Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Princess Unchained

A couple of years back I wrote a post about the character Princess Leia in George Lucas' Star Wars epic. Specifically, the bizarre incongruity of putting the character in a metal bikini for no real reason other to, well, frankly, ogle Carrie Fisher's pretty figure in a skimpy outfit.
In the post I wrote that;
"...Slave Leias are troublesome...because they have the effect of (making the Leia character valued because of) sexual display, and, in turn, devaluing (the female characters) based on a sort of juvenile smuttiness about seeing their bodies."
The whole macguffin of Star Wars, women, their bodies, and how they come together seems to have returned with the new Lucas flick, The Force Awakens with Ms. Fisher, again, in the middle of it.

Fisher isn't happy that she has been slammed by viewers for "not aging well", and is pretty pissed off that - unlike her co-stars Hamil and Ford - her value relative to the new film is often being weighed based on her looks.

(It's worth noting that a hell of a lot of this goes back to the ridiculous but bog-bro-standard of a woman's sexual desuetude increasing with age, a stupid idea I've discussed here before...)

Why bring this up? Because the Boy and I went to see her new film last week.

I could go all Siskel and Ebert on you here, but why? You know what it was; a Star Wars flick. X-wings and blasters, "I have a bad feeling...", droids, alien critters, good Jedi and bad Sith.

Overall we both enjoyed it. It was good popcorn entertainment and a fun diversion, which is all I'd ask from a popcorn film.
The plot rolled along nicely with the minimal required fanservice, the two young leads were well written and well acted, and even though you'd think that after the first TWO times the Empire would have learned about the whole...ah, but I won't spoiler that part in case you want to go see it.

Here's the thing, though. The most challenging and intriguing thing about it - two words I'd never have thought I'd ever say about a Lucas film - was watching Fisher and Harrison Ford, the two of the oldest actors on screen. They've been mailing it in for so long that I'd almost forgotten what made them stars back in the day. But together they provide what modest throw-weight there is to the tale and, as such, do the best work they've done in a long time.

Ford's Han Solo was spot-on; trying to be the same "scoundrel" that makes him feel like he's still got some remnant of his youth and the sort of swagger that captivated the Princess when they met.

But...he's also smart enough to know he's kidding himself. Years and sorrows have slowed him down. He knows that he's slowing down and that the things he's running from are catching up to him. He knows that while he can't stop running that he can't run fast enough to escape his past and his grief, and that's as grievous as what he's fleeing.

All the while Ford doesn't lose the essential core of the guy. It's an older Solo but still Solo. Good work...but Fisher's older Leia was as good or even better.

I've read reviews that called Fisher's performance "perfunctory" or "embarrassed" but I disagree completely; her restrained work is perfect for the part. Leia is scarred as her lover is scarred, but her way of dealing with that is to lock down. She withdraws inside the austere senior officer and faction leader, all too aware of her responsibilities, just as her ex retreats into his feckless bad boy all too heedless of his.

Fisher conveys this by using her older looks and body to great effect. She wears the strained face of someone who lives with the constant fear of agony, a veteran trooper who has taken the big wound. She moves slowly and cautiously as someone who expects at any moment to be spitted on the spear of old pain that she knows from experience will stagger her and drive her to her knees.

She's damaged, just as he's damaged, but her scar tissue is formed in stillness as his is in motion.

As a couple they're terrific.
(Selfishly, I wish that there had been a little more sexual desire, some sexual tension, but expecting adult sexuality from a Star Wars flick is like expecting grand opera from friggin' Care Bears; you know it ain't gonna happen.)
Together their work shows the viewer that all their emotions are still there but that both have wrapped those emotions away in deep storage because they hurt too much to be exposed. They hate the baggage each of them carries while loving the person almost - but not quite completely - buried under the baggage. They're still in love but given their griefs and, more particularly, their disparate reactions to their griefs they can't stand to live with each other.

I was amazed...until I remembered that George Lucas had nothing to do with writing this thing. Anyway, this was perhaps the first time I've ever seen one of these SW flicks where the characters 1) felt like actual people and 2) drove the story along. It felt like an actual movie instead of a toy commercial written by a 12-year old. I think a huge part of that was the age of Ford and Fisher, and the knowledge of the actual pain and suffering that the blasting and slashing were inflicting.

The characters they played in the earlier films were young people having "an adventure" for other young people to enjoy.

