Tag Archives: storytelling

Star Wars VII and cultural karaoke

xwing

For someone prone to dropping Star Wars references in almost everything he writes, I haven’t had much to say since the official announcement, just a few cycles prior to Star Wars Day, of the cast of J.J. Abrams’ continuation of George Lucas’ fabled saga, in which months of speculation and rumor about who said what and who else was photographed coming out of where were put to rest snugly inside the belly of a Tauntaun.  The lead three from the first beloved trilogy are back:  Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and perennial “Han Solo bores me” grump Harrison Ford (undoubtedly for a handsome chunk of change), along with the unseen but ever-present Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Kenny Baker as R2-D2 and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO.  They are joined by a mix of screen veterans like Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac and the legendary Max von Sydow, and relative unknowns like John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Domnhall Gleeson and Adam Driver.

Nothing was forthcoming, however, about what contributions to the saga the new players are making.  In the leadup, Driver was said to be the preferred candidate for the “Darth Vader-like villain,” whatever you take that to mean.  As an aside, granted I don’t know what goes into the science of casting, but having endured a few minutes of one episode of Girls I can’t imagine looking at him and having my first thought be, “ruthless galactic bad guy!”  I stand by my opinion that young actors make lousy villains – they often come off as spoiled brats having hissy fits because Mommy confiscated the XBox – but yeah, yeah, lesson of Heath Ledger and all that, we’ll wait for the movie.  And although J.J. Abrams says he regrets being coy about who Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play in Star Trek Into Darkness, suggesting that it hurt the movie in the long run, he seems to be sticking with his policy of keeping everything locked in the mystery box for now.  The only other tantalizing tidbit we’ve heard is that Han Solo is supposed to play a major role in the story while Luke and Leia will be relegated to supporting parts.  (I don’t think this works – the character of Han was never meant to be a lead, only a strong foil, but again, we’ll wait for the movie.)

The best decision Abrams made in taking on this daunting yet coveted assignment was to hire Lawrence Kasdan to help him shape the screenplay to his satisfaction.  Kasdan’s work on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was invaluable, particularly his gift with sharp, concise dialogue, and his pen was sorely missed in the prequels.  I recall reading somewhere that Lucas did ask him to help with Episodes I-III and Kasdan declined, suggesting that Lucas needed to write his own story this time.  Shame – we might have been spared I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here.  Here everything is soft and smooth.  Kasdan comes from the antecedent generation of screenwriters, prior to the reigning group that grew up watching movies in video stores, and as such he’s less likely to fall into the Admiral Ackbar-forewarned trap of making this new movie nothing but a callback to the highlights of the first three – if he can keep Abrams, the leading member of the aforementioned reigning group, and the man with the last word on this movie’s story, in line.

Star Wars Episode VII has a Sisyphean task ahead.  It has to measure up to the standard of the first three movies, expunge the bad taste left in many mouths by the soulless, over-digitized prequels, and convey the feel of the Star Wars universe without simply repeating what is not only familiar, but entrenched in the souls of an entire generation.  Even the original trilogy couldn’t manage to do this; that’s why we had two Death Stars to blow up.  But it’s the challenge awaiting anyone who tackles a sequel, no matter what the series.  People always want more of the same thing.  James Bond has to order the same drink, wear the same tux, introduce himself the same way and end up with a girl in the end.  When he doesn’t, fans (and critics) pout.  Formula is a straitjacket:  stray too far and you lose your target market, nestle too comfortably inside it and you’re lost in the cesspool of endless fan service.

When Super 8 came out, critics were quick to dub it the second coming of Steven Spielberg, at least his late 70’s/early 80’s aesthetic, missing the point that when Spielberg was making Close Encounters and E.T. he wasn’t trying to pay homage to anything, he was just telling stories of the time.  With Super 8, however, J.J. Abrams seemed to be trying so hard just to recreate the look and feel of that era of moviemaking that he forgot to tell a story that had any heart, or was even remotely interesting.  My concern for Episode VII is that Abrams will focus on all the wrong elements again, packing a most visually impressive movie with winky-noddy retreads of beats and lines of dialogue from IV-VI that are so familiar they have lost their original meaning and have become geek and nerd shibboleths instead.  Abrams blew the landing of Star Trek Into Darkness by turning the last twenty minutes into a variation on the finale of The Wrath of Khan, yanking us out of the story with “oh yeah, that’s a reference to X, that’s a reference to Y” right when we needed to be locked deep inside it.  I don’t particularly want to be sitting in the audience at Episode VII and eyeing my watch to pinpoint the inevitable moment someone announces “I have a bad feeling about this.”  We’ve been sated with franchise movies constructed from checklists instead of scripts that have emotional resonance.  That way lies the banality of the Friedberg/Seltzer “oeuvre” (i.e. Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans and any one of a dozen comedies built on evoking Pavlovian audience reactions to limp parodies of stale pop culture.)

Note that in the coverage of the cast announcement the new actors are getting much less attention than old.  The new guys (and one girl so far) in Episode VII will be blown off the screen if they are merely retreads on the naive farm boy, the steadfast princess, the wisecracking cynical smuggler, the former hero fallen to the dark side.  They will be dismissed as pale revisions of a superior first draft.  They need to have their own wants and goals and quirks in order to etch themselves into our hearts the way the originals did and to become new shibboleths that we can exchange and quote for another forty years.  They won’t be able to do that if they are plugged into a paint-by-numbers Star Wars plot designed primarily to bring back a sense of 1977.  And if at some point in the movie Daisy Ridley breathes “I love you” to John Boyega and he replies “I know,” we’re just going to roll our eyes.

