Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.
1. The Sad Saga of the “Star Wars” TV Show No One’s Ever Seen. Though “Star Wars” fans of all ages have most likely consumed everything even remotely related to “Star Wars,” there are remarkably still a few things that no “Star Wars” has yet to see. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer details the story of “Star Wars: Detours,” a TV show that George Lucas had a hand in that will probably never see the light of day.
When “Star Wars” fans talk about George Lucas, they make him sound like Emperor Palpatine; an almighty ruler seated on the throne of a vast kingdom, selfishly pursuing his own mad vision and lording over his subjects with absolute power. When Brendan Hay talks about him, he makes him sound…kind of cool. “No matter what you think of the movies,” Hay told me, “this guy is truly an ideas man. He never does run out of ideas. He never does stop pitching.” Hay would know. As the head writer of “Star Wars: Detours,” he spent a lot of time with Lucas, who was intimately involved with the development of the show. When the writing staff assembled at Skywalker Ranch for two-week story conferences, Lucas spent half of every day in the writers’ room. He contributed concepts and jokes, explained the minutia of “Star Wars” mythology and continuity, and screened clips he wanted to inspire the style and humor of the show, everything from old “Looney Tunes” and Charlie Chaplin shorts to “Little Britain” sketches and viral videos. Hay paints a very different portrait of Lucas than the popular one in “Star Wars” fandom, less a cranky old grandfather and more (in Hay’s own words) a “charming eccentric uncle.” As Hay tells it, Lucas had zero sacred cows when it came to his invaluable creation. “So many fans are like ‘Oh my God, you can’t mess with any of this!'” he says. “[Lucas] would be the first person to be like ‘Do whatever you want for a joke. Let’s just have fun with it.'” Contrary to his reputation as a square dude with bland taste and stale ideas, Hay says Lucas’ suggestions were often ingeniously offbeat. During one story session, the writers hit a brick wall trying to resolve a dispute between two aliens. Lucas’ proposed solution: Have one character eat the other. “They’re both, like, alien monsters.” he explained. “You don’t have to settle this peacefully, just have one eat the other.” “And we’re like ‘That kind of suggests our characters are cannibals,'” Hay remembers. “And he’s like ‘Well I’m not saying it’s perfect, but why don’t you try it?'” The George Lucas Hay describes sounds a lot like the man who dreamed up “Star Wars” in the first place; the former USC film student who loved experimental cinema. With no network executives looking over their shoulders, Lucas empowered the “Detours” staff to unleash their imaginations. As long as they made the show appropriate for children, and stuck to the between-“Episodes-III-and-IV” timeframe, there were zero restrictions on what the show could do or even look like; when Grimes presented the writers with a bunch of different potential design aesthetics for the show, Lucas suggested they simply cherry-pick their favorites specific designs from each, a big animation no-no. “It’s a cartoon,” Lucas said. “Take the best.” “Okay cool, nobody’s ever tried that,” Hay recalls thinking. “He always kept pushing us to be weirder and to try more stuff.” Not surprisingly, the “Detours” writing staff was full of lifelong “Star Wars” fans, and they had tons of questions for Lucas — who, Hay says, humored all of them. He posed for wacky photos, screened an archival print of “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” and even explained his thinking behind one of the most infamous elements of the “Star Wars” prequels: midichlorians. (According to Hay, Lucas wanted to show that the Force only seemed mystical in the original movies because that was “a more uneducated time” and the science behind the Force had been lost to history.) “If every fan had a chance for George Lucas to personally explain the prequels to them,” Hay adds, “they would have a greater respect for the prequels. Personally, I didn’t ever really want to rewatch them. However, hearing George explain what he was going for in every decision he made, I totally understood why they are the way they are.”
2. To Truly Love The “Star Wars” Prequels, Stop Watching Them. In this age of hot takes, there are plenty of writers who have written passionate defenses of the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy in light of “The Force Awakens” release on Friday. Some of these defenses have been well-written and argued, others have not been. But at Kernel Mag, Charles Bramesco writes about how to truly love the prequels, you have to stop watching them.
