Tuesday 29 December 2009

Avatar (2009), James Cameron

Jake awakens - avatar
"You are not gonna believe where I am!"

I was there. I saw what Jake saw. I drowned in the fearful and delicate beauty of a too vivid dream and broke the surface gasping and grinning.

To do justice to the sights of Pandora and Avatar
I should probably wait 15 years for my vocabulary to catch up. Visually, it is often mind-boggling. Stupefying in its lurid, psychedelic depth of colour, humbling in the magnitude of its detail, I gorged myself on the vertiginous battles that play amongst the boughs of great trees and beneath the waterfalls of floating Mountains.

Yet the true magic lies in the silence. A night-time trip through a luminescent landscape of glowing flora and fauna I am sure is one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. It places the visual back where it should be: front and centre - I laughed, overflowing with the joy of discovery and the purity of new life.

Pandora gives Jake, a paraplegic, new life. He can walk again and he can run, curling his toes amongst the green reeds. All we see of his twin brother Tommy is his cold body, eyes closed, before he is slid into an incineration chamber. Later, Jake will lie down in a coffin-like capsule so that his mind may merge with his avatar host. "One life ends, another begins". Jake is Tommy's avatar. He gives new life to his brother too.

The first we see of Jake is his eyes bursting open wide. The film is not just about sight but insight; to look, to experience, yes, but also to understand and so finally to love:

"I see you".

Neytiri flies
We are told that humans have grown blind. They are selfish (Tommy was killed for the "paper in his wallet"). They have laid waste to their planet, taking until it can give no more. The army have come to extract valuable minerals from Pandora, to corrupt a new Eden.

This time we are both the aliens and the humans of War of the Worlds. We are aliens crossing space seeking to survive through technologically advanced invasion and yet we are also the humans reproached for, in Wells' words, the "ruthless and utter destruction" that our "species has wrought".

Avatar is a fable that howls for peace with disarming clarity and earnestness. All living things on Pandora are linked like neurons in the brain. They are co-dependent. If you hurt one you hurt them all. The human race comes to Pandora in search of another mother, ignorant "like a child". While some repeat the same mistakes and take the path of destruction, violently sucking a surfeit of milk from her teat, Jake allows himself to be nurtured, cradled small in Neytiri's giant arms.

As a character Neytiri is captivating - fierce and loving, loyal and strong. As an artistic creation she is one of a kind. Neytiri is Snow White's great granddaughter. She too is drawn over and from a human performance. With Snow White it was rotoscoping while with Neytiri it is minute and intricate motion capture. All I can say is that I saw as much emotion on her computer generated face as on Sigourney Weaver's. The technology is able to discriminate too. We can see, for example, that Zoe Saldana's performance is more nuanced than Sam Worthington's.

Snow White and NeytiriThe crunch of bone, the shattering of glass, the call of a bird, the plangent eyes of the Na'vi - the director wanted it to look and feel real. But now and again it feels more than that.

What prevents Avatar from being a masterpiece and one of the films of the year are two not insignificant qualms.

Firstly, for a film that shows us things that we have never seen before it is mired in what we have seen too much of.

A lonely man in a strange place, an untouched paradise, forbidden love and trials of strength; these are motifs that go further still into the past than Pocahontas.

At times the story, so time-worn, rings hollow, sparking no more than a Pavlovian reaction to the grand romance and earth-moving war. It is stirring but transient. I was left marking time. Furthermore, our hero faces challenges that are too easily overcome. His ultimate success and glory is never cast into any shadow of doubt. Jake's taming of the untameable Leonopterix is such a fait accompli as to unfold limply off screen.

Cameron's script is powerful and his direction spectacular and yet, frustratingly, he does, from time to time, fall upon the habits of recent blockbusters made by inferior film-makers: the blankly humorous one-liners that stand in for credible emotion ("let's dance", "outstanding") in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and the sweeping camera moves over insubstantial CGI hordes of Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Secondly, for a film that is in so many ways so big-hearted it can also be mean-spirited and one-eyed. The soldiers and corporate bigwigs epitomised by Quaritch and Selfridge refer to the natives as 'savages'.
Avatar and War of the WorldsThey are dismissed as inferior. They are not worth knowing. Yet it is these human invaders whom we do not get to know or understand. In the final analysis it is they who are treated and shown as savages.

They bawl their imperial catchphrases ("fight terror with terror", "win hearts and minds", "taking the money working for the company") but why are we not told of the desperation of life on Earth, the "dying planet"? What is unobtainium to be used for? In other words: what are they fighting for? I wanted to know.

Jake abandons his entire species (and his own human-ness) as if they can be only perpetrators and not victims, as if the sins we reap are only legacy and not inheritance. He boils human culture down to "light beer and blue jeans". Where is the compassion for all? "This is only sad", Neytiri says of a slain dog. If this is what they believe why do they consider that "the time of great sorrow was ending" if humanity is on its last legs? The Na'vi attitude is off-putting.

The fable is twisted. Innocence is lost.

An illuminating thought is that the only people who protect the Na'vi are the ones who have got to know them. Jake and Grace and Norm's morality is not absolute. They could have been just as cold and calculating had they not been given the opportunity to set foot in a Na'vi village. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe exploitation and murder to be wrong. This is why I made the biggest connection with Trudy Chacon, played by Michelle Rodriguez. From afar she knew and sacrificed herself for the weak and unprotected.

Trudy Chacon - Avatar
Avatar is exhilarating. It is the stuff of tomorrow's nostalgia. I just wish that a film that often threatened to reshape the possibilities of Cinema hadn't ended up playing it safe. I wish that a film which could have told its tale with a smile hadn't sent its message with a scowl.

My ancillary writings on Avatar:



Thursday 17 December 2009

Observations on Inglourious Basterds

The 'heroes' of Inglourious Basterds are heroic because of the cause they fight for rather than how they fight. These are bastards who are incontrovertibly inglorious.

The film shows the corrupting nature of hatred in war and how it effects both sides. The Basterds are unnecessarily violent - the marking of prisoners, the taking of scalps - and demonstrate a psychopathic glee at the brutal beating of a Nazi soldier. In short, they are Lieutenant Aldo Raine's disciples of death:

"We will be cruel to the German and through our cruelty they will know who we are"

Aldo and the Bear Jew scalp
This echoes the teachings of Jesus, telling his disciples that people would know them, and hence God, through their actions.

Just as Colonel Landa equates the Jews with rats so too do the Basterds perceive the Nazis as defined by their ideology...

"Did you get that for killing Jews?"


stripped of all common humanity and transformed physically by a pervasive otherness:

"Say goodbye to your Nazi balls!"

At the same time the ideology of the Nazis is given a blithely clear-headed and dispassionate voice in the shape of Hans Landa. He presents their ideas as instinctual, thoughts and feelings that the Nazis can negotiate with no more than the general populace can negotiate with the strictures of the fascist regime. It's just the way things are:

"You don't really know why you don't like them, all you know is you find them repulsive"

"Talented as your negro may be, you will operate the projector"

The killing of the Nazi high command by the Basterds, locking them in as if locking the gas chamber doors and shooting down on the screaming and faceless antlike masses from above, is final evidence that there is nothing edifying in this war and all are tainted by it. Heroism is scarred, permanently disfigured.

Tarantino, therefore, adds welcome nuance to traditional hero-villain cartoon dichotomies while managing to skilfully sidestep the trap of moral relativism.

