Posts for In English Category

Star Wars Day: the nostalgia for amazing times

ABSTRACCIONES, Cine, In English, Pensamientos, Semblanzas - Diego Olivas Arana - 4 Mayo, 2020

The original cast. From left to right: Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney).

Evoking the movie trilogy that changed my life (and that of millions)

[Texto en ESPAÑOL]

Today is Star Wars Day, one of my favourites stories ever, if not my favourite. One of my biggest guilty pleasures, despite the decline of its latest movies. Because of this, today it is time to interrupt my daily routine to evoke the saga and perhaps see some of its classic entries (not the prequels or sequels or spin-offs or cartoons). Why not.

Star Wars Day is known for the catchphrase May the Fourth be with you, a funny pun on the powerful quote of metaphysical transcendence May the Force be with you, repeated throughout all installments of the galactic saga. Of course, this calembour would not make sense in Spanish—my mother tongue —, since there is little similarity between Que la Fuerza te acompañe and Que el Cuarto te acompañe. The phrase was first used in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The first woman to take office was congratulated by members of the Conservative political party, who through the London Evening News expressed “May the Fourth be with you, Maggie. Congratulations ”. Interestingly, the quote influenced from Lucas’s May the Force be with you was later recycled by the fans of the saga, and now May 4 is the official day of Star Wars around the world.

Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill having fun on the set of “The Empire Strikes Back”, circa 1980 (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney).

My relationship with that galaxy far, far away goes through my whole life. The first time I saw Star Wars I was five years old. It was a VHS recording of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). My older brother had recorded it from Cine Millonario, the legendary block of Sunday night movies in Frecuencia Latina, a Peruvian national broadcast station. If my memory does not betray me, it was a weekend afternoon, perhaps a Sunday. My uncle was visiting us and in my recollection the scene of Luke and Yoda on the swampy planet Dagobah converges with the voices of my parents and my uncle laughing and gossiping in the background. I also remember the classic label with the name of the film at the bottom left of the screen: “CINE MILLONARIO: LA GUERRA DE LAS GALAXIAS“. Now everyone in Hispanic America knows the franchise as Star Wars, but back then we were more used to our version, which means Galaxy Wars. A curious translation, considering that there was no war between galaxies in the entire trilogy. That name given by the dubbing was fixated in my mind like a remora to a shark. Filled with wonder and joy, I invaded my brother and sister with questions, who was that little green monster? Who is the bad guy? What is a Jedi? I was unstoppable. However, memory is as fragile as fallacious and perhaps my evocation is a selective construction. Maybe it was The Return of the Jedi (1983) and maybe it was a Monday night without my uncle. Either way, this is my oldest memory of Star Wars and one of the most endearing of my childhood.

It was 1993: in Peru, the auto-coup of our dictator Fujimori was already celebrating its first anniversary and the internal armed conflict between the Armed Forces and the Shining Path was decimating the Asháninka and Nomatsiguenga indigenous populations of Satipo… In the world, Bill Clinton was becoming the fortieth second President of the United States and Nelson Mandela was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. And while new Hollywood’s blockbusters like Jurassic ParkMrs. Doubtfire or Schindler’s List were conquering the world, I was giving myself up to La Guerra de las Galaxias.

I went crazy when my brother revealed that he also had recorded the other two movies. And that’s how it all began: I watched that version of the original trilogy over and over again on those old VHS cassettes until 1997, when I started third grade in a new school during the days of the Star Wars Special Edition fever and borrowed them to a new classmate who never returned them. Despite that sad episode, life went on and so it did my obsession. We grew together.

Peruvian poster of “A New Hope” to promote the movie in theaters in Lima, Peru, 1978 (Credits: Archive of the Arkiv Peru website).

Anxious to recreate the adventures of Luke, Han and Leia, I used to find it sad that there were no Star Wars action figures. I only had a handful of survivors from the Kenner collection of the seventies and eighties, inherited from my older brothers: a Tusken Raider, an RD-D2 without legs, a Gamorrean guard and Princess Leia. I used to play with three G.I. Joes that were replacing Luke, Han and C-3PO; the Gamorrean was Chewbacca; and completed the group with the disabled R2 and the classic Leia. So I fantasized until 1996, when my dream came true and it arrived to Peru, materialized by Hasbro. The Power of the Force collection, the return of the galactic saga’s action figures, revived the spell on me that Dragonball or Marvel superheroes or the Ninja Turtles were beginning to diminish. With the toys came later comics and some novels. By 1999, when The Phantom Menace appeared, the first film in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, I was already a small expert or at least I thought I was—I had no idea how vast was that Expanded Universe of comics, novels and video games. I even belonged for a few years to a fan club in Lima, The Force Perú, where I won a raffle for the first time in my life, at age 11, and became an owner of a Junior Jedi Training Manual, a booklet with accessories and an audiobook where I had to sign a very serious “Junior Jedi Oath” at the end. I still have it. I embraced the prequels and with the adolescence and adulthood I understood better the franchise and its imperfections: The Return of the Jedi, my favourite during childhood, was displaced by The Empire Strikes Back; I joined – temporarily, now I have somehow accepted it – to the everlasting hate campaign towards Jar Jar Binks; and I hated the romantic scenes and lines between Anakin and Padmé. But all that did not affected my love for the saga. After the madness of 2005 with Revenge of the Sith, which took it upon itself to leave the reputation of prequels in a better place, life went on. Reading any occasional book, buying an action figure or watching the animated television series and everything was okay. Star Wars amalgamated with my existence organically. I did not need more.

I have learned a lot from that space opera that translated the “Hero’s Journey” of Joseph Campbell to our times, that crossed all geographical and social barriers and became a pop culture phenomenon for four decades. I grew up quoting Ben Kenobi, Luke, Yoda, even Qui-Gon, later. It made me question the existence of luck and coincidences, reflect on the duality of good and evil in all of us and the possibility of making the wrong choice, wonder about the Force and therefore about the existence in God and divinity, revaluate the importance of family, and contemplate as essential the search for a mentor in life. 

Ian McDiarmid, Mark Hamill and Denis Lawson on a shot behind the scenes of “Return of the Jedi”, circa 1983 (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney).

Star Wars also nurtured my addiction to stories, fiction and the act of writing. Two of my oldest short stories, lost forever with the malfunction of the family’s old Pentium III—a trauma of my early adolescence—were predictable fanfics of the saga: A Bounty Hunter’s Tale and Jedi Journeys. Star Wars taught me the unfathomable beauty of possible worlds. Then, it has been part of both my sentimental and intellectual education. An essential ingredient in the development of a primary, childish, and very warm sensitivity, that continues to mutate, across the experience and the collision with other stories.

After the failed trilogy of the Disney sequels—something that is not worth going deeper on now—I am going through a phase of saturation of Star Wars, but the franchise seems unstoppable. Not even the COVID-19 pandemic seems to appease it: a new film directed by the talented and highly sought-after Taika Waititi has just been confirmed today. Will we have Star Wars until the end of time? Will Disney and Lucasfilm continue to create these stories when my alleged grandchildren have their own descendants? When a zombie apocalypse eats half the planet? When a new world war crash with Europe or Syria? When we are invaded by strange fusiform aliens with bivalve-like faces? Will there be a reboot? Will they recast Luke or Leia at some point (for all the Ewoks of Endor, please not) or will they continue to digitally rejuvenate and resurrect them per saecula saeculorum?

Classic photograph of Carrie Fisher during a Rolling Stone magazine beach shoot, circa 1983 (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney).

Those questions, after all, do not matter to me. We live in a moment in which the adventure of that daydreamer farmboy from Tatooine expands unspeakably, far beyond those two twin suns that he silently contemplates, more alive than ever. For better or for worse, Star Wars has come to stay, but I prefer to give myself a break from the future of the saga and return to its roots. As far as they do not announce a Jar Jar Binks spin-off, we have to be grateful…

It may sound like a cheap thought of any given holiday, but those who understand know it to be true. The debt to Star Wars prevails. May the Fourth!

The characters from the original “Star Wars” trilogy in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic (Credits: unknown, found on the Internet).

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To forgive doesn’t mean to forget: Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa, 2019)

Cine, In English, Oscars, Polish Cinema, REVIEWS, The Church - Diego Olivas Arana - 14 Marzo, 2020

Bartosz Bielenia in "Corpus Christi" (Credits: Kino Świat).

A review of the powerful Polish competitor to win the statuette for Best International Film at the last Oscar ceremony

[Texto en ESPAÑOL]

“You know what we’re good at? Giving up on people. Pointing the finger at them. To forgive doesn’t mean to forget. Forgive means Love. To love someone despite their guilt. No matter what the guilt is”.

This is the quote I will remember from the whole movie. Perhaps the best scenes of Corpus Christi are those of the homilies, where the impostor father gives speeches charged with compelling truth. Words that hurt and transcend the traditions of the Church. Words that can be translated as heresy but that in the end reflect the most essential precepts of an institution that needs to adapt to changes. Such is its potency.

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is an unfortunate and rebellious man in his twenties who is soon to finish his sentence in a Warsaw juvenile detention center, due to a second-degree murder happened during his teens. In the course of this imprisonment, he has undergone a rediscovery of his spirituality and wants to become a priest, but his criminal records prevent him from studying in a seminary. Frustrated, he is released on parole and sent to work at a sawmill in the countryside on the other side of the country, where he is mistaken for the new priest. Seeing a possibility of fulfilling his religious vocation, Daniel deliberately adopts the identity. This is how his new life begins: the young priest from the capital who begins to give masses in the town’s small parish. An impostor priest who does not have bad intentions and little by little transforms the lives of his parishioners, until problems begin: on the one hand, his criminal past haunts him; and on the other, his radical vision of faith and religious life collides with the local’s sensitivity regarding a tragic incident. That is the plot of Corpus Christi.

Poster of “Corpus Christi” (Credits: Kino Świat).

The cinéma d’auteur in the land of Wajda and Kieślowski is still promising. Every year a new film is present in international festivals and even makes it to commercial theaters of remote countries like mine—Peru. In 2018 we had the last example with the magnificent Cold War (Zimna wojna in Polish) by Paweł Pawlikowski—whose movie Ida was the first Polish film to win the award for the foreign film in the 2015 Oscars—and now it was the turn of Komasa, a young filmmaker with a fruitful filmography. Corpus Christi is the literal translation of Boże Ciało, the original name of the film in his native Poland, whose story is based on real events: his screenwriter, the even younger Mateusz Pacewicz, published a reportage in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza a few years ago, titled Kamil, the one who posed as a priest. Curiously, this case has been repeated in different parts of the country. When writing the script for the film, there were two central themes: “social roles, and all the questions connected with our social roles in the theater of everyday life. The other topic was trauma: how our traumas shape who we are, and how they enslave us, both as individuals and social groups”, said Pacewicz, interviewed by Notes from Poland.

On the other hand, we must remember that Corpus Christi is not the first Polish film in recent years that sparks controversy speaking about the Church: Clergy (Kler), by Wojciech Smarzowski was a bomb from 2018 that portrayed the highest institution of the Catholic faith as a corrupted entity, hypocritical and invaded by pedophilia. But these are two very different movies. While Clergy works as a straightforward, more aggressive criticism film, Corpus Christi is sustained by a more contemplative discourse, questioning with ideas.

