Sunday, April 12, 2009



The Writer

Phil Alden Robinson; based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella

Why It's Here

I would argue that baseball has produced more truly great films than perhaps any other sport, yet when people ask me to name my favorite film about the grand old game, I always find myself reluctant to include Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams on the list. Not because I don't think it's a great film; obviously I do. It's because, honestly and deep down, I don't really believe it's a movie about baseball at all. On the surface, of course, the film, a 1989 Best Picture Oscar nominee, is about little else, telling the story of a down-to-earth Iowa farmer who, guided by a spectral voice that only he can hear, builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, a magical place where the greats of the game's yesteryear emerge from the stalks for one more glorious course around the basepaths. But that's just plot, and the main lesson that Field of Dreams taught me about screenwriting is that, in the case of truly great films, the plot is very seldom what the film is really about.

In the screenwriting classes I've taken, we were always told that your entire film turns on the answer to one huge question: What does the protagonist want? Whether it's defeating the killer great white shark, finding the Ark of the Covenant, or merely winning the heart of a fair damsel, your hero always has some concrete, definable goal that is driving him forward to the film's climax. But these are once again largely plot-driven matters, and as such, I find this "essential" question too limiting in terms of expressing what is really driving your film. I believe it is really a two-part question, the second part of which is more germane to the true subject of your film: What does the protagonist want, and why do they want it? It's this second question that makes the noble act of storytelling about much more than the cold-blooded application of plot mechanics, that makes story an examination of who we are, where we've been, and where we're going or hope to go. It's the answer to this second question upon which the great tales of mythology and the greatest works of cinematic art have been built. Charles Foster Kane wants to be the most powerful man in the world to fill the void left by the loss of his family when he was a boy. Rick wants to help Victor and Ilsa escape from Casablanca so he can regain the idealism that died when he lost the love of his life. And Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), the divinely inspired farmer of Field of Dreams, wants to build a baseball diamond in his corn so he can…well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

A child of the '60s and newly minted farmer, Ray Kinsella is middle America down to his bones, and as he himself puts it, "until I heard the Voice, I had never done a crazy thing in my whole life." That Voice comes to him in the twilight of a perfect Iowa evening with a simple message: "If you build it, he will come." At first, Ray just assumes he's hearing things…until the next night, when the Voice returns with the same message, this time accompanied by a vision of a baseball diamond amidst the cornstalks. Against all reason and sense and with the hesitant approval of his spunky, idealistic wife Annie (Amy Madigan), Ray plows up half his major crop, sinks all their savings into a fully functional baseball diamond…and, one magical night, finds himself pitching to the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), the old-time baseball hero of Ray's father and disgraced member of the infamous 1919 Chicago Black Sox. For Ray, it's like a dream indeed come true…but the Voice isn't done with him yet, and it turns out that Shoeless Joe wasn't the "he" the Voice had in mind. Further supernatural commands ("Ease his pain…go the distance…") lead Ray to Boston, to the doorstep of Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), a former literary darling of the flower children and '60s political activist grown gnarled and cynical by the corruption of his ideals; to Chisholm, Minnesota, home of Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham (Burt Lancaster), who played in one game in the majors back in the '20s but who never got to shoulder a bat and stare down a major-league pitcher; and deep within the recesses of his own heart, where he unpacks his regrets and discovers, buried under decades of resentment and misunderstanding, who was really the "he" the baseball diamond was meant for.

One has to give credit to Robinson for recognizing source material, the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (hmmm, can't imagine Ray's last name is a coincidence?), with one hell of a hook: a baseball diamond in the heart of America that brings long-dead boyhood heroes back to life to ply their superhuman trade once again. It's a great narrative distillation of the nostalgia that colors many of our feelings about the national pastime. But if a great hook was all Robinson had built his film upon, we would have ended up with merely a pleasant, fantastical summertime diversion rather than one of the greatest sentimental heart-tuggers since the glory days of Frank Capra. The magic of Field of Dreams lies in how it is driven not by its plot, nor by nostalgia for the baseball greats of yore, but by the deep, years-long regrets of its characters, regrets that often lead to the kind of pure escapism that baseball (and movies) so deftly provide, regrets that lie at the heart of nostalgia itself. What is nostalgia, after all, but a longing for a return to past times, perhaps to set right things left wrong?

