Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Praise of Mediocrity

So Star Wars.

Someone tweeted recently (sorry, I can't remember who or I'd attribute it) that there was no better exemplar of the human capacity for optimism than the speed at which "New Star Wars" went from a punchline to a prayer. It's particularly bizarre when you consider that this is inspired by the series creator very deliberately bowing out of being directly creatively involved and handing over control to a massive multinational corporation. Seriously, that sentence I just wrote, divorced from context, makes me want to jump off the nearest balcony.

But blow me if the recent proceedings haven't been filling me with a thrill of hope. In spite of everything, Star Wars is still something I care about--not the merchandising and spinoffs and gubbery per se, but the original three films. I still think they're an incredible feat of filmmaking and resonate with me on a primal level that I'll never be able to put aside entirely, for all the intellectual arguments (many of which I accept) for how lame and culturally reactionary they are, how they damaged film as an artform and turned SF and Fantasy from the genres of imagination and ideas to a bunch of formulaic whizz-bangery. They still work, goddammit. And the chance of getting more that might work on the level that the classic films do is something that can legitimately get me excited.

To be clear here, I'm not the kind of nerd who wants everything they love on endless replay forever. I was honestly kind of "blah" in the lead-up to The Avengers (which may be why I was able to walk in with reasonable expectations and legitimately enjoy it), I thought the Chris Nolan Batman films probably should have ended with The Dark Knight, and I honestly was not feeling any particular excitement about The Hobbit even before they announced that it was going to be split pointlessly into three films. I can get very excited by the upcoming work of a particular filmmaker, but "franchises" do little or nothing for me.

What's more, I 100% agree with what a number of people are saying, that some of the directors that the nerderati* are excitedly suggesting to helm the new movies are inappropriate because they're too interesting and creative and they don't deserve to be shackled to a massive franchise that will limit their creativity. It's true that Sam Raimi and Chris Nolan were able to bring their talents to bear on major comic-book superhero movies and leverage them into other great movies, but other cinematic talents haven't fared nearly as well. I thought Brian Singer was a legitimately promising director who did a great job with his X-Men films, but somehow jumped the shark in a major way starting with Superman Returns. Peter Jackson was a favourite of mine in the 90s, but Lord of the Rings seems to have sucked him dry of his reckless imagination and ballsiness. Jon Favreau's career suffered major diminishing returns after Iron Man. And I'm honestly kinda worried about Joss Whedon now**.

*Is that a new word? Did I just create that? Patent pending!

**Yeah, I still like Joss Whedon. Fuck you.

Favreau's name has been floated as a likely candidate to direct Star Wars episode VII, though, and I actually think he'd be perfect. This is yet another of the bizarrely paradoxical aspects of how interested I am in this whole announcement. I want certain filmmakers to keep away from new Star Wars for their own sakes, but oddly, I kind of want it for the sake of Star Wars, too.

Because what works about Star Wars is something very simple and pure. It's become a cliche, but Star Wars really does tap into some of the primal urge for myth-making that we've felt since we were hairy grunting jerks huddled around a campfire, and it weds it both to the old-Hollywood desire to entertain and the geeky proclivity for world-building. It's not about re-inventing cinema, it's about stripping it down to its essence and then encrusting it with a lot of entertaining bric-a-brac. The elegance with which the OT captures this "mythical modern" feel--something that the Prequels quite spectacularly failed to do, of course, and for all that people tear apart the Prequels, that particular shortcoming is rarely mentioned--requires a certain kind of talent to capture. It's very definitely not the province of visionary artists; it's more like the sphere of extra-competent journeymen who somehow capture lightning in a bottle.

Take, for example, Michael Arndt, who's apparently been hired as head writer for the new trilogy. (Lawrence Kasdan, co-writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, was recently announced as probably writing Episode VIII, along with Simon Kinberg, but they're likely to be working from Arndt's outline.) Arndt wrote Little Miss Sunshine, which is a movie I really don't care for. The performances slightly elevate it, but the script is an incredibly cynical and rather formulaic attempt to imitate a "quirkie indie comedy". And yet, somehow, it's these qualities that make me think Arndt's going to be just right for new Star Wars movies. You don't need to have authenticity to write Star Wars. If anything, I feel like that would just get in the way. What you need is a rock-solid understanding of the basics of storytelling, and how to get past your audiences' defenses and give them what they want. To pander, if you will.

Arndt's apparently taught screenwriting classes using Star Wars as a model for great story structure. He's not wrong. I don't really want this guy within twelve miles of a movie that has a shot at challenging the audience or subverting the rules of drama, but from what little I know about the guy, handing him the keys to Star Wars feels like destiny.

Which brings me to Favreau. A number of similar journeyman directors have been suggested for this--Joe Johnston, Brad Bird (who's already begged off), Matthew Vaughn. Those are all pretty suitable choices, filmmakers with solid storytelling skills who've mostly been content to stay within the realm of crowd-pleasing spectacle, but who do so very well. Favreau has a couple of extra points in his favour, though: for one thing, he's the first director in a decade to get an actual performance out of Harrison Ford (who I'm really hoping will make one last visit to the Star Wars universe, if only to give Han Solo the send-off he deserves). He also has a great philosophy of special effects, having stated on multiple occasions that it's important not to rely on CGI alone, and that stuff like puppetry and stop-motion can still have a place in modern movies, as demonstrated by his rather charming SF kid's movie Zathura. That sounds like an ideal fit with Star Wars, which showcased some of the wondrous things that can be done with practical effects, before ironically sinking into a quagmire of halfassed CGI with the prequels. Since the visuals and effects are an important part of Star Wars, having Favreau in charge would be genuinely exciting to me. Imagine, this series that set the tone for special effects becoming a celebration of the retro.

Mostly, though, I like Favreau for this because, even at his worst, he's always understood the need to bring humanity to the biggest blockbusters--and humanity is something that Star Wars has lost rather badly over the decades.

So essentially, with the new Star Wars movies, we have a weird situation where a ton of individual elements that I don't like very much seem weirdly likely to come together to produce something great.

Or it could end up sucking really, really badly.

I have to admit that the latter is every bit as likely as the former. But hey. It's been an increasingly depressing decade for nerd culture. If something like this stirs the embers of optimism in me, no matter how inexplicably, I think it deserves credit for that.

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