Friday, 27 January 2017

Strength of Character in Leia

Science fiction has always been a male-dominated genre, but that hasn't stopped a few notable women from taking the lead on several occasions. We've seen this more recently with characters like Ryan Stone in Gravity. Ellen Ripley of the Alien films has become something of a role model for strong female characters, and with good reason; being one of the greatest examples of a strong female lead one can get. Yet Ripley was not alone in her influence. It is true that Ellen Ripley was a strong character. She was intelligent, resourceful, and knew how to handle her emotions in the face of danger.

Yet only three years before the introduction of Ripley, another woman made a huge impact. In 1977, George Lucas released Star Wars (later re-titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), which introduced another icon of the science fiction genre: Princess Leia Organa. Leia was a huge deal in her time, and to an extent still today. Across the original films made by George Lucas, Leia was the lone female lead in a cast otherwise made up almost entirely of white men (and one black man who appeared very late into The Empire Strikes Back). But it is true that some aspects of her character have not aged well.

Let's face it: when she first appears in A New Hope, Leia's primary role is that of a damsel. It is also obvious that George Lucas originally conceived of her as a love interest for Luke (even if he later changed his mind and decided they were twins, resulting in lots of jokes about incest). The very first scene of the movie has her overpowered and captured by Stormtroopers. She then spends most of the film as a prisoner until she is finally rescued by a party consisting of three white men and a walking carpet. She then becomes a fairly passive character, observing from behind while Luke gets to blow up the death star.

Leia was slightly more active in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but even this was limited. In the former, Leia spends the first act on Hoth by herself mostly comforting Luke. We do get to see her taking part in organizing the evacuation, but she still mainly serves to provide instructions while it is men who do the actual fighting. She then spends much of the movie being dragged alongside Han Solo in a broken Millennium Falcon before reluctantly following him to cloud city. There she mostly ends up being pressed into watching Han get frozen.

In Return of the Jedi, Leia takes part in Han's rescue but also (notoriously) gets captured by Jabba the Hutt resulting in her infamous bikini. This iconic moment has been interpreted many different ways. On the one hand, the fact that it is the lone female character who gets forced into this situation could be taken to have some negative connotations, as it could be seen as unnecessary sexualization. On the other, the film doesn't exactly glamorize her outfit. The bikini is treated as humiliating and also functions as a symbol of Leia's imprisonment (note that this is literally the only time in any of the films she wears such an outfit, and that in every subsequent scene she wears less revealing clothes).

Another important detail to note is that while Leia gets captured, she does is not dependent on the men to save her. During the battle which climaxes Return of the Jedi's first act, most of the fighting is done by men. That is with one major exception. While Han, Luke, Lando, and Chewie spend most of the battle outside moving between skiffs and taking out thugs, Jabba himself is saved for Leia. She is the one who takes the initiative and opportunity to kill him, and does so with extreme prejudice. It is Leia who frees herself. Of the two male characters who play into her escape, one of them (R2-D2) functions as a tool (cutting her restraints) while the other (Luke) only provides her with an exit strategy after Leia's already released herself.

In Return of the Jedi, Leia kills Jabba, but only after being captured and forced to wear a bikini.
Return of the Jedi also tries to show Leia taking a more obvious leadership role in the battle of Endor, but she does spend much of the early stages of the battle hanging out with the Ewoks while everyone else is in the thick of the action. The film also alludes to Leia being force-sensitive, but refrains from having it occur through anything more than observation. One could counter these arguments by noting that both developments end up saving her (male) partners. Her force-sensitivity, while not given much focus, becomes important when it allows her rescue Luke under Cloud City. Later on, Leia's friendship with the Ewoks is what eventually allows them to be recruited as allies during the final battle.

Leia's roles across the original three films is obviously complicated, and there are a variety of different positions one can take. From a modern perspective, the damsel aspects of Leia's character have not aged well, as has her role being largely overshadowed by male protagonists. One could also note that this is true of George Lucas's prequel films as well, in which the primary focus is once again on relationships between men. Although we see several female Jedi among the extras, the ones who are actually given a role in the story are all men.

This could easily be seen as a shortcoming on the part of Lucas himself. After all, the entire prequel trilogy was made with huge casts and yet across three films there is a grand total of one female character who even gets so much as an identity that appears in the films themselves (nearly every other female character who appeared only got named by reference material and the expanded universe; basically material not written by George Lucas). Even though George Lucas could have taken the opportunity to give us an awesome female Jedi or at least work to diversify the main cast, the only woman who actually plays a notable role in the films is Padme Amidala.

In the prequels, Padme, played by Natalie Portman, is supposed to be Leia's mother; and she could have been a great character. There does seem to be an effort to make her a strong figure but Lucas has an unfortunate tendency to be extremely inconsistent and skew his priorities. In The Phantom Menace, Padme is established to be the elected Queen of Naboo (don't ask, I don't get it either) and ends up taking charge when her efforts to get support from the Republic are unsuccessful. Yet instead of actually taking the time to play up Padme's strengths, George Lucas instead opts to make her the subject of the viewer's gaze by repeatedly placing her into passive situations and overly convoluted costumes.

Padme gets a few moments of her own, but across the trilogy these are greatly overshadowed by men. The Phantom Menace arguably comes closest to making her a strong character. Starting with Attack of the Clones, Padme gets pushed to the side and instead is used as a motivation for the (male) protagonists who often go on adventures while leaving her behind. One of the very first developments is an attempted assassination that leads Obi-Wan and Anakin on a big chase through Coruscant while Padme remains in her apartment.

