Friday, September 2, 2011

The Badness of King George (Lucas)

Believe it or not, there was a time when people tried to defend George Lucas's storytelling abilities. 

Who ya gonna call?
He withstood the criticism fairly well, until cracks in his narrative armor began to appear with Return of the Jedi.  The highly merchandisable cuteness of the Ewoks and the wretched sentimentality of the "family photograph" at the conclusion -- when ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Darth Vader appear with Luke and company --  foreshadowed things such as Jar-Jar Binks.

What the duck?
Sure, there was his involvement with the Indiana Jones series.  But when people wanted to talk about Lucas as if he possessed undiluted genius, I had a standard response to them: "Always remember three words: Howard. The. Duck."

I waited nearly 20 years between the release of Return of the Jedi and A New Hope, only to be horribly and bitterly disappointed in the crapulence Lucas threw at us and was somehow proud of.  I then began to think perhaps Howard the Duck was the norm and the first Star Wars movies were the exception.

Now it seems Lucas was not satisfied ruining my expectations for the Star Wars prequels.  He now wants to ruin the originals.

Still lame.
Back in 2004, in the re-release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas replaced the original image of Sebastian Shaw, the actor who played Darth Vader during the brief moment when we saw beneath his mask, with Hayden Christensen, who played Annikin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

I don't really care about that.  That doesn't make that cinematic moment less groan-worthy than it already was.  I say that Lucas is determined to ruin his legacy because, in the latest Blu-Ray release of Return of the Jedi, he is injecting groan-worthiness where it had not existed before.  (Link to story about changes.)

In a key scene, Luke is saved and Darth Vader turns against the Dark Side -- he stops the Emperor from Tazering Luke with the Force and tosses him down the funhole of a Death Star.  In the original scene, Darth does all of this silently.  In the "improved" version he says "Noooo!"  Twice.

I understand the problem Lucas might have felt he was addressing.  There is a lot of emotion going on in Darth Vader's mind in this scene and he makes some key decisions.  But the character's face is hidden behind his famous mask.  Giving Darth dialog, however inarticulate and unconvincing it might be, would communicate to the audience what he was thinking and feeling.

But there is no problem for Lucas to solve here.  We do not need any verbal assistance to make up for a lack of facial cues from Darth Vader.  His actions tell us what he is feeling.  Tossing one's boss into a pit of blue fire is not very ambiguous.  But that wasn't enough for Lucas, the Master of Obviousness.

Seeing this revised scene made me think about the peculiar convention of the wordless close-up.  Most films have at least some of them.  The shots rely upon crucial information being communicated through the close-up of an actor's face, which focuses the viewer's attention on the emotions taking place within the character.  Even when that face is relatively expressionless, the audience can be trusted to understand what is happening beneath the calm surface.  This is partly through the dialog and action that surrounds the close-up, but it also is through the audience's training.  We have been taught how to understand such film conventions by watching thousands of hours of film and television.

The Searchers (1956)
A famous example would be a scene with John Wayne in The Searchers.  After his character, Ethan, and others have determined that they have been lured away from the settlements by the Comanche and that all of their families are in great danger, the posse races back to save them.  But Ethan knows their horses cannot make the hard ride.  Racing back will kill their mounts, which will keep them from saving the families AND leave them without horses.

He is left behind and wipes down his tired horse.  Across his still somewhat stoic face we see the concern and fear for what might be happening to his brother's family.  No dialog.  No scenes of mayhem.  No overwrought expressions.  Some of his frustration is evident in the way he wipes down the horse.  He is helpless and he hates that.

In film studies we talk about "reading" images.  But with many wordless close-ups, we are not really reading the face of the actor -- at least not reading it separate from the dialog and actions that have come immediately before or that will follow.  We must admit that a face without dialog can sometimes be ambiguous.  But if the elements surrounding the close-up are clear, the viewer is not so much reading the face in the close-up as he/she is projecting expected feelings onto that character -- or what they would be feeling themselves.  In a sense, the face can be like an empty space that the viewer fills in.

My evidence for this is Team America: World Police, a film with no actual faces, only puppets.  This movie has close-ups and reaction shots of puppets.  Some of them are rigged to have expressions, but many times the faces do not change during the shot.  The emotions are conveyed through actions and dialog.  However, in some scenes we are given reaction shots from puppets who are showing no reaction and who have no dialog or actions for cues of their emotions.  But the audience, I believe, understands what is going through the character's mind.  The close-up functions as a time not for the audience to "read" the face and decipher its meaning, since there is nothing there to read on the surface.  Instead, the audience uses the time of the close-up to register or sense more deeply the emotions and thoughts of the character they are projecting there.

In this scene from Team America, the leader of the agents tries to recruit Gary Johnston to join them.  The scene includes reaction shots of Gary during the pitch, but, of course, his face never changes.  Yet somehow the audience understands what he is thinking and understands when he declines the offer.

If you think about it, what is Darth Vader but a large puppet?  If we can understand Trey Parker and Matt Stone's marionettes, then we do not need George Lucas's help to understand one of the world's most iconic villains in his moment of redemption.

1 comment:

  1. When I was taking art classes in painting and drawing as an undergraduate, we were taught that knowing when to stop was just as important as executing good technique. Can you imagine Picasso going back to some of his earlier work and saying, you know, I think I could have done that better- I believe I'll rework that painting? Of course not! You'd think Lucas would have learned from the outcry over re-working the Han-Greedo scene (who shot first?) but obviously he hasn't. He's like a 70's band, still singing the same hits from way back when, but now with Autotune!

    By the way, have you seen Star Wars Uncut? Now there's something fresh and exciting in the universe of Star Wars.