Field of Dreams is driven by a quintet of characters who all have deep unresolved scars in their pasts, and who all in some way need the game of baseball to help rectify these regrets. Back in the '60s, Terence Mann was a preacher of the secular gospel of freedom, "the East Coast distributor of 'involved'", who wrote, marched and spoke out on behalf of "peace, love, dope". But then the Days of Rage turned into the years of disillusionment, with assassinations, Watergate, and all the rest of it settling upon his shoulders like a cloak of failure. By the time Ray comes to see him in Boston, Terence hasn't written a word in over a decade, and is just trying to blend into the background of life, to be forgotten: "I have no more pain for anything. I gave at the office." He's a man trying desperately to forget his past…but he can't completely leave it behind, because there's something he still misses. In his final interview before going into hiding, Terence spoke about Ebbets Field, mythical home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and how he missed the game the way it used to be played, and when he lays eyes on Ray's magical field, all of the things he loved about the game, the black-and-white, win-or-lose simplicity of it, the sun and strength and boyhood abandon, the things of the life he turned his back on, come flooding back. "This field, this game…it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good. And it could be again." Not surprisingly, Robinson uses a writer as the mouthpiece for this statement, which sums up the true role that baseball plays in the narrative of Field of Dreams: the game is a bestower of second chances to those with unfinished spiritual business, giving them an opportunity to resolve their hurts on a literal level playing field.

Terence never has to actually pick up a bat to receive his psychic closure, but for Shoeless Joe Jackson and "Moonlight" Graham, that bat is the whole point of the journey. Shoeless Joe was one of the great ballplayers of all time, a world-class fielder whose lifetime batting average is the third-highest in history. However, this record, indeed all his statistics, are not officially recognized by Major League Baseball. Along with seven other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, Shoeless Joe was found guilty (by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, though absolved in a court of law) of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series and banned for life from baseball, prohibited from ever playing in or even buying a ticket to a professional game again. Shoeless Joe always maintained his innocence (Robinson's script says that Joe did take the gamblers' money but didn't throw the games, and doesn't dig into the issue much more than that; for a more clear-eyed cinematic examination of the subject, see John Sayles' excellent Eight Men Out), and as portrayed in Field of Dreams, he is a man incomplete, separated from his humanity by his banishment from the game. "Getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated," he says. "I'd have played for food money…shoot, I'd play for nothing." Shoeless Joe's journey to Ray's farm is perhaps the simplest of all the characters. If he can just play the game again, reclaim what he loved so much and threw away for a few dollars, all will be set right, and Ray's baseball diamond gives him (and soon all his disgraced fellow Black Sox) a chance to do just that.

"Moonlight" Graham's perspective on the game's place in his life is much more balanced. An unspectacular appearance in his one major-league game led him to realize the pro game was not for him, and he went back to his small Minnesota town, took up the doctor's black bag, and became an institution until his death in 1972 (that's right, seventeen years before the action of the film takes place…or didn't I mention that the good doctor is another of the film's ghosts?). He was loved by his town and his wife, and left a true legacy behind when he went to the great beyond. But Robinson uses "Moonlight" to remind us that even those with truly great lives still have things we wish we had done instead or done differently. "Moonlight"'s regret is that, despite his on-field appearance in that one game, he never got to face down a major league pitcher: "To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn't." The old sawbones does not think that his life would have been better lived on the basepaths ("If I had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy."), but the pull of unfinished business is still strong enough to send his spirit, in the guise of his younger self (Frank Whaley) out to Iowa to shoulder that bat. Whereas Shoeless Joe sees the chance to play the game again as the culmination of a life wasted, for "Moonlight" Graham, it is the icing on the cake, the capstone to a life lived to its top that Ray's diamond provides for him.

And what about Ray? Seeing all these men realize their dreams and rectify their mistakes on his ballfield, he begins to grow frustrated with his own lack of closure: "I did it all. I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask what's in it for me." But his frustration is at first a little hard to grasp, for in many ways, Ray, like Doc Graham, seems to be a man who more or less has it all. He has a loving and supportive wife, an bright, adorable daughter (a very amusing holy-fool performance by young Gaby Hoffman), and even though his farm is threatened with foreclosure, we know in our moviegoer's hearts that this is not going to happen, just as we know that getting Shoeless Joe to come and play baseball again was not Ray's true calling. In fact, if we've paid attention through the whole film, we already know where Robinson's screenplay has been leading Ray, the one piece of unfinished business in this picture-postcard American life. It's never the main driving force of the plot, but it's the emotional engine of every moment of the picture, and it's right there in the first words of the voice-over narration, spoken by Ray, that open the film and introduce, right at the outset, the fifth player in Robinson's quintet of characters: "My father's name was John Kinsella."

