Thursday, May 23, 2019

'Apocalypse Now' on Sounds of Cinema

For Memorial Day weekend, Sounds of Cinema will feature a condensed version of the two disc soundtrack to Apocalypse Now. The soundtrack includes the music, dialogue, narration, and sound effects and plays like a radio drama.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard, an American soldier in Vietnam who is given a secret mission to assassinate an American colonel who has gone insane deep within the Southeast Asian jungle. On Willard’s journey he confronts his own doubts about the war, his allegiance to his country, and even his own sanity.

Apocalypse Now is an unconventional war film. There are none of the typical war film clich├ęs; no taking the hill, no waving flags, no Rambo-style heroics, no buddies in combat. Instead, Apocalypse Now is a journey from the order and relative civility of the military command through a progressively chaotic and uncouth battlefield, stripping away the social and technological signs of human advancement and returning the characters to a primal state of nature. By doing this, Apocalypse Now examines the roots of violence and the nature of warfare, making the film an exploration of the Thanatos drive.

Apocalypse Now was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and contains a unique and ground breaking sound mix by Walter Murch. The screenplay was written by John Milius and Frances Ford Coppola and the narration is credited to Michael Herr.

Here is a video of Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola talking about the film on its fortieth anniversary.

Sounds of Cinema can be heard Sunday morning at 9am on 89.5 KQAL-FM in Winona, MN and 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN. Tune in over the air, online at each station's website, or through the Tune-In app on your mobile device.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Phantom Menace: The Second 'Star Wars' Revolution

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was released twenty years ago this week. It was the most anticipated film not only of 1999 but in all of Hollywood history to that point. The backlash against the film is legendary and the panning of The Phantom Menace has obfuscated how important the first Star Wars prequel was to cinema history. The following essay, originally broadcast in 2015 as part of a series of commentaries about the state of Star Wars, argues for the legacy of The Phantom Menace.

Sixteen years after completing the original Star Wars trilogy with Return of the Jedi, George Lucas returned to his galaxy far, far away with the prequel trilogy, which told the backstory of the existing films. It is an understatement to say that the Star Wars prequels, which began with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, continued with 2002’s Attack of the Clones, and finished with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, were regarded as a disappointment by fans and critics alike. It’s also uncontroversial to say that the new crop of movies, starting with The Force Awakens, are intended to distance the series from the prequels and preserve the Star Wars brand for the future.

What may be controversial, and which I will argue here, is that the prequel trilogy—and in particular The Phantom Menace—was as significant and as influential of a cinematic event as the original Star Wars.

If nothing else, 1977’s Star Wars was a landmark movie because of the technology that was invented in the process of making it. On the level of technical craft, The Phantom Menace has some equally groundbreaking accomplishments; unfortunately those accomplishments are embodied by Jar Jar Binks. There had already been computer generated characters in movies, namely the dinosaurs of 1993’s Jurassic Park, but there is a difference between creating an animal versus a sentient being who communicates and interacts with the other human performers. The latter requires a subtlety in the performance that calls upon a different set of skills. Although Jar Jar Binks is among the most reviled characters in Star Wars (or any other movie for that matter) the fact is that without Jar Jar we don’t get Gollum of Lord of the Rings or Caesar of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Along with creating totally digital characters, the Star Wars prequels also innovated entirely digital environments. This was another important breakthrough. Where movies like Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park were filmed in a physical space and then inserted digital characters or other elements in post-production, the Star Wars prequels reversed this; the movies were essentially animated films with live action components. This has had a profound impact on the way movies are made. First, the digital back lot has become a reality and on big budget studio films the most involved and time consuming portion of the filmmaking process is no longer the shoot with the actors but the post-production period in which digital technicians shape the material. Second, a whole new kind of movie has been made possible: the motion capture film. This hybrid of animation and live action moviemaking allowed Robert Zemeckis to make The Polar Express and James Cameron to create Avatar.

This leads to the third technical accomplishment of the Star Wars prequels and that is creating a standard for the quality and quantity of the work. Previous to The Phantom Menace the average tentpole film might have 400 effect shots. Virtually every shot of the Star Wars prequels was digitally enhanced in some way—that’s about 2000 shots per film—and they are of uniformly high quality. This same density of digital effects can be seen in The Avengers and 300.

There was another technical innovation spearheaded by the prequels: digital filmmaking. Attack of the Clones was the first feature film to be shot entirely with digital cameras. This was quite controversial at the time and whether or not this was good for the motion picture industry continues to be a matter of fierce debate. But the fact of the matter is that the future of cinema is digital and, for better or worse, Star Wars led the way in that conversion.

In each of these cases, whether it was computer generated characters or digital cameras, the filmmakers of the Star Wars prequels devised an entire process to get from a concept to a finished product. That infrastructure created new kinds of filmmaking jobs while ending old ones, reshaped the way that movies are made, and altered the expectations of the audience. In short, the prequel trilogy was the second Star Wars revolution.

The technical breakthroughs of the Star Wars prequels don’t excuse the many flaws of those films. But when it comes to taking stock of the legacy of Star Wars it’s a mistake to stop counting the series’ impact in 1977 or even 1983. The prequel trilogy has directly shaped contemporary motion picture production perhaps even more so than the original movie.

Read more essays on the past, present, and future of Star Wars here.