Sunday, June 14, 2009

Musing Pictures: The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Just a short musing on "The Dirty Dozen", a Robert Aldrich war film from 1967. In the film, twelve life-sentence or death-row WWII soldiers are pulled out of military prison to train for a mass-assassination mission, in which they are to kill numerous Nazi commanders vacationing in a lavish countryside chateau. Of course, the film's final act is the mission itself, and here are some interesting details (so if you haven't seen the film yet, but are planning to, save this musing for later). Things (of course) go awry, and most of the Nazi commanders seem to escape to their underground bomb shelter. The team, of course, has other plans for them. Above ground, their commander, Major Reisman (Lee Marvin), instructs the soldiers to find the bomb shelter's air shafts, and to drop gasoline and grenades down at the trapped Nazis below. They do this, and for a short while, the Nazis suffer the agony of knowing that they're trapped, and that death is being dropped down on them through holes in their ceiling. Then they are blown up.

The imagery is striking. Hollywood's first overt post-war depiction of concentration camps did not hit the screens until Sidney Lumet's "The Pawnbroker, in 1964, three short years before "The Dirty Dozen", and even then, the images were fairly brief, just flashes of memory. Dogs, fences, cattle cars... It would be a very long time before a Hollywood film would venture in to the gas chambers themselves (this is something even Spielberg avoided in "Schindler's List" (1993)). But here, we have a clear visual parallel -- people jammed together in a concrete tomb with death being poured down on them (the same way that Zyklon-B canisters were dropped in to the gas chambers through vents in the ceilings). I do not know who in the production of "The Dirty Dozen" might have had the experience to know these details, but the scenes do seem like a dark fantasy of revenge. I don't think it's completely coincidental, either, that the perpetrators of this reversal are themselves criminals in this story. As nice as it can be sometimes to fantasize about exterminating the Nazis, even the imagination will not allow the 'good old boys' to do the deed.

When Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" hits theaters in a short while, I imagine that similar themes will present themselves (and I wouldn't be surprised if "The Dirty Dozen" is heavily cited as a thematic and narrative predecessor to "Basterds" in reviews and critiques of the newer film)


Monday, June 01, 2009

Musing Pictures: Star Trek

The analysis of a new Hollywood film tends to fall in to one of two categories: the review or the critique. Although J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" is ripe with material for either style, I would like to shy away from critique, and as is my habit in these pages, I will avoid the typical trappings of a review. To me, the most fascinating achievement of "Star Trek" is not the film itself (which is, I must note, exceptionally fun), but rather in the fascinating way it simultaneously links to and breaks away from its predecessors.

I am compelled here to give fair warning that this article will not shy away from the twists or surprises of the film's plot. If you feel that such revelations may spoil your initial experience of the film, I recommend that you go see it, then return here for some thoughts to ponder.

From the outset, anyone tackling a new "Star Trek" narrative faces a dilemma: How do you tell a new story when so much of the popularity of the franchise rests on the old characters? The "Star Trek" narrative, which began with Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the crew of the USS Enterprise in the mid-'60s, has remained true to its original universe through all of its iterations. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" brought viewers back to the same space, with the same planets, life forms, and even a version of the same ship, crewed by a new set of characters. The show injected innovation to the old concept by providing new characters, and new settings - new planets and systems in farther reaches of space. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine provided not only the same universe, but began while The Next Generation was still an active show, and takes place in the same era, with characters and narratives overlapping. Its innovations were primarily structural - yes, there was yet another new set of characters, but this time, the show adopted a more serialized format, and took on themes such as religious faith which had been forbidden initially by Gene Roddenberry, the visionary behind Star Trek (see Wikipedia: Star Trek Voyager, the next show to hit the small screen, returns to the old format, with a ship (a contemporary of the USS Enterprise and of DS9), a crew (of new characters, again), and the same universe... sort of. The Voyager narrative has the title ship flung accidentally to a part of space so far from Earth that it would take them seventy five years to return. This allows for the possibility of completely re-drawing the face of space, in that everything that USS Voyager encounters can be encountered by the crew and by the audience for the very first time. Star Trek Enterprise, the last of the TV shows, attempts something of an origin story, introducing the first captain and first crew of the brand new Enterprise, decades before the original series' narrative would begin. Again, same ship, same universe, but it takes a step back in time, rather than forward. The technologies that had become familiar have yet to be invented, many species that had been encountered over the decades have yet to become known to the first Enterprise crew. In all, the Star Trek shows all conform to one massive narrative line -- they all take place in the same universe, such that an event in "Enterprise" is effectively a part of the history in "The Next Generation", and an event in "The Next Generation" may be recent news in "Deep Space Nine", or the subject of a distant signal in "Voyager".

