Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Star Power

I went upstairs again and sat in my chair thinking about Harry Jones and his story. It seemed a little too pat. It had the austere simplicity of fiction rather than the tangled woof of fact.
-- The Big Sleep

Criticism through serendipity...



On this day, 28 years ago, The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters. I think Jonathan nails it when he writes:

Back when I was a kid the blockbuster was an event. Each year promised a high profile movie that some studio would sink all their money into and everyone had to see it. Since the success of Star Wars was unanticipated by the movie going crowd (that is, we weren't waiting and waiting for it to be released, it just kind of happened) my first recollection of an anticipatory blockbuster was The Empire Strikes Back. Oh Dear Lord I couldn't wait to see that damn thing. My friend, Chris, had read the Star Wars fiction released in between the two and told me all about Darth Vader falling into a volcano and that's why he had to wear the suit. Wow! How cool was that? Little did I know when I finally saw it happen in 2005 I would be stifling yawns during the climax. And of course the Star Wars fiction made absolutely no mention of Vader's name or who he was so the whole "Father" moment was absolutely flooring (although since Vader actually means 'father' I'm curious why this was not picked up on sooner by the adults seeing the movie. Were people just that un-curious and intellectually lazy back then? Nowadays the 'Vader' thing would've been blown after the first showing of the first movie).

Star Wars is connected to my earliest filmgoing memories-- it was the first film I saw in a theater (at the tender age of four), and my memories of it are no doubt exaggerated, like Alvy Singer growing up beneath the Coney Island roller coaster in Annie Hall. Remembrances come in sensual flashes, quick cuts: rummaging through the closet for coats and shoes, standing in a long line outside the much-missed Beacon Theater in Kalamazoo, becoming engulfed by the massive darkness of the theater itself. I was four, so I was a Bad Cinephile, talking and asking my mom and older brother questions, roaming the aisles, hardly looking at the screen, whose bright colors and fantastic spaces seemed (if you'll pardon the pun) alien, anyway.

And then the moment burned in my memory: somehow, I've made it to the front of the theater, just as the famous Mos Eisley cantina scene begins, and (as if the screen calls out to me), I finally manage to look up and focus on the screen. And I'm terrified-- the various aliens in the bar scare the hell out of me. I remember yelling, and running back to my seat. It's a moment of simultaneous alienation and bonding: despite my initial terror, I somehow know I will be hooked on movies for the rest of my life.

And Star Wars becomes a big part of that. After catching the 1978 re-release (I'm am now a much more mature, worldly five-year old), my imagination becomes fueled by Jedis, dark villains, beautiful princesses, and charming scoundrels. Star Wars action figures, space ships, posters, comic books and novelizations fill my bedroom. Anything sci-fi-related, from Buck Rogers to The Black Hole, becomes a must-see. Even the snoozy Star Trek: The Motion Picture can't break the spell.

My fandom takes the usual boyish paths of play and make-believe (pretending to be the characters), but also spurs my interest in behind-the-scenes material: as I get older, I start to read books about the making of the films (and other movies), watch promo documentaries about Industrial Light & Magic, scour back issues of Starlog for more data. I don't know what a film scholar is when I'm seven or eight, but that's what I'm becoming, without even thinking about it.

The beautiful one-sheet for The Empire Strikes Back (which remains one of my favorite film posters) promises something magical, dark, romantic (the latter wouldn't have meant much to me at seven, but I am still struck by the central image of Han and Leia, which years later I will realize was borrowed from Gone With The Wind). I get lost in its shadowy, mist-covered corners. In an age before VCRs and the Internet, moviegoing still feels like an event, one that's larger than life, one you have to anticipate and imagine, one you can't predict.

Which is not to say I didn't try-- even at the age of seven, I am ravenous for spoilers, and somehow get my hands on a copy of The Empire Strikes Back storybook the day that I am going to see the film. I shudder at the memory now-- I couldn't have waited five whole hours to find out what happens?-- but I'm honestly not sure I understood the big twist revealed in the clip above when I read it on the page: I knew what it said, but not what it meant-- it needed the full power of its visuals, of sitting in a cavernous movie theater with hundreds of rabid fans gasping, to really signify its import.

