No strings attached

There’s a line in the new Star Wars film about something or other being at the end of a piece of string. I’m not being vague because I’ve already forgotten what it was, I’m trying to avoid spoiling a single thing. Mind you, the string line isn’t a single thing: they say it twice like it’s a bit cleverer than it actually is.

If I were going to review Star Wars: The Last Jedi then I’d be talking about what the characters say. For instance, it’s got a lot of wisecracks that need you to be in love with the characters or to be living in the 1970s on a diet of bad US television to enjoy. But since this isn’t a review, let me say that the film is a fun ride and immeasurably better than The Force Awakens.

I just keep coming back to that line about string.

As much as I did enjoy the film, it feels a mess and I think it lacks a piece of string pulling us through. It’s event after event and that isn’t enough for me.

I am certain that I’m saying something you already know because I’m certain I already knew it too. Yet seeing its absence is making me think and talk about it anew.

I was recently asked something like ‘what do you admire in art’ and I replied about writing where the piece sets out to do something and does it. I replied talking about the end of a piece where you have been taken somewhere you didn’t expect and didn’t predict yet in that final moment know is where the writer was always taking you. When that’s done right, the sheer perfection of it genuinely makes me cry.

Whether a story is explosive action or seductive calm, it should be constantly surprising but every single beat must also be taking you to where the writer intended. If you’ve got a great gag and it doesn’t move you in that direction, kill it. Each moment has to be the very best it can be – and it also has to be invisibly or visibly moving you to where the story is going.

Bugger. I’m thinking about this because of that line about string and I’ve now realised that it’s a rubbish analogy. I thought it was about being pulled through to somewhere or maybe that the string is a guideline of some kind.

But actually the best analogy I can think of is one I’ve thought of before so often that I may have bored you with it in a pub.

Stories are like pieces of wood that you rub your hand over. When you go in one direction, following the story for the first time, you’re rubbing your hand against the grain. So it’s bumpy, there are shards that cut into you, there are tiny slivers of wood that get into your skin.

And then when you rub the other way, from the end of the story backwards, you’re rubbing with the grain and now the wood feels perfectly smooth.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is bumpy both ways. It’s got great moments and actually I think the ending works best of it all, but the film lacks something huge. I think it lacks this sense of a storyteller pulling you through.

Competence porn

Perhaps you already know this one but the term ‘competence porn’ is new to me – and it’s given me a little bit of hope about a long-standing bugbear hobby horse of mine. Alternatively, it’s given me a little ammunition if I ever need to argue about dumbing things down for audiences.

My grumble is with clever people in television drama. You need someone smart to solve a problem, to move the plot on, to get characters out of a dull situation. But usually that clever person cannot be the hero, cannot be the lead character. Moreover, the actual lead will mildly mock them for being a geek. Mock them while being completely dependent on their idea.

What that’s supposed to do is let the audience know it’s okay that they, the viewing public, are not very smart. I don’t like that any more than you do. But I especially don’t like being patronised because apparently I, as a viewer, genuinely am smarter than the writers and more often producers or networks who decide to do this. For I can see and you can see both that it’s annoying and that what it really does is make the hero look like an ass.

But now we have this thing that is apparently called competency porn. It means we like watching characters who are good at what they do. Sherlock is the first example that comes to my mind. The Doctor in Doctor Who is another, usually.

Allegedly one reason we like Darth Vader as a villain is because of how professionally ruthless he is at the beginning of Star Wars. He’s caught the Princess, he casually kills somebody-or-other and we’re impressed. That’s more surprising when you think that nothing else he ever does in that film works out for him.

I think of the opening of Grosse Pointe Blank where we meet a hitman. He’s precise and focused as he prepares to kill someone, even while he’s also on the phone reciting bank account numbers to his assistant – he has a PA, this guy is professional and busy – and then he does this thing of aiming a rifle at someone far away. The hitman is in a corner hotel room, the target is a cyclist out on the street, and our guy takes aim through one window, then walks to another, tracking along where the cyclist will be, before shooting from the next window.

I know the hitman is John Cusack but he’s just killed someone and, bizarrely, we’re impressed. We’re on our way to liking this character.

One last example from where I heard this term competency porn. There’s a US drama called Leverage, a con/crime series very much like an American version of Hustle. As much as I like it, every episode does follow a set path and one early part is where this team of criminals – the good guys, by the way – have a briefing. Here’s producer John Rogers talking about a 2009 episode called The Fairy Godparents Job:

“Good Lord, how we agonized over spending so much time in the briefing scene in this ep. Ironically, this episode arrived just as we were collating feedback off the ‘net and found, stunningly, you people love the briefing scenes. For we writers, it was always X pages of pipe we tried to make as entertaining as possible and move past to get into the plot. For the audience, watching competent people banter and plan was a big part of the appeal. ‘Competence porn’ as we started calling it.”