However, paradoxically, the film's greatest strength may well be its defining and fatal weakness: we are left with nobody to care for. The comic capers, the close shaves and the copious blood-letting succeed or fail on the basis of an audience association
with these people. From the moment the Basterds murder, intimidate, mock and scalp, the overwhelming sensation can only be that of repugnance.

By the end this becomes numbness as Shoshanna's cackling visage robs herself of the humanity the Nazis seek to rob her of. She is not a new Joan of Arc for France to worship. She is not a martyr forged in the flames but an exterminating angel.

One moment of elusive tenderness and warmth sticks in my mind, though. It is a close up of one of the farmer's daughters Charlotte (Lea Seydoux, below). It is a study worthy of the Dutch masters upon whose luminous colour palette the opening farm scene draws. Her eyes are alive with fear, concern and love. It is a face of real emotion that comes to be obliterated by the 'Giant Face' of revisionist vengeance (more on that anon).

Charlotte Inglourious Basterds

'Giant Face', the chapter title that refers to Shoshanna's unexpected appearance on screen, could be rewritten as 'Giant Identity'. It is a powerful assertion of who Shoshanna is and of her right to be.

Shoshanna Giant Face

For the characters in Inglourious Basterds the essence of their identity is paramount. Landa loves his "unofficial nickname" precisely because he has "earned it". The way he is seen chimes with his own view of himself. This pleases him. Archie Hicox, too, when his British identity is uncovered, embraces it fully:

"If this is it old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's".

Zoller can't bear to watch himself on the cinema screen, perhaps because it is a misrepresentation of who he is or more likely because of its painful accuracy. These characters want to be known for who they are (Lt. Raine also goes out of his way to mention the little 'Injun' in him) and when they try to escape who they are (by vowing to burn their Nazi uniforms) they are branded.

With the theme of identity so strong in this film, it is a shame that Tarantino, a man who made his name off the back of the supposedly singularly vibrant energy of his films and their larger-than-life characterisations, creates a film that is so formal and contrived that it lacks a compulsive identity.

The dialogue is repetitious and wants for spontaneity. The characters are involved in a tightly choreographed ballet with clogs on. The language is clumsily poetic ("facts can be so misleading where rumours, true or false, are often revealing") and self-conscious, as if filtered through two foreign languages. Scenes have little spark because everything is so controlled. Tension creates a vacuum but cannot live in one.

The film advances as a succession of set-pieces rather than as a coherent flow. Only Christoph Waltz, as Hans Landa, brings life to this aridity, loosening the tight leash that constrains the film and creating a personality that is ruthless, childlike, a Prince Charming (who knows whom the shoe fits) with an intellectual acumen to be reckoned with.

He is, in many ways, playing Tarantino, teasing and probing, always one step ahead, always relishing the foreplay as much as the climax:

"Wait for the cream"

Wait for the cream is an apt description of the tactics employed by the film in its set pieces - ten minutes of build until the inevitable release. Characters play games of identity with each other both for real or in make-believe (with historical figures stuck to their foreheads). The film entire could be seen as one long anticipation of a final cathartic immolation.

I believe, though, that Tarantino's style, in no small way, discredits his subject. Take for instance the revelation of the Jews hiding under the farmer's floorboards. In the midst of an anxious exchange the camera swirls around Landa and the farmer and then pans down beneath the floorboards to show the Jewish Dreyfuses paralysed with fear. This turns horror into a flourish. Instead of just showing them, or pointing us directly to them, Tarantino takes us on a mini fairground ride.

It is in the tone of the piece too that Inglourious Basterds is weakened. Seriousness and tomfoolery are unhappily married throughout. In the first interview / interrogation scene Landa brandishes a comically large pipe, prompting the farmer to look at it bemusedly as if forgetting the terrible situation he finds himself in.

Hans Landa - Inglourious Basterds
Furthermore, there is a friction of two conflicting moralities in the audience: Real-life morality and 'Movie morality'. When watching Kill Bill, one can accept and revel in the slaughter 'The Bride' visits on those she has wronged; but if we were to hear of such actions in real life, we would find them abhorrent.

We accept that there are differences between these two mindsets. Where a moral conundrum arises is in the no-man's land created by a filmic representation and reimagination of well-known and well-understood real-life events.
It doesn't start with a blank slate. What it omits to mention we are impelled to fill in from History.

The redemption and the triumph are hollow. Zoller is redeemed in Shoshanna's eyes by his image on the screen but it is a lie. Inglourious Basterds may not be propaganda but, by sweeping so much under the carpet, it is just as misleading and just as dispiriting to watch.

The farmer's daughter in that first scene pulls back a white sheet to reveal the Nazis and at the end of the film a different white sheet will be used to erase again from view the evil of the Nazis : the Cinema Screen. We see reality lead fiction by the hand and then fiction lead reality.

Diane Kruger - Inglourious Basterds

When it obscures months and years of suffering Inglourious Basterds gives us an empty false feeling of triumph. We burn our imaginations in the cinema (in this case 350 nitrate films) to warm the cold of reality but the smoke has a putrid stench to it.

Would we welcome Superman preventing the terrorist attacks of September the 11th on the Silver Screen? Would we celebrate with him?

What is it, then, that allows Tarantino to change REAL history and REAL tragedy so readily? Is it because many have trodden on this ground before? Is it because of the time that has passed? Or is it that World War II has been so adapted and so reimagined as to pass into the very stuff of fiction itself, there to become another trope, another template, a genre like any other?

Inglourious Basterds begged the question as to whether Tarantino was exploring World War II simply so that he could up-scale his revenge fetish.

* * *

The mythologising of historical cataclysms and the cataclysms themselves were born as twins - it has always happened and it always will. These myths can say important things but the message can be compromised and distorted. Basterds wants it both ways: to have us revel and reflect, to mourn and make merry, to relish the same things we deplore.

I could have gone with it if I were sitting in a cinema in the 1940s, desperate for inspiration and hope - but in 2009 I just couldn't. The reason it fails is that the film never veers from its collision course with high entertainment - with shocks and guffaws.

I wasn't turned off by the concept in the abstract (I had enjoyed the script beforehand) but by this execution of it.
In summation, Inglourious Basterds is a largely unimpressive and uncomfortable work.

*Whose beginning is heralded by a beautifully unresolved phrase of Fur Elise and the farmer's symbolic cleansing of his hands and face, a la Pontius Pilate

Monday 14 December 2009

Avatar : The American Flag

Avatar - American Flag
An American flag in Avatar, composed out of the slats of a perimeter fence and what could be part of an air conditioning system.

The stripes become bars to protect and to separate.

Saturday 12 December 2009

"Me Too" Cinema

Why is a cinema dark? Is it because we must be blinded from our world in order to see another? Or is it that we do not want to be seen by the people on the screen? Perhaps we want to remain passive or on the outside looking in.

Reviews often talk of a film that "puts you there", but this is something apart. The implication of this phrase is merely that we are watching from within their world.

It suggests that we are watching from closer but still passive, constrained to stand where the camera stands.

It is a different matter when a film makes you feel, in brief bursts, as if it is just as tangible and just as changeable as the one in which you are sitting. It is then that we become participants and not witnesses.

This is an illusion of course but an illuminating one.

On a crisp morning in Le Pont du Nord, Marie (Bulle Ogier) and her companion Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) pass through a market. Marie asks Pascale if she would like some fruit. At that moment, somewhere in Paris, part of me thought 'none for me thank you, but do you know of a patisserie near here?'.

