Reaction to Star Wars

By Craig Joseph

death-star-explosion-star-wars

I owe George Lucas an apology.

I haven’t seen this movie for twenty years, since a few of us gathered in a college dorm room and watched episodes four through six.  I’m sure I intended to view them all again when the newest episodes were released but I was so disgusted with The Phantom Menace that I threw in the towel.  Still haven’t seen two and three.  I know; I’m not a real fan.  Least of all because I allowed Jar-Jar Binks to retroactively revise my impression of the good films that came before him which, I realize this week, was a mistake.

What I find most refreshing about A New Hope – ironically – is its predictability.  I spend a lot of time watching films with intentionally muddled chronology, subtle symbolism, and characters whose motives and intentions are murky and shrouded in mystery; it’s a hard job being a pretentious art-movie snob, but we all have our crosses to bear.  So there was something gleefully simple and wonderful about watching something that I inherently “get.”

·      Of COURSE that guy is evil incarnate; he’s wearing all black, his entrance music is intense and he even breathes terrifyingly.  And guess what?  That young guy in white?  He’s good and they’re gonna face off sooner or later.
·      Han Solo is bad-ass.  He has a quip for everything and can even talk smack to a princess.  You don’t suppose it’s because they’re going to fall in love at some point, do you?
·      Each scene will undoubtedly top the previous one with something weird.  It starts with the Jawas, explodes into craziness with Greedo, Hammerhead, Snaggletooth and everyone in the cantina, and then – wait! Jabba the Hutt is in this movie now?  OK…
·      Come on, come on, get on the Falcon, they’re coming fast!  Take off! Take off! Hurry up!  Warp speed!  Whew, that was close.  Shit! Asteroids!  Come on, come on, look out!
·      And let’s be clear, Ben Kenobi will die before the film is over, and Luke will have to use The Force at some absolutely critical moment if we want to see the huge explosion we are all jonesing for.

I say all of this not to be glib or reductive, but to highlight that the movie’s success is in part due to some sort of shared experience we all have around it, created by the fact that it does exactly what it feels like it should do.  The music swells when it should, the heroes narrowly escape just in time, another henchman will get sassy even though it’s clear Vader is going to choke him, and on and on.  And we go along for the ride, which is why the whole series, I imagine, fares better watched en masse and in toto.  There must be a communal energy that develops and rallies everyone around the story; you can probably even make it through that stinky first episode for the promise of better things to come.

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Star Wars

By Tim Barlow

Star Wars

I remember the first time I saw Star Wars.  I couldn’t have been older than 3 or 4.  It was the network television premiere of the movie and my Aunt and I watched it like an historic event in the basement of the very first home I can remember.  She made popcorn with real butter.  We taped it from the TV onto VHS, making a game of trying to perfectly time the returns from commercial breaks.  I stayed up way past my bedtime.  I remember my first of many covetous glimpses at a light saber (an elegant weapon for a more civilized time).  I remember Darth Vader’s light saber was red, and Luke’s was green.  I remember how Han Solo came back at the end.

One of the reasons I liked (and continue to like) Star Wars so much is, and this is probably grossly oversimplified but, Star Wars allowed good to win – and it’s reassuring to see good triumph over evil.  There’s a trend in modern storytelling, especially the more epic, long-form plot lines (now taking place largely through TV series) focused on an anti-hero as protagonist – the drug dealer, the mobster, the crooked cop, the misogynist ad man.  Maybe it’s just considered passe or too puritanical to allow audiences to root for the good guy to be, well, good, but there’s a part of me that thinks maybe it’s a matter of a cynical audience getting exactly the show they want, right now.

Times aren’t easy; you could throw a rock in any direction, and hit a new thing that scares the crap out of me (though admittedly, I should never be used as the benchmark for optimism), but while times are tough, they have been bad before.  1977 was a pretty tough year.  A bad recession.  A stock market that dropped nearly 20% over the course of the year; one of the worst declines in history.  An energy crisis and record high oil prices. A serial killer, taking orders from his neighbor’s dog, terrorizing New York. But on May 30th, amidst this backdrop,  Star Wars (Episode IV, A New Hope) was released.

