Monday, November 12, 2012

From Aeneas to Ant-Man to Anakin

I was recently asked whether I was “excited” about the inevitable yet improbable announcement of new Star Wars movies to be produced and released by Disney. As previously indicated, I am rather apprehensive about the whole affair. Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about it, but I know I’m not “excited,” if that word is measured by a distinct rise in heart rate when I think about the prospect of more Star Wars movies. If “excited” means that other things I’ve been anticipating now seem bland in comparison, then no, I’m not excited.

Now rumors are solidifying into news: Harrison Ford wants in, Steven Spielberg won’t touch the damn thing with a double-bladed lightsaber, and the latest is that Michael Arndt, writer of Toy Story 3, has written a treatment and will be penning the script for Episode VII.

Nothing against Arndt (Toy Story 3 was witty, and shows he could write within an established story world), but I think I would be much more excited (and happier) if, instead of bringing us the continuing adventures of the Skywalker clan, they simply remade the existing Star Wars movies. A Pixar version, a Wes Anderson version, a version of Phantom Menace where Jar Jar is magically deleted from every scene and then you are astounded to realize that Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn were just talking to each other the whole time and there never was a Jar Jar! Etc., etc., whatever.

With remakes, we could expect the unannounced director (and any later artists at the helm) to make Star Wars his/her own, to apply an unusual vision, to revel in reinterpreting what has come before. But to continue Star Wars “officially,” but have it done by hands other than George Lucas’s, I wonder how closely they can hew to his voice. If the movies are to continue the story using the major original-trilogy actors, I’m not willing to entertain any grotesque notions that a distinctive voice would somehow be preferable to imitating the Lucas style. And yes, I realize that Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were directed by two different men, but surely under the firm oversight of Lucas.

What is Star Wars without George Lucas? What is it without his inexplicable brain giving birth to operatic lightsaber duels, a galactic menagerie of creatures, sleazebags peddling death sticks, high-speed vehicle chases and races, and line after line of dialogue just awkward enough to challenge even the gravest thespian? You can say it’s a formula easily copied, and often copied in the last three decades of American cinema. True that, and yet it’s Star Wars that we remember and salivate over while the legions of followers are forgotten.

Whatever Lucas’s shortcomings, I think his greatest talent, besides just inventing the vastness that is Star Wars, is that he knows how to tell a visual story clearly. He knows how to get the audience from point A to B to C without leaving them hopelessly lost, and that’s something that many celebrated filmmakers can struggle with.

For example, there’s been minor squawking over at the Star Wars fantasy camp (which is what the internet has become over the past week and a half) about getting Christopher Nolan to direct Episode VII, and though I greatly admire his films, they tend to be a royal mess because they’re overstuffed with speeches and ideas and fisticuffs, with little awareness of how to connect one thing to another. He often can’t even make sense out of simple fistfights in the Batman movies. How on earth is he going to choreograph something as potentially complicated as a lightsaber clash? (Here’s hoping Luke wields the green beam once again!)

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Star Wars is becoming (or has become, some would say) something greater than a collection of one man’s stories; its artistic progeny are already legion, in the form of books and games, and it will continue to be the wellspring of reinterpretations and additions, “fan fictions” some would derisively call them, but perhaps the better way of understanding the Expanded Universe is to see it as the natural outgrowth of an original body of myth.

The chief analogues in my mind are 1) classical Greek and Roman mythology, and 2) the myth-making renaissance of 20th century comic books. 

Classical mythology (alongside the Bible, which is a codified mythology – that’s right, I said it), is the source material for pretty much every story that western civilization has come to tell. The stories of Zeus and Hercules and the Medusa and so on, though their origins are now murky, came to be reinterpreted by various writers during antiquity, and though certain traditional storylines became established, they were hardly sacrosanct.

