Monday, January 18, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars I

How about some film criticism? Would you like my learned insights anent The Maltese Falcon, or Battleship Potemkin, or even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Perhaps an analysis of the use of shadow symbolism in Ivan the Terrible, Part II? Well... maybe we should start at a more modest level, and with a film that is more my speed. Here's a few opinionated words concerning that much-anticipated classic from a few years back, Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace.

The immortal main theme begins. The orange words appear:“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.... this alarming chain of events...”
Do we sit in wonder, our popcorn halfway to our mouths, as chills run down our spines? Good lord! A trade dispute. A blockade of a small planet. A chain of events (apparently a small chain, with only two links).
This is the stuff of which epics are made?
What is the purpose of the blockade? Shouldn’t the Trade Federation want to trade with Naboo? Perhaps the T.F. wants to charge higher prices? We never learn anything about the dispute, other than that it is legal and trivial. (“Something as trivial as this trade dispute,” says Qui-Gon; “Our blockade is perfectly legal” says Viscount Gunray.) Since the plot opening is a legal, trivial trade dispute, we might expect the first exciting scene to be a committee hearing by economists.
How could Mr. Lucas give us so lackluster a start to so eagerly anticipated a movie?
Queen Amidala... yes. Now, his films show that Mr. Lucas’s general knowledge of government and diplomacy could be engraved on the head of a pin, but in the polity of Naboo he has confected something particularly fascinating: a democratic monarchy, a queen who is elected and subject to term limits. This “queen” is required to wear preposterous costumes that change hourly and coiffures not seen since the court of Louis XVI. Surely she would have scant time to to do much governing, being too busy with her clothes and hair. But that might be a good idea, since the office of monarch apparently has no age qualification. In this crisis Naboo is governed by a girl of fourteen. That’s the best the voters of Naboo could do? (And she, we are told in Film II, is not the youngest ever chosen. One would like to see the youngest, who perhaps governed from a cradle rather than a throne.)
We arrive on Tatooine, where a serious difficulty arises: the hyperdrive is kaput. It is a matter of galactic importance that the ship get going ASAP. Only one dealer, Watto, an overgrown housefly, has the needed part, and he will not accept Republic currency.
What is a resourceful, masterful, intelligent Jedi to do? Here are some possibilities:
(A) Go to a bank and convert your money to the local stuff.
(B) Inform Watto that the Jedi Order is commandeering his hyperdrive and will wire him the money. If he refuses, take it by force.
(C) Wait and do nothing until you accidentally discover that a small child might get you the money by winning a race, although this child has never finished, let alone won, a race.
Guess what Qui-Gon does. We can only shake our heads.
A side note: Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan if they have anything to trade with. He replies that they have little but “the queen’s wardrobe.” Folks, if that queen brought her wardrobe, it could be traded for most of the star-ships on the planet.
Anakin’s poor mother: here is the biggest, most glaring plot hole in the whole series. Why in heaven is she left as a slave? The Jedi are willing to take a nine-year-old boy away from his only parent and forget about her. There is never any effort to free her, not even after her son shows her a pile of cash and says, “Look how much we won.” Then he keeps it and leaves mom to the mercy of the giant fly.
“Gungans go to sacred place.” The Trade Federation has occupied the planet; they know about the underwater city. Yet thousands of not terribly inconspicuous or diminutive Gungans manage to move to a spot on the surface that the T.F. never notices. How did they do that? But of course we must reckon with “Lucas logic” as well as “Star Wars physics.” This also means that dei ex machinae can be produced as needed. Must you get into the city? Voilà, “the secret passage on the waterfall side.” Thank heaven for secret passages. And how we rejoice when Padmé produces necessary pistols from the arm of a chair in which Newt Gunray has sat for weeks without ever discovering the concealed weapons.
When the big metal door goes up and Darth Maul appears, the two Jedi say “we’ll handle this” and the others--over a dozen armed men--just leave (to “take the long way,” even though they are in a great hurry). Why? Why doesn’t everyone open fire and kill the Sith right there?
One could go on listing absurdities and inconsistencies in this silly movie, but enough. It is more important to ask why. Why is this film so badly written? Why are thoughtful viewers left feeling cheated?
I think that answer can be found on the commentary track, where Mr. Lucas and several mechanics talk to us.
My impression is of men so mesmerized by technology that they have lost sight of what really matters. These animators and CGI people--these hod-carriers of the movie world--are insufferable. On and on they go with details of how this or that shot was done, repeatedly telling us of their cleverness, their expertise, their great deeds. One feels a bit “wude” in saying this, but, folks, we don’t care how it’s done. You are but hewers of imaginary wood and drawers of digital water. Do your jobs, cash your paychecks, and be quiet. We, the audience, care only about the finished product. Save your war stories for other artisans. You deserve well of your master, undoubtedly other computerists will want to know the details of your craft, but don’t monopolize the commentary with one more description of how you created realistic-looking dust or inserted a suitable wobble into a puppet. Sheesh!
Mr. Lucas’s comments suggest he is an overgrown adolescent. One hopes in vain for insight on the government system of Naboo or what reaction he expected from the startling announcement of Anakin’s virgin birth (made before we hear of the “midi-chlorians.”) What he most often says--over and over, in all three films--is how much more he can do with CGI today that a few years ago. Incessantly he rejoices that he can now, at last, bring his ideas to life. But what ideas? Not moving or dramatic ones--just glitz. He often compares his work to that of a composer, referring again and again to “tone poems” and such things. I can only suggest that, if he thinks his films are like music, he should have let John Williams do the directing as well as the score. The result would have been superior. As it is, The Phantom Menace is useful mainly as proof that Mr. Lucas can no longer invent a coherent plot, or make a film that can be taken seriously. He is now merely a master of eye-candy, of the colorful cinematic façade with emptiness behind it.
Finally, a tribute to Jar-Jar Binks. I am not being perverse. I like him. He brings to the film some much-needed humor. He does not take himself too seriously. He is genuine. He is humble. He is grateful. He helps his friends as best he can. I bet he wouldn’t leave his mother in slavery. As for his language, I find it more refreshing and alive than that of a certain character who for no apparent reason always backwards speaks, whose verbs at the end of his sentences puts, and who so insufferably smug is that I almost wish Count Dooku his little green head had off cut.

My apolgies for any inconsistencies in format, spacing, etc. I'm still learning how to use this blog.

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