The Star Trek films, too, fall in to this arc of fictional history. The first of these, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture", picks up a while after the original series left off, and subsequent films proceed chronologically, with Captain Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise (which gets destroyed and rebuilt as the Enterprise A, and again as the Enterprise B). An episode of "The Next Generation" flashes back to the Enterprise C, but the show revolves around the Enterprise D. With the seventh film, "Generations", the Enterprise E is introduced, and remains the central ship in all subsequent films until this most recent addition.

And so, after decades of creative continuity, and centuries of narrative continuity, the business apparatus behind "Star Trek" faces a quandary. Since "The Next Generation", new Star Trek programs have been decreasing in popularity. The characters most well-known and most well-loved are played by aging and dying actors, which means that their characters are also aging, dying or already dead. New iterations of the franchise did not embed new legends in the public consciousness the way the original series defined Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the rest of the crew, or the way The Next Generation brought Captain Picard, Data, Worf, and their compatriots to life. They tried new ships, but nothing is as legendary as the Enterprise. They tried new captains, but none have outshone Kirk or Picard. They have introduced new creatures, new technologies, but none have stood out like the transporter, phaser or hypo sprays of the first shows and films. The realization must have been settling in over the past decade or so that the best things Star Trek had to offer were already there, already created, already celebrated by fans and followers.

And that is where this new film enters the fray. "Star Trek", rather than being an attempt at creating something new in the world fans know so well, attempts to re-create that very world, to tell the story all over again, with the full knowledge of how it has played out before.

Yet again, "Star Trek" is the story of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Checkov, Sulu, McCoy, and the rest of them. But here's where it gets fascinating. "Star Trek" is not a re-make. It is not like all of those numerous films from the past ten years or so that have attempted to update classic TV shows with new stars playing old characters, in worlds that are meant to be re-creations of the worlds we remember, but which are not contiguous with those worlds. When the mid-'60s TV show "Bewitched" was released as a film in 2005, with Nicole Kidman in Elizabeth Montgomery's starring role, the world of the film was not meant to be identical to the world of the TV show. There is not a sense that if Kidman's character were to go back in time, she could meet Montgomery's character at the market. They are two films telling the same story, not about the same characters, but about parallel characters. And there, perhaps, is the word that defines the process -- the re-make is a film that parallels its predecessor.

"Star Trek" could have easily taken this route. With a new cast playing old characters, the original series could have been re-created. New films could have been set in Kirk's time, with a Captain Kirk leading the Enterprise on its well-known mission. The new would overlap and replace the old, asserting itself in the greater Star Trek timeline, or simply ignoring that timeline and setting out anew. The Kirk we knew would no longer be relevant. The re-made Kirk would be captain now.

Although re-makes of that sort can occasinally be very compelling, interesting and effective, the process often strikes people as being somehow cheap, uncreative -- 'recycling' other peoples' good ideas, and often missing the point as a result.

It is fascinating to me that "Star Trek" manages to achieve all of the benefits of a re-make (new life to old standards, etc.), while maintaining the narrative integrity of everything that came before it.

What makes the film work in this critical, transitional way, is an element that the original show was often mocked for: time travel.

