Render to Star Wars the Things That Are Star Wars'
I'm Captain Obvious and the Current Cinema is dominated by superheroes and familiar brands. This basically means Disney—manufacturer of Marvel, Star Wars, and a host of animated classics being remade as live action spectacles—might as well be God. It also means that I’m repeating myself. Only a few weeks ago The Avengers: Infinity War began its reign over an increasingly monocultural cinema, and I passed off some glib words about my consequent ennui. Tapping on the brakes before turning onto another assembly-line turnpike, Solo (the Star Wars prequel of the youthful days of Harrison Ford’s classic character, ignominiously killed off in the inaugural chapter of new sequels, 2015’s The Force Awakens), I wonder if this is a corollary to another Hollywood phenomenon, the Death of the Movie Star. The reason being Alden Ehrenreich, the actor who won the part of young Han, should be a movie star, much as his predecessor Ford became one following the original 1977 film. But even if Solo is a success, that seems impossible now. If fact, if Solo isn’t successful (enough), he stands a chance of being remembered by name, but mainly as the guy who couldn’t fill Harrison Ford’s shoes, and in the “Pop Geek Workhouse”—which dominates arbitrates the legacy of the current moving picture arts—that’s a circle or two above Hayden Christiansen in the Star Wars prequels, perhaps nearing Shia Labeouf in Crystal Skull. All of this, by the way, is dumb and I'm embarrassed.
This isn’t to say that Ehrenreich fills Ford’s shoes. But that he makes enough of an impression (while sometimes leaning towards an imitation) in the cloudy, congealed brusqueness of Ron Howard’s factory-approved canned production, says something. Howard’s trademark cluttering makes it difficult for characters and alien worlds to be anything more than registered before memory dispenses with them in the subsequent hours, and few actors are fortunate enough to not be chewed up by his serviceable hodgepodges (exceptions being Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, arguably some players in Apollo 13, Chris Hemsworth in Rush, his MVP being—not Oscar winners Tom Hanks or Russell Crowe but—Michael Keaton in Howard’s more bouncy comedies: Night Shift, Gung-Ho, and his best film, The Paper). Ehrenreich, 28, has adopted a few Ford’s pantomimes—the eager scoundrel smile, leading his torso forward while amiably making his arguments with his legs stoically in place--but its his own glowing embodiment as a drifter leaping into action like it’s his playmate that steals away the movie from flat anonymity and makes it, when it can shush with its plottiness, his own. Since the film’s first trailer, there’s been a self-satisfied remark that Donald Glover, playing a younger Lando Carlisian, walks off with the movie, and sure enough reviews have followed up to affirm this, but I believe this is hyperbole; Glover, too, does make an impression, though more in stillness than movement, like the liveliest meme in the galaxy.
Ford was the reliable carpenter-turned-actor who made his own impressions with small roles in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979, though he filmed his part years before) before being cast as Han Solo, a handsome ironic foil to Lucas’ Romantic modality, and so in a sense providing a model for much of the revamped Disney Star Wars universe's tone, immersed in an Ironic mode while missing both the character’s undisciplined wryness and George Lucas’ High Romance. Ford was able to sew his own iconography in Hollywood alongside Han Solo’s, making Indiana Jones as much of a cultural hero. In the 1980s he showcased acting chops for Peter Weir in Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986), Roman Polanski in Frantic (1988, his best performance), and Alan J. Pakula in Presumed Innocent (1990), four variations on Ford’s contemporary American Everyman with vulnerabilities he couldn’t expose in his blockbusters. In the 1990s, he successfully took over another franchise with Phillip Noyce’s Tom Clancy adaptations (1992's Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger in 1995), the Hollywood superstar converging with the lone ethical American bureaucrat and family man, auguring the fulfillment of an American leader taking matters in his own hands in 1997's Air Force One. Ford yelling at terrorists to get off his plane was partly so exhilarating because of how well it represented a collective political fantasy in the Clinton ‘90s, where after the disillusionment with the jingoistic ‘80s, the compromises, limitations, and apparent vulnerabilities (in addition to Mogadishu in 1993 and Newt's conservative resurgence in 1994 there was the Oklahoma City bombing was still fresh in memory, with the Lewinsky scandal on the horizon) of the political alternative reverberated a nation’s anxieties in need of illusory buttresses. Movie Star Harrison Ford provided semblance and hope.