Later on, while Obi-Wan is uncovering a conspiracy Padme is running around in fields with Anakin with only the occasional political remarks occasionally shoved into love scenes in a desperate attempt to make her seem intelligent. The only strengths she gets to display as a character are near the end, when she takes part in the Battle of Geonosis, but even this is limited. She is the only one of the protagonists to get injured, and eventually gets knocked out of a republic gunship, a move which keeps her from playing any role in the film's climax.

Revenge of the Sith takes Padme to a new low. She doesn't even get the one or two action scenes she did in the previous films. Instead, she is cast entirely as a motivation for Anakin. The entire narrative is driven by his fear of losing her. Nearly all of Padme's scenes relate to her relationship and secret marriage with Anakin, with almost nothing to follow her political career. This also leads to the infamous resolution of her story. Because Leia mentioned in Return of the Jedi that her mother was dead, George Lucas contrived the whole situation that she "loses the will to live?"

Really? That's the best explanation you could come up with? First off, this doesn't even line up with Leia's statement because the latter claims to remember her mother, and her description sounds more like Padme died when she was a child, old enough to have vague memories; not remembering the five seconds she glimpsed her mother as a baby. Second, losing the will to live seems a tad extreme for the situation. It is true that she was just betrayed and nearly killed by her secret husband, and in that regard she would have every right to be upset, even traumatised by the experience. But even if a person could die just by losing the will to live, it seems extreme.

Personally, if I were writing this, I think I'd take a different approach. Instead of contriving a silly death scene, I think the logical thing to do would be to have her death occur between Episodes III and IV. While she would easily be emotionally affected by Anakin's betrayal and could experience psychological trauma (especially after nearly being strangled by him), I would think she would still be concerned about her children and protecting her values. Instead of having her die there, what would probably make more sense is to have Padme, alongside Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, go on to set the groundwork for the Rebel Alliance. This would also have the effect of making Leia's "princess" title even more meaningful. Additionally, I would want to imagine Padme's death as something heroic, perhaps dying to protect the alliance.

Interestingly, as soon as Lucas himself is taken out of the equation, we start to see more diversity. The  original expanded universe offered a variety of female characters, including female members of seemingly all-male organisations from the films. The Clone Wars made Padme into a far more active character than she was in the films, focusing primarily on her political career over her relationship with Anakin. Rebels makes a strong point of including a variety of regular and recurring female characters on both sides. Most recently, both The Force Awakens and Rogue One have emphasized female protagonists and avoided romantic plot threads. This information would suggest that gender issues in the original films and the prequels are mainly linked to ignorance on the part of George Lucas more than anything else.

Part of Leia's reputation could be linked to revisions that have come from other appearances elsewhere in Star Wars lore. The original expanded universe timeline had Leia going on to become both a significant figure of the New Republic and a Jedi Knight. In the new timeline, Leia has also been an important figure. She made a guest appearance on Rebels (set before A New Hope) where she used her position as a major political figure to discreetly provide the alliance with ships. The same episode also went into her psychology (she delivers a speech about how she often wonders if it is worth fighting but manages to keep going anyway) When Carrie Fisher returned to the role in The Force Awakens, Leia had become the most prominent leader of the resistance with the new title of "general" (though one could argue that this position is technically a downgrade from princess).

Leia's guest appearance in Rebels

Even so, the fact remains that Leia was a hit as early as 1977's Star Wars. So what was it that made her so popular a character. One could argue that Ripley was a much stronger character and she only came out three years later. Lucas's films are riddled with problems of gender representation that have, thankfully, been addressed with more recent entries to the franchise. One can easily notice, for example, Lucas's aversion to depicting female soldiers in the rebellion (going as far as to re-dub an actress with a man's voice for the climax of Return of the Jedi) or female Imperial officers. In the prequels most of the female characters amount to background roles, and even The Clone Wars tends to favor showing the adventures of male Jedi when there are plenty of female characters who could be used.

Yet Leia still made an impact, which leaves an interesting question open: what exactly was it that made her so popular? Why is she still not just one of the most iconic sci-fi heroines, but female characters in general? It can't be only because of how other people have treated the character. There is something less obvious going on here. Leia has become one of the most iconic female characters ever. Even her double-bunned hairstyle has become instantly recognizable. That alone is odd seeing as Leia appears in five of the eight movies (six if you count her as a baby in Revenge of the Sith) and only displays her buns in two: A New Hope and her cameo in Rogue One (which leads directly into A New Hope). A lot of the improvements that affected Leia have been in more recent installments, many of which came after George Lucas stopped working directly on Star Wars. In order to understand why Lucas treated her the way he did, it may be useful to understand his thought processes.

While it was a huge hit, Star Wars wasn't exactly original when it came out. Lucas borrowed from a wide variety of different sources in order to bring his vision to life. To list them all would be futile, but there are a few big names. Star Wars was heavily inspired by 1930's serial films, especially science fiction adventures like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. There was also a lot of influence from Star Trek (making the imagined rivalry between fans of the two extremely ironic).

Lucas also borrowed a lot from World War II propaganda films, especially those dealing with the air force, most notably in his depiction of space combat. The various battles depicted across the saga often tend to play out more like World War II aerial dogfights or naval warfare than actual space combat. This was another detail that was changed in The Clone Wars, with The Force Awakens placing the action on a planet with an atmosphere to more realistically allow conventional dogfights.

It's also no secret that the Empire was inspired by Nazi Germany. Palpatine's rise to power in the prequel trilogy was intentionally made to parallel that of Adolf Hitler. Even the word "Stormtrooper" is not Lucas's own. When used today, it is often associated with the white-armored henchmen who frequently tried to thwart our heroes. In fact, its use goes back as early as World War I. But more famously, the name was used in a particular branch of the Nazi military. Specifically, "storm troopers" were soldiers serving in a kind of Nazi Secret Service known as Sturmabteilung ("Storm Division" in English). It is no accident that George Lucas adopted this name for the soldiers representing his fictional dictatorship.