Star Wars Opening Shot

From it’s opening scene, Star Wars acknowledges the situation at hand: a small rebel spaceship darts in front of the camera, only to be pursued through the frame by a ship from the Empire, just filling the screen, going on and on like a four engine freight train, dwarfing, to a ridiculous scale, the tiny rebel craft.  At 3, I didn’t yet know the word hopeless, but I felt it, in one dialogue free 10 sec clip — even a small child knows when something doesn’t stand a chance

The word “hope” has seen a lot of action in recent years (yay! Washington), but maybe we can let down our (now tired) guard to admit that to hope in something would be pretty great.  Star Wars touches a nerve with me, because despite being a movie set in distant galaxy complete with Wookiees, Jawas, Jabas, Yodas, and Vaders, in the end, it’s really just a movie about people stuck in hard times, in desperate need of hope.  This is why I love Star Wars: it wasn’t too cool or too smart or too skilled at writing, on and on about our broken human nature, to offer up a solid, feel good, epic, underdog win for the good guys – sometimes that’s just what we need.

Reaction to Network

By Tim Barlow

Network3

The movie Network, a 1970’s classic, tells the story of a nightly network newscaster, who goes off script one evening to speak his mind, and then the ensuing fallout as both the public and the network, obsess over or try to harness him, respectively.

Network, a weighty movie not unlike some other 70’s greats, examines a pretty light and straightforward topic, in this case, the very fabric of our society and economy, through a thoughtful, and at times (thoughtfully) absurd, dialogue and plot.  There’s a now famous line from the movie, which I had heard reference to before finally seeing the source, and it goes: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  During one scene the now unleashed newscaster encourages his viewers to throw open their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” towards the street, and we see as an entire neighborhood do just that.  I found this direction to yell out of a window, to be an interesting choice, it seems like such a domesticated form of rebellion.  But then again maybe it was more for the yeller to hear that they were indeed mad as hell, than to incite revolution.

Back in real life, in this wake of the now mostly defunct and forgotten Occupy movement, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to that trend of non-violent protests and sit-ins to some of the lines and scenes from Network.  But like the Occupy movement, Network, left me reluctantly let down. Both asked the honest, hard hitting questions, but both also failed to provide any answers…or at least any that offered hope of change.

In Network there is a subplot, or maybe it’s the real story, but it revolves around the affair of an older (already-married) curmudgeonly news man and a younger uber- ambitious female network executive.  But they’re different, he’s a romantic and she’s a realist.  At one point he rebukes her, saying “You’re television incarnate.  War, Murder, death, they’re all the same to you as a bottle of beer.” And at another point, he pleads with her, “I live here, I’m real. I just want you to love me. I want you to love me, primal doubts and all.”  As I watched this scene I was reminded of the feelings I had while anxiously awaiting the ballots to be tabulated during the recent presidential election, I kept trying to remind myself that no matter the outcome, no matter what happened with the candidate I voted for, someone: maybe me, maybe my neighbor, someone at work, or on Facebook, but someone, many someones, were going to be disappointed, possibly crushed, or scared, or threatening to leave the country. And most importantly, these “others” are real.  As insane as it sometime seems, these others have thoughts, ambitions, fears, and they believe they see the underlying truth of things just as much as I do.  Just like the affair in Network; two sides of change, romanticism and logic, engaged in battle while at the same time loving the opposite resistance that others provide.

Anyways, my point is that the plot of Network and the occupy movement, and a modern two-party election, they all feel like different views to the same side of a coin.  They’re daring enough to tell you that something is severely wrong with somebody or something, but they can’t (or won’t) pin it down all the way to a tangible solution.  They’re like un-tethered buoys floating down a fast moving river, signaling only the speed of the current, but providing no change to the flow. Network came out in 1976, nearly 40 years ago, but still one of its lines: “The American people are not yet ready for open revolt” is appropriate.  And it was this, this frustrated sense of caged, locked-from-the-inside, change, that stuck with me after watching Network. Maybe that was the whole point of it, but it doesn’t mean I have to like having my face rubbed in it.