“Go out there and be a star,” studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) says to big name actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, a comedy about figurae in the Hollywood system—meaning the literal representation of Christ, saving the world from the dire realities of the atomic age, the “real world” Mannix equates with “Armageddon” (while prospective employers put down the movie business as child's play). In that film of shuffling personae, as contractually obligated actors are arbitrarily arranged and handled by the faceless studio deities (consonant with the Coens’ recent work like Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man, the film is imbued with the filmmakers’ Jewish heritage and, as the Rabbi during a studio meeting of religious input reminds us, “the Godhead cannot be represented”), it’s our ordained Solo, Alden Ehrenreich, who emerges as cherubic world savior and not Hollywood Royal Clooney, reminding us of the vagaries of representation: “Would that it t’were so simple”—or rather, “It’s complicated.” In Hail, Caesar!, Mannix plays a St. Peter, holding the levee between reality and representation, the Hollywood Babylon of which unwanted pregnancies and closeted sexuality and pernicious blacklisting are subsets as opposed to perennial ideals and fantasies that inspire viewers, much as biblical stories and gospel songs buoy believers sinking in despair. It’s Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle, a star of B-Westerns (performing his own stunts!) who can simultaneously play the hero in real life (saving Whitlock from a cabal of communist screenwriters), in whom the film has its intersection (that is to say, in its Catholic framework, a cross) of earthly figuration and eternal fulfillment. The myth or abstraction of fiction plays the role of religion, its “elevation” in a world on the brink of destruction a necessity which may, again like religion, make one feel and see life more deeply.
What Hail, Caesar! insinuates with the apostrophe that the cowardly and confused Baird assume his place on the star scaffold is that these realms have collapsed atop each other, something reflected in the 2016 election, although that sickness shares its diagnosis with a culture that inordinately esteems Celebrity at the expense of artistic output. Kanye West, spouse of the one of malignant avatars of this culture, has made some of the best music of the last ten years, but his household-name status has more to do with the persona he’s created, or that recreates itself through cyber networks, his work being extraneous in assessing “him” or what he creates; as with more “problematic” pariah-type artists (let’s say Roman Polanski and Woody Allen), his output is a vestigial subset of “him,” a construct of retweeted headlines and hot-takes. The star charisma of Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, or Meryl Streep, building up indelible creations like Jake Gittes, Michael Corleone, Travis Bickle, Annie Hall, or Sophie Zawistowski, is a thing of the past (it’s fitting that one of the few actors able to maintain this power, Daniel Day-Lewis, has “retired,” his role in this year’s recent Phantom Thread Oscar campaign a somewhat muted one when compared to his peers). For a younger friend, I recently screened the Pacino/De Niro juggernaut Heat, such a huge collision of countenances in 1995, and while she loved the film, she admitted it was difficult to differentiate between the two characters, played less by celebrities of the moment than actor icons of a bygone age. To her, they were just two handsome old dudes. Streep, meanwhile, remains ever present but less as an actor—even after doing some of her best work recently, in Ricki and the Flash and The Post—than as a meme, standing up and applauding at award shows to embolden a social cause. (Nicholson is pleasantly retired, maybe subject to humiliation after cameras snapped him thirstily ogling Jennifer Lawrence; and Keaton, not subscribing to the meme of the moment, threatens to become a problematic footnote in the sordid Woody Allen affair). Similar problems surrounded the reception of Spike Lee's 2015 masterwork Chi-Raq, a raucous and searing agitprop hip-hop musical where many would-be viewers hard-passed based on the casting of Nick Cannon in the lead. When I saw Chi-Raq, I had no idea who Cannon was, and was simply impressed with his work in the film. Perusing the internet later, and then hosting a presentation of the film at my apartment with friends, I gathered that a lot of people only knew him primarily as Mariah Carey's ex-husband; apparently casting him (Kanye West was reportedly Lee's early choice for the part) was some kind of affront to Hip Hop. That, compounded with representational issues (detailed here in Vox by a writer who doesn't seem to have bothered seeing the picture, and here rebutted humorously here by [full disclosure] conservative film critic Sonny Bunch), led to many young people boycotting Chi-Raq. Life is dumb.