My uncle and his girlfriend take my brother and I to the much-missed Campus Theater for the evening show.
As its name suggests, it's a gigantic theater on the WMU campus, packed with kids, adults and college students; within five years, it will have been converted to a dance club, a reminder that Star Wars was the the tail-end of an earlier cultural era. Cheers erupt when "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." come up on the screen. Empire is stranger, darker, more adult than the earlier film. I love it, but feel distanced from it at the same time-- it doesn't ingratiate itself the way the first film did (or the way Return of the Jedi will, ham-handedly, three years later).

Of course, this supposed "chilliness" is a red herring-- for all its visual and thematic darkness, The Empire Strikes Back is easily the most human of all the Star Wars films, the most gripping and involving, and the only one that truly convinces me, all these years later, of the wholeness, depth and rich feeling of its vision. When Yoda raises that X-wing out of the swamps of Dagobah, the visuals and special effects and John Williams' wonderfully delicate score combine to make you believe that there is, in fact, a whole universe unfolding before your eyes: if there is a Force, it's the power of cinema. I'll see Return of the Jedi three years later at the much-missed Plaza Theater, and while I'll enjoy it in bits and pieces, and love the energy of the crowd, something is missing (I'm already a very jaded ten-year old). I can't place my finger on it, and I certainly don't have the vocabulary at that age to articulate it, but I know that this is a half-assed, pandering conclusion to the epic of my childhood, that the narrative feels rushed, that the Ewoks are lame, that the Death Star imagery is a retread. Could George Lucas have let me down? I'll ask the same question a year later when I see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (also at the Plaza Theater, which, within a decade, will be turned into a clothing outlet store). A year later, I can better explain why the second Indy film disappoints: "Indiana Jones needs a stronger villain," I tentatively explain to my father. "Belloq is like...he's like his opposite, so it...it means more than the guy pulling hearts out of the chest." I will later shift my opinion on Temple of Doom-- it's deeply flawed, but I love its go-for-broke spirit-- but these two failures herald the next step in my transformation: from film fan and trivia geek to budding critic.

These sorts of responses are why I've always taken the Biskindian myth about "Lucas and Spielberg killed American cinema" with a grain of salt. I get the evidence-- the rise of the blockbuster, the strangling importance of television ads, "concept" pitches and ancilliary marketing, the squeezing out of "more personal" cinema (on the other hand, I also remember the response of a friend when she finally caught up with one of those "personal movies," Midnight Cowboy, on DVD: "Wow..." she said, as she shook her head and relayed her impressions of the film's bleakness. "No wonder Star Wars was so popular a few years later"). But the Biskind reading is one that's as much generational as it is actual, driven by boomer nostalgia and a false binary between the "personal" and the "epic" (and a convenient overlooking of both the self-destructive excesses of that generation of filmmakers, and the more long-term affects that the Reagan administration's loosening of vertical monopoly rules with regards to theater ownership played in squeezing out crucial independent theater chains as sources for offbeat cinema). A critical response and methodology can start from a love of the sci-fi blockbuster as much as it can, say, the Western.



Anyway, it's not like a love of spectacle and glamour--at the expense of precious, precious narrative-- begins with Spielberg and Lucas. Take The Big Sleep, for instance. By odd coincidence, today is also the 63rd anniversary of the marriage of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, a ceremony which happened as they were filming that classic screwball noir. Famously hard to follow, The Big Sleep is a film carried almost entirely by star power-- not that of spaceships and light sabers, but no less able to distract, confuse, and allure in a deeply fetishistic way--and one which will confuse genre boundaries and audience expectations just as powerfully as Star Wars thirty years later.

Much of this was by design, and the various apparatuses which would build up around film studies (fueling the ideologies of that more "personal" seventies cinema, and later turned on the blockbuster landscape that Star Wars would help create)--including such approaches as auteurism, genre critique, industry analysis, and reader/audience-response--would often return to a famous anecdote in discussing the film.