It’s perhaps ironic to criticize Star Wars for relying too much on repetition of the familiar when it is in itself a pastiche of hero tropes that have existed since cave wall storytelling.  Those tropes are not the problem; the problem is choosing to use them as targets rather than starting points.  That I think is the major issue I have with the kind of storytelling espoused by J.J. Abrams and his contemporaries.  They’re not trying to do anything terribly new, they just want to do their own version of the stuff they liked when they were young, focusing not on creation but on re-creation with a modern spin.  It’s cultural karaoke on a billion-dollar scale, and if we’re going to invest that amount of money, talent, effort and time, it would be nice to walk out of the theater having experienced something worthwhile.  Having been taken somewhere we’ve never been before.  George Lucas himself proved the disconnect that occurs when you construct a story predicated on hitting specific beats (a systematic problem with pretty much every prequel ever made) rather than growing organically from rich characterizations.  We know where you’re going with this, you’ve practically handed us the coordinates and programmed the navicomputer.  And we stop caring.  Just like we stop listening to the guy at the karaoke bar doing “American Pie” for the fifteenth time, no matter how good a voice he actually has.

In any event, the gauntlet has been thrown down, Messrs. Abrams, Kasdan et al, to step away from what’s expected and venture instead into galaxies unknown – dare you pick it up or recoil lest your arm be severed by a lightsaber?

With a Song in My Heart: R is for…

“The Rainbow Connection” – Kermit the Frog (The Muppet Movie), 1979.

Given that home video has become a multi-billion-dollar business over the last 35 years, generating far more revenue for Hollywood studios than its precious theatrical releases, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when any kind of home viewing of films was considered piracy, and that the infamous Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America once went before Congress and described the VCR as “to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”  In the 80’s, the VCR was a keystone of growing up.  It was a ticket to other worlds, in that now you had a permanent passport to those favorite adventures that otherwise you’d experience once in the theater and then have to wait about five years to see it again, chopped up with commercials on network TV, if you were lucky.  Even a Betamax machine (yes, my parents guessed wrong, and the phrase “sorry, we only have that on VHS” was heard often at our downtown video store) let you record, play, replay and scrutinize to your heart’s content.  There are a few formative movies that I recall watching rather obsessively when we were becoming the first generation to be able to do that:  Bond, Mary Poppins, Superman, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Popeye, and of course, The Muppet Movie.

The story of how Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of the gang came together to put on The Muppet Show week after week begins with Kermit alone in his home swamp, strumming a banjo, singing about dreams.  He’s content to remain there until a lost talent agent played by Dom DeLuise spurs him to pursue those dreams to Hollywood, meeting up with familiar faces in typical fourth wall-breaking, cameo-packed hijinks while avoiding the machinations of the evil Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) who wants Kermit as spokesfrog for his national chain of frog’s legs restaurants.  The half-dozen odd songs written by Paul Williams never quite manage to live up to the promise set by the opening number, but in fairness, how could they.  “The Rainbow Connection” is lovely, hopeful, meditative and even a little sad.  Hearing it always puts me back in the living room of the old house in front of that old wood-panel-encased picture tube, clinging to the remote that attached to the VCR by a long cord and had only three controls:  a pause button and a toggle between reverse and fast forward.  Primitive, perhaps, but enough to listen to Kermit’s opening number ad absurdum.

One of my more popular posts of the last couple of months was entitled “Don’t explain away the magic.”  Somewhat uniquely among forms of art, a deepening love of movies usually fosters a deeper investigation into how they are made, diminishing the magic while ironically strengthening your appreciation for them.  (I say uniquely as loving books, for example, doesn’t necessarily lead to a fascination with grammar and sentence structure.)  There are few special effects, optical or computerized, whose basic principles I don’t understand.  The shot of Kermit riding a bicycle after he sets out on his journey, however, continues to astonish me.  Partly because the Muppets were always so endearing, we wanted them to be real.  Fundamentally we knew it was Jim Henson or Frank Oz beneath the frame flapping the lips of a felt construction, but when Kermit was giving his dinner order to waiter Steve Martin or shrinking from mad scientist Mel Brooks, we leaped over the valley of doubt and disbelief.  As a person who revels in telling stories, whether in the form of novels, shorts, 140-character bursts or even short-form nonfiction like this, the ability to make your audience want to take that leap with you is the greatest, most elusive goal.  Most people can’t do it.  In hands lesser than those of Henson et al, the Muppets never would have worked; they would have been simply the latest variation on Punch & Judy, glaring fakes with obvious strings.  Yet they establish such credibility that even if you’ve never seen a Muppet show before, the first moments of this movie where Kermit picks up his banjo and starts to sing remain spellbinding.  You focus then on the meaning of the song and forget that it’s being performed through patches of fabric and glue.  And its idea of finding the ability to walk from idle dreams to unshakable certitude over an elusive rainbow road, makes absolute sense.

I’ve performed “The Rainbow Connection” at a handful of karaoke bars over the years, and my passable Kermit impression is usually good for a handful of laughs from anyone who can be bothered to look up from their drinks.  When I’m singing it, certainly I’m mindful of doing the Kermit voice properly, but I’m always putting just as much emphasis into what the song means.  In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and friends set out to follow their dreams, and discover that achieving them never looks like how you expected.  Many of us will be frightened out of the pursuit exactly for this reason; we can’t bear the idea that the truth won’t resemble our meticulously constructed fantasy.  Maybe you won’t submit your novel to anyone because you’re afraid it won’t be a million-dollar bestseller and a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson.  Maybe you won’t even hit “publish” on your blog post because you worry it won’t be a viral sensation that gets more hits than “Gangnam Style.”  Is that really the best alternative, though?  Burning away the years pining for a future you don’t have the guts to go after?  A swamp filled with regret is a lonely place to spend your one go-around on this planet.  Because it’s gonna be a reaaaaaaaaaally long wait for Dom DeLuise to show up.