This narration that opens the film is not the tale of a love affair with baseball, but of the strained relationship between a father and son. A lifelong baseball fan and failed former minor-league catcher, John Kinsella (Dwier Brown) was crushed by the Black Sox scandal, an event that seems to have hardened his idealism and turned him into a prematurely old man, the state he found himself in when Ray was born in the early '50s. Ray's mother died when he was a toddler, and his checkered relationship with his father was rooted on a bedrock of baseball fandom. John put his son to bed with tales of past baseball greats (including Shoeless Joe), but their antagonism was first staked out by dueling team loyalties: "Dad was a Yankees fan, so naturally I rooted for Brooklyn, but when the Dodgers moved to L.A. in '58, we had to find other things to fight about. We did." Ray turned his back on his dad's salt-of-the-earth ideals, majoring in "the '60s" in college before marrying Annie and settling down…but by the time Ray buys his Iowa homestead, his dad has already been dead for fifteen years. Nevertheless, the old man's spirit hovers over Ray, weighing him down as much as the events of the late '60s have crushed the life out of Terence Mann. In fact, it's the legacy of John Kinsella that drives Ray to heed the Voice's command in the first place. After all, he's settled down, made a family, built a home…but is that all he's going to do? "I'm 36 years old," he tells Annie, "and I'm scared to death I'm turning into my father…he never did anything with his life." It's right after this conversation that he decides to build the baseball diamond and changes his destiny forever.

In the midst of all the excitement of the new ballfield and the ghostly ballplayers, Ray seems to forget about his dad for a while, but he's always there, under the surface, calling to his son like the Voice itself. He hooks the interest of Terence Mann upon first approaching him by mentioning that a character in one of his stories was named John Kinsella. Later, as they drive back to Iowa together, Ray tells Terence how the beginning of the major impasse between himself and his dad came when Ray, at 14, began refusing his dad's invitation for a backyard game of catch: "Could you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father." The more we hear, the more we realize that John Kinsella is the one great piece of unresolved work, the one regret, of Ray Kinsella's life. It's a story that's been played out in countless ways by countless fathers and sons over the years…checkered emotional relationships that provide two closed-off men with nothing to share besides tales of sports fandom and mutual rooting interests. And when those are taken away…what then?

Robinson's film has struck such a close nerve with people (mainly men) across America because it provides, in its closing moments, a symbolic reconciliation of all the deep wounds American fathers have caused American sons over the years, and vice versa, through the medium of the game that was very often the only thing holding these battered relationships together. (To this day, Field of Dreams is the only movie I have ever seen reduce my brother, a star high-school pitcher, to helpless tears at the climax.) When Shoeless Joe reveals to Ray that the "he" who will come is his own father, John Kinsella, in his youthful guise as a hopeful, hungry young aspiring catcher, it all falls into narrative and thematic place. Ray now knows what's in it for him, that the journey of Shoeless Joe and Terence Mann and "Moonlight" Graham were all prologue to the main event, the reconciliation in Ray's heart of his complicated feelings for his father, his willingness to admit to himself at long last that within the broken and embittered man who he fought with so many times was an idealistic, heartfelt human being with the same loves and dreams as himself. And when he asks the spirit of his father, with broken voice, "Dad…you wanna have a catch?", the arc of the flying ball is like the trajectory of a strong relationship, spinning and whirling through an uncertain space until it hits home, finds the heart, right in the hands of the people we love. It is one of the great tear-jerking endings in film history, a moment perfectly calibrated by Robinson, through a maximum of emotional undercurrent with a minimum of dialogue, to be touching without being treacly.

Truth be told, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Field of Dreams really is about baseball after all…just not about baseball as a game. It's about the American relationship to the game, about the many roles that baseball has played for Americans down through the decades. Baseball has been an edifice in a sea of shifting ideological entropy. It's been an avenue out of the slums and ghettoes for lower-class kids like Shoeless Joe. It's been an opportunity to reclaim boyhood enthusiasms for old men like "Moonlight" Graham. And it's been a healer, a balm on the difficult times and checkered relationships that color our lives and loves. The game is all things to all men, a second chance…a field of dreams. These days, however, Robinson's sentimental modern classic has taken on an added, somewhat tragic resonance. The just-passed presidential administration, with its preemptive wars and manipulations of truth, its defenses of torture and invasion of privacy, has, in the eyes of many, taken this country far afield of its ideals, and baseball, stricken with scandal and controversy, has mirrored that fall from grace. I think you would be hard pressed these days to find many Americans who would call baseball "the national pastime" with a straight face. Field of Dreams thus now stands not as a love letter to baseball, but a lamentation for it, a remembrance of things past, a song of regret as true and raw as Ray Kinsella's own. Nevertheless, Robinson's film, in an age of tarnished ideals and bruised emotions, might point the way to a new reconciliation of its own. If we'd all stop shouting and look at the things we have in common, the dreams and desires we share, the joy to be found in a simple game of catch, we just might ease our own pain. And America just might go the distance after all.