Movies are often described as dreamlike: We step into a darkened theater to be surrounded by the sights and sounds of a wholly different world. And upon waking from the dream of a movie, we also begin the unconscious process of assimilating it into ourselves. We might not always make movies better in retrospect, but we do make some heavy edits. That’s why you should stop watching “Star Wars” movies—or at the very least, the prequel trilogy. In fact, the key to enjoying Episodes I, II, and III is to stop watching them entirely. This smacks of heresy: The surest expression of “Star Wars” uber-fandom is the watch-count, the bragging rights that come with having logged innumerable hours rapt in front of a glowing screen, futilely trying to chisel every line of dialogue, every sweeping vista, into the brain’s gelatinous grey matter. This ritualistic forced devotion doesn’t, however, make for a “better” fan. It may familiarize the viewer with films, but as it’s said, familiarity breeds contempt. Look too long and the films don’t get any better. Look away, though, and with time and distance you’ll remember the good times. The things that worked. In this way, the latter “Star Wars” films are like a friend who constantly does annoying, bothersome things while you’re hanging out, but when you’re apart, it’s the good times that stick with you. You don’t even remember what Jar Jar Binks sounded like. Just as familiarity breeds contempt, absence makes the heart grow fonder. The “Star Wars” prequels, with their unique strain of badness and general incompetence, actually invite this method of lessened engagement — of looking away. Because in trying to pay close attention, you see that, structurally speaking, the prequel trilogy is a shambolic, multifront cluster-mess. Lucas gathers so many fragments of narrative yet none of them fit together, as if footage from several different films had been haphazardly thrown together in post-production. Much dust has been raised over the incomprehensible political convolutions that fill out most of the second and third films, all the bloviation about byzantine trade federations and tariff agreements between ill-defined galactic superpowers. With so many disparate warring factions, Jedis and rebel Jedis and separatists and droid armies working for who-knows-who, keeping track of everything was nigh-on impossible. Even if a diligent viewer could keep tabs on which governmental agency was employing who to do what against whom, discerning why was an even more remote possibility. By the time the shriveled-up, Cheneyesque string-puller Senator Palpatine is somehow appointed to King of Everything by popular alien vote (complete with Natalie Portman somberly stating, “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,” as if she’s deliberately angling for inclusion in a history book), any semblance of order the series might’ve once had has gone out the window. So that’s what you need to forget: the incoherent illogic of it all. Forgetting, however, does not mean forsaking. Instead, recall the prequels as you would a dream upon waking, or a happy if half-forgotten memory. The prequel trilogy contains quite a few crackerjack set pieces very much worth remembering. After having gone a year, or two, or five without revisiting, say, “Revenge of the Sith,” all the nonsense with shifting allegiances falls away — in memory, the film becomes much more entertaining than it actually was. With baffling plot particulars excised, the brain still holds onto images, like the cross-cutting finale between the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel and the Yoda/Palpatine duel. And characters like General Grievous, the flashy six-armed cybernetic killing machine with the sunken eyes of a million-year-old alcoholic. You can remember him vividly, even though the film itself seems to be unclear on who he is or his narrative purpose.
3. Zahn McClarnon on “Fargo” and What Makes His Character Tick. Yesterday, Noah Hawley’s popular television series “Fargo” ended its widely-acclaimed second season. Ahead of the finale, The New York Times’ Scott Tobias interviews actor Zahn McClarnon about the series and his character Hanzee.
Q: Did you imagine a back story for Hanzee beyond what was written on the page?
A: Oh yeah, for sure. There wasn’t a lot on the page. I was lucky enough to have grown up in areas like Nebraska and South Dakota and Minnesota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana. I grew up in the ’70s, and I was very familiar with the revitalization of the Native American spirit, like what happened in Wounded Knee in ’73. I know all those people. I know Russell Means. I know Dennis Banks. And I knew John Trudell, who unfortunately passed away [last week]. John Trudell was a poet and activist for the American Indian Movement and he was a friend. I’m very familiar with that period of time and being around those people and being around that culture.
Q: Given the show’s relationship to the Coen brothers’ work, were those films a key text for you, too? There’s so much Anton Chigurh in the way you carry yourself.
A: In the movie “Fargo,” a buddy of mine named Steve Reevis played Shep Proudfoot. He was the guy who worked at the garage and beat Steve Buscemi. Steve [Reevis] and I grew up in the business together in the early ’90s. So I did take a bit from Steve’s performance. And I was aware of how Noah was pulling different aspects from different Coen brothers movies and putting them in the series. But with the Anton Chigurh thing, I didn’t really think about what Javier Bardem did in “No Country for Old Men.” It actually didn’t hit me until after I did the gas station scene. Javier had so much more dialogue. He was telling a story in that scene.
Q: Do you feel like the character of Hanzee was a way to reimagine or expand on the character of Shep Proudfoot?
A: I don’t think that was Noah’s intention. It possibly could have been, but I think it’s more of the time period in that area that inspired him. There are a lot of Native Americans in North and South Dakota and Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota. There’s probably 15 different reservations in that whole area. I think the show is more about being true to that era, which was an activist period for American Indians.
4. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg Disguise Their Sophistication With Squareness. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have collaborated together on multiple films, including “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “The Terminal.” Most recently, they worked together on Spielberg’s Cold Ward drama “Bridge of Spies.” The A.V. Club’s Jesse Hassenger examines their collaboration in his column “Together Again,” which focuses on the recurring work between actors and directors.