That Clooney plays the “great talent” Whitlock—sort of a Charlton Heston equivalent—in Caesar feels like a wry joke on the part of the Coens, casting their biggest name lead as one of the world’s biggest movie stars when, like Clooney at the box office, behind the scenes Whitlock is a hapless dolt, slapped around by Mannix who, after putting him in his place, tells him to be a star. For while everyone knows who George Clooney is, he can’t open even a rave-review movie to big numbers; even his Academy Award prompts one to hesitate and wonder for a moment what exactly it was for (2005’s Syriana, a mostly forgotten geopolitical zeitgeist film). Much of the same can be said of his buddy Brad Pitt, who nevertheless carries great celebrity stock—and maybe precisely why the pair’s collaborations, along with colleagues Julia Roberts and Matt Damon, are their biggest hits: Stephen Soderbergh’s Ocean trilogy plays with and deconstructs the stars’ celebrity personas, Ocean’s 12 even having Julia’s Tess playing Julia Roberts (and recognized to a de facto self-sabotage by Bruce Willis—who of course is playing Bruce Willis); the films seem to invite the audience to hang out with the stars; even the most idiosyncratic star performance, Al Pacino as Trumpy antagonist Willie Bank in Ocean's 13, feels like a playful meta means to a reunion with Pacino's Sea of Love costar Ellen Barkin, while sparring against his Godfather III protege Andy Garcia.
In Hail, Caesar!, the gods are always “changing the image” of their talent, creating even the romantic, private lives of their stars (or drastically rewriting them, as with the sham marriage with an unexpectedly pregnant starlet played by Scarlett Johansson). Brolin—not a movie star of Clooney’s caliber, but a damn fine actorly presence—plays the stalwart Mannix as the brace of principled immutability, though this too is a game in the liminal space between text and truth being that the historical Mannix was by most accounts a vile thug (quite possibly a murderer; Bob Hoskins played him to this angel in Hollywoodland). No less than Saul converted to Paul on the road to Tarsus—dramatized in the film within the film Hail, Caesar!, also titled “Hail, Caesar!”—the alchemy of movie production offers redemption the real world cannot afford. And "affording" redemption may be the point here, the motion picture industry embodying capitalism’s contradictions, as Dr. Herbert Marcuse (yes, presumably that Marcuse) tells Whitlock during his communist kidnapping and indoctrination, and so it's possible to effect change through its immense apparatus of resources. Saul/Paul in Hail, Caesar! is not a persecuting zealot (like Harry Dean Stanton’s characterization in The Last Temptation of Christ), but, Michael Gambon’s narration tells us, a humble merchant, and so not unlike the Jewish studio heads who came to California to make their fortunes, creating alternate realities of "information, uplift, and yes, entertainment" as Paul created Christianity, a religion that, so Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach says, created a New Man in its convergence of elevated themes and lowly characters (a similar revolution is implied in the 20th century creation "Soviet Man," mentioned by the communist screenwriters). The Coens go so far as to have a deliberate inexplicable ellipsis in their script, where Christ--elevated to the heights of Classicism in the 20th century, the Epic Style of A Tale of the Christ more in tune with Gambon's Homeric narration than with the Gospels--is not just Christ but also (and also not) the Penitent Thief, played by a no-name schmo, Todd Hochheiser (from behind having Aryan blonde hair, though given a Jewish name).
Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle is the long-awaited exhalation of purity in the film, the young actor’s magnetism and fecundity of expression and delivery—however “gamey” as in the big budget melodrama where he is miscast—embodying the promise of the picture business on which Mannix presents his employer Capitol Pictures. The elevated poise of Merrily We Dance is overthrown by the appearance of a "rodeo clown," the vulgar and common representative taking center stage, a Christian wildcard upsetting the status quo (another analogy to the communist screenwriters, themselves squabbling like theologians). There’s an electric unpredictability to him (something that Ansel Elgort, the actor a lot of Star Wars fans would rather have cast as Han Solo, lacks) coupled with his ripe receptivity, a callowness awaiting christening. Ehrenreich conveyed this vividly with his breakout role in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro (2009), playing the filmmaker’s teenaged alter-ego, moving from innocence to experience while searching for the jaded brother (Vincent Gallo) he idolized but who walked away from the family. The modality of a handsome virgin vessel waiting to be filled--while serving as the audience’s surrogate through a theatrical backdrop of impossible eccentrics--played just as well in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply (2016), where Ehrenreich played an up-and-coming production assistant for Beatty’s enigmatic and demonic Howard Hughes. At the conclusion, Ehrenreich walks away from Hughes' (and Beatty's) hermetical world of illusions with Lily Collins in hand, to "real life" with the masses in the suburbs, though it's implied that Beatty is passing a torch to an actor who is vaguely similar to the young man he played more than fifty years before in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass.
These artistically satisfying templates may have been propitious for Solo, especially in the hands of the original directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie), who wanted to make a rascally Star Wars spinoff prequel that would perhaps be consistent with the renegade Eiron Heartthrob "Han Solo," who reconciled Irony and Romance in the 1977-1983 trilogy. After all, it’s believed that George Lucas based the high-risk gambler and smuggler on his mentor Francis Ford Coppola, whom in a sense Ehrenreich portrayed in Tetro. Lord and Miller were fired (and are now undergoing something of a Disney smear campaign, exacerbated by put-downs by costar Emilia Clarke—by the way, the weakest player in the film, her every line delivery and glance predictable and ossified) and replaced by Howard, the finished film a salvaged product that can be consumed and disposed—enjoyed perhaps, but lacking the “information, uplift, and yes, entertainment” such as promised by Mannix to his religious advisors in his duty to salvage Hail, Caesar! Movie stars have one leg in the present and the other in the pools of immortality, and these films' nods to the sublime are gesturally empty.
After all, the movie stars have autonomy, but now it’s the iconography of the characters (and the implications of representation) that supersedes everything. The fans collude with studio sensibilities in constructing something predictable, digestible, disposable, and polite, resolutely un-daemonic. The “pansexual” asides in Solo alluding to Lando’s erotic attachment to a strong and swell feminist droid are in step with an audience’s fetishizing of their toys, when anything organic struggles to bloom (Lando’s love-droid feels much more alive than Emilia Clarke’s hackneyed heroine). Ehrenreich succeeds with what Howard’s factory product gives him, but it’s not enough rope to lasso the fullness of illusion, such as when Hobie Doyle offers his obvious lip-sync serenade under the moonlight in Hail, Caesar!, one costar falling in love as another is totally beguiled by the moon in water (a reflection of a reflection). Beyond Solo is the fanbase craving more Star Wars movies while—echoing Mannix’s meeting with religious leaders—demanding the strictest adherence to some canonical boundaries; ultimately, anyone beyond Harrison Ford depicting Han Solo is “most strictly prohibited, but for us, Alden Ehrenreich…is not Han Solo!” The illusion is not allowed to be an illusion. The moonlight must be fluorescent.
