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Irvin Kershner, 1923-2010
November 29, 2010 6:53 AM   Subscribe

Irvin Kershner isn't a household name. Often incorrectly billed as Irving, Ervin, or Irwin, the director's filmography includes such films as the uninspiring sequel Robocop 2, the subpar "unofficial" James Bond film Never Say Never Again, and The Luck of Ginger Coffey, which, according to Kershner's site has in recent years become a cult film, but whose cult status is hardly evident elsewhere on the internet. So why should we care that Irvin Kershner has just died at age 78? Kershner directed the best of the Star Wars movies, and one of the best "second act" films ever, The Empire Strikes Back. Just before he died, Kershner spoke with Vanity Fair about the film, 30 years after its release in 1980.
posted by ocherdraco (64 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Ahab at 6:55 AM on November 29, 2010


"The Empire Strikes Back" was the only official Star Wars film. All of the others were just counterfeit fan and slash fiction.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:56 AM on November 29, 2010


his movie Loving was alright i guess...
posted by arveale at 6:57 AM on November 29, 2010


the uninspiring sequel Robocop 2

Them's fighting words right there.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:06 AM on November 29, 2010 [8 favorites]


the director's filmography includes such films as the uninspiring sequel Robocop 2, the subpar "unofficial" James Bond film Never Say Never Again, and The Luck of Ginger Coffey ... and The Empire Strikes Back

Irvin Kershner, you have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.
posted by mazola at 7:06 AM on November 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


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posted by vibrotronica at 7:16 AM on November 29, 2010


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Ain't nothing wrong with Never Say Never Again.
posted by bovious at 7:18 AM on November 29, 2010


I remember loving the movie The Flim-Flam Man when I saw as a kid but I haven't seen it in 35 years or so, not sure how it holds up.
posted by octothorpe at 7:19 AM on November 29, 2010


I enjoyed the Star Wars films when I was a kid, and upon rewatching them an as adult the glitter faded away.

The Bond films, though... I grew up watching those and still rewatch a lot of them today. Never Say Never Again is literally my favorite Bond film. It maintains the glamor and mystique of the series while featuring a Bond who's older and more vulnerable, and Klaus Maria Brandauer as one of the most classiest and most three-dimensional villains ever. Along with the traditional ingredients, the film has some notably crazy gadgets and subplots but somehow it all works. A couple of the setpieces are among the best action sequences in the franchise. Plus there's Max von Sydow as Blofeld, Rowan Atkison for comic relief, Kim Basinger being a Bond girl and really acting, and a lovely Michel LeGrand score. I wish people would give it another shot.
posted by heatvision at 7:20 AM on November 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


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posted by Silvertree at 7:24 AM on November 29, 2010


Did anyone notice the title of this discussion, Irvin Kershner, 1923-1910? Does this mean that he died 13 years before he was born? Must involve time travel.
posted by grizzled at 7:32 AM on November 29, 2010


Actually, I will add that the linked article states that he died at 87, while the posted article claims that he died at 78. But if the title was supposed to read 1923-2010, then his age at death would have been 87.
posted by grizzled at 7:34 AM on November 29, 2010


I absolutely loved RoboCop 2 at the time (I was ... of a certain age), and while it can't hold a candle to the original, I'd lay bets on it still being a very entertaining action film.

Must watch this "Empire Strikes Back" that everyone talks about at some point, too. Sounds like it has potential.

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posted by thoughtless at 7:45 AM on November 29, 2010


The eyes of Laura Mars is a pretty decent film as well. And some of his earlier ones, especially Stakeout on Dope Street, are great fun.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:45 AM on November 29, 2010


I was in college when the new digitally enhanced versions were re-released in theaters. Oxford, MS didn't have anything like a good movie theater, so for these sorts of events we always made the hour-long drive up to Memphis, where if you were lucky you'd get a seat in a THX theater, and if not you at least got a bigger screen and better sound than you would back in Ox-patch.

So, naturally we caught all the remastered SW flicks there. When A New Hope came out, we caught it at the Germantown mall. Twice. But on our way up for Empire, we decided (for reasons I now can't recall - whatever they were, they were trivial) on a change of venue, and pulled in to a different movie complex a few miles down the road just in time to get the last tickets to the 9:30 showing - even though it was only 8 or so (and this was at least two weeks after the show had opened). So we went out and caught dinner, then headed back to the theater. On entering our screening room, we saw why this particular show had sold out so early - three rows were reserved. But we had no idea why. Then, just before the lights dimmed, my buddy happened to turn around, and all of a sudden he yelled, "Holy shit, THAT'S IRVIN KERSHNER!"