So where am I going with all this? Well, it is very likely that a lot of the gender-based issues are connected to the material which inspired George Lucas. This is likely one of the main reasons he only shows groups of men taking part in the dogfights- the same was true for the World War II air force films he was drawing on. Luke Skywalker was borrowing a lot from the (usually male) heroes of sci-fi serials from the 30's like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Lucas was borrowing heavily from these old films which likely shaped how he made a lot of his story, including Leia's characterization.

On the surface, Leia as she appears in A New Hope seems very much a classic archetype: the princess who needs to be rescued and eventually falls in love with the male protagonist. She is the Maid Marian to Luke's Robin Hood. Comparing Star Wars to the various stories of Robin Hood is nothing new. It is also not unreasonable to assume that Lucas got ideas from the various films Hollywood has made about the classic hero. In particular, George Lucas probably borrowed a lot from 1937's The Adventures of Robin Hood, which has arguably become the most iconic treatment of Robin Hood.

Comparisons to Robin Hood are nothing new, but Leia's role in A New Hope does bear some resemblance to Lady Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the 1937 film, Marian serves mainly as Errol Flynn's love interest. Most of her character is based around her love for Robin, and she generally takes on a fairly passive role which includes getting captured in the film's climax while it is the men who take part in the main action. She also ends up getting captured by the bad guys and has to be saved by Robin Hood. But she does get a few small moments, which include providing information to the Merry Men and organizing a plan to save Robin Hood from execution (though it is actually carried out by men).

These are small but notable traces of Marian's character in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Some of this passes on to Leia. Unlike Marian, Leia spends most of the film getting captured, but the moments she does get are more prominent than those used by Marian. It is established early on that she is an important figure of authority in the Rebel Alliance, even if these aspects of her character didn't get much focus prior to The Force Awakens. She is also not totally defenseless. She does get captured at the start of A New Hope but only after fighting a group of stormtroopers.

She also manages to perform one important act prior to being taken: getting the Death Star plans off the Tantive IV. It was already a hopeless situation. We already saw that the Rebel soldiers who had so far tried to hold the ship had been largely wiped out. Leia was probably going to be found regardless of what happened, but the one thing she does manage to do ends up being crucial. That is to leave the Death Star plans with R2-D2. It is this one action that allows the plans to end up reaching Ben Kenobi and ultimately the Rebel Alliance.

Interestingly, one perspective that could be taken comes when considering the sequence of events that come from Leia's brief interaction with R2. It is entrusting him with the plans that results in them ending up on Tatooine and (accidentally) in the possession of her brother. This in turn results in Luke bringing the message to Ben Kenobi and joining him on a mission to Alderaan. This same expedition results in Luke, Han, and Ben being brought aboard the Death Star, allowing them to rescue Leia. In short, Leia could be seen as rescuing herself, if unknowingly and in an extremely roundabout way, as her one act of entrusting the Death Star plans indirectly results in her escape later on in the film.

There is still the matter of Leia being trapped on the Death Star for the majority of A New Hope. Yet here Leia seems to be more complex than a typical damsel in distress. During her scenes, she is repeatedly seen as a valuable source of information by the (all-male) Imperial forces. Grand Moff Tarkin goes to great lengths to get her to reveal the location of the Rebel Base. Leia is also the only known person aboard the Tantive IV alive (we do see some rebels being captured, but what happened to them is never stated), and Vader seemed to consider it important for Leia to be taken alive. These facts to work to create the impression that she is a high-value target.

More important is the various tactics Tarkin attempts to use against Leia prove unsuccessful. It is suggested that Leia is tortured and resists. Tarkin later attempts to blackmail her, threatening to use Alderaan as a test for the Death Star's weapons if Leia fails to give him the information he wants. This is perhaps the biggest psychological test Leia faces in A New Hope, where she is forced to make a difficult choice with no obvious right answer. She is also the only major character to face such a situation. Although there are high stakes involved, most of the men seem to have an obvious moral choice for dealing with every problem. We never see Luke or Han being faced with a difficult or morally ambiguous choice.

Now it is true that on a narrative level this infamous scene functions to reinforce the audience's disliking towards the Empire, which is especially evident with its resolution: the realization that Tarkin was going to destroy Alderaan regardless of Leia's response (as if his earlier speech about maintaining power through bully tactics wasn't enough). What does stand out is Leia's reaction to this incident. It is obvious that Tarkin is able to strike her on a psychological level, and this is the closest he comes to persuading her (though the emotional ramifications of her home planet's destruction are not explored beyond this one scene, likely another oversight on the part of George Lucas).

Leia is genuinely torn and faced with a difficult moral decision. This is the only instance in the entire original trilogy of a situation where there is no clear moral answer. Leia's two options, at least as far as she is aware are to either give up the rebel base, saving her homeworld but turning on everything she believes in; or withholding the information, protecting the alliance and her values but losing her home and presumably her family in the process. There is no solution that would prevent Tarkin from firing the laser at something. The most optimistic outcome Leia can find is to minimize casualties by trying to get Tarkin to fire at a more remote world, a move that would likely still get people killed.

Tarkin refuses to keep his promises, and infamously destroys Alderaan anyway. But Leia's reaction is an interesting one for her position. She still takes a huge risk by trying to provide false information (as we later learn, she only gave them the location of an abandoned base, not the one currently being used). This alone is a daring move, and a huge gamble. Tarking is momentarily convinced, but there was no guarantee that it would work. But he also blows up Alderaan anyway. Although Leia is clearly upset, she does display the interesting strength that even the destruction of her home planet fails to break her. By the time the information she gave turns out to be incorrect, she has proved so resistant that the Empire basically gives up even trying to extract information from her.

