Structure Does Not Trump Content

The author of an extensive post, titled Star Wars Ring Theory: The Hidden Artistry of the Prequels, Mike Klimo, was featured on Unjustly Maligned not too long ago. He makes a strong case for a previously unnoticed complicated interlocking narrative structure for the 6 Star Wars movies. Lucas’ own words in past interviews and Star Wars supplementary materials support the theory also.

But, using such a framework doesn’t absolve Lucas from the multiple technical, storytelling, characterization, and dialog failures in the prequels, as discussed in the RedLetterMedia video reviews, which are directly referenced by Klimo. (If you haven’t seen these yet, you really should. The only weak points are the bizarre “real life” insertions of the Plinkett character, and even those are entertaining in their twisted way.)

If you were to show all of the Star Wars movies to someone who had no prior knowledge of them, any of the original three would be judged as being superior movies to the prequels in nearly any metric you’d care to define. The Empire Strikes Back is obviously the standout even among that group. It seems that Lucas benefitted both from the strictures of studio production and the stronger influence of the directors of the earlier movies. Without those balancing forces, his vision ran unchecked.

Poetry forms like sonnets are a similar confining structure for writing, albeit on a much smaller scale than classical chiasmus which is meant to provide links between entire passages or scenes in a large narrative. For every gem by a Shakespeare or Keats, there are hundreds of thousands of sonnets by poets who dutifully followed the demands of the form, but which are utter failures as poems, however well they conform to the structure of a sonnet.

Literary structures are best used as scaffolding to aid creativity. There are few things more terrifying or paralyzing to a creative person than an utterly blank space with no limitations. By confining yourself to a particular form, or material, or subject, you can spark ideas that may never coalesce without some limiting factor. One of the most famous quotations of Michelangelo, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” reflects how in working around the limitations of his tools and the flaws in a natural material like marble, an artist has to see the possibilities. Without some limits to force the artist to use ingenuity, banality might be the rule and genius the exception.

Competently done, the parallels and echoes in the Prequels would have been evocative and thrilling. Instead they felt ham-handed, trite, and formulaic. Episodes 1–3 are occasionally beautiful-looking films, but the visuals don’t make up for the lacks. Even worse, while at the time the CGI was cutting-edge, it often doesn’t hold up as well as the seat-of-their-pants practical effects that Lucas’ fledgling studio were essentially forced to create a generation earlier in order to get the original Star Wars movie made.

The first Star Wars movies were an alchemic blend of Lucas’ ideas and the talents of the directors and artists who worked on them. Lucas on his own couldn’t recreate that magic resulting from synergy, and his predominance as the director, producer, and financier gave him essentially unchecked power in making the prequels, resulting in an intricately-crafted structure reflecting both Lucas’ obsessions and his weaknesses as a movie maker. His arguable genius in structuring his masterpiece as a classical ring composition apparently could not also encompass effective characterization, dialog, plotting, or pacing.

The Most Timeless Songs Of All-Time

Matt Daniels for Polygraph:

Until recently, it was impossible to measure the popularity of older music. Billboard charts and album sales only tell us about a song’s popularity at the time of its release.

But now we have Spotify, a buffet of all of music, new and old. Tracks with fewer plays are fading into obscurity. And those with more plays are remaining in the cultural ether.

The interactive charts Polygraph put together from the Spotify data are really interesting. If you’re anything like me, you’ll blow another 10–15 minutes above the time you spend reading the article playing with them.

As Daniels pointed out, we don’t really have data to support interactions that might change the trajectory of popularity, but I’d point out that some of the less popular but surprisingly long-lived songs were featured in movies or on TV programs.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” may owe its current place at the top of the longevity chart to Glee, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” would most likely languish in obscurity without the 20 year trailing consciousness-boost from Wayne’s World. Aerosmith’s “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” also stands far out in the 1998 track list, which is probably due to being a featured song in Armageddon.

It’s a classic chicken-egg problem. Were these songs featured in films and TV shows because they had a lasting impact on people, or did they get a new lease on public consciousness because someone involved with making the show liked the songs and used them?

But if the songs aren’t “good” in some sense, they won’t have lasting attention. You’d have to make a damn compelling show to bring back something like “Ice Ice Baby” from (its rightfully consigned) place in 90s obscurity. After a playcount blip, I’d expect that to go right back down to baseline, unless it got meme-ified or otherwise co-opted and used ironically.

Racist All Nippon Airlines Commercial

Brian Ashcraft for Kotaku:

In Japan, there is stock imagery for foreigners—nee, gaijin. The imagery consists of blond hair, a large nose, and a comically bad Japanese accent.

The stock imagery described is for “desirable” foreigners: American/European whites. The imagery for blacks and many other ethnicities would probably be called tantamount to hate crimes in many places.