AWARD NOMINATIONS (boldface indicates a win): Academy Award, Best Adapted Screenplay; Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, Best Writing; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Adapted Screenplay

Sunday, April 5, 2009


The Zombie has just taken his first steps toward reaching the dead gray hand of his cinematic insight across the pond and toward the whole world. This evening, I emailed a formal proposal, along with a curriculum vitae, to the senior editor at British Film Institute Publishing. I am interested in penning a volume for their BFI Film Classics series. If you're not familiar, each volume is a short (usually 80-120 pages), in-depth examination of a significant work in international film history. The series has covered everything from Taxi Driver to Night of the Living Dead to Groundhog Day (incidentally, these are probably my three favorite volumes of the series; I've read about 27 of them, and there's close to 100 in total so far), and I think they represent the vanguard of contemporary film criticism. Any serious student of cinema should familiarize themselves with these works...and God willing, the series will soon find itself getting zombified.

I will keep the readers of this board posted on developments on this submission as they proceed. A long shot probably, but I'm hoping for good things. Unless, of course, there's an excess of prejudice against zombies at the BFI, but given the Night of the Living Dead volume, I doubt that's the case.

Friday, April 3, 2009



The Writers

Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan; story by George Lucas

Why It's Here

I find myself today in the curious position of writing about a film about which I probably know much less than most of the fans who will be reading this. Someone once asked me what kind of Star Wars fan I considered myself. I answered, "The kind who's really an Indiana Jones fan." Though I acknowledge their importance to the history of Hollywood filmmaking (for better and worse), I have never been what I would call fanatic about the Star Wars movies. I have seen all of the films, of course, and even trekked out to the theatre for the '97 re-release of the original film (highlight: my buddy whispering to me five minutes in, "I don't remember Spaceballs starting like this," at which I laughed so loud I embarrassed myself). But I cannot quote chapter and verse from the films. I didn't grow up with pointy-edged Luke and Han action figures underfoot. I do not own the pictures on DVD, I've never read any of the books, and I only have one piece of memorabilia (the classic "Vader Was Framed" t-shirt). Sure, I went to the massive Star Wars Celebration convention in L.A. back in 2007 for a couple of days...but that's because I was working there, at the Barnes & Noble book booth. Point being, I am by no means a Star Wars freak (and by the way, why don't we have an all-encompassing word like "Trekkie" to apply to Star Wars geeks? We really need one. Jedi-sniffer? Sithhead?).

However, I bow to no one in my admiration of, ironically, the one Star Wars film I have never seen on the big screen: 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, frequently cited by critics and audiences alike as the deepest, darkest and richest of all the films in the series. In interviews, George Lucas has frequently stated that with the original 1977 Star Wars, he was attempting to fashion the ultimate cinematic myth, the apotheosis of all the creation narratives and legends that passed down through history to define the human animal as it found itself nearing the 21st century (insert obligatory George Lucas / Joseph Campbell reference here). The fact that Lucas was largely successful in this aim accounts for both the deep resonance Star Wars has held for filmgoers around the world and for the somewhat schematic nature of the first film's characterizations. Luke Skywalker is not a callow youth who rises to the occasion to become an unexpected hero...he's the Callow Youth / Unexpected Hero. Likewise Han Solo is the ur-Loveable Rogue, Obi Wan Kenobi the ultimate Mentor, etc. These characters struck a nerve with filmgoers worldwide not just because of George Lucas's storytelling, but because that storytelling struck deep chords embedded within our collective psyche about who we see ourselves as and how we came to be. With Star Wars, Lucas gave the world brilliant media-age mythical archetypes. The genius of The Empire Strikes Back, the reason it is the best-written of all the Star Wars features, is that it takes those archetypes and complicates them, gives them wrinkles...makes them human.