They are rare films that are welcoming and free, that have space in them for you too.

Satantango tangoThe titular tango in Satantango, in which drunken villagers stagger around each other until they are overtaken by peaceful exhaustion, creates a similar feeling. The feeling that you are part of the proceedings, and that you can explore the village that the camera isn't showing, leave them to their own devices and come back later.

Jafar Panahi's Offside, a tale of six Iranian girls trying to see an all-important football match, culminates in a long bus trip through raucous city streets. They are being escorted to the "Vice Squad" headquarters by a couple of officers while listening to the game on the radio. The camaraderie and complex bonds that have built between all of them throughout the film drew me in. I may have ended up in court, with a record, chastened and embarrassed in front of my Mother but I wanted to be on that bus, and for a couple of short moments I felt like I was.

Offside - Jafar Panahi

For a review that really captures the spirit of the excellent Offside I recommend Sheila O'Malley's joyful piece here:


Thursday 3 December 2009

Public Enemies (2009), Michael Mann

The first half hour of Public Enemies looks the part and sounds the part. It takes the hats and long coats out of the mothballs and practises its hard-nosed deco patter in the mirror, but those thirty minutes are flat like cardboard. They are cold, unapproachable and generate little excitement.

In the early going Mann's film is in thrall both to its gangster predecessors and its subject, the real-life bank robber John Dillinger. But. But once we feel the love between John and his girlfriend Billie (in one gorgeous scene we cut between them making love with their bodies and making love with their words, their souls), once we sense his ambition, fear and desperation and see it reflected in the eyes of the men hired to catch him, Public Enemies grows into itself and into a work of epic romantic and tragic proportions.

Johnny Depp and Marion CotillardOnce we care for and understand the chaser and the chased the chase grips ever tighter. Within this atmosphere (and Mann is a master of ambience and flow) the set-piece moments no longer stick out as constipated iconography (a clumsy shot of Dillinger leaping over a bank desk) or incongruous trailer-ready moments, but sparkle. Dillinger's second prison escape, threatening and cajoling his way up the food chain in a matter of minutes, and the last breath of a dying man on the cold air stay with me.

Mann's films have often revolved around characters on the brink, leading double lives, playing roles, yes, but playing them because they are the ones they are best suited to play. Here again he draws parallels between Dillinger and his FBI pursuer Purvis, going so far as to match a shot of Dillinger's men marching into a bank with one of Purvis' walking purposefully along a station platform. They are men trapped by destiny and by themselves, men who could find true brotherhood only in each other.

The climax of the film takes place in and around a cinema where Dillinger goes to watch Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster flick starring Myrna Loy and Clark Gable. Outside the FBI await, tipped off by one of his friends. The end is nigh. An operatic tension hangs over the thronged streets.

Inside, John watches Loy and Gable bid their tragic farewells. In his mind and ours Loy becomes Billie and Gable becomes John (they do resemble each other physically and Gable's character is said to have been based on Dillinger himself). Dillinger smiles. His expression glows with a quiet acceptance, taking the film as a comment on and validation of his life.

Most importantly, perhaps, by John associating himself with Gable, he himself takes the step onto the big screen. He passes over from a mortal man to an immortal legend. So when Dillinger leaves the cinema beaming contentedly he sees that part of him will not die. He will always be remembered and will always be loved.

A quick thought: normally when I leave a cinema and go out into the world, I can be a little dazed for a minute or two. Part of the reason for this is that things look different from a cinema reality, a reality which tends to have an artificial and 'treated' look. After Public Enemies, however, because Mann shoots with crisp high definition digital and natural light, when I went out into the real world the streets and the parks seemed cinematic. I thought to myself: that twilight, that club, those faces could be in a Michael Mann film. Public Enemies, a very good film indeed, had spilt out with me.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Antichrist (2009), Lars Von Trier

A couple's son falls from his bedroom window to his death as they are making love. It devastates them. She collapses at the funeral. She appears to be suffering far more than him. She begins to have panic attacks and suicidal thoughts: "I want to die too".

Antichrist - Charlotte Gainsbourg

He believes her fear and suffering are focused on, or emanate from, a cabin in the woods that they used to visit. It is called Eden. They go there and there they cling to each other; comforting yes, but distantly. More like feeding. He, a psychologist, tries to control her with his therapies, suffocating her. She lashes out accusing him of being distant, exploitative and loveless, baring her teeth, screaming.

The development of the relationship, the little power struggles, the little mental cuts that bleed, are delineated so precisely and honestly that they draw us in hypnotically.

A hole opens within them and the evil of the woods and the pain inside them mingle. Eden becomes part of them - ticks feeding off his hand - and they become part of Eden - she imagines herself seeping into the grasses.

The couple here are raw flesh and blood. They are seen to be capable of and vulnerable to great emotional and physical cruelty, reminding one of the films of Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers in particular) or Park Chan Wook's Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. The dark earthen hues and fierce physicality recall the striking brutality of Goya's black paintings.

This is an overwhelming experience, staggering slow motion mixing with sudden outbreaks of violence. There is an awful intensity and a pellucid stillness to it - delirium without recourse to provocation (despite some of the posters featuring a bloodied pair of scissors). It is disturbingly matter-of-fact.

Antichrist inspires an awed silence.

When something is uncomfortable to watch we may take a step back, to abstract what we see. Each critic has his own interpretation - a misogynist* tract, a history of Christian persecution of women, a critique of psychology,
a study of Male intellect brought to bear on the unstable Female mind and a Cathar perspective of Creation as evil, as Satan's work...

First and foremost I saw a man and a woman struggling to cope with their grief, not Man and Woman. I saw evil not Evil.
Watching, I felt nothing was demanded of me, that I needn't look further than the woods for answers. No, I looked at the film full in the face and I will never forget it. This is without doubt the best film of the year.

*This film and its director have been labelled as misogynist. Just because a fictional character thinks women are inherently evil it doesn't mean that Lars Von Trier does. Just because she is abused and killed doesn't mean that Willem Dafoe's hand is an extension of Von Trier's.

Critics seem to have lost the ability to separate fiction from reality. Trying to trace back to a director's thoughts and world-view through his work is a Sisyphean task and a fool's errand. I could be a fascist and write Communist propaganda.

Neil LaBute was criticised for his remake of The Wicker Man in which there is an island of man-hating women. This doesn't mean he hates women or that women hate men. It is fiction. You can make it up.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), Hou Hsiao Hsien

Just like the lightest veil can make a woman look more beautiful so Hou Hsiao Hsien, with a simple uncomplicated style and the slightest of narratives, can make the world seem more beautiful.

This may sound pretentious, but it isn't. It's the opposite: it's just the way it feels.

The dilemmas of a single mother (Suzanne) struggling with her son (Simon), her absent daughter and a nuisance tenant reach no resolution and no conclusion.

We float in and out of their story watching while she attempts to anchor her life. The titular balloon is rarely seen but we know that at any time it may be there, a calming and un-judging observer.
The balloon is like the notes the piano tuner sounds over and over while Suzanne's anger and sadness is 'tuned' into a simple gesture of love between mother and son. It is a constant, a comfort, a thing of beauty for all to see (and for all to see in it what they want).

We are part of their family and we are with them for long periods. We sit in the corner of their cluttered apartment eating pancakes. We wait on a street corner for Simon and his nanny Song. We listen to Suzanne's childhood reminiscences. We watch Song's video of the balloon nudging and kissing it's own image painted on the wall.