This commercial is as completely tone-deaf as using blackface to promote awareness of Martin Luther King Day would be. The whole point apparently was to show how “international” ANA is. Nice job, guys! Nothing says, “sophisticated and cosmopolitan”, like crude racial stereotyping.

On the other hand, Americans apparently still suck at race relations too, with a recent How I Met Your Mother episode drawing fire for yellowface shenanigans. Oops.

While it’s gotten better in the last few years, Chinese and Koreans were often cast as Japanese with uncomfortable frequency. Compounding the problem is that most Japanese actors and actresses either don’t speak English — or any other languages — well enough to function in non-Japanese films, or have an acting style more suited to native-style melodrama than the more naturalistic performances expected in most of the rest of the world.

Conversely, the handful of Japanese actors and actresses who have been successful abroad often haven’t done particularly well in their home country. Kikuchi Rinko, for example, was nominated for an Academy Award for her outstanding performance in Babel, and has gotten continuing attention internationally since then, but has been virtually ignored in Japan, even after headlining in the kick-ass homage to Japanese monster movies, Pacific Rim (not that many Japanese necessarily recognize the references).

Alamo Drafthouse Texting Policy

Above is a YouTube link for a pre-movie announcement the Alamo Drafthouse made when an angry former patron was ejected for persisting in violating their no texting, no talking policy. (Contains NSFW language; earphones suggested if the tender shell-like ears of colleagues need to be protected). Apparently, even fame doesn’t protect you from the Wrath of League, as no less a personage than Madonna has been “banned” for texting during a movie premiere.

I’ve only had the privilege of viewing one movie at the Drafthouse, but I thought it was a fantastic setup. Draft craft beer, great food you can order from your seat, and a demonstrated commitment to preserving a good movie-going experience creates some serious positive feelings (and made a 3+ hour running time feel much shorter). Just once, and my reaction was: “Every [expletive deleted] movie theater on the [multiple expletives deleted] planet should be like this!”

Movie Pirates in Japan Would Have to be More Retarded than the Release Dates

Every time you to see a movie in Japan, you see this anti-piracy commercial from the Motion Picture Producer's Association of Japan. No More is their current campaign. Previously, they featured a girl crying black tears that turned into a skull, proclaiming that she wouldn't watch pirated movies. I prefer the dancing anachronistic video camera to the melodramatic appeal to pathos.

Not only are the spots ridiculously corny, but you're paying ¥1,800 (over US$18) for a ticket. It's more than a bit insulting to be subjected to an anti-piracy message before a movie that you paid that much for as a legitimate customer.

It's especially annoying when in some cases you could buy the blu-ray for nearly the same price only a couple of months later. Japan is one of the last places in the world you'd pirate a movie from. You'd have to be a movie pirating moran to record a movie in a Japanese theater and attempt to sell it anywhere else. Who are you going to sell it to? People in Kazakhstan, or Djbouti?

Lord of the Rings was released in Japan 2 months, 3 weeks after its premiere in the UK. Only Egypt, India, and Bulgaria got the movie after Japan did on its initial release. I remember this very well because that was at the beginning of my second year in Japan. I'd been reading about its impending release, and then hearing about how great it was for months before I could actually go see it myself.

Let's take a look at recent big-budget movies. The Avengers was released 3 months, 3 days after the rest of the world, last on the list. Star Trek Into Darkness; Japan is also listed as being the last release date. It will be released in August, over 3 1/2 months after the rest of the world. Pacific Rim will be released at the beginning of August. Only Spain, South Africa, and Greece will get it later than Japan.

And these are major releases with big budget marketing campaigns behind them. Minor movies might be even more delayed, or occasionally never released in Japan. Cashback, (which I earlier wrote about being censored) was released to Japanese theaters for a single week nearly 2 years after its release in other countries, following its inclusion in the Osaka Film Festival.

There are very few movies released in the last decade that have been released anywhere near enough to concurrently with other regions to make piracy possible. The anti-piracy commercials are stupid, pointless, and insulting. And yet, the people behind them have been successful in lobbying for imposing both civil and criminal penalties for downloading files that some studio somewhere might claim copyright to. The revised law also criminalizes ripping of any kind of encrypted media, like backing up DVDs and blu-rays, even if it's for private use. According to the wording, even watching a YouTube video is potentially illegal, if you know that viewing it is illegal.

Overheard: Steven Soderbergh

From his State of Cinema Address:

That’s why I’m spending so much time talking to you about the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies. I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: it’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?”

(Via FilmComment)

I guess it's no surprise that we keep getting boring predictable movies out of the big studios. It's obvious that people who live and breathe cinema are increasingly upset about this too. Wonder how much longer before anyone with any pretension toward making art gets out of the business and only marginally competent craftsmen remain?