Picture of the Week #30: Star Wars Dark Lens

On this, the 30th anniversary of the release of The Empire Strikes Back, I find a good excuse to repost Cédric Delsaux’s Dark Lens series of photographs (see the whole set here), in which he inserts Star Wars characters and vehicles into photographs of contemporary urban landscapes. On the one hand it’s just a neat visual joke, the juxtaposition of well-known fantasy figures in mundane or unfantastic non-spaces (building sites, car parks, wasteground), but it uses digital compositing to do precisely the opposite of what George Lucas has been doing to his films for past decade and more. While Lucas has been trying to airbrush his franchise to erase traces that might mark it out as a product of an Earthly time and place, fans have longed for toys, memorabilia, props and relics that bring it back into tangible reality, to assert that it really happened, and it happened here; most fans love the materiality of the workshops that brought their beloved films to life, and to decontemporise those films is to deplete their power as markers of a particular moment in time. Delsaux drags the Star Wars universe into our world, and shows it diminished, mournful. You might interpret it as the defeat of fantasy, the inability of imagination to overcome the sheer dead weight of arid and artless modern-day Earth. Or, you could see it as an injection of relevance into the generic space of films which expressed their discomfort with reality by layering on patinas of CG obfuscation, the pancake-makeup of disengagement from political allegory.

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: Attack of the Clones Randomised

Star Wars - Attack of the ClonesSee also:

Here we go again, with the penultimate entry in this series of randomised Star Wars posts. After the execrable CGI quackery of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones could only be an improvement, right? Well, yes. It doesn’t solve any of the dramatic problems of the earlier film, and perhaps makes them worse by attempting the tricky feat of constructing a doomed romance around which all kinds of political and military activity will swarm. George Lucas is simply not up to such a task as long as he focuses his attention on his digital playthings. I’ve always argued that CGI need not be a brain-sapping tool of anti-intellectual eye candy. It’s just that, while it remained expensive, there was little incentive to put it to adventurous uses. As such, it was just used for the same tasks as earlier forms of special effects – crowds, environments, monsters etc. There’s a moment on one of the extras of the Attack of the Clones DVD where you see Lucas working with an animator on a brief shot of digital Yoda. He pores over the same piece of footage, trying to get the correct kind of wobble in one of Yoda’s ears; they want him to look a little bit rubbery so that he doesn’t look too distant from the puppet used in the earlier films, but they want him to have a much greater range of expressions. I can’t imagine Lucas lavishing this much attention on the finer points of his human cast’s performances. Instead, he’s turned them into a different kind of puppet, adopting a drag-and-drop approach to editing whereby individual performances within a group shot can be isolated from separate takes and compositied into the same space.

Let’s hope the random number generator will at least give me some interesting and unusual bits of the film to look at and write about. The numbers are: 16, 44, 79, and 112. A nice spread, so let’s get started:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 16th minuteGeorge Lucas’ boy-racing past keeps on resurfacing. The Star Wars prequels purport to tell us what turned Anakin Skywalker into the evil Darth Vader. The explanations are pretty standard – the death of his mother, fear of losing his wife and child, being called Annie all the time. In short, he’s never really invested in the ideologies of Imperialism. He’s just weak-willed and very upset. But in Episode II we see him not as an incipient fascist overlord, but an angsty teenager. Lucas includes several moments where his reckless driving indicates a misuse of his Jedi powers for self-fulfilment, but he can’t help making it look exciting, and making Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) seem like a curmudgeon for his disapproval; look at the differences in their facial expressions, for instance. The lemon yellow speeder they drive in pursuit of a suspected assassin is designed like a sleek sportscar, the CG background a souped-up rear projection blurring in the background as it takes a rollercoaster dip. I seem to keep repeating this, but the Star Wars films feature a lot of this kind of vehicular velocity, and the use of point-of-view shots puts the viewer in the front seat of a ride. I noticed in an earlier post how one scene from from Return of the Jedi established downward motion as potentially lethal threat, running counter to controlled and steady forward journeys. Here, Anakin transgresses by leaving the flow of traffic to swoop downwards to street level, suggesting obliquely his alignment with the negative forces that populate the films.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 44th minuteA giant production line is bottling up babies to form the massive clone armies that will enable an Imperial take-over of the galaxy. This extreme long shot abstracts the people inside the little bubbles to shut out their individuality. The light blue is quite soothing and beautiful, but it’s as clinically smooth as the CGI that’s been used to visualise it. Dystopian imagery, where human beings are reduced to tiny outputs of giant machines, is a staple of science fiction, but Lucas doesn’t really pause on the philosophical or ethical consequences of posthumanism; if these issues are raised at all, they’re in the design of shots like this. This is certainly not the film for long discussions of human subjectivity in an age of duplication. Mechanising the workforce is the first stage of an Imperial takeover that will be empowered by a massive arsenal of spacecraft and other hardware: the prequels offer clues as to how the Empire came to power, and this is one of the pieces of that build-up, an insight into its clandestine origins, manufacturing its followers like bargain basement merchandise. It’s an impressive image that isn’t coated in the nightmarish darkness of The Matrix‘s people farms, but it’s also a bit of a dodge – rather than confronting the more troubling possibility that the Empire took over by influencing the populace by false promises and perverted ideology, we see that actually they grew their people in jars.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 79th minuteJust remember, if you’re a good guy in a Star Wars film, some jittery alien snitch is spying on you at every turn. Obi-Wan Kenobi takes a sidestep into the detective genre for most of this film, which means that other stock characters, including the snoop, come into play. This insectoid creature peers in from one side of the frame, hiding inside a cave. So many of the films’ alien species are introduced in this way, hiding and watching from a darkened distance. The digital matte painting that makes up the backgrounds in this shot still looks painterly, rather perfectly drawn and immaculately coloured – once again, we see Lucas’ insistence on dividing his planets up into single environments: sand planet, water planet, city planet, forest moon, etc., as if none of them is an ecosystem, but a cohesive, discrete design project.

