Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Star Wars and the Henson Connection: A Brief Interlude.

It’s hard to tell how many can remember it.  It was a long time ago after all, and the contemporary memory isn’t what it used to be.  It wouldn’t be all that much of a surprise if most people don’t associate what is ostensibly a children’s show with “a galaxy far away” at all.  It still doesn’t change history, or the fact that at one time the worlds of George Lucas and Jim Henson collided during TV’s prime time hour way back in 1980.

On February 21 of that year, four months before the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, Mark Hamill made an appearance on Henson’s Muppet Show, both as himself and the character of Luke Skywalker.  Joining Hamill for the episode were SW co-stars Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew. 

What’s interesting about this episode is the puzzle it presents to viewers and fans of the saga.  Where does it fit into the over-arching narrative that is the original trilogy?  Or does it is even belong there at all.  There are also a question of whether or not it tells us anything about the nature of the Lucas’s characters, especially when they are paired off against Henson’s madcap creations.  Last, yet not least, there is a stylistic element to the nature of how this episode is written that deserves a closer look.  This form of writing isn’t often seen nowadays, yet it used to be as legitimate as the Shakespearian stage.  In fact, this very element I wish to examine provides an intriguing connective thread between Henson and the Bard.  Follow along, if you want, and let’s see if there’s more to unpack in this brief half-hour variety episode than meets the eye.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 2: Shakespeare in Space.

In my last post I raised the question of what type of story we are dealing with when we talk about Star Wars.  I believe there is an answer to that question, however, it involves a bit of effort to understand it.  The good news is we can use some old, familiar tools to do it.  Perhaps the best place to start is with the text and the author who helped Lucas and Co. structure the outline for the OT, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Using Campbell’s text as a jumping off point, I’d like to use it to help examine what kind of story the first trilogy really is, and why the answer to that question is so important in terms of the narrative coherence of both the characters, and the overall narrative events they find themselves in.

I’d like to argue that Campbell helps us to understand the characters as archetypes which contain certain literary echoes or resonances as part of their narrative ingredients.  It is precisely the existence of these echoes which accounts for why they seemed so familiar to audiences, even when they were seen for the first time back in 77.  I’d also like to argue that it’s these same resonances which should help determine the way we view the main cast of characters for the first three films.  It makes sense to think of the trio of heroes, and the two villains, as almost a re-shuffle, or recombination of old archetypes that have arranged elements of old, familiar plot devices and narrative twists into something that contains callbacks to works of the past, while still maintaining an artistic identity of its own.  
I’ve decided to focus on the OT and not the prequels.  The reason for this is has to do with a fundamental difference that I believe exists between to two trilogies.  For all the creative effort put into the prequels, they tend to come off more as technical, rather than any artistic achievements.  A lot of it has to do with the shortcomings of Lucas as a storyteller mentioned in a previous post.  The big takeaway there was that it is possible for Lucas to have creative ideas, but he always tends to have a difficult time realizing and fleshing these concepts out unless he has the assistance of other, more skilled minds.  The prequels are the best illustration of this.  Whereas the first trilogy was the result of several skilled talents working together to create something new and yet familiar, the prequels are a textbook example of uninspired invention over Inspiration.  

The idea comes in part from J.R.R. Tolkien, yet Tolkien himself seems to have derived the difference  between literary invention versus Inspiration from Coleridge’s dichotomy between Imagination and Fancy.  If that’s the case, then I would have to say that the difference between Invented Fancy and Inspired Imagination is what separates the bad, competent, or merely good, from the genuine works of art.  The OT qualifies as the latter, while to prequels are stuck in the former.  I also want to argue that just because an archetype in Star Wars may have made an earlier appearance in a work of fiction that is hundreds of years older, that doesn’t make the films uncreative, or mean that they are the same kind of artistic work as the stories they were drawn from.

Like I said, it’s all a bit involved.  However, if you’ll bear with me, it can also be pretty fun to think about.  Let’s start first with Prof. Campbell’s text, shall we?

Friday, November 23, 2018

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 1: The Problem of Definition.

If the goal for this series of posts is to define what Star Wars is, in order to gain a better understanding of what it’s not, then it only makes sense to build your case one level at a time.  The last entry helped establish part of the answer by taking a look at the history behind the writing of the Original Trilogy by examining the creative methods of George Lucas.  The big reveal was that Lucas had no method, or rather that he has a hard time both coming up with, and constructing, a well thought out narrative with engaging characters, setups, and resolutions.  The record shows that Lucas has always worked best when he is more the sounding-board from which capable screenwriters are then able to develop and re-shape into a workable form consonant with the format.

