Saturday, January 7, 2017

Pavane pour une infante défunte

Before I let go of 2016, I have to remember a princess. Carrie Fisher died on December 27, bringing to an end a dream of life. I first saw her in Star Wars in 1977. Like boys everywhere, I fell in love with her. She was very beautiful, and though she was young, she was also tough. She could handle her words and, when needed, a blaster. She was a princess but you could also very easily imagine her as a senator and someone high up in an organization devoted to freedom in the galaxy. Girls loved her, too, my youngest sister among them. I drew a picture of Princess Leia for her on her school folder. There were two more movies in the series. There should have been more and they should have come earlier. Too many years passed before Carrie Fisher was once again in Star Wars, and by then there was a new cast and a new spirit. She will be in Star Wars again but I can't help but think she will haunt the movie rather than star in it. There have been and will be attempts to digitize her, but you can't digitize life, or beauty, or romance, or dreams.

I saw Carrie Fisher in life, once, in 2015 at a comic book convention in Indianapolis. I saw her from a distance, but I can say at least that I saw her. On the night before she died, we went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the theater. If you don't want to know something about the movie, stop reading now, but her likeness is in it, a likeness lacking in life and spirit to be sure. Hers is the last character to appear on screen. The next morning, Carrie Fisher, the real person, was gone. A strange valediction.

The subtitle of the movie is accurate, I think: it is a Star Wars story, told in the same universe of course but also in the same spirit, though somewhat darker in tone than the original. There are problems with it. Most can be overlooked. An obvious one that can't be is this: If you can cast a shield around a planet, why can't you cast a shield around your shield generator? A more subtle problem: More and more movies are being made by people who seem to have grown up playing computer games rather than reading literature or watching movies. The computer game aesthetic is more and more in film. There are contrived complications, objects to procure, puzzles to solve, obstacles to jump over or through, mazes to traverse. (One of the obstacles in Rogue One reminds me of the "choppy, crushy things" in Galaxy Quest. When your movie evokes memories of a science fiction parody, you could have a problem with your screenplay.) In Rogue One, there are even digitized human characters, just as in a computer game. They are creepy and lifeless and distracting. I stopped listening to the dialogue when they were on screen. There is also a problem that has plagued science fiction since its beginnings, namely, the use of characters as mere plot devices rather than as representations of genuine human personalities. There is no one in the movie with the personality or allure of Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford or even Billy Dee Williams or puppet master Frank Oz as Yoda. The exception might be the robot K-2SO, a kind of cross between Mr. Spock, R2-D2, and Marvin from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, as in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the lead character--in fact the strongest character and the driver of the action--is a woman. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It only shows what has happened in our culture since 1977 (forty years ago!). Then it was a boy who lived on a backwater planet, worked as a farmer, drank blue milk, watched his parental units die at the hands of the empire, and set off on a quest to avenge them, learn about the force, have a great adventure, and destroy the Death Star. Times change.

* * *

On New Year's Eve, we saw Passengers, starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. From watching the preview, I thought it would be some kind of conspiracy movie. It's not. (I told you to stop reading if you don't want to know about the movie.) Instead it relies on two science fiction tropes: flight from an overpopulated planet and a meteor strike in deep space. The first is ridiculous. Unless something really changes, we're going to be rushing towards each other on an underpopulated planet rather than rushing away from each other on an overpopulated one. The second one is ridiculous, too. Both tropes, however, are used to set up a situation of "what if?", which is what science fiction is about, and in that, and in the intriguing situation, the gorgeous design, the fine special effects, and the perfectly fine performances by the four main actors, Passengers is worth a couple of hours of your life.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I first saw Carrie Fisher in the 1975 movie Shampoo; an obnoxious, offensive film that starred Warren Beatty as a womanizing hairdresser who, among his other conquests, has ongoing affairs with both the wife and the mistress of a friend, and who also at one point has sex with this friend's teenage daughter. This character is supposed to be likable, even admired, and ultimately pitied when one of his "lovers" rejects him. I found him (and the film) thoroughly reprehensible.
    I would likely have forgotten this movie by now, except the teenage daughter was played by Carrie Fisher. I never dreamed at the time that she would soon become one of the most beloved actresses in Hollywood, that she would go on to play one of the most enduring, most recognizable characters in cinema history.
    One never knows where the most inauspicious of starts will lead.

    I love her as Princess Leia, but perhaps my favorite Carrie Fisher performance is in Rob Reiner's romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. What a delightful film, populated by nothing but likable characters, all searching for and finding love. And Carrie Fisher is at her best here.

    I'm sad that she has died, and even sadder that her mother, the ever delightful Debbie Reynolds, died the very next day, apparently of grief over her daughter's passing.
    The last thing that I saw Carrie Fisher in was the seventh season episode of The Big Bang Theory entitled "The Convention Conundrum", in which she played a fictionalized version of herself. Far from a glamourous representation, she appears as a crazed caricature of her public persona, as a woman who was aged and flawed but still strong and worthy of admiration, and who wouldn't take crap from anybody. How very fitting.

    I more than liked Carrie Fisher; I respected her.

    1. After a long time, Mike, thanks for the remembrance.