For you, readers, the bonus frame is a relatively exciting one, a battle scene from the 112th minute of the film. Take a good look, and muster up some wisdom to share with the rest of us concerning this old thing:
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones 112th minute

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Randomised

Star Wars Phantom Menace Darth MaulSee also:

Yippee. I committed myself to finishing off a series of posts “randomising” the whole Star Wars saga. (See here if you’re not sure what “randomising” refers to on this blog.) Which means I have to reopen the wound of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks and all.

On a ratio of intensity of anticipation to quality of end product, The Phantom Menace must surely rank as one of the biggest anti-climaxes in cinema history. And it produced long-lasting unsettlement in franchise fans. Did its deep crapness mean that we had entered a cynical age that could no longer countenance jaunty battles, rubbery creatures and accident prone sidekicks (all of which were present in the “Original Trilogy”, as it came to be known, perhaps to protect it from contamination by association with its prequels)? Had Star Wars been rubbish all along and the world just hadn’t noticed? Why had we openly expressed excitement at the imminent release of a new film from the producer of Howard the Duck? I can’t answer these questions, but I can hope that the randomisation process will throw out some interesting observations on this film, whether you regard it as an underrated minor entry in a classic film series, or as the punishment beating of the collective human childhood, a joyless and perfunctory marquee for action figures, lunchboxes and Jar Jar Binks beachtowels.