Flight of the Red Balloon
is relaxing and effortless, soft and melancholy in its light, its shadow and its reflections. It is delightful in the way it shows the power of film and memory and the way someone's voice or camera can give new life to old.

On the boulevards of Paris or in the family home, mannerisms, joys and frustrations are honoured and treated with the respect they deserve. In other words they are given time. The story is each moment. The film doesn't play with grand decisions and solid finalities. It has no time for blatant metaphysics, symbolism, or statements.

The world can be reinvigorated and given fresh meaning simply by being gazed at as if for the first time, like when a parent sees things through their child's eyes. This is an aspect of so much great art. That is what Flight of the Red Balloon does.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Close Ups

The purpose of the Close Up (CU) is primarily to see something more clearly. It is used to better communicate the emotional or the physical and to try to bring the character and the audience closer together.

Most CUs have no purpose or aim beyond this passive curiosity. They are, for want of a better word, flat. Below is
an example of this flatness, Rebecca Romijn Stamos in Femme Fatale:

Sometimes, though, the CU can be more aggressive, striving to get under the subject's very skin, such as in Michael Mann's Miami Vice. Mann wields the camera like a scalpel, the intensity of the camera-work matching that of the protagonist's experiences.

This intensity does not necessarily derive from proximity at all, but from the colour and tone of the shot, the way in which we are invited to see.

In Kill Bill Volume 1, as The Bride is surrounded by the Crazy 88, the camera is crashes into extreme Close Up yet the frame is used not as a microscope but as blinkers. What is important is what we cannot see. Despite our closeness we are unable to partake in her experience. The scale of her challenge is only in our imagination.

The harsh and unforgiving scrutiny of the former and the excluding, blind gaze of the latter coalesce in the work of Belgian
directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Long stretches of Rosetta are in hand-held, unstable CU and we rarely turn away from the eponymous heroine's face. We zero in on her internal world and yet at the same time are made aware of the cruelties of the outside world beyond our vision, the weight that pushes the frame in on her:

A CU can also place us in the position of an entirely different character not shown. We adopt his or her point of view. It is an extension of their gaze, a reaching out of the eyes, the heart or of both. This can be used to communicate all kinds of things: lust, sympathy or, as in Miami Vice, the state of fear as you're hypnotized deeper and deeper into the eyes of a marks-woman who wants you dead:

Even when the camera has moved physically towards its subject it may do so only to allow a greater space for that subject to inhabit. Silent films offered CUs as stages on which to shine. The big and bold characters became larger than life and the actors could exhibit their (theatrical) craft. Here is one such moment from The Goddess featuring Ruan Ling Yu:

Jean-Luc Godard, in his Close Ups, achieves something quite unique. His compositions have an almost invisible, unfelt presence. They afford space for the character's thoughts to seep out and for their spiritual depth to be revealed. Beautifully lit, they recall religious icons in their uninvolved simplicity.

The different roles and textures of Close Ups are subtle and too numerous to explore fully . Nevertheless I offer one more, from Patlabor 2 The Movie. Firstly, it is a CU used to exaggerate the features for comic effect. Secondly, the camera seems to function as a mirror, as the dog appears to be regarding his own depressing situation with a self-mocking, complaisant air.

Friday 20 November 2009

Avatar and the fusion of Male and Female

At first glance, from the footage we have already been shown, Avatar seems a mix of the epic romantic sincerity of Titanic and the hardcore tooled-up cynicism of Aliens. To put it bluntly, something for the girls, something for the boys. Feminine and Masculine. The natural and the delicate set against the mechanised and the brute.

In Greek mythology Pandora (in Avatar the name of the alien planet where the army go to obtain the element unobtanium) was the first woman and a woman created to punish Man's greed after Prometheus stole fire from the Gods. Man stole a new power, a new technology, and the Gods unleashed the power of Woman in return.

Avatar seeks to plug into the source of the most ancient of mythologies and the most ancient of our differences, our two sexes. Avatar seeks to split the atom of human existence and watch it to go nuclear.

James Cameron has always played with the opposition of feminine and masculine archetypes (stereotypes?) and the line where they may meet. In Aliens he created one of the most iconic of these images in the mother / warrior Ripley carrying both Newt and a flamethrower (above left).

Now, with Avatar, Cameron offers us another embodiment of the stereotypical male and female - and the traits crudely associated with them - joined: Jake in his avatar body. Here is the invader, the brute rapist of the earth, disguised in the cloak of the natural order who, through his compassion and love for the 'natives', attempts to reconcile the two sides.

From the trailers and from the original scriptment, Avatar promises to be an exquisite and overwhelming experience. Thankfully there are still film-makers out there who have grand cinematic visions as well as the courage and ability to realise them.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Film Criticism and the Action Film

Be it online or in print, it is disheartening to see that journalists and bloggers have largely failed to engage with 'action' films in a consistently serious or considered manner.

It seems a number of misapprehensions are at work here:

- That visceral and intellectual experiences are mutually exclusive

- That the visceral is somehow inferior to the intellectual

- That all action films are essentially the same

- That the more money spent on a production the less thought has gone into it.

These attitudes are clear in the language of recent reviews and discussions of blockbuster films. A quick glance reveals the same narrow, empty descriptions ('big- budget popcorn flick'), the same snide kiss-offs ('mindless entertainment') and the same backhanded compliments ('for what it is, it's perfectly effective').

An unconscious suggestion is that action films are disposable and homogeneous . Why would an action film often be described as a 'slice' of entertainment if it were not considered another hunk hewn off a vast faceless edifice, as if the action film were the brainlessly destructive monster from Cloverfield and each example of the genre the scu
ttling crabs that fall from its body.

By that token all French and Italian Cinema of the 1960s could be dismissed as a uniform parade of love affairs, with lust, jealousy and guilt on repeat.

Action films, films with an emphasis on the spectacular, bear as much scrutiny as any other. If something is louder it doesn't follow that it has less to say. Every film has a subtly unique fingerprint, an atmosphere, an identity all of its own and every film has seven billion versions. Good critics are open-minded and therefore they can open minds, yet many are complicit in the narrowing of the genre.*

Far too often films are not taken on their own terms. If ideas, characters and situations change organically people cry foul:

"It's not a Die Hard film"

"It's not a Terminator film"

Expectations, when it comes to franchises in particular, can be code for 'more of the same please'. I believe that the poor reception received by The Phantom Menace was partially due to the fact that it wasn't a copy of the Original Trilogy - frozen in carbonite and thawed out twenty years on. But why should it be?


Essays on action films rarely go beyond studies of the male image or tenuous political parallels. If one allows oneself to look deeper, there is much to admire in recent examples of the action blockbuster and much to excite our hearts and minds. There are so many things that set them apart not only from each other but from films of all kinds. Here are only a few observations:

Superman Returns

This is a film replete with religious iconography whose fabric is imbibed with the conundrum of God as Man. When Superman is taken into the hospital he goes into a theatre called "Trauma 1". When the automatic doors close, we see this reversed (click to enlarge)

On the door it now reads: I AMUART. I am you are. We are made in God's image. All that he is we can be. When Lois and Richard save Superman from the ocean, the circle of saviour and saved is complete.

