Star Wars Revisited

Last night I watched the original theatrical release DVD of Star Wars with my grandkids.  The elder was my age when I first saw it (4) and the younger predictably fell asleep (which was part of the point).

After decades of fandom and the current culture war over the franchise, it was refreshing to see the film through the eyes of a child.

She was very impressed, saying "Wow!" during the opening sequence and reacting throughout the film.  By the trash compactor sequence (which terrified me back then), she was sitting in my lap for reassurance.  She loved the battles and cheered at the end.

And - like my generation - she wanted toys from the film.

I think there are several issues wound up in Star Wars and these have concealed the essential greatness of the original films.

Obviously, the dominant issue now is the fundamental reworking of the entire franchise, an action that seems motivated by sheer vindictiveness towards the original fans.

The original films succeeded because they pointedly were set in an imaginary setting and the sides were clearly identified as good and evil.  It's right there in the screen crawl.  There's no need to overthink it or break it down using critical theory.

The characters work because they suit the actors, who had some leeway in how they interpreted their roles.  

There is also the weird obsession of George Lucas with tweaking his films.  It's one thing to digitally remaster something and clean up bits of dust and lint.  It is another to actually recut the thing, splicing in scenes, altering dialog, even switching out actors and voices.  It is said that George Lucas' then-wife (Marcia) and the editing team saved the film with last-minute changes and that because of their acrimonious divorce, George wanted to reverse as much of that as he could.

The "special edition" is a worse film, breaking up the flow, introducing unnecessary special effects and severely compromising the narrative.  Moreover, it has given the new owner, Disney, license to do the same.  The reason the canon remains unsettled is that its creator couldn't settle on one.

In reality, the original theatrical release is the true version - it set the world on fire and created a series of film so popular than fans would camp out in front of theaters in order to be the first in line to see them.

Everything since has been mediocre, graded on a curve because they no longer have to stand on their own merits, but are instead compared to others in the genre.  Basically, Star Wars has created its own ghetto, walling it off from mainstream audiences.

This is the problem with franchises - the bigger they get, the higher the entry costs becomes for new fans.

Put simply, a new prospective fan now has dozens of hours of catching up to do.  From 1977 to 1983, it was 'all too easy' to stay current.

All of which is to say that war over Star Wars has sadly overtaken the quality of the film and its superb sequels.  Adding to this tragedy is the bizarre decision by Disney to trash earlier films in order to excuse their abysmal offerings.

I suggest taking a break from the very online arguments and simply watching the originals as if for the first time, looking over the details, savoring the sound track, immersing oneself in the story.

It helps if you have a kid with you.

Debating the 1990s

There's a bit of a back-and-forth going on at Bleeding Fool over the worth of the 1990s.

I think the perception of any period is heavily colored by one's personal experience of it - either having lived through it, or its art, politics, and entertainment.

It's hard to separate a time of personal misery from the larger zeitgeist.  Still, I think my take is an objective one.  The pre-9/11 world was a better one, and while I found myself frustrated and depressed during that period, I still had a lot of fun.  Indeed, I recognize that with better judgement, I'd have had a better decade.

The other issue with sitting in judgement is that culture and life don't simply flip with the page of a calendar.  The decades bleed into each other, and what one thinks of as the epitome of a particular era may have happened before or after the actual dates in question.

For example, the decay of Protestantism didn't start in the 1990s, it was merely revealed then.

One can't look at the cultural tides in music, art, entertainment and politics in isolation.

At the same time, it is easy to fall into the trap of overdeterminism - the notion that the out come of a recent event was inexorably set in motion by a distant one.  I see a lot of otherwise reasonable people insist that the Union victory in the Civil War is the direct, inevitable cause of all our contemporary problems.  Apparently the people living and ruling in intervening decades were denied any form of agency.  It's very much a Calvinist approach to history.