It is worth getting deeper into the protagonist. Father Daniel is quite a complex character, and Bielenia plays him with virtuosity. An insolent young man, a convicted criminal who seizes an opportunity and usurps an identity in order to give himself into his spiritual illumination. He believes he does it for the right reasons, however, his way of consummating this awakening is dishonest. In this context, his imposture verges on blasphemy. It is interesting to see how this blasphemy transforms into a challenge at the film’s core: the confrontation with a small community invaded by collective trauma. To make them see their cynicism and hypocrisy. Certainly: through Daniel’s modern and unorthodox preaching, the locals begin to deal with issues such as guilt, the true meaning of forgiveness, violence, death and mourning, or the different ways of embracing spiritual life. Daniel raises concerns and annoyance in the idiosyncrasy of this little town marked by a recent tragedy, whose inhabitants think of themselves as decent people with good manners, and suddenly discover they are imperfect. They are sinners. Thus, the film seeks to question the viewer’s own impiety, in these times where reigns a lack of compassion that leads to misconceptions and inequality.

Towards the end, we see that Daniel does not reach that desired conversion. When his criminal past returns and his deception is revealed, Corpus Christi distances from the linear happy ending to give us one as open as it is cruel. It works, but maybe it would have been preferable to dig more into the mind and the transformation of its main character and less in the trauma of the villagers. Perhaps the only thing I find dissonant with the plot is the scene of sexual intimacy between Daniel and his friend Marta (Eliza Rycembel). The consummation of his attraction feels gratuitous. It would have been better to leave their relation shrouded by the silent desire we see throughout the film. However, none of this reduces the strength and relevance of this story.

The cast, director and screenwriter of “Corpus Christi” at The 44th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (Credits: Jakub Wozniak/Tricity New).

Corpus Christi has won various awards around Europe and became one of the five nominees for Best International Film at the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony, where it lost to the colossal Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s movie deserves its accolades: it is a huge lash, a marvelous shock to the divided reality of our times. But honestly, it had already won too many awards, and I cannot help thinking that its statuettes are essentially related with the Academy’s eagerness for political correctness. The Oscars are very fun to watch and comment, but they happen to be also very politicized—which diminishes their artistic relevance, I dare say—in recent years. I think Corpus Christi should have won the Oscar for the best foreign film, its only nomination.

Finally, the fact that this story was born and set in Poland is not a coincidence. We are talking about a society that is historically Catholic and currently led by a very religious far-right government. At the same time, we are talking about a country where a considerable part of the population faces some disbelief, where Catholicism and church attendance are decreasing dramatically in the younger generations, gradually heading towards secularization. Despite such local setting, it is important to accept that the story told in Corpus Christi could happen anywhere. A fable about an impostor priest of small parish in a remote and rural town, whose message ends up being just as necessary or why not, just as universal.

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The big stumble of The Force: Star Wars sequel trilogy

Cine, In English, REVIEWS - Diego Olivas Arana - 8 Enero, 2020

THE NEW TRIO IN "THE RISE OF SKYWALKER" (2019 (CREDITS: LUCASFILM/DISNEY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED).

A detailed catharsis of my experience with the last trilogy of the galactic saga, with emphasis on the last film, Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

[Texto en ESPAÑOL]

*** Some ideas of this text have their origin in my different conversations about these films with Jair Luján and Ricardo Otiniano.

 

My relationship with that galaxy far, far away

A few weeks ago, when I met my wife after leaving the cinema and I shared my impressions about The Rise of Skywalker (2019), she asked me to refresh her memory about why I like Star Wars so much. The first time I saw Star Wars I was five years old. It was a VHS recording of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). My older brother had recorded it from Cine Millonario, the legendary block of Sunday night movies in Frecuencia Latina, a Peruvian national broadcast station. Since that moment, the galactic saga has been with me all my life, for better or for worse. That night, I told her all that and many other things. I have written about my relationship with the saga before. After this prolegomenon, I must say that it is for all these reasons that the latest films in the saga, the Disney movies, have meant a progressive decline that has led me to question my love for this sidereal story and to make decisions about where to lead it. The Rise of Skywalker has closed that circle and confirmed the inevitable, and that is why it will be treated in detail at the end, but first, I will review the first two films of the so-called sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017).

Peruvian poster of “A New Hope” promoting the movie in theaters in Lima, Peru, 1978 (Credits: Archive of the Arkiv Peru website).

 

A remake beginning is a harmless beginning

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

I will begin with the following statement: any movie that seeks to continue the saga after The Return of the Jedi is unnecessary. This is Episode VI, the end of the six films. The original trilogy has a solid conclusion that solves all the character arcs: Luke and Leia are siblings and she is in a relationship with Han, Han decides to stay with them and the Rebellion, discovering himself as a good man, Emperor Palpatine manifests himself as the absolute final enemy, Vader finds redemption through his son, and Luke completes his training and becomes a Jedi Knight by accepting and saving his father in a test of love and compassion. The war is won and everyone celebrates, from the furry Ewoks to the deceased Jedi masters, now ghosts of the Force. Despite all its mistakes, the trilogy of prequels also justified its existence. George Lucas sought to assemble the entire puzzle: show us the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi Order and especially to develop and close the arc of Anakin Skywalker. Quite the contrary, the sequel trilogy was just an attempt – arbitrary, now we know – to continue the franchise. There was no point in doing them but come on, they made them and we fans could not complain: after so many years, who would think there would be new Star Wars movies? But we were wrong. 

The Force Awakens meant a lot to the followers of Lucas’s saga. No one expected this to happen: it was the first film in this fictional universe in a decade, since Revenge of the Sith, and the official continuation of the end of the story in The Return of the Jedi, 32 years later. It was an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan. A step into a larger world, quoting Ben Kenobi. When I saw it for the first time I recognized its extreme tribute to the first film, A New Hope (1977), considered as an imitation for many, but I got carried away by the mysteries it posed and by the affection for the saga. However, the film does not age well. Despite being the least displeasing of this trilogy, with each viewing feel less Star Wars.

What do I mean by this? A lot. Scenes or designs of strange characters that seem more like Abrams’s Star Trek than Star Wars, like Bala-Tik (Brian Vernel) and his Guavian Death Gang, the pirates that attack Han Solo and Chewbacca. The creatures with tentacles that attack them in the same scene, the rathtars, also seem taken from another movie. All that sequence feels alien and the only thing that is worth – and it is worth a lot – is to have our favourite pair of smugglers back. And speaking of Han Solo, his death is a crucial moment for both the film and the arc of his son Ben aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and after all, for the entire saga. Why did they say goodbye to a character so endearing in such unceremonious way? It can be understood: to finish the character of Harrison Ford – who has admitted that he wanted Solo killed for years – as a father who still contemplates hope for his son, but I feel that that does not have much to do with the Han Solo we know. His character arc was going another way: the selfish and unmoral smuggler who discovers love, friendship and ends up embracing a good cause, becoming a war hero. He could have died sacrificing himself but in the end we see a lonely Han Solo already close to old age, away from his wife and apparently unable to face the responsibilities of fatherhood until the moment of his death, where he redeems himself trying to open the heart of his son. Could be, but it leaves me with a bad feeling. In addition, the fact of falling into the abyss and not having a burial nor seeing any scene of Chewbacca and Leia – or Luke – sharing their mourn, it all saddens me. A rare conclusion for one of the most beloved and recognizable characters in film history.

Official poster for “The Force Awakens”, 2015 (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney. All Rights Reserved).

Dispatching Han Solo so suddenly is risky – and in a way, brave – and I think it makes more sense if we see it from Kylo Ren’s point of view: a parricide who has definitely crossed the path towards the Dark Side of the Force, despite still having many doubts and anxieties. Ben Solo is not a true villain, he is a young genocidal obsessed with the memory of his grandfather Darth Vader, troubled and insecure about his place in this galactic war. An interesting character given to a good actor, but in the end, poorly executed.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), the scavenger abandoned on a desert planet that embarks on a path of self-discovery and begins in the Jedi arts. She is a fascinating character with great potential. But who is she? Who are her parents? The new protagonist of the saga is surrounded by mystery and that is part of her charm, the possibility of knowing and learn to care about a successor to Luke Skywalker’s legacy. Notwithstanding, it is difficult to connect with Rey. She does not seem to have any weakness or conflict except for not knowing who she is and she is also strangely gifted with skills with the Force never seen in a Jedi, not even in Yoda: how is she so talented with the lightsaber and using the Force if she has never received training? Anakin, Luke or Leia, they all had reflexes and perceptions that preceded their training, but never demonstrated so much skill. She has just appeared and already seems invincible, could it be that the Jedi Prophecy of the prequels was misunderstood and is she – and not Anakin – is the Chosen One that will bring balance to the Force? No clue. And what about the couple of scenes of Finn (John Boyega) – another interesting character – wielding a lightsaber against a stormtrooper and then against Kylo Ren himself? Sounds incredible in Star Wars. In The Empire Strikes Back we saw Han Solo using the lightsaber with some difficulty to open the belly of the Tauntaun and warm his friend Luke, but it is not the same to put a character presented as unrelated to the Force and making him fight the Sith of the movie.

Another suspicious element is the character of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). An alien warrior granny with more than a thousand years of life and Force-sensitive? It is clear that they wanted to create some kind of new female version of Yoda – even her species is kept in secret, something that has only happened with Yoda so far – and that is not bad, but they almost did not use her and left her shrouded in mystery. How on earth did she got the lightsaber that belonged to Anakin Skywalker and later to his son Luke? By the time, I was expecting to know more about a character so intriguing in the sequels, where she would surely play a key role. And the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) the new archenemy of the saga to whom we only see a couple of minutes in a hologram, who is it?

Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan at the San Diego Comic-Con, 2015 (Credits: Gage Skidmore).

But not everything is a confusion in The Force Awakens. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford: to see them again in their respective roles is a real pleasure, and other characters and elements of the saga such as the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO (we were happy to see them but they were wasted in the movie), Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon or the Admiral Ackbar. The new droid BB-8 works very well. And that beautiful ending with so many readings: Rey finally finding Luke Skywalker and offering him back his lightsaber. Luke looks amazing and tells us a lot with his silence, giving him a sad, solemn and powerful look. A promising ending. It seems that George Lucas set the bar too high for J. J. Abrams with the responsibility of continuing the saga. Having intertextuality as the main ingredient for a poignant experience, evoking the original trilogy over and over, with an excess of references and Easter eggs and repeating many of the plot devices, it feels that this film brings almost nothing new. I say almost because of the questions it sets for it sequels and for that successful cliffhanger.

Thus, my first impressions of The Force Awakens left me with the following conclusion: they wanted to reunify the community of fans – divided by Lucas’s prequels, very criticized – honouring or doing essentially a subtle remake of the first film, the one that started it all. Okay, not bad, I was not fascinated either, but this was only the beginning. The next one has to be better, much better. What a dreamer I was.