In this one they're still "adventuring"...but at the heart of the adventure, like a hidden knife inlayed with old blood, is mortality. Age and pain have taught them that "adventuring" has a deep and sorrowful cost.

The two young actors in the piece are their yesterday and our today, strong and brave and striving for today's bright crown of honor and glory.
The two older actors are tomorrow; the slave standing behind us holding above our heads that crown and whispering into our ears alone the reminder that beyond today is the inescapable nightfall of age and death.
And as important as the quest for, and the brightness of, that light is how we face the darkness.


Pluto said...

Nice review. You've touched on the highlights while acknowledging the basic weakness of the Star Wars universe. My reaction was more negative, I was impressed by J.J. Abrams' handling of the Star Trek movies and hoped that he would stack in multiple plot lines and add some logic to the Star Wars universe (which it DESPERATELY needs).

In hindsight, I see my hope as futile. The heart of Star Wars is special effects, faith that everybody is special, and that it will all end well. Logic needs to not be applied.

FDChief said...

Hmmm. Interesting. There's enough here that it gives me the idea for a whole 'nother post, but first...

First, I fully agree that there are tons of flaws on Lucas' universe. I've written a lot about that (go hunt up my post called Master of Worlds for a discussion on where I think he falls down the hardest, if you want the TL:DR version) but I have to say this; looking for "logic" - in the science fiction sense - in the SW universe is like looking for logic in The Tragedy of Othello.

I mean, think about it. If you want to make the play about forty minutes long, all you have to do is make Othello act like a normal guy. His "buddy" Iago plants the whisper in his ear about his beloved wife, the O busts open the bedroom door and grates "Yo, girlfriend, wassup with dis shit I'm hearin' aboutchoo..???", she goes all tearful and loving, he realizes he's being a dick, they have hot, hot, hot makeup sex. Story over. Okay, well, that's the Vivid Video version, but you get the idea.

I've said before; the whole Anakin Skywalker story arc is Othello with Palpatine as Iago. And Lucas fucks it up, a nearly impossible task. But he does it.

But there's no more "logic" in Othello than there is in The Empire Strikes Back.

What there is, is melodrama. And that's what SW is; a melodrama universe. The Good Guys are all Good, the Bad Guys are all Evil (except for the Tragically Flawed Hero, Anakin/Vader, but that's part of the macguffin, too). The Lucas ethos isn't "faith that everybody is special" but belief in a black-white ethos. Good guys do good stuff, bad guys do bad stuff.

That's a huge flaw, and I've talked about that, too; Lucas misses the huge moral problem at the heart of the whole "Clone Wars" plot. His noble, "good" Jedi are commanding a slave army...and when, at the end, Mace Windu really DOES lead a coup - dress it up in the black-white language of Jedi versus Sith, the point is that Palpatine is right and Windu is acting in a completely autocratic way by removing the elected Chancellor - and the clone army is ordered to take down the Jedi Lucas again elides the moral dilemma of good men doing evil deeds by making the clones robotic, slaves controlled by a "chip" inside their heads. I'll post about that in a bit.


FDChief said...

(con't from above)

So Lucas' "vision" is pure space opera; heroes, villains, spaceships, blasters...but no more moral complexity than Snidely Whiplash foreclosing on the poor widow. As popcorn entertainment...fine. But the whole point of my post was to remark on how two of the actors in his latest vehicle actually added a teensy bit of moral heft to this cotton candy which is more than ol' George did in a gajillion minutes of the three prequels.

Now. Adams.

Gah, you hit a real nerve with that. I'm not a huge Trek fanboi. I enjoy it for what it is and have dipped into several of the variations of the genre. But I came out of Into Darkness - having enjoyed the thud and blunder; it really is a good popcorn flick like the new SW - with a bunch of head-shaking problems with it. I could go on with the many, many ways that I thought Adams actually simplified and cartoonified and juvenile-ified the Trek franchise in that one, but Lance Mannion has said it all and better than I ever could. But this is his take on the single biggest thing about Adam's work in Darkness that bugged me:

"In Into Darkness, Abrams sets up Kirk to learn a number of lessons about what it means to be the Captain, which basically translates into what it means to be a grown-up with a real job that has people relying on your good judgment, and then doesn’t have him learn any of them.