There is a spectacularly and quite wonderfully dumb character in the remade Ghostbusters: I’m not saying everyone should be smart, I’m saying nobody should be dumbed down. And they don’t have to be.

I have seen Star Wars – and so have you

You have seen the new Star Wars, you have. You just might not know it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a remake of the original film with Rey (Daisy Ridley) as a new and less wet Luke (Mark Hamill) and that does not seem to bother many people. The film has made something like $1.5 billion in the last half an hour plus it has had superlative reviews. Only, do you know who else has seen Star Wars?

Rey.

The lead character in the new Star Wars film has seen Star Wars.

Remember that often parodied scene from the original when Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) controls a Stormtrooper’s mind? “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” Rey has seen it too because that is the only way that she could possibly know that you can do this and how to do it.

That’s too far for me, that is going too far. I adore Back to the Future part II which is literally the first film repeated but that’s done with the glorious chutzpah of going back in time and showing us the same scenes from a new perspective. Love it. Star Wars: the Force Awakens doesn’t have that wit.

It sets out to be a new episode in the series and initially has the occasional nod to the original. That’s risky: it’s hard to stay absorbed in the new story when you can’t help but nod at references you recognise. It might be worth the risk, to a point, as the needs you to know it’s part of the same world as the original but long before Rey gives us a movie review, the references overwhelm.

I remember watching JJ Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness and murmuring “cue Spock” just before he entered and delivered word for word the line I knew he would. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I clearly remember thinking “at least they’re not going to repeat the trench scen – oh. Bugger.”

I’m with you if you loathe George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels and I’m with you shuddering about Jar Jar Binks. But it’s a fine, fine line between the appallingly poor Jar Jar and the cultural icon Yoda: Jar Jar could’ve worked and at least Lucas was trying something new. The Force Awakens isn’t.

Even the new film’s seemingly big and genuinely good move of concentrating on a woman character isn’t truly new because it is done in the very oldest of ways. I just called Rey a woman because she is but every character in the film calls her a girl. More, every character is surprised when she can fly starships and when she can fight.

She’s never allowed to just be, to do what she does. If a scene is not a repeat of an original Star Wars one then its purpose is to show that the new creative team has cast a wom – sorry, girl – and that they’re great for doing so.

On my drive to the cinema, a car pulled in front of me with a bumper sticker saying “You’ve just been overtaken by a girl”. You’re not now thinking I should’ve called the police, a prepubescent underage child was driving, you’re thinking you know exactly what it meant. It meant that the driver was embodying girl power and that I, as a man driving behind, must be somehow threatened by this, must have my machismo thwarted.

I don’t have any machismo and I could not even fake giving a damn that this car was in front of me. But I have a lot of bile at the assumptions and the presumptions. In the same way, The Force Awakens assumes and presumes that I will be surprised a woman – sorry, girl – can fly, fight, breathe, be. So in the same way I am annoyed and affronted and insulted.

It’s just worse that I already knew the film so well from last time that it couldn’t keep my attention.

I’ve not seen Star Wars

I’ve not seen the new film so I can’t spoil it for you. But although I hope to get out of work early today to see it, it’s not the film that’s on my mind. I’m not really thinking of any of the Star Wars films themselves, I am thinking of how they crop up every few decades and remind me of everything else that was going on.

It’s like life is this long rope back down the mountain and the Star Wars movies are pitons in the rock. They are fixed points and each one reminds me of that spot in time even though the films themselves aren’t a big part of those moments. I mean, I have a uselessly good memory for footage: for example there’s a certain type of US TV drama whose closing credits would be done over clips from the episode and I always unerringly notice when the clip is a different take. Totally useless, though sometimes handy when you’re editing video and can remember seeing just the right moment within the hours of footage. So I’m footage-aware, except with Star Wars.

When the prequels are on the telly I have caught myself wondering if I even saw these films because I don’t recognise anything. And as big as all the Star Wars movies were, maybe none were as anticipated as Return of the Jedi. We’d had Star Wars itself, we’d had The Empire Strikes Back which as well as ending on a cliffhanger was also just a good film, so Jedi was a big deal. In six movies, the single frame I remember from seeing in the cinema is an early shot in Jedi where we see the Death Star and I thought oh. We’re late getting into the cinema, such long queues genuinely around the block at the Gaumont in Birmingham, and they’ve started the film before we are at our seats. Doing that excuse me, pardon me, thanks dance through the line, I am seeing the Death Star on screen and all interest, all excitement somehow punctured.