Of course, another reason it might be the best-written film in the series is that it is the only Star Wars picture on which Lucas does not receive a screenwriter's credit (here, he is only billed as "Story By..."). Even hardcore Star Wars junkies (Naboosters? No?) concede that the Achilles heel of the series has often been Lucas's own writing, his frequently hamfisted dialogue, his willingness to go for the occasional cheap laugh, his weakness for too-cute-by-half supporting players. On Empire, Lucas turned the screenwriters' reins over to two major talents. Leigh Brackett was a bona fide screenwriting legend, with credits on such classics as The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, and Robert Altman's screwloose adaptation of The Long Goodbye, all films marked by sharp dialogue and a deep understanding of character. Brackett worked on the earliest drafts of the Empire script, but she sadly succumbed to cancer before the film made it before the cameras. Her work was completed by Lawrence Kasdan, who would go on to write Raiders of the Lost Ark for Lucas and later become an acclaimed director in his own right with films like The Big Chill, Silverado, and The Accidental Tourist. Another sharp dialogue writer. Another character-driven storyteller. In short, another scribe, like Brackett, who could combine his strengths, which were sometimes in short supply in Lucas's own writing, with Lucas's impeccable feel for myth and dazzling vision of a new cinematic universe. The result: the most fully balanced, most "complete" screenplay for any Star Wars film.

Empire is neatly broken into the Hollywood-standard three acts, the act breaks signaled both by a change in narrative venue and, more crucially, by an impetuous, against-the-grain decision by the headstrong-to-the-point-of-reckless Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). As the film opens, "It is a dark time for the rebellion...", whose previous-film-ending destruction of the Death Star was a short-lived victory. On the run from the evil Galactic Empire, the Rebels are hiding out on a secret base on the ice world of Hoth, the film's first-act setting. As we see Luke battle the elements and a vicious abominable-snowman-like Wampa (the Star Wars films, like many classic myths, feature frequent digressions such as the Wampa attack that add nothing to the master narrative but work wonders in fleshing out Lucas's fantastical world), we also see the interaction of the characters we fell in love with during the first film, and we see the relationships have grown more complex, pricklier, more adult. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the brash smuggler who came within a hair's-breadth of abandoning the Rebels in the last film, has cast his lot with the angels...or so it would seem, as he still struts around like cock of the walk as he continues to make noise about heading off on his own to face his destiny with Jabba the Hutt. Still, we know what's really keeping him around: his growing feelings for the equally stubborn but just as much in love Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Their tempestuous relationship, alternately passionate and head-butting, recalls many of the classic back-and-forth romances in Brackett's earlier work, not to mention the fuss-and-fighting romance of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, which I wrote about earlier in this series.

Luke, meanwhile, has evolved into an effortlessly commanding battlefield leader...but one whose youth and overconfidence, while frequently effective (no more so than when he takes down a mighty Imperial Walker with nothing more than a swing of his lightsaber and carefully tossed grenade), still seems likely to land him on the wrong end of a blaster one day. Which is why we hold our breaths somewhat when old Obi-Wan's voice comes to him and tells him to head off to the Dagobah System for Jedi training under someone named Yoda. After all, the last time Luke followed strong inner convictions into the unknown, he became a hero...but only after he almost got himself killed several times over. What if this time, there's killing but no heroism? The very fact that Empire invests us so much Luke's destiny indicates that Lucas's myth, under Brackett and Kasdan's guidance, is growing up. We're no longer so certain of the outcome of things anymore. There's room for doubt, hesitation, fear. Just as there will be for Luke down the road, making his role as our onscreen surrogate palpably intense.

In act two, while the Millennium Falcon engages in a little asteroid-field derring-do and a close encounter with some sort of toothy space worm (admittedly, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids don't serve much narrative purpose in the middle part of this film, mainly being here to serve as Luke-bait set by Darth Vader in act three), Luke travels to Dagobah, which turns out to be a swamp planet inhabited mostly by fog and creepy underwater snakes. But it's here that he also meets a grizzled, pointy-eared little homunculus who turns out to be Yoda (Frank Oz), the great Jedi master who taught Obi-Wan Kenobi the ways of the Force. And it's here that the main narrative thrust of the original trilogy starts to come into focus, as Luke's struggle to master the powers of a Jedi are frequently sabotaged by his harsh self-judgments, inner anger and impatience.

Yoda, who sports not just the robes but the deeply focused inner peace of a Buddhist monk, calls Luke on the carpet on this almost immediately, in his tangled reverse syntax: "This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing." And if we didn't get the message enough, Brackett and Kasdan give us an on-the-nose but nevertheless effective fantasy sequence in which Luke faces the villainous Darth Vader in a dark cave (don't worry, more on him later) and beheads him...only to find his own face staring out at him from under Vader's broken mask. It's not only an elegant foreshadowing of a major story twist that we (at that time) had no idea was coming, but it's a show-don't-tell moment of the first order: Luke's worst enemy is himself.

