The Truth Behind Ron Swanson

office-space-parks-recOne of the best shows to come out recently is NBC’s Parks and Recreation.  It tells the story of Leslie Knope, a heartbreakingly dedicated public servant who works in the Parks Department in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana (“First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity”).  Knope’s eternal optimism and extraordinary work ethic often put her at odds with her fellow government workers, most of whom couldn’t care less about their job and simply show up to do the minimum amount of work required and collect a paycheck.  And while I enjoy the show’s take on the faux-documentary style of sitcom (think “The Office” and you’re mostly there), it’s the characters that really have me hooked.  Andy Dwyer, who embodies the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” with everything he does; April Ludgate, the twentysomething emo girl with a heart of…well, maybe not gold, but possibly silver or at least copper; Tom Haveford, a thoroughly straight male obsessed with fashion and cologne.  But the most standout character of all is Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson.

In fact, there has recently been something strangely familiar about Swanson.  The mustachioed alpha male has always been one of the high points of the show, but recently I have noticed that his character is eerily similar to another office-dwelling character famous for his slacker-like ambitions but doing his job just well enough to not get in trouble.  The resemblance is so striking that I believe it cannot be coincidental, and might be just one of the best gags pulled on audiences in recent memory.  And after much contemplation, research, and Tapatio-flavored Doritos, I believe I have uncovered the truth behind Mr. Swanson:  he is Peter Gibbons.

Peter-Gibbons-MotivationIf that name doesn’t ring a bell, you might not have been in the narrow demographic who spent their college years watching Office Space while guzzling Live Wire Mountain Dew and playing Halo on the original Xbox.  Office Space, directed by Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, bombed at the box office but struck a chord with college students when it was released on video.  Its central character Peter Gibbons hates his job but does in anyway, dutifully putting in his time as a computer programmer while listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statement.  He eventually gets so frustrated with his job that he and some co-workers (whose positions are on the chopping block) devise a plan to subtly rip off the company such that they never have to work again.  The movie comes to a close with Gibbons working his dream job shoveling dirt for a construction company while his friends drive off to their new jobs at another computer company, while their thorougly inept coworker Milton reaps the rewards of Gibbons’ grand scheme, sipping unsalted mai tais at a beachside resort.

But what happened to Peter Gibbons in the subsequent years?  And what does this have to do with Ron Swanson?  In truth, the two are one and the same.  Though more investigation is needed, my basic theory goes like this: Following the events of Office Space, Peter Gibbons quickly becomes dissilusioned with his construction worker job.  He likes the outdoor work and doesn’t mind the early mornings, but eventually the physical nature of the job becomes too much for him to handle.  After a year or so he parts ways with his fellow worker and neighbor Lawrence and realizes he needs to make a serious change in his life.  But since his only friends are his fellow workers (at this point he has long since stopped hanging out with Michael and Samir, despite Michael’s plea at the end of Office Space for the three of them to “keep in touch.”), he realizes that the best option is to essentially start over.  He moves to the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, changes his name to Ron Swanson, and gets a job doing the only thing he really knows how to do well: mid-level office work.  But in Pawnee, with its less-than-stellar business climate, the best option is government work, and sooner or later he lands a position at the Parks Department–an inconsequential segment of the local government where he can quietly exist as a paper-pusher who collects his checks and doesn’t get in the way.  But soon, his value as an employee is realized by his superiors simply because he isn’t a terrible employee.  Just as The Bobs realized that Gibbons had upper management written all over him, Swanson’s supervisors in the Pawnee government soon promote him to the level of manager.  Initially fearful of the new position, Swanson soon realizes that this job is tailor-made for someone like him, and spends the rest of his days quietly serving his time as the manager of the Pawnee Parks Department, working just hard enough to not get fired.

Allow me to explain further using the following bits of evidence.

1. Physical Appearance.

Peter Gibbons Ron Swanson

This is the most obvious, but also the least convincing, bit of evidence.  Still, it bears pointing out that both have strikingly similar features.  Along with changing his name, Gibbons also grew a mustache and started parting his hair on the other side–not much of a disguise, but then, it’s unlikely that anyone in Pawnee would recognize an inconsequential computer programmer from the Big City.  Eye color is a bit of a mystery, but I have a hypothesis that Gibbons actually wore brown contact lenses while working at Initech because he thought it would make him more attractive to the ladies (my guess is that Michael convinced him to do it). Both prefer muted earth tones and have a penchant for office-casual attire, though Gibbons clearly takes that a few steps too far when he shows up for work clad in jeans and sandals. However, this sense of rebellion is still present in Swanson, but it manifests itself in a more inward political fashion and is ultimately what leads Gibbons to adopt such extreme libertarian views as he ages.

2. Work Ethic

Peter Gibbons isn’t a bad employee, and he famously told The Bobs “it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.”  He might show up a little late, but he’s always at work even if he’s barely doing any work at all.  He even informed The Bobs that “I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working….I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.”  Keep in mind that this kind of work ethic might be possible in an office environment (at least for a while) it would not be sustainable in a construction job.  This is why, according to my theory, Peter just doesn’t last very long on the job site with Lawrence.  But this type of do-the-bare-minimum approach is exactly how Ron Swanson goes about his daily duties, working, as Peter once said, “just hard enough to not get fired.”  And now that Gibbons (aka Swanson) is the manager, it would seem that he really has found a comfortable way to live out his days without ever really worrying about getting fired.  He hires April to be his assistant specifically so he has to do the least amount of work possible, and gives her accolades on several occasions merely because she keeps people away from him and out of his office.  Swanson has also been known to spend time at work whittling things out of wood, while his younger counterpart would simply waste time at work by playing Tetris and munching Cheetos.

ron-swanson-fishing3. Friendships

Before coming to live in Pawnee, Peter Gibbons never had much success with any type of relationship.  His closest friends Samir and Michael weren’t really his friends, but coworkers with whom he could comfortably share a table at a restaurant.  His neighbor Lawrence blatantly disrespects him, taking Peter’s beverages and using his coffee table as a footstool for his dirt-encrusted boots, much in the same way a schoolyard bully might pretend to be friends with a smart kid in order to trick him into doing his homework.  The real tragedy of Peter’s life, aside from his general lack of goals or direction, is that he really is alone.  And after moving to Pawnee, this sense of isolation only manifests itself further as Peter-turned-Ron continues to live a life devoid of any real personal connections save the superficial platonic relationships he maintains with his subordinates at the office.  Peter isn’t exactly the life of the party, and a decade later his new self Ron is equally awkward and uncomfortable in large groups of people.  Ron is most at ease when he is fishing, whittling, or in his woodshop crafting boats.  Peter is never really happy, and it’s too bad that even after starting over in Pawnee, Ron is equally unhappy–though he seems to have at least eked out a comfortable existence doing things that don’t actively make him angry.

4. Relationships

If there’s one thing Ron Swanson is not good at, it’s maintaining healthy personal relationships with women.  Married and divorced three times (twice to the same woman), his alpha-male tendencies often get in the way of the daily give-and-take of a relationship.  And even though we are not privy to many details of Peter Gibbons’ love life, we are given some important clues through his relationship with Joanna, the waitress from Tchotchke’s.  The only thing the two of them have in common is a dislike for their jobs and an affinity for kung fu movies–clearly not the foundation of a solid, healthy relationship.  And soon enough Peter’s inner demons rear their ugly heads and he ends up breaking up with Joanna due to an unfounded suspicion that she had a prior relationship with his boss Bill Lumbergh. It’s clear that Gibbons is more comfortable in front of a TV or computer than in the company of women, and this trait is clearly visible with Ron Swanson as well. Though in the years since Gibbons left his construction job he has clearly gravitated towards more outdoor activities like woodworking and fishing (instead of watching Kung Fu), his new Swanson self is just as awkward with women as his younger counterpart.  It should also be noted that Gibbons enjoys fishing, and continues to later in life after changing his name to Swanson.  Gibbons even takes Joanna out for a day on the lake during which they make several good catches, and he then returns to the office and cleans the fish right on his desk–a move that is right up Swanson’s alley.