When Lucas is left to his own devices, well, we’ve seen the result.  What happens then is that you get the Prequels.     

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Taking Stock of Star Wars: A Question of Canon

My first thought was: Well, I guess I’m done with this whole series now.  That was my state of mind   after taking in the strange social phenomenon/debacle now known as The Last Jedi.  What’s makes it even more weird is the Disney studio insists on behaving as if it all had something to do with the series of films, and various assorted novels, short stories, and video games known as Star Wars.
The good news is, my thoughts have evolved since that initial first reaction.  For anyone else out there seriously pondering whether or to remain a fan, or just renege on the whole deal, perhaps this post can provide a few reasons not to stow away the old childhood memories in the attic trunk just yet. 

If nothing else, the most positive fallout TLJ is that it can serve an opportunity for fans and aficionados to pause take stock of SW, not just as a franchise, but as a phenomenon with a history that includes more than just the films, but also its relation to Science fiction as a whole.

There are a lot of SW fans out there who might have found my take on TLJ to something of a letdown.  My opinions on the matter were agreeable, just a lot less substantial than anyone might have liked.  Why didn’t I go into more detail about certain plot elements, or into the portrayal (or lack thereof) of all the major legacy characters?  My reasons for that are interesting.  In the first place, by the time I managed to get those essays down on paper, I’d spent hours doing the same as others fans, pouring over countless YouTube videos by disgruntled fans and online critics, each of them more than willing to take the Disney franchise apart one detail at a time.  In this regard, some of them were able to do better than anything I could.  I’d especially like to single out reviewers like Mauler, theMisanthrope, along with EU expert Matt Wilkins, and Joseph Choi for both his essay and video of same essay on the Character Assassination of the one figure who I’d have to argue is has really been the main focus of the series all along. 

With this in mind, I’ve sort of found it easier to build a case against what I prefer to think of as the “Disney Franchise” by examining both the Original Trilogy as well as the Expanded Universe.  I’d like to examine both topics in relation to the ever-present question of just what is supposed to be canon, anyway?  I’d like to make a case that even before Disney acquired the property, what was done with the EU was more than enough.  The EU had just enough inspiration in all the stories it needed in order to stand on its own legs.  I’d also like to argue that right now, the old EU is the closest offer fans are likely to get in the way of artistic compensation as well as satisfactory form of imaginative consolation.

In order to do this, there are several elements of the OT we’ll have to examine.  We need to look at what kind of characters we’re dealing with.  It also helps if we stop and try to dig as much as possible into the nature of the archetypes that ultimately stand behind and support both the OT and, I’d argue, the EU.

If I’m being honest, my goal here is a lot less grand than it sounds.  The only reason for this essay is just to help sort out my own thinking, and at least try to gain something close to a coherent perspective on the whole mess.  I’ve had time enough to get at least some thinking done about the matter.  I’m not just talking about Disney’s own Heaven’s Gate.  I’m also considering whether or not such a spectacularly bad film has any claim to validity, either as Canon, or as art.  Because of that, I want to focus on just what is the right perspective to view Star Wars. 

In other words, when is the story on the right track, and when does it go off the rails.  What kind of story is Stars Wars?  Is it like an endless serial on par with the business model of DC or Marvel Comics?  Or is it meant to more along the lines of a traditional narrative, with a definitive beginning, middle, and an irrevocable end?  Who gets to decide all this stuff, anyway?  Who’s in charge of piloting this whole thing?

I think there are answers to these questions.  The irony lies in whichever circuitous paths this quest for answers may wind up leading us down.  So far, I think the best answer can be found in asking the following question:

How was the original idea written down? In other words, is there any grand design behind the scenes as so may fans claim, or is the story something else?

What is the exact nature of the Star Wars story?  This question is related to the one above.  The difference lies in one of perspective.  The first question asked is more concerned with the nature of the composition of the Original Trilogy.  This question is concerned with what precise kind of story is the finished product?  Specifically, I want to know, regardless of any stated design, whether or not there is any creative idea underlying the first three films.  This could be important for a number of reasons, all of which lead to the last point.