The Matrix Revolutions

Neo fights multiple Agent Smiths in the pouring rain while the machines swarm into Zion. When he gains victory, at the expense of his own life, the machines
stop and withdraw. Peace is gained and the machines and their barbaric metallic tentacles are miraculously transformed into a wondrous and tranquil shoal, floating up into the sky.

This is one of the most poetic and elegantly succinct images of peace I have encountered in a film.

Star Trek XI

This is an age where love stories on film are rarely love stories at all. They tend to be either unbearably sleazy or weak, diluted and overly sentimental. The relationship between Uhura and Spock is portrayed as delicate, strong and profound.

Live Free or Die Hard

Shortly after one of the hacker's houses is blown apart the quasi-subliminal image of a young woman appears (left). It lasts just a couple of frames but resonates further. Is she his girlfriend? His wife? His sister?

Live Free or Die Hard is full of men who have lost women because of what they do and the dangerous paths they choose. Gabriel loses Mai. John has lost Holly and is on the brink of losing Lucy. The Warlock hides himself in his basement and barely communicates with his mother.

It is ironic that Lucy becomes interested in Matt only when he takes on the proactive, macho, violent characteristics that have already estranged her father from her mother.

Mission Impossible: 3

A quite beautifully constructed and choreographed action scene takes place half an hour in.

The team is involved in a helicopter chase and the enemy is firing missiles at them as they try to escape. The chase takes place in a wind-farm and the slow-turning blades are potentially fatal obstacles. On board one of their number is on the brink of death, and Ethan tries to save her. Meanwhile another member, Zhen falls out of the door and clings for her life.

These four dangers converge and disperse in a masterful and fully believable display of tension and emotion.


The catalyst for the narrative in Cloverfield is the budding coupling of main protagonist Rob and Beth.

The monster arrives (dropping into the ocean in the distance) on the very day they get together as a proper couple. The monster makes itself known in the city just as Rob is voicing his concerns about moving to Japan and leaving Beth. The monster's fate is decided in a hail of gunfire at the same time as Rob and Beth finally declare their love for each other.

The monster is a manifestation of Rob's growing fear. He is going to Japan and the Japanese are well-known as pioneers of the city-invading monster. This is not coincidence.

Cloverfield is a dance to the death with Rob's insecurities. This makes the final declarations not just a sweet and touching coda but an open question: Has he conquered his fears and does love conquer all?

*which in itself is merely a symptom of the persisting view that something can be objectively great (and learned critics are conveniently the best placed to pass final judgement) and that feelings ('I don't like it') should be separated from impersonal thoughts ('but it's clearly a great work').

This is chasing a ghost, a phantom objectivity. One such is the critic Mick LaSalle who states:

"...after a screening of THE NEW WORLD, I said that it's perfectly OK for viewers not to like the movie, but that it's totally not acceptable for a film critic to say it's not a good movie, because it's a masterpiece, and to say otherwise is more or less to announce yourself as obtuse"

This is a profoundly wrong-headed attempt to pin down the inherently incorporeal nature of art and catalogue it under science.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Damnation, Bela Tarr

Bela Tarr - Damnation opening shot

Damnation opens with a two-minute shot of mining buckets clanking from pylon to pylon across a grey sky.

As with the empty spaces of Chantal Akerman's eponymous Hotel Monterey this largely unchanging landscape morphs with each passing moment as an inkblot of moods and thoughts spread in your mind - awe, curiosity, entrancement, tedium...

As it is, out of any narrative context, the image is magnificent. *

Having taken our fill the camera recedes into a darkened room and pans across until the buckets pass obscured behind a man's head.

Now the image is flattened. That drudging monotony and that mechanical breath become a symbol of this man's stagnation and emptiness. It no longer breathes. It is now part of his image.

Throughout the film I found myself wanting the often stunning compositions to stand for themselves rather than be hackneyed representations (constant rain, packs of stray dogs) of decay or of entrapment.

I think Tarr's allusions are too on-the-nose. For example, two extended musical sequences are dramatically redundant because they reflect too conveniently on the thoughts and hopes of the protagonists.

Damnation's long slow-gliding shots become a drag because they invite us into contemplation where there is nothing of worth to contemplate. The shots become pretentious and self-conscious because they are incongruous to the story, a story that is shallow second-tier pulp. Grimness and stolid griminess are dropped over the film like a veil. They are not within it. They do not infect it as they should.

I yearned for less plot. Maybe for no plot at all. I yearned for a mood piece, an exploration of a place that would give the images flight and the meticulous choreography heft. Every now and then I got a sense of what could have been - glimpses of a cold, dark world out of time, of being sucked into a deep hole out of which one could barely lift oneself. Alas, this did not last.

Bela Tarr - Damnation

Bela Tarr is an artist apart, but when he is tethered to conventional and humdrum tales, his unconventional style and unique voice can be a pose, an obsession revisited for diminishing returns.

*It reminds me of the opening of the Romanian film Nunta de Piatra (Stone Wedding) in which people quarry like ants on a giant cliff-face to the metallic rhythm of their pickaxes.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Examining Star Wars via Revenge of the Sith

In the course of this annotated essay, with special focus on Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I will attempt to foment an understanding of the conscious and unconscious reasons why Star Wars is so loved, not to try and dissect the magic but honour it, for my own curiosity as much as anything.

What is it that electrifies hordes of fans pouring into theatre foyers as if libation to a celluloid God?

0:23 'A Long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'

Star Wars immediately establishes itself as a tale both mythical and timeless. It sets the past within the schemata of science fiction futures.

The sense here is that the story is a newly discovered artefact, ancient yet entirely unknown. It begins without credits, not created but found.

1:20 Title Crawl : War!

The Title Crawl diminishes into the distance. It takes the form of a magic carpet dragging us amongst the stars. All Star Wars films begin with a shot of limitless space and infinite possibility. We cannot help but be transported by it.

People took joy from Star Wars, in part, because of the joy Lucas put into its making. Star Wars was an overt homage to the matinee serials he devoured in the 1950s and 1960s, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers chief amongst them.

Star Wars began its life as a paean to nostalgia and now is itself an unparalleled object of nostalgia.

2:03 Two tiny craft in battle over Coruscant

Anakin and Obi-Wan join battle on their way to 'rescuing' Chancellor Palpatine. Their miniature fighters descend into a vast maelstrom of sound and fury. They lead us into the excitement of light and sound, explosions and giddy fun that has come to define Star Wars.

Star Wars
is, in many ways, a Myth in spirit and structure. Myths tend to concern ostensibly insuperable odds and the idea of becoming more than we are - indeed perhaps supra-human like the Jedi. This is a wonderful and stimulating conceit.

Star Wars was unlike anything seen before

It pooled the talents of varied and timeworn fields of expertise puppetry, miniatures, sound design, matte painting and yoked them to embryonic
and cutting-edge special effects industries established by Lucas himself THX and Industrial Light and Magic. Computer-aided animation was born and the effect it had on the populace in presenting a universe of magnificent realism and resonant otherness was tremendous.

2:28 In Medias Res - the battle rages

Like many ancient Myths - Greek (for example, the Odyssey), Roman, Phoenician, Egyptian, Mayan - Revenge of the Sith and the Star Wars Saga as a whole begin in medias res i.e. in the middle of things.

The Star Wars Saga began with Episode number four of six. Revenge of the Sith begins mid-battle.

We are thrust into the world as if a newborn child. We have nothing to cling onto. Every sound and movement is
amplified and intensified. Our senses are heightened and the drama grips us from the second the curtain goes up.

