Rogue One and the Future of Darth Vader

With Rogue One now on general release, it’s worth looking a little closer at one of its main stars: Darth Vader. He may not be in it all that much, but the artist formerly known as Anakin Skywalker looms large over the film, dominating the handful of scenes he’s in and leaving you with plenty of questions. Why’s he on Mustafar? What’s he doing in that big old watery pod? How does he get his helmet so shiny black?

Valid questions, all (especially that last one: Polish? Turtle Wax? Does he have his own little waxing droid?). But what runs through my head whenever I see Vader appear in Rogue One or the TV series Rebels is: what’s he thinking? Come on, big guy…

a98

Why? Because one of my biggest frustrations with Revenge of the Sith (my least favourite of all the Star Warses) is that I can’t reconcile the Vader at the end of that film with the one who appears at the start of A New Hope. The latter is so full of rage and hatred, while the former is pretty much just a scared boy who’s lost everything and is now stuck in a big black tin can. At what point did one become the other? And more importantly: how?

The re-emergence of the Star Wars franchise gives us a chance to find out, and I’m sure we will. The marketing for Rogue One teased Vader’s cameo perfectly, showing Lucasfilm and Disney are well aware of his continued impact on pop culture. There’s simply no way we won’t get a Vader standalone film, though I suspect it won’t be until Episode 9 is released as the character will likely continue to have a significant bearing on Kylo Ren in the new trilogy. This will hopefully give Lucasfilm plenty of time to think about how to approach the film, because it really isn’t easy.

The difficulty with making a Vader film is that the character works well when used in moderation. He’s a monster: the xenomorph from Alien, the shark from Jaws. Balance is everything. Show too much, and he loses his sense of mystery. Show too little, and the film loses its sense of threat (which is one of the problems I had with Rogue One). Vader exists on the edge of nightmare: always there, but just out of sight. We should’t know him too much: we should let our imagination run away with itself.

That said, there’s a fascinating character study to be had in a Vader film, one that shows the man behind the monster. Because the man is definitely still there. While watching him hack his way through rebel after rebel at the end of Rogue One, I didn’t just see a bad guy doing what bad guys do. That scene is one of the most thrilling in the movie because it’s utterly desperate: the Rebels are desperate to secure the Death Star plans, and Vader is desperate to get them back. At the end of the sequence, he looks on as the Rebels escape, not angry, not plotting their demise. He’s motionless, empty.

Again: what’s going on in his head? Whatcha thinkin’ Vadey!? My own interpretation is that everything he does in Rogue One, everything he did in the preceding, unseen 20 years after Sith, and everything he’ll continue to do is because of Padme. If his evil in the prequels was down to a love for her and a desire to protect her, isn’t it just as true that everything he does after the prequels is a bid to honour her memory? He wouldn’t just let that all go. The fact he’s still based on Mustafar, perhaps as some kind of weird tribute to Padme or act of self-punishment, shows that. Anakin Skywalker doesn’t simply let things go.

Don't rub it in, Elsa.
Don’t rub it in, Elsa.

The Rebellion isn’t just political for Vader then; it’s deeply personal. Every sabotage, every insurgency, every attack is an affront to his efforts to preserve the memory of his lost love. So he would be pretty desperate in that final sequence: just as the Empire is close to completing something that could essentially end the Rebellion and secure the peace he’s been longing for since Padme died, these pathetic, treacherous Rebels have come along and ruined that. He’s desperate, he’s angry, he’s going to destroy every last one of them to get those plans back. He’s the hate-filled Vader we see at the start of A New Hope.

If a Vader standalone is made, I’d love to see it take that angle. To see Vader as a purely bad guy is to misunderstand the point of the series. Star Wars deals in broad strokes: good and evil, light and dark, Rebellion and Empire, but the dramatic core is the stuff in between them, the frailties and contradictions that make us human and drive us to do the things we do. For good and for evil. Rogue One hints at that complexity in Vader, but there’s still a lot to build on. Hopefully a standalone can take it even further.

Advertisements

Spielberg at 70: A Tribute

As I’ve mentioned in the past, along with writing on Kids Riding Bicycles, I also run a Steven Spielberg website called, suitably enough, From Director Steven Spielberg. Check it out. It’s okish, I guess. A solid 6 out of 10.

I’ve written lotsa stuff over the five years From Director Steven Spielberg has been running, and over the last year, I’ve branched out by creating a few videos. They’re nothing fancy – just little Supercuts and mini video essays – but they work ok. You can watch them at the site’s YouTube channel.

With Spielberg celebrating his 70th birthday on Sunday 18th December, I wanted to create a new video that highlighted something we don’t often appreciate about Spielberg: the gentility of his films. More often than not, we think of the action and spectacle of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws and Jurassic Park, and so we miss the heartfelt, quiet moments of human connection. Hopefully ‘The Secret Whisperings’ as I’ve pretentiously called it, reminds us of those moments.

I’m still working out how to master the art of video editing and video essays, and will continue to develop my skills next year. I may even branch out into creating Disney-themed videos. Until then, I hope you enjoy this. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Stevie.