Of course all this evidence is merely speculation and a somewhat loose connecting-of-the-dots, and there is certainly evidence to suggest that Ron Swanson is not, in fact, a grown-up Peter Gibbons.  For example, Swanson’s alter ego Duke Silver, who entertains elderly women at nightclubs with his jazz band, is clearly out of alignment with anything we learn about Peter Gibbons in Office Space.  Of course one could always suggest that Gibbons learned the saxophone in his years of soul-searching, but it’s unlikely given his lack of motivation and discipline. And the lengthy time span between Office Space and Parks and Recreation could allow for almost any possibilities, which makes this kind of speculation somewhat moot to begin with. However, I believe that with careful viewing enough parallels between the two characters emerge that certainly seem to suggest an intentional connection.

So is Ron Swanson really Peter Gibbons, all grown up but, in many ways, just as immature as ever? To answer that I will simply pose another question: is Charles Mulligan’s the best steakhouse in Indiana?

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Trailer-Based Predictions for the 84th Oscars

Well, Oscar time is upon us once again.

It seems like everyone has something to say about their Academy Award predictions, and having, sadly, seen so few of this year’s nominees, I don’t really have a lot to throw behind my predictions. However, I have seen the trailers for all of the nominees, so here’s my trailer-based predictions for this year’s Oscars. (A * denotes my selection for my class competition.)

UPDATE: I have added the Actual Winners as they are announced, and if different than my predictions, my response.

My accuracy rating for this year: 19 out of 24 categories correct. (80%) Not my best, not my worst. A special congratulations to Juan in 2nd Hour, and Gabriella and Briana in 3rd Hour for most correct predictions in the film classes.

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Get ready to hear this title and an excerpt from the score over and over and over...

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Probably Win: The Artist *
Who I Think Should Win: The Artist
Actual Winner: The Artist

This thing is a juggernaut. It’s this year’s Return of the King. Based on the trailer, it’s a clever concept for a modern-day film, to play off the films of the silent era. I like that, so I agree.

BEST DIRECTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist *
Who I Think Should Win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Actual Winner: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

As much as I’ve heard amazing things about Scorsese’s Hugo, he already has his Oscar, and half of predicting is feeling out the politics of the game. Even Omaha native Alexander Payne already has his Oscar. And Woody Allen… I still haven’t forgiven you for Annie Hall besting Star Wars in 1977. I can’t be the only one who sees that all his characters are simply more attractive actors playing a variation of Woody Allen. Odds are, since the two categories only occasionally split, this one will go to the newcomer, especially with all the buzz around The Artist.

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Dujardin radiates charisma. (Note the visible radiation.)

BEST ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist *
Who I Think Should Win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Actual Winner: Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Clooney has his. Pitt has several past noms, but Moneyball is not the film to finally clinch it for him. Oldman is amazing, but I don’t think this will carry enough with voters, and really I don’t know that this role is necessarily the one deserving of the Oscar. Demian Bichir gives a stirring performance in the trailer, but again, not known enough to beat down the momentum Dujardin has built up.

 

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This look seems to say "Between me and Glenn? It won't even be Close."

BEST ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Viola Davis, The Help *
Who I Think Should Win: Viola Davis, The Help
Actual Winner: Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady

This is where the Academy will make up for giving Supporting Actress to Penelope Cruz in 2009. Davis’ performance carries the trailer, so I can only imagine it does the same in the film. One might think Glenn Close would get some love with this being her 6th nomination without a win… but I don’t think Albert Nobbs will do it for her. Maybe lucky number 7 will be her winning charm.

Response to Winner: Well… there’s that I guess. Sure Meryl has been nominated 17 times, but she’s also won twice. I mean, Streep does capture Margaret Thatcher quite well, but still. Sounds to me like the Academy is trying to make up for 14 losses with one more win, figuring Davis will be back in the future. That’s Academy politics for you. But maybe I’ll be surprised after watching the full films and agree with the decision. Time will tell.

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It's the year of the vibrant old-timer!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners *
Who I Think Should Win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Actual Winner: Christopher Plummer, Beginners

First of all, how the heck did Jonah Hill even get a nomination? Seriously? I could probably sync the audio from the Moneyball trailer to his physical performance in the trailer for Night at the Museum 2 and not even notice. Lame, Academy. Nolte… yeah we’ve all seen the grizzled father/coach character before. You’re an Omaha boy, so I give you props there, but not the prediction. Branagh is great, but nothing award-worthy here. I had to actually double check to make sure Max Von Sydow and Christopher Plummer were not the same person. They both fit the same character type. But based on the trailer, Plummer actually talks in his film, and is one of the major characters, so I have to lean toward him.

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Seriously, I tried to find a picture where Octavia wasn't making this face... no luck.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Octavia Spencer, The Help *
Who I Think Should Win: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Actual Winner: Octavia Spencer, The Help

Here again, Melissa McCarthy? For an OSCAR nomination? The Academy has traditionally snubbed comedies for its awards, and to see a nominee whose stand-out moments in the trailer include not being sure whether gas escaping from her body was a belch or fart, and talking about staging their own fight club…. it makes me think they need to be more selective in how they include comedies. Although Bejo gives a cutesy performance, I think Spencer was a very enjoyable element of the trailer for The Help. She hugged people a lot. She gets my vote.

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Maybe if he wins, he can use some of that fame and fortune to see a chiropractor.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Probably Win: Rango *
Who I Think Should Win: Chico & Rita
Actual Winner: Rango

Sadly Pixar released its weakest film to date this year (seriously, Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of the Pixar universe), so with only Cars 2 representing, it opened the field for others. Seems like the buzz goes to Rango, although I’m a little over Johnny Depp, so that puts a little bad taste in my mouth. Really I thought the European contenders were more interesting in their style, although I can’t vouch for the storylines. I had no idea what was happening in Cat in Paris since the trailer was in French, but the animation style of Chico & Rita was the most interesting.

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This poster makes it look like she wants to leave her husband because of his horrible singing.

BEST FOREIGN FILM
Who Will Probably Win: A Separation, Iran *
Who I Think Should Win: A Separation, Iran
Actual Winner: A Separation, Iran

The trailer for Bullhead was extremely weird. It had that “art for the sake of art” feel about it. Footnote looks like it would be the most enjoyable to watch, but that’s not enough to win an Oscar. In Darkness is about the Holocaust, which makes it the best contender for an upset. Monsier Lazhar is about a teacher, and although I am one, we’ve all seen the “new teacher steps in and turns the class around” film before, so it’s nothing new or noteworthy. Not only did A Separation also get a Screenplay nod, it comes from a country which has a lot of global issues surrounding it.

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Disclaimer: Kids, don't try this at home!

BEST ART DIRECTION & BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Who Will Probably Win: Hugo *
Who I Think Should Win: Hugo
Actual Winner: Hugo

These two categories are where the Academy will and should show Hugo some love. The visuals in the trailer were stunning, and the look and feel it establishes really throws back to the early 1900s they were going for.

 

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Despite this frightening optical illusion, it's really an elegant film of dancing!

BEST DOCUMENTARY
Who Will Probably Win: Pina *
Who I Think Should Win: Pina
Actual Winner: Undefeated

Documentaries always seem so serious or depressing, but Pina has a unique and refreshing approach with all its fancy dancing. It had the only trailer that didn’t make me feel like I was watching the news.

Response to Winner: Really? I thought the “inner-city football team with a crappy record that turns it around to grow not only as a team, but as people” storyline was already played out ever since Remember the Titans. Apparently the concept still has a few more awards left in it. I’m disappointed to see something so unconventional and unique as Pina leaving empty handed to an almost cliche idea.

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Ah the love between a boy and his horse... the PG kind of love.

BEST SOUND EDITING AND MIXING
Who Will Probably Win: Hugo
Who I Think Should Win: War Horse *
Actual Winner: Hugo

Political predictions would tell us that Hugo is going to pick up some sympathy nods in categories to compensate for The Artist sweeping everything else. Sound may be a place that this happens. However, I’d wager War Horse has a good shot with all its battle scenes and that sweeping John Williams score. Transformers, although cool sounding, has already had its day, and the others just don’t have enough going on… although Drive could be a potential dark horse in sound editing.

