Top 8 Questions after watching the new trailer for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Much like the word “genius,” the label “artist” gets bandied about quite a bit. When I was taking fine art classes in college, one of the more colorful and exuberant life drawing and painting instructors — let’s call him Charlie — a very hyperactive and passionate painter, talked to us about what it meant to be an artist.
“So you all want to be artists, huh?” He shouted as he strutted in and around our rows of easels as we worked. “I’m just here to teach you how to paint and hopefully paint well. I can’t teach you to be an artist. An artist is a way of life, man. Are you willing to starve for your art? Are you in it for the money? Van Gogh sold one painting in his life. He went mad and then committed suicide. He was an artist. Are you willing to let it consume you? Let’s just concentrate on painting for now.”
Now, I’ve always been fascinated by illustrators who were adept at rendering the human form, faces, and textures were able to put their subjects into fascinating settings and conjure up just the right mood. I had a knack — still do, though not so practiced of late — of being able to capture likenesses fairly well when I drew. The best illustrators and painters are very talented at drawing and their pen and pencil work alone is worthy of collecting. Without a foundation in accurate lifelike drawing a lot of paintings and illustrations meant to be realistic tend to look less real, less lifelike and dull.
In America, there have been several periods where talented illustrators emerged. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s, the works of Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and Howard Pyle (to name just a few), adorned the covers of Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, or in Wyeth’s case numerous works of literature: The White Company, Robin Hood, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and The Last of the Mohicans.
Sometimes, these talented men worked on a grand scale – many of them, like Wyeth and Parrish were commissioned to do large murals — and much of their work for magazine covers, stories, and book covers were originally painted much larger and reproduced much smaller for print. When I worked at Stanford, helping to put out the Stanford Daily back in the early 1980s, I happened upon an exhibit of N.C. Wyeth’s work at a small gallery in Palo Alto and was awestruck by one of the paintings he had done to illustrate Robin Hood, depicting the outlaw’s band of merry men crouched behind the base of a massive oak tree with their bows pulled back waiting to let their arrows fly. The texture and color of the grass and the men’s costumes looked as rich and fresh as if it had all been painted yesterday. My recollection was that the work was enormous but time has a tendency to romanticize and embellish the truth. In fact the work is an oil on canvas about 40 inches tall and 32 inches wide; i.e., about the size of a standard movie poster (though five inches wider). And the painting was actually for sale at the time for about $25,000 and I dreamed of owning it one day. I still dream.
If the title wasn’t clear enough; the second section of this review will contain ALL THE SPOILERS.
If you’ve somehow stumbled into this post by mistake, don’t worry, you’re still safe… for now. I’ll start with a basic, spoiler-free synopsis & review and then dig deeper into the good stuff a bit farther down in the post. It will be ridiculously obvious where the spoiler section will start, but if you haven’t seen the film and don’t even want to risk it, then you’d better make the jump to light speed and get out of here now to avoid any plot or character-related spoilers for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” .
With those disclaimers out of the way, here goes.
Currently holding strong at 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m only adding my voice to a growing chorus when I say that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a fantastic film.
Director, J.J. Abrams and co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan & Michael Arndt, managed to flawlessly capture the look, tone, and feel of the original trilogy. I’m not going to waste time beating up on the prequels too much, but for the first time since 1983, everything about this actually seems like the Star Wars I fell in love with as a kid.
The universe depicted in the original trilogy wasn’t exactly shiny and new.
Spaceships like the Millennium Falcon were falling apart and didn’t always work perfectly; droids like C3P0 and R2D2 were dented and scuffed; and the locations were populated by strangely believable creatures going about their daily business. These kinds of imperfections and the physical reality of everything on screen, combined with John Williams’ luscious and emotionally powerful score, gave the world a visual realism and emotional depth that the cartoonish CGI perfection of the prequels completely failed to accomplish.
The magic in those original films has had a profound impact on now several generations of young people who would – like myself – grow up to be film-makers and creative artists. I’m beyond thrilled to say that “The Force Awakens” reminded me of the creative inspiration I felt as a kid seeing Star Wars for the first time.