If there was a genuine creative idea behind the inspiration of Star Wars, finding out just what that idea is may be able to give us a clue not just to how we should view the nature of the films, but also how far it could go in terms of an over-arching narrative. This will help determine my final talking point: the question of Cannon.     
This has become a touchy subject, with the fanbase splitting up into basically two warring camps.  My focus has been to follow the logic of my own thinking on the matter.  I think a definitive answer as to which Star Wars, the old Expanded Universe or the Disney version, should be considered canonical can be found.  The trick is laying out a solid enough case for it.

We’ll also have to take the plunge and examine the curiosity that is The Last Jedi, in order to determine what kind of story it is, and what, if any, narrative validity it has (maybe it got lost somewhere between the couch cushions or something).

What follows are just the insights I’ve been able to glean from what will probably go down as one of the great cinematic debacles of Hollywood history.  In order to make my points clear, I’ll have to examine the actual creative process behind the Original Trilogy, and how it differs from the current Disney product.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Very Strange Failure: Some Thoughts on The Last Jedi.

I’m not going to lie.  I never had a really good vibe when I heard they were making more Star Wars sequels.  Part of it is just temperamental, I didn’t think there was much else you could do with the story, or its characters.  All Harrison Ford’s exit from the franchise did was confirm my misgivings.  Because of the personal letdown that was The Force Awakens, I went into The Last Jedi with no great hope that anything would work out.  The whole “this was a bad idea” vibe was still with me even before the sequel came out.  Then there was the movie itself.

What did I think?  Well, I can’t call it a good film in any objective sense.  I know I was letdown.  I wondered (for a time, at least) if I was still a fan of this series.  The irony came later, when I had a chance to really sit down and think about the film as an objective whole.  After giving it a lot of thought, I have just one question.  Did the filmmaker’s actually want the movie to fail?  I know how that sounds, and it’s still the same question I always get drawn back to.
What made me ask in the first place was the growing awareness of the specific type of writing going with The Last Jedi.  It helps to understand what I’m talking about when you remember that the traditional elements in storytelling mostly boil down to just three concepts.  These are: Setup, Conflict, and Resolution.  Modern Hollywood seems uneasy with the last point.  I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles, however, that The Last Jedi is the first film I’ve seen where the writer appears determined to sabotage the narrative at every single step of the way.  The script actually reads as if the screenwriter wanted to ruin his own career by penning the most incomprehensible film in cinematic history.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

State of the Art: Horror in the 21st Century.

Looking at the state of the horror genre in the early years of the new era, I can’t help being reminded   of what it was like growing up.  Horror fiction was my gateway drug.  It was the genre that got me to pick up my first book somewhere around the age of seven.  The first author I was ever aware of was a fellow named John Bellairs.  He’s long gone by now, but he has a movie out in theaters as I write this.  He also led me from his own work (it was The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, as I recall) onto the next step.  That would have been the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written by Alvin Schwartz and brought to mind-screwing life by the fundamentally disturbed illustrations of Stephen Gammell (it also helps that George S. Irving seemed to have the perfect voice for these stories on audio tape.  If I live to be a million, I’ll still remember his rendition of “Mi-Ti-Doughty-Walker”).
It’s Schwartz’s form of the horror tale that I’m reminded of the most going over the current landscape of the genre.  It’s hard to tell whether horror fiction is in a slump or currently enjoying a quiet underground success.  I hope the latter is the case.  Not only would such a situation keep the torch lit, it could also act as spur to any young talent to take a shot at carving out a name for themselves.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Children’s Gothic Adventure: An Analysis of 101 Dalmatians.

We’ve been studying Disney’s 101 Dalmatians with the goal of a closer look at several facets of the movie.  These are the elements that require a better in-depth study than the ones you can find in a simple newspaper review or on YouTube.  So far, we’ve covered the original book that the film was based on.  We have also made the case that the film deserves to be seen as more than just a kid’s flick. 

In the last post of this series, I made the case that the film should properly be seen as part and parcel of sub-genre known as psychological horror.  In other words, what I ask is what happens when we look at the film as a straightforward stalker thriller?  The last post was a set-up.  The ground rules for this particular genre were laid out.  I also introduced the film’s most iconic character, Cruella de Vil, as exhibit A as the main reason why the film fits in nicely with works like Wait Until Dark, or Peeping Tom.  This entry is meant to be the pay-off.
In this essay I intend to drive the point home.  I hope to prove that Dalmatians operates in well within the boundaries of the Gothic psychological thriller.  To do this, I’ll have to show the thematic connections and allusions the film has with others of its type.  There are two sources that I think help set the context for how Disney’s feature should be viewed and, more importantly, read, in terms of their basic setup and conflict.  Those films are the original 60s version of Cape Fear, and the last is Clint Eastwood’s first foray into the psychological thriller, Play Misty for Me.  