Leia's role as a sci-fi heroine is one of several in a transition, and a huge deal for 1977. In order to better contextualize Leia's significance, it would make sense to make reference to another science fiction film from the same year by a close friend of Lucas': Steven Spielberg. The same year Star Wars was released, Spielberg made his own science fiction adventure: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg's film was very different, attempting to depict the changes faced by an everyman protagonist as the result of an extraordinary experience. More specifically, Spielberg focused less on action and instead opted to focus on the enigmatic nature of an alien visitor.

The important detail to note is Spielberg's women. There are two major female characters: Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and Veronica "Ronnie" Neary (Terri Garr). But the story is first and foremost about Roy (Richard Dreyfus). Of the two women, Jillian is the more prominent figure. Ronnie spends much of the film trying to run a dysfunctional family, and eventually leaves the narrative entirely when she abandons Roy. It's true that her maternal instincts could be seen as a strength, and she is arguably performing a smart move by leaving her seemingly abusive husband; but these aspects of her character are given little focus or depth.

Jillian is given much more focus compared to Roy, but even her role is overshadowed. While she gets her own close encounter, her role in the film is that of a companion who assists Roy in his adventure, rather than being an adventurer in her own right. Note for instance that it is Roy who figures out the location for the Alien Rendezvous. Roy is also the person who has the most detailed map of the mountain and how to reach the landing zone (information which Jillian explicitly lacks). This becomes especially notable in the film's ending. First there is a romance suddenly thrown in, when Jillian and Roy kiss even though there is otherwise no romantic chemistry between them. Second is the positioning of the characters.

At the very end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg finally allows the aliens to make an appearance, but he makes one notable choice in writing the script: only allowing one of his protagonists to meet them up close. Roy is brought to the center of the action, being able to witness the aliens up close and eventually being taken with them on some interstellar adventure. And while this is going on, where is Jillian? Watching from a distance on a cliff. Although she has worked hard to get to this moment, Spielberg still denies her what he is offering to Roy. Instead, Jillian's entire motive is based on maternal instincts. She loses her femininity by losing her son and regains it upon his return, remaining in a domestic role while the man gets a more interesting experience.

Jillian is placed in an extremely passive role for Close Encounters, one where she is able to observe but never to act, and her story revolves exclusively around Roy. Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Princess Leia is entitled to her own plotline. Although she is greatly overshadowed by the male protagonists, the film does allow the viewer to get to know Leia as a character. In fact, it is not until towards the end of the film that she and Luke directly interact. The small amount of screentime she gets does manage to show her taking some initiative: smuggling the Death Star plans off the Tantive IV, buying the droids time to escape, resisting interrogation, and aiding Han and Luke's escape. Even if these are not perfect by modern standards, they may seem a step up when compared to Spielberg.

Now it is also true that Leia will seem like a weaker character when compared to a later role. Only three years after Leia, we got Ellen Ripley who could easily be argued to be a much stronger character. Ripley is a tough and independent woman who manages to prove herself a very capable survivor. She very famously outlasts every male character with her resourcefulness and intelligence, but it's also worth noting that in the film's earlier stages no emphasis is placed on her gender. Ripley is just one of many different people on the ship, and only comes to stand out because she is the last one standing at the film's conclusion.

But if we are going to go into a history of science fiction heroines, it's a complex situation and one that has evolved significantly over the years. A likely precursor to Leia, and one easily could have influenced Spielberg and Lucas is the infamous sexploitation film Barbarella. This bizarre 1968 adventure was produced largely by men for male audiences, and its attempts at sexual appeal are barely subtle (this film literally has an orgasm death machine). On the other hand, if one is willing to look past the various sexual themes and Jane Fonda's minimal outfits, there are some interesting things to note about the character herself.

As blatantly sexualized as she is, Barbarella is established almost immediately to be an independent woman, and the film rejects the inclusion of a specific love interest in favor of allowing the character to explore her sexuality with different people. One thing to note is that after the opening sequence of Barbarella removing her spacesuit in microgravity, the first thing that happens is she is given an important mission. More specifically, she is given a task to, without any backup, find and apprehend Dr. Durand Durand on a high-risk mission and even gets entrusted with a variety of weapons. Though a lot of these go unused, this opening would seemingly suggest that the character is strong enough that she can be trusted on such a dangerous mission by herself. She does frequently take initiative as well, although her action scenes are minimal.

This likely wasn't intentional, but Barbarella was about as strong a sci-fi heroine as one could expect from 1968. Nine years later, Leia developed a few major upgrades. First, she lost the revealing outfits (not to mention being forced to wear a bikini is treated as a negative development). The few action sequences she does get are also more than can be said for Barbarella. Sexuality and relationships are also moved to the background of her storyline. Although she is obviously intended to be Luke's love interest in A New Hope, their romance is only alluded to and never given much focus.

This also would have been happening only a few years after the original Star Trek. Unlike George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry made a much clearer effort at diversity but there was also only so far he could go. In the 1960's the idea of a future without discrimination by race and gender was a radical concept (ironically, it was heavily influenced by the very conservative film Forbidden Planet). There were vast censorship networks that made his vision very had to put onto television. Yet the fact that he was able to do as much as he did ended up being crucial to social progress.

