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Sunday, May 19, 2002

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones -- An Exercise in Structure, Part I.

"A word here about movie dialogue: It is among the least important parts of a screenplay. Sure, intelligent talk is always better than dumb stuff. And sure, dialogue matters more in some kinds of movies -- wit comedies, such as As Good As It Gets, or intelligent dramas -- than in others. But for the most part, the public and critics have come to believe that screenplays are dialogue.

Wrong. If movies are story, and they are, then screenplays are structure."

-William Goldman, "Rocking the Boat", The Big Picture: "Who Killed Hollywood?" and Other Essays.

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I saw Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones twice on opening day, and once more this afternoon. Now that I've seen it three times, I am wondering if I saw the same film that a lot of the critics saw -- because I love this movie.

I kept trying to spot the horrible dialogue, only to find occasionally clunky lines (Obi Wan does affix phrases like "my very young apprentice" to his sentences way too much when addressing Anakin Skywalker, for example) amidst some genuinely memorable lines (Jango Fett's "I'm just a simple man trying to make my way in the Universe" being a prime example). I kept on the lookout for wooden acting by Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen, but I kept discovering that while their line deliveries tend to the muted side, they emote fully with their eyes and body language. I searched in vain for the soul-less special effects, and kept running instead into stunning visuals that were amazing in their detail, the immense amounts of thought that went into the creation of this world being writ large on the screen for all to see. I keep wondering: why on Earth is this movie getting so much bad press? Is it because of lingering feelings from The Phantom Menace (which I do not share, having actually liked that film)? Is it a more jaded populace, now very accustomed to fantasy on the silver screen but still unacquainted for the most part with the history of fantasy and the tropes that drive it? (For how many people was Peter Jackson's film their first encounter with The Lord of the Rings?) Or is it that we've come to expect films to tell their story entirely through dialogue? I suspect the latter is at work here: dialogue is expected these days to carry the story, but George Lucas's movies have always been about structure. The William Goldman quote above holds the key.

Consider structure from the standpoint of a couple of classic films. Casablanca is filled to the brim with great dialogue; in fact, anyone who wants to learn about writing dialogue had damned well better know Casablanca. But structure is at its core. Note that we don't know at the film's beginning just why Rick Blaine is so bitter and cynical, and we still don't even when Ilsa Lund comes into his cafe. We only know that she is a part of it, a suspicion which is later borne out via flashback. Then the film returns to its present day and plays out straightforwardly. Simple construction, but it has the effect that Casablanca is a much better film after you've already seen it once. Only when we already know what Rick and Ilsa shared in pre-war Paris can we know just what a visceral blow it is to him when he sees her in the cafe; only then can we understand his anger at hearing "As Time Goes By" played on Sam's piano. The film practically demands a second viewing, and by then we are forever under its spell. We can never forget Casablanca, and it's all because of structure.

Or, take a more recent example, noted by Goldman in the quoted essay: Titanic. Here is a film that was also excoriated by critics for lousy dialogue, especially in its "love story" scenes (much like Attack of the Clones). But how does structure fit in? First, there is the story's framing device: it's not just a tale about two lovers on a doomed ship, but there is also the mystery of just what happened to the diamond -- a device that justifies the story's being told through flashback, and connects the long-ago story with the one playing out now. But secondly, there is James Cameron's masterstroke: early in the film he has a secondary character explain in some detail just what happened as the Titanic went down -- what physically happens to the ship from the moment it hits the iceberg. At the time, it appears to be just an excuse to show off some nifty digital animation of the ship's sinking -- but when that point is actually reached in the film and as the characters make their harrowing escape from the bowls of the liner, we know exactly what is going on and what the next threat to their lives will be, before they know it. Cameron has already done the heavy lifting of exposition, so there is never a moment where, say, Jack turns to Rose and says something like "Oh my God, the ship's hull can't withstand the pressure being put on it! The ship will break in two any minute now!" We already know this, so Cameron is able to keep the cords of tension humming. That's structure, and it is great storytelling, and it has nothing at all to do with dialogue.

By far the biggest knock on Attack of the Clones from the critics is its dialogue. Roger Ebert, for example, says that the film doesn't contain a single memorable line. (In this I think he's wrong. There is Jango Fett's line quoted above; the charming bit where Obi Wan turns aside a would-be drug pusher; Anakin's chilling "They're animals, and I slaughtered them like animals"; Obi Wan's sarcastic "Good job" after Anakin's failed rescue attempt. And there are more.) Of course, Star Wars films have never been known for their dialogue. It's worth noting that what is probably the best single line in the entire Star Wars saga, Han Solo's reply of "I know" to Princess Leia after she's professed her love for him just before he's carbon-frozen in The Empire Strikes Back, was actually an ad-lib by Harrison Ford because the line in the script -- "Remember that, 'cause I'll be back" -- just wasn't working. (And for those who point to The Empire Strikes Back with longing as an example of the Good Old Days when there was "great dialogue" in these films, I defy you to watch the scene in Luke's hospital room without cringing.) The Star Wars films work because of structure, and it is on that basis that we should judge Attack of the Clones.

(To be concluded tomorrow....)