 

Deconstruction does not mean destruction

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

The movie that unleashed chaos for me. As I wrote before, after the first movie, I expected something big. I must admit that I had high expectations for the second act of these new films. Would it be The Empire Strike Back of a new generation? The result was unexpected. I left upset and confused from the cinema, with many mixed feelings, surprised and not knowing what to think. It took me a few days to consolidate an opinion of The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson created an uncertain monster, probably the strangest and least relatable to the entire saga. Disney gave him a unique opportunity and he did absolutely whatever he wanted: a transgressive film that was responsible for dismantling much of what was established in the rest of the films. For me, The Last Jedi created a distrust of both Disney and the future of Star Wars. I did not want to see it again for everything that meant to me, and it was the only film in the saga that I only saw once, until a few weeks ago, that I watched it again to attend fresh to see its sequel, and my impression was perhaps worse. It is an original film, that is undeniable, and has certain good ideas, but Johnson’s execution disrupts them. His movie destroys Star Wars.

The disappointment that was The Last Jedi made me stop caring about the future of the saga. A total indifference invaded me: no longer waiting for them with emotion, watching them without any expectation (as it happened with the forgettable spin-off of Han Solo). In addition, there is something sad behind the millionaire proliferation of Disney movies: with so many already planned, Star Wars has ceased to be an important event. As the old fan that I certainly consider myself to be, this harbours a bittersweet feeling inside me. On the one hand, I discover that Disney will never stop: like any Marvel Studios movie, there will be a new installment of Star Wars every year, an episode of the official saga followed by a spin-off, followed by another episode – of a new trilogy that will announce soon, surely – and another spin-off, and so on, ad infinitum. I will have annual doses of Star Wars until the day of my death. That can be translated into a geek ecstasy, like any fanboy, but also a concern for the future of this story that has being with me since I was five years old. In other words, the premiere of a new Star Wars movie will no longer mean an unprecedented cultural event, at least not on that high pedestal of contemporary pop grandeur that we are used to. On the contrary, each release will be seen as the franchise’s annual entry. The people will lose excitement, they will get tired, the story will become more episodic than it already is – is that even possible? – or maybe it will be more repetitive and lose much of its magic. Can Disney’s millionaire plans ruin the most famous space opera in film history? It is an unfortunate and probable reality. Can they, as they intend to, revive the saga, explore strange horizons of that galaxy far, far away, and make us breathe Star Wars forever and ever? A complex project, perhaps, but not unthinkable.

Well, let’s go back to The Last Jedi. Many things happened in this movie, so many that it could be the last of the trilogy, a premature Episode IX, and also including that end without a cliffhanger or without setting the events for a sequel, very different from the other second acts of the saga: even Attack of the Clones (2002) left the galaxy and its characters in total suspense. For this and other reasons I feel this is the most alien movie of the franchise.

This film is full of very rare decisions, including the introduction of some unnecessary and boring characters that sometimes awaken antipathy. Let’s start with Benicio del Toro and the total waste of his talent. His character, baptized with the extremely original name of DJ – which is an acronym for “Don’t Join”, his philosophy of life – brings absolutely nothing to the plot. What did they try to do? A more cynical and amoral version of Han Solo or Lando Calrissian? He appears, shows his way of thinking and disappears without even returning for the next movie. I feel that his character was maybe a glimpse of the most nihilistic side of the discourse against the legacy and the past that Rian Johnson proposes: “Good, bad, everyone is corrupt in the end, nothing matters, don’t take sides”, DJ seems to shout. His philosophy does not produce any conflict in the characters surrounding him and disappears from the plot without any importance, although we see him a lot on screen.

Another random and suspicious element was the whole sequence in Canto Bight, the casino city that becomes an alternate mission that separates Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) from the whole plot and is well-known as the most tedious – and unnecessary – moment of the movie. Finn, the former soldier of the First Order with a good heart who attempts to escape the war and seek his friend Rey; Rose, the member of the Resistance devastated with the loss of her sister in the last battle and who feels certain admiration for the hero Finn is supposed to be and cannot tolerate his behaviour. Both make a pair that can be interesting, where they know and learn from each other, especially Finn, but this does not happen. The whole scene on that gambling planet makes no sense. We could say that it works to give more development to Rose, but why bothering if at the end they will suddenly put her aside in the next movie? I am very sorry to know about the primitive racist and sexist cyberbullying suffered by the actress, it should never have happened, but something is true: I don’t know what the hell they wanted to do with this character. And Finn almost goes unnoticed in The Last Jedi.

However, none of these characters is as unpleasant as the Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). An unattractive character who suddenly arrives as a wise, important figure of respect and authority. A leader who inspires nothing: you do not know her, you cannot identify with her, all she does is make mistakes, but twenty minutes after her first appearance she is named leader of the entire Resistance and she sacrifices herself to save everyone with a premeditated suicidal tactic… What was that?

Official poster of “The Last Jedi”, 2017 (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney. All Rights Reserved).

Dern is one of my favourite actresses and I was excited about the idea of ​​seeing her being part of Star Wars, but Holdo was another reason why this movie failed. I will not enter into debates about the viability of the “Holdo maneuver” within the Star Wars canon, I will only affirm the following: its role and its outcome would have worked much better in a different character, a most beloved one, that we already know. The most obvious answer is Admiral Ackbar (Timothy D. Rose), the endearing alien Mon Calamari, brilliant strategist and one of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance, which we have known since Return of the Jedi and we saw again in The Force Awakens. Ackbar was in that same battle with Leia, Holdo and other members of the Resistance, but shortly before Holdo’s kamikaze attack, a secondary character comes to inform her about the death of many rebels, including Ackbar. They only name him among the victims. This is one of the most remembered aliens in Star Wars, not only by fans: Ackbar has been parodied and referenced in different media, his phrase “It’s a trap!” From Return of the Jedi became a meme. His face belongs to popular culture. They insulted him by stealing his heroic sacrifice that way. If they wanted to be more extreme, they could have used Leia for that maneuver and finish with her in a more dignified way than in The Rise of Skywalker. Besides wasting Dern’s talent, everything feels very dissonant.

While it does not affect me that much, Leia Organa’s portrait in this movie is still ambiguous to me. I am talking about that strange moment in which she is expelled into the void of space and, instead of perishing like the rest, uses the Force as protection and to propel herself back to one of the ships, like a Kryptonian woman. We always knew that Leia, daughter of Anakin Skywalker, is very strong with the Force, but we have never seen anything like this. We can accept it more, I think, if we look at it as a tribute to the cherished Carrie Fisher: by the time the movie hit theatres, it was already one year since she passed away. Better that way. That being said, it is a central character in the saga that perhaps deserved more time on screen, even if we know that this trilogy does not focus on the original cast.

Unlike the rest, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows up in this movie and turns out to be a more entertaining character. It is interesting to see him learning lessons from Leia and Holdo: being humble, having a cool head and being ready to sacrifice is more important than jumping to a sudden attack and being a great hero. But why did they sell us Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) as a crucial villain if they do not explain anything about her and then kill her so fast? In the end, it is not relevant that her character is irrelevant, but what is absurd is to do the same with the Supreme Leader Snoke. Getting Kylo Ren to kill him so suddenly is one of the biggest mistakes in this movie: it is just a nonsense that I will go back to when I talk about The Rise of Skywalker

And now it is time to talk about Luke Skywalker. Meeting again Mark Hamill in that legendary role has been an experience as beautiful as it is nostalgic. He looks very comfortable playing the part of the now veteran Jedi Master and steals the film in such a way that we almost forget all the inconsistencies it entails, especially with his character. Seeing him back is great but I do not like what they do with him. That is my biggest problem with The Last Jedi. Now that I have seen the movie again, I feel that Luke’s portrayal as an extreme version of Obi-Wan Kenobi can be very interesting, that is, as a retired Jedi, defeated and exiled on a distant planet after feeling responsible for the fall of the new Jedi temple and the conversion of his nephew to the Dark Side of the Force. His way of thinking is also striking: a Luke that has lost his faith for the Jedi philosophy and says that the Force belongs to everyone and that it is not only about good and evil. Yes, sounds like an opportunity to give the character an unexpected turn, but on the other hand I feel hesitant about an anchorite Luke: if he never gave up on his father when even his teachers Yoda and Obi-Wan urged him to kill him, why would he throw in the towel with his nephew? We know Luke. He is much more stable and less emotional than his father Anakin and has an infinite predisposition to goodness. I find it difficult to accept it, but the idea can work, it can be good, but it does not. Johnson had to murder Luke at the end, and with that he dynamited any hope. Luke’s death ruined my experience with this movie. I expected to see him there a lot, getting to know him in his late adulthood and seeing him as Rey’s mentor. I was hoping to see him in the continuation of this movie, where he might die fighting Snoke, saving Rey or his redeemed nephew. As many others, I expected different things, I even contemplated the possibility of him being Rey’s father… 

There were, truth be told, some moments of splendour with Luke. His scene with Yoda (Frank Oz) touched me to the point of leaving me with teary eyes: the simple effect of nostalgia. The legendary Jedi Master appears as a Force ghost to conjure a lightning that destroys the Jedi library in the planet Ahch-To and teach Luke one last beautiful lesson: Do not give up because of your failure, you have to overcome it and learn from it, as failure is an important part of life. It is a very beautiful scene, where we have a Yoda very similar in design and style to the one of The Empire Strikes Back, made with a puppet – and not with digital effects as in the prequels – and speaking to Luke in a playful way, treating him like a teenager. Yoda decides to manifest himself to bring back a Luke Skywalker who has lost faith in the Force, in the Jedi Order and in himself. It is perhaps one of the most emotional scenes of the saga for me. Despite the rest of the movie.

Luke’s biggest highlight is nonetheless the worst moment of the movie. It is his death. From the loneliness of his self-exile in Ahch-To, Luke Skywalker generates a projection of himself through the Force on the planet Crait. A sort of “corporeal illusion” that fights alone against the armies of the First Order and ends up in a duel with Kylo Ren, all to give time  to his sister Leia and the remnants of the Resistance to escape. When they have already fled, an exhausted Luke, having used all his concentration and energy, vanishes his projection and dies alone while contemplating the sun, disappearing like his masters and becoming one with the Force. This is how it ends: a Luke who redeems himself by giving his life. Another reading for his death, on the other hand, is to perpetuate the legend of the Jedi who faced alone the First Order and thus inspire rebellion throughout the galaxy. This is suggested with the orphaned children in the epilogue of the film who recreate the battle with handmade toys. Unfortunately, this bigger meaning will be cancelled in the next movie, as I will explain later. But well, yes, this is the end of the protagonist of the original trilogy and the favourite character of millions of people: Tired to death after using all his power to create a distraction in a battle during the second act of the trilogy, where he never really wielded his lightsaber, nor finished the war or defeated any Sith.

I like the idea: the old wizard who generates an illusion of himself to deceive the enemy and his army, helping the good guys and giving them courage for the last battle. It seems to be taken from some biblical or fantastic story. Luke Skywalker certainly is worthy of having reached ineffable levels in the use of the Force: with that age should be a Jedi capable of performing such feats. Moreover, the scene is epic, with Luke arriving calm and fearless in front of dozens of the dreadful AT-AT combat walkers. But why did he had to die? I mean, it is fine for Luke’s arc to die saving his friends, but that should happen in the end. If he had to die like that, then that master move should not have happened in the middle of the trilogy and instead be reserved for its conclusion. Or if that had to be the case, it should have been used for another character. Luke should not have died tired after a brief trick that helped his friends to escape.

