26 November 2008

68. star wars

This is a big movie in all ways. It is big in that it creates a world unlike we had previously seen in cinema (the now iconic "galaxy far, far away") and subsequently created a monster of a franchise that changed cinema forever, in distribution schemes to merchandising to using actors as puppets and more. But mostly what I mean when I saw that is it big is that it is a movie concerned with Big Ideas, while not eschewing the necessity of a tight plot as the engine to drive those Big Ideas along.

Big Idea One: Spirituality is just as important as science and maybe more so. Obi-Wan is spirituality, Han Solo is science, and Luke is in between. They duke it out on the ship while Luke practices his saber skills. True to the machinations of how Hollywood plots work, at the end of the 2nd act, Luke uses his science skills (piloting) along with his spiritual skills (The Force's ability to harness telepathy) to shoot down the Death Star. Considering how much discussion of The Force there is in the film, and the fact that Luke is able to continue to communicate with Owi-Wan after he's already dead, we can guess which side Lucas is taking in the face-off between spirituality vs. science.

Big Idea Two: The Hero Myth. Just as "The Matrix" synthesized influences ranging from kung-fu films to anime to vampire movies to cyberpunk books, Lucas took the melting pot that was his cinematic canon and combined it: 50's westerns, tv serials, soap operas, 50's sci fi, Kirosawa films, "Lawrence of Arabia", and especially, the ideas of Joseph Cambell in relation to the myth of the Hero. Here's a summary of the myth:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The first trilogy is the process of how Luke Skywalker becomes a hero by defeating his father, who represents the Dark Side of the Force by way of the Empire. In this, the first film, he comes from a desert planet, decides to leave when his guardians are killed (bonus points for being an orphan), encounters a world of scary-looking space creatures and ships that either go light-speed or can blow up whole planets, and uses his newfound Force, along with his previous piloting ability, to thwart the Empire. Then he wins a medal from a cute girl (doesn't know she's his sister yet).

He is a hero by specific design, and becomes even more of one in the subsequent films.

By contrast, the second trilogy is the process of how Anakin Skywalker goes through a much similar course, but becomes a villain instead. He is a virgin birth (!) whose mother (?) is killed. He is a fine pilot and student of The Force, but becomes seduced to its Dark Side due to his desire for power and, especially, revenge.

He is a villain by specific design, and becomes even more of one in the subsequent films.

Big Idea Three: The role of the underdog and outsider. Lucas is interested in characters on the fringe, outside of the mainstream. Luke is from a planet on the far edge of the galaxy; Leia is a princess who, in our political parlance, has "gone rogue" and is "palling around with terrorists"; Han Solo is a pilot-for-hire whose last name is, well, Solo. These folks band together to take on the Empire, a highly scientific and powerful group who have developed technology sufficient to explode entire planets. How dare these ruffians try to compete with that, or to bring that down? But they do, because as the outsiders and the underdogs, they are hungrier.

I've heard the argument that this is actually Lucas' secret comment on the world of independent film vs. the Hollywood studio system. If so, I like that, because it means that he started out as Luke Skywalker and then became Anakin, and only wants our forgiveness for the mess he's helped make of the movie business in the process.

69. Dog Day Afternoon

Let's talk about improvisation. It probably doesn't mean what you think it means. What it doesn't mean is actors making up the story. What it does mean is actors using a very specific structure with very specific limits to world-build -- with their own dialogue (often corollary to what is already written), their own actions, their own character traits -- in aid of a very specific goal. In cinema, oftentimes that goal is naturalism.

That's the case here. We get a montage of a hot summer day in New York to set the stage, and we get a pretty little Elton John song on the soundtrack. Whoops! Turns out the music is actually diegetic: it is on the radio of a car with three men in it, parked in front of a building.

Those men are robbers, and that building is a bank.

The director, one of our absolute finest, Sidney Lumet, had a screenplay that he liked. That's because the screenplay is good -- the set-up is economical, the structure is quite sound, it represents the true events in a purposeful way, the twists and reversals are startling, and it is even pretty damn funny at times. But what Lumet wanted to do is make the film as realistic and ground-level as possible. He wanted to put the audience inside the bank with those men to show that, even though these men are not to be admired, there are reasons for them to do what they are doing and they are humans too. To get us into the moment with those men, there are various cinematic tricks used: an almost real-time narrative, no soundtrack, natural lighting.

But the most important is the improvisation.

Lumet rehearsed his actors for weeks before the shoot began. He stuck them in a room and worked with them over and over to embody the characters and know them inside and out. He gave them a scene, maybe like this: "Sonny says goodbye to his male lover over the phone" or "Sonny dictates his will to one of the bank tellers" and had them work the scene out from the ground up, figuring out blocking, movement, action, and sometimes, new dialogue. By the time they shot the film, some things had changed from the shooting script, but it was still the same movie that Pierson wrote -- the same intentions, the same structure, the same story beats and character arcs. Now it was fleshed out and the actors were able to embody the characters as closely to flesh-and-blood human beings as you can get in filmed cinema, with tics and stammers and mood swings and sweat stains and spontaneous bursts of language and humanity.

And that's improvisation.