 In this case, the conflict revolves around what happens when ordinary people find themselves confronted with a sociopath bent on destroying the protagonists at any cost.  The plot layout is simple enough that we can isolate and focus on the connective strands of all four films based on an examination of their protagonists and villains.   The final piece of the puzzle comes from examining the characters and their narrative as part and parcel of a Gothic setting and story.  It’s surprising how much you can discover about a story just by examining the genre it’s related to.  The Gothic underpinnings of Dalmatians add a final folktale ingredient which manages to tie all loose ends together.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Children’s Gothic Adventure 2: A Look at Disney’s 101 Dalmatians.

In the last post of this series examining Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, we unpacked the film’s origins, and made a brief comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of both the print and screen versions of the story.  There were several other aspects of the book I forgot to mention, such as how the film handles the two henchmen, or the fact that the villain had an actual husband in the book.  Perhaps the reason no time was spent on these plot elements is because they were so minor as to make little impact in the original book itself.

This post will deal with the Disney film itself.  From now on, any attention paid to the source material will strictly be in service to examining how a third (maybe even fourth) rate book can be turned into an A-class film for both kids and adults.  The best place to start is with none other than Uncle Walt, and a hitherto overlooked aspect of his talent as a filmmaker.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Children's Gothic Adventure.

A Children’s Gothic Adventure: An Analysis of 101 Dalmatians.

What’s there to talk about?  It’s Walt Disney, after all.  No other figure in the history of entertainment  has ever been scrutinized and studied with such care and detail by both fans and critics.  Perhaps the Beatles are the closest comparison in terms public awareness.  While the company he started has waxed and waned with the times and fashions, very little has been able to shake the public image of Uncle Walt.  The difference is public awareness doesn’t equal public knowledge.
When most people think of Disney, their minds go automatically to their favorites, whether it’s a classic like Snow White, or an out of the way entry like The Black Cauldron or the even more obscure Saludos Amigos.  The trouble is that seems to be as far as most of us can go when it comes to assessing Disney as a storyteller.  We don’t know art, we just know we like (insert Disney film of choice here).  The good news is that it turns out Walt is the sort of filmmaker who bears up under close scrutiny most of the time.  In particular, once you get the hang of it, you begin to notice some interesting facts about Disney’s strengths as an artist.

The idea that Disney conjures in our minds most of the time is of stories full of magic and enchantment that the whole family can enjoy.  This seems due mainly to a preference by most audiences for material like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, etc.  The reason these straightforward fantasies have such an enthusiastic following begins to make sense when you realize that most of the people who go to see these films are parents with their kids in tow.  Because the company has been so good at drawing in the child demographic, it makes sense that Disney would get a reputation as a kid’s entertainer.  This reputation has taken on such larger than life proportions that Walt’s other qualities have, almost by necessity, been shoved aside, or else swept under the rug.  This ignores the other side of Disney as a Gothic artist.

There are several films in the Disney canon that illustrate this idea.  For now, I’d like to examine several narrative facets of Disney’s 1961 production, 101 Dalmatians, in the hopes of getting audiences to pay more attention to the textual nuances of the film.  I’d like to examine the movie in terms of its inspiration, its narrative influences, and how it fits in to the genre of the Gothic thriller.  I hope to uncover aspects of the film that have not been discussed before.  With any luck, it could help audiences view a fan favorite from a fresh perspective.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

First Intro

A different kind of criticism.

What if we view a film, any film as a text?  In other words, what if we paradoxically judge a film based on the quality of its writing?  Is there anything to be learned from thinking about a movie in the same way as you would a book? 
The typical response is that books and films are different things.  My response is to wonder whether or not modern criticism suffers from a one-sided point of view.  The whole problem seems to rest on the nature of “appearance” and “understanding”.  Looked at from one point a view, a book, strip of film, or even a DVD are little more than pieces of manufactured technology.  If it is the “functional” appearance that determines the importance between a book and a movie, then of course it will be the differences that people focus on.  A way of understanding either an item based on either function or appearance would have to leave almost no room for thinking about them in any other way.