Rian Johnson at Wondercon, California, 2012 (Credits: Gage Skidmore).

My discontent may sound exaggerated or capricious, but it is an arbitrariness that Luke has been portrayed like this and killed as soon as he is the Luke we all know and love. We did not see him duel with anyone – excluding his projection of the Force – nor talking to his nephew with the redemptive determination and understanding showed when he approached to his father. We also did not see him flying his X-Wing or any ship where he could show his skills. And maybe the worst: we did not even see him reuniting with his most beloved ones, except for the brief encounter with good old Chewie. Luke Skywalker never met his sister Leia or his best friend Han. Mark Hamill said ignoring such gathering was a big mistake. And he is right.

In general, it is then a bad and demeaning ending for such a beloved character, but at the same time it is somehow consistent with the story that Rian Johnson wanted to tell in his film: the one about a failed and regretful Luke who ultimately seeks redemption and finds it by sacrificing himself and becoming the hero everyone thinks he is. But I will repeat, it only works in the arc made for Luke in The Last Jedi. Outside that it seems like another character – as Hamill himself suggested – and that is a shame.

Finally, we have the absurd revelation of the film, attempting to both emulate and mock the classic revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back: Rey’s parents are nobody. Some forgettable alcoholic scrap metal dealers who did not hesitate to sell her. Star Wars is the story of the Skywalkers, which has always been a space drama about parents and children. The saga is designed in such a way that Rey had to be the daughter of some Skywalker, either Leia or Luke. Or it was Kylo Ren / Ben Solo’s sister to have both the new Jacen and Jaina, the children of Han and Leia in the deceased Expanded Universe; or is Luke’s only daughter, and they would tell us a newer story. Many embrace this plot twist with huge enthusiasm, considering it an innovative turn of events for the saga. I would say that it is certainly original but it is incongruous with the great story behind, the so-called “Skywalker saga”.

We can attribute this transgression to the message of the film, which is even expressed literally by Kylo Ren: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become who you were meant to be”. In other words, let’s forget about the Skywalkers and the tradition we have followed in the other installments. Anyone can be a Skywalker, castes and legacies do not matter and everyone can be special, strong, chosen to change the world. Then we have that controversial final scene of the orphan boy who was playing with his friends before, looking at the sky in silence while a levitating broom approaches to his hand thanks to the Force. Who the hell is this boy? Who cares, now everyone can use the Force.

To say that last names or lineages do not matter to achieve greatness – or in the case of Rey, to become a Jedi and save the galaxy – is a beautiful message, but the way they present it and the revelation that comes with it not only go against how the saga is structured, but also contradicts a constant and mysterious insistence started in The Force Awakens: the film clearly alludes a lot to the origin of Rey and wants us to question who she is and who her parents are. You could even say that this is the background of the whole movie.

That and the death of Luke Skywalker ruined my experience in the cinema. Two years later, I find myself in the need to write this. What is wrong with me? Could it be that my dissatisfaction goes along with an impossible talent for whining? I think a bit about the meaning of all this. Star Wars is a phenomenon that already belongs to different generations. Many of us grew up with these films, we have them in our hearts and we profess an unconditional love for their characters. It is something that transcends the simple fondness for a work of fiction. So, the natural consequence of that situation is the one that warns The Last Jedi: we have idealized our experience with Star Wars. We have idealized the past. It is time to destroy it. It is a challenging decision of the filmmaker. Challenging and cruel.

Everything here feels so alien to how we conceive Star Wars that it just looks like another movie. The effort in transmitting the message becomes offensive. For example, something as strange as illogical was the disconnection with The Force Awakens. The path of the story changed drastically and the questions and intrigues proposed were mostly cancelled or answered in a very arbitrary way. In his attempt to innovate in the franchise, Rian Johnson’s film breaks the rules established by Lucas when he created this universe and that have been followed and respected until The Force Awakens.

Thus, what Johnson does with the disappointing revelation of Rey’s origin or with Luke’s dishonourable death is the same thing he has been doing throughout the entire movie: override what Abrams established at the beginning of the trilogy and insult the mythology of Star Wars.

 

Stories that discard each other (or the last straw)

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

The last installment of the saga finally convinced me that these three films are not a trilogy at all. In South America we call “mazamorra” a thick liquid mixture made from corn. In Peru, where it is usually made with our traditional purple corn, we also use the same word to describe a mixture of ideas or elements lacking any method or order. A total jumble, like The Rise of Skywalker. Rian Johnson generated such an disproportionate disorder with his film, that when it was J. J. Abrams’s turn to take back the baton, he did not know where to go and he had no choice but to transform his film into an enormous mazamorra. A badly done one.

My experience at the cinema with this film was certainly different than the previous one. After the disappointment of The Last Jedi and the general boredom that Disney has caused with its movies, cartoons, comics, books, clothes and toys and other Star Wars merchandising, I could not care less. I used to watch the trailers of the movie mostly as a cinephile or fan obligation, but my expectations were the lowest possible. I believe that is why I left the cinema relaxed. I had seen a movie that made me laugh on many occasions, which had the most vulgar display of fan service seen in a Star Wars film – but still it moved me with some of its excessive references -. The Rise of Skywalker seemed to me in general an erratic, shapeless, but very entertaining story. The best one in a trilogy of bad movies, I thought at the time. Now that the weeks have passed and I have tried unsuccessfully to understand or justify the course that path taken by the story in this film, I think it is the worst.

What turns it into a mazamorra? Let’s start talking again about the three protagonists of the original trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker is full of alterations, contradictions or reinterpretations of facts previously established in the previous film, that is, cases of “retroactive continuity”, commonly known as retcons. One of the most brutal is to make Luke’s infamous sacrifice and the end of The Last Jedi worthless. His death was supposed to be the inspiration that would unite the citizens of thousands of planets against the First Order, and at the beginning of this film the Resistance is still a group of twenty people. This sidereal assembly ends up being orchestrated in the last battle by Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in a very random and gratuitous way. Why did Luke’s last act have no impact? In addition, Luke is almost not mentioned in this movie and his version as a Force ghost only appears for a couple of minutes in a pretty much forgettable scene. If the first and second installments of this trilogy are closely related to Luke Skywalker – one revolves around looking for him and the other has him in one of the starring roles -, in this one he is almost completely ignored. It gives us the feeling that The Rise of Skywalker is a separate movie, and that increases the disconnection.

Official poster of “The Rise of Skywalker”, 2019 (Credits: Lucasfilm / Disney. All Rights Reserved).

It is true that Carrie Fisher was no longer present during the filming of this movie, and they had already announced that they would use old footage from her scenes in the previous ones, but I cannot help wondering, is this the best they could do? Leia was already very weak since the beginning of the film and we do not know why, one could guess that it is because of the intense use of the Force she made in The Last Jedi, when she survived her expulsion into the void of space. In this movie she seems to die in a moment of deep psychic connection with her son Ben Solo. Through the Force, Leia conveys her love and then expires almost at the same time that Rey gives her son a final lunge. Like her brother Luke, it seems that she died from a spiritual exhaustion after the use of the Force. It all feels very vague and confusing and far from emotional: we never feel anything for Ben Solo in this moment, a character we barely know, and there is no scene in the trilogy where mother and son interact so that we can appreciate them together, at least as a  flashback, hence preventing us from identifying with their relationship and therefore with this scene. I know the idea was to dedicate and bid farewell to one main character from the original trilogy per movie, but this death feels even unnecessary. Perhaps it would have worked better if she would just have less time on screen and away from the main plot, as they did in the previous films. Making the death of another one of the most beloved characters in the saga open to interpretation is a terrible decision. 

What is more, the film gives for granted that Leia is a Jedi Master. When did this happen? We know of his great sensitivity to the Force and that she has powers only comparable to Superman, as we saw in The Last Jedi, but they never explained or implied that she had completed a training, and here she is training someone. A rare scene for being both annoying and graceful is that nostalgic flashback of the young brothers training: the magic of seeing them is temporary, we soon realize that the scene only exist to inform us that Leia was trained and that Luke was keeping her lightsaber. Again it all feels forced and explained so suddenly and in a rush. Although I must admit that Chewie crying and screaming in pain upon learning of her death was something very touching and beautiful.

If there is something I do not understand at all in The Rise of Skywalker is the presence of Han Solo. Ben’s father and Leia’s husband makes a final appearance after Leia’s demise to finally convince his son to leave the Dark Side. But Han Solo died in The Force Awakens. And he is not a Jedi nor is he Force-sensitive, so what is happening? A Harrison Ford happy to say goodbye for good to his character reveals to the former Kylo Ren and Ben Solo that he is a memory. His memory. Ben is interacting with a memory of his father, what is this? Maybe I lack some sensitivity to understand the scene. Or maybe Ben Solo is hallucinating and so much inner chaos has awakened certain symptoms of schizophrenia. No idea. In the entire Star Wars tradition, only the Jedi who have mastered the twilight art of becoming one with the Force become Force ghosts after death, having the possibility of manifesting themselves anywhere and interacting with the living. It could be translated as a kind of immortality. Only they, so the appearance of Han Solo, even if they give us the crude and vague justification that it is a memory with autonomy, does not make sense. It feels weird, it does not look like Star Wars – again -. The Force Awakens did something very unusual to the saga by introducing flashbacks, something we never saw in the two previous trilogies. Something risky, but it can be accepted. Would not it have been better to have a flashback of Ben and his father in the past, some deep conversation they had before he turned to the Dark Side? That would have been less out of context.

Here I have to insist on a topic I already touched while talking about the deaths of Han and Luke: it is sad to know that none of the original cast, so loved since the last forty-three years, has met again in this trilogy, and neither were present in the death of each other. Han is killed by his son and falls into the abyss. Luke finds out a movie later and his reaction is almost nil and then he dies of fatigue, alone next to a rock. Leia does it in a similar way but with the company of a few strangers, the rest of the Resistance. Nobody says anything, nothing happens to them later. On the contrary: they are used throughout the trilogy – and especially in the last one – to fill in or cover inconsistencies in the script. Urgent solutions in which they disrespect the classic characters.

Abrams and BB-8 at the Montclair Film Festival (Credits: Neil Grabowsky).

And what about the new cast? They are not bad actors and they are not bad characters – at least not that bad -. But they do not catch us, they do not charm us, I cannot feel that the torch is being passed. On the other hand, they look great together: there is chemistry between Rey, Finn and Poe, from their monosyllabic names to their personalities and dialogues. I could imagine a series or cartoon of the three having adventures in space. It’s fun to see them as the new Millennium Falcon crew, along with Chewie and the droids.

Poe Dameron is still the most acceptable of the three, despite the fact that his character in The Rise of Skywalker resembles Han Solo too much and that can be irritating at times. He is more developed: we discover that he was a spice dealer – the Star Wars drug – and that he has an ex-girlfriend, the mysterious Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), which discards the expected romantic union with Finn, a very popular theory of the fandom on Internet. Finn continues to go unnoticed. Aside from being a funny character at times and having met a group of deserting stormtroopers like him with whom he could identify and deepen his character – but he does not – nothing happens to him. Throughout the film he is very worried about Rey and at a crucial moment, believing himself about to die, it seems that he tries to confess his love but he does not succeed. Abrams and Boyega himself stated in their social networks a few weeks ago that Finn was not going to declare his feelings: he wanted to tell her that he is also Force-sensitive. What? There are scenes where Finn feels Rey’s presence, even his death, but this is never explored. And why would he want to hide that from Poe? Nothing makes sense.