Network

By Craig Joseph

Network

Network is the story of Howard Beale, a news anchorman who’s forced into early retirement.  The stress of dismissal messes with Howard’s mind – or does it just make him clearer? – and in his final broadcast, he harangues the audience, the higher-ups and society.  What should spell disaster for the network results in the program’s highest ratings ever – and the remainder of the film finds everyone – from his pal, Max, to a barracuda of a programming director (Faye Dunaway), to a malevolent network owner (an amazing monologue by Ned Beatty) – trying to co-opt Howard’s nightly diatribes for their ends.  The network has a great run, but he proves impossible to control, and is horrifically (and hilariously) “taken care of.”

I loved this film when I saw it.  I still think it’s one of the cleverest screenplays of all time, with zingers and speeches that a talented cast delivers with panache (the film took Oscars for best screenplay and three of the four acting awards).  And I was probably – in my early 20s – enamored of anything with a satirical and even nasty edge to it.

I still love it, but now – having spent the past decade reading and re-reading the Old Testament book of Jeremiah to better understand my own prophetic temperament – I come at it with a different lens, raising new questions.

Shouldn’t true prophets be both destructive and constructive?  It is easy to reveal society’s foibles and destroy a people’s illusions – to mock and tear down.  It is much harder work to suggest what goes in their place, inspiring a populace to new visions and fresh initiative.  I am reminded of Jeremiah, who both takes the Israelites to task for their infidelity, warning of the temple’s destruction, and then inspires them – in exile – to envision a new existence, planting gardens in Babylon and prepping for their future return home.  Against critique and hope, Howard Beale’s razor-sharp rants lose some of their potency without any constructive agenda other than “go yell out your window” or “go write your senator.”  Likewise, Diana is a prophetess of sorts, keenly forecasting the outrageous shows that will make network a lot of money (truly frightening is how many are on television today); she builds the network back up.  But she lacks the “destructive” edge – that sense of discernment or critique that would excise garbage from her own line-up.  And though I love it, I name Chayefsky’s screenplay a brilliant satire, but not, in the end, prophetic.  It leaves me shaking my head at human folly, but not particularly called to action.

Also, on whose behalf does a true prophet speak?  Truth, in prophetic cases, seems to come from beyond without getting mired in the prophet’s own needs and desires.  My being pissed about your bad behavior and wanting to chew you out with news of your error does not make me a prophet.  Diana’s fawning need for love and validation that sharpens her read of human nature and Nielsen’s ratings do not make her a prophet.  And Howard’s mental illness is something else entirely.  The true prophet is merely a conduit, I think, for a message outside of herself.

Reaction to Disney’s Robin Hood

Robin Hood Prince John

By Craig Joseph

It’s horrifying when you discover yourself the lifelong adherent of a hideous deception, and that you’ve been duped by a seemingly innocuous animated film.  I’ll explain.

I’ve always enjoyed being the villain.  When Ryan Bagueros and I played Transformers in the backyard, I claimed the Decepticons.  Never the magnificent ones – Megatron, the gun, or Soundwave, the boombox.  I portrayed the cassette- tape-turned-buzzard (can’t even recall his name) and the beetle (not Volkswagen, but insect) that engaged in psychological warfare (I suspect, because he couldn’t fight for shit).  Mrs. Henderson’s church choir staged an annual musical.  Did I play Moses, bravely leading the Israelites, or Daniel, emerging strong from the lion’s den?  Of course not.  This youngster clamored to embody the Pharaoh in pajamas, whining about the plagues, and Nebuchadnezzar, a Biblical Roddy McDowall seeking out the paparazzi’s attentions.  Numerous examples abound; in my prepubescent mind, sissified, effete, emasculated (and always British) bad guys were all the rage.  And the adult manifestations of this predilection are far less cute.