The training sequences grow in intensity as Yoda's frustration with Luke's lack of progress builds, and the young man's path to Jedi mastery grinds to a halt when he receives a troubling vision of his friends in pain. Yoda warns him against going off to rescue his friends, trying to convince him that his intervention can only lead to greater suffering for everyone. Luke, ever-disobedient and thinking like a kid, says he has to do something just because they're his friends, and rockets off to the cloud-borne mining city of Bespin and to Empire's third act. Here, the film takes a turn into narrative territory that makes it easily the darkest film in the series. (Some might argue that 2005's prequel Revenge of the Sith rivals this for narrative blackness, with its dead younglings and Anakin on fire and all, but at least in that one, we knew everything would turn out okay in the end.) Expecting a welcome from his old pirating buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han and Leia instead find betrayal, as Lando has been blackmailed into complicity with the evil Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones and embodied, masterfully, by David Prowse). Han is frozen in carbonite to be taken to Jabba the Hutt. Loyal droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is torn into pieces. Luke is driven into a desperate lightsaber battle against Vader, a battle the skilled but unpolished young warrior is wholly unready for. And he not only loses his hand, but also his entire understanding of himself and his world, as Vader reveals to him that his father, long believed dead at Vader's hand, in fact lies behind Vader's insectoid obsidian mask.

Over the years, many have criticized Hamill's acting in this moment of revelation, with its over-the-top facial contortions and bellowing screams of "Noooooooooooooo!" But Hamill's performance here brilliantly reinforces the narrative movement Brackett and Kasdan's script has been building to all along. In his essay "Sulking With Lisa Loeb on the Ice Planet Hoth", Chuck Klosterman posits the idea that The Empire Strikes Back was the seminal coming-of-age film for Generation X, that it was the first film that introduced that generation to an adult understanding of the world, to the reality that good guys don't always win, that noble intentions are no guarantee of victory or happiness, that the bad guys can not only get the upper hand, but that they can be closer to who we are than we ever would wish. It's that harsh reality that Luke gets slapped in the face with in that moment, and his wailing, near-infantile reaction is thus perfect; it's the dying exclamation of Luke Skywalker the boy and the birthing scream of Luke Skywalker the man. No accident, then, that his next act is one that only an adult would be capable of self-sacrifice, as he hurls himself from the spires of Bespin to his (expected) death rather than fold himself into the cold embrace of his demonic father. Brackett and Kasdan's script here aligns Lucas's myth with arguably the dominant myth-narrative of Western culture, as Luke, giving his life for the good of the world, becomes an intergalactic Christ figure. His fall from Bespin, and grace, is even stopped by a weather vane shaped like a large cross.

Of course, by now we all know what comes next, that Han's okay and Vader turns his back on the Dark Side and Luke stands up and claims his place as a Jedi. Oh, and there's Ewoks, much to the disgust of many. But in 1980, popular entertainments did not end on the kind of downbeat note that Empire went out on. Even knowing another sequel was in the works, audiences were nevertheless stunned to see a gee-whiz summer action blockbuster that ended with one of its main characters in the clutches of an enemy, frozen solid and possibly dead; a beloved sidekick literally torn limb from limb; and its hero partially dismembered and just emotionally upended by a revelation that might have struck a lesser man dead. Star Wars frequently gets blamed for the dumbing down of modern commercial cinema, for burying the narrative daring and experimental freedom of 1970s cinema beneath a welter of catchphrases and special effects. But Empire itself strikes back against these accusations with an ending every bit as unresolved and emotionally turbulent as that of the best films of that great decade. In that respect, it stands alongside Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, also released in 1980, as the last great 1970s-style Hollywood narrative feature.

Of course, Brackett and Kasdan's risk-taking screenplay would have been worth nothing if the movie didn't also deliver as superlative entertainment, and from the first frame to the last, The Empire Strikes Back is a complete blast to watch. Even with all the dark inward-looking and character moments, there's still stunning action sequences like the Hoth attack (maybe my favorite big-scale battle in any Star Wars film), memorably bizarre characters like the masked bounty hunter Boba Fett (amazing to consider what an impact this character made on audiences; watch the film again and you'll realize how little he really does here), and what is consistently the best dialogue of any film in the series, including my favorite all-time Star Wars line, Vader's comeback to Lando when he confronts the Sith lord about going back on their agreement: "I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it any further." Suck on THAT, "Say hello to my little friend!" That's how a villain threatens someone! There's even, amidst all the darkness, ample room for humor, and it's not overdone like in the Lucas-penned Star Wars pictures, but just enough to serve as true comic relief. Indeed, with its balance of action, humor, romance, serious themes, compelling characters, and true narrative richness, The Empire Strikes Back is a throwback to the classic "something-for-everyone" Hollywood narratives of old, a testament both to Brackett's influence on the finished product and to the film's own sterling quality. If all the Star Wars films had been as well-written as The Empire Strikes Back, they just might have turned me into a true Jedi-Hard (hah!).