It is true that historical writers often were able to predict the future by examining contemporary trends.  C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and even J.R.R. Tolkien did this.  But as Tolkien in particular might admit, nothing was fixed - no one was forced to follow that path.  It's also true that many dangers fail to materialize, or that their impact is mitigated.

There are many currents in the stream of history, and some of them are hard to see.  It's also the case that there are other powers at work, the Unseen who most analysts completely ignore.

Combine a purely secular materialist frame with overdeterminism and the result will likely be devoid of any useful analysis.

The blingiest guns ever: Romeo + Juliet

The other night I re-watched Baz Luhrmann's take on the Romeo and Juliet story, a mish-mash of the original dialogue put in a modern, spastic setting.

Like many of his offerings, the frenetic intro eventually fades into a deeper, more contemplative story, but Romeo + Juliet never really overcomes the jumpy pacing and need to make everything larger than life.

By that I mean that one can substitute guns for swords and still have the dueling angle work, but Luhrmann actually adds cartoon sound effects at various point, undermining the seriousness of the situation.  The "gas station" fight should have set a tone for how disruptive the two families are, but it becomes a total farce.

Thus, when we get to the love story, it's hard to sell it, even though it involves two of the prettiest of pretty people (the eerily young-looking Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio)

What the film does have in abundance are tricked-out, custom prop guns.  These things are sensational, from the engravings on the slide so that they match the text (when a character told to put up his sword, the camera zooms on the weapon, which has "Sword" written on it) to fobs hanging of the lanyard rings and magazine floor plates bearing the names of the clashing houses.

Lots of stainless or nickel finishes, and all of it is a gangster's dream brought to life.  I could do a heck of a Geek Guns article on it, but first I'd have to track down one of the Para Ordinance numbers or Taurus Beretta 92 clones.

Obviously, I think Shakespeare in modern dress can work, I just feel it needs to be more consistent in presentation.  Luhrmann has a whimsical side which can be very funny, but here I think it got away from him.

The guns are great, though.

Bye, Bye, Barry - Amazon's take on why Sanders quit football

For many years I've used the same response whenever people around me are discussing professional football:

"I'm a Detroit Lions fan.  I don't watch professional football."

It never fails to get a chuckle because the Lions have been a terrible team for decades.

However, in the early 1990s, there was hope that things would turn around.  Detroit drafted Oklahoma State University running back Barry Sanders, and his arrival electrified the team.

Yet despite a promising start, the Lions regressed, and the only bright spot was Sanders' performance.  Devoid of playoff hopes the fan base instead focused on Sanders becoming the greatest running back in pro football history. 

It was not to be.  On the eve of what would have been his record-breaking season Sanders quit, faxing his retirement to a hometown newspaper before going on vacation in London.

Bye, Bye, Barry is a well-done documentary that outlines Sanders' career, the critical part his father played in his life, and why he quit the way he did.

The film is peppered with highlights demonstrating what a phenomenal athlete Sanders was.  Even now, having watched many of those games, my wife and I were amazed with his evasiveness and skill.  Trying to describe his feline grace and reflexes is all but impossible.

Perhaps even more remarkable is Sanders' personality.  He was - and is - a deeply humble man, the antithesis of a typical NFL superstar.  He famously did not show up in person to accept the Heisman Award, college football's greatest honor.  He refused to take extra carries when games were decided in order to boost his statistics because he had no interest in personal glory.

In an age when touchdown celebrations became obligatory, Sanders simply tossed the to the referee after crossing the goal line.  "Act like you've been there before," was how it was described, though Sanders apparently never said it.

When he quit, Detroit and the sports world in general was thrown into turmoil.  How could the preeminent athlete in America's most popular sport just quit?  If he must quit, could he not hold a press conference?

Bye, Bye Barry answers these questions and I took a bit of pleasure in reading the situation correctly.  At the time, I figured he was tired of losing, tired of the spotlight, and wanted to do something else.

And when he quit, so did I.  I haven't watched an NFL game since.

I greatly enjoyed the film, which evoked the time period and used Motown-style music to conjure up the Spirit of Detroit.