Rose Tico was deliberately relegated in this last installment of the trilogy. She has less than two minutes on screen, where they did not even returned to the possible love relationship that she may have with Finn. Moreover, they created another character as an adventure companion and tentative love interest for Finn, Jannah (Naomi Ackie), another First Order runaway who appears too little and too late and I do not care about. I think that if they did not want to continue with the character, either alone or as couple for Finn, it would have been better if Rose died at the end of The Last Jedi: in that way, she would have finished her arc understanding and repeating the fate of her sister, and at the same time she would have taught a lesson of love and heroism to the unwary Finn.

Maybe one of the few things that The Rise of Skywalker has done well is to give us one of the best C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) in the whole nine movies. 3PO was virtually ignored in the prequels and had its moments of greatest splendour in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Its portrayal in this movie is as fun as in those two, or even more: its lines are among the most hilarious and its arc is crucial to the plot. This is what I was talking about before: if you already have excellent characters that exist for more than forty years at your disposal, use them and do not invent weird things like Holdo and her suicidal maneuver.

Lando Calrissian’s much-anticipated and expected return to the saga was fascinating. The expression on his face and his laughter while flying the Millennium Falcon with Chewie, that is a good example of the great fan service that the movie uses to captivate us. They are sensational, but they do not justify all the chaos that the film entails. If there is something that surprised me between so many references and nostalgic moments was that they showed us no reunion between Lando and the Sullustan alien Nien Nunb (Mike Quinn), his classic co-pilot in the Millennium Falcon during the Battle of Endor, in Return of the Jedi. Both were in the same Resistance meeting to plan the attack and towards the end of the film they participate together in the space combat. Why there was no dialogue at all between them? We could say that Lando is only in the movie to charm us being Lando, but it is in that very last battle that his role apparently becomes important, by bringing a fleet of spaceships with supporters of the entire galaxy and make them join the Resistance. A scene that is useless because this trilogy makes all space battles inanes.

Among the most endearing cameos we have the return of the famous pilot of the Rebel Alliance Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson). I had read rumours that Lawson would repeat his role but I completely forgot. When I saw Wedge piloting his ship, I could not help shouting his name in the cinema, out of excitement. We were just ten people at the last screening on a Sunday night and Wedge had exposed me as a scandalous, dazzled adult suddenly returned to childhood. Seeing the ewok Wicket (Warwick Davis) was more comical than sublime, but it made me smile. These efficient cameos are an abuse of intertextuality that is welcomed among so many incongruities – as a guilty pleasure -, as it is also to see Rey driving Luke’s X-Wing with helmet included or to see the dear wookie Chewbacca receiving the medal he deserved and did not win in A New Hope. The one who gives him that award is no other than Maz Kanata, a character neglected in this movie, which does not resolve any of her striking intrigues posed in The Force Awakens. A waste perhaps comparable to that of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who is executed immediately after revealing himself as a spy of the Resistance.

Most of the cast of “The Force Awakens” at the San Diego Comic-Con, 2015 (Credits: Gage Skidmore).

It is necessary to mention what is probably the biggest mistake of the film: the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Since they announced his return in one of the last trailers, I knew that a major nonsense was coming. Reviving Palpatine was not something Kathleen Kennedy and J. J. Abrams had premeditated since The Force Awakens, as they said recently. That is a lie. Just watch The Rise of Skywalker to realize that it was a desperate last minute decision. Rian Johnson killed Snoke all of a sudden and without any apparent plan as to where the story would follow in the next episode. With that scenario, Abrams and the other screenwriter, Chris Terrio, were between a rock and a hard place. They needed a villain and they had no better idea than to bring the Emperor back. The result is as predictable as ridiculous.

Do not get me wrong. Palpatine is a great character and the villain par excellence. I never thought I would see McDiarmid repeating his legendary role, that deeply evil being without any conflict. But what happens when we see Palpatine repeat his plans and even his lines of Return of the Jedi or Revenge of the Sith? What happens when they do not have a precise idea of ​​how to bring him back? “The dead speak!” Recites the opening crawl at the beginning of the film, “The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of revenge in the sinister voice of the late Emperor Palpatine”. The film becomes a joke from beginning to end. They imply that the Emperor survived the Battle of Endor and has been all this time exiled on the planet Exegol, under the care of a cult of followers of the Sith. What does the Emperor want? The same as always: to conquer the galaxy, but this time also intends to rejuvenate  by possessing Rey’s body and bring back the Sith … It sounds pretty vague and cheap.

The death of Snoke was one of the most stupid moments of Star Wars, and triggered the return of the Emperor, who at the same time was responsible for explaining Snoke: Palpatine reveals that Snoke was nothing more than a puppet, a figure he was using from the beginning, in order to be able to manipulate Ben Solo and the First Order from behind the scenes. While saying this they show us a water tank with multiple clones of Snoke, all piled up. Abrams used the easiest excuse, telling us that Snoke was a kind of clone – a disfigured one, no idea why – of the Emperor. This bring us back to the cheap story of the Emperor’s clones or that kind of Star Wars novels with lazy ideas from the first era of the Expanded Universe. They should have developed Snoke and made him a perfect villain for the end of the trilogy; or Palpatine’s return should have been introduced from the beginning in The Force Awakens. It is evident that there was no communication between the filmmakers and therefore, neither a plan. McDiarmid said it himself: George Lucas would never have resurrected Palpatine.

And finally we get to Rey. She almost does not have a real arc in this movie. They try to represent her with great confusion and dilemma about who she is and on what side she is, did not The Last Jedi propose that origins did not matter? Well, Abrams shouts in this movie that Johnson was wrong: origins do matter, especially Rey’s, she is a Palpatine! Rey is the Emperor’s granddaughter. Rey Palpatine. Sounds like a joke. Months ago they told me that this rumour had leaked through Reddit and I laughed, it seemed impossible and ridiculous and I forgot about it on the spot. This revelation is completely distanced from the arc of Rey in the first two films. It is something that does not feel like a natural effect of the narrative of this trilogy at all, and even more if you consider the already crucial change of her in the previous film.

If I say that Rey lacks an arc in The Rise of Skywalker is because she does nothing. All the time we see her running from one planet to another, looking for McGuffins with her friends or duelling against Kylo Ren. What is more, the attempts of conflicts or obstacles that are presented to her are nonexistent: we could blame this to the false deaths – Chewbacca – or to almost killing someone whom you heal immediately – Kylo Ren -, nothing she regrets has a true effect in the plot of the movie or in herself. She is still as perfect and without any contradictions as they have shown her in the previous installments. She has not even lost a limb in her lightsaber duels, something considered a Star Wars tradition for not a few: Anakin first losing an arm and then the rest of his limbs, Vader severing Luke’s hand before revealing that he is his father. As a close friend accurately observed while discussing the saga with me: “Anakin was the Chosen One, great mechanic, pilot, warrior and swordsman, and in his trilogy he only won one duel. Luke was the New Hope, the last Jedi and a great pilot, and in his trilogy he won no duel except for the brief moment where he defeated Vader using the Dark Side and then threw his saber and surrendered, asserting himself as Jedi. Rey, excellent pilot, mechanic, warrior, swordswoman, won all the duels in which she fought in her trilogy, but never really lost anything, we do not know her and we cannot identify with her, and therefore her character never progresses”. Indeed, unlike Anakin and Luke, whose dreams and conflicts made them close from the beginning, Rey has been imbued in mystery since The Force Awakens: we did not know who she was or where she came from, but she did not know either and she did not find answers, or at least not very concrete or satisfactory ones. That does not allow us to know her better.

Finally, Rey taking the last name of his masters and becoming the last Skywalker is another excessive nonsense that continues to undo the discourse of the previous film, which creates many inconsistencies in the whole trilogy, and also breaks the logic established in the saga. But I have already talked enough about this.

The great Carrie Fisher at the Comic-Con in San Diego, 2015 (Credits: Gage Skidmore).

I am very sorry that a prominent actor like Adam Driver has been wasted. In recent years I have seen him in many other movies where he shines, something that does not happen in Star Wars, although we can see he does an effort to bring some power to the character. Besides my conflicts of the geeky fan who appropriates of his most beloved characters, which prevent me from forgiving him the murder of Han Solo, I still cannot convince myself about Ben. I was waiting for his redemption and I like to see him fighting side by side with Rey and wielding a blue lightsaber, but again it is the execution that becomes implausible, as we said before, with the illusion of his father or a mental hug of the mother – let’s call it like that – and the encounters with Rey. On the other hand, having the knowledge in this movie that he is the last Skywalker and Rey a Palpatine, it does not feel normal, somehow, to see him relegated to an almost secondary character. The sudden revelation of his love interest towards Rey, touched briefly, just before his death, seems to me like a total silliness taken from a fan fiction that reduces the complexity of his relationship with Rey.

Both Rey and Ben Solo lead me to mention the Force healing, the ability to heal themselves or others through the use of the Force, and that at extreme levels could revive a person at the expense of the user’s life. It is an important phenomenon that has just been explored in this film. I feel that the possibilities with the Force in this trilogy are unlimited. Why Yoda, Obi-Wan, Anakin or Leia were not capable of doing this? If it is something that Rey learned from the ancient books she stole from the Jedi library in Ahch-To, then why Luke did not know about it? And why Ben Solo did, is it because of the special bond they share, they so-called Dyad in the Force? Is it the same skill developed by Darth Plagueis and that Palpatine mentioned in Revenge of the Sith? We could attribute its secrecy to the great difficulty involved in performing this probably forbidden technique. They explain nothing and that feeds the idea that the use of the Force represented in this trilogy is vague and not believable within the saga as we know it. Again, this is all taken from a fan fiction.

A film does not have to explain you everything, certain mystery is always welcomed, but in the Disney’s Star Wars trilogy there are too many questions that were not answered and this diminishes the strength of the story. For example, how can the X-Wing work after so many years submerged and without an astromech droid like R2? Is Jannah Lando’s daughter? Who repaired Luke’s blue lightsaber – which is actually Anakin’s, something this trilogy seems to ignore-? What happened to Luke’s classic green lightsaber that we only saw in a flashback in The Last Jedi? How did Rey create her yellow lightsaber? And what is with the kiss between the two Resistance girls during the celebration at the end? A forced attempt by Abrams and Disney to show their share of political correctness. If they are seeking so much the approval of the fan community, would not it have been better and more organic to comply with their wishes and make Poe and Finn a gay couple? It seems that they had added Jannah and Zorii Bliss to discard undeniably any sentimental relationship between these two male protagonists. The Star Wars gay kiss does not add anything to the story, it only serves the creators to say they are inclusive or support diversity. Totally gratuitous.