That’s all I remember from the films as I saw them in the cinema: the deflation at Jedi, that single shot somehow telling me this was not going to be a great night. It wasn’t and there’s probably a life lesson in how I believed it was a disappointingly poor film but we didn’t yet have the prequels to know what poor means.

I do remember a vague shot from when I went to see Empire. It’s much less clear in my mind and partly because it isn’t from The Empire Strikes Back at all. I’d won a contest in the Evening Mail and got to see an early screening. I remember the thrill of being in a cinema during the day to see an exclusive screening and the footage I remember is from one of the Omen movies that was playing when we were led back out through the auditorium.

For Star Wars itself, I say the title and I see a very young me walking with my mom across an ice-cold Birmingham. I remember excitement, I remember my mother saying she didn’t understand the film, I think I remember her holding my hand. I do remember us having a meal out at a Berni Inn. I remember how special that was. If you remember that chain of steakhouses, you may think I’m being sarcastic but no, it was special at the time.

I was the exact perfect age for the original Star Wars when it first came out. Exactly perfect: with Star Wars I was a little boy rooting for Luke and Leia to get together but by the time Empire came out I was old enough to see that Luke was wet and Han Solo was the guy. Later every man you know is supposed to have gulped a bit at Princess Leia’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi and I didn’t. I saw that and felt I was supposed to gulp. I resented it: you think you can push my hormones around? But I had fallen hard for Carrie Fisher in Empire and maybe it’s because she had more to do in that, she was a more interesting character clad in white snow gear instead of barely wearing gold. Maybe I was also getting all sophisticated: I think it was around Empire that I finally nodded and thought yes, it was right that Star Wars had lost out at the Oscars to Annie Hall.

I’m a boy for Star Wars, I’m hormonal for Empire, I’m disappointed for Jedi. Flash forward to 1999 when The Phantom Menace came out and what I remember so vividly is going to see another press screening. I’m now a BBC film reviewer, writing for Ceefax and possibly the nascent BBC News Online if that had started yet. Sitting in a very large press screening, aware that somewhere over there on that opposite side there’s Barry Norman. I’m seeing a film at the same time as quite legendary film reviewer.

I’m also seeing it at the same time as my editor from Ceefax. Never before or after did the editor go to a screening with the reviewer, never before or after would two people go to any screening, but this was big. The first Star Wars in nearly two decades. I remember going in to that Leicester Square screening with her, I remember us coming out. I liked that editor a lot and far, far more than I liked the film and I hope she felt the same. I know she felt the same about the film.

There was this giant, giant movie, this world event really, and I can see us walking out of the cinema into bright sunshine and all thoughts of the film evaporating. We were more interested in what we were doing for the rest of the day, getting back to the newsroom, the other deadlines going on, anything but the movie.

That was 16 years ago. Today my BBC work is behind me and I’m not reviewing Star Wars for anyone. But I’m going to a screening and I’m thinking of the work I’m doing now, I’m thinking actually rather excitedly positive thoughts about what I get to do these days. More excited about my work than about this movie. I’m also just thinking of that editor, of that Death Star, of Carrie Fisher’s heart-buckling Nordic look in Empire and her superb writing style since then, I’m thinking of The Omen and how the Gaumont cinema is long gone, I am thinking of an ice-cold night walking across Birmingham holding hands with my mother.

Who needs to actually see Star Wars?

The Adventures of Benshi in “Manhattan”

manhattan title

Perhaps you already know or even practice this Japanese art form, but it was new to me: I thought Benshi was that lovable dog. A friend said no, it’s those tiny trees, isn’t it?

Benshi sees a spoken word performer standing by a cinema screen: he or she performs a piece while it shows a film. It began as a verbal equivalent of the caption cards you would get in silent movies but it expanded. Benshi performers apparently began describing the action in between the captions then over years began to basically talk about anything they liked.

I have really severe twitching problems with taking someone’s film and using it as stock footage behind my words. I know and I feel the work that went into making any film so just taking it feels like when you’re in school and they get you to make a loathsome time-wasting, busy-work collage and you pretend you’ve created something.

Then I’ve been a critic plus I’ve been on the receiving end of professional critics, I am sometimes hyper conscious of the line between creation and criticism, art and journalism. I get mithered over criticising a film because how dare I take a feature film, reduce it to 400 words and diss it?