Response to Winner: I called it, but regrettably voted otherwise for the class competition. Again, I haven’t seen Hugo, so I’ll be curious to see if the sound truly is all that amazing comparatively, or if this was just a “sorry about Best Picture” consolation prize.

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Rumor has it Sirkis based his performance for Caesar on the salad of the same name. #untruefacts

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Probably Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes *
Who I Think Should Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Actual Winner: Hugo

One word – Caesar. That will do it. Sirkis didn’t get his acting nom, but the effects still sell it. Transformers has been done, Real Steel is a rehash of Transformers, Hugo wasn’t effects-heavy enough, and HPDH2 was heavy enough, but it is the 8th film in the series.

Response to Winner: Well, color me surprised. I figured the motion capture work in Rise… was good enough to take it. Apparently Hugo must be the most technically amazing movie ever (at least this year), as it’s sweeping the technical categories.

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The epitome of book worm.

BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Who Will Probably Win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore *
Who I Think Should Win: A Morning Stroll
Actual Winner: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Fantastic… Lessmore is definitely the most solid and comfortable choice, with its quality 3D work and clever looking story elements. The trailer for Morning Stroll, albeit quite abbreviated since it’s a trailer for a short film, had the most unique animation style of all the nominees. I would have liked to see it shake things up with that crazy multi-dimensional chicken.

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With only 6 days to live, this guy has some stuff to blow up and a tuba to play.

BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
Who Will Probably Win: Tuba Atlantic *
Who I Think Should Win: Tuba Atlantic
Actual Winner: The Shore

Tuba Atlantic was the only one of these trailers to make me actually laugh and want to watch it. Time Freak looks quirky, but in a wannabe-Groundhog Day kind of way that seemed far too amateur for the Oscars. The others just didn’t stand out enough in my mind.

Response to Winner: To be fair, The Shore did have a pretty solid trailer, and had sort of an Academy-worthy feel to it, so I don’t really feel opposed to this winner, I just liked Tuba Atlantic better – probably because I have a soft spot for dying old people in movies.

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Frankly I think Jason Segel is a little of both.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Who Will Probably Win: “Man or Muppet”, from The Muppets *
Who I Think Should Win: “Man or Muppet”, from The Muppets
Actual Winner: “Man or Muppet”, from The Muppets

I saw the music videos for both these songs, and “Man or Muppet” definitely got stuck in my head the most. Plus it had Jim Parsons playing the human version of a Muppet, which is pretty accurate and hilarious. I’m a little sad these songs won’t be performed, as both would have a pretty interesting stage presence. Frankly I was just happy Randy Newman had no chance to win another Oscar this year.

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You're going to hear excerpts from this a lot as people walk up to the stage.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Who Will Probably Win: The Aritst *
Who I Think Should Win: War Horse
Actual Winner: The Artist

I’m a collector of movie scores. The orchestral music underneath the film is what sells the emotional state to me, so this category is probably one of my favorites. It’s also extremely tricky for me to call. Williams is against himself in the category for Tintin and War Horse, but Tintin didn’t hook me. Hugo isn’t Shore’s best, and he’s won plenty before. Tinker had a really cool unique sound to it, sort of a blues meets The Matrix vibe to it, but this is a little offbeat for the Academy. The Artist brings a unique composer with a pleasant sound, and in light of Williams’ multitude of Oscars already on his shelf, will probably take it. War Horse was the most moving of all the pieces I heard, and I’m a Williams fan, but Johnny-boy has his trophies, time for someone else to enjoy the moment.

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CATEGORIES I DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON:

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAYMidnight in Paris *
Actual Winner: Midnight in Paris
Alright Allen, you can have it.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY The Descendants *
Actual Winner: The Descendants
Same goes for you Payne & Co.

BEST COSTUME DESIGNThe Artist *
Actual Winner: The Artist
Usually goes to a period piece, but they’re all period pieces. Shot in the dark here, could go to Hugo.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORTSaving Face *
Actual Winner: Saving Face
Again, sad, serious documentaries, but this one seems to have a stronger emotional tug.

BEST MAKEUPThe Iron Lady*
Actual Winner: The Iron Lady
Here again, HP has had its day, and although Albert Nobbs turned Glenn Close into a man… well… she was halfway there on her own.

BEST FILM EDITINGThe Artist *
Actual Winner: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Could go any which way, but I’m going to throw this on The Artist sweep pile.

Response to Winner: Seems like Oscar likes the edgier stuff in this category. After Social Network last year, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo this year, I’ll definitely be looking for the edgier piece in next year’s predictions.

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So there you have it. My trailer-based predictions. Maybe it will help you with your own office pool or class competition, maybe it just gave you something to read. At any rate, tune in to the Oscars and see what shakes down!

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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In Defense of George Lucas: Why the New Trilogy Matters

This article is in response to Simon’s article Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter (So if you haven’t read that yet, read it first.)

Simon’s article is, as always, well written, and he touches on many of the issues that have inflamed fans for years now. I must, however, do my part to stand up in defense of Mr. Lucas, and the things he and his films (even the less desirable prequels) have accomplished, which were not acknowledged in what was a fairly unflattering assessment of Lucas’ work over the past three decades.

I too consider myself to be an avid Star Wars fan. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, collected all the toys, I teach a unit on Star Wars in my film classes, and I even pre-bought a set of the Star Wars playskool toys for my children. For years I read every Star Wars novel that came out, and considered myself to be an expert of sorts on all matters Star Wars, memorizing pages out of the Star Wars Encyclopedia and dominating at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I would consider myself, to a more conservative degree, a “fanboy”. So I acknowledge that there is some bias in my love of Star Wars, but as someone who appreciates film as an industry and an art form, I have nothing but a profound admiration for what George Lucas has accomplished.

"Mos Epply Airport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and muppetry."

I don’t really recall the releases of the original films as part of my childhood, although I know I watched them growing up. Perhaps my first true recollection of a Star Wars-related release was when the original films hit the theatres again in 1997 as part of the “Special Edition” craze. I was thrilled to see Star Wars on the big screen, and to be honest, there were just as many pros as there were cons to the enhancements.  There were the not-so-desirable character alterations, such as the infamous “Han Shot First”, awkward deleted-scene inserts such as the odd-looking Jabba and a badly spliced Han stepping over his tail (to hide the fact that it was actually a fat Scottish guy in a fur coat and not a slithery lizard creature), but there were also some very nice touch-ups of the effects, such as the landspeeder looking like it was actually hovering and not like they smeared Vaseline on the lens, making Mos Eisley look like a bustling spaceport and not Epply Airport in Omaha (which never seems to have more than 50 people in it at a time), or enhancing the Yavin skyline to make it look like it was actually on a foreign moon. Let’s not forget that Lucas did throw the fans a bone by including Boba Fett in the bonus Jabba scene of New Hope (renamed to Episode IV: A New Hope after Lucas got the greenlight to make his sequels, which he wasn’t initially sure would happen). I will not attempt to justify that every change Lucas made was, in my opinion, the best, but these changes were not all bad. Sadly, the hardcore fans seem to focus on the negatives. Like whiney, ungrateful children, we the fanboys never really stop to say thanks to Lucas for all the positive things that he has done, we just complain about that toy we saw in the store and wanted, but didn’t get.

I think the biggest culprit in the disappointment of fans is nostalgia.  We look back on things from our childhood with a fondness and forgiveness that we would never grant to even the best of films from our adult years. Really think about it. I’m an 80s kid, so if I mention shows like Thundercats, Transformers, GIJOE, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mask, He-Man, we reminisce about how TV just isn’t the same, and we had “quality” shows back in our day.  I don’t know if you’ve managed to track down any episodes of those old shows and watch them, but some of them were pretty horrible in terms of the writing and animation. Heck, most of them existed solely to sell toys – another argument fans throw in the face of new Star Wars properties. The fact is, we get so caught up in the fuzzy glow of our childhood memories, that we selectively omit the negative aspects and zero in on the positives. Simon acknowledges the technical limitations in Star Wars, and points out that they add to the charm of the original films, which they do, but ultimately if you can fix those little flaws to polish up the film for today’s standards… why wouldn’t you? To Lucas’ credit, he didn’t do a complete gut-job, he left representations of the original work while putting some polish here and there. The industry isn’t disavowing all knowledge of the original contributions, but at the same time, they’re not going to make the next Transformers movie using tauntaun-style stop motion.