2:58 R2D2 along for the ride.

The first character we see, as in Attack of the Clones, is R2D2. R2D2, like Chewbacca and, to some extent, C3PO are cyphers, without true language or expression. We are drawn into the action because we are forced to draw in their emotions with our own. These characters appeal directly to the imagination of children in the same way that pets do. They are unremittingly loyal. They are the most vulnerable and the most weak. They are no more than leaves blown along by fate.

As in Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress the tale is often told from the perspective of those least informed. They totter through the galaxy like mimes, mechanical Buster Keatons barely dodging the glare of danger. In this way the scale of the action is magnified.

5:45 'In the name of - '

The world of Star Wars is a mystical one. It has a religion yet it is an impersonal, non-theistic incarnation. The Force is just that, a spiritual force, a source of power. Assailed by the enemy, Obi-Wan has nobody to blaspheme.

Star Wars is syncretistic. That is it is a collage of cultures and beliefs - especially Buddhism and Taoism. George Lucas said he wanted to take

"...all the issues that religion represents and try to distill them down into a more modern and accessible construct..."

Spiritual sentiments are intensely human yet rigid religious organisations are losing ground in society. Star Wars offers a largely non-didactic (Han Solo called it a lot of simple tricks and nonsense ), powerful alternative. Here is a religion not tightly bound with moral corollary.

7:07 'I have a bad feeling about this'

The framework of the Star Wars narrative is founded on repetition. Familiarity breeds a sense of audience ownership. When Anakin says "this is where the fun begins" as Han Solo will do, when Padme brings in the blue milk in Attack of the Clones, impugns committees as her daughter will, or when Obi-Wan calls a blaster "uncivilised" it gives us a truly warm feeling inside.

The saga is really two cycles of three. One about the Father Anakin and the other about the Son Luke. Luke faces the same temptations as his father, the same challenges yet resists the seductive nature of the Dark Side.The constant repetition of images and themes across the films create a sense of wholeness, of fate, of a grand scheme, of a circle being complete.

10:48 From Slapstick to Tragedy

R2D2 fries a couple of droids who are left slipping about in an oil slick. Star Wars invests itself with the technicolor coat of human existence, from slapstick to tragedy. There are Fools and there are Kings. Fools can be Kings for a day and Kings can be made into fools.

13:15 Personal influences the Universal

Anakin and Count Dooku fight while the Clone Wars rage behind them, impersonating the rhythms of their flashing swords.

Myths are about seeing the most personal and intimate influence the biggest stage. The essential family struggle that defines Star Wars will decide the entire fate of the galaxy. Myths are about the most familiar and the most alien : the sense of being safe and yet challenged.

18:06 Cheeky Droid

General Grievous snatches a lightsaber confiscated by a battle droid. The droid sarcastically counters: "You're
welcome!" Part of what makes Star Wars so loved is that every character is endowed with a personality. No detail is too small. The galaxy is teeming with life.

22:41 Wipe Scene Transitions

Wipes are by no means an incongruent relic of the old adventure serials. Wipe scene transitions (in all their myriad
forms) add immediacy and momentum; actions and consequences co-exist for a while, like at the turning of a page. They are elegant, neither jarring nor disorienting.

34:27 Father Figures

Born without a father, and purportedly the offspring of a Virgin birth, Anakin is forever seeking a father and a mentor.

He yearns for a guiding influence yet does not wish to be controlled. These contradictions forge much of the tension that drives the narrative. In an exaggerated way, Star Wars revolves around this collision of childhood and maturity, independence and integration. These distinctions are mirrored in those between the Light and the Dark side: compassion and selflessness opposed to passion and self-indulgence.

40:03 Love Stories

From the understated, awkward and gentle relationship between Anakin and Padme (who grew up in peaceful times) to the fiery, bantering love between Leia and Han (who grew up in an age of war and suspicion).

Anakin's love for Padme is the catalyst for the whole tale, more specifically the lengths to which he will go for her.
Anakin's turn to the Dark Side is made intensely human, natural. An audience is willing to follow him into the depths of despair because he retains those good intentions, that kernel of righteousness. Anakin's fall is subtle. It is a fatal alignment of circumstances: his fears for Padme, his grief over his mother, the Jedi's distrust, his lust for power and his poisonous manipulation by the Chancellor - Iago to his Othello.

To digress, people in love often talk about the feeling of 'us against the world'. This is taken to a literal extreme at1:40:58 when Anakin says "we can rule the galaxy, make things the way we want them to be" . He is rejected by Padme and this vast loneliness is poignantly echoed in The Empire Strikes Back as he pleads with his son to join him..

44:24 Grand Symbolism #1

Star Wars is painted in broad brush strokes. It is played out a mammoth stage by actors with megaphones. It is Big and Bold. It is outrageously epic geographically and emotionally. The symbolism is grand too and because it is in keeping with the story's sweep it does not unbalance the story.

Here, at the Opera House, the Mon Calamari put on a show where sperm-like ribbons float in and out of a massive watery egg. The discussion between the Chancellor and Anakin about the creation of life cements the
visual message.

45:44 Biblical References #1

"Ironic isn't it?...he could save others but not himself"
Chancellor Palpatine

"He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One"
Priest Luke 23:35

The director George Lucas uses the language of Christian heritage, words already resonant with meaning, as stepping stones to a greater understanding. In this way he subtly illuminates for us the roles, the motivations and the size of what is at stake.

46:07 Kashyyk Technology

George Lucas has done something extraordinary in creating and populating an entire universe.

It is a universe where as Roger Ebert said "we somehow can't and don't believe that life ends at the edge of the screen", a world in which the main characters are surrounded by other people plunging ahead at the business of living . Star Wars is all-immersive in a way no fantasy world had ever been before. Our attention is held and our hearts stirred by dozens of visual asides, throwaway vignettes a robot losing its balance, Jabba the Hutt flicking a bird off a balcony, a monster eating another ("there's always a bigger fish") etc. etc.

It is in these details, quirky and mundane, where true devotion comes from. We all feel the need to worship something - something popular enough to be shared yet complex enough to be fully understood and appreciated only by an elite army of fans.

The example above is of a craft built by the Wookies on their home planet Kashyyk. See how they are clearly modelled on the
physionomy of those indigenous beings. We feel the plausible organic nature of cultural and technological progress.

49:29 The sound of another world

A space cruiser roars overhead. From the ships to the weapons, the sound design of this world, as in any film, is of paramount importance. It creates a concreteness, a fully formed reality. So much of Star Wars is fixed in the subconscious by the neeeeaaaooou of a ship, the whirr of a lightsaber or the dark breaths of Darth Vader. Credit must go to the perseverance and ingenuity of sound designer Ben Burtt.

55:16 Foreshadowing

General Grievous is a living being within a synthetic construct. His twisted body, pained breathing and bent philosophies prefigure Anakin's fate as Darth Vader. There are constant reminders of what we know to be true yet what we want to avoid. This creates a morbid fascination in the audience, a dramatic torque.

This Dramatic irony, rewarding fans with constant allusions and repetitions, is part of the charm of the Prequel trilogy. It's chief success is in holding a mirror up to the events of the Original Trilogy, deepening it's focus, deepening its thematic plane..

56:06 The Lightsaber

Electrifying, glowing, beautiful.