Walt Disney tricked me, this week’s viewing has me convinced, because the funniest parts of this flick revolve around Prince John (the phony thumb-sucking monarch) and his serpentine sidekick, the hypnotic Sir Hiss (psychological warfare – again!).  Their banter fostered the belief that these guys – rather than the fox who flies through the trees, helps the poor, brandishes weapons, is handsome and gets the girl – were the ones to emulate.  Paging Dr. Freud.

Or is this a chicken and egg proposition?  Maybe I was navel-gazing enough at age ten to know that I was a bookish, theatrical, ironic and eccentric little fellow who’d do well to aim for self-deprecation and laughs, rather than heroism and romance.  Thank God they weren’t casually medicating kids back then; my parents would have spent a fortune, and I’d be an actuary.

All this has me thinking about little boys, their heroes and identification.  I wonder if the young Tim Barlow loved this movie because of the adventure, the chases, the archery contest, the jailbreak rescue scene, the moments where it looks like the jig is up for Robin – and then it’s not.  I wonder if he jumped on the furniture in the family room, with a makeshift feather in his cap, vanquishing his foes.  And I wonder if the adult Tim watches and thinks, “Every day is still an adventure,” or “I yearn for that freedom and exhilaration,” or “That’s great, Robin, but I prefer routine and predictability and to know how I’m going to eat this evening.”  Did the boy and the man identify with different parts of the film, or different characters?  Or is there continuity between then and now, since we never really outgrow needing, or wanting to be, a hero?

Or maybe he just really likes cartoons.  Admittedly, these musings are of a Prince John variety.  And at the end of the day, who has time for them when the neighborhood kids have to be directed and choreographed in a restaging of “The Phony King of England?”

Disney’s Robin Hood

Robin Hood and Little John

By Tim Barlow

My mom likes to tell the story of how one time when I was a kid, probably around the age of 2 or 3, I woke her up once at 4 in the morning, saying, “It won’t go in, it won’t go in.”  A little concerned her kid was speaking in riddles at 4 a.m., and possibly possessed, my mom got up and followed me downstairs.  The evidence of my late-night adventure was everywhere.  Under flipped light switches pillows were stacked up like a crude, chimpanzee-grade step stool. The refrigerator door was open, a half-eaten yogurt container on the coffee table.  More pillows stacked under the tv, and a copy of Disney’s Robin Hood half out of the VCR where a weird little kid was trying to play one movie while another was already in the player, at 4 in the morning.

Like many kids of a certain age, I was a creature of habits.  The same lullabies, the same books before bed, the same kraft macaroni for lunch, and the same movies, on repeat, everyday, for way too long. Maybe back then I was already wary of the unknown, and it was comforting to have something familiar, but for whatever reason, I had an unhealthy obsession with certain movies growing up, and I’m told Robin Hood was the first.

I loved the story, the cartoon characters, the bows and arrows, the fun to be had while simultaneously inciting revolution, the cross dressing as old gypsies, all of it. And I watched it a LOT. But for as many times as I watched it, there are some things, I noticed with fresh eyes while re-watching recently, for probably the first time in twenty years. For instance, half the characters have British accents, half do not…sloppy, Disney, this isn’t Les Misérables.  Another realization was that from an animation standpoint, old Disney movies are now so dated, they’re charming – maybe it was simply nostalgia, but there was something undeniably calming about watching this older classic animation, especially compared with today’s microprocessor powered 3D Pixar pixel porn.

But one of the strongest sensations I had while re-watching, was: It’s all still the same! That probably sounds obvious, but there was something so nice about having an unchanged, untainted, non-digitally remastered time capsule that was exactly how (I feel like) I remembered it.  I was instantly transported back to the 1 ½ story, brown and white Tudor I grew up in from the ages of 1 through 4, sitting in the basement on the ugliest couch ever made, soaking in a movie via vhs on a television with knobs instead of a buttons. Back to a simpler time where I could watch the same movie on repeat, and no one would ask me if I got their email, or which paycheck the mortgage comes out on, or if my hairline is moving.  Back to a time where I could watch Robin Hood and Little John romp around Sherwood Forest, singing Oodelaly, golly what a day as much as I wanted, and know exactly what they meant.