A character named Nero (Eric Bana) from a time somewhere near the end of the greater Star Trek timeline, goes back in time, by chance, to the day James Kirk is born. At that point, Nero changes everything. His appearance prompts Kirk's father, himself a starship officer, to investigate this new disturbance in space. The resulting encounter destroys the elder Kirk's ship, kills the father, and in an instant, changes the course of history. The James Kirk of the '60s knew his father. That had been a part of the Star Trek timeline for decades. How might things change, then, with this one event shifting history? Twenty five years later, Nero is emboldened to strike again. His nemesis, our very own familiar friend, Spock, has come back in time, as well. Nero, who thinks that Spock destroyed his world, sets out to destroy Vulcan, and wants Spock to watch. Even more dramatic than Kirk's twist of fate is that of the Vulcan planet itself. Nero does, in fact, destroy it, and we are left to wonder how it is that the planet exists in what had been the Star Trek narrative from this point forward.

Time travel stories often result in paradoxes. A character goes back in time, changes things, and the reason for his going back in time in the first place is made to never happen. So, why is he back in time? What prompted the journey? If there was no prompt, then there would have been no trip, and if there were no trip, the prevented event would have gone on as usual, which would have prompted a trip back in time... and so forth. Often, science fiction ignores the paradox, prefering that those who go back in time simply make the wrong thing right, then return to their own time, to a place where all is back to normal as a result of their tinkering.

Since that is the typical time-travel story (character goes back, fixes, returns to future), we rarely see it from the other side, from the perspective of the here-and-now that gets visited from the future.

Those stories come up rarely because the power of a time travel narrative is that we know the future. I can't emphasize that enough: For a story about going back in time to be effective, we must know the future! Otherwise, the dangers of changing the past are irrelevant. When we go back in time in "Back to the Future", we know the world Marty McFly comes from. Without that, we wouldn't know what 'normal' he's fighting for, and we wouldn't know the difference when he returns to a very different version of his own time. If "Back to the Future" were presented exclusively in 1955, it would be a love story, but we wouldn't care at all about the future. We would have no access to it.

"Star Trek" is a story about not just any future, but about a future that we have already seen. By connecting it directly to the greater Star Trek timeline, it is identified as a part of that greater narrative, not as a re-hashing of it. An elderly Spock arrives from the future. He is the same Spock, the identical character as the one we know from the original TV series, from the previous films, and from various appearances on the other shows. This is a part of that great timeline. When Kirk's father dies, those very well-versed in the Star Trek narrative recognize it as a break, a discontinuity. When Nero destroys Vulcan, even occasional fans of the show know this to be somehow wrong, somehow not-the-way-it-should-have-been. To Nero, this is a story about re-setting the future, but he has no plans to return to that future. He is avenging the destruction of his world, but knows that nothing he can do will bring it back. He knows that his world exists in this past, but knows it is not his own. Spock, too, knows that he can not return to his own time, that the future that he left is no longer the future that lies before him. The future that we once knew so well is suddenly and dramatically redrawn. Things have changed so much, and as such, the new future of Star Trek is a blank slate, on which anything can be drawn. A new story can be told about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, but it does not negate the stories that have already been told. To the older Spock, those stories from the original series did happen. He did experience them. They are just as real as these new, parallel narratives are, and he is the bridge that fascinatingly connects them.

In this way, Star Trek resets the clock without wiping teh slate completely clean. We begin again with Kirk, Spock, and the original crew, and their future is fresh, not the same as the history we already know. They have branched off in to an alternative timeline, but the universe is still the same. The Borg that Picard and company encounter in The Next Generation are still out there. The various planets and life forms still exist (minus Vulcan, of course). The familiar crew is about to set out on its first mission to explore strange new worlds that we have already seen, to seek out new life and new civilizations that we have already explored, to boldly go for the first time where their parallel selves have gone, not before, but in a future that is not their own.

Hollywood, as we all know, necessarily merges art and business. Most sequels, prequels, remakes and spinoffs emerge from the business end of the industry. They are designed to make money, to give fans another reason to go to the movies, and to keep an income-generating franchise current. From a business perspective, the ideal scenario is for the film to draw back the original fan base, and to attract new fans to the story, characters, or world. I can not think of any film, of any franchise, that has achieved this so artfully, elegantly, and with so much astounding narrative complexity as "Star Trek" has. Spock would raise an eyebrow and pronounce it "fascinating".