The randomiser has given me the numbers 2, 49, 76 and 114. So, here we go…
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 2nd minuteThe number 2 corresponds to the 2-minute mark, so that’s the frame I’m stuck with. I thought 2 minutes would put me right in the middle of the expository text scroll that begins all of the Star Wars film, pretending to be catching you up on the backstory for a serial that spanned a bigger story either side of the one you were watching. As a kid (sorry to keep framing these films in terms of how I remembered them, but I guess that’s when I was most affected by them), the text seemed to be interminable, teasingly delaying the action. Now it’s gone in 60 seconds, and we’re straight into some scene-setting. Two Jedi Knights are being sent to investigate a trade dispute that has led the Trade Federation to blockade the peaceful planet of Naboo, a kind of pastel-coloured paradise of Renaissance palaces and Atlantean underwater cities (that actually like crystalline versions of those Habitrail things that people keep hamsters in). The Jedi’s shroud casts a shadow on most of the right-hand portion of this frame. It’s notable how often George Lucas plays on the monkish, forbidding appearance of the Jedi; does he want to draw attention to how they police the galaxy with this iconography of fearsome mystique, or the way the hoods make them look just like their ultimate nemesis, Darth Sidious (later the Emperor). We are never supposed to be troubled by the self-regulated, masonically sheltered Jedi order; we just have to accept that they are benign. At least all of their superstitious beliefs about the universe turn out to be true. But aside from trying to prevent a galactic slide into imperialism, and ensuring the preservation of their Order and all of its traditions, what are their political and ideological leanings, their worldview or their model for government. Well, aside from some quasi-Buddhist (The Phantom Menace even includes a shot of some Buddha proclamations about the interconnectedness of all things, we don’t really get a sense of the broader system of the Jedi system. Without actually ruling, they operate like a protective, interventionist priesthood, and their wider activities are subordinated to the easier, and more visually pleasing heroics of swordplay, escape and rescue. Anyway, back to this shot. The looming presence of the Jedi knight (that hood is a tantalising cover, setting up anticipation for a reveal) behind the pilot seems threatening, though it doesn’t block out the view through the screen of the blockade of starships around the green planet. There’s a striking stacking up of scales here, from the cloaked body in medium close-up through the windscreen to the distant planet whose inhabitants are abstracted subjects of the metallic ringfence that has them tightly monitored from orbit. As I’m sure I mentioned in earlier posts in this series, that shuttling between individual actions and planetary generalities is the template for the saga as a whole.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 46th minuteA nice red hue distinguishes this shot of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi, communicating remotely with Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). Qui-Gon has taken a cell sample from Anakin Skywalker, believing him to be uniquely strong with the Force. Or something. This was the moment that made Star Wars fans the world over stop and say “WTF?” or some other culturally-specific expression of dismayed disbelief. If the Force was a mystical, spiritual essence that binds everything together, yet only a few believed in it enough to be able to feel its effects, how come we can suddenly measure the midi-chlorians and see a Force-o-meter on a little screen like the one in this frame? Many were not amused. A noble belief was reduced to a bit of pseudo-scientific genetics. Was Lucas trying to scientise the franchise? If so, he could’ve gone the whole hog and had different gravity levels on different planets or something like that. Either way, the tension between Obi-Wan’s monastic outfit and the computer equipment he’s peering into (it’s almost composed like a two-shot, as if McGregor is in conversation with the screen) articulates something of the Jedi’s relationship to technology. They have great facility with it, but it sits uncomfortably with their sense of self-denial and their emphasis on the body’s oneness with spirit, as opposed to the body’s augmentation with electronic assistants.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 76th minuteJar Jar Binks received an unprecedented level of hatred at the time of the film’s release. It was as if disgruntled fans were channelling all of their disaffection into the lightning rod of the amphibious Gungan slapstick sidekick, who they suspected of being a thinly-veiled appeal to kids and the toy market. You can see his feet on the table, to the left of this frame. I wrote a paper about the Jar Jar hate campaign, arguing that it might reasonably be seen as a projection of distaste at the overuse of CGI creatures, an abject response to the coming of the virtual actor. In this shot, Jar Jar sleeps deeply, snoring and tongue-lolling in a slovenly manner that pegs him as a creature of appetites, a folksy bystander to the political machinations of the plot. Lucas may have intended him to be an oblivious guide for the viewer through the earnestness of the other narrative pathways, as if he could make you feel OK not to have a clue what was happening or why it mattered. In contrast to Jar Jar’s clueless peace, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker cowers and scowls in the corner, diminished in the frame by those big dumb feet. One of the promotional posters for the film showed Anakin casting the shadow of Darth Vader on the wall, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that his head appears to cast the shadow of a helmet in this shot. Both the poster and this shot play on the dramatic irony of the incongruence between the jackbooted Dark Lord of the Original Trilogy and this sullen mummy’s boy. An abnormally sensitive composition leaves him forlorn and feeble, out of step with the new space he finds himself in. It also echoes/prefigures a similar scene of Luke Skywalker, saddened and defeated by the death of Obi-Wan as the Millennium Falcon escapes from the Death Star in Star Wars.

Now, it’s become a feature of these Star Wars Randomised posts that one frame will be thrown open to the readers for their comments. Take a look at the following frame and see what meanings, interpretations, pedantries and observations you can apply to it. Any and all contributions are welcome:
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 114th minute

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: The Empire Strikes Back Randomised

star_wars__the_empire_strikes_backSee also:

Continuing the occasional series of Star Wars Randomised posts (see here if you need to know what these are), I come to The Empire Strikes Back. This was the first Star Wars film I remember seeing in the cinema. My family was on holiday in Dublin, and I and my siblings were taken to see it as an evening treat. Mostly what I remember was Yoda, who I assumed was a member of the muppet family and therefore entirely hilarious at all times. But my memory of the story was bolstered by a second viewing (on a double bill with the earlier film), and by the toys, books, trading cards and magazines that help to extrude the afterlife of the film and embed it firmly in the brain.