On a creative level, The Rise of Skywalker is a paradigm of chaos. Unlike Lucas, Abrams never kept control or left strict or exact plans about where was the trilogy going after the first film, everything suffered a substantial alteration in the second installment and for the last one the only possible way was to amended, fix the disaster in any way you can. And honestly, despite certain fearful or coward decisions that reflect the fear of innovating and surprising the followers, this is the best thing they could do after how Rian Johnson left the trilogy. We also have to remember the following: apart from not knowing how to finish his stories no matter how good they may be, as it happened with the controversial final episode of Lost, his acclaimed television series, here Abrams is also guilty of an outrageous lack of imagination. In a way, we can all understand and agree that The Force Awakens is so similar to the first film in the saga, a tribute to come back comfortably into this universe after so many years, but that The Rise of Skywalker, the “new” final of The Skywalker saga is so unoriginal, so derivative from the classic trilogy, a vulgar copy of the previous conclusion in Return of the Jedi, that is unforgivable.

Indeed, Abrams went straight through the safe path, already known to him: a recreation of Return of the Jedi. Because that is what it is, an inferior, inconsistent and somewhat absurd imitation of the sixth episode of the saga. At the end of the trilogy, which culminates in a peaceful and emotional celebration of the Resistance, like the Rebels in Endor, we have the galaxy in the same conditions than how we saw it last time in Return of the Jedi: Emperor Palpatine is dead – this time for good, I hope – peace has been restored, the Republic and the Jedi Order must be refounded. It is all the same, let’s just replace Luke, Leia and Han with Rey, Finn and Poe. It brings nothing new. An unfortunate rehash.

This rehash, however, spends the entire movie doing something very obvious that makes the trilogy weaker but it is still interesting – and sometimes funny, depending on the viewer -: to deny Johnson’s ideas. Sometimes it seems as if the whole movie was a criticism or punishment to its predecessor. A good example is the scene with Luke’s Force ghost. A Rey in panic seeks to exile himself and throws the lightsaber into the fire, only to be caught by his late Master, who tells her: “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect”. A reference to how he throws the same saber into the cliff at the beginning of The Last Jedi. Abrams manages again and again to try to tell us that Johnson was wrong. The film denies or reinterprets the events of the previous one in such a way that we could just ignore its existence. If the opening crawl would add the line “Jedi Master Luke Skywalker died a year ago giving his life for his friends and Kylo Ren killed Snoke and proclaimed himself the new Supreme Leader” or something similar, there would be no need to see The Last Jedi. This is certainly not a trilogy.

George Lucas and J. J. Abrams (Credits: Joi Ito).

However, we must admit the following: Rian Johnson had a vision of what he wanted to do and was committed to it, regardless of whether this would become a damage to the franchise’s narrative. J. J. Abrams shows the opposite: he wanted to get out of the problem quickly and was ready to make a supposedly consensus film, to try to please all the fans and not divide them like The Last Jedi. The Rise of Skywalker wants to mesmerize us with its references to the original trilogy and feels too rushed, so many things happen and they have no time to explain anything. It is as if they were telling us the last two episodes of the saga together. They try to seduce us with plot twists that feel deceptive and are not relevant at the end, such as the “false deaths” of Chewie, 3PO -when they erase his memory- Ben or Rey, to name an example. My first impression with The Force Awakens is confirmed after all: Abrams had the fence too high to continue the saga, and it got out of hand.

It is so rare to find all these issues in a Star Wars movie. It makes me think of a group of film students from university, enthusiasts who want to make a movie but do not know where to lead the story and end up spoiling it all. An experience of amateurs, but we are talking about a Hollywood studio. This trilogy proposed fifty questions in the first film, suppressed and contradicted those questions in the second and established others and in the last installment tried to amend the disorder and revalidate the first questions, usually with unsatisfactory answers. It is a pity that even with so much material, decades of novels, comics, animated series and video games that have shaped the Expanded Universe, the saga had to finish in this. I would say that The Rise of Skywalker is a very entertaining film with a good dose of nostalgia, working well at an emotional level at least in a first viewing, but terribly weak when it comes to the plot and characters, reaching ridiculous moments. A disaster.

 

The path of each fan

I am an old Star Wars fan. I do not belong to the first generation of fans, I mean, I did not go to the cinema as a child with my parents in 1977 to see A New Hope. I was not born yet. I saw the original trilogy as a child during the first five years of the ’90s thanks to my older brothers, and I grew up with it, unlike many of my contemporaries, who discovered the saga years later thanks to the prequels. But that does not matter. None of these ways of discover and contemplating Star Wars is better than the other. Today there are even fans who discovered the saga through the cartoons or toys. I think of the children who are going to the cinema to see The Rise of Skywalker. A whole new generation of fans very different from me. Will they grow up along with such special story? I do not know. I find it difficult to identify and strongly embrace these new films. I imagine that the new fans will not cultivate a great affection, Star Wars will not stay with them for long. I appreciate the experience of having seen the original films as a child and growing up going to the cinema to see the prequels. Both were better times to be a Star Wars fan. But maybe I am wrong. Hopefully, but I seriously doubt it.

Why has this happened? The story behind these three films is as sad as it is curious. J. J. Abrams had a hard time. Can we blame him? Well, the responsibility lies with him, certainly, but also with Kathleen Kennedy, Bob Iger, Disney in general, screenwriters such as Chris Terrio or Lawrence Kasdan – who returned to participate in The Force Awakens – and, of course, Rian Johnson. But is it worth diving into discussions and digital hate campaigns for this? Not at all. This outcome hurts, I admit it, and it creates a lot of indifference to the future of the franchise, but we have to remember that we are talking more about movies than stories, that it is largely an industry and that, as long as it generates profits, it will continue, for good or for bad.

Before concluding, I would like to make a small digression about the prequel trilogy. We all know of his many shortcomings and the problems of George Lucas to direct and work with the dialogues, but, whatever people say, the prequels had a perfectly mapped plan. Lucas knew where his story was going from beginning to end: a great fable of how evil embodied in the worst corruption could arise from within and take over a republic. They also told the origin of Darth Vader and deconstructed his character to reveal his conflicts and vulnerabilities. This is always present and feels organic during the three films, even if the first two installments are not good. Moreover, the prequels expanded enormously the mythology of Star Wars with concepts such as the prophecy of the Chosen One, the Jedi Order, the Galactic Senate, the Sith, even unpopular ideas such as the midi-chlorians. Lucas is not the best writer in the world, but he was very original and organised, and he had a vision and a story to tell. Even though they are not perfect, I never considered myself a detractor of this second trilogy, I really like Revenge of the Sith, but Disney’s attempt to make a third one has led me to reflect on this and appreciate the prequels more.

The panorama for Star Wars is rich. I imagine that the spin-offs and the television series will continue, and I distrust a lot Disney’s work with the franchise, but I imagine that occasionally something good will emerge in the among all the disaster. But the official saga, the foundational story of the Skywalkers, makes me sad. It is not easy to say it but such catastrophic story was the best they could do, and that is a disappointment. Will I see the Disney trilogy again? Maybe. I doubt it. At least I am sure I would not include them in any marathon.

All this brings me back to a moment of childhood: I was almost an addict to the anime Dragonball as a kid, and years later, in my teens, I saw the last series they released without the creator Akira Toriyama, Dragonball GT, and confirmed I did not like it. Over time I decided to “cancel” it from my canon: being a bad story not signed by Toriyama, GT would no longer exist for me. I recently decided that this is the position I will take with Star Wars. There are many talented filmmakers and screenwriters, and Lucas does not have to direct Star Wars movies in order for them to be wonderful, but he must be involved, he must be behind everything, it must be his story. If it is not with the father of Star Wars, it is not part of my canon. Star Wars ends in Return of the Jedi. A perfect ending to a great story.

May the Force be with you.

The legendary trio. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Gary the Dog, 2015 (Credits: Albert L. Ortega).

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Individuality and personal freedom: Wild at Heart

Cine, ENSAYOS, In English, Música, Soundtracks - Diego Olivas Arana - 24 Mayo, 2019

Poster of "Wild At Heart" (Credits: David Lynch, 1990).

An approach to the relevance of music in David Lynch’s masterpiece about the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula

*** This is an edited and extended version of an unpublished essay made for the University of Helsinki-Helsingin yliopisto, created for the professor Erkki Pekkilä and his subjet “Music in Films” (2014).

 

Fiction through music

Did I ever tell you that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?, says Sailor Ripley; the protagonist of Wild at Heart (1990), fifth movie in the filmography of this American auteur, and one of his most remembered stories. Actually, it is a pretty accurate quote if we consider the universe of David Lynch (Montana, 1946): among it, we can find examples of sound or image tracks that reflects elements which are important in their movies, and this one is quite a good one. Lynch is well known for his surreal and twisted stories or his particular vision of human relations, its inner world and emotions that are usually a plethora of references to the past, violence and dream-like scenarios. His style has become unique and easy to recognize, due to the many leitmotifs you can find not only in the visual aspect but also in the sound. The relevance of the music and the sound itself in this movie is crucial for the narration, as in any other lynchian motion picture. And this fact would not be possible without the talent of Angelo Badalamenti (New York, 1937), the American composer who has made the score of almost all of his movies, including Wild at Heart.

Actually, music has, when it comes to filmmaking, a very special role. It can lead the narration by becoming one with the image, synchronizing with every shot. Music can communicate with the audience, one can know what to expect –or cannot, if the intention is to surprise you- and express feelings, thoughts. It can suggest a possible action or make reference to the past –sometimes even without any image, any flashback-. Although dialogues and the visual aspect are as important as music and sounds, the audience can receive almost unconsciously essential information about the story and its development, even faster than with the other elements.

Following this main idea of musical scores as an inner and primal guide to tell a story, Wild at Heart can be consider indeed really sensitive to the analysis. Therefore, we will begin by now a brief but intense interpretation of the music through its diegesis, where Lynch’s cinematic imagery and Badalamenti’s particular style get together –one more time- to give us crude, disturbing, magical and beautiful experiences. But before that, in order to have a better idea of how the music affects this story in particular, we will talk a little about the plot.

Poster for the movie (1990).

This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top

This is one of the quotes of Lula Fortune, the female protagonist. Certainly, Wild at Heart is a story about love and death. Even though it is not difficult to define this movie between some genres like thriller, crime or even comedy (as for its black humor or irony), it is more accurate to consider it as a road movie. We see the two main characters, the cursed lovers Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) escaping to California in their car throughout the whole movie. As a matter of fact, it is an example of the “new” road movies that appeared in years before the Millennium Wave, such as Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) or Ariel (Aki Kaurismäki, 1988): stories about antiheroes, outsiders or crazy couples that try to get through their issues in a living hell. This depiction of an unfair and self-destructive American society is also presented in older road movies like Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) or Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969). Besides, one relevant detail about the film is its many references to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), a fantasy/road movie story which references are not included in Barry Gifford’s pulp novel from 1990 of the same name, that Lynch adapted into a movie. Some of these allusions are the image of Lula’s mother as the Wicked Witch -which repeats several times through the film-, Lula putting her red heels together, the apparition of Glinda the Good Witch in a bubble or the mention of Toto the dog and the yellow brick by secondary characters.

The story starts with a short but crucial event: after years, Sailor is released from jail, where he ended up for killing the man that Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd) hired to eliminate him. Lula meets him outside the prison and gives him back his most precious belonging: the snakeskin jacket. Despite of the fact that they know Lula’s mother will seek them using his boyfriend, the detective Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), they decide to break Sailor’s parole leaving North Carolina and running away to California. What they do not know is that Marietta also hires Santos (J. E.nFreeman) -a dangerous hitman who is mysteriously involved in Lula’s father death- to kill Sailor, and he will use all his strange and sinister partners to help him fulfilling the job.

Sailor, Lula and the music on the road

In order to analyze the use and presence of the music in this feature film, it is needed to go through the whole story, so that we can have the chance to understand with more accuracy how the music affects each scene. The following tour will show us how Lynch and Badalamenti have accomplished an outstanding symbiosis of what we see and what we hear.

With this purpose in mind, it is indeed necessary to remember the subjectivity of this task, as music can be felt or interpreted in many ways depending of the individual who is experiencing it.

. Powermad’s “Slaughthouse”, the main song in the movie.

In the very beginning of the movie we have and element pretty frequent and always important in Lynch’s movies: the fire. While we see the fire in the credits, we also listen to “I’m Abendrot”. After the burning credits, we are introduced to the bar-restaurant Cape Fear, somewhere near the border between North and South Carolina. We see the place, a really fancy, stylish old bar, with people wearing dresses and suits. The music is the one who transport us to this atmosphere of a vintage, classy party. To be more precise, it is an intense trumpet, of a song that reminds us of the bohemian world of the 50’s (a decade certainly very loved by Lynch). It is Glenn’s Miller’s “In the Mood”. Even though what we see looks old, we are not sure if the music comes from the party or if it is part of the background music, because we see no source, but then comes the audio dissolve which makes the song non-diegetic and starts the dialogue between Sailor and Bobby Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge), the guy hired for Marietta to kill him. The music goes down slowly until it stops completely and in the same moment Bobby Ray tries to stab Sailor with his knife and Lula scream in desperation. Here it starts the rock music, “Slaughterhouse” of Powermad, a powerful and violent song that only appears in the moment of the fight until Sailor kills his murderer. After that, with the killer’s corpse in the ground and everyone staring at it with surprise and fear, the first song comes back, and we can enjoy the 50’s feeling again. After this, Sailor is sent to jail.

The next shot is a totally different scene, pretty lynchian: a crystal ball were we have Sailor inside, behind bars, and a woman hand with black nails, we could call her a witch, that pass her hand through the ball, as sort kind of spell casting. There we can read 22 months and 18 days later while a weird and disturbing music invade the image track, suggesting something bad or uncertain.

Upon Sailor’s release, he and Lula meet outside the prison, despite of the total refusal of the mother, who cannot conceive the possibility of her daughter being with Sailor. Lula arrives to the meeting and hands her beloved the snakeskin jacket, his “symbol of individuality and belief in personal freedom”. There, they talk and arrange going to Cape Fear again and attend to a Powermad’s concert in Hurricane. When they get into the car, we listen again to the same song, “Slaughterhouse”, just when they are determined, totally sure about their lives. The song continues while they are having sexual relations in a hotel, where the filter turns red and the image track a little blurry.

Immediately next to that song we have another one, a pretty quiet and nice diegetic song played from the radio that Sailor is holding with his feet, while he is doing exercise, this song stops in the flashback when Lula remembers she being raped by her uncle Poochi, years ago. Then, the dialogue with Sailor continues and the radio song, soft but clear, comes back. She has another flashback of Poochi’s death in a car accident and the song stops again. After that, Lula feels a laugh in her head, a crazy, feminine, evil laugh and felt awkward and confuse. We see here for the first time in the movie the fire in Lula’s head, and its particular sound that summons evil and death. While she kisses Sailor trying to forget, we perceive how the song in the radio gets louder as Sailor gets closer, then he takes it off his feet and she hears the vicious laugh again.

Sailor and Lula (Credits: David Lynch, 1990).

Now we have two flashbacks that come almost simultaneously and talk about the same moment: the day of the party in Cape Fear, before Bobby Ray tries to kill Sailor. First is Marietta’s thought. We listen again to the non-diegetic 50’s old song of the party that dissolves when Lula’s mother enters to the men’s toilet looking for Sailor and asks him to perform sexual intercourse together, which he refuses. That is followed by a scene of Sailor and Lula, where is his turn to remember and he continues Marietta’s memory. In the flashbacks, every time they are in the bathroom arguing, the music of the party stops.

When he proposes Lula to go dance at the Powermad’s concert, she starts to stamp on the mattress really fast, excited and “Slaughterhouse”, the speed metal song, begins while we see her naked feet moving on the bed. The image track then changes and the feet in the bed transforms into shoes of people dancing at the song –which now we can hear almost completely, because in the other cases was just the beginning-, in Powermad’s concert. It is worth mentioning that the real band is there as part of the story and such fact intesifies the relevance of that song. Now that they show us its origin, it has become part of the diegesis. As the music and dance continues, we witness something quite strange: after he sees someone approaching to Lula, Sailor stops the band from playing just by raising his hand. Then, he asks them if they know Elvis Presley and starts performing the famous “Love Me” with Powermad: he sings while the band plays the music and the sing as a chorus, and everyone applauds. It is unquestionably one of the most surreal situations in the film. 

An accurate observation by this time of the movie is the palpable homage it pays to the “King of Rock and Roll” through Sailor. Nicolas Cage’s way of talking, moving or even dressing resembles a lot to the King, particularly in the Jailhouse Rock times, and in the aforementioned scene we can tell that even Cage’s singing sounds like Presley’s. After all, showing a preference or longing for the 50’s has always been a trademark in Lynch’s work.  

Then we have another sex scene with a colored filter, this time yellow and with a dream-like score that creates an oneiric atmosphere. An audio dissolve ends the scene to introduce us to the sound of fire and Sailor’s cigarette. The music is important also when it comes to alert or scare us, like in the flashback they share, the one of the fire in Lula’s house, were her father dies. There, we listen a frightening music that only belongs to the flashback, while we see Lula’s father running all over the house on fire. It is indeed weird and awful at the same time: the dark soundtrack intensifies that presence of a bad feeling, and also we can hear the sounds of the fire and the house falling to pieces.

After that, in Marietta’s flashback, we see again Sailor the day of the murder in Cape Fear and listen to the beginning of the non-diegetic “Slaughterhouse” again. It is the third time we see this and it is confirmed here the leitmotif between Sailor, Lula and this song.

Later on, we have another alternate sequence of scenes. One is of the couple driving. They have decided to ignore Sailor’s probation and drive straight ahead to California. We listen to a happy and upbeat piano that is diegetic because of the car’s radio. On the other hand, we have Marietta and the contract-killer Santos negotiating the murder of Sailor and the capture of Lula. Each time they appear, a constant and dark sound joins them, one of a terrifying depth, like from beneath the earth: it is Penderecki’s “Kosmogonia”, performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, which switches to jazz piano every time the scene turns to the protagonists, the pair of lovers.

We have also one secondary character, Mr. Reindeer (William Morgan Sheppard), a wealthy criminal who’s always immerse in luxury. We see him having a phone conversation with Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie), one of Santo’s partners. Again another character that comes with an specific song. As soon as Juana hang up the phone and we see him in the frame, this classic melody arrives, a nice violin that make us think of high class or wealth. Detective Johnnie owns a tune as well. Every time we see him on his car driving, chasing the lovers, we listen to “Baby please don’t go”, performed by Them. He seems to be constantly in a rush, following Marietta’s orders, his beloved. The lyrics of the song -which probably comes from the radio of the car and is therefore diegetic-, if we pay attention to it, may reflect the anguish of this weak and gentle character.

. Badalamenti’s “Dark Spanish Symphony”.

Music also creates a perfect atmosphere when it comes to context. For example, when we see Sailor and Lula sharing their sex experiences. We have there a concert, where we see Koko Taylor, the artist herself, making a cameo, singing “Up in flames” (another theme created by Lynch and Badalamenti and of course, fire related): I fell for you like a bomb. Now my love’s gone up in flames… It is a scene where lust and passion awaits. This is followed by a shot from the highway with “Slaughterhouse”. They are going back to the hotel. There takes place another sex scene between the couple, again with purple/pink/yellow filters but this time with “Be-Bop A Lula” by Gene Vincent.

One relevant purpose for the music in film is the unexpected: its pact with the story in order to surprise us scare us. We see this through the few times we see Marietta invaded by chaos, struggling to accept the responsibility of the future dead of detective Johnnie, his boyfriend, by Santos. We listen to a powerful and short -as the scene itself- music while Marietta is full of red make-up in her face, resembling blood, screaming in despair. The scene is full of suspense and surprise, with a background music that breaks the previous atmosphere, like a lightning.

The music on the scene of the gas station is also interesting. It is a source music that comes from the radio of the Afro-American man who is listening to it happily and stares at Lula with tenderness. It is a song that pleases you, a relaxing afternoon mood that adds levity, like the one we see on image track: “Smoke Rings”, performed by Glen Grey.

. Penderecki’s “Kosmogonia”.

One more time, we have Powermad’s “Slaughterhouse” in the middle of the highway, where Sailor plays it in the car’s radio and they stop the trip to star dancing and kissing, but it turns to another song when they hug tenderly, a score more soft and romantic.

Certainly, most of the time, the scenes that alternate important parts of the movie, have a specific dialogue underscoring. The scene of Sailor and Lula driving at night, when he reveals he was present in the fire that killed his father years ago, has “Wicked Game” in the background, a beautiful song by Chris Isaak. Its lyrics talk about love and its issues, just in the moment when this confession starts to make Lula quite insecure about their relationship. We see a short flashback of the fire again, this time with the evil laugh of the The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch as a non-diegetic sound. While this is happening, Santos capture detective Johnnie and plots with his twisted minions to arrange his death. Here we have again “Kosmogonia”, now as a shocking score. Then, we go back to the couple driving at night, with “Wicked Game” still as background, but this stops when they find a girl who is seriously wounded after a car accident. There are clothes, blood and corpses on the highway. They try to help her but the girl died in their arms, which upsets Lula, who considers this as an omen of bad luck, of an uncertain, future pain. After they are back to the car, we listen to “Wicked Game” again, once they are inside. There is indeed a connection: after the dark incident, they go back to their thoughts, about themselves and what is right or not, with the car and “Wicked Game” as visual and sound leitmotifs, respectively. It is worth noting that this famous song -along with another one later on also from Isaak, “Blue Spanish Sky”- are played without voice, only instrumental, as Lynch considered the lyrics would be in conflict with the dialogue.

Before detective Johnnie’s demise, we have Santos’s partners in crime, Juana and her lover Reggie (Calvin Lockhart), torturing him. The scene starts with a mad scream of Juana, followed by a dialogue underscoring full of madness, a weird melody that makes us think of tribal music or a spell casting, something dark and unknown: it is “Far Away Chant”, performed by African Head Charge. Juana’s sister, Perdita (Isabella Rossellini), also has her own tune, “Perdita”, by Rubber City, in the scene where Sailor meets her to ask her about his suspicions of people hunting him. It is a slow and soft song that brings some romantic mystery, just like Perdita, who is as beautiful as enigmatic: we do not know if she is really saying the truth, and her face is as uncertain as her words. Only she knows.   

. Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”.

Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), one of the most horrifying and disturbing characters of the movie, appears along other twisted creatures with a non-diegetic intro song that takes us back to a classic western genre, as if something dangerous is about to start. It settle us to expect the action.

In the hotel’s room, where the couple is staying, Lula remembers the time she was raped and reveals Sailor she is pregnant. She is afraid of the entire situation they are into and has doubt about having the baby. While she thinks, we hear again the evil laugh of the Wicked Witch, always as a meta-diegetic sound, only for Lula.

Even though Sailor does not trust Bobby Peru, he convinces him to go and steal the feed store in Lobo, but this turns up in a big failure: Peru tries to shoot Sailor revealing himself as one of Santos’s men, then kills some cops and commits suicide by accident. Sailor goes to jail again. Five years, ten months and twenty-one days later, he is released from prison and meets Lula and his son, Pace, who he has never seen. “Dark Spanish Symphony (50’s version)” performed by Rubber City starts as dialogue underscoring, suggesting a calm atmosphere, hope after hell, but goes down until it stops when Lula starts feeling awkward and doubtful. A non-diegetic jazz song starts when Sailor walks alone, after leaving her thinking he is not good enough for her, and it is surrounded by a gang who beat him up.

Then, through his unconsciousness, he receives the visit of the The Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) in a bubble, who appears in quite a deus ex machina situation, with dream-like music that intensifies the feeling of oneiric magic. It is indeed like if Sailor in dreaming now. She brings Sailor a revelation of hope and freedom: Don’t turn away from love, Sailor. If you are truly wild at heart, you’ll fight for your dreams. Sailor walks up and screams Lula’s name. Now he is totally sure about himself and about what he wants. The fear is gone, so as the Wicked Witch’s curse. We listen to “Dark Spanish Symphony (String version)” while he walks through the cars in the traffic looking for Lula and Marietta screams in her room, lonely and defeated. Her picture in Lula’s house vanishes, suggesting her failure and the end of the spell. While all this happens, we keep listening to the beginning of this background score, hopeful music that brings the possibility of a happy ending. It makes us have no doubt about Sailor’s finding Lula and their son. When they finally meet, he stand into the car -the same they have used in their failed road trip- and start singing “Love Me Tender” of Elvis Presley -earlier in the story he told Lula that he would only sing that song to his wife-. Lula stays next to him, happy while the credits start to roll. Here the song seems pseudo-diegetic: it is singed by Sailor but we also listen to the chorus and the instruments. And after all, it all turned out well for our apparently doomed protagonists. Fin.

. Nicolas Cage performing “Love Me Tender” at the end of the film. 

Sing. Don’t cry.

We have talked about some of the most relevant examples of Wild at Heart where the movie seems to work specially supported by the music. The film indeed has an intense use of image track but they would never be as strong as they are without the music.

Although we have important visual leitmotifs as Sailor’s snakeskin jacket -which he never had when he is doing or feeling wrong or unease- or the car itself, it is important for example to comment one leitmotif that could be considered as essential: the strong beginning of “Slaughterhouse”, the speed metal song played by Powermad. We listen to it in moments that define the couple -particularly Sailor- stability and spirit: when they are in the car, when Sailor proves to be a man and defends him or Lula, when they are together dancing freely and being one. Like the jacket, this song is for Sailor -but also for Lula- a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom. It is really interesting and meaningful for the diegesis of the movie how this song becomes part of the identity of the protagonists.

On the other hand, one relevant element, maybe not as recurrent as “Slaughterhouse”, is the laugh of the Wicked Witch, which really suggests bad omens and transmits confusion and fear.

Such is the music in Wild at Heart, one of the best works in Lynch’s filmography. Whereas is a background music in the landscape, with the mad couple singing, or a diegetic music that comes from a source or is singed or played by someone; it is always the core of the scene. It leads the way, because it prepares us for what is coming, or intensifies the mood of certain scenes to predict our feelings. Whatever we feel, it is always influenced first for the impression that music generates on us.

In this twisted, tragic, dark but also funny story, the significance of the soundtrack and its score have no comparison: every single song adds to what we see on screen. This movie would not exist without its music. Its significance becomes one with the scenes, and they develop perfectly together. Wild at Heart is the music. 

Vintage poster from 1990.

 

The Soundtrack (Produced by David Lynch, Peter Afterman, Diane DeLouise Wessel):

  1. Richard Strauss: Im Abendrot (excerpt) 1:47
  2. Powermad: Slaughterhouse 5:22
  3. Angelo Badalamenti: Cool Cat Walk 3:27
  4. Nicolas Cage: Love Me 2:56 
  5. Them: Baby Please Don’t Go 
  6. Koko Taylor: Up in Flames (lyric by D. Lynch, music by A. Badalamenti) 6:16
  7. Chris Isaak: Wicked Game 4:07 
  8. Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps: Be-Bop a Lula 
  9. Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra: Smoke Rings 3:03
  10. Rubber City: Perdita (music by D. Slusser and D. Lynch) 4:13
  11. Chris Isaak: Blue Spanish Sky 3:59 
  12. Angelo Badalamenti: Dark Spanish Symphony (edited, String Version) 2:36
  13. Angelo Badalamenti: Dark Spanish Symphony (50’s Version) 2:43
  14. Angelo Badalamenti: Dark Lolita 2:16
  15. Nicolas Cage: Love Me Tender 3:00

 

Bibliography

. CARYN JAMES. The New York Times Archives: Film View. Wild at Heart. 1990.

. The British Film Resource – The Films of David Lynch – Chapter 4: Wild at Heart.

. JAMES WIERZBICKI. Film Music: A History (Routledge, 2009).

. DANIEL GOLDMARK, LAWRENCE KRAMER and RICHARD LEPPERT. Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema (University of California Press, 2007).

. The City of Absurdity: Wild at Heart Soundtrack.

 

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A halfway faux pas: Irrational Man (Woody Allen, 2015)

Joaquin Phoenix is Abe Lucas (©2015 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved).

An entertaining rehash of certain powerful ideas in Allen’s filmography, but a rehash after all.

[Texto en ESPAÑOL]

*** This is an edited and extended version of a review made for the unpublished crime non-fiction magazine “Rojonegro”, created for the Journalism Specialty of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (2015).

You are Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), the new professor of philosophy at the University of Braylin, New England. You are a celebrity among the academics. You have lived too much. Family issues. Friends killed in the Middle East. Impotent. Dipsomaniac. Junkie. Suicidal. You are getting through an intense writer’s block that goes along with your existential crisis. Without intending to, you end up in a strange love triangle that involves your student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone); and your colleague, Rita Richards (Parker Posey). Such adventure doesn’t seem to calm you. You go on without a compass until that morning in the restaurant. At the next table, a woman burst into tears. She will lose the custody of her children due to the influence of a corrupt judge in the family court. The imminent injustice is eating you. Is this the moment you were looking for? An empirically feasible situation, theoretically ideal. A stranger. Nobody would suspect. Make the judge disappear. Divine justice as its finest. A chance to play God. How to plan and execute the perfect murder and get away with it?

I saw Irrational Man during my second visit to Warsaw, in the European summer of 2015. When I was leaving the Kino Luna at the end of the show, I remember carrying with me that first thought that is more and more common with Woody Allen‘s films, “it looks like such or such, but it was not that bad”. It has been a few years, I have seen the film again and checked this review and I would say, honestly, that Irrational Man has aged well. Certainly far away from Allen’s highlights, but not among the worst either, at least considering the different bad reviews it picked up at the time. I am not saying that I liked it more this time, but it is important to mention that this story fits perfectly with the discourse that Allen’s filmography has been building over the years.

Woody Allen with the actors (©2015 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved).

If we think about Allen’s entire filmography, it is not the first time that we have encountered the conflict and questioning that homicide entails, as we saw in the splendid -my favourite- Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) or the less successful but interesting Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), to name a few. Let’s see, the film has recurring themes of Allen: a love triangle, infidelity, an artistic-intellectual atmosphere, jazz, philosophical and moral debates, murder … What new contribution to Allen’s universe does this film propose?

Not much. The three protagonists are charming, with performances that work within the limitations of the script. Despite the abuse of literary and philosophical references in Abe’s disquisitions, which sometimes are hard to swallow in the character, there are good moments laden with a familiar black humour of the director, as here: “I wanted to be a world changer and I’ve ended up a passive intellectual who can’t fuck”. The photography of Darius Khondji gives us beautiful portraits of the city. Is there anything else? I do not think so, although that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The movie tries to emulate some of the greatest successes of the filmmaker, becoming unimaginative, somewhat in a hurry, but enjoyable. Woody Allen has a trajectory greatly enhanced by the self-referentiality and repetition of his stories, and this generates something that has become evident in his films since the beginning of the 21st century, I would say: the more he tends to copy himself, the more he will ensure an entertaining screening, perhaps nostalgic, but each time more inferior. Movies that may work exclusively with his followers.

Joaquin Phoenix in “Irrational Man” (©2015 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved).

It happens that when you see Irrational Man, is almost inevitable to evoke other Allen films, all better than this one. The story of a crime with existentialist nuances is already there and in its best form in the aforementioned Crimes and Misdemeanors, where Martin Landau hires a hitman to eliminate his lover; in Match Point (2005), where Jonathan Rhys-Meyers decides to do the same on his own; or even with more comedy in Love and Death (1975), when the same Allen as Boris Grushenko and his cousin and wife played by Diane Keaton plan to assassinate Napoleon Bonaparte. These titles explore better the Dostoevsky themes that obsesses Allen. In our protagonist, the philosopher, that becomes almost literal: he owns a copy of Crime and Punishment full of his homicidal notes. Abe’s conflict is typical of the moral philosophy: Can murder be considered a contribution to society? How to live after perpetrating it? Here lies one of the few doses of creativity of the film: Abe Lucas and his way of rationalizing homicide become interesting in comparison to other moral stories of Allen, where the motive is usually passion. In Irrational man it is about justice, or at least an idea of ​​it.

The consummation of the biggest crime, to kill another human being, seems to be the answer of Abe Lucas to his obsessive attempt to reach certain kind of spiritual rebirth. To disappear a supposedly evil and corrupt judge from the face of the earth is the motive he has been seeking to embrace fullness. However, Abe is not an idealistic vigilante, he follows the path of existentialism. The meaning of his life dwells in the decision and the conviction to act against what is morally accepted in our society. And so it happens the moral dilemma of the film, with its nefarious, absurd and comic consequences. Promising but without getting deeper.

Towards the end of the film, I feel that Woody Allen did not try hard enough to make us doubt whether Abe Lucas’s crime is justified or not, but I’m not complaining. Philosophical disputes about the possibility of murder are one of his strongest topics, something that his previous creations have worked better, sometimes magnificently. Perhaps if the script had not been subjected to Allen’s stubborn need to release a film per year, it would have been a superior or more original story. Irrational Man is very funny, it is not a bad idea, and it keeps the signature style of its director. Certainly watchable, but always a flawed option. You may just skip it and return to Martin Landau on the beach with Anjelica Huston.

  • The classic “The ‘In’ Crowd” by Ramsey Lewis Trio, the main theme of the film:

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