Notes from Rogue One

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up

WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS BUILT ON SPOILERS. MASSIVE ONES. DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Rogue One was always something of an anomaly for me. It’s a Star Wars film, so I was excited to see it, but it was a very different kind of Star Wars film: a gritty war film rather than a mythical fairy tale. As someone who loves the fairy tale quality of the saga, I was unsure about this new direction, and so my anticipation for Rogue One never hit quite the same levels as it did for The Force Awakens last year.

Now I’ve seen the film, I remain a little unsure. I love parts of it, but as a whole, it never quite seems to gel. It’s a bold and ambitious film; arguably one of the most ambitious blockbusters I’ve ever seen. For that it deserves a huge amount of praise. But it also creates some of the film’s biggest problems. Here are a few very spoilery notes from the film.

  • Felicity Jones is incredible here. While I think the film struggles significantly with the depth it gives some of the characters, Jones manages to counter that with a performance of deeply affecting silence. Her eyes in particular are tremendously powerful: full of despair, hope, fire, and anger. Everything is done with the eyes. The moment when she breaks down while watching the hologram of her father is one of the film’s greatest moments.
  • Just as he did on Godzilla, Gareth Edwards demonstrate a great ability to ground the fantastical in a tangible sense of reality. From the moment Krennic and his Deathtroopers turn up to take Galen Erso from his family at the start of the movie, everything feels real and that has a particularly important effect on the stormtroopers, who here feel like an actual oppressive army – irrepressible, genuinely scary – rather than a bunch of useless underlings who need target practice.
  • The film’s core message is brilliantly prescient, and is likely to have particular resonance with late teens/20-somethings. Contrary to Bob Iger’s recent comments about the film’s lack of political message, Rogue One is not just deeply political, it’s about becoming politicised. Jyn is so beaten down by the cruelty of the galaxy and her lot in life that she feels she can’t achieve anything and so resorts to apathy. The film forces her to take up a cause so she can express her frustration more positively, and as the real world darkens, that’s a worthwhile message for the film to convey. Also: super-political, Bob. Come on, dude, grow a spine.
  • The last 20 minutes of Rogue One are genuinely remarkable. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything so thrilling at the cinema. Like all the great finales, it convinces you that anything can happen, that there are no guarantees, and that either good or evil could win. The very final few sequences, in which Rebel troops desperately flee Vader, Death Star plans in hand, while the Sith Lord cuts through them like a hot knife through butter is as terrifying, desperate and vital as blockbuster film-making gets. This is a prequel. We know how it ends. But somehow, in that final act, everything feels up for grabs.
  • (Sidenote: the moment when the destruction of Scarif creates a gigantic mushroom cloud style explosion that resembles a sun is one of the richest and most poignant uses of Star Wars iconography I’ve ever seen. If Luke looking out towards the twin suns on Tattooine was an expression of pure hope and potential, Jyn and Cassian framed against a sun-like mushroom cloud is an expression of that same hope tainted by tragedy. Rebellions are built on hope… but also desperation.)
  • And yet, for all that, the finale also exposes one of the film’s key flaws. It has big moments that never quite feel earned. As our heroes are picked off one by one, it feels like Rogue One‘s doing it for shock, a way to underline how dark it is and make the wider point about the sacrificial nature of political resistance. That’s a valid point and the deaths make it well, but I wanted to care more about these people than I did. As the deaths kept coming, I sorta expected it and they lost a little impact.
  • This is extended throughout, particularly with Jyn. A key moment for her is when she tries to encourage a rebellion stripped of morale to fight on. They want to give up, convinced that there’s no way they can possibly fight a weapon like the Death Star, but Jyn insists they keep going, stating the film’s signature line: “rebellions are built on hope”. But the film doesn’t feel like it earns her change of heart. Key relationships – with her father, with Cassian – feel too thin, key moments in her life –  her childhood, her abandonment by her father and Saw Gerrera – feel underdeveloped. I wanted to see all that, not simply be told it. Perhaps the prequel novel Catalyst expands this, perhaps there’ll be future media showing her as the 16-year-old tearaway we’re told about, but for Rogue One to function like it needs to, all that really needs to be here, in Rogue One.
  • (Sidenote: While I admire the braveness of the film killing its cast, I wish Jyn at least had survived. It feels like they could have done so much with her. Imagine, for example, her watching or taking part in the Battle of Yavin, finally seeing the fruits of her and her father’s endeavours. Hope is a part of the film’s make-up, and in many ways her surviving to see the Death Star’s destruction undermines that message: hope, by its nature, is about believing in something, not actually seeing it. But it’s still a shame (though an admirable one) that we won’t get any more Jyn stories.
  • Director Krennic’s another key character the film never quite gets right. In isolation, he’s a fascinating villain: a middle manager with arrogant ambition. He’s pretty normal really, and the moment where he realises he’s about to be destroyed by the monstrosity he’s created underlines how pathetically human he is. But the film needs a bigger sense of threat. It needs the murderous sneer of Tarkin (who appears here but isn’t the main threat) or the cold calculation of Grand Admiral Thrawn (who would have been perfect for this), but Krennic doesn’t have that stature. Rogue One is the beginning of an endgame: the set-up for a battle that will bring 20 years of conflict to a head. It just never quite feels like that’s on the line.
  • While Edwards largely helms the film very well, there are definite flaws, mostly with tone. At times, Rogue One feels at war with itself, fighting to be a different kind of Star Wars film, but still knowing that it needs to be a Star Wars film. So you get some moments, such as the scenes of the insurgency on Jedha, that are deliberately touching upon very real world concerns. Others, meanwhile, feel like classic Star Wars, such as the aerial attack on Scarif. It creates a film that, on first viewing at least, feels patchwork and inconsistent, unable to feel entirely like one thing or the other. I hope that feeling recedes on repeat viewings.
  • Despite all of this, I did very much enjoy the film – I just didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped, or as much as I loved The Force Awakens. Ultimately there’s a mix of issues, some that simply won’t go away (the thinly-written characters) and some that maybe will (the sense of clashing tones and styles). But whatever flaws there are, they’re created by Rogue One trying something that nobody really had any right to expect. It’s a brave film that tears up the Star Wars rule book and asks us to accept a different version of the franchise. I have a feeling it’ll reward repeat viewings, but even after just the one, for its boldness and ambition alone, Rogue One deserves the benefit of the doubt and a huge amount of praise. The Star Wars universe is a vast and diverse place. Rogue One shows us that Lucasfilm and Disney are brave enough to explore it.