“Who killed the chauffeur?” Bogart asks one day. It’s a reasonable question, seeing as the death of chauffeur Owen Taylor is a major plot point (and Bogart is, after all, playing the detective on the case). Director Howard Hawks admits to his star that, well, you see-- I have no idea. But if Hawks doesn’t know, he’ll go to those collaborators who should: screenwriters Leigh Brackett and William Faulkner. But this is proving a tough nut to crack-- they don’t know either (and how would they? The two writers adapted the film as if playing an Exquisite Corpse game, as recounted by one history of the film:

The morning that she checked in at Warners, Faulkner handed her a copy of the novel and said, “We will do alternate sets of chapters. I have them marked. I will do these and you will those.” And so it went. The two screenwriters labored alone in their separate offices; Brackett never saw what Faulkner wrote, and he never saw what she wrote. “Everything went in direct to Mr. Hawks,” Brackett recalled. “Beyond a couple of conferences, we never saw him”) .

Enough-- go to the source. After all, Raymond Chandler lives in Hollywood, even writes for the movies on occasion (his Double Indemnity was recently a big hit). Surely, he’ll be able to help. Chandler, like his alter ego Phillip Marlowe, doesn’t mince words: “I don’t know,” he wires back in response to the filmmakers’ query.

And there you have it-- at the heart of the mystery in a movie mystery, there lies a gaping hole. Even more surprisingly, it doesn’t matter-- The Big Sleep remains an enjoyable piece of commercial cinema, perhaps the most purely enjoyable (and certainly the sexiest) movie Humphrey Bogart ever made. And, like most of Hawks’ output at the time, it was a big hit with critics and audiences.

The anecdote related above is one of the most famous in Classic Hollywood history, told again and again in countless textbooks, case studies, biographies, and popular histories, to the extent that even those who have not seen The Big Sleep may still know this story. Auteurist studies of Hawks use it as an example of the way he transcends narrative and genre constraints to put a personal stamp on the work (a film’s story might not make sense, but we know it is “Hawksian”). Conversely, it is also recounted in histories of the studio system, as an example of the efficiency of the factory method (a film’s story might not make sense, but that doesn’t slow down production). It is registered in studies of audience reception, as an example of camp knowingness (a film’s story might not make sense, but we’re sophisticated enough to enjoy it). It is a funny, playful anecdote, one that seems to confirm the later statement of screenwriter William Goldman that, when it comes to Hollywood, “No one knows anything.”

Everyone loves this anecdote. But this anecdote isn’t true.

The producers of The Big Sleep knew who killed the chauffeur. When the film was re-released in 1996, it came in two versions—one, the 1946 print that everyone knew, with its playful banter superseding narrative clarity (the version that inspired the anecdote above), and the other a 1945 print tested for G.I.’s overseas. This version contained a scene in which detective Phillip Marlowe explains his theory of who killed the chauffeur Taylor. Supposedly, the scene was cut from the final release print because the soldiers felt it slowed down the action, and they demanded more of Bogart and Bacall. Another scene with Bogart and Bacall in a nightclub was shot, and replaced the cut footage.

The most famous scene in The Big Sleep, then, is a replacement-- an improvisation on an already written text, jammed after-hours. Appropriate, then, that it is scored on-screen by a small jazz combo. Captured in a long tracking shot, Vivian Sternwood (Lauren Bacall) walks into the nightclub to meet with Phillip Marlowe (Bogart), accompanied by the jazz band’s rendition of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans," composed in 1929 by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. The latter was trained as a lawyer and composed music on the side, eventually drifting, like The Big Sleep, from a strict interest in legal affairs to a more intense interest in stylish, witty entertainment. He initially wrote the melody to an earlier lyric by Lorenz Hart, and its redeployment by Howard Dietz with new lyric seems to match The Big Sleep's "rewriting" of Chandler's initial "melody.” While “Plans” remained a pop standard (reappearing even as late as 1953 in The Band Wagon), the quotation of a song from Prohibition days-- the height of gangster glamour and, just as important, the beginning of the sound period, and the modern gangster movies through which Bogart would become a star-- works to remind the audience of that earlier era, even as the film's radical deviations from that tough guy tradition suggest how much the cinematic world has changed.


