Lost in the Movies: July 2010

The Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker

A story in pictures

This piece is composed entirely of images from the six Star Wars films and is a tribute to the saga's central mythology. For a more critical and analytical piece on the movies, please visit my Notes on the Star Wars Saga, which has also been posted this morning.

Notes on the Star Wars saga

For a purely affectionate visual tribute to the films, please visit The Fall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker, which will be posted an hour after this essay.

I grew up with Star Wars, like many others in my generation, and went through a period of obsession with the original trilogy, about four years before the prequels were unveiled. Aside from the entertainment value, and aside from the verve and imagination of the films themselves, I was fascinated by both the mythic scale of the storytelling and the devotion to detail that George Lucas displayed. In the latter case, I loved the sense of place and character cultivated by Lucas, so that an entire world seemed to continue offscreen. I also enjoyed tracking down the various backstories in the spin-off media, or else imagining these backstories on my own. As for the mythology, this was the powerful framework within which the films and the spin-offs could doodle: the Star Wars saga ignited my imagination by uniting both large-scale and small-scale storytelling. It was at once larger than life and filled with a sense of the lived-in.

The borrowed and cobbled mythology of the trilogy drew on numerous sources of course, but in referencing Greek tragedy, Roman history, and Eastern theology the saga was not just playing "me too," it was tapping into the rich stream of resonance, using these inspirations to get at the core experiences and ideas to which we eternally respond. For all the lavish special effects and straightforward drama, there remained a sense of the "offscreen" in the Star Wars films, a sense on which they thrived. This existed not just in the Hero's Journey archetypes which could be read into the work, but in terms of the work itself: the fact that the trilogy occurred in a declining era. Its chronology ("Episode IV - VI") unfolded in the aftermath of a golden age, and its action often took us to the hidden nooks and crannies of the galaxy, the ice- or desert-world margins of a vast universe.

A Century of Wonders

This post is a tribute to Allan Fish, who has just concluded his ambitious, erudite, and stimulating countdown of every era in film history (a top 100 for the first 35 years of cinema, a top 25 for the 1930s, a top 50 for the ensuing decades of the 20th century, and another top 100 for the decade just past). The project was launched on the popular website Wonders in the Dark in the autumn of 2008. A poll was attached to the end of each countdown, so that the readers could voice their own opinions. Not that they needed the excuse - if anything defined the excitement around Allan's exercises, it was the fantastic discussion which sprouted from many of his choices, sometimes voyaging far abroad from the starting point, spanning hundreds of comments and dozens of topics. Many of these were among the best conversations I've had on the internet - or anywhere else for that matter.

There were numerous contributors to the buzzing atmosphere, not least of whom was Sam Juliano, the irrepressible administrator of Wonders in the Dark, who drummed up enthusiasm and participation in Allan's countdown with the exuberant discipline of a Falstaffian ringleader. And then, of course, there's Allan himself. A thirtysomething Brit who has seen just about every major film known to man, he also harbors a no-bullshit attitude and a brooding sensibility. Though bruising at times, he was the perfect yin to Sam's yang - and their odd couple routine defined the site's bright but unpretentious tone from the get-go. More important, his virtually peerless immersion in film history provided a wealth of choices for the countdown and he drew on them with gusto. Many times his #1 (not to mention lower-ranked picks) took us by surprise and sent us scurrying to the margins of filmdom to polish off his proclaimed masterpieces.

In several paragraphs, Allan would summon up the world of the movie effortlessly, giving a bit of history and story, but focusing on the film's mood, its connections to other movies (and books and TV shows and plays...), and whatever it is that drew him in the first place. These short, succinct, yet highly evocative pieces were intended to evoke curiosity and excitement, and in this they were assisted by an often bold and original image - a screen capture in almost all cases, snapping a picture in the midst of merry movement, making us want to see more. The remainder of this tribute focuses on these pictures. Rather than lay these images out in the order of his ranking, I'll fuse them into a seamless portrait of movie history, a voyage into the silver screen's past, starting with the most recent and ending with the earliest glimpses of the medium's potential.

Click on the picture and you will be taken to the review in question. (And if you click on the picture topping this post - an arresting, sultry frame from the French miniseries "Mesrine" - you will arrive at a list of all Allan's countdowns in numerical order.) Enjoy…

In the Beginning...

A meme for those who love pictures

But first, a birthday notice.

