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Even Stanley Kubrick wasn’t THAT good

I love films with subtext. The best movies have both an engaging plot and something deeper to say, beneath the surface. Carefully-chosen camera angles, judicious prop placement, and even purposeful color grading can either underscore or undermine the main storytelling thrust.

A movie with such semiotic depth blurs the line between artist intent and audience interpretation. It’d hard to tell which meanings the director had in mind, and which were happy accidents.

Take Stanley Kubrick’s films, for example. On the one hand, Kubrick’s visual directing style plays with symbols and subtext. Remember the cut from bone-bludgeon to orbital satellite in 2001? Kubrick’s fondness for interleaving ideas and juxtaposition invites his audience to make their own connections—connections the director himself might never have even considered.

In recent years, The Shining has certainly prompted this sort of speculation. Bloggers have noticed ways in which the film’s Overlook Hotel makes no architectural sense. Passageways dead-end abruptly. Rooms extend beyond the boundaries established by previous shots. Doors go nowhere. Some analysts claim that Kubrick uses these inconsistencies to upset the audience’s equilibrium. As Jack Nicholson’s character goes mad, the audience begins to doubt its own sense of reality.

And that’s a mild example of how fans obsess over The Shining. For more extreme “Kubrickism”, watch Room 237, a documentary that celebrates nutty Kubrick conspiracy theories. You’ll see film buffs wax eloquent over The Shining’s most minute details. One analyst claims that the movie serves to condemn the European genocide of the Native Americans. Another interprets the film as allegory for the Holocaust. Still another claims that Kubrick uses The Shining to confess his role in faking the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Somehow, I doubt Kubrick was quite that enigmatic or meticulous. Every movie makes continuity mistakes. Every film fudges with architectural space to improve a shot or two. Just because a jar of TANG shows up in the background doesn’t mean Kubrick intended to expose the lunar fraud.

Still, in the end, does it matter “what Kubrick meant”? Is an interpretation automatically illegitimate, just because the creator hadn’t considered it? Meaning doesn’t belong exclusively to the director (or the painter, or the musician). It’s not just “what the author intended.” Instead, meaning emerges in the encounter between an audience and an artist’s work. A work can suggest a whole range of valid interpretations.

Besides, if The Shining’s architectural quirks or Native American motifs creep out the audience just that much more, wouldn’t Kubrick be delighted?

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Not quite convinced

For decades, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered “unfilmable.” The Professor himself doubted that any director could successfully adapt the work. Chief among the challenges? Middle-Earth’s major races come in all shapes and sizes. Men and elves wouldn’t pose a problem, but how could an actor play a four-foot-tall hobbit? Or a dwarf—built like a tank?

To create the illusion of different-sized races for his Rings adaptation, Peter Jackson combined a variety of techniques: green screen compositing, forced perspective, and “little people” as body doubles. At points, he even resorted to the oldest trick in the book: make one actor kneel, or stand another on a box.

Considering all the different tricks used, the composite effect proved remarkably convincing. Most of the time, you forget that Elijah Wood isn’t four feet tall.

But every once in a while, things don’t quite jive. While the characters’ relative heights remain consistent, their girth doesn’t. When you “shrink” actors via green screen composition or forced perspective, they retain their natural proportions. The result is slender, miniaturized humans. But when you film “little people” (as Jackson often does in wide shots), you capture those body double’s stockier proportions. Finally, stand an actor on his knees, and you can dial in the appropriate height, but his head and shoulders don’t scale (compared to the other, “full-size” actors in the scene).

Ideally, Jackson would have selected a single proportion—in both girth and height—then adjusted each technique to maintain that ratio. Perhaps the lead actors could have packed on a few pounds (Elijah Wood always seemed too skinny for a hobbit). Or the film’s digital wizards might have “pinched” the stouter body doubles, slimming them down in post-production.