The character of Uhura was a background telephone operator but became an icon for Civil Rights just for being a black woman working as something other than a maid. The vast television censorship made it very difficult for Roddenberry to introduce racial and gender diversity, and there are plenty of stories about the difficulties he and the cast faced to make this vision happen. Roddenberry tried to have a strong female lead in the original pilot only to have everyone crack down on her. There was also the iconic moment when William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols took a huge risk in performing the first interracial kiss on American television.

If Barbarella is to be seen on the foundation for strong sci-fi heroines and Ripley is to be seen as the end result, than Leia is the framework that brings them together.It is Leia who laid the groundwork for women like Ripley to step into the forefront, and she herself was already building on what had been set up by Barbarella. Today, Leia's role in the original films may not seem to have aged well. She certainly may not seem like a strong character in A New Hope compared to her appearance in Rebels or The Force Awakens, yet it was this role that proved so crucial to shaping the sci-fi genre.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Thursday Movie Picks: Movies Starring Actors Who Died in 2016

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is movies starring people who died in 2016. 2016 was, unfortunately, a hard year for the business of film making. We lost so many iconic names it's hard to keep track. Some of them were people we didn't even realize were sick, or in some cases I didn't realize were even still alive. There has been a lot of commentary on just how many people we lost last year. In fact as New Years approached I heard a lot of talk about how there was going to be at least one more death before the year ended.

If it's any consolation there was one positive death that happened in 2016. We lost a lot of amazing people and that's unfortunate. But at least amidst all the performers we lost last year, there was one person that we're glad is finally dead: Ramsay Snow. So far he has been quite possibly the most evil character on the show, bad enough that he made Joffrey look okay (that's no easy feat). Say what you will about Joffrey, at least he was too selfish to have much of an impact anywhere outside of King's Landing. Ramsay Snow was like Joffrey but with intelligence to go along with it. And it just so happens that in 2016 he finally met his end at the hands of Sansa Stark. I don't think very many people will be missing him.

Anyway, I have been tasked with listing films that featured actors we lost in 2016. Now I could just pull out any random film that happens to feature someone we lost during the year, but I've decided to do something more meaningful. Here is what I've come up with...

The Producers (1968)

This weird satire of Hollywood's business practices marks a first on two fronts. It was the directorial debut of Mel Brooks, but it also started the career of one of his regular partners: Gene Wilder. The two would go on to work together in a number of films, with Wilder also getting recognition for playing the role of Willy Wonka. In The Producers, Wilder played a bumbling accountant who accidentally figures out a scheme by which theater producer Zero Mostel can make more money from a flop than a hit. Hilarity ensues as the two set off to produce the worst possible play (Springtime for Hitler), only to do such a good job they accidentally turn it into a huge hit. Sadly, Wilder died last year, and he was one of the last remaining members of Brooks' crowd (the director himself seems to be the only survivor now).

Star Wars (1977)

An interesting career path for Carrie Fisher, who both began and ended her acting career with the Star Wars franchise. Her big break came from playing the role of Princess Leia in the film that launched an entire franchise in 1977, and her final acting role will be in December when she returns as Leia for Star Wars: Episode VIII. The role of Leia is somewhat dated today. Her main function in Star Wars is clearly the damsel who gets kidnapped at the beginning and is eventually rescued by a group of white men. 

For the time, on the other hand, Leia was a big deal. She was able to take action, could hold her own in a fight, and managed to resist repeated Imperial Interrogations to protect the Rebel Alliance. She was also established to be a figure of authority (although this could have been shown more often). She also got a few moments to herself in Return of the Jedi, most notably the fact that she single-handedly murders the most powerful crime lord in the galaxy. Naturally, it was great to see her return for The Force Awakens, where she becomes a general for the resistance and a mentor figure of sorts. Incidentally, before she died Carrie Fisher did approve of Leia's brief cameo at the end of Rogue One.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

This was Alan Rickman's last movie, and as far as I'm aware he didn't even live to see its release. In this film, Alan Rickman plays an army officer who becomes one of several people overseeing the surveillance of a terrorist meeting and a possible missile strike. This was an interesting film for showing an aspect of modern warfare that is often overlooked: the use of drones and the ethics that come with it. More specifically, Rickman is one of several people who struggle to deal with the bureaucracy that comes with the moral dilemma involved: weighing the risk of civilian casualties with the possibility of eliminating a group of dangerous terrorists. A variety of different perspectives are offered ranging from ethical to propagandist agendas as everyone tries to figure out the correct course of action in a situation where there doesn't seem to be a right answer.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Evolution of the Serial Format In Dick Tracy and Jessica Jones

Seriality has a long and intricate history spanning a variety of different technologies. The history of seriality can be linked as far back as the novels of Victorian-era authors such as Charles Dickens and Jules Verne. The earliest serial films began to emerge in the second decade of the twentieth century, but reached their height in the 1930’s with productions such as Dick Tracy. Over time, serials moved into comics, radio, and television. Serial programs are still produced today, becoming a popular approach for television shows such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

While the concept of seriality has existed for a long time, it has evolved with changes in technology and audience. The 1930’s productions made for weekly releases in theaters, such as Dick Tracy, are very different from modern productions made with the expectations of online streaming and recording of episodes. The introduction of streaming services such as Netflix has allowed the production of a variety of new serials, including Jessica Jones.

Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy both follow the same basic premise on a narrative level: a detective trying to outwit a dangerous criminal. Jessica Jones is a Private Eye, while Dick Tracy is a vaguely defined FBI agent or “G-Man.” Dick Tracy’s main opponent is a mysterious criminal leader known only as “The Lame One,” while Jessica Jones is trying to outwit a mysterious psychopath with mind control powers named Kilgrave. In both cases the detectives find themselves locked in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with their nemesis, encountering a variety of challenging obstacles along the way.

