Picture of the Week #9: Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone. Thanks for visiting Spectacular Attractions and making it such a success in 2009. I look forward to hearing from you in 2010 and developing this thing even further. Stand by for the New Year, which promises more and better stuff from this blog, including exciting experiments in podcasting. However you’re spending the next few days, I hope it’s peaceful, relaxing and beautiful. Failing that, I hope you get to eat a pie of some sort.
Read on…

Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Randomised

StarWarsEpisode3PosterSee also:

Finally, we come to the end of an extensive Star Wars fest. I feel like I’ve settled into the Randomisation thing now, so perhaps it’s time to turn it towards some more challenging films. It’s not all that difficult to find something to say about narrative feature films, especially ones that spill over into so many intertexts and parallel strands of a franchise – each shot seems designed to resonate across a range of media. With Star Wars, for instance, even bit-part players might wind up with their own spin-off episode of a comic book or video game.

Before that happens, the saga must come to an end, or more, accurately, an end that sets up the beginning of the next/original trilogy of films. George Lucas might want us to watch them in order, 1-6, but there’s no doubt that Episode III: Revenge of the Sith plays on the dramatic irony of characters not knowing the significance that they will have later in the story; if it doesn’t require you to know what’s coming next, it certainly winks in the direction of those who do.

The random number generator will give me four numbers. I take frame grabs from the DVD of the frame that sits at the beginning of the minute-mark corresponding to these figures. They provide the starting point for discussion of the film. The numbers are 30, 77, 83 and 110. Let’s see what happens…
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. Natalie PortmanHow often do we see people in bed in the Star Wars films? I’m sure there are some devotees who can give me an exact number, but I bet it doesn’t happen often. That sort of domestic necessity (we see people asleep, but rarely tucked up at home) is a rarity when there are more exciting things to show, and little interest in the private lives and thoughts of the characters. This is an unusually moody shot. The blinds cast noirish shadows on the wall (these people have discovered hyperspace but nobody took the trouble to invent curtains?) as Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) wakes to find her husband gone, tormented by a bad dream (premonition?) of her death. Throughout the prequels, Portman has been dressed up in some astonishing finery, at times ceremoniously decked out in Geisha style make-up and restrictively decorative robes, speaking in a cod-regal British accent through pursed lips. The story of her development as a romantic heroine (sadly, she has little to do in this film, though she does get to utter one of the only decent lines in all of the prequel scripts: “This is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause”, which really jumps off the soundtrack with its unaccustomed relevance) is told through the gradual lightening of her wardrobe load, destricting her personality in the process. But she still sleeps in jewellery with her hair up, it seems. Critics mocked the lack of chemistry between Portman and Hayden Christensen, and this is probably fair comment – they’re not given much poetry to spout to make us feel that their love is really making the blood flow, but this may be, accidentally or not, the point; could it be that the Queen has blundered into this relationship and stays with her husband out of pity or fear, discomfited by his developing violent tendencies but trapped by convention or shocked into inaction? The luxurious surroundings of the palace (those embroidered cushions don’t look very cuddly) can’t be very conducive to a mutual understanding between a monarch and a freed slave, after all.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith Ewan McGregor To paraphrase Wittgenstein, “Dude, WTF?!” This frame is so crowded with stuff I hardly know where to start. Obi-Wan is addressing one of the clone troopers, riding like a cowboy on a big, spaniel-lively lizard. Under their helmets, all of the clones look like their source material, Temuera Morrison; George Lucas even redubbed Boba Fett’s scenes in the Original Trilogy with Morrison’s voice. But, for reasons which are a mystery to me, Lucas decided that he didn’t want to make any actual, physical outfits for the troops, so they’re all digital animations. Morrison’s head has been superimposed onto a digital body. It looks ropey in places, but at least it matches the sense of manufactured soldiers, their uniformity and their slightly grotesque otherness, even if this flaw in the special effects is only inadvertently smuggling in such thematic reinforcement. The lizard looks pleasingly rubbery, giving me warm remembrances of Ray Harryhausen monsters, but the level of detail is overwhelming, with multiple planes of movement, destruction and colours that jostle for attention.
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Hayden Christensen, Ewan McGregorWhat’s under Darth Vader’s mask? As a youngster, these kinds of questions felt important. The amount of human left behind beneath that machinic shell was a matter of urgency, a mystery that needed solving. Eventually, I got to see what was under there, and it was quite satisfying, but Revenge of the Sith promises to show you how Vader came to be that way. So here we come to the near-conclusion of Episode III, with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker duelling to the death on a beam that stretches across an infernal chasm filled with raging lava. Anakin’s eyes have gone all Emo on us, conveying a deep angst that we’re supposed to equate with a turn to the darkside. Personally, I was a little disturbed to see this tormented, child-slaughtering fascist, with or without his photogenically precise facial scars, adorning children’s lunchboxes and birthday cards. Red is obviously the dominant colour here, but the lightsabers cut through the frame strinkingly – usually, combatants fight with different coloured blades, but on this occasion the two friends fight with similar coloured weapons. I’ve heard George Lucas espousing the merits of Jordan Belson’s colourful abstract animations, and sometimes the lightsabers duels in darkened spaces transform into semi-abstract bursts of violent colour, but it’s still a couple of dudes having a swordfight. Maybe that’s going to be my final comment on the Star Wars saga – however innovative, adventurous and yes, experimental its technological showcasing might become, it remains resolutely old-fashioned in its cultural references and its commitment to showing its fans what they really want and expect to see in explicit detail, instead of shaking things up with plot twists and formal subversion.