Vivian finds Marlowe at the bar, captured in a plain americain shot, but before cutting to a two-shot of the couple together, Hawks places a group of mysterious-looking, grim-faced young people in the foreground of the shot. What intrigues me is the air of menace they provide—none look directly at the camera, choosing instead to toss one another conspiratorial glances, and in the midst of the bar’s glamour and relaxed elegance, it is notable that none of them smile, or seem particularly relaxed. It’s an odd moment, almost as if the extras from a Hitchcock film had somehow stumbled onto the wrong set. Like “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plans,” this framing reminds us of an earlier, grittier style of crime film, while the quick cut to the shot of Bogart and Bacall indicates the film’s desire to push into other, more screwball realms.

After an exchange at the bar, a tracking shot carries the characters to a small table, and a slight reframing once again captures them together in a medium shot (unlike many noirs, The Big Sleep is not interested in visually isolating its characters—even the shot-reverse shots that follow allow for more of the figures’ frames to remain in the shot than is common, the camera shooting from the side rather than over the shoulder). Vivian and Marlowe banter, the smoke from their cigarettes curling like steam heat around their bodies. Their exchange is at once foreplay and self-reflexive commentary on the scene’s lack of narrative utility:

Vivian: Tell me, uh, what do you usually do when you’re not working?
Marlowe: Oh, play the horses, fool around…
Vivian: No women?
Marlowe: Oh, I’m generally working on something most of the time.
Vivian: Could that be stretched to include me?
Marlowe: Oh, I like you—I told you that before.

The banter, with its double entrendres about horse-racing and seeing whether or not jockeys “come from behind,” continues, until, realizing they have to end the scene somehow, the filmmakers take a sharp turn back to the narrative—Marlowe accuses Vivian of “sugaring” him off the case, she becomes indignant, and they get up to leave. As it was in the beginning of the scene, the importance of the group is emphasized at the scene’s closing—a man accidentally bumps Vivian into Marlowe’s arms, they smile and say their goodbyes, and Marlowe goes to make a phone call. There is a dissolve to the next scene.
So many elements of this scene--the Dietz/Schwartz song’s title, the banter, even the “accidental” bumping of Vivian and Marlowe at the end-- comment wittily on the filmmakers’ forced reworking of their text in light of the previews and studio pressure; even the lyrics of “Plans” seem like a great intertextual joke about the film’s many plot threads, dead bodies and cut footage: “I guess I’ll have to change my plans/I should have realized there’d be another man./I overlooked that point completely/before the big affair began./Before I knew where I was at/I found myself up on the shelf/And that was that.”

It was the stars that the G.I.'s wanted, far more than narrative clarity, but the success of Sleep's witty, self-reflexive screenplay and Leigh Brackett's ability to roll with the punches would not go unnoticed: she and Hawks would collaborate several more times, most famously on Rio Bravo. In 1973, she worked on another self-reflexive noir (and one of those damn "personal" films), the Robert Altman masterpiece The Long Goodbye. Their work together was inspired-- Brackett's Marlowe was classical in his sense of chivalrous values, but modern in how he carried them out, causing Brackett to change the ending of Chandler's book: "It seemed," she would later write, "that the only satisfactory ending was for the cruelly-diddled Marlowe to blow Terry's guts out . . . something the old Marlowe would never have done." This fearlessness was further reflected in Altman's style of filming: loose, witty, and improvisational, it is his most jazz-like film (Elliot Gould's line readings, mumbles and funky walk transform Marlowe into a living be-bop solo). One of the film's most famous conceits was Johnny Williams' score, which took the title tune and translated it into a number of different contexts: full, non-diegetic theme song, melody whistled by a security guard gate, pop song blaring out of a car radio. The pop-music-as-intertextual-joke of The Big Sleep has become, 27 years later, a methodology: all the world connected by a single musical thread.

