Reviews of The Riot Club (2014), Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985), and mother! (2017).Read More
A consideration of Life in a Day (2011, dir. Kevin Macdonald) and Cameraperson (2016, dir. Kirsten Johnson) through the Roland Barthes essay The Great Family of Man.Read More
Sunset Boulevard is a great film that dramatises the tension between words and pictures not only in its plot but through its very form. Joe Gillis is an unreliable narrator, using voiceover even from beyond the grave to screen-write his own life, conforming it into a film noir, turning himself into at best an innocent patsy and at worst a scheming, self-aware con man.
However, by then I'd started concocting a little plot of my own...
- Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Gillis is actually a "kept man," bought and paid for, and the emasculation is almost impossible to bear. Witness the glare and musical sting that accompany a salesman's suggestion that, if the lady's paying, Joe might as well opt for the more expensive coat.
There are masochistic and egotistical elements to their relationship that keep Joe in Norma's home and by her side, beyond the financial compensation. As much as he pretends otherwise, he's not that far away from Max. (Those who would deny that there's a sexual component to Joe's relationship with Norma should consider the sheer shame with which he gives Betty a tour of the house once she's discovered his secret.)
Meanwhile, Norma Desmond is well aware of the power of images, of cinema, even if contemporary Hollywood has forgotten this with the advent of sound. When sound first began, cameras had to be sound proofed, limiting their possible movement, a stylistic step backwards for the medium, becoming more literary - or at least this has become the accepted narrative. Similarly, Norma's complaint that the pictures have got small reads as prescient with the ascendancy of television in the coming decade.
You know, a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.
- Cecil B. DeMille (himself)
Gloria Swanson's performance, exaggerated to match her grotesque makeup, evokes silent cinema, navigating the tricky border between camp and tragedy. It's a story of an ageing woman who's been chewed up and spat out by Hollywood, only the allure of stardom and success, however faded, greed, nostalgia and the masochistic and guilty need to 'serve' a master causes those around her to insulate her from reality, to perpetuate the illusion.
Norma is constantly watching herself, trying to reassure herself of this illusion, whether in the multitude of photos from her heyday, screening her old movies at home, her reflection in mirrors, or through the eyes of others (Max at one point offers her feedback on her makeup). Norma needs Joe both to enable her delusions (to worship her, make her feel young again) and as a kind of reality check, although his own cruelty and manipulations prevent him from fulfilling the latter function.
De Mille didn't have the heart to tell you. None of us has had the heart.
- Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Whether Norma sincerely intends to end her life on New Year's Eve or her suicide attempt is yet another performance to get Joe to return (and then, threatening to do it again, to get him to stay), is irrelevant. Unlike words, photographic images have an ontology, have the appearance of being real, and their danger is that they can come to take the place of what they represent. In this moment, image and reality have become conflated.
It's not important whether Norma is suicidal or acting out a plot in which she is suicidal; both will lead to her destruction. Joe believes himself safe in the realm of words (which is perhaps why he's such a lousy screenwriter), which will lead to his destruction.
The image of Hollywood, its artifice, holds sway over every character. Betty, groomed from a child to become an actress, grew up playing on the studio lot and even had her nose 'fixed' when casting directors criticised it. ('Fixed' implying 'corrected' in some way, changing her nose to what it should always have been, her image preceding and superseding her in the same way the street on the studio backlot feels more appealing, more 'real,' than an actual street.)
Look at this street. All cardboard, all hollow, all phoney. All done with mirrors. I like it better than any street in the world.
- Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson)
Although Betty claims being behind the camera appeals to her more, she flirt-acts with Joe at the New Year's Eve party. Subsequently, despite her engagement to Artie (himself an assistant director - with the exception of the repo men, every character is in show biz), she begins to fall for Joe.
Is Betty conflating the script they're working on with her life? Although the film never makes this connection explicit, it's certainly possible (their script, about a a man and a woman who work opposite shifts, mirroring her and Joe's situation, is called 'Untitled Love Story').