Nothing happens, nothing is solved or left unsolved, in Into Darkness, because Kirk learns or fails to learn any grown-up lessons. He and the plot just careen along, with Kirk acting more like Han Solo and Indiana Jones than like the James T. Kirk of old, getting by on sheer grit and pure luck, and if he never says in answer to someone asking what’s his plan, “I don’t know, I’m making it up as I go,” it’s because Abrams lost his nerve or had to leave that scene on the cutting room floor.

(Shatner’s Kirk always had a plan. He didn’t believe there was anything you couldn’t plan for. That was his genius and his tragic flaw.)

Pine’s Kirk winds up being the same big swaggering jerk from beginning to end. (This is one of the reasons I think Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 make a good double feature. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark is set up to learn some of the same lessons about growing up that Kirk is in Into Darkness. But we get to see Tony learn them.) The script pays lip service to Kirk’s supposedly learning lessons in responsibility but the movie itself seems perfectly content with his not actually having to learn them. In fact, it’s Spock who learns the big lesson---how much fun and satisfying it is not to have to act like a grown-up."

Yep. If your take on Lucas is that " that everybody is special, and that it will all end well. Logic needs to not be applied." the ground floor in Roddenberry's universe is "All acts have consequences, great acts (and great choices) have great consequences, and we are all responsible for our acts and the consequences of them..." Adams takes the sort of moral complexity and complex characters that were the bog-standard in the Trek universe - as opposed to a Lucas hero it is very thinkable for a Roddenberry hero to do some great wrong for what they believe to be good reasons - and pushes the whole franchise WAY over into Lucasland.

My take on it is that while he's a terrific popcorn director, he's got the same sort of simplistic view of good/evil that Lucas does, with the same issues with guuuurls (what he does with Carol Marcus in Darkness is really heinous...). So I'm not surprised that he doesn't take Force Awakens closer to Wrath of Khan; what surprised me and disappointed me was that he took Wrath of Khan and made it more like Revenge of the Sith...

FDChief said...

On the topic of "Why is Star Wars Star Wars? here's a fun series of articles giving some insight into what it's like working with the guy:

Sounds like a real piece of work...

FDChief said...

More fun "This is the fucking reason behind Jar-Jar and the damn Ewoks...":

"As for how Star Wars: The Force Awakens turned out, he would have approached it differently, as he contended he did when the franchise was in his hands. "They wanted to do a retro movie. I don't like that. Every movie, I worked very hard to make them different," Lucas said. "I made them completely different – different planets, different spaceships to make it new."

Seriously, George? Seriously? You remade Othello with dialogue like "I hate sand..." and fucked it up. In your three "prequels" you're responsible for some of the most awful - and expensive - crap every filmed. And you're pissed off that the people who now own the franchise went and made an actual popcorn movie like the first two and a half that you were forced to make because you didn't have the budget or complete control?

It must be really hard being that unself-aware...

Pluto said...

I find myself agreeing with you that the two J.J. Abrams movies could have been far, far better but I disagree that Kirk didn't learn ANY lessons, he just skipped the largest and most obvious.

I bought both ST movies for less than $10 (combined price) last summer and was startled to discover how much goes on in the films, they are actually worth watching 2-3 times because of all the different plot lines. That was what was new and different from previous SW and ST films and that was what I wanted to see in the new SW film and why I was so disappointed in it.

A major flaw of nearly all superhero, fantasy, and SF films these days is the emphasis on special effects over anything remotely resembling a plot and character development. Abrams ST films attempt to rectify that, not very hard, but at least the attempt is noteworthy. The problem that a lot of people have with the Abrams ST films is that they do not go back and watch them again.

I disagree that Pine's Jim Kirk doesn't have a plan, if you watch the films more than once, you realize when he isn't punching somebody, he has LOTS of plans and is constantly discarding and reshaping them a superhuman speed (which is highly unrealistic) but I do agree with you that the motives behind a lot of these plans are juvenile. I am content to watch Jim Kirk slowly mature, that part is realistic.

Also the interplay between Kirk and Spock is awesome, you've got two hard-driving, immature super-geniuses trying to persuade the other guy to go his direction using every smart but immature trick in the book. I disagree with you about Spock learning "it's fun not to grow up," instead I would say he learned that "a little discretion can be very valuable."

By the way, I'm normally not a ST fanboi and find the original series to be pretty boring, Next Gen is my preferred ST drink of choice.

Kaleberg said...

Whenever someone starts nitpicking the consistency of a fictional universe, I always cite the classic post which could have been called 'The History Channel Needs Better Writers':