Monday, October 19, 2009

Star Wars Hitchcock Style

About four minutes into last Friday’s new episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars I started experiencing déjà vu (kind of like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo). I said to my wife, “Hey, this is Hitchcock!” Specifically, the episode, “Senate Spy” written by Melinda Hsu, was a reworking, plot point by plot point, of Hitch’s 1946 masterpiece Notorious, even with, to my memory, quite a few shots quoting the original film—especially the final shot.

Of course, borrowing plots and making homages is a time-honored practice in the motion picture industry. Heck, the entire Star Wars franchise wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for George Lucas borrowing from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. I’m currently reading veteran animation writer Jeffrey Scott’s 2003 book How to Write for Animation, and it gives allowance for such a procedure on page 36:

"You can take a familiar story and change its setting or its date or its characters, and make it fresh. For example, take Run Silent, Run Deep, the classic World War II film in which a sub captain (Clark Gable) is obsessed with the sinking of a Japanese destroyer that destroyed his previous vessel. Make it two starships, and it's a fresh idea....

"I borrowed an 'old' idea known as Raiders of the Lost Ark and changed the setting (to a basement) and the characters (to Kermit, Piggy, and Gonzo) and got a fresh idea that turned into 'Raiders of the Lost Basement' episode of Jim Henson's Muppet Babies."

What appears to be the case here is that Hsu is casting a bit broader net than Indiana Jones, reaching back into the classics of American spy thrillers to find new lightsaber-less directions to take the Clone Wars series: The episode centers around Padme and Anakin. The Jedi Council is wary of a spy in the Senate and asks Padme, who used to be involved with this fellow romantically, to act as a spy and determine if he is in fact in league with the Separatists (the bad guys). She rekindles their romance, to Anakin’s chagrin, and travels with him to another somewhat dodgy planet, with Anakin along as their pilot. There the Senator meets with his Separatist friends and reacquaints them with Padme. They, of course, decide to poison her for leverage over the Senator, to force a better deal with him. . On her way to dinner that night Padme receives the poison (in a cup delivered near the staircase), and then afterwards manages to find the Macguffin (Hitchcock’s word for the plot device, itself relatively unimportant, around which the narrative revolves), here a hologram plan of Count Dooku’s new droid foundry, all while Anakin watches pretty helplessly from the sidelines. She falls ill and the Senator confronts his Separatist compatriots, then eventually Anakin walks boldly into the palace and physically carries Padme away, visually challenging anyone to try to stop him. The Senator quickly gets the poison’s antidote and begs for them to take him along, but Anakin and Padme board their ship and leave him behind to face the Separatists who now believe he betrayed them.

Notorious stars Ingrid Bergman as the American daughter of a convicted Nazi and Cary Grant is the government agent who convinces her to enter espionage and infiltrate a group of her father’s former affiliates who have relocated to Brazil. The two fall in love (including one of film history’s most famous kisses), but Bergman is forced to initiate a romance with the character played by Claude Rains (this just a few years after their antagonistic turn in Casablanca). As Grant forces her deeper and deeper into her role, her nerves start to fray; she’s eventually forced to marry Rains in order to maintain the charade. Gradually the Nazis—Rains and his domineering mother, that is—start to suspect her and deliver her doses of poison, initially in a cup of milk brought up a long stairway to her room. (Hitchcock actually put a light inside the milk, for added emphasis.) But she manages to find the Macguffin, during a dinner party, which happens to be some enriched uranium, as I recall, cleverly disguised in wine bottles. Long story short she gets sicker and sicker until Grant barges into the mansion, walks up that long staircase, picks her up, and walks back down, visually challenging anyone to stop him. Rains begs for them to take him along, but they drive off, leaving him to the mercy the Nazis who stand behind him and now know his indiscretion.

Obviously, it’s a direct homage, done quite on purpose. As Catherine Taber, the actress who plays Padme, says, “Dave actually had me watch Notorious before we started working on ‘Senate Spy.’ He wanted me to see the way the pressure builds—especially when love is involved.” (Read the whole short interview here.) In fact, in this second season all of the Clone Wars storylines will apparently be branching out into new areas. Read this interview with supervising director Dave Filoni for more insight about that, but the basic idea is that the folks at Lucasfilm want to show more than just Anakin waving his lightsaber around, so there will be more stories about politics, more about the clones, more about other Jedi we haven’t seen as much of. Which is all pretty heartening.

The entire enterprise to broaden The Clone Wars’ storylines is quite encouraging, but you have to be wary when taking your source from something as exquisitely done as Notorious. For instance, both productions feature a shot of the heroine holding the key to the Macguffin behind their backs—literally a key for Ingrid Bergman, an electronic memory device for Padme Amidala—but Hitchcock’s shot is an immense indoor crane move down several stories, over a crowded ballroom, ending in a close-up on Bergman’s hand; because of the technical problems, such as maintaining focus, that it surmounted and its sheer beauty, it’s one of the more famous shots in cinema. Clone Wars, by contrast, references it in a simple cutaway close-up, close enough to bring the original to mind but prosaic enough that it necessarily disappoints. While that’s a visual/aesthetic issue, there are also problems with the narrative proper, particularly the final two minutes. As Anakin carries Padme down the steps the Senator easily obtains the antidote by merely flashing a blaster, a development the Separatists should have anticipated: as it is, it seems they capitulate a little too easily. Second, it feels much less organic for Anakin to leave his romantic rival there on the launching pad than it was for Cary Grant to refuse Claude Rains a ride. In that moment Anakin comes across as more mean spirited and downright cruel than necessary, as his response was not as motivated as Grant’s was. It was only much later that I remembered that, oh yeah, he is Darth Vader. It just didn’t come across as a “Premonition of Darth Vader” moment in the script.

That said, there is a great deal to say positively about this production. It’s admirable when show runners are going to take a risk like this, in this case making a low-key personal drama rather than a high-stakes and high-action battle scene like most Star Wars fans expect. Subverting the generic expectations here is more risky and hence more rewarding than in something like Muppet Babies appropriating Indiana Jones. Now, I’m all for lightsaber duels, but it’s encouraging to envision what other detours are in store this season. I don’t know that we’ll see blazing lightsabers on the face of Mount Rushmore, but one can only hope that it might be nearly as good.

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