(There's also a definite subtext about the way Hollywood treats women, between Betty's nose job, Norma's extensive beauty routine and the fact that DeMille is still making films while Norma is exiled, a recluse. At the same time however, Norma has taken this oppression and turned it into a weapon against those around her. Guilt over her suicide attempt brings Joe back, just as guilt over having made her a star, made her into what she is, having failed her as a husband, is partly what led Max to abandon his directing career behind and become her butler.)
Joe's death scene is painful, awkward, real. Shot in the back once, he continues walking as normal. He's shot again in the back, stumbles and turns, trying to pick up his bag. If he can pick up his bag and walk to the car, if he can appear fine, maintain his cool, everything will be fine.
Later, a gossip columnist dictates her story on the telephone from within what she dubs the "murder house." Joe, in his final few lines of posthumous voiceover, predicts that newspaper headlines will devastat Norma. However, the newsreel cameras ultimately give her the attention she has always craved.
Norma is a star again, albeit now infamous rather than famous. To her and possibly the world, there's little practical difference. Image has surpassed language. Image has surpassed and replaced reality.
Arriving at a crisis point for the X-Men franchise, Logan borrows credibility from whatever sources it can find. However, like the relationship between former X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his genetic derivative, the young mutant Laura (Dafne Keen), Logan ultimately shares its DNA with the modern superhero film, despite their different appearances and occasional embarrassment at the familial connection.
Logan positions itself as a Western but at times it acts if the Western were an entirely defunct genre. Recent Westerns have engaged with the mythos in interesting ways, filtering it through modern sensibilities both in terms of filmmaking and themes (a few examples: The Lone Ranger, Slow West, Meek's Cutoff). In contrast, despite its vaguely dystopian future setting, Logan often feels stuck in the past.
One scene features Laura and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) watching Shane in a hotel room, the camera lingering on the flatscreen TV as Shane tells Joey "there aren't any more guns in the valley." Logan directly borrows sincerity and legitimacy from classical Hollywood without demonstrating any intention to repay them, suggesting a superficial engagement with the genre.
(Logan's positioning as a Western is partly extra-textual, from the film's marketing and so on. The poster evokes Schindler's List and the trailer uses Johnny Cash for much the same purpose - borrowed credibility. It's worth commenting on as so much of this film's existence and power stem from those extra-textual areas, given the history of the franchise, the characters and the cast playing them. It becomes an integral and inseparable part of the experience of watching the film.)
~Mild spoilers follow~
Another almost fatal decision is to have X-24, the film's big bad, be literally a clone of the main character. One of the inspirations for this film, the Old Man Logan comic, has Logan wracked with guilt from mistakenly killing his fellow X-Men; in the film this piece of backstory is transferred to Professor X. X-24 offers a compromise, and it feels like one.
X-24 allows other characters to see Logan as a killer, briefly faking out the audience without actually jeopardising their sympathies with him. Again, the film seems to hearken back more to classical Westerns rather than the revisionist period or anything that that has followed since; Logan is morally conflicted about killing, perhaps, but never morally compromised.
Inevitably, a generic evil scientist is also introduced, the Dr. Frankenstein behind the monster. While given some life by Richard E. Grant, Dr. Rice is a character that exists solely to provide exposition. He's even given a nonsensical personal connection with the hero that supposedly explains his motivations.
X-24 could have been a symbol of Logan's duality, both man and beast, or a reminder of how he still hasn't come to terms with his own mortality and legacy. Instead it and Dr. Rice become standard superhero story devices, albeit ones the film has no real interest in.
(It'd be easy to read X-24 as a meta comment on the nature of franchise filmmaking, recasting, legacy, and so on, the way Jurassic World's plot about engineering bigger and better dinosaurs has been seen as a metaphor for its own lazy film-making. It'd be easy, but still uninteresting.