Finally, the last frame grab from this long-running series of Star Wars Randomised posts. The 83rd minute throws out the image below. Fittingly, it’s a departure. I’ll save you some time and point out the obvious E.T. pastiche as Yoda flies off in his little pod, but I’m hoping you can add some comments on this particular frame:
Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: Yoda

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi Randomised

ralph-mcquarrie-return-of-the-jedi-endor-racingSee also:

The last in the “original trilogy” of films is ready to be Randomised, reduced to three randomly selected frames, which will then provide a basis for my discussion of “random” aspects of the film (as opposed to the usual tactic of picking out the stuff that suits my own thesis).

I remember Return of the Jedi better than any other Star Wars film. Iwas the right age when it came out – old enough to understand the plot and to have some investment in the lives of its characters, but young enough that the inclusion of a tribe of cheeky teddy bears seemed like a crazy-funny idea to pep up an increasingly downbeat and self-important franchise with some unselfconscious slapstick rather than a canny-cunning concession to the toy market. This is the first time I remember being, like, totally psyched (as I believe young people are saying these days) for an upcoming film. I even read an article in Time magazine, an unusual activity for this particular 8 year-old, which I remember being a million pages long and published months before the film came out; actually it was published in the week of the film’s release: it just felt like ages before I would get to see the film for myself. I also suspect that this film, in a pincer movement with The Muppet Show, cemented a lifelong interest in puppets. The accompanying documentary, Classic Creatures, confirmed that George Lucas’s galaxy was one where humans were interlopers in a crowd of rubbery creatures.