The Fire Trap ends with Dick Tracy being tied up and locked on a burning ship, leaving the viewer to return the following week to find out how he escapes

Dick Tracy was released as a serial film in 1937, with episodes being shown in theaters once a week. Jessica Jones was released in its entirety on Netflix in 2015. Although they have a similar premise and explore the same themes, these two productions are drastically different representations of serial format. A discussion of these two in relation to each other allows a means by which to explore the structural, technological, cultural, and economic changes that have affected seriality, and how it has adapted over time.

Changes in the serial structure are largely connected to new business practices. In the 1930’s, serials functioned as a means to encourage audiences to return to the theater on a regular basis. It would have usually screened with several other programs including newsreels, cartoons, and a feature film. Even if the viewer was mainly attending for the feature, they would still be seeing the other programs before it started. Running a serial once a week encouraged audiences to return to the theater and buy tickets to the next episode of their favorite serial adventure.

The introduction of online streaming services allows for a new business model not available to theaters of the 1930’s, specifically one which allows for binge-watching. Netflix is based instead on a monthly subscription, wherein an audience pays a fee once a month and is able to access their entire catalogue. Because the viewer is already paying for the subscription, it becomes irrelevant how many episodes of a show they watch in succession. Netflix no longer has to charge for individual episodes to ensure that audiences retain their subscriptions. Instead, the main draw for viewers is access to an extensive and routinely updated catalogue.

Like Netflix, the old Hollywood serials relied on trying to attract a continuous audience, but changes in technology leave them with different goals. The Old Hollywood serials were made to draw people towards the theater and to encourage viewers to attend on a regular basis. Television did not yet exist as a form of technology, limiting the format to radio and film. Different business models are required in order to adapt to changing technologies, and with them the structures of different serials have to adapt.

Seriality has had to change with variations in technology that have presented different methods of distribution and viewing practices. One of the main reasons why popularity of the repetitive 1930’s film serials eventually began to fade was the introduction of radio programs. Radio was initially seen as a means of appealing to women, who were seen as being domestic and listening to the program while doing household chores. In the 1950’s, seriality moved from radio to television, which resulted in a series of new programs being produced to accommodate the new technology. The later introduction of VCR finally offered some control, as audiences could now record and play back episodes of their favorite shows. Online streaming provides access to an entire series at once.

Serial films of the 1930’s were structured around a distinct formula based on repetition and recycling. Scott Higgins, in his book Matinee Melodrama, argues that each episode of a serial was based on a five part structure: an action sequence which resolves the previous cliffhanger, a short expository sequence to establish any important information, a main action sequence, a second expository sequence, and finally a third action sequence that sets up the cliffhanger. Unlike films of the 1930’s, serials generally favored action over narrative progression, minimizing exposition to short sequences and only establishing whatever information was immediately relevant.

As a result, serials were based heavily on recycling and repeating ideas while creating the appearance of variety. Many early films, Dick Tracy included, were produced on low-budgets and had to find ways to re-use sets. Character development was also minimized, with psychology being glossed over in favor of stock characters that could be re-used across different narratives. This is very different from the approaches taken in modern serial form.

Modern serials, Jessica Jones included, arguably invert the formula. Action becomes secondary to character development. Whereas the characters of 1930’s serials lacked any depth and mainly served to provide a thin context for action, psychology becomes crucial to the modern serial. Jessica Jones places a strong emphasis on getting to know its strong but emotionally troubled protagonist on a personal level.

Jones’ search for the mysterious Kilgrave (David Tennant) serves as a means of exploring her psychological processes. This is also true of the supporting cast, with a lot of the narrative focusing on Jones’ relationship to her best friend Trish Walker and Lawyer Kate Hogarth (Carrie Ann-Moss), both of whom are faced with psychological challenges of their own. The supporting cast also receives extensive psychological profiling, offering details to their background, relationships, and personal lives.

The first two episodes focus purely on establishing Jones as a character and her background with the story’s main antagonist. Kilgrave himself is reduced to flashbacks, being seen once from behind in the first episode, which visualizes a witness’s account of his relationship with Hope Schlottman; and in the following installment through a series of flashbacks which show his prior efforts to control Jones. These episodes focus purely on exposition and psychology, presenting a stage against which to frame the narrative.

The first episode focuses exclusively on establishing Jones as a detective, with important plot developments delayed to the end or following installments.

Cliffhanger endings are a tool which is used to provide an easy connection between installments and to draw the viewer from one episode to the next. Ordinarily this is structured around an unresolved plot thread which requires the viewer to return to see the outcome. The most famous aspect of the 1930’s serial structure is their constant use of cliffhanger endings. Each episode generally ended with the main character faced with a dangerous situation with the expectation that the viewer would return to the theater the following week hoping for resolution.

These cliffhangers were often contrived and unoriginal, and in many cases recycled. Four of Dick Tracy’s fifteen episodes end with an aerial chase which results in a vehicle crashing. The first instance of this ending, Bridge of Terror, sees Dick Tracy crashing a biplane into a bridge, with the resolution amounting to him and his partner climbing out of the wreck unharmed. The resolutions to the later plane crashes (and zeppelin crash, in The Stratosphere Adventure) mostly involve the characters simply parachuting to safety.

In the last of four aerial chases, The Stratosphere Adventure ends with Dick Tracy unconscious aboard a burning zeppelin

Jessica Jones displays a greater variety of cliffhanger endings, which function differently from those of the 1930’s serials. Instead of ending each episode with Jones facing a life-threatening situation, the endings are often structured around unexpected developments, leaving the viewer with questions, or building anticipation for later plotlines. Hope Schlottman’s unexpected murder of her parents sets up the question of how Jones will prove she was being mind-controlled.