To a degree, nostalgic blinders put a jaded slant on the new Star Wars films. The writing was just as bad in the originals, the effects were worse (although still groundbreaking at the time), heck even the titles were just as cheesy and blunt in their descriptions. (“The Empire Strikes Back” and “Attack of the Clones” are about the same in caliber.) If anything, I’d say the saving grace on the writing in the originals was that the actors were better at turning Lucas’ words into something more believable. Irvin Kershner tells the story of how in ESB as they’re about to lower Han into the carbonite chamber, Leia says “I love you” and Han was originally supposed to say “I love you too”. Thankfully with it being someone other than Lucas as director, he was able to say “Harrison, this isn’t working. Don’t think, just say what comes naturally” and we got the classic we response we all know and love: LEIA: “I love you”, HAN: “I know.”

On the point of Lucas as a director, I have to agree with Simon that he is not the strongest at directing.  His actors always comment that he has a hard time communicating with them to get the performance he wants.  As a director and actor, I can tell you, at the end of the day, if your director isn’t helping give you a direction on your character, the performance will ultimately suffer.

I also agree with Simon that the original Star Wars films succeeded because they were a collection of many individuals’ artistic contributions. To a degree, Lucas’ complete control over everything in his films doesn’t put in that system of checks and balances he had on the original films – between the studio execs having input, his wife, fellow film makers, etc. (Probably the best moments of Episode III came from Lucas’ collaboration with Spielberg on the Obi-wan Anakin fight.) But even the special effects guru behind the original films, John Dykstra, praised Lucas’ tweaking of the originals, even though it essentially erased some of his own work. I like to think of it in this regard – yes these effects were pioneering at the time, but if we stuck with that mentality, we’d all still be driving westward on covered wagons.

Outside of Pixar, which sprang out of a development at Lucasfilm, all of these companies were started by George Lucas in the past 35 years.

But perhaps my biggest disagreement with Simon, and the reason I felt compelled to shed some positive light on Lucas’ work, is Simon’s belief that Lucas has simply “wallowed in mediocrity” since the original Star Wars films were released.  Although it is true that Lucas has not directed more than a handful of films (and I think we agree that it’s better when he leaves his work in the hands of more capable directors), Lucas has worked non-stop at literally redefining the industry of film as we know it. George Lucas the film student/startup director ceased to exist after the release of the original Star Wars, and since has become George Lucas of Lucasfilm, Lucasarts, THX, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and Skywalker Sound. Through these subsidiary companies, George Lucas has essentially built the modern filmmaking, animation, and even video game environment.

Through his guidance, these companies developed SoundDroid one of the first audio mixing/editing stations and EditDroid an early computerized non-linear editing system. Let’s not forget that under his watch Lucasfilm developed the PIXAR animation computer, which was eventually sold off and developed into the PIXAR animation company we know and love. Edutopia is an online resource which provides educational computer resources for educators and students alike, and Lucasarts created some of the most beloved games (even non-Star Wars games) of my youth. In the 80s and 90s Lucas continued to develop ILM and Skywalker Sound to provide state-of-the-art film creation facilities for film makers from all over the world. Skywalker Sound has 568 credited films to its credit, and ILM over 300. One might argue that technology companies would have figured out how to do these things on their own, but I contend that it takes a film maker to say “This is what I would want, this is what would help me make a better movie.” It was through this approach that ILM developed the stunning and groundbreaking CGI work that went into Jurassic Park which was developed hand-in-hand with the visual effects tweaking on the Special Edition release of Star Wars.

JAR JAR: "Heya, Gollum! Me-sa you-sa father!" FANBOYS: "Noooo! That's not true... that's impossible!"

And let’s not forget the new trilogy. Often despised by adult fans for being “not as good as the originals”, but generally enjoyed by children of this generation, these films pioneered the digital film making era we’re experiencing today. Admittedly I think the new trilogy films lost their way trying to fill in gaps and appease a rabid fan-base that had been salivating for 15 years for something new, but they were not without their merits. Attack of the Clones was the first film shot entirely using digital cameras, a practice which is becoming more and more the norm.  The continued development of seamless CGI character integration and motion capture technology (yes even Jar Jar served a purpose) paved the way for film makers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron to take the next step and develop technology seen in films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar.

The list of Lucas’ accomplishments and contributions goes on and on.  George Lucas succeeded where almost no other film maker has.  He broke away from a system which had established itself as the only way to make films – driven primarily by the almighty dollar without much care for artistic expression – and created his own empire, where he was empowered to make films the way he wanted, and improve the climate for other directors who otherwise would not be able to afford that luxury. Although even Lucas himself acknowledges the irony and parallel in his story to that of Vader – he started out fighting against the empire, and in the end became the very thing he sought to destroy.

His vision and direction of his companies has ushered in a new era of film making, and he continues to strive toward new advances with each new project. Right now Lucasfilm is developing a live-action Star Wars TV series, but in order to make it become a reality, his companies are working to improve the way CGI is produced so that it becomes cheaper and more feasible on a faster time frame. This would open the door for more advanced CGI in television series – think Heroes, only where they actually had the budget and time to do loads of cool super-powered effects every week.

And we cannot overlook the simple power of these films to inspire people.  Not simply from their entertainment value and the artificial realities they encourage us to act out as children – otherwise Simon and I would still be in our back yards practicing our lightsaber skills – but to seek out methods of creative expression, be it film, art, theatre, music, or even an articulate debate over another man’s work.  I would even contend that the negative changes have inspired people to try their hand at creating something “better”. Star Wars fan films have blossomed from simple rotoscoped light saber fights, to 2-hour epics with fully developed CGI effects.

Ultimately Star Wars is George Lucas’ creation, it’s his world, and we are fortunate enough to experience it. My high school drama teacher ran into George Lucas in London a few years back. I often think of what I would have done in that situation or what I would have said. My teacher came up with something I think was absolutely perfect, he said “Thank you for your work, Mr. Lucas.”  If you don’t like the re-re-re-releases with enhanced this-and-that and want so desperately to cling to your childhood nostalgia, stick with the original theatrical releases on DVD. The fact is, our kids will love them regardless of what’s original and what isn’t. My film students never even notice the changes unless I point them out.

Lucas didn’t have to re-release the original, non-enhanced films, but he did – which is a big consolation. Think what would happen if you wrote an article, revised it, and the revision was published. Now what would happen if the people demanded you publish your first draft, which you know was full of typos and poorly worded points? Wouldn’t you resist turning out something you didn’t feel was your best work? Ultimately the Star Wars films are Lucas’ baby, and we should all be so lucky to be able to revise our work into something we can be 100% content with.  Eventually he will have to let the originals go (probably when he finally dies) but that is his prerogative. As for the man’s work, we are extremely fortunate that George Lucas did not simply “wallow in mediocrity” for the past 30 years, or we’d be looking at a very different cinematic landscape right now.

In short, I get you, George Lucas. God bless you, and keep on doing what you’ve been doing.

P.S. I eagerly await your new film Red Tails.

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Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter

star-wars-original-poster

The poster for the original Star Wars. Note the absence of the subtitle "A New Hope," the first of many additions Lucas would make in subsequent years.