One of the refreshing ways Logan does diverge from most superhero films is that it never cares too much about maintaining continuity to other films, nor does it ask the audience to care about continuity. Initially, it doesn't even hold the audience's hand, instead building a world through background details. That is, until Logan takes a break to watch a lengthy phone video that lays out Laura and the story's entire backstory. Said video is shot from multiple angles and edited together for maximum dramatic impact despite ostensibly being made with a hidden camera and by a woman fleeing from mercenaries.)
The much-touted R rating helps and hurts Logan in equal measure. While it doesn't approach Deadpool levels, there are a couple of desperate, pandering attempts to prove that this film is for adults. The action is competent and bloody but doesn't always achieve its intended visceral impact, partly because it's also repetitive to the point of comedy. One scene is constructed around showing Logan stab as many people as possible through the skull in slow motion.
At the same time, removing children from the target audience does change things, allowing the story to be less action-driven and to take more time than is customary to connect and breathe with its characters.
While this emotional maturity does sometimes feel at odds with the other "adult" elements, at its best Logan finds ways to embody both simultaneously. For example, there's a striking moment of revenge / body horror towards the end that offers a glimpse of what a successful version of the recent Fantastic Four could have been.
Laura, a.k.a. X-23, is not a particularly unique character - the strong, silent, mysterious, possibly feral child - and yet she is allowed to develop into something interesting. The obligatory family road trip comedy (Paper Moon and Little Miss Sunshine have both been referenced) and the predictable plot digressions (introducing supporting characters who, by being so benign and good-natured, are immediately, obviously, and entirely sacrificial) fall by the wayside.
In their place, the father-daughter relationship between Laura and Logan blossoms, bolstered by the complex father/son, student/teacher, carer/invalid dynamic between Charles and Logan. The third act completely opens up the scope of the film, narratively, emotionally, thematically. Even Shane is brought back in a way that completely redeems the clunky reference to it earlier.
As a result, Logan's climax, its actual climax once the obligatory stabbings are over and done with, is genuinely emotionally affecting. This is all too rare, not just in blockbusters but across cinema.
Harmy's Despecialised Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy is a fan recreation of what Lucasfilm (and now, presumably, Disney) couldn't or wouldn't do: high quality versions of Episodes IV through VI as they were originally, theatrically presented. It's a triumphant example of fandom's power to create instead of tear down, concentrating on why these films are so beloved in the first place rather than cynically attacking the prequels as unworthy follow-ups. They cast the viewer in a strange limbo, thinking back to how the films might have been received on release while at the same time never being able to erase the memory of decades of follow-up films, toys and ancillary TV shows, comic books, and games collectively known as the Expanded Universe or, post-Disney, "Legends".
For someone without a particular nostalgia or attachment to Star Wars - The Phantom Menace was the first film I saw in the cinema but I was too young for it to really make an impact - it's a fascinating viewing experience.
George Lucas and his peers (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, De Palma) were the "movie brat" generation - directors who had grown up with cinema and TV, might have even attended film school, and who had an affinity for classical Hollywood. Star Wars may have marked the end of New Hollywood and the ushering in the blockbuster era, but it was also very much part of a trend of genre films made by genre-aware directors. Bonnie and Clyde is Arthur Penn's French New Wave-influenced update on the lovers on the run subgenre, à la You Only Live Once or Gun Crazy; The Godfather is a gangster picture with a touch of prestige from casting Marlon Brando and which for the first time captured authentic Italian-American accents, an important personal detail for Francis Ford Coppola; Point Blank is a fractured memory of a film noir from John Boorman; and so on.