"This weapon is your life"

1:03:00 Biblical References #2

Now Palpatine is no longer a mocking onlooker but instead casts himself as a saviour, encircling us with his words:

Only through me can you achieve a power greater than any Jedi

Only through me can you reach salvation

1:04:17 Pits of unending darkness

Here Obi-Wan dangles above a precipice, almost defeated by General Grievous.

So many duels in Star Wars take place on the lip of seemingly bottomless pits filled to brim with darkness and the threat of imminent death: Obi-Wan v Darth Maul, Luke v Darth Vader, Darth Vader v The Emperor. This sense of oblivion, of complete physical and moral descent permeates the saga.

The end is only a step away.

1:05:51 Trust

Anakin loses trust in the Jedi because they do not trust him. Here Anakin tells Mace Windu that Chancellor Palpatine is the Sith Lord "we've been looking for" . Mace forbids him to accompany him in the arrest of the Chancellor, saying "if what you say is true you will have earned my trust".

He is treated like a child. We can all remember parents or those in authority disbelieving us on the basis of past
indiscretions. That is why 'The Boy who Cried Wolf' is such an affecting story. No-one could or was prepared to help him. This lack of trust changes everything.

The audience is crying out for Anakin to be included but is powerless. The film begins to slip away from us vertiginously, as thrillingly as a rollercoaster.

1:06:54 Telepathy and Bonds

Padme and Anakin sense each other across the glowing Coruscant skyline. They are bound together by the Force, as well as by love. They reach out with their hearts. The Force gives us a sense of community and specialness. As Master Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back:

"Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter"

1:11:25 Perspectives

Twice in Revenge of the Sith Anakin is told that someone is "too dangerous to be kept alive".

First he is told this by the Chancellor and now by Mace Windu. One he grudgingly accepts, the other he violently repudiates. The prequels are about perspectives, adding shades of grey to the black and white dichotomies of Star Wars' extraordinarily powerful yet naively simple Good v Evil dynamics. They are about how even those on the Dark Side believe they are doing good, doing what is right:

From my point of view the Jedi are evil

Star Wars shows us inside the helmet of evil to explain why they do what they do.
cf: 2:01:22 inside the helmet of evil

1:17:31 Grand Symbolism #2 : Execute Order 66

One 6 away from the number of the beast. The order to eliminate the Jedi and thereby take control of the galaxy is given. The number 66 could also be a reference to 'Executive Order 9066', an order signed in 1942 by American President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordering the internment of Japanese Americans.

1:18:36 Paradise Lost

Anakin's fall is in consort with the casting of the galaxy entire out of paradise. The most poignant moment of the
execution of Order 66 is the murder of Jedi Aayla Secura on Felucia. Felucia is an abundant Eden, rich with flora and fauna.

The audience has a palpable sense of Paradise Lost. We are angered and moved.

1:19:33 A 360 Degree World

The camera swings back and forth, struggling to take in all the action. The sense of scale and mayhem is exhilarating.

1:19:54 Monks kick ass

In Star Wars the moral guardians, the keepers of the peace, the monk-like priest-like guardians of the Force moonlight as fearsome warriors. Throughout the saga they vacillate between staid emotionless pontification and necessary force .

In overturning the priestly stereotype, Lucas creates a double-edged brand of heroism. All talk and all action.

1:21:34 Colour

There is a distinct polarisation of colour in Star Wars, and the further through the saga you go the more marked it
becomes. It allows us to indulge in the delirious melodrama, instinctively recognising whom to boo and whom to hiss.

Luke and Leia wear white. They are aspirational, pure, innocent, delicate. They are Good. White is also used for the Clonetroopers to convey their genetic purity an Aryan army for a Nazi Emperor, clad in a black cowl.

Black is worn by Evil characters, most notably Darth Vader.

See how Han Solo, the cynical Bogartian renegade, wears white with a black vest on top.

1:27:35 Mustafar - Welcome to Hell

Anakin's first step towards evil was the massacre of the Tusken Raiders in Attack of the Clones. That was preceded by a shot of him leaping from a cliff wreathed in stars.

He falls from the stars like Lucifer and, like Lucifer, Anakin's name is changed: As Lucifer became Satan so Anakin becomes Darth Vader. Here on this hellish lava planet Obi-Wan will come to confront him amidst the creative and destructive power of molten magma.

These images not only have a euphoric visual force but they carry with them great meaning and symbolism.

1:31:07 Economy of Storytelling

Star Wars is impressively streamlined. When there is so much to fit in from so many corners of the galaxy, speed of narration is everything. In The Phantom Menace Jedi reflexes are mentioned, nonchalantly, and then entirely out of the blue Qui-Gon catches Jar Jar's whiplash tongue.

Here Obi-Wan and Yoda discover the slaughtered younglings

Obi-Wan: Who could have done this?

There is a beat and we cut to Anakin / Darth Vader cutting down Separatist leaders. The transition from thought to visualisation is literally breathtaking. It leaves us spinning, galvanised yet disoriented.

These cuts take on feverish proportions in Reel Six of each Star Wars episode. This is where the film draws the main storyline threads to a close, intercutting and interweaving them with ever-shortening scenes spiralling around one another.

Here we are taken in the palm of the Director's hand as he traverses the galaxy in enormous bounds, in the
control of the omniscient omnipotence of an artist with a colossal vision..

1:32:25 This is how liberty dies...

Star Wars is also the tale of how a
Democracy becomes a Dictatorship. We have already discussed a few
historical references that help make Star Wars the myth of contemporary reality.

In Attack of the Clones Palpatine took 'emergency powers' for himself just as Hitler did. Like Hitler, these powers are never relinquished and here "The First Galactic Empire" is created.

His rise to power might also hold allusions to Vietnam War conspiracy theories. It is said that the C.I.A. and the
Pentagon believed the War must continue at all costs to benefit the arms trade and the general economy. They therefore assassinated the anti-war JFK to install Lyndon B Johnson as a patsy, a puppet. In Attack of the Clones Palpatine tries to assassinate Padme, a significant roadblock to conflict, and in her absence exploits Jar
Jar to help push through the emergency powers.

These references add realism, whether we are aware of them or not. They summon concerns and frustrations deep within us.

Star Wars hit cinema screens in 1977 in the midst of Cold War fear. Contemporary Hollywood output majored either on the depressing and nihilistic The French Connection, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon or post-apocalyptic science fiction like Logan's Run or George Lucas' own THX

Star Wars offered a vision of a nefarious regime toppled by a plucky band of heroes. It was an inoculation against the anxieties of the time.

In an era of turmoil we burn our imaginations to warm reality.

Is it any wonder that Ronald Reagan, in baptising a missile defense system in times of great upheaval, a beacon of hope, called it Star Wars

All this shows how we can sleepwalk into a nightmare, unaware that what we feel is right might have terrible
consequences. It prompts Padme to say, in one of Star Wars' most poetic moments :

"This is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause"

The prologue to the 1976 Novelisation of A New Hope talks about this death of liberty:

Like the Greatest of trees, able to withstand any external attack, the Republic rotted from within

This could conceivably be seen as a metaphor too for the rotting of Anakin's very soul.

1:35:57 Destiny - "You're going to kill him aren't you?"

An audience is enraptured by the idea of destiny: only special people are sent for a purpose. It lends any plot a certain (celestial) gravity. Certainty is a strong sensation and a durable crutch to lean on.