If Star Wars is, as some fans refer to it, a religion, transgressions of representation have reached heretical boundaries (then again, one could say this happened in 1999 with Jar Jar Binks, even if that was under the direction of The Creator aka George Lucas, but I digress). Geek Iconography has been split off from the embodying actor’s intermediary role (the sole conspicuous exception now being Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Last Movie Star,” to whom Ehrenreich is very similar; could any other actor lead he Aviator, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Revenant to +$100 million domestic grosses?). However erratic his accent was in 1993's Carlito’s Way, Pacino was Pacino as much as he was Carlito Brigante; same with Jodie Foster and Clarice Sterling in 1991's Silence of the Lambs--and the audience is transformed in the reflective prism. In Hail, Caesar!, the priest gives the Catholic interpretation of the great paradox: “It’s the Son of God who takes the sins of the world upon Himself, so that the rest of God’s children, we imperfect beings, through faith, may enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” and he could just as soon be talking about movie stars. (“So God/Hollywood is…split?” “Yes! And no!”) In our deconstructed Age of Celebrity, this paradox cannot hold anymore, especially when the voice of God himself—Morgan Freeman—is outed as a compulsive sexual harasser. Engulfed in narratives and non-diegetic narratives surrounding the constructions of those narratives, the individual’s metamorphosis by witnessing figuration is quashed. Indeed, this week’s testimony by Moses Farrow—throwing a crank into popularly held, if long suspect, allegations against Woody Allen relating to molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow—demonstrates the problem of narrative constructions within and without real life having no distinctions reality's contours and ambivalences. Again, this is the crisis at heart of the Post-Truth moment following the 2016 election, where social media timelines were replete with self-serving confirmation biases and conspiracy theories.
In Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (1984), Emperor Joseph II's court argues with Mozart about the need to keep on telling stories of old myths and legends versus the less elevated milieu of Figaro. "They go on forever! [They represent] the eternal in us," Mozart is told. There's some truth to that, and in the last century Hollywood Iconography has carried on this notion: while characters played by James Stewart, Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin, and Joan Crawford are larger than life, these representations work because we may recognize ourselves in them.* Yet other times--especially right now, as the movies are dominated by god-like superheroes--the figures on screen are, as Mozart replies, "so lofty, they sound as if they shit marble!" They're untouchable figures already immortalized by canons, christened at their latest conception--and why, as I mentioned in my Avengers review, the scenes of "human melodrama" feel listlessly tacked on. Hail, Caesar! needs its Christ, Todd Hochheiser, to not know if he gets the lunch of an extra or of a star player. The enthusiasm and fortitude of its fictional savior, Doyle, is perfectly innocent, while its nods to the eternal can simultaneously play humorously--even snidely--and, through Mannix's struggle of faith, paradoxically poignant, affirming "the Mystery" while humbling Hollywood to an awareness of its geographical proximities.
Ehrenreich's Doyle is ridiculous but he makes us believe, even to the extent that some parlor tricks he does in his spare time make us think twice as to whether or not they're computer augmented (surely they are! But I want to believe!) Ehrenreich would also have us believe in Solo, but the Disney apparatus on which he assumes his image is a Roman statue with a head of gold, torso of silver, legs of clay, and feet of hyperreal pixels. The intermediary to the illusion's wonder, the Movie Star, has been swallowed by the Celebrity Hellmouth, stories being reduced to hyperlink headline plot points and Hedda Hopper (Huffington Post) gossiping and hearsay. Instead of our humble lives refracting against the new elevated Star Wars sagas, we're treated to gifs and backstage outtakes reminding us how these players are "just like us," the stage not reality (or a movie set, for that matter), but an internet image. The eternal isn't in us, or in "them." The eternal is supplanted by "what happens next" and "who's playing who." Likewise, instead of fermenting solid real world candidates to go against Trump and the governing Republican party (the Empire has indeed taken over: in Solo! in Hollywood! in America! etc), for some reason our ears perk up at...Oprah? We don't need a Han Solo movie to serve the function of canonical backstory, seeing a link to our movie memories of Harrison Ford. We would be better served by an illusion that can affect us by virtue of its own cosmos, enabling us hapless and humble "sinners" to embrace the paradoxical discrepancies between reality and representation and "enter the Kingdom of Heaven," which is otherwise just world building content.
* Really, I know fuck-all about stardom and Classic Hollywood compared to some people, which is why I ferociously recommend checking out Dan Callahan's new book The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960. Also, the marvelous work of critic K. Austin Collins of Vanity Fair and The Ringer, a guy who, even when he's wrong, he's kind of right. Collins, along with host Peter Labuza, discusses the star system and its decline in his profile interview on The Cinephiliacs podcast.