Two years later, "Johnny Williams" will become "John Williams," and his insistent score for Jaws will transform him into the go-to guy for blockbuster music. George Lucas will make use of his talents in Star Wars, and call upon him again for The Empire Strikes Back. After the success of the first film, Lucas desires full independence from the studios, so he self-finances the project with the profits from Star Wars, and sets up a rich distribution deal with Twentieth-Century Fox. It's a tremendous gamble, and the slower working style of director Irvin Kershner, while drawing rich performances and creating gorgeous images (no other Star Wars film will look so good), drives Lucas crazy and will lead to delays and budget overruns. In the end, of course, Lucas's gamble pays off, and as Jonathan noted above, truly creates the template for future "blockbuster events."

In one area, Lucas's choices are strong; screenwriting. He outlined the film's narrative, but turned the scripting duties over to a veteran of both science fiction and the sorts of screwball relationships the film explores: Leigh Brackett. There's debate about how much of her draft survived in the finished film (Lucas would rewrite, and would also turn it over to up-and-coming writer Lawrence Kasdan for a polish; Kasdan's success would lead him to a similar position on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and eventually give him the ability to write and direct his own noir, Body Heat). Brackett was very ill, and never lived to see the finished film (although Lucas did give her screen credit for her work, for which she would win a Hugo). But it's not impossible to see Han and Leia as an integalactic Bogie and Bacall: as Alexa L. Foreman writes in her essay on Brackett's work, "When Solo attempts to kiss her, Leia says, 'Being held by you isn't quite enough to get me excited.' But the attraction was there, and like Vivian and Marlowe, and Feathers and Chance, it is only a matter of time." And in that coupling, the twin threads of two different star powers would finally, spectacularly, meet, suggesting that certain critical and cinematic galaxies aren't always as far, far away as we might sometimes presume.

2 comments:

Jonathan Lapper said...

I remember writing a post (which you commented on) researching the box office returns and budgets of seventies movies before Star Wars and revealing that from Airport to The Towering Inferno the blockbusters and Hollywood marketing machine were already well in place by the time Star Wars came along. It's one of the reasons I don't buy Lucas and Spielberg destroying American cinema. The main difference, as I discovered in my research, was that the dominance of the studio re-emerged in the latter half of the seventies and directors with personal visions had a harder time getting their films made than they did from 67 to 75.

As I wrote in the post you quoted above, being five or six years older than you (depending on your birthday), I arrived at a cinephiliac turning point by 1981 and never looked back. Starting with Raiders I didn't return to the theater to see blockbusters again and again. By the time I saw Return of the Jedi I was utterly disappointed. For me, movies will always be about emotion, even if there concern is a lack of emotion. I connect with films on a personal level and that became clear to me around this time. I still saw the blockbusters and still love sci-fi and horror, but deep down I know that a movie will not be revisited by me unless it affects me on a personal level.

When I say "re-visit" I don't literally mean "watch it again" although that can be the case, but instead to re-visit it in my mind, mull it over, analyze it. With Jedi there is only one moment in the entire movie that connected with me. It is when Luke puts down his lightsaber and tells the Emporer he is a Jedi, like his father before him.

That one moment brought the series together. In Empire Vader remarks that Luke is not a Jedi yet. What can that mean? He is not skilled enough as a fighter? He has not had enough training? No. With Jedi we fully understand that the moment Luke puts down his lightsaber, despite what he may have told people before, he finally becomes a Jedi and only then. This is why Lucas' prequels are so vastly and heartbreakingly disappointing. They signal that the creator of the characters and stories themselves did not understand his own creation.

The Force is not a collection of midichlorians that one has the luck of being born with in abundance or not. The Force is not something one can measure with a blood test. The Force is a state of mind. When one achieves peace with himself, has no more illusions of power being granted by violence, of submission coming by the tip of a sword, then one finally connects with the Force, one becomes a Jedi.

Luke has that moment in Jedi and it's beautiful. It's the only moment in the film that feels like the sequel to Empire. It's the only moment that should rightfully follow Empire. After the great emotional and intellectual knowledge we gain of the characters in Empire to have the last film in the trilogy reduce everything to an extended fairy tale and battle for the magical kingdom felt like a slap in the face. It further distanced me from blockbusters.