I can’t pinpoint the time when I first saw Star Wars, but I think I have a fairly good idea.  I was born in 1980, three years after Star Wars was released, and while I was growing up I had no concept of Jedis, the Force, Darth Vader, or X-Wing fighters.  But somewhere along the line, perhaps around the mid-1980s, my parents rented a VCR and let us stay up late to watch George Lucas’ masterpiece.  From the moment John Williams’ score poured from our 19-inch TV’s single three-inch speaker I was hooked.  I watched with bated breath as R2D2 and C-3PO evaded capture and flew an escape pod to Tatooine. I marveled as Luke Skywalker handled his first light saber, my mind reeling with the possibilities such a weapon offered. And when the X-Wing fighters took to the trench in the film’s climactic battle, I gaped at the screen, mesmerized and completely, utterly hooked.

The technical details mattered not to my six-year-old brain.  The monaural soundtrack, the obvious puppeteering, the poor quality matte lines…those didn’t even register.  What kept my mind spinning for days and weeks was the incredibly story of a young boy who grew up to realize his destiny, his friends who never abandoned him even in the face of great danger, and the haunting, chilling sound of Darth Vader’s mask.  Rooted deep within the story, at some primal level, were the basic elements of mythology that humans have used to tell stories for generations without end, and in our living room more than two decades ago they connected with me too.

Soon after that we rented Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and I was absolutely thrilled to be able to continue the journey of Luke Skywalker and his friends.  My brothers and I used sticks in the back yard to pretend we were Jedis.  I delivered newspapers on my bike pretending I was on a speeder bike evading scout troopers and dodging trees.  On cold walks to school I would make believe I was looking for a tauntaun I could ride instead.  The entire universe captivated me, despite the fact that it was riddled with technical glitches, chroma-key matte lines, and obvious modelwork and puppetry.  All that is beside the point, because as George Lucas himself said, special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story, and it’s the story itself that matters.

And it’s the story itself that endures.

With the release of the Special Editions in 1997, George Lucas began what would be a seemingly endless journey of tinkering, tweaking, altering, and even polishing his original trilogy.  He has stated that his original movies were only 25 to 30 percent of what he wanted them to be, largely due to technical limitations.  The changes he has since made, from the mundane (cleaning up the colors of the lightsabre duels) to the horrifying (Greedo shooting first) continually eroded not only fans’ appreciation for the newer editions, but their respect and admiration for Mr. Lucas himself.  All this tinkering has been well documented, and will not be explored in depth here, but suffice it to say the version of the classic trilogy that hit store shelves recently is, in many ways, a shadow of its original counterpart.

The originals weren’t perfect by any means, and compared to today’s cinematic productions with 1080p and 4K resolutions, 7.1 sound, and 3D effects, they do show their age more than a little bit.  But, and this is the part of the argument that seems to escape Mr. Lucas, that is precisely the point.  Star Wars broke new ground in so many ways, and advanced cinema in so many unprecedented directions, that to essentially deny the validity of the originals is akin to robbing popular culture of one of its most enduring treasures.

Consider the man behind all this for a moment: George Lucas.  Thirty years ago he was a kid fresh out of film school with an epic story to tell and enough tenacity to actually pull it off despite massive obstacles facing nearly every element of the production.  However, ever since his success with the original Star Wars (not subtitled “A New Hope” until long after its initial theatrical run), Mr. Lucas has, for all his notoriety, wallowed in mediocrity.  To this date, a scant half-dozen films comprise his entire directorial resume:

George Lucas Han Shot First

George Lucas on the set of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wearing a t-shirt with a graphic that says "Han Shot First."

THX-1138

American Grafitti

Star Wars

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode II – The Clone Wars

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

And that’s it.  Consider, then, the laundry list of films directed by Steven Spielberg, one of Lucas’ contemporaries whose films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. have had a similar impact on the cultural zeitgeist.  While Lucas had a gap of more than twenty years between directing the original Star Wars and The Phantom Menace, Spielberg was busy making dozens of films and refining his craft, and currently has four films in various stages of production.  So what was Lucas doing that whole time? Nearly every project he was involved in after 1977 bears the words “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones,” a film which he was, admittedly, very influential in creating.  Stymied by his own myopic vision, or perhaps simply too scared to venture out with other projects, Lucas has seen fit instead to tinker with his original creations rather than branch out into new areas of science fiction and storytelling.  Not every film made by Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, or other influential Hollywood personalities, is a success.  Even the greatest artists sometimes fail, which in its own way an integral part of success.  But George Lucas has never experienced failure, thanks to his refusal to exit the comfortable confines of his Star Wars universe and try something new.  Instead, he is content to meddle with Star Wars, babbling on about his “original vision” and adding pointless things like additional rocks and blinking ewok eyes to films that, for years, have stood entirely on their own without enhanced color grading or CGI dewbacks. Notice also two curious omissions from the aforementioned list: The Empire Strikes Back (which Lucas actually said was the worst in the series) and Return of the Jedi. These films were borne from Lucas’ original creation, but he did not actually direct them. Instead, he wisely left that task to men who understood conventions like dramatic tension, character arcs, and (gasp!) good dialogue.  Even the original Star Wars owes a great deal of its success not to Lucas, but his wife Marcia, who edited the film and in many ways helped her husband guide its direction (it was her idea to kill Ben Kenobi, an idea which Lucas initially resisted).

X-Wing Approach

In the originals, shots like this were the culmination of cutting-edge motion control and compositing. In the Special Edition, they were replaced with CGI, effectively erasing some of ILM's most pioneering work.

In other words, George Lucas may have been the guy with the idea, but Star Wars owes its enduring popularity to a host of individuals. And yet it is Lucas who has decided not to leave well enough alone and revise the very objects of art which catapulted him to fame and fortune.  Star Wars is not simply his vision. It was the product of many committed individuals who poured their heart and souls into the films. And with the release of the Blu-Rays, the original trilogy has been, in many ways, marred beyond recognition so as to effectively snuff out out the contributions of the many individuals who helped bring them to fruition.  The special effects might have been cheesy, the colors less than perfect, and the sound a humble stereo mix, but these are what made the films great.

Of course Lucas is free to alter the films if he so chooses.  He owns the copyright, and he can take his fancy ball and go to another playground if he wants to–even if no one else is there to play with him.  But it was the original trilogy that changed how movies were made. It was the original  trilogy that defined special effects for the next 30 years. It was the original trilogy that created legions of devoted fans around the world.  And it was the original trilogy that entranced a generation and made them believe that each and every one of them had the power to do something special, to stretch their wings and fly.  Lucas can update his films with newer gee-whiz computer graphics and add floor-rumbling surround sound, but to deny future generations of moviegoers the opportunity to see the original films as they actually existed, regardless of his somewhat specious claims regarding his original vision, is like denying a grandmother the opportunity to hold her grandchild.

Of course the originals on VHS and Laserdisc can still be tracked down by dedicated fans, and in 2006 Lucasfilm even released a DVD set of the Special Editions that included a bonus disc with the original version of each film (infuriatingly presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, almost as if Lucas was just goading legions of fans clamoring for his original creations). But Lucas has since essentially abandoned the originals, tossing them to the curb and dismissing them as mere rough drafts. What he fails to realize is that those “rough drafts” are precisely what put him in the position he is in today. And it is those “rough drafts” that will be celebrated for years to come, not despite their imperfections but because of them.

The People vs George Lucas

In The People vs. George Lucas, filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe documents the love/hate relationship Star Wars fans have with George Lucas.

And so remains the question: what is to be done? In a sense, the best chance to make sure these films are not relegated to the celluloid dustbin is to keep the feedback coming. SaveStarWars.com has an incredible FAQ that answers a host of questions regarding the original trilogy (and debunks some of the common myths, such as Lucas’ own statement that it would be too expensive to restore the originals) and contains myriad resources for fans to take action.  But by far the most influential method for changing Lucas’ mind is simply affecting his pocketbook.  Each time he releases newer altered versions of his films, they are purchased by fans all around the world (the Blu Rays recently broke all kinds of sales records)–many of them torn between keeping the original films alive while also delighting in seeing them gussied up with all of today’s home theater wizadry.  And the films will soon be back in theaters with a full 3D treatment and, presumably, even more changes to fit Lucas’ ever-changing “original vision,” with a 3D Blu-Ray release years down the line virtually a foregone conclusion.