But given the tools available at the time, it’s understandable that Jackson couldn’t quite “hide the seams.” Fortunately, the technology has improved dramatically in the decade since Rings debuted. Jackson’s Hobbit films feature more convincing character scales.[1] The only hint of trickery? Dialogue delays and eye-line mismatches occasionally make me doubt that Gandalf and the dwarves were filmed together (they weren’t).[2]

  1. One happy side-effect of shooting The Hobbit in 3D? Many of the old techniques (particularly forced-perspective shots) don’t hold up. As a result, Jackson has opted for green screen far more often. Presumably, this allowed his digital compositors to dial in a single, consistent proportion.  ↩

  2. Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf in both trilogies) found Jackson’s compositing techniques for The Hobbit to be frustrating. Since wizard scale differs from hobbit/dwarf scale, McKellen was forced to work on a smaller Bag End, separated from his fellow cast members. At one point, the actor even shed some tears and protested, “This is not why I became an actor!”  ↩

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Bill and Ted 3: potential and pitfalls

According to persistent rumors, a third Bill and Ted movie is in the works. The 90s franchise followed the eponymous characters on an adventure through time, space and the afterlife. The quest? Fulfill their destiny and become a rock band so good that it saves the world.

I loved these films as a kid, but I have serious doubts about a second sequel. We’ve already seen beloved franchises get shipwrecked by nostalgic throw-backs: Star Wars. Indiana Jones. Blues Brothers. The Godfather. And there are a lot of factors working against Bill and Ted 3‘s potential success:

  • First, you’d be building on a damaged foundation; the second film, Bogus Journey wasn’t very good. Rotten Tomatoes lists it at 57%, just below the “rotten” threshold.

  • Second problem? A key actor has passed away; George Carlin played Rufus, Bill and Ted’s rock mentor from the future. With Carlin gone, you’d hate to see the screenwriters force a “Rufus’s brother Doofus” on the audience. There’s simply no good way to explain Rufus’ absence—-especially in a franchise built around time travel.

  • Third, there’s the problem of scale. Like so many sequels, Bogus Journey amped up the scale, adding aliens, evil clones, robots, and visits to both heaven and hell. It substitutes epic scale for good storytelling (and suffers mightily for it). If they’re smart, the third film’s writers won’t even try to broaden Bogus Journey‘s scope.

    (Instead, they should dial things down and write a small-scale story. After all, the (universally beloved) first film revolved around two high-schoolers’ year-end history project. Make the third film cover some similarly modest challenge. Keanu Reeves (Ted himself) offers a hint: “Bill and Ted were supposed to have written the song that would save the world, and it hasn’t happened.” That feels just about right; go with that.

  • The last potential problem with a third Bill and Ted? Continuity. The second film, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, wraps up the pair’s story. Two good-for-nothing teens have transformed into nothing-but-good guitarists. The movie’s closing scenes interleave the Wyld Stallyns’ triumphant first concert with shots of people all around the world, rocking out. As the credits run, newspaper headlines highlight the band’s larger-than-life exploits (e.g. “Stallyns tour Midwest; Crop Increase 30%”, “Wild Stallyns to play Grand Canyon (Second Show Added!)”, “Bill & Ted Tour Mideast; Peace Achieved”).

    So… what’s left to tell? How do you reintroduce conflict, when you’ve already said “happily ever after”? My recommendation? Ignore that hyperbolic finale from Bogus Journey. After all, it was already tongue-in-cheek (do Bill and Ted really play a concert on Mars?). You could even let the third film pop that fantasy bubble. Open with a dream sequence along similar lines (e.g. the Wyld Stallyns accepting the Nobel peace prize), then cut to reality: Ted is forty-seven years old, overweight, and still living in his dad’s basement.

Should it ever escape development hell, Bill and Ted 3 could either redeem an already-tarnished franchise or bankrupt it altogether. Will the Wyld Stallyns’ final adventure be excellent or bogus?