In three days, it will be two years since I started this blog. In that time, it and I have been through many changes, but the adventure began with a dual review of Be Kind Rewind and the Lumieres' short films on July 16, 2008. No pictures, no sidebar, an all-white page. And of course, no comments - yet. For several weeks, all was silent - then the first commentators arrived on August 1. Why? I had participated in a "meme", answering the question "if you could program a dozen screenings, what would they be?" Since then, memes - both those I participated in, and those I initiated - have resulted in many of my most popular posts. For that reason, and for another, I am now kicking off a new exercise. In a moment I'll lay out the origin, the rules, and my own tags. First though, thanks to all those who made the past couple years eventful and interesting, and for providing encouragement through the twists and turns of my online enterprises. For those new to The Dancing Image, feel free to explore - visit the "Top Posts" tab to see the work I'm most proud of, "The Directory" to delve deeper, or "The Picture Gallery" to explore what it's all about - those fantastic images which dance across screen and consciousness alike.

Which brings us to that "other reason" for the meme, mentioned above. Several months ago, Stephen of the colorful blog Checking on My Sausages, initiated his own picture gallery. He invited readers to submit "a gallery of images ...to stand for so much of what makes Cinema such a rich and exciting medium." I promised to contribute, but in truth I was stymied. How to chose one image, or even several images, which could represent the thrill of cinema - so much of which has to do with movement, fluctuation, and context? Even some of the powerful moments I could think of - the cut to the static cityscape in Momma Roma, Michael's silent scream at the end of Godfather Part III (or closing the door on his wife in Part I) - relied upon juxtaposition or understanding of the story for their full effect. While appreciating the submissions Stephen received, I dragged my own feet and never fulfilled my promise.

Then, recently, it hit me. When does a single image matter most? When a film opens, when we eagerly await the revelation of its world, and then jump right in. The bulk of my post - nine pictures (including the one above) and my reflections on this theme - proceeds from this conclusion, but in truth, there was a more crucial epiphany here than just the importance of beginnings. I realized that having a theme, an inspiration to go hunting, was in itself enough to spur me on; the actual theme being secondary to the encouragement it provided. And that, finally, brings me to the meme. Here are the rules.

1. Pick as many pictures as you want - but make them screen-captures. The idea is that we're paying tribute to what's onscreen, so production stills - however enticing - just won't do. These have to be images from the movies themselves.

2. Pick a theme, any theme. If you want, you can follow my lead and chose "opening moments" but won't it be more interesting if everybody chooses something different? Character reveals, maybe, or moments of death, memorable reaction shots, even conventional establishing shots (Michael Atkinson wrote a great piece on their poetry a while back). Pick away...

3. You MUST link to Stephen's gallery and my post too. Sorry for the red, but it's an important rule, no? Stephen has also invited submissions to include a caption. I've decided to let the images speak for themselves, but you are welcome to follow his lead and enter a short, terse summary of why you picked what you did.

4. Tag five blogs. I'd like to tag some bloggers who are especially fond of (and talented at using) screen-caps. However, anyone reading this can consider themselves tagged too - get to work! My own tags: Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter, shanh at sixmartinis and the seventh art, Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running, Allan Fish at Wonders in the Dark, and Ed Howard at Only the Cinema (he already contributed one image to Stephen's gallery, but let's see if he can do the themed thing).

The rest is up to you.

And now for my own choices...

Fantastic Mr. Fox

#72 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade. This review contains spoilers.

Whose name should open this review - Roald Dahl's or Wes Anderson's? Roald Dahl, of course, wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1970. As embodied by Dahl's droll, devilishly nasty (though less than usual) prose and Quentin Blake's trademark sketchy, jagged illustrations, Mr. Fox is a cunning, boastful, and rakish chicken-thief who, trapped in his hole by farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, digs tunnels directly into their territory. As the farmers guard the hole, hoping to starve out their quarry, Mr. Fox pays a visit to Boggis' chicken coop, Bunce's store room, and Bean's cider cellar, assembling a great feast for all the animals who have been rooted out of their forest homes by the vengeful humans, forced underground but provided for by Fox's expert thieving. Dahl tells the story methodically but crisply, employing repetition as children's authors do but imbuing his narrative with a subversive sensibility, humorous character touches, and gruesome details ("[Bean's] earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing-gum and dead flies and stuff like that"). The story is ornamental - a simple narrative decorated with Dahl's trademark touches. Anderson, on the other hand, is known to fetishize the smallest details - something the film's animation allows him to do in greater detail than ever before. He accumulates ephemera at such a rapid clip, that it becomes the very substance of his work - more importantly, the whiffs and whisps of association clinging to his stylistic flourishes, filmic and pop cultural references, and imaginative set design and color coordination cohere into an overhanging mood of wistful romanticism and melancholy, on which his best films float and his weaker films coast. The character of Mr. Fox and the contours of the story he inhabits will always belong to Dahl. But the movie in question is so saturated with Anderson's vision that it could easily be called "Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox."

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