Monday, December 28, 2015

The Truth About "Star Wars"

The new Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens," which I saw this past weekend, is a reminder that the originals were never quite as good as they're viewed in retrospect.

What were they? Pure entertainment combined with a large amount of nonsense. Good old-fashioned American hokum, in other words.

The genius of George Lucas was to combine every stray cultural influence he could find-- from "El Cid" swordfights and bad guys, to comedic sidekicks straight from the novel Ivanhoe, to the sandy vistas of Arabia, and exotic ethnicities strange to his Southern California upbringing, to the clich├ęs of "B" movies, including those of the kung fu variety-- and set this mix in a faraway galaxy, which gave complete freedom to his desire to mesh these many influences into a single entity.

Ideas? There are no ideas in the Star Wars movies, only pseudo-mythology, mumbo-jumbo paganism, and a medieval style. In that sense it's akin to the operas of Richard Wagner. As with Wagner, the music, the sets and costumes, and the posturing ARE the point. All else are rationalizations for the rubes; reasons for people to buy the tickets and attached products.

Don't get me wrong. The movies have a lot going for them. The original "Star Wars" was a revolutionary film. It transformed the movie art, by relying most on those elements essential to the art. While it was a lot of silliness, it also had awesome music (triumphalist in the Wagnerian style), fast pace, thrilling special effects, and brilliant editing. It was joyously fun to watch. The movie was immensely influential. The hundreds of action-adventure flicks that followed borrowed its elements. As a result, the latest sequel could never have the impact of the original, given the changed context.

The Star Wars phenomenon began as P.T. Barnum hokum and morphed quickly into all-out P.T. Barnum ballyhoo-- seen with the latest incarnation. "The Force Awakens" is the most thoroughly marketed and merchandised movie ever. With the Disney empire now producing the series, the entire enormous American media publicity machine was geared up to promote the flick. The movie business itself, and all attached outlets and critics-- theaters, magazines, were dependent on the movie's success. The project is the epitome of Disney calculation and hype. Far in advance it was sold, both subliminally and specifically, as the apex of motion picture achievement. The full eventual payoff will be in the many billions of dollars earned by everybody associated with the product.

Did this lead to a low-risk creative strategy for the film itself? Stay tuned for Part II of this essay, which will include my fully honest review of "The Force Awakens."

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Is “One Eyed Jacks” Better than “Unforgiven”?

one-eyed jacks

With Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper” receiving a flurry of attention, both bad and good, it might be time to examine his most famous Western movie, “Unforgiven,” made in 1992.

How good is it?

The American Film Institute ranks it #68  on its list of Top 100 Movies.

Yet I can think of at least one Western movie with similar themes that’s better than it. Namely, Marlon Brando’s 1961 flick “One-Eyed Jacks.”

“One-Eyed Jacks” is a better movie than at least half of those listed on the AFI list. As a work of art it’s better than all but a handful of them. Even that statement is modest. Is “One-Eyed Jacks” as deep in its subtexts and undercurrents as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”? Yes.

“One-Eyed Jacks” is a better film than “Unforgiven” on many levels, in many aspects. I’ll discuss here only one of them.

“One-Eyed Jacks” contains a scene when Sheriff Dad Longworth, played by Karl Malden, brutally whips Marlon Brando’s Rio in the center of town, with the community looking on. The sudden violence from the lawman comes as a surprise.

“Unforgiven” mimics this scene in two of its own. First, when Gene Hackman’s Sheriff beats up gunfighter English Bob, played by Richard Harris. The presentation is similar—a host of rifles and shotguns tell the gunman he has no chance. Hackman exhibits the power of authority over the cocky gunslinger.

Later in the movie, Hackman beats up protagonist Clint Eastwood, another aging gunfighter, in similar fashion, which sets up the film’s violent conclusion.

The scene in “One-Eyed Jacks” is superior, because it brings together several of the subtexts and themes that have been floating beneath the narrative. For the Malden character, his action is not simply a demonstration of authority. The beating is personal. It’s an explosion of tension which has been building between the two men from the film’s beginning.

There’s the self-hatred Malden feels for having betrayed his friend—hate which is projected onto Brando. There may be a deeper subtext, given that Brando was in effect his protege, having started riding with Malden from a young age. As the dialogue states, from when Brando’s character was little more than a kid. Is something psychosexual going on? It’s possible.

There’s the father-son dynamic, as expressed even in the characters’ names-- “Dad” and “Kid.” Adding to this is the fact that Rio has entered Dad’s stepdaughter, Louisa—transcendentally played by Mexican actress Pina Pellicer—and Dad knows or at least suspects this.

The beatings in “Unforgiven,” however powerful, contain none of this, and so carry less discomforting force. The greatest art will work its themes and meanings through every part of the narrative. “One-Eyed Jacks,” a true American movie masterpiece, accomplishes this.


For more discussion of these two movies and other great Western films, pick up my ebook, ABOUT WESTERN MOVIES, available through Nook Books and Kindle.