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Salvaging Star Wars

The Star Wars prequels were a catastrophe. These clunky, over-animated films enraged a generation. Thirty-something movie geeks, who had invested love and loyalty in this “far, far away” universe, watched as George Lucas transformed childhood daydreams into a commercialized, overwrought nightmare.

Many have attempted to redeem Star Wars since. Some dreamers still defend the prequels as “Star Wars for a new generation” (millennials enjoy the movies much more than Generation X). Others have attempted to “fix” the prequels via fan-edits, trimming the fat and re-rendering the most offensive animations. Still others, despite being burned in the past, look to the upcoming sequels to restore the tarnished Skywalker legacy.

But it’s too late. Episodes I, II, and III happened. And they sucked. They’re fine for distracting the kiddos on a Saturday morning, but they hardly belong on the bookshelf beside The Empire Strikes Back. Fans are left to dream wistfully of what might have been. To ask “What went wrong?” To wonder how Lucasfilm might avoided the prequel disaster.

I’ve got a few ideas. Over the next few posts, I’ll suggests a few ways that the prequels might have been improved. We’ll call the series “Salvaging Star Wars.”

My first suggestion? Don’t make prequels. At all. With very rare exceptions, prequel films pose problems that should daunt any good writer. First, such projects smack of corporate avarice. A good original film (or film series) ties up its plot threads and wraps up each character’s story. It’s meant to be whole and compelling and complete. But when that film earns big bucks at the box office, the suits trump the creatives. The studio demands a sequel, eager to milk its new-found cash cow. But because there’s no more future story to tell (the villain died; the galaxy was saved; the end), the writers must mine the past instead.

But there’s the second problem. The past is past. It’s history; the audience already knows what’s going to happen. In the case of Star Wars, we know that Obi Wan and Anakin and Yoda and the Emperor will survive. We know that Anakin gets hurt and becomes a hell-bent cyborg. We know that Padme will die. We know (or can very quickly guess) that Senator Palpatine is a secret Sith Lord.

The prequels attempt to generate some drama by introducing characters whose fates we can’t foresee. We get Jar Jar and Samuel L. Windu and Qui Gonn Jinn and Darth Maul and the Trade Federation bozos. But even if these were interesting characters (spoiler alert: they’re not), the audience can’t be fooled. If these characters don’t even get mentioned in the real Star Wars movies, how could they possibly be worth our time?

But there are other prequels that beat the odds. That present a compelling prologue to the original. Think of Godfather II or X-Men: First Class. It’s theoretically possible to make a prequel project work. So how might the Star Wars films have worked, then?

Next time, we’ll dive into the films themselves and explain how the Star Wars universe got muddled with our own—to the prequels’ detriment.

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The Princess Bride is a bad movie.

I’m dumbfounded when friends list The Princess Bride among their favorite movies. How did such an awful film earn cult status? Its flaws are glaring:

  • Bad acting. Andre the Giant was not hired for his acting chops. Mandy Patinkin (Inigo) substitutes a funny accent for fine acting. Cary Elwes (Westley) smirks his way through every line. Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) gives me a headache.

Giant? Yes. Thespian? No.

  • Horrible music. The Princess Bride fakes an orchestral score with cheesy synthesizers. Compare its soundtrack to scores from other films of its era—Back to the Future, for example. Bride’s Casio-generated, forgettable pseudo-melodies just don’t stand the test of time.
  • Terrible special effects. Laughable, rubbery monsters. Soulless sound stages. Toy boat models. This Bride ain’t much to look at.
  • Drama-less ending. At the film’s climax, our heroes finally come face-to-face with the hated villain, and… they ignore him and escape out the window. The End. Wait, what?! Who’s writing this stuff?

The only way to enjoy Bride is to laugh at it—to point out how god-awful it is. It’s the Plan Nine from Outer Space of the fantasy genre, fit only to be spurned by snarky talking heads.