Anyway, enough nostalgia. The randomiser has given me the following numbers: 15, 59, 97 and 110. A very good spread, I think. Let’s see what we get:
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 15th minute15 minutes in, we’re at the court of Jabba the Hutt, a giant slug-thing as capriciously sultanic as a Charles Laughton performance. This is a shot that has been added for the Special Edition re-release of 1997. The two humanoid girls are dancers from the house band (their parts were added when George Lucas decided to expand the group’s musical number to a full-blown muppet-fest), Rystáll Sant (left) and Lyn Me (right). Bounty hunter Boba Fett, through the addition of this one shot (actually, I think there are two glimpses of the master shot of this group), is transformed into a suave ladies man, instead of the skulking dude in the corner too shy to take his suit off even in the desert. In the prequels, he is given a backstory that posits him as the donor DNA for the Clone army, and his uniform now looks like an antique version of their suits. His trajectory in those films had obviously not been planned at the time of Return of the Jedi in 1983, because he is given a throwaway slapstick death scene to match his minimal screentime. But fans had taken the character to their hearts, surely on the basis of his cool outfit; it’s not like he does very much in the films themselves, and it can’t be entirely because of his earlier cartoon appearance in the Star Wars Holiday Special, an utterly execrable embarrassment about some kind of Wookiee Christmas, as far as I recall. Anyway, the nightclub backlighting and alien groupies pay him the respect that his followers clearly believed he was due. The dancers are marked as exotic, with their colourful skin and hair, and their slightly augmented anatomy. At least as far back as the Star Trek Green Lady, lovelorn and pent-up fanboys have been prompted to imagine whether alien women were different in all kinds of ways, and Star Wars has a lot of catching up to do in the sex department, devoid as it is of even implicit eroticism beyond a bit of (tom)boyish flirting here and there. It’s just a shame that, in trying to loosen up the Lucas libido, the film ends up dressing girls in fetish wear instead of giving them something interesting to say or do.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 59th minuteA little later, at the film’s halfway point, we have an exhilarating chase on the literally named speeder bikes through the forests of Endor. It’s all forests on Endor. The motion blur on the scenery, accentuated by the sharp focus on the biker scout (used to be one of the favourites in my collection of action figures), demonstrate the incredible pace of this sequence. A self-confessed boy racer in his youth (see American Graffiti for evidence of a nostalgia for shiny, shiny cars), George Lucas finds plenty of chances in his Star Wars franchise for chase sequences and vehicular combat, all of them built on his signature coupling of mortal danger and a gleeful enjoyment of speed. So many complex special effects went into this sequence, including travelling mattes, miniatures and live action footage of the actors. But it hinges on a very simple trick – some dude with a camera has to walk through the forest, capturing the background footage that will then be played back at high speed. There are plenty of contests between vehicles in the Star Wars universe, so it’s refreshing to see one so close to the earth. Endor is one of the staging posts for the final battle between the Empire and the Rebels, marking out most forcefully the clash of interests between a hyper-technologised ruling party and the traditional cultures that populate its colonies.
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 110th minuteAn an unenlightened child, it always puzzled me why these mighty, wise warriors, good or evil, didn’t just kill each other. Instead they brandish statements like “give into your hatred” or “if you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”. Really? Do they want to be killed or not? What happened to the old ways of goodies and baddies trying to kill each other because each represented a threat to the other’s plans? And why did Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan Kenobi if he knew it would make him more powerful? Only later did I understand that the plan was to turn Luke Skywalker into an asset of evil and turn him to the Dark Side. This might seem like  a spiritual conception of evil as a corrupting infection that requires a single transgressive act (tellingly centred around the killing of a feared enemy) to let the infection take over the body and mind, but it’s also a conservative one where you either are or are not wicked and get branded as such. In any case, by the end we still wind up with the Emperor preparing to kill Luke once and for all. The camera moves with him, his hands threatening inwards from the side of the frame, an over-the-shoulder, almost-point-of-view shot signalling the pushing of the young Jedi towards the edge of the precipice. Think how many important showdowns or daring escapes happen on the edge of these apocalyptic canyons in George Lucas’ adventure serials (i.e. including the Indiana Jones films). Nothing signifies imminent doom better than a potential plummeting towards a vanishing point. These dangers of extreme vertical drops stand in sharp contrast to the horizontal axes of the chase scenes such as the one in the previous frame. Death comes when the forward motion stops.

Finally: this one is for you, readers – the bonus frame. The 97th minute. Take a deep breath, flex your typing fingers and tell me what you can say about this:
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi 97th minute

Star Wars Randomised

Star Wars poster
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[For other Randomised posts, and an explanation of the rules of randomisation, go here.]

In a brazenly populist gesture, I thought I’d start a weekly(ish) series applying the rules of Randomisation to George Lucas’ reasonably well-known toyshop sf-western franchise. I’m going to start with the first film, i.e. the one released in 1977, before it was retitled Episode IV: A New Hope in 1981 (I once had a stand-up shouting match with a hardcore fan who swore blind that it had always been subtitled “Episode IV” since it’s first screenings. Thank goodness these days anyone with 30 seconds to spare and access to Google can settle these squabbles with more civility). However, I am lumbered with the 2004 DVD versions, so I’ll have to note “special edition” embellishments/vandalisms should they arise.

