Saturday, August 11, 2007


What are stories? It's an old question but Stardust, which I saw last night, has me speculating. The reason is that it's utter hackwork yet the audience I saw it with was rapturous, especially the girl sitting next to me, who kept repeating lines of dialogue, mimicking emphatic gestures, and saying to her companion, "I love this movie."

That's great stuff. That's what stories, as far as solaas goes, are supposed to do.

(Presuming we're not cultural theorists or scientists, in which case you can frame the idea of what stories are "supposed to do" in vastly more rigorous terms. Of course, I do believe in a qualified way some of the ontological claims you can derive from the chaos of conventional human lore. I find them vastly more reliable as a compass for understanding myself than I do cultural theory, though cultural theory has its good points too in this respect.)

But I did not find myself rapturously transported. I felt, as I watched, that we were going through the motions, that neither Neil Gaiman nor the collective producers of this film, excepting the actors to an extent, had put anything in this movie that was not formulaic.

Formulaic is sort of a pop-critical term and one that's often expressed without supporting argument, but it applies to Stardust.

  • Story teller voice over performed in the first person plural? Formulaic.
  • Young boy with limited prospects hoping to win the love of a popular girl? Formulaic.
  • Romance between two people thrust together by circumstance and initially loathing each other? Formulaic.
  • Princes competing to become king given an impossible task to determine the heir? Formulaic.
  • Helicopter shots rotating around people riding on horseback over grass-covered ridges with mountains in the distance? Maybe not formulaic, but at least derivative. You've seen it in more than one film since Lord of the Rings.
The movie is rife with examples like this, but there's one which is particularly telling:he cameo by Ricky Gervais, who plays a merchant with whom all three of the plot's contending parties, the witch, the evil prince, and the hero/heroine, barter for one thing or another. He's dressed in a sort of bizarre costume and he's got long hair, but it's basically a reprise of the character Gervais improvises in the office. It was, to me, reminiscent of the scene from Man on the Moon where the college students are chanting at Andy Kaufman to do some famous routine., maybe the mighty mouse thing, I don't quite recall.

In this case, because it was a character and an actor imported without elaboration from some other work, and because that character/actor is so much a part of the present cultural moment, it stood out particularly as a crib, but to me the film, as I elaborated above, was full of such thefts.

Which would not in most cases doom a film, but in Stardust, there's a near total absence of enthusiasm for the material in the production work. For instance, the primary villain, a witch played by Michelle Pfeiffer, starts of the movie riding around in a cart pulled by two goats. To me, this is one of the few opportunities the narrative provides to do something weird and original. They could have made the goats look menacing or something. But they just made a cart pulled by two goats. And then that's what she traveled around in for a while. That's it.

There are other instances of a failure of imagination. The market town that stands as a sort of transit point between the film's two worlds, ordinary England and mystical Stormhold, is supposed to be a sort of hotbed of orientalist exoticism, but its wierdly sterile. There's a tiny two-headed elephant in a cage and a jar full of eyeballs that actually look at things, but otherwise, it's just a bunch of cages and buildings and a few undistressed curtains slapped together. No real detail.

But the worst thing about the film is the fascism.

That's hyperbole, obviously, but there's this weird innocence about the pleasures the film seems intended to provoke.

It starts with the protagonist's name. It's Tristran. I hate this name. It's just a few steps short of Prince Valiant. And its a variant on a name that's used throughout fantasy novels. I don't have examples, so you'll have to take my word for it. But it's the sort of name given to the sort of strapping but mildly effeminate name given to the sorts heroes that movies like Shrek seek to pillory. Because its the convention, he starts off bumbling and earnest, but by the end of the film, he's got beautiful hair a great outfit and is a master swordsman.

This is the guy were supposed to identify with. Think about the Pirates of the Caribbean films and how there's this sort of id/superego battle in the film's consciousness between the Orlando Bloom character, who is noble and chased, and Captain Sparrow (a much more evocative name than Tristran, btw), who is lecherous, androgynous, unreliable, self-interested, and vastly more interesting. And that franchise, at least in the second film,
acknowledges the appeal of the antihero, when the Keira Knightly character makes out with Jack Sparrow and then, almost in an act of homage, betrays him. However psychosexually unhealthy you might deem this, it was mature and knowing. Stardust is neither of those things. In it, every infantile fantasy is fulfilled. The hero defeats everyone and he doesn't just get the girl, he gets to become king, he gets his mom back, and he gets the opportunity to live forever. It's all gold and castles and immortality.

This just isn't material I can wrap my heart around.

The audience I saw it with was entirely in love. And it ives me pause that what produced this response was a combination of deeply formulaic plot construction and some naive and uninhibited wish fulfillment. It makes me wonder about why I respond the way I do to better work than this.

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