Mr Everyday Regular Fella: Spielberg’s Leading Men

tumblr_inline_of5fkpa1081r29tzb_500

I like Steven Spielberg. I like writing. I like writing about Steven Spielberg. 

I like dogs too, but that’s beside the point. Here’s another of the posts I’ve written for my other site From Director Steven Spielberg, probably, like, the third fourth best Spielberg site on the internet.

If I were to ask you to list the defining elements of Steven Spielberg’s film-making, the chances are you’d home in on his technical craft first. The shot selection, the thrilling set pieces, the beautiful cinematography, the use of music… All of these are likely to come to mind before anything else and understandably so: Spielberg excels in these areas. But we spend so long marvelling at the technical aspects of his cinema that his ability with actors, his talent for casting smartly and drawing out the very best from his players, often goes unheralded – by critics, by filmgoers, and by the Academy, who have only given two acting Oscars to Spielberg films (Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies).

With that in mind, I wanted to look at Spielberg’s leading men, and explore what they bring to the films they’re in. But not just any leading men. We all know Spielberg’s has a particular kind of hero – the “Mr. Everyday Regular Fella” who struggles to get by in life and has to overcome a great emotional crisis to succeed. We see this in Martin Brody of Jaws (who has to conquer his fear of water to save Amity), Elliot from E.T. (who has to mature enough to let his alien friend go home), and Alan Grant from Jurassic Park (who has to grow up enough to become a defender of Lex and Tim). Even when the stakes are raised to historical levels, the likes of Oskar Schindler and War Horse’s Albert remain everymen struggling to find the courage to do what’s right against the odds.

As compelling as these characters are, the actors playing them have never returned to work with Spielberg for a second time. This is a privilege reserved for only a handful of the biggest names: Tom Hanks (four films), Harrison Ford (four films), Richard Dreyfuss (three films), and Tom Cruise (two films). Mark Rylance, star of Bridge of Spies and The BFG, will join Ford and Hanks on four films when he adds The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and Ready Player One to his Spielberg slate. However, as his Spielberg identity is still under construction, I won’t touch on his work much in this article.

Each actor plays a variation on the Spielberg leading man, but Spielberg uses their persona in different ways. Sometimes he plays it straight, tapping into their public image to heighten certain elements of their characters; sometimes, he subverts their reputations, going against the grain of what audiences expect of them to make the character more ambiguous, and the themes of the film they’re in richer. Speaking broadly, Spielberg’s core four can be broken down into these categories: The Everyman (Richard Dreyfuss), The American (Tom Hanks), The Action Hero (Tom Cruise), and The Adventurer (Harrison Ford). In this article, I’ll explore each one.

tumblr_inline_of5ddzu35f1r29tzb_500

The Everyman (Richard Dreyfuss): Dreyfuss is essentially the young Spielberg’s cinematic avatar, and you can see that in the three films they’ve made together. The bullying Hooper faces at the hands of Quint in Jaws reflects the bullying Spielberg endured growing up; the childish wonder Neary has in Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflects Spielberg’s own sense of wonder; and Pete in Always echoes the drive for maturity Spielberg was undergoing at the end of the 80s.

There’s little subversion in the first two films, but as Spielberg’s career developed so too did his vision of himself. When that process began exactly is difficult to tell. You can see self-criticism in the ‘fortune and glory’ depiction of Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom, and there’s certainly a lot of Spielberg in Empire of the Sun’s Jim, whose journey from ignorance to enlightenment anticipates those of Peter Banning, Alan Grant, and Oskar Schindler. However, I’d say it began in earnest with Always, and that’s for two reasons: 1) the casting of Dreyfuss in the lead role and 2) Spielberg’s childhood affection for the film it remakes: 1943 melodrama A Guy Named Joe.