Jessica Jones is also fond of psychological and emotional cliffhangers. Many episodes end with sudden twists or developments that display a sense of anticipation in the viewer, as well as concern for what may happen in the future. Several cliffhangers revolve around developments related to Kilgrave—the collection of photographs he has of Jones, the reveal that he has been getting information from her junkie neighbour, and the reveal that Kilgrave has purchased her childhood home. Each of these set up important psychological developments by showing how obsessed Kilgrave is with Jones. This has the added effect of making the viewer uncomfortable and leaving them wanting immediate resolution. It also provides tension for the viewer by leaving them concerned for what Kilgrave is planning to do to Jones in the next encounter.

Unlike Dick Tracy, these moments function to construct anticipation for long-term narrative developments rather than immediate resolution at the beginning of the next episode. Hope Schlottman’s murder of her parents leaves the viewer to question how Jones will prove that she was being mind-controlled, a plot thread that is not resolved until eight episodes later. When it does reach its resolution, the show plays on the viewer’s expectations through a twist—Jones is unsuccessful in finding any evidence, and Schlottman instead opts to kill herself so that she can no longer be used as leverage against Jones.

This sudden development functions on an emotional level, shocking the viewer who had been set up to expect a more optimistic resolution, but it also creates a sense of anticipation. Until now, Schlottman has been used as leverage to keep Jones from taking action against Kilgrave. With her death, Jones is free to take action against him. Delaying this moment to near the end of the season builds up anticipation of their final confrontation and Jones’ eventual victory over Kilgrave.

The closest instance to a traditional cliffhanger ending occurs when Luke Cage’s bar explodes with him inside. It does set up a crisis to be resolved in the next episode, but unlike Dick Tracy the outcome is less certain. In the 1930’s serials, it was always a guarantee that the hero would escape from their current situation unscathed. No matter how many times Dick Tracy ended up in a plane or boat-related accident the audience knew he would find a way out; the question was how he would escape. To a viewer watching Jessica Jones without the knowledge that Cage later gets his own series, the question becomes whether he will escape at all.

In both Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy, these structures set up anticipation for the next episode and the hope for resolution, but they are very differently produced. Dick Tracy was released in 1937, at a time when it was being screened at movie theaters once a week. A viewer would have to first learn where and when the film was being played, arrive at the theater on the correct day, buy a ticket, and then return the following week to see the next installment. Jessica Jones was produced and distributed through Netflix. The viewer can now watch from home instead of going to a theater, with immediate access to the entire series.

One detail that offers a significant departure from the format of older serials is the need to construct and expand a world. (Williams 2014) Jessica Jones itself is set within the same continuity as The Avengers, which already is building on the stories set up by several different Marvel Films. This idea was taken further a year later, with the release of a spin-off show, Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, a character who played a major role in Jessica Jones, takes on a leading role in the new series, further expanding the world established by Jessica Jones. The only other direct link to the series comes in the form of Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, who had previously made a guest appearance in Jessica Jones’ season finale, and now becomes a regular partner to Cage. The appearances of these characters work to ground the viewer in the world of the story through familiar faces, even though Luke Cage is largely dealing with a new group of characters and different situations.

The low budget of Dick Tracy requires that a few sets be re-used for filming, allowing a few familiar locations to recur such as Dick Tracy’s office and the laboratory in which he works. There is also the abandoned power plant which is introduced as the Spider Ring’s headquarters in Bridge of Terror and becomes the setting for the final showdown in Brothers United. Beyond this, there is little to establish a consistent or detailed world to be explored and expanded.

The plotlines of Dick Tracy are often disjointed and involve a different situation each week. Aside from the overall narrative involving Tracy’s quest to break up the “Spider Ring,” there is little to connect the plots of individual episodes. The Spider Ring returned each week but their goals always changed, resulting in different plans for Tracy to foil. After immediately resolving the previous episode’s cliffhanger, each episode would move on to a new problem. After identifying the power plant as the Spider Ring’s headquarters in Bridge of Terror, The Fur Pirates leaves this plotline behind in favor of moving to a harbor where the Spider Ring has suddenly started stealing furs.

This trend continues through the following episodes, with each installment introducing new plotlines only to suddenly abandon them. The Ghost Town Mystery suddenly shows the Spider Ring taking interest in a Gold Mine, which only gets mentioned again in The Trail of the Spider—a recap episode which mainly uses footage from previous installments. These abrupt changes and lack of a clear narrative connection beyond its characters makes it much more difficult to construct a coherent world.

The narrative works primarily with stock characters over individuals with any psychological depth. Members of the cast are mostly reduced to a few easily recognizable roles such as Dick Tracy as the investigator (who shows little depth beyond being concerned about his missing brother) and Mike McGurk (Smiley Burnette) as the comic relief. None of these characters are given much depth beyond their basic role. There is little room to get to know any of them on a personal level.

Even the closest thing to a psychological conflict in the story—the disappearance of Gordon Tracy (who has been kidnapped and brainwashed to serve the Spider Ring) is often glossed over. Beyond Dick Tracy mentioning occasionally that he is concerned about his brother, the psychological ramifications are overlooked, even after the two confront each other multiple times in action sequences. Almost nothing is established about Tracy’s relationship with his brother prior to his abduction.

This is very different from the narrative structure of Jessica Jones. Over the course of the series, she solves several cases, but as the series moves forward the story becomes primarily about her and Kilgrave, eventually building up to a showdown in the season finale. Unlike the “Lame One”, Kilgrave’s motives and goals are far more consistent throughout the series. Instead of jumping from one task to another each episode, Kilgrave instead sets long-term goals that occur throughout the season, most of them related to an interest in psychologically manipulating Jones. Likewise, Jones’ methods of trying to stop him carry across multiple episodes, as does her psychology and personal life. Developments over the course of the series present long-term psychological effects on Jones.

