artium and moribus, Cinema & Movies

UNPACKING THE UPCOMING STAR WARS TRILOGY

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By DAVID BEILSTEIN

Well, they’re coming.

First up, Star Wars, episode VII, sometime in May of 2015.

By now, those who are thrilled cannot be deterred from entheos, while those who fear disappointment because of the anti-dramatic and CGI drowned Star Wars prequels cannot be driven from anticipatory dread.

Digging into the reality of three more Star Wars movies (Disney/LucasFilm Lim. announced intentions to create individual Star Wars character movies sandwiched between episodes 7, 8, and 9 imagined by The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of The Lost Ark scribe, Lawrence Kasdan) one cannot help speculating on the goodness or “badness” such news could portend.

The decision by LucasFilm Lim. President Kathleen Kennedy to hand over the Star Wars franchise to writer/director J.J. Abrams, met positive applause by most fanboys and gals, and pits the Spielberg-ian-like 46 year old auteur Abrams, whom successfully rebooted Star Trek, and whom previously rekindled the flaccid Mission Impossible franchise, into the upper echelon of the Star Wars universe.

Abrams, in a word, is top dog — alongside such Hollywood A-list directors Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, and the more serious minded auteur of late, David Fincher.

What is on my mind?

It’s tedious. Those who read this blog; the few there are, already know this.

It’s called storytelling.

The life or death of the new Star Wars series rests on the quality of storytelling; storytelling demands several “if’s” and upon that concession, several “then’s” follow.

Out of the gate, my biggest concern: non-stop action, layered with enough CGI boondoggle to render the verisimilitude storytelling needs, useless. Musicals need musical numbers. But they need dramatic pauses in between musical numbers to be cinematically effective.

Musicals are never all music. If one doubts, simply rewatch Mary Poppins, then rewatch The Sound of Music.

Dramatic action in movies like Star Wars is akin to musical numbers in a musical. They must incorporate the give and take of fencing and chess; the frenetic rhythm of a dance, always and wholly arising out of character, central to impactful storytelling.

One need look no further than the light-saber dual between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back — the best film of either Star Wars trilogy — a great movie; so great, Empire borders on the kind of human complexity and thematic depth reserved for more “serious” films.

The violent light-saber dual between young Skywalker and Lord Vader is hardly all action…but squarely rooted in dramatic pauses, character-centric motivations, seeded early and dramatically; consistent with each character’s individual desires. Likewise, the light-saber dual between Lord Vader and Luke Skywalker crosscuts between another equally dramatic episode, one the viewer has come to care about because of the drama of the piece, not bare action for action’s sake.

We are given variety in these scenes. Variety of action. Variety of character; variety of situation, masterfully broken up and intercut — one of the filmmaking crafts components in creating effective drama.

We care about the personal situations of each character in the original Star Wars trilogy, which like dominoes has brought them together into a life or death dramatic conflict.

Presently, Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking is in love with throwing everything (including the kitchen sink) onto the cinema screen. Such pyrotechnic arousal on behalf of filmmakers, whose justification seems to be “it can be done, so let’s do it” is not only ineffective filmmaking, but disrupting to the symphonic-like movement cinematic stories must achieve to be dramatically engaging.

How about Computer Generated Images, or popularly known as CGI?

As a “smoothing” out tool, CGI can work wonders, giving believability to things unable to be done by camera optics — or human beings in stunt-work. Alas, CGI is a helpful technology when used as an addition to the locale, world, universe, characters occupy. As the main course, however, CGI tends to remove characters from locale and place — dismantling the sense of life stories must inhabit.

Unlike the George Lucas of the Star Wars prequels, Abrams has used CGI (innovation in CGI technology helped tremendously), to “assist” his imagined worlds, rather than rely on it. Overall, I myself have been pleased with the reduced level of CGI use in Abrams’ two Star Trek directorial efforts. Both movies, more or less, centered on character interaction and motivations rather than over-used CGI images.

Still, acute in the newly released Star Trek: Into Darkness, Abrams seems more exited by bare momentum of action scenes more than story, evolved from discernable characters. For the new Star Wars movies to occupy timeless relevance in ways the original trilogy still inspires, Abrams’ will have to learn this lesson and craft character-driven stories able to meet such demands.

Hailing from television, Abrams tends to use longer lenses, giving a shallow depth of field — creating a “talking heads” look between characters on screen. Abrams’ recent films appear to have backed off this technique, partly because of greater filmic experience and perhaps more filmic/cinema aware cinematographers.

Overall, the effect of “talking head” images on movie screens reduces the cinematic effect between characters and place. Place, filmic geography — where characters live and move — is as much apart of upholding verisimilitude movie storytelling requires, as true to life characters facing existential situations, and coherent plot points.  While a talking heads effect is not as destructive in television, due to smaller screens, it is nevertheless distracting and underwhelming in motion pictures.

Be it said. It matters whom a stories characters are as much as where they are, and what situation confronts them. If the locale or place does not look real, the fundamental suspension of disbelief for the audience (even more crucial to fantasy/sci-fi movies like Star Trek and Star Wars) evaporates.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Abrams has learned the lessons from the failure of the Star Wars prequels. Reliance upon CGI to create entire worlds hurt those films, but important to comprehend also, the storytelling of the prequels was not very interesting or dynamic.

The late visionary director Stanley Kubrick once said “real” is good, but “interesting” is better. The Star Wars prequels, in a word, were uninteresting. Action does not fix that, especially when videogame-like. Kubrick once lamented that every cinematic scene has been done. Therefore, the job of the filmmaker he said, was to do scenes viewers have glimpsed before in more interesting ways, and dare I add — more dramatically effective ways, each time out.

The original Star Wars trilogy was real, in the sense that if such a string of events could occur in a real universe, we can imagine they would have occurred as Lucas envisioned them on screen. This was especially true in regards to motion, where the invention of the motion-capture camera became gold (glimpsed in Star Wars: A New Hope’s climatic Death Star battle).

The necessity of building those worlds mostly with in-camera optical effects expanded the effectiveness and realness of those worlds.

Real sets, real presence on those sets.

Story-wise, the original Star Wars trilogy was pregnant with the verities of human experience — of human needs and human desires; of Evil verses Good — inherent within our humanity. The Star Wars universe assumed the ethical and existential categories of our world. Such story and thematic concessions, are inherent to all good storytelling — good storytelling being timeless, and always encompassing life’s sundry verities, expositing them to audiences.

In the 1980s, author Dale Pollock wrote an unauthorised biography of George Lucas, released sometime after the release of Return of the Jedi. Recently, Pollock said Lucas’ outlines for Star Wars episode 7, 8, 9 where the best of the series. These were the films Pollock wanted to see, he lamented. Not the prequels.

Speculations persist. The outlines for Star Wars episodes 7, 8, and 9 are part of what Disney Studios purchased from LucasFilm Lim, late in 2012. If true, the chance to have great Star Wars movies means the “story” part of the equation — always the most crucial — appears, according to Pollock, to be in place.

Finally, the challenge will be the construction of the worlds of those stories, holding true to the symphonic like give and take dramatic stories need to be morally significant and impactful.

What to expect…isn’t that it?

We have to wait and see. But I can imagine, good or bad, excitement will continue to grow.

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