But then if I can save you from ever seeing Johnny Mnemonic, then I’ve genuinely given something back to the community. I’ve taken one for the team so you don’t have to.

All of which swirls around my head like I don’t have enough to think about – and I’d like to say that all of which evaporated when Chris Swann asked if I’d like to do a Benshi as part of the Flatpack Film Festival here in Birmingham.

It sort of evaporated. It also sort of coalesced more: I thought maybe this was a way to actually explore what I fret about in all this. Plus, let’s be open here, it was the Flatpack Film Festival and I was very chuffed to be asked to contribute to that. Normally you have to, you know, make a film first.

I had, I think, seven weeks in which to come up with a short five-minute spot and you should’ve seen the work I went through. Nobody saw me, most especially not the audience at the event, because it all went wrong. At one point in the plotting I had assembled a rough cut of ten film clips, each movie with subtitles because I’d decided to do something about the intertextuality of media and because I don’t know what that means, I reckoned having some text on screen would cover it. I actually re-did some of the subtitles so that the films would be commenting back to me as I spoke.

I went off down the deepest rabbit hole to do with writing and text and what we read versus what we see. One tiny point was based around Star Wars: how many billions of people have seen that and believe it’s set in the future? Even though the very first frame is text saying “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”. But then Star Wars came out in 1977 and it was beaten to the Best Oscar for that year by Annie Hall – and rightly so, Annie Hall is much better. Only, Annie Hall has that famous subtitled scene.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are talking while the subtitles reveal what they’re really thinking as they try to impress each other. It’s simple, funny, clever and I don’t feel you can watch it now without the third layer of Woody Allen’s real-life relationships imposing. Not to dodge the issue but, well, yes, to dodge the issue with a quick summary, he lives with his adopted daughter.

Seven weeks of actual anguish over this and then with two days to go, I abandoned it all.

I realised that ten films, all with subtitles, some with altered subtitles where I’d have to precisely time my words to get the responses cued correctly, all with jokes in, some with serious stories, some with this thing where I want to prove that you read text but don’t register it, it was just a mess. It was a barrage of audio and video and if any one part of it worked, you’d never know because another three would drown it out.

I kept just one thought. This business of Woody Allen’s life: how, I feel, what we know and what we learn colours what we see and what we think. If you’re going to examine this business of how our reactions to a movie alter over time then Annie Hall is great because, for instance, I believe Diane Keaton spoke out defending Allen during the messiest times of his breakup from Mia Farrow.

However, there is also Manhattan.

Manhattan famously begins with a voiceover narration from one of its characters as we see utterly beautiful black and white photography of New York City and we hear George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Sweeping, soaring, inexpressibly wonderful music.

I can’t talk over that music. I can’t talk over someone’s film.

I can’t half talk about New York City, though.

So that’s what I did. I clipped the opening minutes of Manhattan and the Flatpack people muted it while I spoke about how this city has meant so much to me and always has, even before I’d visited. Then on my cue I shut up and they snap-faded the music up on a crescendo.

If I could do it again, I’d take longer: I read my piece too quickly. But after the anguish of trying to talk about movies, getting instead to pour it all out about New York City and do so in front of 40 people at the Flatpack Film Festival – to do so with a brevity I’ve not needed since writing Ceefax – I had a time.

Here’s my very short script and it’s followed by a YouTube clip of the real opening to Manhattan.

OVER OPENING OF “MANHATTAN”

“New York was his town. And it always would be.”

Wait. That’s actually what the film is saying right now. It’s a voiceover in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. That is a stark and beautiful film that in 1979 was… interesting for how it had Allen as a 40-year-old man in a relationship with a schoolgirl.

There you go. Now in 2015, knowing about Allen’s real-life relationship with his adopted daughter, every one of you just went eww.

The film hasn’t changed. We have. What we know changes what we think.

But films are also of their day and they tie us to that time. They tie us to how we felt when we first saw them.

I feel this. With Manhattan and every other film, every other TV show about New York, they formed me. New York is my favourite place in the world and it was so before I even went there. Because of film.

The monochrome beauty of Manhattan, the verve of West Side Story. The charm of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The colourful autumnal beauty of Hannah and Her Sisters – at one time my favourite movie of all. The meh of Die Hard with a Vengeance. The happy, peppy, perky New York of the TV show Fame. The cruel, cold, miserable New York of the film Fame.

I can’t justify what they did to me, I can’t explain it or understand it.

