the originals in the ‘90s, then the Jar Jar Binks-addled prequels, followed by the 3-D theatrical re-releases and a critically-panned animated movie. So it was totally valid to suspect that along with Lucasfilm’s holdings and rights (those went to Disney for $4.05 billion), the franchise had also, finally, sold its soul.

But in the two years since, skepticism has given way to optimistic speculation and hype about the new sequels, the first of which is set for a December 2015 release. And a novel paradox has emerged: What the new Star Wars is selling is its original soul.

I can understand this sentiment. Just as I have no interest in a Terminator movie that James Cameron isn’t making, I have very little interest in a Star Wars movie George Lucas isn’t making.

The faces heading the Disney creative team may be relatively young, but their tastes skew old. Episode VII director J.J. Abrams is essentially a professional fanboy, with a career in making blockbuster sci-fi that doubles as nostalgic post-postmodern art (hence his signature motif in Star Trek and Super 8, the celluloid-celebrating lens flare). He’s penning the screenplay with the writer of The Empire Strikes Back. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford are all returning to star. If that wasn’t enough to invoke the feeling of balance being restored back to the galaxy, watch this promotional video in which original composer John Williams enthuses to the longing strains of the binary-sunset “Force Theme.”

Uh, you do realize that John Williams composed the music for all six movies, right?

All of this plays up the sentimental value of the old movies and implicitly acknowledges the common complaints that Episodes I, II, and III were blatant, poorly conceived profit ploys. The new films have recruited thespian types like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o—Oscar winners and hopeful in place of the green stars of the prequel series—and emphasizing that the story is more important than the release date. Both moves are the live-action realizations of many a wistful fan edit, and brilliant marketing.

I guess Natalie Portman, Ewan MacGregor, Liam Neeson and the other actors in the prequels were all chopped liver. I remember that the three main parts in the original trilogy were played by relatively unknown actors -the most famous of which (Carrie Fisher) was best known for her famous parents and for saying “Wanna fuck?” to Warren Beatty in Shampoo. But this is all a side issue. No one in their right mind goes to a Star Wars movie for great acting and clever dialogue. That was as true of the old movies as it was of the prequels. There’s a reason Pauline Kael derided the actors in the very first film in the series:

“Lucas has got the tone of bad movies down pat: you never catch the actors deliberately acting badly; they just seem to be bad actors, on contract to Monogram or Republic, their klunky enthusiasm polished at the Ricky Nelson school of acting.”

Star Wars has never been for movie critics, whether the professionals like Kael or the amateurs who frequent the internet, wishing for George Lucas to die.

Most of all, the new series is drawing attention to its handmade “practical effects”—props, physical sets, and the like—in contrast to the computerized shimmer of the prequels. That shimmer has been widely blamed for the narrative shortcomings of The Phantom Menace, The Clone Wars, and Revenge of the Sith. As George Lucas obsessed over the cutting-edge art of digital filmmaking (using the first high-definition digital camera and the first computer-generated character to interact with live actors), the argument goes, he forgot to honor age-old storytelling principles.

Not this garbage again! The Prequels used vast numbers of models, sets and other “practical effects”.
Or did you think George Lucas hired an army of set builders, model makers and other craftsmen to just sit around and drink coffee? Next you’ll be telling me they didn’t use costumes, and that all the actors were naked with wardrobe added later with CGI.

So far, the PR campaign is working. On a podcast a few weeks ago, the director of the two films to come, Rian Johnson, confirmed that models, puppets, and creature costumes are indeed making their return. His statements made several headlines, even though they weren’t news: Producer Kathleen Kennedy has been underscoring the distinction between the effects in this new film and the prequels since pre-pre-production. (Wrote one IGN reporter in response to her comments, “A new Star Wars film focusing on character and story, featuring models and real-life locations working in tandem with CG effects, all capped with a score by John Williams … interested now?”)

Which should tell you that either Abrams and Johnson are ignoramuses about the very movie series they’ve been hired to take part in, or they’re giving a subtle handjob to middle-aged fans of the original films and the smugly ignorant hipsters who wish to emulate them. Neither possibility seems very promising.

But there’s a weird dynamic at play here. All of Abrams’s and Johnson’s affection for the original films drive home how much the new ones will be, at base, unnecessary cash grabs—the equivalent of old action figures sold on eBay, schemes for money and not for art. The prequels seem almost pure by contrast. George Lucas was the guiding creative vision behind the franchise from the beginning, and his vision told him to invest in lush CGI, hire Hayden Christensen, and tell the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent from wee midichlorian-surfeited boy to angsty, lanky-haired Jedi. Lucas found the story touching, even if his viewers didn’t.