Spielberg and Hanks seem particularly dad-like and potentially fusty when they indulge their mutual interest in the past. Of their four films together, only “The Terminal” is set in something like contemporary times. The other three are pure period, and with some precedent: Spielberg had already racked up several World War II-set features before “Private Ryan.” Following “Forrest Gump,” Hanks seemed to take both that boomer-traveler role and newfound clout as a directive to serve as curator of boomer and boomer-adjacent history through his film work and his HBO miniseries productions. Both artists contain multitudes, but their common ground seems to include at least some degree of squareness — of reverence for our shared American history. If that reverence was the only note they ever hit together, they might well encourage each other’s worst instincts. But their four films together aren’t just a checklist of important American eras; some of them also call back to other phases of their storied careers. Before they each had a pair of Oscars, both Hanks and Spielberg were better-known as popular entertainers than historical chroniclers. Hanks got his start in a sitcom and a bunch of broad comedies; this may be why he’s much better at comedy than Spielberg, who can inject tension-relieving humor but can’t always sustain a comic tone. A major exception is their second collaboration, “Catch Me If You Can,” which, if not precisely a comedy, certainly uses Spielberg’s forward momentum in service of a lighter, funnier story than he tends to favor. Hanks plays FBI agent Carl Hanratty, second lead and primary antagonist to Leonardo DiCaprio’s con man Frank Abagnale Jr., who begins a life of forgery and impersonation as a teenager. Hanratty is introduced as something of a buttoned-up square, delivering endless slide presentations on the subject of bank fraud and forgery, the specialty areas that lead him to his years-long pursuit of Abagnale. It’s a funny performance, although more disciplined and rooted in character than the early-Hanks comedy types (like his loose, sloppy detective opposite Dan Aykroyd’s Joe Friday in the 1987 update of “Dragnet”). Throughout the film, Spielberg kids Hanratty’s squareness, presented in stark contrast to Abagnale’s slick (and illegal) people-pleasing. That difference is most prominent in an early scene where Hanratty openly disparages the agents assigned to work under him to their faces and, when confronted with their discomfort over his seriousness, tells them a “joke” whose primary function is to eliminate any possibility of him telling future jokes. That’s especially appropriate for “Catch Me If You Can,” which has a lot of funny moments and often plays as comedy (or at least comedy-drama), but also doesn’t really traffic in jokes, per se. The humor comes from Abagnale’s skillful impersonations of various grown-up lives (and bank accounts), a cocktail of conniving moxie and weirdly childlike make-believe — the way he moves through life with a fleet and confident lack of substance. Hanks, then, plays the part of the immovable object; he can’t typically move fast enough to catch up with Abagnale, but he can grind him down with dogged, unflagging determination. In its way, it’s a sign of Spielberg’s maturity: He clearly loves Abagnale’s youthful, almost innocent deceptions, but he also identifies with Hanratty’s insistence that the kid will have to pay for his crimes one way or another. “Catch Me If You Can” is a terrific showcase for DiCaprio, but the interplay between him and Hanks adds some weight to a seemingly light film — one of Spielberg’s stealth best.
5. Why “Star Wars” Makes Us Cry. It’s “Star Wars” this week at Criticwire, and we’ll most likely be highlighting some more “Star Wars” pieces later in this week, but we wanted to close today’s Daily Reads with an article on the emotional impact of the sci-fi series and how it still has the power to move and affect. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin writes broadly about how the series can still make audiences cry.
The “Force Awakens'” advertising campaign has strenuously drawn connections between the new film and the holy Original Trilogy – lots of practical sets, rubber costumes and old-fashioned swashbuckling action, and lite on the Prequels’ impenetrable politics and airless computer-generated imagery. But Hollywood has been repackaging and selling us our childhoods for decades – and it’s not as if crowds were staggering out of “Jurassic World” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron” overawed by the wonder of life and bawling into a hankie. To fully understand the series’ unique soul-stirring charge, you have to go back to California in 1973, where George Lucas was writing an intricate script called “The Star Wars,” full of knights and princesses and extraordinary creatures. Lucas had set out to write a science-fiction adventure modeled on Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 historical epic “The Hidden Fortress.” But as he wrote, he noticed fairy-tale motifs creeping into the plot – and realized that, since the decline of the Western, American cinema was still waiting for another myth. After making his 1973 teen film “American Graffiti,” which itself looked back to a simpler world, Lucas said in an interview that he wanted his work “to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is.” As the Vietnam War continued to grind on, and the US political establishment was shaken by Watergate, you can see the attraction of a more morally clean-cut ideal. “One thing that art can do is to show you the way things should be,” he continued. “Basic values aren’t innate, they’re passed down.” And for Lucas, those values “need to be said over and over again, generation to generation, otherwise a generation misses it and they don’t get it because it’s lost.” Lucas immersed himself in world folklore, and redrafted the entire “Star Wars” to fit in with what the mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the monomyth” – the great, archetypal adventure story that keeps surfacing thought history in different guises. Each version varies, but all of them feature a hero or heroine who sets out from his humble home into “a region of supernatural wonder.”
Tweet of the Day:
At this point, the only thing that will satisfy me is if the first FORCE AWAKENS audience leaves the theater weeping blood.
— Zack Handlen (@zhandlen) December 15, 2015