AWARD NOMINATIONS (BOLDFACE INDICATES A WIN): Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Award, Best Writing; Writers Guild of America Award, Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium (I know, I'm as confused as you are...)

Thursday, April 2, 2009


In her how-to tome Stand-Up Comedy: The Book, Judy Carter makes an illuminating statement about the subjectivity of comedy. "Some people will laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel," Carter says. "Some will only laugh at Hitler slipping on a banana peel." The sense of humor is one of the most individualized aspects of the human psyche, and there are many among us who derive merriment from jokes and situations that others would find inane or barbaric or just flat-out blasphemous. This reality of the comic mode is important to bear in mind when considering Kind Hearts and Coronets, the classic 1949 comedy of manners that centers around arguably the most aggressive social climber of all time, a man who refuses to let the eight relatives standing in his way, and the fact that murder is illegal, keep him from assuming the dukedom he feels is rightfully his.

Kind Hearts was made at England's legendary Ealing Studios, part of a cycle of postwar pictures that have emerged as among the most celebrated and beloved of all film comedies. Though Ealing was a studio known for its films' espousing of classically English values, of stiff-upper-lipness and grace under pressure, its comedies, which frequently foregrounded complicated crime caper plots, were hailed for their gentle needling of said values, whether following a prim businessman masterminding a diabolically clever gold robbery (The Lavender Hill Mob) or a gang of conniving thieves upended in their ambitions by a dottily oblivious English landlady (The Ladykillers). There is nothing gentle about Kind Hearts's subversion of king and country, and the needle has been replaced by a bludgeon as the film takes a tale of typically English class resentment and turns it into an ever-escalating played for laughs, no less. The result stands alongside Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H as one of the greatest black comedies in film history.

Kind Hearts is narrated by Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price in a faultlessly controlled performance), who spends his last night in prison before his date with the hangman writing his memoirs, confessing to the world the depths to which he sank to secure the birthright the hidebound English aristocratic system had stolen from him. Louis's mother (Audrey Fildes), heir to the d'Ascoyne family seat, was disowned years ago for the heinous crime of marrying for love, and heir-presumptive Louis has been reduced to working as a draper's assistant and living in a rented room in the home of a family friend. Life is not all miserable, not least because of Sibella (Joan Greenwood), the friend's comely daughter, who gives herself gleefully to Louis despite her engagement and later marriage to "the dullest man in all of London...of England...of Europe!" Still, even with these delights at his command, Louis can think only of the insult to his mother's honor, and when upon her passing she is denied burial in the family crypt, he decides that it's time to take what's his. All he needs to do is clear out the octet of d'Ascoynes standing in his way of the peerage.

Kind Hearts is most famous for its casting of the d'Ascoyne clan, as all eight of Louis's intended victims are portrayed by the brilliant Alec Guinness. He's young Henry d'Ascoyne, a budding amateur photographer whose widow Edith (Valerie Hobson) later becomes Mrs. Mazzini. He's the gravel-throated General Lord Rufus, forever boring his dinner companions with tales of his Boer War exploits. He's Lord Horatio, who has somehow achieved the naval rank of admiral despite not knowing port from starboard. He's the family parson, a muttonchopped old coot with a weakness for port and cigars. He's even Lady Agatha, a brassy suffragette given to smashing storefront windows and brawling with cops. Unlike Peter Sellers or Eddie Murphy, who often buried themselves beneath painstaking prosthetics to complete their transformations into multiple characters, Guinness keeps his makeup relatively subtle, a receding hairline here, a mustache or pince-nez there, instead relying on particulars of body language, posture, and voice to change himself into these eight drastically different personalities, each of whom emerges in their few brief onscreen moments as a distinct individual. It's really a remarkable piece of work, though honestly something of a gimmick. There's no real reason that the d'Ascoynes all had to be portrayed by the same actor, other than to allow Guinness the opportunity to show off his chops. Besides which, the d'Ascoynes are not even the film's main characters. For all the showiness of Guinness's eight-headed monster, this is clearly Louis's story and Price's film, and it's almost perverse that the film goes to so much trouble with Guinness's portrayals only to relegate him to supporting status.