Always is something of a fork in the road for Spielberg. By casting an elder Dreyfuss in a film he held dear as a child, he’s essentially subverting the the Peter Pan image that had been constructed around him. When we watch Always, we see a man-child refusing responsibility and fleeing into the world of airborne fantasies that eventually cause his death. It’s a light film, and at times a very silly and sentimental one, but the ultimate message is surprisingly dark: mature or die. After Always, Spielberg emphatically chose the former.

tumblr_inline_of5ekekcb31r29tzb_500

The American (Tom Hanks): Hanks is Spielberg’s embodiment of America, his Jimmy Stewart, and he uses him to question American values. It’s easy to look at Saving Private Ryan and Bridge of Spies and see only flag-waving patriotism, but both project not a single image, but a split one: what America is and what America should be.

In Saving Private Ryan, Hanks represents the purity of the American everyman, but his morality is fractured. Miller’s job is to make impossible life-and-death decisions, be that sending his troops out on a mission to save just one man or leaving a little girl behind because his team can’t afford the responsibility of taking her with them. His dying remark that Ryan should “earn” his death asks a question: can we and have we? The pale American flag fluttering in the film’s final shot suggests there’s no clear answer, underlining Spielberg’s anxiety over where America is headed.

Bridge of Spies is no less incisive when it comes to American morality; in fact, it’s probably more brutal. James Donovan acts as an Atticus Finch figure, noble in his pursuit of justice. Yet to achieve that justice, he has to bend the rules a little, employ lawyers’ dodges to ensure his client is getting the rights he deserves. Though that doesn’t tarnish Donovan’s image (he is, after all, doing it for good reasons), it shows how crooked the American system has become, and one of the film’s closing images – the boys vaulting fences like East Berliners tried to vault the Wall – underlines how little it takes for a crooked system to become a totally corrupt one.

Hanks’s other two Spielberg collaborations are lighter, with his role in Catch Me If You Can being particularly frothy: a parody of the government agent that he and Spielberg clearly enjoy sending up. There’s substance and subversion there, but much of it revolves around Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale, so instead it’s Hanks’s turn in The Terminal that’s the more interesting of the two.

By casting the great American everyman as an immigrant, Spielberg not only makes us question our attitude to migrants, but twists the view of America as a land of opportunity. As he makes a life for himself in the airport, Viktor shows more grace, sincerity, hard work, and ambition than many of the Americans in the film. While he has embraced the American Dream, they’ve abandoned it, and there’s a sense of bitter melancholy in the final shot of a wintery Times Square, which Spielberg lingers on as Viktor asks to be taken home. Home may be a fractured country in the throes of revolution, but at least it’s better than modern America.

tumblr_inline_of5dkbhs0c1r29tzb_500

The Action Hero (Tom Cruise): When Spielberg and Tom Cruise first worked together on Minority Report, much was made of the time it took for Hollywood’s biggest director and its biggest action hero to join forces. There’d been some near misses (most notably Rain Man, which Spielberg had to drop out of to fulfil his Indiana Jones commitments), but 2002 marked their first of only two collaborations. Why so long and why so few? It’s not really surprising because Spielberg simply doesn’t do action heroes.

A Spielbergian action film tends to involve an everyman (like Brody), an intellect (like Alan Grant or Tintin) or Indiana Jones (who I’ll return to shortly). So why cast Cruise in Minority Report and War of the Worlds? Simple: these are two of the darker blockbusters of Spielberg’s career – indeed two of the darkest films he’s ever made beyond the likes of Schindler’s List and Munich –  and Spielberg casts Cruise to muddy him up, undermine his image, and ultimately subvert what he (and what a modern action hero) is.

Look, for example, at War of the Worlds, where Ray Ferrier starts the film as a thoroughly loathsome human being. Hateful towards his children to the point where he hurls a baseball at one of them after an argument, he slowly comes to be a better father during the course of the film, but only after undertaking some morally dubious actions (including murder). The finale finds him reuniting his family, but he remains physically apart from them, Spielberg showing that even blockbuster heroics can’t heal a broken home.

Minority Report takes the concept even further, not only undermining Cruise’s action hero integrity but also physically mutating him. Spielberg has John Anderton replace his eyeballs and painfully distort his face in order to evade capture, and even then, he still ends gets locked away. The film ends on a superficially happy note as Anderton and his wife are reunited and the Pre-Cogs are set free, but as in War of the Worlds, ambiguity lingers. Crime is now a reality again and the fate of Andertons’ son is still a mystery. For Spielberg, the Cruise model of action hero doesn’t succeed, not totally. He simply survives.

tumblr_inline_of5dz1gvse1r29tzb_500

The Adventurer (Harrison Ford): This approach also informs the way Spielberg tackled Indiana Jones. While George Lucas has spoken of how he’d pick Indy if he could choose to be any of his characters, Spielberg seems more distant. At points in all four of the Indiana Jones films, but especially in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom, Spielberg portrays Indy as a dark, morally ambiguous figure who, in the words of Belloq, would turn to darker ways with nothing more than a nudge. Indeed, during Temple of Doom, he does fall, becoming completely consumed by the Black Sleep of the Kalli while captured by the Thugee cult.

Indy’s a fascinating hero for American cinema because along with that sense of darkness, he’s actually a pretty inactive. The Big Bang Theory has made Indy’s lack of consequence to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s finale common knowledge, but while the show criticises him for that, it’s actually the film’s (and the series’) point. Indy either loses or destroys the MacGuffin every time and instead learns the value of respect: for higher powers in Raiders, for community in Temple of Doom, for his father in Last Crusade, and for knowledge in Crystal Skull. Indy’s a good person, but a pretty rotten action man.

Indeed, while the hardbody heroes of 80s American cinema were seizing power, shooting villains, showing authority to be wholly ineffective and ultimately espousing the individualism of the Reagan era, Spielberg was interested in showing a character who was fundamentally human. Indy’s flawed and out of his depth, having to use his intellect – not just a weapon – to negotiate his way out of danger. He may have been created by Lucas, but he’s a key Spielberg character because he blends elements of all the director’s leading men into one: the everyman humour of Dreyfuss, the American nobility of Hanks, and the darker heroics of Cruise.

It’s interesting then that Spielberg closed Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in a similar way to Minority Report and War of the Worlds. Like Anderton and Ferrier, Indy is reunited with his family at the film’s close, but melancholy lingers. The interdimensional beings have departed, taking with them the wisdom and knowledge they’re symbolic of. Linking the close of the film to its beginning at Doom Town, Spielberg rhymes two shots – those of Indy framed against the nuke’s mushroom cloud and Indy framed against the departing flying saucer – to make a devastating point about Indy’s importance – or rather lack thereof – in a world consumed with paranoia and war. Is there room anymore for a human hero?

tumblr_inline_of5efvi9cd1r29tzb_500

Conclusion…
Spielberg’s leading men have evolved as the director himself has, and it’s perhaps no surprise that he’s now turning to a gentle elder statesman like Mark Rylance as he approaches his 70th birthday. During the last decade, Spielberg’s films have expressed a weariness at the way the world is going, a desire to change things mixed with an anxiety over how to actually do that.

In both Bridge of Spies and The BFG, Rylance has captured that sadness perfectly, continuing his director’s fascinating, ambiguous use of his leading men. Spielbergian heroes are not blood and thunder winners; they’re flawed dreamers, displaced patriots, and dark heroes, Most of all, just as Spielberg himself was as a child, they’re lost boys all struggling to find their place in a world they don’t quite feel a part of.

Of Morals and Men: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment

the-apartment

This is an archival post that was first published in 2013.

“Be a mensch. You know what that means? A mensch! A human being!”

Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is many things. A beautiful dark romance, a bitter office comedy, a biting social satire. Above all though, it’s a plea for humans to act more, well, human. Wilder, a bruised romantic who looked at life through a skewed and cynical lens, was inspired to make the film after watching Brief Encounter. He got to wondering about the logistics of adultery. How does one conduct oneself? Where does one go? What happens in the peripheries?

These questions led Wilder to the story of C.C. Baxter, a low-level clerk at insurance company Consolidated Life; Fran Kubelik, an elevator girl he’s in love with; Jeff Sheldrake, the married executive she’s having an affair with; and the titular apartment, which Baxter loans out to Sheldrake and other execs at the company to enable their extramarital activities. The Apartmentis Wilder’s best movie and my favourite movie of all time. Here’s why…

C.C. Baxter
Baxter is the heart of The Apartment and a surprisingly unpleasant character to anchor what is ostensibly a romantic comedy. A weasely little man whose devious ambitions belie his happy-go-lucky demeanour, Baxter grasps to his thin sliver of power to climb the corporate ladder at Consolidated Life, never considering the collateral damage he helps inflict on the families of his bosses. Why should he? That doesn’t affect him. All he has to give up is a few nights sleep here and there and pretty soon he’ll have a nicer office, a better job and a bigger pay packet. The perks are plenty, the drawbacks few, so he’s prepared to work around them.

In a scene early in the film, he re-organises his diary to accommodate three of the most important executives. He has a cold and needs to use his apartment to recover. So he calls the exec who has the apartment booked in. He agrees to move, but only if he can have the apartment on another night. Problem is, another exec has it then, so Baxter has to call that exec to make sure the night the first exec wants is free. He, however, also wants a night that’s booked. And so on and so on…This cycle continues until finally, Baxter finds a free night and he can at long last get his apartment back. It’s an awful lot to go through to get to sleep in your own bed, but a promotion’s a promotion.

As the film progresses though, Baxter earns the promotion he’s been hoping for and he proves less accommodating to the quartet. The execs come to see him in his office and Baxter stands up to them, quickly refusing to let them use the apartment. They’ve given him what he wants – why help them out anymore? Later in this scene, Sheldrake also asks to use the apartment and Baxter’s mood shifts again. The front he’d shown to the other execs disappears, replaced by the eager-to-please sycophant who’d been so welcoming to the other execs. Sheldrake is the director of Consolidated Life and Baxter knows that it’s him he now needs to impress. So, the only hint of resistance he puts up is a passive-aggressive joke that cements his immorality. “Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you’re gonna divorce your wife,” Sheldrake tells him. “Now I ask you, is that fair?” “No, sir, it’s very unfair,” comes Baxter’s reply. “Especially to your wife.” Baxter knows he’s doing wrong, but does nothing to stop it.

Despite all this, Baxter remains a fundamentally likeable, charming and engaging character. We never turn against him – if anything we root for him. Bad writing? Masterful casting, more like. In his second turn in a Wilder film, Jack Lemmon gives arguably the best performance of his career. Funny, sad and a little frayed around the edges, he imbues in Baxter a central decency that means even as he descends into a moral black hole, there’s something human and sympathetic about him.

Wilder knows on this (why else would he cast Lemmon over the less innocent likes of, say, Tony Curtis or Walter Matthau?) and enhances his lead’s everyman qualities. The first time we see him inside his apartment, he does what all bachelors do. He puts his tea on (a shove-it-in-the-oven, pre-prepared affair) and sits down to watch TV. Grand Hotel is on! But some ads spoil the fun. He flicks over and then back to Grand Hotel. Finally it’s starting…”after these messages from our secondary sponsor”. Baxter turns the TV off and the scene ends.

We’ve all been there, and Wilder’s use of such a scenario is brilliant in its cunning. He wants us to identify with Baxter; he wants us to overlook all his flaws, manipulation and cunning, as we overlook our own. It’s a tactic the director used time and time again during his career and here it produces a characters who is a neat foil to the typical depictions of American everyman masculinity – the type James Stewart portrayed for Frank Capra. Those films are aspirational; they show us how we wish we could be. Wilder’s are a little more realistic; they show us how we really are: flawed, troubled and deeply human.

Disconnection and alienation
The Apartment opens with shots of New York City, but this isn’t Woody Allen’s romantic view of the Big Apple, forever bathed in warming monochrome glow. The city of Wilder’s camera is a plain, rather ugly place shot with a cold and distancing helicopter shot.

Accompanying it is a Baxter monologue, in which our lead tells us who he is and what he does for a living:

“On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan. I know facts like this because I work for an insurance company – Consolidated Life of New York. We’re one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of uhh… Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.”

Welcome to the world of The Apartment, where people are numbers and everyone knows their place. Yet the fierce regimentation of Wilder’s world doesn’t bring its occupants closer together; it tears them apart. The film touches on many subjects, but its core theme is disconnection and alienation – it is, after all, a film about men who’d rather indulge in cheap affairs and tawdry flings than the love of their wives.

Once Wilder has shown us the city, he introduces us to Baxter in one of the film’s defining images – that of Baxter sitting in an office of endless desks. The long shot and depth of field combine to give the audience a sense of isolation among a massive crowd. We hear his voice, but at this stage, we don’t see Baxter. As he tells Kubelik later in the film, he’s “Robinson Crusoe…shipwrecked among eight million people”.

When Wilder finally introduces us to his character properly, we see him from a low angle that subtly looks up towards him. But our gaze is far from reverent. Wilder is not showing us Baxter from this angle to subjugate us, but to subjugate him. In the distance, we see the ceiling, a suffocating hatch keeping our characters safely locked in, and all around there’s an ocean of people, stifling our lead even more.

Wilder further emphasizes Baxter’s smallness a few scenes later. Having been turfed out of his apartment, we find Baxter trying to find comfort on a park bench – Wilder again employing a heightened depth of field to echo the alienating scope of the office. This scene then dissolves back to the office, where Wilder’s camera tracks from the clock that hangs above the foyer to the masses arriving at the building. Such is the amount of people, the camera has to pluck Baxter out from the crowd. Baxter is just a another person, a number at a desk. “19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861.” The film’s drama comes from his struggle to escape this drudgery.

The apartment
Wilder reverses his shooting style to create the world of the apartment, though the effect is similarly isolating. If the office is hellish due to its lack of space, the apartment is nightmarish due to a surplus of it. Wilder shoots many of the scenes in the apartment with big long shots and a heightened depth of field, always keeping the doors of the bedroom and kitchen open so we get a sense of the size of this bachelor pad. Even Baxter’s trip up his building’s stairs is lonely, Wilder laboriously drawing out Lemmon’s steps with a long take rather than cutting directly from one floor to the next.

The takes are similarly long inside, Wilder’s camera dwelling on the characters and their problems. When Baxter’s in there, the lack of edits highlights the emptiness and his loneliness; when Sheldrake and Kubelik are in there it emphasizes the lack of connection between the two. Three characters all connected by their separateness.

The above image also neatly highlights Wilder’s use of blank space. The Apartment represents its characters’ spiritual and moral isolation by placing them off-centre in the frame. This can be seen in the image of Baxter eating that I’ve used at the start of this post and in the images below. These are skewed characters in a skewed world.

The bedroom
As I’ve mentioned, Baxter’s bedroom can be seen in almost every scene based in the apartment. It’s one of Wilder’s most brilliant and subtle visual tricks. He uses it as both a serious statement on society’s warped sexual mores (sex is a universal fact of human existence, yet we avoid talking about it) and a sadly ironic comment on the state of the characters – here is the symbol of emotional and physical connection and the only people who are not using it are the only ones who are connecting in a meaningful way.

This finally changes once Kubelik attempts suicide. At this moment, Baxter and Kubelik’s relationship takes a significant turn – and the film with it. Suddenly, The Apartment (and the apartment) folds into the bedroom. The location that never left the peripheries of the drama, now becomes the centre of it and the rest of the building fades into insignificance. Note in the images below that the apartment beyond the bedroom door is either out of frame or out of focus. For the first time, our concern shouldn’t be with the location, or what it represents, but the people inside it.

In these shots, the framing is comfortable and neat – we’re seeing characters’ faces in cozy medium shots and Wilder is using the standard shot/reverse shot technique to cover the dialogue. Finally, the world has returned to normal. For a time at least.

Business and the individual
Now we come to the secondary theme of The Apartment, as Wilder posits the dream of a successful career against the dream of a happy life. Can you have both and if so which would you choose? Wilder makes it clear that the answer to the first question is no, and doesn’t leave much doubt with regards to the second issue either.

The third act of the film begins with Sheldrake’s wife learning of his affair with Kubelik. She promptly divorces him, leaving him free to, in his own words, “take Kubelik off Baxter’s hands”. After all that’s happened, Baxter, who at this point has realised where his heart truly lies, is alone again. But he won’t be entirely without reward. Sheldrake has made him his assistant – he’s finally earned the kind of position he’s been aiming for since the start of the film. Of course, he no longer wants it and as the news is broken, Wilder uses close-ups to isolate Sheldrake and Baxter, highlighting their new-found separateness.

Sheldrake ushers Baxter into his new office, and the skewed framing returns, with much of the right hand side of the frame filled by emptiness. Sheldrake leaves and the camera slowly moves in on Baxter, trapping him within in. Wilder then brilliantly cuts from Baxter to the notice board in the building’s foyer. Baxter’s name is being added to the roster of executives and Wilder’s dissolve visually traps him within the case. Be careful what you wish for…

Of course, that’s not how the film ends. Baxter rejects the job and decides to find a new life, away from his office and the apartment. Wilder reflects his choice to become, in the words of his neighbour, a “mensch, a human being” with a commanding high-angle shot. He’s finally taken control.

Kubelik does the same, realising Baxter’s feelings for her and shunning Sheldrake on New Year’s Eve to run to Baxter’s apartment. It’s here that Wilder creates one of the most memorable closing shots in movie history. The pair share a bottle of champagne, take a seat and resume the game of gin they had started while Kubelik was recovering from her suicide attempt. “You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you,” says Baxter. “Shut up and deal,” comes the iconic response.

Wilder shoots this final scene with a static camera, perfectly framing the characters in an almost symmetrical two-shot. Gone are the skewed angles and warped morals of earlier scenes, replaced by two characters who have found love and emotional connection in each other. In Wilder films, this is the only victory there is. You can’t change the world – it doesn’t want to be changed and it doesn’t deserve to be – you can only change yourself.

Scene and Heard #2: Anna’s Frozen Jig

for_the_first_time_in_forever

In Kids Riding Bicycles’ regular series, Scene and Heard, I take a look at great moments in movie music. This feature isn’t just about the particular scene or the music underscoring it, but how the two come together to form a complete whole. In this edition, I run through one of the truly great moments in modern Disney history: Frozen and one of its signature songs.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know I like musicals. That’s because musicals are great and if you’re uncool enough to think they’re not cool, I don’t care. As a hopeless romantic, I totally and shamelessly buy into their vision of love as something so wondrous you’ve simply got to break into song and do a little jig about it. Because honestly, why would you not want to do that if you’ve finally found the joy of romance?

The moment I want to focus on here is a very specific moment of Frozen‘s masterful song ‘For the First Time in Forever’. As I’ve explained before (erm, twice in fact), Frozen is a beautifully unique film that makes some important points about the nature of true love, refusing to dismiss the possibility that true love can exist, but at the same time warning against giving your heart away too easily because true love comes in different forms.

‘For the First Time in Forever’ is at the centre of that. Here we have two characters sharing a duet and communicating the same idea: that they’re both on the brink of experiencing human interaction for the first time in a long time. But the dramatic tension of the song comes from the fact that they have different readings of that experience: Elsa is utterly terrified, while Anna is utterly delighted. In many ways, if ‘Let It Go’ is Elsa’s song, ‘For the First Time in Forever’ is Anna’s.

We hear Anna’s jubilation first of all as she sings about how she could find her true love and how that will make her life perfect. Then we hear from Elsa, who sings of her terror at letting her guard down, being found out, and hurting people. It’s an incredible piece of music for the way it blends those two competing emotions, allowing the audience to understand the characters emotions while also showing how utterly wrong-headed they are in their approach to them.

Part of that is due to the direction. When the sequence is focusing on Anna, there’s a balletic quality to the camera movement. Like with all the truly great musical numbers, we aren’t just watching Anna dance; we’re dancing with her, swinging and sashaying our way through Arendelle like gravity’s something only other people need to worry about. By comparison, Elsa’s scenes are shot with a slow, deliberate pace and steady camera movements, our viewpoint remaining rooted and still, just as Elsa is.

The style creates a sense of desire within the audience. We want these characters to feel happy: we want Anna to find her true love and we want Elsa to be as free as her sister is. And towards the end of the sequence we get a taste of that, as Anna bounds out of the castle, jumping on walls and swinging around poles, before finally, the moment that always delights me happens: Anna dances a jig.

for_the_first_time_in_forever_frozen_hd_1080p

It’s a small moment, no more than a few seconds long, but it’s important because it captures Anna’s character perfectly. We’re so used to musical numbers being carefully choreographed with little to no room for improvisation, certainly no room for someone to do a little, daft jig. But that’s exactly what Anna does here. She’s walking along, hikes up her skirt a little, and starts jigging along.

It’s the moment in the film where I knew two things: that I was going to love Anna and that I was going to love the film. Because here, we have someone so utterly in love with the idea of being in love, so utterly transcedentally happy at the opportunities she now has in front of her, that she simply can’t contain it. She’s dancing. And when I say that, I don’t mean Dancing Dancing. I mean actually, really dancing. Big, embarrassing, I can’t contain it dancing.

I think about this scene when I feel down. I think about how it made me smile when I first saw Frozen while struggling with anxiety in 2013. I think about how it still makes me smile, even when I linger on the fact that I’m 32 and still, thanks to shyness, haven’t ever had a girlfriend. I think about it because I, to some degree, am Anna: searching for that one wonderful thing that will make me dance a jig. Maybe we all are. And maybe that’s why this moment is so beautifully powerful.

 

Pixar Shorts at Empire Live

piper-pixar
Following the Moana preview, the second event I attended at Empire magazine’s Empire Live was a screening of all Pixar’s theatrically released shorts. I state theatrically released because sadly this didn’t include shorts released as DVD extras, such as Mike’s New Car, Jack-Jack Attack, and Your Friend the Rat. While it would have been amazing to see these shorts as part of the package (especially the inventive Your Friend the Rat and hilarious Jack-Jack Attack), 17 shorts being shown together theatrically for the first time ever is, y’know, pretty good going really. Kudos to the Empire team for getting them.

If you’ve never watched the Pixar shorts together in one go, I suggest you give it a try because it’s a fascinating insight not only into their development as a studio, but computer animation’s development as a medium. From the necessary minimalism of Luxo Jnr to the photo-realism of Piper (which I saw for the first time as part of this package and which had me blinking in disbelief, wondering if it really was animation), Pixar has repeatedly pushed at the boundaries, creating films that not only look great but draw you into their emotions in a way so many features fail to.

The early films (Luxo Jnr, Red’s Dream, Tin Toy, and Knick-Knack) were all directed by John Lasseter, and show huge visual ambition despite the limitations of the tools available. The baby in Tin Toy, for example, may be rudimentary by today’s standards, but it was a huge leap for computer animation back then. There’s also real thematic meat to these shorts, even if they are just a few minutes long. It’s easy now to think of John Lasseter as an executive, but the focus on small worlds hidden from human eyes seen in these early films pre-empts the same worlds we see in Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars. Lasseter seems fascinated by the imagination of places and things in the world we see every day but never really see, and he deserves to be studied more closely as a director of great work, rather than simply an over-seer of it.

maxresdefault

Each Pixar short acts, in part, as an animation school because what you’re seeing is directors and animators trying new things. Geri’s Game is a wonderful example. In this charming tale of an old man playing chess with himself, we see a masterclass of character animation as the man acts out his passive and aggressive sides in a thrilling (and funny) duel. For The Birds (a personal favourite) plays on similar ground, pitting a hapless big bird against some nasty smaller ones, while Day and Night (another classic) blends 2D and 3D animation to make a stirring point about our differences and how they make us stronger. Animation is uniquely equipped for such explorations of character, and these shorts play in that area wonderfully well.

Of course, Pixar is always experimenting technically, and that also shows in these shorts. Partly Cloudy shows a mastery of light that still takes my breath away, The Blue Umbrella pushes the envelope on animated realism, and the aforementioned Piper takes that realism to unprecedented levels in both backgrounds and character design. If Piper is anything to go by, pretty soon it’ll be impossible to tell animation from live action, and that’s both thrilling and a little bit terrifying.

EXR 1920x803, 4 channel image (A B G R)

It’s difficult to choose favourites from this wonderful collection, but if I had to pick five they’d be: For the Birds, The Blue Umbrella, Presto, Day and Night and, above all, the utterly incredible La Luna. The latter film blends everything that’s so great about Pixar shorts: staggering beauty, tremendous invention and wordless emotion. These shorts have, for me, become as anticipated as the features they precede, and I hope Pixar (and Disney who produce equally wonderful shorts) continue to celebrate them. They’re incredible pieces of art that live long in the memory.