Imagine if George Lucas threw a party and nobody came.  Imagine if his 3D Star Wars films bombed at the box office, and if the blu-ray sales fell like a dead tauntaun.  Would he finally listen to the fans and release the original versions? I’m thinking he would.

The fact of the matter is, there’s room in Star Wars fans’ hearts for all kinds of versions.  He can release all the HD/3D/Special Editions he wants, just as long as he releases the originals too.  And not a cheesy laserdisc transfer from 1993 either.  If Star Wars was big before, just imagine the sales figures of this hypothetical boxed set.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of resources for fans to keep the originals alive for generations to come.  And as for me, my son who will one day be old enough to watch Star Wars. One day I’ll pull out my 2006 DVD versions, skip to Disc 2, and let his imagination be caught up in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Yoda, and all the rest.  If I have my way, he will only know the originals–the ones with the poor-quality matte lines (“That’s how they used to make movies, son.”) and bad lightsaber visuals (“They didn’t have computer graphics back then…”).  I’m sure some day he’ll ask about the prequels or the Special Editions and maybe we’ll even watch those too, but the Star Wars he grows up will be the same as the one that millions of fans around the world grew up with–one in which Mos Eisley is not a wretched hive of CGI distractions, the Max Rebo band is not a gaggle if cartoon muppets, and Han always, always shoots first.

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Judicial Retention Elections: Director’s Cut

We movie critics take a lot of flac. People accuse us of lazily taking cheap shots at directors, actors and techs who break their backs and offer up their work. Occasionally, someone will say “Why don’t you just make a movie yourself, if you think it’s so easy?”

So, I decided to try it. It was a few months ago that I was introduced to Xtranormal.com, the website that allows ordinary people to make movies by selecting characters and locations from a menu, and typing dialogue. And I have to admit, having actually put my nose to the grind stone, that … movie making is really easy! I don’t know why all those studios, with billions of dollars at their disposal, couldn’t get it right, when I did this with a laptop and a few hours. I’m partly joking of course, but I do want to draw attention to three good things that Xtranormal will contribute to the American cinema: One, it puts a bit more of the power in the hands of ordinary people to counteract the Hollywood propaganda machine. Two, you can’t fill your movie up with car chases and explosions, so it forces the audience to focus on dialouge. And three, most of the people who will use Xtranormal will likely be people who have something worthwhile to say to the world, as I did when I made the film below. Enjoy.

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Black. White.

From the philanthropist to the aspiring world-conqueror many have written of the value of walking in someone else’s shoes, and with Hollywood makeup, we can come closer than ever before. This fascinating reality show, produced by Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler, debuted in 2006, and never had a second season. I can only assume this is because its ratings weren’t good; a number of critics did pan it, which is too bad. To be sure, Black. White. smacks of being polished, and it’s hard to tell how much of it is true reality caught on film, and how much is staged. It also must be noted that the experiences of six people, forced into a television schedule, don’t exactly qualify as a scientific study. But give Cube and Cutler some credit. This show, unlike many, was an honest attempt to contribute to the public consciousness with a hard look at race relations in America. As you can see by the length of this review, Black. White. succeeds at provoking thought and discussion.

We meet two families of three; a white family, the Wurgels, and a black one, the Sparkses, who have agreed to live in a house together for six weeks. They will probably spend at least three of those weeks in the makeup chair, because for many of their experiences, they will be trading races.  I was genuinely skeptical at first as to whether the makeup would fool people. However, later in the series, our subjects sometimes reveal their identities to people they meet, who are genuinely surprised. It seems the makeup really did do its job. The Wurgel “family” (actually a blended family, containing two professional actors) is composed of step-father Bruno, mother Carman, and daughter Rose. The Sparks family is made up of parents Brian and Renee, who are anxious about their son Nick, who doesn’t show the level of interest in his heritage desired by his parents. One recurring theme of the series is arguments between Nick and Brian about whether racism is something to be concerned about.

Rose Bloomfield/Wurgel

 

Rose in Blackface

A lot of our subjects’ activities in this show are self-directed; they choose what experiences they want to have as the other race, and what experiences they think the other race needs to have. One of the first things Brian does is have Bruno don his black makeup and take him out to walk through a predominantly white neighborhood as two black guys. He tells him to watch for things like people moving to the other side of the street or women grabbing their purses. He adds “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Rarely have two men demonstrated more different world views. As they go walking down the street, the dialogue goes something like this:

Brian getting into white makeup.

Brian: Did you see that? Did you see that?

Bruno: What?

Brian: They wouldn’t look at us! Did you see?

Bruno: No, sorry, I didn’t notice

(A minute later) Bruno: Okay, did you see that?

Brian: What?

Bruno: She looked at me! We had, like, three seconds of eye contact.

Brian: No, I didn’t see that.

They enter a store and begin looking at clothes on the racks. Sales people come over to help them. We hear Bruno in a voice-over say “We walked in there and I was helped right away. People were courteous … there was absolutely no difference between the way I’ve been treated as a white man and the way I was treated today as a black man.” We hear Brian in a voice-over say “Bruno thinks the sales people are coming over to help him, but really they’re coming over to size him up.” Remember, however, that this is quite different from what Brian predicted before they went out. He told Bruno “you’ll see how it feels when you go someplace and you get slower service and you know it’s ‘cause your black.” Granted you’re getting a white guy’s perspective from me, but it seems like Brian really wants to see racism on the street and finds a way to do so. If servers serve him quickly, that’s racist, if they take their time, that’s racist; if people look at him, that’s racist, if people don’t look at him, that’s racist; if people get out of his way on the street, that’s racist, if people don’t get out of his way, that’s racist. I find myself wondering if anything could ever happen to Brian that would satisfy him that he wasn’t facing discrimination.

To be fair, Bruno takes Brian on an equally stupid odyssey to a “white” bar as two white guys, at which he attempts to prove to Brian how un-racist white America is. He asks patrons questions like “do you think black people are equal to white people?” and “would you consider marrying a black woman?” getting predictable responses. Having failed to indoctrinate Bruno the way he hoped to, Brian turns his attention to Nick. Nick says that he doesn’t perceive racism.  Brian gives him a series of directives like “Next time you go to the store, just … look around and you might be surprised that your black butt’s being watched.” In six episodes, we never see Brian in white make up after the second episode, except very briefly in episode six. At first, Brian was excited to become white, believing that it would induct him into the privileged class. Later, however, he appears to decide that life is easier as a bitter black man, and focus his efforts on making sure his son grows up as paranoid as he is.

Nick demonstrates the same inclination in his own way. He has to do something for the show most white kids never have to do: suffer through an etiquette class. Let’s face it, there aren’t many facets of main-stream American life that are all white anymore, so Cube and Cutler had to look to the wealthiest of American society to find things for the Sparkses to do. In between sessions, he vents to Rose that he is miserable posing in his white makeup, and that “I just wish I was black right now!” Eventually, Nick tells the class that he is actually black. You can see him relax as soon as people know. Even surrounded by white kids, he’s a lot more comfortable being himself.

Experiences like this serve to not only expose differences in how the races see things, but also differences between the genders. One night, Bruno and Carmen go to a country bar as a black couple. (Let’s face it, that is kind of like poking a hornet’s nest.) Afterward, they report very different experiences. Carmen says she definitely felt like she was viewed with increased suspicion. Bruno says “I was hanging out with the guys at the bar, I was playing pool with them as a black guy … nobody cared.” Perhaps this difference can be explained by what women and men generally want from social interaction. After Rose has spent several days as a black girl, she tells the camera “I’ve managed to pass myself off and be accepted, but I don’t feel like I’ve really connected with any of these black people on a soul level.” This is something no man would ever expect to achieve while disguising himself and pretending to be something he’s not. When a man disguises himself as another race, he’s thinking about pulling off the act so he’s not discovered. If the people he meets treat him with basic courtesy, he’s content. Women go into social settings wanting to form deep relationships (even when they’re lying to everyone about their race), and so they seem to be a lot more aware of racial tension. About two thirds of the way through the series, Carmen, having twice inadvertently offended Renee, breaks down, crying that she “can’t stand having to walk on egg shells all the time. I don’t want any more apologizing for who I am.” Despite the contempt Renee demonstrates for whites throughout the series, in private, she tells the camera about a desire to form a close bond with a white woman. After a couple of episodes, she gives up on Carmen and begins looking elsewhere, eventually forming a friendship with a woman she meets in a scrap-booking club.