Lucas takes his cues from, among others, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, Kurosawa films, The Dam Busters, World War II dogfights, Westerns, etc. Famously it's structured around the Joseph Campbell monomyth, a template for the hero's journey that can be applied to everything from Jesus Christ to Agent J in Men in Black. It's this simple and universal story coupled with the density of its references and influences that make Star Wars work so well. What also helps is that there's no real consistent ideology to the film. The Empire sound British, look Fascist (they even have their own Stormtroopers), and the Rebellion allow Americans to once again be the underdogs fighting for freedom, casting aside the cynicism of the 1970s; at the same time the film ends with a visual homage to Triumph of the Will and Luke Skywalker is a clean-cut Aryan in an entirely white Universe. It creates that feeling, key to nerd culture and some of its worst, exclusionary impulses, of recognition and nostalgia, the same feeling Lucas channelled in American Graffiti; at the same time its story is universal, making this feeling available to virtually every audience member, and you can project any meaning or politics you choose.
The Despecialised Edition is neatly packaged, especially for a film you have to track down either through torrenting or download sites. There are a multitude of sound mixes available, plus bonus tracks:
- 1977 70mm six track mix
- 1977 35mm stereo mix
- 1977 35mm mono mix
- 1985 Laserdisc mix
- 1993 Laserdisc mix
- 1978 German dub
- 1977 French dub
- 1977 Castilian Spanish dub
- 1980 American Spanish dub
- 1980s Brazilian Portuguese dub
- 1978 Japanese dub
- 1977 Italian dub
- 1995 Polish voiceover
- 1992 Czech dub
- 1984 Hungarian dub
- 1993 Laserdisc audio commentary
- 2004 DVD audio commentary
- 2004 starwars.com audio commentary
- 2011 BluRay archival interview commentary
- isolated score
- commentary for visually impaired
But more important are the visual changes. Gone are the distractingly, digitally inserted creatures on Tatooine, including Jabba. You are essentially seeing it stripped of the expectations and demands of this insanely large but entirely post facto and ad hoc mythology that's been built around it in the intervening years. In this version of the film, a low budget science fiction fantsy that no-one involved in making it really understood apart from Lucas, story and character trump worldbuilding. What exposition there is feels tossed in to justify the magic of the universe; as delivered by the inimitable Alec Guiness it has weight and gravitas but it's not exactly key to enjoying the film. Luke Skywalker is just a kid from a small farming town who wants to escape into intergalactic adventure, and that sense of longing, perhaps the most personal part of the franchise to Lucas, is still compelling. Han Solo shoots first because that's his arc, he goes from a ruthless, self-interested smuggler to hero of the Rebellion. The only part that doesn't work as well as once might have is the opening, which in 1977 plunges us into this strange universe from the point of view of the droids, its lowliest characters; in 2016 everyone knows Tatooine inside and out.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Rather than falling back on the instantly iconic imagery of the original, The Empire Strikes Back pushes in new directions, to create and explore new worlds of its own. The Rebel base on the ice planet Hoth is stunningly designed, from the underground ice corridors down to the snow camoflauge uniforms, and this section of the film even culminates in a wholly unique and exciting (if illogical) mode of warfare. From Hoth we jump through a secession of bizarre and brilliant planets (and astroid), each brought vividly to screen by Director of Photography Peeter Suschitzky and Production Designer Normal Reynolds. In Star Wars Luke longed to escape Tatooine and in Empire he gets his wish. Every frame looks like a Ralph McQuarrie painting come to life; of course a lot of the effects shots are literally paintings, either mattes or backgrounds for model effects, and while they might look less 'convincing' than their Special Edition digital replacements they also leave a lot more to the imagination. Similarly, Dagobah is so clearly a soundstage, not least because its sole inhabitant is a puppet, and yet its misty, dense jungle is the perfect place for Luke to begin his spiritual journey. Cloud City's skies are as stunning and luxurious as its inner workings are harsh; it's all underpinned by industrial, impersonal, oppresive structures like the huge air shaft Luke falls down, reminiscent of those on the Death Star.
This is the rare Star Wars film without a space battle; Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, Lucas' collaborators on the screenplay (he only took story credit), understand that an intimate confrontation between Luke and Vader can be far more exciting. Their choice to separate the characters for almost the entire film is a masterstroke - even C3PO and R2D2 are split up - and denying us the emotional catharsis of their full reunion for another three years is cruel yet entirely appropriate for a film series inspired so deeply by serial storytelling. Being a film that's entirely 2nd Act it follows no recognisable structure, instead adding obstacle after obstacle, a never-ending chase with no destination in sight. The script deftly fills in back-story in ways that make sense, tying the seemingly accidental events of Star Wars into a larger epic saga with a sense of destiny.