But the record-breaking success of this film will be owed to far more than style and tone.
There is something about the pending arrival of The Force Awakens that I find to be deeply unsettling. As December 18th approaches, that feeling in my gut grows and those nagging voices in my head hound me as I fall asleep. Now, I converted to Star Wars when I was six years old, and have been a devout follower since. I’ve attended Celebrations and multiple Fridays at Comic-Con, yet something haunts me about this latest installment of the franchise.
At first I thought it was Lucas’s lack of creative involvement. But let’s face it, while George Lucas is a masterful storyteller; some of his greatest decisions as a filmmaker where to employ talented individuals to help him bring his vision to life. When we look at one of the greatest films ever made – The Empire Strike Back – Lucas brought on Irving Kershner to direct, and Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan to convert his story to screenplay. Lucas is still involved in this project as a creative consultant, and maybe this film will not fall victim to the same snags that prequel trilogy did with an oversaturation of Lucas’s involvement.
Then I considered that maybe my fear was that the new Star Wars film, wouldn’t feel like a Star Wars film. Any true Star Wars aficionado experienced culture shock when watching the prequel trilogy, resulting from an over-exposure to CGI. JJ Abrams has maintained that he will remain true to the practical effects used in the original films. Based on Abrams earlier films, we know that he is no stranger to preserving the integral magic of cinema with astonishing, practical effects.
Maybe my disappointment rested with the issue of “cannon”. Surely, this new film could not exist within the realm of the expanded Universe which has grown exponentially in the past three decades? However, the Expanded Star Wars Universe is in fact, expansive; and there are many contradictory story lines already within. One of the best examples of this was when the origins of Boba Fett were “rewritten”, after the revelation in Episode II that he was in fact, merely an imperfect clone. I made peace with that blasphemous information (though I still maintain that Fett’s original origin story is the better of the two) and I imagine that I will learn to make peace with future revelations, no matter how harmful.
Reminder as you are watching this footage, director George Miller was 69 years old and cinematographer John Seale was 70. These two and their production team just schooled every action film made in the past 15 years. Green screen should used to enhance the story, not be the story. Mad Max used green screen, but you will notice it only for certain camera angles and shots that required it for the safety of the actors and stunt performers.
Any wonder why the actors in the Star Wars prequels felt like they couldn’t act their way out of a cardboard box? They couldn’t because they were acting to nothing except the chroma green box they were placed in. Never underestimate the power of doing it real.
Apparently actor Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz, Star Trek, Mission:Impossible) made some controversial comment regarding the current “nerd culture” being used to infantilize our society in order to keep it under control. The preoccupation in popular culture today of entertainment originally targeted to teenagers and their juniors. Specifically comic books & video games and their film adaptations, cosplay and their conventions, and the more recent explosion of re-makes, re-boots and re-imaginings of favorite childhood memories is all keeping current social national-global conversation fixated on fantasy rather than reality.
Here is Pegg in his own words:
Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.
This week on The Rear View podcast I had the pleasure of sitting down with film composer Ryan Rapsys to talk about one of his favorite movie scores – John Williams’ The Empire Strikes Back. It was this score that Williams first introduced the “Imperial March” to his canon of iconic and unmistakable film themes. The film itself is often held up as the superior of all the Star Wars film, and it can be argued that film score may be what helped elevate its standing.
Ryan and I discuss the importance of collaboration with the director early in the filmmaking process and why a strong melody is vital in tapping into the emotions of an audience. The power of sense memory is unmatched when it comes to music and film. Filmmakers wishing to make an impact on the culture should always be looking to connect with their audiences and a simple and memorable melody can by just the ticket. You can also checkout Ryan Rapsys’ work on Soundcloud.
I think these seven movie characters deserve their shot at the lead role. And as an added bonus, I’ll even use my excellent casting director skills to cast the roles.
1 & 2 – Clemenza and Tessio from The Godfather I & II (1972, 1974)
3 – Quint from Jaws (1975)