Meanwhile, Carmen has given up on Renee and goes into the world looking for a “black friend that can help me connect to the black community.” She eventually meets

Bruno and Carmen at a black church.

talk radio host Deanna. After a few visits, Deanna takes Bruno and Carman around her neighborhood as a mixed couple; Bruno is in his black makeup; Carmen looks white. She takes them through a park where a lot of black guys are hanging around beating on drums. Carmen says in a voice-over that “I definitely had a sense that I was not wanted in that neighborhood, and, gradually emerging, a sense of actual fear for my safety.”

For his part, Bruno says “I’ve felt more tension and perceived more hostility here than I have as a black man anywhere else. That was the most evident display of hate that I’ve experienced.” Deanna explains “That’s because you’re perceived as a black man coming into this black community with a white woman. You’re perceived as a sell out.”

Carmen eventually breaks down crying. Deanna asks her “do you realize this is everyday life for people like me? You can pop in and out in a day, but my skin will never change.” The show seems to be making a point here about how, even in black makeup, white people can’t understand how black people feel, because they can take off the makeup. However, it’s also worth pointing out that, while Carmen looked white, Bruno still looked black. In order to get either of them to feel real racism, Deanna had to take both of them to a black neighborhood. It brings to mind a conversation I once had with a black friend, who was anxious over the fact that his fiancé (now his wife) was white. A bunch of us were hanging out at Village Inn, and he was worried about the crap that his future kids would take from all-black kids if their skin was the wrong shade. In frustration he commented, “Chris Rock is right when he says black people are the most racist people in America. Black people do not like white people, they do not like Asian people, they do not like Native American people … they don’t even like black people that they don’t think are ‘black enough.’”

Black. White. doesn’t exactly generate a lot of optimism for race relations in America. It gets downright painful to watch sometimes, as Bruno, Carmen, Brian and Renee can’t seem to let go of petty offenses. As tempers flare and hatred percolates, one of the surprises is that Rose and Nick become fast friends, even while their parents progress in animosity. I started to wonder if racial problems wouldn’t just disappear if everyone over 20 just left the planet.

The two families actually manage to have some positive interaction in the final episode. As if to apologize for what they’ve put them through, the producers and camera crews back off, and Bruno and Brian begin to shoot hoops in the park. Renee and Carmen go for a nature walk. The tension eases palpably. Brian and Bruno both say that they have reached a mutual respect. Renee says that she has “forgiven” Carmen. Carmen comments “We don’t all have to love each other, but we can respect each other and let each other be.” Maybe that’s the most important lesson of the whole show. Unless and until the races are willing to sacrifice everything that makes them who they are – not entirely desirable – racial consciousness and, therefore, “racism” will probably never just disappear. That’s no reason cross-racial friendships can’t occur (as they often do). But they’re not going to occur through racial reconciliation conferences or lots of “Kumbaya” singing, and certainly not through disguises and shouting matches. They will occur, if at all, the same way all friendships occur: through people simply being themselves and finding things they have in common. Programs like Black. White., even when they have the best of intentions, need to back off and let this happen. It can’t be orchestrated.

In summary, I have to tip my hat to anyone who was involved with Black. White., if only because it could not have been an easy experience to get through, especially for those on camera. It took a lot of guts and patience from our six heroes, and from the makeup department, no doubt. It delivers a powerful, and mostly seemless narrative of a most intruiging (and, as far as I can tell, unprecedented) social experiment. I forced me to spend some time reflecting on things I hadn’t for a while.

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The Real Wolfman

Man has not always been at the top of the food chain. Our lack of fangs, claws, etc. once made us a temping treat. Only in the last two centuries or so did our ingenuity give us the tools to consistently overcome the world’s top predators. Before that, humans huddled around campfires for eons, jumping at bumps in the night and teaching their children to fear the dark. Most of the time, the fear of fire would keep our primitive superiors at bay. However, there are many instances in history where a human settlement became little more than a buffet to a lion, a pack of wolves, or the Beast of Gevaudan.

The Beast of Gevaudan (pronounced je-voo-DAN) lived, killed, and died in southeast France in the disturbingly recent 1760s. It fataly mauled and mutilated 102 people, most of them women and children. It was hunted by hundreds and shot at by dozens, many of whom were sure they had hit it, but this only seemed to increase its boldness. One cannot study this period without sensing the terror peasants must have felt, cowering in their homes as the Beast walked unchallenged through their villages. But the most frightening thing about the Beast? Nobody knew what it was.

George Deuchar

Enter the History Channel. This story has long been a source of fascination for crypto-zoologists, because whatever this creature was, it left 102 bodies behind. Ergo, it couldn’t have been a hoax or a myth. So it only makes sense that the History Channel would enlist the talents of crypto-zoologist Ken Gerhard to investigate the mystery. Why they paired Gerhard with Jersey criminal profiler George Deucher is less clear. Deucher is sort of the Dana Scully of the pair; the hard-bitten, no-nonsense skeptic. For most of the film, while Gerhard insists the Beast must have been some previously undiscovered animal or mutation, Deucher is equally adamant that it was a human serial killer. How he plans to identify this killer, however, is beyond me. One of the tricky things about crime detection is that the trail goes cold fast. It’s hard to catch a murderer a few weeks after the killing, let alone 240 years. I’m sure the man is good at his job, but it would seem Deuchar was included less for any particular expertise than for the sake of having a skeptic voice in the cast of characters.

Most of the way through, the film progresses about like you’d expect, with the cheesy reenactments that we’ve come to expect from documentaries, and the monster-cam effects that we’re used to from B-grade horror films. We see a lot of retellings of documented instances where the Beast killed. Humorously, we see the same four or five actors die over and over. These are interspersed with Deuchar and Gerhard’s visits to sites in France and arguments between them about

what the few bits of evidence they have mean. For instance, Gerhard reads an excerpt to Deuchar from one scholarly compilation

Ken Gernhardt with a statue of the Beast

of sightings. It says that one man said he heard the Beast “laughing.” He then shows Deuchar some footage of hyenas in Africa. The sound they make resembles a human laugh. His argument: laughing sound = laughing hyena. The only question is how did one get to France. This is a classic crypto-zoologist explanation, known as the out-of-place-animal.  Deuchar retorts “when I hear about a killer laughing, to me that means one thing: human serial killer.”

Realistically, the Beast could not have been a human. Too many people saw a quadruped animal, including some who were attacked by it and survived, often in broad daylight. Doubtless, the witness accounts include some embellishments. One man said he saw the Beast walk on water. Witnesses also reported the Beast to be as big as a horse. None-the-less, I don’t think there can be any doubt that there was a real, unknown animal involved.

But in its exploration of what the real animal was, The Real Wolfman betrays the problems that plague many documentaries: fast assumptions and a rush to meet a deadline. To support his hyena theory, Gerhard leads Deuchar to the Caves of Sarlat in the Gevaudan province, where the Beast was said to prowl. There they appear to discover cave paintings of over-sized, prehistoric hyenas (the editing is a bit rough here and it’s hard to tell if our detectives are seeing what we’re seeing or if this is recycled footage from somewhere else). Deuchar asks “So do you think one of these was still around in the 1700s?” Gerhard replies “Well, give me two months and a shovel and I might find evidence.” What he doesn’t say, but we all hear, is “… but we need to finish a TV show here. We don’t have time for that.” Too bad. On their way out of the cave, they find the skeleton of a goat. Gerhard says “It looks like some predatory animal drug it in here for a snack.” Deuchar pipes up “Like a human.”