Homer and Hesiod wrote about existing myths, tweaking them, including and excluding details as they pleased. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides adapted from Homer and Hesiod and other early storytellers, making the myths relevant to their times and personal values. One interesting example is Euripides’s play, Helen, which describes a lesser known variant of the story of Helen of Troy, where a “phantom” double of Helen is substituted for her by Hera and Athena, and it is the double that is abducted by Paris. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the mere mortals, the real Helen was spirited away to Egypt, and thus could not be held culpable for the carnage of the Trojan War. This is no recent revisionism, but a revered writer from antiquity who thought the variant was worth exploring, despite the fact that a traditional version existed.

In like fashion, comic book writers, and later, TV producers and filmmakers, have taken liberally from previous comics sources, and over time have become bolder about deviating from the traditional or canonical stories.

Though most comics followers will disagree, one could plausibly say that anything not written by the original creator can be considered “fan fiction.” Any Spider-Man story that was not among the original set created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko is fan fiction, regardless of whether it was published by Marvel or by, say, Czardoz Contra World. The fact that Stan Lee approves of later Marvel versions makes them, what, somehow authentic? As authentic as the innumerable Star Wars novels and games that George Lucas has rubber-stamped?

Ultimately, what seems to matter is not whether a story can be considered canonical and true to the original artist’s intention, but rather, whether it is any good. Who begrudges the wealth of Spider-Man and Superman comics that came well after the heyday of their creators? Who begrudges Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy for creating new characters and not adhering strictly to any particular preexisting storylines?

The destiny of mythology is to be manipulated and reimagined by subsequent generations. This has already happened with Star Wars to a certain extent, but generally under the radar of the mainstream fan, who does not typically read stuff like the Thrawn Trilogy or New Jedi Order novels. Episode VII will be the bigger moment, when the franchise is presented to the world at large as a thing beyond its original form, as a story that is bigger than any one person’s ability to tell it, and worthy of retellings by any person able to lift the weight of the material.

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There are probably a lot of people who can’t accept that this Star Wars thing they grew up with has become so much bigger than just their pet movie. And that consequently, it’s going to be the template for endless new waves of creativity, hopefully by people who are genuinely prepared to handle the subject matter.

Having said that, my greatest worry is that I’ll come out of Episode VII thinking, “Well that was very good, but it wasn’t Star Wars.” And it astonishes me that the “real” Luke, Leia, and Han would appear in another Star Wars, and yet it sounds like this is really happening. It’s like someone writing a few more books to tack onto the end of the Old Testament. How about a sequel to the Book of Job? Probably a raging controversy even back when the New Testament was being compiled, so how could you take it seriously now? You’d say, “Job 2: The Misery Continues? After all this time? I guess there must be some money in it.”

The original trilogy feels far too established, and despite all of Lucas’s attempts to “refresh” it every few years, it’s fairly well set in stone, and to imagine Harrison Ford playing old man Solo just seems wrong to me. Of course, as soon as the first trailer appears in 2014, I may be singing a different tune, and be grateful that they’re getting an encore. After all, it was pleasant to see Indiana Jones cracking his whip again after a 19-year absence.

I do wonder how the old guard will adapt to a new director’s sensibilities and a new writer’s words. Actors don’t usually have the final say, but would Mark Hamill be okay with some whippersnapper director telling him how a 60-year-old Luke Skywalker is supposed to talk? Would Harrison Ford tolerate any deviation from his conception of a character he owns in all but legal terms? Would Carrie Fisher insist that, yes, she does still fit into her old slave girl costume, and she’ll prove it in front of everyone?

And with Lucas all but gone, is John Williams coming back to score the film, or is it time to pass that torch as well? James Newton Howard is the first name to cross my mind as having an appropriate sensibility, though Michael Giacchino has history with Disney/Pixar, and did a great sci-fi score for Star Trek. Thankfully, I’m sure Hans Zimmer will be on the far side of the Disney lot working on the next Pirates film.

And finally, how many kinds of wipes will be used? Horizontal and vertical, surely. Probably diagonal, too. But what about clock and pinwheel wipes? Or vertical blind wipes? Will there be star wipes?!? That’s when I’ll get excited!

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