And now today, I often feel distanced from my fellow cinephiles when it comes to science fiction/adventure/comic book movies. I just don't care about them and I know you and so many others do. I do not ever want to be dismissive of liking them because I have plenty of sci-fi films I love myself and I wouldn't want someone condescending to me for liking them. It's just that I separate liking or loving a movie from connecting with a movie.

When I see Batman Begins I like it a lot but I don't return to it and I feel there is nothing it's telling me or revealing about me and I think art should reveal the truth to its recipient. On the other hand, I have had a complicated personal life involving two marriages, affairs, children and financial devastation. So when I see Manhattan or The Luck of Ginger Coffey (also directed by Kirschner) or Dodsworth they connect with me deeply and mean one hell of a lot more to me than any blockbuster ever could.

And so when I read a glowing review of Speed Racer or Iron Man I, admittedly, get a little irked. I equate them with empty calories and feel there are so many filmmakers (myself included so yes it is a little personal) who would desperately love to have just a million dollars (or even half that) to finance the story they want to tell but can't because the studios just sunk 200 million into the latest comic book or animated tv show adaptation.

So to wrap up this out of control comment I prefer smaller films now more than I ever have before. We all have different markers and signposts in life that we arrive at and over the last six years I have arrived at some I never thought I would. I spent years arguing for blockbusters and Spielberg and how even a sci-fi movie could transcend its genre and be great art. I still believe all of that and know it to be true intellectually. Problem is, where I am now, I just don't care anymore. I never thought I'd say it but I could never see one of the Star Wars movies again and that would be fine with me. But tell me I could never see one of the movies I connect to that I mentioned above, or The Third Man or Chinatown (an incredible film of emotional impact) or Kes or Out of the Past or Brief Encounter and I'd be heartbroken. Or The Big Sleep for that matter.

And actually there is one Star Wars movie that I would be heartbroken about too: The Empire Strikes Back. That movie does it job, it reveals truth to the viewer. And that's why I still intellectually know that any movie can transcend its genre and be great art. But sadly, what Kirschner and Brackett and Kasdan brought to Empire isn't brought to a lot of blockbusters anymore. Maybe it never was.

Brian Doan said...

Jonathan,
Wow! Thank you for an eloquent and personal response to my post. I loved its detail and its mapping out of your own cinephilia.

I wouldn't want to live in a universe of just blockbusters, or so-called 'genre' films, and certainly wouldn't want to live in a universe without Manhattan, Chinatown or all the Classic Hollywood films you mention (as I think I've mentioned before, that period between 1927 and 1960 or so is my favorite in American cinema). But I do love Empire, and I would be a liar if I denied the importance of Spielberg and Lucas in shaping my imagination (even if It's obvious now that Spielberg is the greater filmmaker of the two...hell, the real filmmaker of the two). And as I mentioned in my post, this is undoubtedly a generational thing for me: as a geeky boy coming of age in the late seventies and early eighties, there was an excellent, maybe inevitable chance that those movies would be huge touchstones (just as The Searchers was and continues to be for an earlier generation of cinephiles, or Bonnie and Clyde, or Bergman, or who/whatever).

That's not to suggest that these films and filmmakers are all equal, but that there is an element of timing to how our understanding of cinema is shaped. And as your excellent post suggests, it also involves any number of personal details and experiences. Tastes definitely change and evolve over time, which is why there's a degree of silliness in demarcating any genre as inherently above or below contempt (I have many a disagreement with David Bordwell, but God bless him for pointing out in an essay that the "art film" is no less a series of easily manipulated tropes and cliches than the more critically despised blockbuster forms). In saying that, I don't mean it at all as a criticism of your excellent post, which I loved, but to suggest that these boundaries are more fluid than we might think (Leigh Brackett working on Star Wars? Really?), and that applying different critical lenses to them might help us to see them in different ways.

Oh, and your Jedi remarks? Spot-on.