But when I step out onto those streets, I am taller. I’m also more English somehow. New York women hear my accent and say honey, you must be real smart.

New York men see New York women and sometimes think I’m a threat. Imagine that.

New York men and women. New York life. The smashing together of cultures. It’s what I like, it’s what I am.

New York is my town. And it always was.

Star Wars is not a (Han) Solo effort

It’s not like you should rush to find writing advice in the scripts to Star Wars movies, but bear with me. I’ve written before about how drama is a collaboration – and that this is one of its joys – but I’ve never before thought of how it can change over time. Literally change over time: the drama you and everybody makes can be physically changed a little ways down the road.

I don’t know what to think about it. But I’m thinking about it a lot now because actor Harrison Ford responded to a famous example of it this week.

Follow. You hide your inner geek very well so I’m not certain you know this, but there’s a thing about Han Solo in the first Star Wars film. It’s the tiniest very big thing there is. George Lucas went back to Star Wars and changed a scene by about a pixel and it enrages some people, it makes others shrug. It’s to do with a scene where Han Solo is confronted by a baddie and in the original version, Solo shoots this guy. In the revised version, the guy shoots Han Solo. It’s not as big a difference as that sounds, we don’t suddenly lose Harrison Ford’s character, erased from the rest of the film, because this guy misses.

Yet that’s the thing for me. I think we do lose Harrison Ford’s character for the rest of the film.

The guy is named Greedo and when Ford began a Reddit Ask Me Anything interview, he was asked: who shot first, Han or Greedo? Harrison Ford’s reply:

I don’t know and I don’t care.

It’s a funny line and you can imagine the weariness in his voice. It’s almost enough to make me read the whole interview. (Have you tried, though? Reddit’s AMAs are impenetrable after the fact: the transcripts of these live interviews are stupidly hard to unpick. But go on, have a try with Ford’s here.)

The trouble is… it matters.

George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars film and George made these changes, Ford acted the scenes and had no part in the alterations. I’m not arguing that Lucas should leave his own films alone, I’m not arguing that Ford should get in a tizzy over changes to a thirty-year-old movie.

I am saying that this one small change is actually gigantic and that it was done after the collaborative heat of production. I tried watching Star Wars the other day while I was thinking about all this and I got a bit bored so perhaps I’m simply wrong. But I believe that had I got into the story, this scene would have taken me out of it again. It bothers me enormously that someone can make such a fundamental change and it makes my eyes go wide that anyone would want to. It actually makes me think that George Lucas genuinely does not understand storytelling.

Hmm.

Here’s the thing. When Han Solo shoots this alien fella dead, it tells us a lot. We’ve already seen a picture-perfect toothy farm boy hero in Luke Skywalker, this is telling us that Han Solo is very nearly an anti-hero. Let’s not get carried away. But he is out for himself and this is really his one character note throughout the first film. Fine.

When he doesn’t shoot first, when he waits for the baddie to shoot him, Han Solo is a hero. I’d say he’s as empty and unbelievable a figure as 1970s US TV hero, but he’s squarely a square-jawed hero type. We’ve already got one of those in Luke and the rest of Solo’s selfish actions and dialogue don’t square with the squarely square-jawed hero. With this one moment, he no longer fits.

More, this is meant to be a dangerous moment. Han Solo is cornered, we learn his enemies aren’t exactly legion but they are pretty big. (The sequel, The Empire Strikes Back is correctly thought of as the superior film – it’s all relative – but one of its clunkiest lines refers to how Solo is hunted. “A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with,” says a man just trying to get through the script.)

Everyone’s hunting Han Solo and this Greedo guy is the one who gets there first. He’s beaten all the rest. And shooting a laser pistol at a distance of three feet from his target, he misses.

That is a crap baddie.

That is a cardboard baddie.

So now Han Solo isn’t an anti-hero and his enemies are worthless.

Harrison Ford made certain decisions about his performance in 1976 or whenever this was filmed. George Lucas the director made certain decisions then. Lucas the script writer had made all the decisions earlier. Together they created the scene we see but Lucas alone could step back into it decades later and make a gigantic change.

The positive thing I take away from this is that moments matter. It’s scary to think that a tiny touch on the tiller of one scene can so radically change a character but it’s also exciting. Makes me press harder on scenes and moments as I write them.

But the bad thing I take away from this is that unless Lucas simply could not see the impact of his change, he elected to do it regardless. I think he decided Han Solo had to be a good guy. I think he chickened out.

Only, this is Star Wars. It’s just Star Wars. If you’re going to lose your nerve over a character, it should surely be over a better one.