In keeping with the traditions of Randomisation, I won’t say much more about the film – I’ll just let the random number generator pick me three numbers, then grab the frames corresponding to those minute marks from the DVD, and get on with it. The numbers are 13, 66, 80. The bonus number is 109; this is a new feature I’m introducing for the Randomised series. I’d like you, dear readers, to fill in the entry for the fourth number for me. Please join in and help out on the comments thread below and see if you can suggest points of interest raised by the image.

Now, on with the pictures:
Star Wars: 13th minuteWell, this is a challenging one. Not the most “active” shot. This is the vacuum tube that is descending menacingly to suck up R2-D2 into the Jawas’ sandcrawler. It fills the dark frame, and the camera tilts down with its movement, in thrall to its big black mouth. It’s like a giant version of those pneumatic tubes they used to use to send messages.:R2 (follow him on Twitter here) is about to be sent like a memo into the inside of the transport. The Star Wars films are filled with shots of people (and other things) getting in and out of vehicles, racing through corridors, trenches, narrow spaces etc. It’s a real tug-of-war between wide shots of outer space or open landscapes, and people being passed from one metallic interior to the next. The Jawas, chirpy little buggers who come off like a swarm of eager market traders, make their living by rounding up and reselling old droids. The reduction of two of the films main protagonists (C3P0 is also picked up) to another bit of second-hand junk is at once a neat comic device for getting them to where they need to be (meeting Luke Sykwalker), and an establishing scene of their singular identity: no other robots in the series are permitted this level of agency, the chance to rise up from the pack, escape and go AWOL. This mammoth suction tube, a reversal of the escape pod that blew them out of the rebel ship at the beginning, is a reminder of others’ perception of the droids status as machines, commodities to be processed and delivered accordingly.
Star Wars 66th minuteHere’s a shot that has been modified slightly for the DVD release. A large pink flash as an Imperial guard is shot in the assault on the detention centre. It seems like an attempt to tone down the violence, to soften the blows of Luke and Han’s rescue of Princess Leia. The guard’s right hand was going for his gun,  so we know that he represented an immediate danger, but this bad guy has been outgunned. In lessening the impact of the death, they could’ve censored the image by erasing the pain from his face, but it’s the pink flash that has been wiped away. That burst of candy-floss pink would, if nothing else, have clashed viciously with the colour scheme of the rest of the shot. The evil of the Imperial forces is suggested in part by their mastery of colour, mostly blacks and greys, with deep red in the back of this shot. See how the guard, in his uniform, almost disappears into the decor. Even the badges that signify his rank (or maybe his scouting abilities?), match the buttons on the consoles around him: he is shown to be another integrated component of the death star, and killing him just a necessary point in navigating the outposts of the space station.

For more on the special edition alterations, some of which continue this project of “cleaning up” the film or mollifying the killings, follow this link.
Star Wars 89th minuteIn the garbage compactor (Brits like me might have called it a “rubbish squasher”) on the Death Star, Princess Leia and Han Solo struggle to get on top of the “garbage”: the Empire clearly has a different kind of garbage to the rest of us. I see no milk bottles, potato peelings or ice-cream tubs. If you want to judge a regime by what it bins, then the Empire is clearly fixated on machines, metal and rubber piping. And you can bet they’re not planning to recycle any of this stuff. The compactor is lit like an infernal backstreet, like the outsides of clubs where you see people get mugged in movies set in New York. And it’s not very well designed: surely a waste disposal unit big enough for people to get inside (there’s a door) could easily be fitted with an emergency “off” switch? But then, the functionality of the Death Star’s equipment is wholly ruthless. Not a single surface, fitting or fixture dedicated to leisure. I say this not as a flippant swipe at the film’s design, but to remark upon its singular efficiency. George Lucas is renowned for marshalling the finer points of design and environment to create an impression of lived-in worlds, but actually I find them to be wholly subordinated to the project of setting up a dichotomy between rustic rebels and machinic rulers. The Empire’s war rooms, detention centres and hangars are fussily clean and smooth, so to find our heroes suddenly in the digestive system of the centre of operations, and for it to still be full of metal, is a nice touch.

Now, over to you. What do you make of this image from the 109th minute of Star Wars? Show me how it should be done:
Star Wars 109th minute