One of the most important distinctions between Jessica Jones and Dick Tracy is the expectations left for the viewer. The audiences who watched Dick Tracy were very different from those watching Jessica Jones. In the 1930’s, going to the movie theater was more or less the only way most audiences could expect to see anything on screen. It was a luxury for many people living in the middle of the Great Depression who were more conscious of how their money was spent. People who went to see Dick Tracy would barely be able to conceive of modern streaming services such as Netflix. Now a viewer at home could have access to an entire series with complete control over how and when they watch it.

Online streaming has led to a practice known as “binge-watching.” A viewer in the 1930’s would only have been able to watch an episode of their favorite serial if it was playing at a nearby theater. 1930’s audiences lacked any form of control over when the serials played. The more modern practice of “binge-watching” changes everything. A viewer today watching Jessica Jones on Netflix is given total control over their own viewing practices. Episodes can be stopped and started as the audience sees fit, and a viewer can watch multiple episodes in immediate succession.

In theory, there are practices that could be seen as early precursors to binge-watching. Serialized Victorian novels could be compiled together into a complete story. Readers of newspaper comics such as Superman could cut out the strips as they were published and subsequently read through them to produce a continuing story. Some movie theaters would also opt to schedule programs in which multiple episodes of a serial would be shown in succession, especially in the 1960’s when nostalgia could be used as a marketing factor.

A variation on this practice which became popular in the 1950’s is the made-from-TV film, a practice wherein multiple episodes of a TV series were edited and re-released theatrically as a feature film. In theory, this would allow the viewer to watch multiple installments at once and experience a somewhat complete narrative, but the editing practices involved make this different from modern binge-watching. Instead of watching the original series, the viewer is instead seeing re-edited footage from different episodes brought together in order to create the appearance of a contained narrative. In order to fit the program into a feature-length runtime, large portions of each episode could be cut, taking out much of their original contexts.

Ramar of the Jungle, originally released as a TV series in 1952, later saw several "movies" produced by combining several episodes

One of the main reasons why binge watching has become especially popular today is that the audience has complete control over how they watch their shows. Previously, the only way to binge-watch a show was if a theater or television network had programmed multiple episodes together. Even while watching 1930’s serials, a viewer can can start and stop it as they see fit due to re-releases both on DVD and online.

Unlike the made-from-television movie, the viewer is watching the show in its original installments rather than a re-edited short version. Even when watching multiple episodes of a serial in a theater, the viewer could only see what had been programmed. This was a practice that would have been alien to 1930’s audiences, but quickly became an attraction for Netflix. Jessica Jones was a show produced with the intent from the start of being released in its entirety for binge watching.

The 1930’s audience would have been more accustomed to going to the theater. The Great Depression was going on at the time, and a large portion of the viewers were working-class Americans. They lacked control over what they would be seeing when they attended. Theaters of the era usually had only one or two screens, so ordinarily a viewer would only be buying a ticket to whatever was currently programmed, which would often include newsreels, cartoons, a serial, and a feature film.

For viewers interested in following a serial like Dick Tracy, this would have created a much stronger need to attend the theater at the correct moment in order to see what would be happening next. Audiences within the 1930’s were used to lacking control, and likely tried to save some of whatever money they had to attend the theater each week. The introduction of binge-watching makes this redundant for a modern viewer, even one viewing Dick Tracy, who knows they can start the next episode as soon as it is convienient.

A 1930’s-style serial would not work in a modern context. Audiences today have access to a global network, and are able to watch programs from home. The advent of streaming sources such as Netflix and the popularity of binge-watching has made viewers more accustomed to being able to watch shows instantly. Audiences of the 1930’s, who lacked internet access and could only watch movies by going to the theater, would have been more patient. A modern viewer would struggle to wait for a resolution, and today could easily learn what happened before they even see the next episode.

Narratively, serials of the 1930’s would not work as well when run today. The modern audience of Jessica Jones is used to seeing strong psychologically driven protagonists. The use of stock characters would be frustrating and ineffective at compelling viewers to continue watching. The contrived cliffhangers would leave viewers more annoyed, and the choice to delay narrative progression in favor of action would make the films seem even more infuriating especially when episodes are binge-watched.

Seriality has existed in a variety of forms. In the 1930’s, it was presented through a series of weekly installments. Today, people can record episodes of television programs or access an entire series through an online service and watch multiple episodes in succession. Changes in business practices and distribution methods have resulted in access to different audiences with different expectations. Because of this, the serial structure of shows like Dick Tracy has been replaced by Netflix programs such as Jessica Jones.

By comparing Dick Tracy and Jessica Jones, it is clear that they are reflective of differing business practices and technologies available at different times. The disjointed weekly installments of Dick Tracy are structured very differently with different audiences in mind. Where the serials of the 1930’s required a viewer to return weekly to the theater at a pre-designated time, modern services like Netflix allow a viewer to watch an entire series at once from home.

This new structure reflects a change in viewership, which has become accustomed to different technologies. The audiences of Jessica Jones who can watch the entire series lack the patience of the audiences who returned weekly for Dick Tracy. The change in business model from individual theater tickets to a subscription fee has allowed viewers to binge watch, a practice not possible for audiences of the 1930’s.

It is likely that in the future, seriality will continue to evolve with new technological developments and with it so will audiences and business practices. New distribution methods will allow audiences even greater access to different shows and will result in new viewing practices and expectations.