We’ll never know for sure what the Beast of Gevaudan was, but, based on what I have read from the time, there are a couple of theories worth taking seriously. One thing we can be sure of is that it was no wolf. Many wolves were killed in the hunt for the Beast, yet the attacks continued unabated. What’s more, this rural shepherd population dealt with wolves on a regular basis, and the wolf had been a symbol of evil across Europe for centuries (just read a few fairy tales). A wolf killing people would not have mystified the locals. Likewise, it seems that French peasants would have recognized a bear, had one been the Beast. And with world exploration well under way by this time, they most likely would even have recognized a great cat had they seen one. A mutation has been suggested by crypto-zoologists, and cannot be totally discounted, but it should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of mutants die in infancy. Obviously, this thins the list of known large predators quite a bit, but, as Sherlock Holmes would say, once we have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I think the hyena theory is plausible. As noted, prehistoric hyenas once roamed across Europe, and were larger than today’s. While they were supposed to be extinct in 1764, it would not be the first time, or the last, that a supposedly extinct animal was found alive. Failing that, it was fashionable for European nobility to collect exotic animals. One could have escaped. A hyena (above) would match most of the witness descriptions of the Beast very well, with reddish-brown, flecked or striped fur, a pig-like muzzle, and an arched back with a fringe of fur. Finally, this species would probably not be recognized by the average Frenchman in 1764. There is another most interesting, and credible, explanation I have read from a crypto-zoologist. He proposes that the Beast may have been a mesonychid, a species of hoofed predator that once roamed Europe, but supposedly went extinct around 5000 years ago. A number of witnesses said the Beast had hooves; sometimes a hoof on each toe. The mesonychid’s hooves had developed a split design that made them function more like claws. Looking at the picture (right), you can see how a mesonychid would fit descriptions of the Beast as well, and would have puzzled any witness (who lived long enough to puzzle) as to what it was. With the world being sparsely populated, and no mass media to speak of, an unusual animal could have migrated a great distance through rural Europe in those days, even killing the occasional human, without being noticed before taking up residence in Gevaudan.

Toward the end, The Real Wolfman really falls apart. The pair has found a fair amount of evidence to bolster Gerhard’s hyena theory. Out of nowhere, and maybe out of jealousy, Deuchar espouses a new theory of “a man, killing with an animal.” He asks a wolf expert if a wolf could be trained to attack on command. The wolf expert says he does not think that could be done. They then show an interview with a zoologist who works with hyenas. Looking slightly surprised at the question, he says he SUPPOSES it MIGHT be possible to train a Hyena to attack on command, due to the level of intelligence they exhibit. Where this theory came from is beyond me. They hadn’t found any evidence to support it, and it isn’t necessary to explain anything. But from there, Deuchar, at least, is on the hunt for evidence of a human trainer behind the Beast.

The official story of the Beast’s death is that a hermit named Jean Chastel, a Protestant outcast whose son had been jailed on suspicion of being a werewolf responsible for the deaths, had his bullets blessed by a Catholic priest and went out to hunt the Beast on June 19, 1767. He was charged by the Beast in the company of several witnesses and slew it with one shot. (One shot, of course, was all anybody had back then.) Upon being opened, the creature’s stomach was found to contain human remains. Being unable to identify the Beast as any creature they were familiar with, Chastel and his companions put it on a cart and began the long trek to Paris to show King Louis XV, who had promised a reward. However, this was southern France in August, and the carcass reeked unbearably before long. Needless to say, they didn’t have any cameras, and were apparently not equipped for taxidermy in the field. Somewhere along the way, the remains of the Beast were lost to history. The other problem was that, officialy, the Beast had been dead for 2 years. Louis had dispatched Francois Antoine, his Leutenant of the Hunt, who had killed an unusually large wolf. Antoine had  been given a hero’s welcom in Paris, and the matter had been closed. When the attacks in Gevaudan continued, and the peasants again begged Louis for help, he hadn’t wanted to hear it. Chastel never did recieve a reward. However, he is now considered a national hero.

At a coffee shop in Paris, Deuchar, having pretty much accepted Gerhardt’s hyena theory, argues to Gerhardt that the only way Chastel could have killed the hyena is if he had trained it. He believes he has found a motive in that “Chastel had a chance to go from from outcast to hero.”

What case they have against Chastel is completed back in the U.S. Deuchar invites Gerhardt to the shooting range where he and his cop budies hang out. In France, someone told our detectives that Chastel used silver bullets when killing the Beast, a story they seem to have accepted at face value. Deuchar has had a friend cast some silver bullets. It should be noted these are bullets of a modern design, to be fired from a modern rifle, not the musket balls Chastel would have used. Deuchar has a marksman fire three lead bullets, then three silver, at a man-shapped target. He isn’t able to be nearly as accurate with the silver as with the lead. Announcer Jonathan Adams then explains that the rifling in the gun can’t dig into the silver as well because it is harder than lead. Therefore, the bullet doesn’t spin, reducing accuracy. Next, the marksman fires a lead bullet, then a silver, through two bricks of ballisitc gel. The gel is meant to simulate the effect of a bullet on flesh. The lead bullet fractures and spreads out on its way through the gel, causing massive “tissue” damage. The silver bullet, being harder, retains its shape and makes a slim, clean puncture (although it also punches further into the gel). Deuchar argues to Gerhardt that, if Chastle had managed to hit the hyena with a silver bullet, it’s very unlikely he could have inflicted a killing shot, unless the hyena had been trained. Gerhardt muses “It’s possible the use of silver bullets at that time had more to do with superstition than actual science” (Duh.) “so you might be right.” Deuchar tells the camera “silver is lousy ballistic material.” Adams takes over. “… so how did Chastel manage to kill the Beast with a single shot? Because it was a trained animal. It knew Chastel. It obeyed him.” So there you have the veteran big city cop’s case against Chastel for 102 counts of murder: Silver is lousy ballistic material. Therefore, the Hyena of Gevaudan was trained by this impoverished hermit to kill women and children. Wait a minute.

The story of Chastel killing the Beast may simply be a folktale. Why didn’t Chastel take the Beast to the nearest taxidermist? If he couldn’t afford it, surely someone would have paid for it, in celebration of the monster’s death. Couldn’t Chastel have promised a share of the king’s reward? None-the-less, the attacks stopped, so something must have happened to the Beast. This version seems to have more support than any other.

Most records from the time don’t say anything about Chastel using silver bullets, and this was probably a story that developed later, especially considering that the silver bullet is a relatively recent addition to werewolf mythology. (See Witchcraft and the Occult, Robert Jackson, 1995.) He probably used a perfectly ordinary lead ball, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to try having it blessed by a priest (assuming that part of the story wasn’t fabricated later for church propaganda). With the hundreds of men that hunted the Beast, it’s no surprise one of them was finally in the right place at the right time. Assuming Chastel did try a silver musket ball, and had the funds to obtain one, Deuchar’s accuracy test was flawed. Guns in 1767 didn’t have rifeling anyway, so that wouldn’t have been a factor.

Even Ken Gerhardt, on his own blog, later admitted,

“I am still not 100% convinced about the guilt of Jeanne Chastel. I mean, why didn’t anyone ever notice the hyena in Chastel’s care, with so much reward money being offered… and where did a poor outcast like Chastel acquire a rare animal in the first place? With so many eyewitnesses to the Beast, why didn’t anyone report Chastel prowling the area?”

You also have to ask, even if Chastel was such a monster, why did he keep killing children for three years, thereby increasing his risk of getting caught, and missing out on the reward? None of these questions are asked in The Real Wolfman, however. It seems that the element of the human killer needed to be forced into the History Channel’s explanation of the Beast to justify their inclusion of a cop on the investigative team. In the final scene, Gerhardt and Deuchar walk down the street, congratulating eachother. Deuchar says “It looks like we were both right, huh?” They seem oblivious to the seriousness of the accusation they have just levied against an actual historical figure with known living decendants. Seriously, if any such decendants happen to read this, it would be worth talking to an attorney about a libel suit. In summary, The Real Wolfman doesn’t deserve to be called a documentary. It’s just a lot of wild jumps to conclusions and groundless (and needless) accusations. I suppose I’ll give it a star for putting forth the Hyena theory, though it wasn’t the first work on the Beast to do so.

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