Of course, perversity is what Kind Hearts is all about. The screenplay by John Dighton and Robert Hamer (who also directed), from a novel by Roy Horniman, is a study in milking laughs from inherently unfunny subject matter. We are invited to sympathize with, to even root for, a man who is slaying his blood kin one by one, and the fact that he barely knows any of them simply serves to make his crimes the more distasteful. Hot-blooded crimes of passion we could perhaps forgive, but these cold, premeditated acts clearly signify that Louis sees his relatives not as people, but as obstacles, and that for all his posturing about revenging his mother's honor, these murders are but means to an end, stepping stones on the way to the privilege and wealth that are his real raison d'etre. The script blunts the edge of most of the killings by either rendering their means almost cartoonishly comic (Louis takes out one d'Ascoyne by shooting down a hot air balloon with a bow and arrow; another is dispatched with an exploding tin of caviar) or by keeping the blood off Louis's hands altogether (one old d'Ascoyne dies of natural causes; the Admiral instigates a mid-sea collision and then stubbornly goes down with the ship). But when Louis faces his final victim, dispassionately recites the d'Ascoynes' crimes, then blows him away with a shotgun, it's hard to shake the realization that we've been rooting for a madman who'd just as soon kill us if we were in the way of what he wanted. We're almost relieved when, on the very night of his ascendancy to the dukedom, Louis is arrested...for the one violent death in the film that he had nothing to do with. We chuckle with the irony even as we breathe a sigh of relief that justice will be done...maybe.

The fiendish verbal wit of Dighton and Hamer's screenplay finds its perfect expression in Hamer's direction, which is itself almost aristocratic in its economy and control. Hamer frames most of the action in uncluttered medium and long shots, never moving his camera more than is absolutely necessary to encompass his action (the cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe, who went on to shoot the first three Indiana Jones pictures), and his actors deliver their dialogue with dry, lordly detachment, never lingering on a punchline or pausing to savor their own rapier cleverness. Even Guinness, whose multiple roles might have provided an irresistible invitation for a lesser actor to go over the top, underplays splendidly, refusing to mug or make his comic creations into mere caricatures. The result is humor of a quintessentially English darkness, a film whose characters never drop their impeccable manners and breeding even in the face of the foulest of crimes, and in so doing provide a briliantly barbed comment on the dehumanization that takes place when a society convinces itself that one man is better than another merely by accident of birth or surname. Despite the multiple murders to his credit, Louis is not a psychotic serial killer in the mold of Jack the Ripper, but rather an English Raskolnikov, who believes that his moral and aristocratic superiority place him above his fellow man and grant him the right to lay his relatives low to achieve that which they would withhold from him out of their own warped sense of superiority. It's a dangerous symptom of a deep social sickness, one so ingrained that even the executioner (Miles Malleson) can't help but look upon Louis as his better; he frets over the proper way to address the duke he is to hang in the morning, and plans to retire after the execution. "After using the silken rope," he says, "never again be content with hemp."

Though a film with such a skewed perspective might easily have been a one-off (and indeed, Ealing's comedies never again achieved this level of sophisticated darkness), Kind Hearts is a film with broad and unexpected influence. There are obvious heirs to the film's mantle, comedies like Crimes and Misdemeanors and The War of the Roses that use their bleak subject matter to humorously dissect mores and conventions of society and relationships. But I think that Kind Hearts can also be looked upon as the literate English grandfather of the generally dark strain that has crept into humor in the last half of the twentieth century and which has continued on into the twenty-first. When we laugh at Jules and Vincent trading pop-culture quips as they blow away small-time hoods in Pulp Fiction, when we marvel at the intermingling of comedy and bloodshed in Pineapple Express, when South Park weekly transforms the darkest subjects imaginable, from the Holocaust to Hurricane Katrina, into comic cannon fodder...all of these works owe their freedom to play in the dark fields to Hamer's bloody romp. And of course, its influence on English humor can be seen in everything from the pitch-black aristocratic machinations of the Blackadder shows to the mixing of small-town political scheming and gore that informed Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz.

There are many among you who would not laugh at Kind Hearts and Coronets, who would find its combination of social satire, drawing-room comedy and murder distasteful and beneath contempt, and the film's literary leanings and detached, sophisticated style as merely symbolic of the film's status as a deeply twisted wolf in sheep's clothing. Well, I laughed. So have sixty years' worth of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. And if you're not among them, well, hang in there. Lot of people walk by here. One of them's bound to miss that banana peel...