His viewers found the Prequels “touching” and interesting enough to make them among the most successful films ever made. In the last twenty years, only Titanic and Avatar have done better at the domestic box office than The Phantom Menace.

But in this case it’s a good thing that the franchise is deviating from Lucas passion project to an audience-pandering corporate model. Yes, the Disney buyout dumped Star Wars into its brimming bank of lucrative narrative-universe properties. And of course, all this nostalgia is just setting up an initial framework that woos the fan viewership with an Avengers-like launchpad so they’ll buy into a barrage of spinoffs (coming soon: Boba Fett and Chewbacca). But what for Disney is profitable recycling is for Hollywood at large a challenge to the entirely-too-low standards of the blockbuster in the digital age.

And Disney now runs the risk of cheapening the movie series. One of the reasons Star Wars kept its luster for so long is that George Lucas chose NOT to crank out episode after episode like the Bond or Star Trek series.

Today the word “blockbuster” invokes visions of CGI-ridden films—Transformers, superhero movies, and the like—skating on brand recognition rather than on novel characters or storytelling. Which, in turn, makes Star Wars a particularly compelling touchstone. A big part of its appeal lay in how it created a scum-caked, tactile landscape of diverse planets and people. This was a franchise where the robots were humans encased in metallic costumes, not computer-generated death-machines that transform into Porsches. The speeders and snow-walkers and lightspeed-equipped ships all were models assembled by human hands, not digital rendering. It was a blockbuster with soul, in the sense that its most impressive effects had a direct line to an engineer, puppeteer, or actor.

Apparently, the author of this piece never watched the Star Wars movies and is relying on ill-informed articles about the series. Someone who took the trouble to actually watch the movies would know the following:
Yes, the Rebels, outlaws, rural farmers and others on the fringes of society fly around in rusty ships with dirty floors and oil leaks. However, the Imperial forces and those in more prosperous settings fly around squeaky clean ships with polished floors. Take a look at the interiors of Princess Leia’s ship and the Death Star in ANH, or the Imperial warships and Cloud City in TESB. Or the Imperial warships and second Death Star in ROTJ.
The Prequels follow this same pattern. Tattooine is every bit as dusty and rickety in the prequels as it is in the originals. The only difference is that more scenes in the later movies take place in the homes, offices and palaces of the powerful, and one of the privileges of power and wealth is having someone or something to mop your floors and wash your car.

So it’s fitting that Star Wars Episode VII’s marketing has been combining its commercialism with deeper cause, with the the @bad_robot Twitter account Ice Bucket-challenging storm trooper legions and sneaking peeks of fully-constructed X-Wing fighters (sprinkled with realistic-looking space-dust!) into videos for the UNICEF initiative “A Force for Change.”
The clearly metaphorical title is a convenient encapsulation of the new series, which appears to be leveraging blockbuster-reboot power to champion the original series’ values. Whether the old-school filmmaking techniques will indeed translate into more compelling story and characters remains to be seen—in an age without the infrastructure to support exclusively live-action filmmaking, Abrams and Johnson face an upward climb not unlike Lucas’s prequel-era digital quest. Conceivably, they may be spending too much time and energy on the DIY trimmings.

The “original series’ values” had to do with creating an original story in an original setting with original characters. George Lucas did this better than any other filmmaker: Eleven highly successful movies that he created himself -not remakes of previous films, not adaptations of books, comics, TV shows or video games.

But at least it’s getting fans pumped for a return to the galaxy. Episode VII just drummed up a fair amount of excitement by revealing it’s filming sequences in the Imax version of the near-extinct celluloid film, 70mm. Yes, it’s a format that asks viewers to pay a few extra bucks to see the movie “the way it was meant to be seen.” But it’s also relevant that Abrams recently joined a group of moviemakers to bail out Kodak film, which will likely be providing the large-format celluloid to restore the originals’ gritty, grainy, totally glorious aesthetic. Like nearly everything with this Star Wars, this money grab has a wistful side.

As if 99% of the people buying tickets care one way or the other what kind of camera was used to shoot the movie!
While internet web pages are filled with the tantrums of Nerd Ragers who get their panties in a twist over CGI and digital cameras, very few moviegoers care one way or the other. Like Libertarianism, Nerd Rage is quite popular on the internet, but has very little support in the real world, as is shown time and again on election day.

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