Robin Hood Fire Flies

There’s a scene in the movie, that I never actually liked as a kid. It’s this sentimental story bridge after Robin Hood and Maid Marian escape together into Sherwood Forest, but before they rendezvous with all their friends to have a puppet show and mock Prince John.  This scene is mushy, it’s slow, it has mood-setting fireflies, there’s 1970’s folk music, and compared to the previous archery contest scene (awesome!), this follow up is a complete waste of my effing time (as understood through the eyes of a precocious boy of 3). But during this recent stroll-down-memory-lane viewing, I watched that scene through my all grown up eyes, and in that acoustic accompaniment, a 70’s Peter Paul and Mary knock off, croons: “Once we watched a lazy world go by, now the days seem to fly. Life is brief, but when it’s gone, love goes on and on.” And Oodelaly, does that not just sum it all up?! …I love this movie, always have.

Reaction to Heart and Souls

By Tim Barlow

Heart and Souls 2

What if the divine stopped engaging with the world? For some this may seem like just an apt way of describing life, but for a character, a Soul, in the movie, Heart and Souls, the notion of no longer interacting with the living, leaves him wondering if he is actually in hell.  It’s this interaction with the divine, I suspect, that is at the root of why a largely forgotten movie from the early-90’s has made a shocking appearance on Craig’s list.

Heart and Souls tells the story of four Souls who after their untimely, simultaneous death are assigned to newborn baby, Thomas. Only Thomas can see these Souls, and as they grow close to him, each brings their own personal influence.  However, after parents and teachers grow concerned about what they perceive to be a strange child overly fixated on imaginary friends, the four Souls make the decision, in one of the film’s few touching moments, to go silent and invisible to Thomas.  Still around, but no longer trying to interact or influence.

In the wake of their absence, the child grows up to be a hot-shot, mostly dickish bankruptcy something something, played by Robert Downey Jr.  The Souls realize they need Thomas to interact with the world and Thomas needs the Souls renewed guidance to stop being a dick. Also, Elizabeth Shue is in this movie, I love her. Remember Adventures in Babysitting?  Did I mention I lover her? …

Sorry where was I?  Right. So, despite the temptation to label Thomas’ softening heart as the necessary emotional connection to catapult this onto Craig’s list, what with its parallels to his own self described head-first, heart-second ways, I’m not buying.

You see, despite Robert Downey Jr’s top billing, the real (forgive me) soul of the movie, comes from the four Souls, whom we’re introduced to through a series of vignettes, depicting the various real-life challenges they take, unresolved, to their deaths: crippling fear, a single mother’s struggle to provide for her children, guilt, and waiting love. And it’s these issues, these obstacles to peace, rather than the abrupt softening of Robert Downey Jr.’s prickish, cocky, swaggering, obnoxious heart (Spoiler Alert: most of the time, I can’t stand Robert Downey Jr.), that provide the necessary emotional investment.  It’s the divine, longing to engage with and to show their love, which drives these characters and redeems (somewhat) the plot.

During such a moment, towards the end of the movie, one of the Souls (whom normally cannot physically touch the living) wishes out loud she could give a living someone a hug, and then miraculously, right then, she is able to make contact.  Through a cynical lense this could be seen as incredible, over-the-top, roll your eyes, terrible terrible cheese, but through innocent, unburdened eyes, maybe like those of someone who saw this movie early on, and will always again see it with that blend of nostalgia and trust that cements young love, maybe through those eyes such a moment was interpreted as a charmingly innocent portrayal of God’s love.  Sometimes we relate to stories because they inspire something brand new in us and sometimes we relate to stories because of what we recognize.  I think it’s the later that lands this surprising addition onto Craig’s list.