The numbers randomly generated are: 25, 89, and 101. I take frame grabs from those minute marks and use them as prompts for discussion. The bonus number is 40: that’s the one I’m handing over to you, readers, so dust off your critical faculties and get ready to tell me stuff…
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 25th minuteThe Star Wars films move from planet to planet with the greatest of ease. This is not the barren, vast space of 2001 or Alien: it’s a galaxy teeming with life, each new world a monoclimatic, colour coded waystation for a a section of plot. There’s Endor, an entirely forested moon, Tatooine, the desert planet, Coruscant, its whole surface urbanised, and this – Hoth, all snow and ice. Its white surfaces are a retina-searing place for a battle, a bright open space that offers no shadows in which to hide. The Rebels troops are massively outgunned. They’ve just spotted the Imperial forces’ giant walking troop carriers (AT-ATs, if my memory of the action figures serves me right) approaching, their eyes aimed at the distant enemy. They know they’re pretty much screwed. It’s just a matter of buying some time while the Rebels evacuate their base. Writing this down, it sounds pretty trite, but the spectacle comes from the succinct reduction of the conflict to its powerful visual elements: definite lateral movement (the Rebels face and fire in this direction, the Empire advances inexorably from the opposite side), a diagonal composition in this shot scatters the troops in a loose, rather scrappy and pathetic formation. This will be intercut with the assured march of the Empire towards them. And when, oh when, will we get these wrist-mounted intercoms that science fiction has been promising us for so long? Again, there are few true gaps between places in the Star Wars universe: spatial gulfs can be spanned with this proliferation of communication devices, or hyperspace jumps that collapse huge distances in seconds. Scenes of isolation, out of radio contact or away from other people, are almost always scenes of isolation and fear.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 89th minuteFor a smart-mouthed gun-slingin’ hero, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) certainly suffers a lot in this film. Here he is in a prison cell shortly after being tortured with some kind of electroshock machine, and shortly before being encased in carbonite (all of the nonsense science in Star Wars is stated with casual confidence – there are few astonishing “new” technologies for the people involved, rarely even any expressions of surprise as they arrive on strange new worlds): I remember seeing this as a six-year-old and asking my mum if Solo was dead. Whatever they were saying on the screen about his life signs, I couldn’t imagine how being “in a statue” was not the same as being dead. In this shot, though, Han is on the way to his statue-state. The torture has knocked the swagger out of him. The smirk has fallen from his mough, and the dark shadows emphasise the sag in his face, the pallor of his skin, the frown on his brow that expresses disappointment that his roguish heroism has been met not with a similarly spry, moustache twirling villainy, but with a medieval set of restraints, jabs and agonies. Why won’t the enemy spar with him on his own terms? the stark, corugated iron (?) backdrop and the off-centre framing accentuate the disempowerment. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has been moved to his defence from his earlier standoffish flirtation. Her hair is gradually evolving from the tight buns she wore in the previous episode, snaking down the sides of her head as her affection unfolds: sad to see that her initial assertiveness is being equated with tightness, a quality to be outgrown rather than one to direct productively. In the flirtation that characterises their relationship during most of The Empire Strikes Back (and reminds us that it shares a co-screenwriter with The Big Sleep), they are equally matched: by this point, he has gained the sympathetic highground by getting the crap kicked out of him, but he gains it at the expense of his agency and heroic prerogative.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 109th minuteThe darkness of the film is often cited as its strength, positioned between the boyishness of the previous and the teddy bears’ picnic of the subsequent episodes. The shadiest chiaroscuro effects are reserved for the scenes of Oedipal revelation as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) battles the arch-villain who turns out to be his father (he has, by this point, stopped coming onto his sister…). Here, Luke looks down into the pit where he has just thrown Darth Vader. The low shot and confident stance seem to give him a superior positioning, but his size within the frame, and the prominence of opaque spaces in the frame suggest that he is still in danger. The lightsaber is another bit of impossible science that makes perfect sense – it works like a sword, and permits the film to borrow the intimate aspects of swordfighting (the proximity to an opponent, they attempt to inflict injury directly to their bodies) as opposed to the remoteness of gunplay. Hence, emotional conflicts are usually manifest as sabre fights; they evoke a chivalrous age at the same time as their alien technology suggests an unfathomable futurity for the films’ spectators. Plenty of sf technologies aim to provoke the flash of recognition that comes from seeing a gadget that one hopes will eventually arrive to make life easier. Star Wars paradoxically provokes nostalgia instead: its technologies return us to the sword and the cloak. Its inventions are not necessities to one day make our lives easier, but tropes of other genres (pirate, cowboy, knight) shifting to the back and to the side in space and time.

And here, from the 40th minute of the film, is your turn. What can you tell me about this frame? Anything at all. Surprise me…Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 40th 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