Star Wars is marked all over with the fingerprints of destiny. The names characters are given denote the path they will take. Apart from the Skywalkers, one can evoke Boba Fett (a bounty hunter with an archaic name for 'to fetch'), Darth Sidious or indeed Padme. She is named after a flower called Padma. It is a flower said to provoke dreams and die shortly after blooming. She does provoke disturbing dreams in Anakin and she does die 'shortly after blooming'. Note also that the inside of the senate, her arena, is arranged like a flower.

Precisely because of the power destiny holds over us, it is used as a weapon in Star Wars. Luke in particular is told by the Emperor and Darth Vader that it is his destiny to join the Dark Side of the force.

However, what is even more titillating for an audience than Destiny Fulfilled is Fate Denied!

1:43:17 Biblical Reference #3

"If you're not with me then you're my enemy"

Anakin has taken on the messianic language fed to him by Palpatine and he echoes these words of Jesus:

"He who is not with me is against me"

NB. These words are also uncannily reminiscent of President George W Bush's statements regarding terrorism and the axis of evil. Lucas uses modern-day parallels of supposed power-hungry madness, still fresh in the memory.

1:45:00 Scene Crescendi and Music

The battle between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan rages as we cut to Yoda fighting the Emperor. Many of the scenes in Star Wars end on a crescendo, dramatically and musically, on a mystery or a mini-epiphany, on an exclamation mark or a question mark.

The majority of contemporary films treat scenes as individual phrases with symmetrically drooping cadences. They end on a full stop. In Star Wars the following scene is elevated onto a higher dramatic plateau by the crescendo of its predecessor.

The Music of Star Wars is instrumental to the success of the story. It is epic and alluring. John Williams' rich tapestry of melodies have helped found the images in our minds and imprint them as beloved memories. The music becomes a character in itself, sometimes reacting to events, other times seeming to provoke them.

1:48:14 Grand Symbolism #3: Destroying the seat of power

Yoda and the Emperor duel in the Senate building. Balconies are turned to rubble as they fight over the political course of the galaxy at its political heart. Nothing is sacred and everything is up for grabs. Wonderful stuff.

1:55:05 You were the Chosen One!

Anakin was meant to be a messiah (Jesus was referred to as the Chosen One) sent to bring balance to the force .

The idea of a messiah has a tripartite force it offers proof of destiny, it offers hope for a better future free from social oppression and it fulfils the mythic quality of a man who is more than a man.

Unlike so many films depicting the idea of the one this prophecy comes to pass in a most convoluted way. Anakin
does eventually bring balance to the force in Return of the Jedi but only after he has further destabilised it. Star Wars delves deeper into despair in the knowledge that the joy for the audience at seeing the light will prove still greater for it.

2:00:45 Birth and Rebirth

Hope for Anakin dies when he is reborn as a besuited Darth Vader and a new hope is born with the arrival of his twin children Luke and Leia.

There is such a strong feeling of Life and Death, Joy and Sorrow, Fall and Redemption. These are a few of the key concerns of Star Wars.

2:01:21 Inside the helmet of Evil

cf 1:11:25 perspectives

There is hope in this image in that we are with Anakin as the mask begins to cover his face

2:01:24 "Relax, take a deep breath"

In this story of Anakin's fall, Padme (with whom intimacy was forbidden by the Jedi code) acts as the apple. He tastes and soon finds her "intoxicating" . As his feelings develop he starts experiencing (metaphorical) breathing problems:

"When I'm around you, I can't breathe"

His love for her and his succumbing to tempation will irrevocably lead to the his reincarnation as wheezing part-machine Darth Vader

2:01:59 Faith - "There's good in him"

Faith, Forgiveness and Belief in the power of Good are integral to the character of Star Wars:

Luke: I don't believe it!

Yoda: That is why you fail

As Padme lies dying she tells Obi-Wan that there is still "good in him". Luke will become her avatar, echoing these
words to his Father in Return of the Jedi::

"I sense the good in you" .

An audience finds the idea of the transformative power of good supremely inspiring. In Episode VI Yoda and Obi-Wan have lost faith in Luke ( "he was our last hope") yet Luke alone, inspired by his Mother, believes purely in the Force.

Luke's faith and hope redeems his Father with a stunning stand for humanity and love:

"I am a Jedi, like my father before me"

He lowers his arms in refusal to turn to the Dark Side and it is this act of selflessness, his helplessness, that prompts Vader to kill the Emperor and fulfill the prophecy.

The circle is complete and Vader becomes Anakin again. His helmet removed, he is able to say:

"Tell your sister...you were right about me...you were right about me"

How moving.

2:02:41 Slavery to Slavery to Slavery

Tragically, Anakin never achieves freedom and when he does he fails to recognise it.

He is always trapped. He begins his life as a slave to Watto on Tatooine. He is threatened with death if he tries to
escape. Taken by the Jedi, his talent and emotions are enslaved by their strict code of behaviour:

"He's holding me back!"

"Attachment is forbidden"

Finally he ends his life as a slave to the whims of the Emperor. He is no more than a glorified bodyguard.

That is why the sight of Anakin's ghost at the end of
Return of the Jedi is so uplifting. He is free.

2:03:34 Popular Cultural Iconography

Star Wars dredges up the sedimented layers of our imaginations, imaginations enriched by sundry folktales and fables.

In doing so Star Wars gains full-born and legendary significance and places stepping stones to a deeper understanding:

Attack of the Clones: Count Dooku, the evil witch, flies on a narrow broom-like craft

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke uses the Force to pull his lightsaber from the snow of an Endor cave as if it were Excalibur and he King Arthur

Revenge of the Sith Darth: Vader rises clumsily from the table like Frankenstein's monster

This is just a small selection of the references that enable meaning to be more quickly conveyed and assimilated.

2:06:03 Shapes and Colours

Colour drains from the galaxy as hope and freedom does. The primal rainbow spectrum and curved contours of the Prequel trilogy give way at the end of Revenge of the Sith to straight lines and monolithic grey shapes. We can feel the soul being picked out of the story..

2:06:09 The Unreal become Real

Above, Darth Vader walks onto the familiar bridge of a star destroyer overlooking the construction of the Death Star.

Due to the achronological release of the Star Wars episodes, fans, by and large, already knew what would happen in Revenge of the Sith.

They didn't go to the cinema to find out what would happen. They didn't necessarily go to find out how it would
happen. They went to see what they had always dreamed of come true. They went to make sure it happened.

This was cinema as fantasy become concrete, the unreal made real.

What an astonishing sensation, what an otherworldly frisson it is to experience Cinema in this manner, as if the Silver Screen had been turned 180 Degrees.

2:07:20 Love and Humanity

Above, Leia is welcomed to Alderaan by her adoptive parents. Star Wars feels nice and warm and cosy. The characters care and we sense that the filmmakers care about them. This is in part because Lucas aimed the saga at 12-year old children. He gave them a simple story of Good overcoming evil through love, hope and determination.

Star Wars has a clear moral force. Characters who are aggressors lose battles - Anakin launching himself at Dooku in Attack of the Clones and gets struck by lightning - and those who are defensive and pacifiers (as Obi-Wan is in the bar in the same film) gain the upper hand and are granted victory.

2:08:14 Grand Symbolism #4 : The Twins and the Twin Suns

Luke is held by Beru on Tatooine. On the horizon are the two suns of Tatooine representing the two twins. Like Luke and Leia they are seemingly close but yet far far away from each other.

They represent our small lives projected wide on the universe and they signify a New Hope, a light still shining in the gathering gloom.