The gage is thrown down on Underworld

A new author at has thrown shade at Underworld, which is one of my favorite films. 

Naturally, I shall respond forcefully.  Strong column to follow.

This was the bit that really set me off:

Selene’s inexplicable, unearned combat prowess reveals her as a Mary Sue: a character whose flawless abilities leave so few genuine challenges as to make everyone else irrelevant.

What utter nonsense.  Selene is an interesting character precisely because of her vulnerabilities.  She's handy with a pistol, but while she does well in the initial encounter, she has to flee for her life, leaving her partner behind.  That's hardly "flawless."

Similarly, her attempt to secure Michael doesn't succeed because she thumps all the werewolves effortlessly, she barely manages to drag him into her car and even then Lucien gives her a vicious wound that causes her to lose consciousness and wreck her car.  Michael, who she treated like baggage, ends up saving her life.

Selene wins, but she takes damage and is clearly not invincible.

There is also the emotional aspect of her character.  She has grown up with a set of assumptions that she slowly realizes simply are not true.  She must therefore struggle to make sense of the lies she has been fed, and make her own way.  This includes recognizing the humanity in werewolves and even teaming up with Michael against her mentor.

A Mary Sue character, by contrast, has no real struggle other than to fully appreciate her own awesomeness. 

Naturally, I will have to link on my Geek Guns article on the film as well.

The larger point is that this fellow is striving for a hot take without apparently understanding the lingo or the genre.  Underworld is not a taught psychodrama, it is an action film set in the vampire genre, and it is very good at what it is trying to do.  The mood, the look, the music, it's all superb.

It's one thing to say "I don't like vampire films," or that the aesthetic didn't work.  But it is another to claim a certain flaw - in this case Mary Sue - where there is none.


Excalibur: A ludicrous Arthurian fantasy

As part of my continued review of the films of my youth, I picked up a copy of Excalibur.  I remembered it as being ahistorical, cheesy and that the Grail Quest plot line was really boring, and all of that was correct.

What I forgot was how many future A-list actors were slumming their way through it.  Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Patrick Stewart all got prominent roles.

As to the film, it's a guilty pleasure, almost a parody of itself.  The super-shiny Renaissance armor is completely out of place, as are the apparently neon Celtic crosses.  It's all a giant goof, but a useful time-waster and certainly suitable for mockery in a group setting.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that it wasn't an American production - the Brits produced this dreck, and one has to wonder if the producers were unconsciously imitating Monty Python's Holy Grail spoof. 

Excalibur borrowed heavily from existing classical music, which made a profound impression on me.  My first CD was Carl Orff's Carmena Burana, because I love the Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi tune.  Later on, I bought some of Wagner's 'greatest hits' so I could hear Siegfried's funeral music.

So at least the film has that going for it.

The 80s saw a bunch of fantasy movies, perhaps trying to capitalize on the Dungeons and Dragons craze.  Most were terrible, though they were bad in different ways.  Few turned a profit.  I think the biggest winner was Conan the Barbarian, which was quite good and has a superb soundtrack.

Excalibur falls into the "so bad it's good" category.

Some thoughts on the The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Given the age and popularity of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, I don' think there is a lot to add other than an angle I'm pretty sure most people aren't aware of: the influence of the Spanish Civil War on the film.

Yes, it is well known that the climactic three-way duel was filmed in cemetery set aside for war dead, but there are enough features that - knowing more about the conflict than I did when I last watched the film - influence is very clear.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the way the war it portrayed.  The armies on both sides in what was at the time the Far West were little more than volunteer bands, not well-equipped and disciplined armies.  Artillery was scarce, and the war was waged as a series of raids.  Static, attritional combat was simply impossible to sustain.

By contrast, Spain did have sectors of the front that were located in the wilderness but that nevertheless saw continuous low-grade fighting.  The bridge sequence in particular is instructive.  The Union fortifications are extensive and rely extensively on sandbags - unknown in the American Civil War, but common in Spain. 