There's also a compelling maturity to the film, unexpected given the juvenile appeal of the original (deliberate, not in a pejorative sense). An exchange early in the film between Luke and his gunner Dak demonstrates this difference:
Dak: Right now I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself.
Luke: I know what you mean.
And of course Luke did take on the whole Empire himself, and won - but a few minutes after this conversation Dak is dead, another casualty of a war that has real consequences even for our heroes. Mark Hamil himself looks older, no longer a farm boy but a man, even his face is slightly altered due to a car accident in the intervening years. The simple idealism of the original is replaced with something more complex, darker- it's what Luke will see in the cave in Dagobah, in my favourite scene in the entire franchise. He's not taking on the whole Empire again, he's fighting Darth Vader, and when he's fighting Darth Vader he's fighting himself - all his fear, anger and hate personified.
If this threatens to get too serious, Han and Leia and Chewie and C3PO make for fine adventure companions. For once, characters that need to concentrate on doing what they're good at - flying the Millennium Falcon - realise that C3PO is a robot and he can be switched off when comic relief is no longer needed. Han and Leia's romance feels slightly undercooked - presumably a lot has happened off-screen, before the beginning of the film - and yet its climax, Solo remaining stoic in the face of death, is so perfect and affecting beyond what mere sentimentality could achieve:
Leia: I love you.
Han: I know.
There's little for Lucas to feel embarrassed about in this film - a film made under his supervision as Executive Producer, at his studio, with his full control - and that's reflected in how few changes the Special Edition makes, how few changes the Despecialied Edition has to undo. All the excellent stop motion work in the Battle of Hoth is retained in both versions, with only some bluescreen errors being fixed in the SE. There's a handful of minor dialogue adjustments or substitutions, but they never quite register consciously. Other Special Edition changes serve to bring Empire in line with the Prequels - the Emperor is now played by Ian McDiarmid, Boba Fett's new voice is supplied by Temuera Morrison - but in a film full of so much skilful universe and mythology expansion, these are only minor sacrileges.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Dissatisfying on a number of levels, Return of the Jedi could never hope to live up to the promise of the end of The Empire Strikes Back - after all, it's competing against your imagination of a perfect franchise-capper. Episode VI falls down in several key ways. Conceivably, devoting over half an hour, a full quarter of the film, to rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt could have worked - after all the Star Wars films are no strangers to odd pacing. But the film gradually reintroduces the principal characters as if, by 1983, they aren't already iconic, as if their names and faces aren't on toys in every child's bedroom. What happened to these friends in the intervening time that they decide to very slowly one by one infiltrate Jabba's Palace or get captured by him? (Luke refers to himself as a Jedi Knight although, as is revealed later in the film, he had yet to return to Dagobah to finish his training with Yoda.) If this is part of a co-ordinated plan that never becomes clear; worse still (again, solid logic is not essential for enjoying these films), it denies us the reunion we've been waiting for. That moment instead is split across many, all of which are compromised by Jabba's presence. And, no sooner have Luke, Leia, Solo, Lando, Chewie, R2D2 and C3PO all escaped Tatooine together then they split up again, sharing only a brief off-screen exchange.
It's the sign of a film spinning its wheels, one that doesn't quite know what to do with its characters now that it's arrived at the third act of the trilogy and has to give them all an ending. Luke has his inevitable, literally destined rematch with Vader and confrontation with the Emperor and these are easily the best scenes of the film, bringing him to the brink of giving into his anger, fear, and thirst for revenge. The assault on the second Death Star matters only in as much as it matters to Luke, seeing the distant explosions and knowing that he has led his friends into a trap and they are once again being used against him. (It does technically give Lando a redeeming moment on his Han Solo-like arc from self-interested rogue to Rebellion pilot, but this arc was already complete by the end of Empire and there's little to nothing here to remind us of his old character).
The Ewoks are a missed opportunity. Their technology and numbers are no match for the Empire and yet they prove victorious in forrest warfare; Lucas himself has suggested the Vietnam allegory, and they are allegedly named after the Miwok Native Americans. But their teddy bear like appearance betrays their purpose as part of the toy marketing machine that by this point was more valuable than the films themselves, and the comic cargo cult-like treatment of C3PO as a God, to whom they plan to sacrifice his fellow humans, completely muddy the waters on any statement on colonialism. (Although the groundwork for the most exciting implication of the prequels is laid out here. It turns out that maybe the USA is not the underdog Rebellion after all, but the evil Empire, an oversized, overreaching corrupted Republic.) It's not that we come to Star Wars for politics, but this leaves the Ewoks without a function beyond cuteness and disposability in battle - it might be sad seeing an Ewok try to rouse his dead friend but it's impossible to imagine the equivalent scene between two humans. Perhaps Lucas wants to say something about war but he wants to say it in as palatable and family-friendly way possible, inviting a cynical response. (See: Gremlins.)
The revelation that Leia is Luke's sister feels inevitable, given how neatly it resolves two loose threads from Empire: Yoda's enigmatic promise to Ben that "There is another" and also the Han-Leia-Luke love triangle. But again, the answer is less satisfying than the question, too easily removing the only conflict within the main group of characters. It also has the side effect, either deliberate or through lack of imagination, of robbing Leia of her agency; at the end of this trilogy she, a Princess, diplomat and member of the rebellion longer than any of the others, is on an equal footing with Luke at the beginning. She's strong with the Force but knows nothing about it, certainly not how to use it (for which you'd have to look to the Expanded Universe). In Empire she told Han she loved him before he was frozen, a bold statement of hope at an incredibly dark time; there's no comparable sense of danger here when the exchange is lazily, meaninglessly reprised.
In Jedi there are two or three big changes for the Despecialised Edition to undo.
Jabba's Palace is full of alien creatures and the camera enjoys showing them off. Unfortunately, somehow with so much more money so many years later, these creatures are far less impressive than those in the Cantina in the original film. Maybe it's because by now we've seen the scope of the Star Wars universe, whether it's in the films or novels and comics. Maybe it's because a blue baby elephant-type creature that wouldn't look out of place hosting a children's TV show is decidedly not as cool as a vampire, even though they both make about the same amount of sense in this universe. It's hard to blame Lucas for wanting to fix this, although he should have realised his "fix" of replacing practical creatures with CGI creations that couldn't fully match their surroundings would never work, simply substituting one distracting out of place effect with another.
Sebastian Shaw's Anakin Skywalker Force ghost has been restored here, although in a post-prequel, post-Special Edition world he looks more out of place than Hayden Christensen's. As do Anakin's eyebrows, burned off by lava at the end of Revenge of the Sith and removed in the SE. In this v1.0 of the Despecialised Edition (Star Wars was v2.5, Empire was v2.0), they float like standard definition fuzzy slugs on top of otherwise high definition shots, producing an unfortunate couple of chuckles.
The Special Edition, tasked with creating an ending suitable for a six film franchise, excises the Ewok's song and replaces fireworks with epic, intergalactic celebration across multiple planets. The theatrical or Despecialised Edition feels curtailed by comparison, especially the final shot - a tableau of all the major characters celebrating together which wipes all too quickly to the credits. This is (was) the last time we're seeing these characters in live action at the cinema. After spending over six hours of films and countless years of cultural touchstones, an extra few minutes or even seconds of happiness wouldn't have hurt.
For a fan of the franchise or for someone like me, just curious to see these again to prepare for the Disney onslaught of a new film every year, the Despecialised Editions are essential, an inspiring example of public crowdsourced film restoration.