My Blog Week: January 2 to January 8
A Word on the Week
Critical Lapses (part three)
More from John Simon’s review of Star Wars (1977):
“The film […] has nowhere near the romantic invention, say, of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian novels”
“Here it is all trite characters and paltry verbiage, handled adequately by Harrison Ford […] uninspiredly by Mark Hamill, and wretchedly by Carrie Fisher, who is not even appealing as Princess Leia Organa (an organic lay).”
“John Berry’s set design is compelling…”
Critical treatments of movies need to be persuasive arguments; the reason for this furnishes itself. The review is aimed at the person who hasn’t seen the film. Opinions can be agreed with only if the recipient has shared the experience. Otherwise, has reverence for (or terror of) the person giving them.
Simon’s adverbial style amounts to only a series of implied, and unsupported contentions. In a sound argument, the beginning of any contention is a definition of terms, and terms are established by points of reference mutually understood. In other words, you can argue about which actor played the most effective Dracula, but you can’t win your case, unless you and the other party first agree on what a Dracula ought to be.
Reviewers offer their arguments one-sidedly, to a general audience that mostly doesn’t respond. But when we consider bad argumentation’s place in our cultural decline, we can see it’s high time for higher standards, and—on the principle that those who can dish it out, should be able to take it—no passes.
What makes the handling of a role adequate, vs uninspired, vs wretched—or what makes a human being “appealing”, in the case of Fisher, is never defined by Simon, or supported. We might say Ford is a taller man with a deeper voice, male qualities that communicate authority. We still need reason to believe Han Solo has to convey authority, as opposed to sneakiness, or imperiousness, or anything else. That requires placing the character in movie history; determining what type of character this is. Which actor in which role, in which film, gives us an exemplar that Ford’s performance can be compared to?
A good match between actor and role should yield adequateness at a minimum. The character Luke Skywalker, in this story, has his life upended by a murderous attack; then he receives a chance at a mission, which—from a sense of failure to have prevented the attack—may redeem him. It’s a fairly complicated transition from callow to heroic, but what would make the playing of this role inspired? Why does Simon perceive it to be uninspired?
In Fisher’s case the crude joke, and Simon’s reputation for ugly insults against women’s looks (he wrote that Barbra Streisand’s nose “zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning”, objectively, not a relatable experience, if in Simon’s view, a possible one; and as humor, milked), suggest he meant “appealing” in the basest sense—that Carrie Fisher was not conventionally pretty. The same Washington Post obituary that supplies the parenthetical quotation on Streisand, also quotes him as saying: “I believe that unless a major part on stage or screen explicitly calls for an unsightly person, it is better filled by a performer who is, besides being talented, prepossessing.”
In Simon’s work we see the outlines and trappings of critical thought. He makes references, but doesn’t link them to any point he seems to be making. Humor is engaging; Simon pseudo-engages with bullying jokes. He has a facility for wordplay “…equaling comic strips […] or even outstripping them…”; “…the distressing thing called the Force, which is not a flat-footed allusion to New York’s finest…”
He has, in this review, one good conceit, that C-3PO and R2D2 resemble a teaming of Edward Everett Horton and Mickey Rooney, though Horton may not have been known even to 1977 audiences (try Sing It and Like It, with ZaSu Pitts, 1934).
Now, because Burroughs is in the public domain these days, I give you an excerpt from Thuvia, Maid of Mars, 1920.
The day following the coming of Vas Kor to the palace of the Prince of Helium, great excitement reigned throughout the twin cities, reaching its climax in the palace of Carthoris. Word had come of the abduction of Thuvia of Ptarth from her father’s court, and with it the veiled hint that the Prince of Helium might be suspected of considerable knowledge of the act and the whereabouts of the princess.
In the council chamber of John Carter, Warlord of Mars, was Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium; Mors Kajak, his son, Jed of Lesser Helium; Carthoris, and a score of the great nobles of the empire.
“There must be no war between Ptarth and Helium, my son,” said John Carter. “That you are innocent of the charge that has been placed against you by insinuation, we well know; but Thuvan Dihn must know it well, too.
“There is but one who may convince him, and that one be you. You must hasten at once to the court of Ptarth, and by your presence there as well as by your words assure him that his suspicions are groundless. Bear with you the authority of the Warlord of Barsoom, and of the Jeddak of Helium to offer every resource of the allied powers to assist Thuvan Dihn to recover his daughter and punish her abductors, whomsoever they may be.
“Go! I know that I do not need to urge upon you the necessity for haste.”
Carthoris left the council chamber, and hastened to his palace. Here slaves were busy in a moment setting things to right for the departure of their master. Several worked about the swift flier that would bear the Prince of Helium rapidly toward Ptarth.
From Chapter Three, Treachery
At the words Carthoris half sprang to his feet, only to be dragged roughly down by his guard.
“Kar Komak!” he cried. “Why cannot you do what Tario and Jav did? They had no bowmen other than those of their own creation. You must know the secret of their power. Call forth your own utan, Kar Komak!”
The Lotharian looked at Carthoris in wide-eyed astonishment as the full purport of the suggestion bore in upon his understanding. “Why not?” he murmured.
The savage ape bearing the mighty bludgeon was slinking toward Carthoris. The Heliumite’s fingers were working as he kept his eyes upon his executioner. Kar Komak bent his gaze penetratingly upon the apes. The effort of his mind was evidenced in the great beads of sweat upon his contracted brows.
From Chapter Eleven, Green Men and White Apes
On Monday, a new Folly, the moment of reckoning for Falco drawing close. On Tuesday, a new Yoharie, the conspiracy theory falling apart in the face of nice, normal humans. Wednesday, Hammersmith, and the first part of Shaw’s career troubles. Thursday, a new poem, with word-game properties. Friday, the latest segment of Catastrophe.
Images on my posts often have a link to related information (click first image), sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical, sometimes in answer to a direct reference. Since people can be leery about links, I include them here: what they are, what sites they point to.
My Blog Week: January 2 to January 8