When Tuco and Blondie tell The Captain they wish to volunteer, his incredulous reaction is also instructive.  Apart from the early months of the war, when volunteers flocked to Anarchist battalions or joined the Falange, both armies in Spain rapidly settled into conscription as the primary means of recruitment.

By contrast, conscripts made up only a tiny portion of the respective armies in the American Civil War, and certainly none would have been sent to a place where desertion would be so easy.

Though they represented the government, the Union troops are clearly modeled on the Nationalists, with strict discipline in dress and movement and it's not much of a stretch that the "blue coats" were seen as Blue Shirts (Falange) to the Spanish crew, who portrayed them accordingly. 

Probably the most obvious example is the backstory given to Tuco when he meets his brother.  It is imply not credible that someone growing up in the west would have no options other than banditry or the priesthood.  This was an era of tremendous population movement, and new settlements were emerging all along the frontier.  Sergio Leone's imagining of the American west as dilapidated and forlorn is iconic, but also inaccurate.

It is, however, what was going on in rural Spain during that time period.  Deprived of opportunity, young people flocked to the cities to find factory work, and many were radicalized by Anarchism and Communism.  That simply was not true in America.

There are other tidbits of course, such as random indirect-fire shelling (unknown in the US, common in Spain) and of course the rope-wrapped wine bottles in place of whiskey or beer.

It's still a great film, and seeing the American Civil War through Spanish lenses provides an interesting take on the conflict.

And the music is outstanding.

Peak Miami Vice: Smuggler's Blues

A burst of summer weather has me watching Miami Vice again, and this time I'm taking my time and savoring the early seasons.  I will be skipping the later ones.

If I could pick one episode that exemplifies the show at its height, it would likely be "Smuggler's Blues."  This is still in the first season and it stars Glenn Frey from The Eagles as Jimmy, a small-time drug smuggler with his own twin-engine plane.

In many ways, the episode is simply an extended music video, featuring the entirety of Frey's eponymous song.  There is an attempt at dramatic tension, but the point of the exercise is simply to sit back and enjoy the ride.

That is something modern entertainment has largely lost.  It's too preachy, too eager to carry a message and a "torn from the headlines" story (which is often based on a media myth).  Miami Vice was no stranger to tropes, but they were fun, and the show was sleek, stylish and just plain cool.

Back then, Hollywood tried to give people what they wanted; today they bully the audience into watching.  Needless to say, it's not very effective.

I do not think it is possible for Hollywood to create a blend like Miami Vice today, combining musical guests at their peak with sleek visuals and fun storylines.


Vampires of Michigan - the Roar of '84?

I'm once again binge-watching the early seasons of Miami Vice and I'm thinking it would be fun to set the next installment in the World Series Championship year of 1984.  It's an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  Obviously there is the George Orwell angle, but 1984 marked a rare moment of unity in American politics.  The notion of a a presidential candidate carrying 49 states is inconceivable today.

Whether looking at Cold War politics, cultural differences and of course the far superior music and entertainment, I think it would be fun.

As to the plot...well, that's yet to be determined.  I've got a couple of ideas and I'm sure some of the same characters will be represented. 

Of course, nothing may come of it, but that's the fun of being a novelist - not just the ideas that are completed, but the ones that are tossed around for fun.

A second look at the faith in Desperado

Over the weekend I decided to re-watch Desperado as something of a time-waster.  I have to say this is one of my favorite movies - it's not profound or anything, but it is great at what it strives to be: a fun, witty, sexy, Mexican shoot-'em-up film with a superlative soundtrack.

Everything just clicks and it's the kind of movie where you can just drop in and enjoy what's coming next.

However, as is my wont, I noticed that there's also a subtext of faith in the story.  This was there from the beginning, but given Hollywood's implacable hatred of Christianity, and stands out much more now than it did in 1995.  I'm planning on doing a writeup on this for because it would also dovetail nicely with my Geek Guns column about it and my recent article on Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids.