Cinema Movie: Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

the-first-movie-posters-for-star-wars-the-force-awakens-might-have-leakedWhy return of Star Wars means US cinema is still in the trailer park

Unless you have been living on a distant planet (presumably one in a galaxy far, far away), you couldn’t have failed to notice that a new addition to the Star Wars franchise will soon be upon us. It’s called Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), and the latest trailer was reportedly viewed online 112 million times in the first 24 hours of its release. Furthermore, despite it having a December release, opening day tickets have already sold out across the globe.

All this should come as no surprise, of course. Since the first movie was released in 1977, the Star Wars franchise has become something of a cultural (read: marketing) phenomenon.

Without delving to deeply into the backstory, known to fanboys the world over, let’s jut say that from relatively small beginnings, the Star Wars franchise has developed into a behemoth of Empire proportions, changing cinema as it went. But not for the good. Star Wars destroyed cinema; a scorched-earth policy that sowed salt into fields of creativity.

It all began in the 1970s, which, as any cineast will no doubt tell you, was cinema’s second golden age. The seventies (more accurately, roughly from 1967-1980) was the period when filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Paul Schrader and others flourished, armed with a education in cinema and a desire to make challenging, adult films, often with personal or political themes, and employing actors that would never have swashbuckled in the 1930s or partnered Doris Day 20 years later. The seventies opened-up many a career.

George Lucas was one such filmmaker of this period, along with his Indiana Jones buddy Steven Spielberg.

For Lucas, ejected form his role on developing Apocalypse Now (1979), Star Wars started off as a personal project. His hero is called Luke, after all, while his mentor Francis Ford Coppola habitually referred to him as “kid”, an epithet Han Solo reserves for Luke in the first movie. But more than that, the original trilogy (actually parts 4-6) has its roots in the counterculture, and the ecologically-minded southern California of the 1960s (witness Princess Leia’s renaissance fair get-up or Yoda’s zen-like musings).

Lucas has said that in his original movies the Emperor was modelled on Richard Nixon. If this is true, then the climax of the Return of the Jedi, which sees the might of the technologically-advanced, defoliating Empire brought down by a guerrilla army of jungle-dwelling Ewoks armed with makeshift weapons, is equated with the American defeat in Vietnam. Or, looking at it another way, according to Dale Pollock in his book Skywalking, the Empire stands in to the studio system that sought to thwart Lucas wherever it could, with the likes of the Emperor and Darth Vader standing-in for impassive studio executives.

It is the personal, then, that forms the germ of Star Wars. But, like the chap in the song that got the foreman’s job at last, George Lucas is calling the Hollywood shots these days. He has become the Emperor. But back when the original movie went into production in 1976, the year America tried to lift itself after the psychological blow of Watergate, Lucas (Luke) was on a different path; to pass on those pre-Vietnam values to audiences and to put the awe back into cinema.

In the first instance, he failed, and the unease with which the original trilogy accommodates both its suspicion and admiration for whizz-bang technology sees it hark back to an older era of the cold war (“Where were you in ’62?” asked the tagline of Lucas’s 1973 breakthrough, American Graffiti), and anticipate the its heating-up in the 1980s (it was no surprise that Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defence Initiative was nicknamed ‘Star Wars’, while his small-guy heart-over-head heroes are nothing if not proto-Reganites).

As for the second ambition, American cinema has never recovered from the initial impact of Lucas’ vision of filmmaking. Lucas, and he had an ally in Steven Spielberg, wanted to put the wonder back into movies, jettison complexity. Films were to be immersive, all about feeling. One thing about US cinema in the 1970s was that it exploded genre. Cowboys, gumshoes and gangsters were all killed-off by deconstruction. None of that for Lucas, who wanted no hint of irony in his work. The child-like wonder envisioned for audiences instead made them infantile. Very soon, Ronald Reagan, a child of the movies, would be in the White House. Complexity wasn’t an issue any more, in films or foreign policy.

Robert Altman, a cinematic maverick whose directorial career stalled in the wake of Star Wars and the era of the event movie, rudely called such films “trailer park cinema”. As stories became simpler, and studios no longer investing in potentially risky talent and projects, franchises and sequels became the norm, with producer Lucas and director Spielberg at the vanguard of big-budget spectacles that asked nothing of the audience except to sit back and enjoy the ride. Likewise, by casting WASP-y actors in key roles, Lucas turned-back to a former era. The matinee idol was back in fashion. All this was writ large in the Lucas-Spielberg Indiana Jones collaborations.

When Lucas returned to directing after a 22-year gap to direct the charmless Phantom Menace (1999), the first of a bloodless trilogy of prequels, his return was compared with those of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, two lauded filmmakers with similar absences from the big screen. But, an awful lot of pixilated water had flown under many a CGI bridge by then, and Lucas was best equipped for the new age. Maybe he prepared the ground too well; the special effects were now in control, with actors, little more than props. At least, with The Force Awakens, director JJ Abrams seems to have taken his actors away from the green screen.

Star Wars looms large over the blockbuster, in every special effect and subordinate leading actor. Every corporate shill who moves form the arthouse to the multiplex still claims they have smuggled a personal vision into the slam-bang action, just as Lucas did.

The original Star Wars trilogy contained enough quality (and merchandising potential) to entice studios to follow their lead. But those qualities died long ago, just as Lucas-the-idealist has been replaced by Lucas-the-mogul. The wheels of marketing tell us that these films are still a big deal (never underestimate the power of marketing to create a kind of collective amnesia – Back to the Future 2 (1989), anyone?), and in the internet age we continue to feel that they are still a vital part of our lives.

When the original Star Wars emerged in 1977, it seemed to come from nowhere, and it touched millions. The latter-day additions to the franchise are just one of the countless millions. Just another action flick. They are their own imitator.

Hail To The Chief: A Brief History of American Movie Presidents

Following the victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 US Presidential Elections, Cillian Donnelly (author of what was Picturenose’s most popular post, 100 Movies To Be Seen Before You Die, until James’s Quantum of Solace review blew it away, ha-ha) returns with a look at how America’s Chief Executive has been portrayed on the silver screen. So, another list of films, eh Cillian? Nice one…

In Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), the beleaguered President, played by Anthony Hopkins, contemplates the difference between his own public image and that of the sainted John Kennedy, his martyred predecessor and one-time political friend. “When people look at him,” he surmises, “they see who they want to be. When people look at me, they see who they are.”

There may be some truth in this; after all, who would want to identify with the sweaty, shifty-eyed paranoiac Richard Milhouse Nixon rather than the handsome, dynamic sophisticate John Fitzgerald Kennedy?

However, whether we may care to acknowledge it or not, it appears the public still holds a grim fascination with Tricky Dicky, who continues to attract the attention of film and television directors alike, and whose flaws and complexities still intrigue audiences, eager for their own sneaky glimpse into the darker side of power.

So, which actor, you may ask, has played the most US Presidents? This very question was asked in Paul Schrader’s undervalued The Walker (2007), a thriller set amid the confines of Washington political circles. The protagonist, Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), opts for Henry Fonda – a good guess, but wrong; only real-life Presidents count. The answer is Rip Torn.

Torn, though a very a fine character actor, might not be the first actor that automatically springs to mind, perhaps lacking the mythic status of Fonda or James Stewart; Hollywood, after all, is an expert at manipulative casting.

Torn has managed to play the President on three separate occasions. In the television biopic J. Edgar Hoover (1987) he was Lyndon Johnson, in The Blue and the Grey (1982), a North and South-esque civil war miniseries, he appeared as Ulysses S Grant, and in Blind Ambition (1979) he played our old friend Richard Nixon.

It may be worth noting at this point that Anthony Hopkins, for many the definitive screen Nixon, may feel a little aggrieved, having also played three US Presidents. Apart from the aforementioned Nixon, Hopkins also played John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997) and George Washington in Freedom: A History of US (2002), a post-9/11 lesson in liberty that also featured Kevin Kline as Thomas Jefferson, Robin Williams as Ulysses Grant, Tom Hanks as Abraham Lincoln and Dennis Quaid – whose brother Randy had previously played Lyndon Johnson – as Andrew Jackson. (Hopkins, by the way, is clearly the person to go to when casting world leaders. In addition to the three Presidents, he has also played David Lloyd George twice, Yitzak Rabin and Adolf Hitler).

It is undoubtedly the bigger, more mythic Presidents that Hollywood returns to, men like Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy, who glide in and out of stories and events, both their own and those of others. Lincoln first appeared on screen way back in 1915, when, as played by Joseph Henabery, he popped up in DW Griffith’s morally dubious Birth of a Nation. Since then, he has been given his own miniseries, where he was played by Jason Robards, sentimental movie biopic starring Henry Fonda, and made countless other appearances and cameos including, less reverently, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

Like the martyred Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal and Commander in Chief at the time of US entry into World War 2, has found himself heavily beatified on screen. As played by Dan O’Herlihy in MacArthur (1977), he was a rambunctious leader of men, while in the emetic Annie (1982), he was a benevolent father figure, as played by Edward Hermann. In Winchell (1998), it was Christopher Plummer who got to deliver the renowned ‘day of infamy’ speech, later echoed by Jon Voight in Pearl Harbor (2001). Voight may have had his unintentionally funny “Dr Strangelove moment” (in the words of Germaine Greer), but he was still beaten to the comic punch by Krusty the Klown’s performance as FDR in the Springfield Dinner Theatre’s production of Sunrise at Campobello (“Eleanor, we have to do something about this depression…oh, that’s right, I can’t walk…”).

For the record, Sunrise was made into a very sober and sincere production in 1960, staring Ralph Bellamy.

Anyway, while the man himself was still alive and fighting for the future of the free world, the US was evaluating old scores. Wilson (1944), starring Alexander Knox as the unfairly maligned Woodrow Wilson, was both an attempt to re-evaluate the internationalist President and present his ideals (most specifically his support for the League of Nations) as a blueprint for the post-war world. Wilson, according to this film, had it right all along.

Knox, the great Canadian actor, never again played a real-life President on screen (although he did have an un-billed cameo as the President in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967)), but he may have the rare distinction of being the only actor in movie history to play the same US cabinet secretary on three separate occasions, playing Secretary of War Henry Stimpson in Truman at Potsdam (1976), Churchill and the Generals (1979) and Oppenheimer (1980). Some claim.

In the years leading to the war, social and political realism was largely ignored, and, although several films like The Grapes of Wrath (1938) Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and It Happened One Night (1935) did confront domestic issues head-on, these tended to be personal stories removed from big government. As events in Europe turned darker, and eventually to war, the spirit of Lincoln was revived to remind the American public that liberty was indeed a virtue worth fighting for. In Young Mr Lincoln (1939), Henry Fonda gave a typically sincere performance as the young lawyer and future President struggling to retain his integrity before the Springfield bar. As with Wilson five years later, here was someone who fought for what was right, just like all good soldiers and citizens should; the rewards are anyone’s for the taking, after all.

After the war, American movies got dark. Noirish, in fact, as deep shadows spread across cinema screens, and danger lurked within. Action was confined to perilous backstreets, not the corridors of power. During the next decade, it seemed the country was constantly in the grip one type of national emergency or another, as a host of juvenile delinquents, little green men, oversized mutations or resurrected dinosaurs appeared on the scene to wreak all sorts of havoc, and while these movies often dramatised political themes, they were never overtly political, and consequently, the President was never called upon to save the country – they even tried to find him in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), but he was unavailable at the time.

In 1960, however, politics became glamorous, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy, himself to be portrayed many times on screen, took to the White House. With his well-bred family background, attractive wife and showbiz friends, Kennedy’s Camelot seemed to fascinate a world hooked on its allure. Then came the double whammy of the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy’s own, shocking assassination. Things suddenly looked bleaker, politics darker.

Films like Seven Days in May (1963), where a right-wing military coup against the President (Frederic March) is narrowly averted, shifted politics back to the White House, back to the President, as filmmakers and audiences were already begining to feel a sense of dread permeating the nascent Johnson administration. If Seven Days in May can be seen as a response to the missile crisis, then Fail Safe and Dr Strangelove (both 1964) in different ways can be seen as a response to the assassination.

Things, it seemed, were going to be crazy from now on, and while nuclear drama Fail Safe, in which the President, played by Henry Fonda, has to make a chilling decision about the future of his country, certainly haunts the memory, it is Dr Strangelove, which imagines madness at all levels of the military-political structure, not least the President (Peter Sellers), which had a more lasting impression on the decade.

As student protesters constantly harassed Lyndon Johnson, demanding to know how many kids he had killed on any particular day, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and the war in Vietnam escalated, Strangelove’s predicted madness showed no signs of abating. Then Richard Nixon was elected.

Just as the Cuban missile crisis and Kennedy assassination would cast a shadow over subsequent US movies of the 60s, so one incident would do the same for the following decade: Watergate, and films as diverse as The Godfather (1972), The Longest Yard (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Night Moves (1975) all drip with post-Watergate corruption, and force us to examine our own notions of morality.

In Werewolf of Washington (1973), for example, Biff McGuire plays a distinctly Nixon-esque President, whose office is, quite literally, nurturing a monster in the shape of his press secretary, Jack Whittier, played by Dean Stockwell. The film is filled with references to current events, from the blatant (it climaxes at the Watergate complex) to the less obvious (Whittier is the name of the town where Nixon was born). Nixon himself would go on to be played on screen many times, including Hopkins and Torn, Philip Baker Hall (Secret Honour (1984)), Bob Gunton (Elvis and Nixon (1995)), Beau Bridges (Kissenger and Nixon (1995)), Dan Hedaya (Dick (1999)), while, in the upcoming Frost/Nixon (2008), he is to be portrayed by Frank Langella.

The century’s next big personality president, Ronald Reagan, has, so far at least, not had the same level of attention. Reagan certainly dominated the decade and its politics, and while mainstream American movies of the period certainly came to reflect the President’s particular brand of conservatism (Rocky IV (1985)), and nostalgia (a raft of films, including Back To The Future (1985) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)), films by and large ignored the actual Presidency. By the decade’s end Iran-Contra and economic recession had tarnished the Gipper and his predecessor George Bush, and films as removed from one another as Michael Moore’s polemical documentary Roger and Me (1989) and Phil Alden Robinson’s all-star caper Sneakers (1992) could both in their own way allude to America’s declining domestic fortunes.

Following the interloping Bush, Bill Clinton, and, for the first time since the superficially similar JFK, the White House seemed to be human again. Young, like Kennedy, and with a comparable sexual identity, Clinton was the president that you could actually imagining having a drink with.

Almost immediately upon his election, the movie world was quick to reflect this new dynamism; in Dave (1993) and The American President (1995), it was young, idealistic men who steered the government, and, although these presidents may have been somewhat laid-back, like Jeff Bridges in The Contender (2000), it was never in doubt that they could still wield power like the best of them, power that didn’t necessarily come from diplomacy. In Independence Day (1996) and Airforce One (1997), it was gung-ho presidents Bill Pullman and Harrison Ford who led from the front line; an image unthinkable during the Reagan or Bush years.

Since then, things have dropped off. George W. Bush may have suffered fluctuating popularity, but he has still managed to be have been played three times on film by the same actor, Timothy Bottoms, most seriously in DC 9/11: Time of Crisis (2003), a respectful look at the crisis that hit the White House in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks (the others were, the spoof That’s My Bush! (2001) and Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002)).  With the upcoming W, Oliver Stone tackles Bush Junior, which one anticipates will be with a more critical eye than these or efforts such as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008), in which our heroes manage to share a spliff with the Prez.

Which leads us onto the new lot. Right now, Sarah Palin may be the one attracting the attention of the television satirists, but after the elections, and with a new mood at large in the country, filmmakers may once again be looking for that suitable Presidential manqué to illustrate the state of the nation.