And it was. It turned out he'd happened to be in Memphis giving a seminar on film-making, and had decided to see his contribution to history - the first time he'd EVER watched it start-to-finish, according to his impromptu speech after the credits had finished rolling. Which of course he couldn't give for at least 10 minutes, about how long it took us to give him the standing ovation he so rightly deserved.

His is the only celebrity autograph I've ever gotten. I'd never had the chance for one before, and never felt the need for another afterward.
posted by solotoro at 7:50 AM on November 29, 2010 [48 favorites]


the subpar "unofficial" James Bond film Never Say Never Again

I'm going with the dissenters here. As Bond films go, Never Say Never Again is one of the better ones and it remains one of my favorites. Heatvision gets it right. As Ebert wrote at the time:
"There was never a Beatles reunion. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez don't appear on the same stage anymore. But here, by God, is Sean Connery as Sir James Bond. Good work, 007."
And good work Irvin Kershner.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:55 AM on November 29, 2010


So if Kershner was a second-line director how did he get such a high profile gig?
posted by jfuller at 7:56 AM on November 29, 2010


Did anyone notice the title of this discussion, Irvin Kershner, 1923-1910

Oy vey. Sorry for the typo.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:58 AM on November 29, 2010


George Lucas liked The eyes of Laura Mars.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:06 AM on November 29, 2010


The fact that Lucas didn't understand that Harrison Ford's improv'd (improved!) "I know" response in the carbon freezing scene was vastly superior to the scripted "I love you, too" says everything you need to know about why the prequels sucked.
posted by the bricabrac man at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2010 [31 favorites]


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posted by notclosed at 8:15 AM on November 29, 2010


So if Kershner was a second-line director how did he get such a high profile gig?

Totally guesswork on my part, but I'd bet Lucas didn't want another ego involved, and figured a second-stringer would be easier to control.
posted by condour75 at 8:21 AM on November 29, 2010


Ah, one of the things about having lots of years behind you is that you sometimes can talk about people that a reader never new because of the reader's youthfullness.\
I met and spent an afternoon with Kershner, in Westport, on location for a film he made called UP The SANDBOX. My wife had known him from college--IO believe Tyler Art School, Philly, and they had been good friends and stayed in touch over the years. I recall that Kershner's wife , a stunning redhead, was at the place they rented, and they were both delightful.
posted by Postroad at 8:29 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, The Eyes of Laura Mars--I never knew that was him. I love that film--it's one of the great NY in the 70s movies. (It seems to have a bit of a cult following among art nerds too.)

I don't care about Star Wars, but this is a really good obit post.

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posted by neroli at 8:33 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember NSNA for Bond using a urine sample as a weapon and Barbara Carrera wearing the first thong swimsuit I had ever seen.

One of those memories is more pleasant than the other.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:35 AM on November 29, 2010


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posted by Iridic at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2010


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posted by Jon_Evil at 8:45 AM on November 29, 2010


I am sorry to hear this; he was an underrated director who never really got the recognition he was due, I thought. If nothing else, in an era where sequels began to have more and more presence in Hollywood, he had the unenviable task of making a follow-up to a well-liked and entertaining movie and he managed to knock one out of the park. In this, he is in a tiny class consisting of himself and James Cameron (and depending in your strictness in defining 'sequel', maybe Jonathan Demme).

What with Empire being directed by Kershner and Jedi by the late Richard Marquand (and I through IV by Lucas), I have zero doubt that in twenty-five or fifty years the general understanding will be that George Lucas died partway through making the series of six fims and other directors had to take over for him. Very much as some viewers today doggedly insist that the "Episode IV: A New Hope" subtitle was there in 1977.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:47 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


in twenty-five or fifty years the general understanding will be that George Lucas died partway through making the series of six fims and other directors had to take over for him.

As long as there is an Internet, people will be complaining on it about the prequels. I wouldn't worry about the proper chronology being forgotten.
posted by saturday_morning at 8:51 AM on November 29, 2010


I was fighting off a cold this weekend and thus spent most of it sitting on the couch and watching the tail end of Attack of the Clones, all of Revenge of the Sith, and the entire original Star Wars trilogy this weekend... what a difference a competent screenwriter and director make!

There are moments in the prequels where the actors look embarrassed by ridiculous dialog coming out of their mouths, and you get the impression that the real live human beings were something Lucas wanted to get out of the way as quickly as possible so he could turn his attention to cluttering every micron of every frame with sterile and needlessly distracting CGI.

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posted by usonian at 8:59 AM on November 29, 2010


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posted by hippybear at 9:06 AM on November 29, 2010


Best bit of the Vanity Fair interview, just in case anyone might otherwise miss it:
There was really only one disagreement. It was the Carbon Freeze scene when Princess Leia says, “I love you.” Han Solo’s response in the script was, “I love you, too.” I shot the line and it just didn’t seem right for the character of Han Solo. So we worked on the scene on the set. We kept trying different things and couldn’t get the right line. We were into the lunch break and I said to Harrison try it again and just do whatever comes to mind. That is when Harrison said the line, “I know.” After the take, I said to my assistant director, David Tomblin, “It’s a wrap.” David looked at me in disbelief and said something like, “Hold on, we just went to overtime. You’re not happy with that, are you?” And I said, yes, it’s the perfect Han Solo remark, and so we went to lunch. George saw the first cut and said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. That’s not the line in the script.” I said ““I love you, too’ was not Han Solo.” Han Solo was a rebel. George felt that the audience would laugh. And I said, that’s wonderful, he is probably going to his death for all they know. We sat in the room and he thought about it. He then asked me, “Did you shoot the line in the script?” I said yes. So we agreed that we would do two preview screenings once the film was cut and set to music with the line in and then with the line out. At the first preview in San Francisco, the house broke up after Han Solo said I know. When the film was over, people came up and said that is the most wonderful line and it worked. So George decided not to have the second screening.
Not that it even needs repeating at this point, but that right there is about as succinct an explanation as you'll find for George Lucas' limitations as a writer and director. He simply does not understand his own characters. (Might even be more accurate to say he barely understands character as a literary/cinematic device.)

This is the difference between the Han Solo that shoots first because he reads the situation well enough to know Greedo probably will if he doesn't and anyway fuck this bounty hunter, I've got stuff to smuggle, and the Han Solo that waits to be shot at so's to appear more wholesome or whatever the fuck. One is a complicated and flawed but ultimately charming human being, and the other is a checklist of virtues. A guy versus a prop on a green screen. Kirschner understood this and Lucas didn't, and that's why the prequels are such soulless exercises.

So thanks for Empire, Mr., Kischner, and RIP.

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posted by gompa at 9:07 AM on November 29, 2010 [30 favorites]


While 2 doesn't really approach 1 as far as Robocop Excellence goes, 2 does have the scene of the 'failed prototype Robocops' that absolutely cracks me up every single time.. especially the second one.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:15 AM on November 29, 2010 [4 favorites]


Damn. Count me as a RoboCop 2 fan as well. Not as good as the first, but that's hard to beat. Being a huge John Carpenter fan, I've been meaning to watch Eyes of Laura Mars for ages. I'll have to do that ASAP.

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That's number two. Tracy Jordan must be terrified.
posted by brundlefly at 9:18 AM on November 29, 2010


he had the unenviable task of making a follow-up to a well-liked and entertaining movie and he managed to knock one out of the park. In this, he is in a tiny class consisting of himself and James Cameron...
posted by dhens at 9:20 AM on November 29, 2010


FYI: Anyone with FearNet on demand (I had it in Boston on Verizon) has Laura Mars available On Demand. I *almost* watched it this weekend. D'oh!
posted by Eideteker at 9:29 AM on November 29, 2010


Oh! So that's where I saw it recently. I'll have to watch it tonight. Thanks for reminding me, Eideteker!
posted by brundlefly at 9:39 AM on November 29, 2010


Star Wars is Empire. The first movie suffers from an overly long introduction and final battle and the last movie is just a mess (Ewoks are just the start). The prequels do not exist. So thank you, Mr. K., for giving us the best science fiction movie in history.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:42 AM on November 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


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Also, Richard Marquand's Eye of the Needle is one of the great underrated movies.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:44 AM on November 29, 2010


So if Kershner was a second-line director how did he get such a high profile gig?

Totally guesswork on my part, but I'd bet Lucas didn't want another ego involved, and figured a second-stringer would be easier to control.


Kershner was a prof of Lucas's at USC, and Lucas wanted to focus on production and whatever rather than directing for the sequel. He asked Kershner to do it because he liked him and respected him. Kershner originally turned it down (not wanting to have to follow up the biggest blockbuster of all time) but his agent persuaded him to do it.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:01 AM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not that it even needs repeating at this point, but that right there is about as succinct an explanation as you'll find for George Lucas' limitations as a writer and director. He simply does not understand his own characters.

Francis Coppola, back in the 60s, when Zoetrope was still coming together, told Lucas that if he wanted to be a director, he needed to write. Lucas said 'But I can't write!' Coppola gave him a weekend to do his best bang-up job on a script, just to see. Lucas came back with a screenplay for THX-1138 and Coppola said, 'You're right, you can't.' Then he had Walter Murch-- the sound editor*-- give Lucas a hand with the script.

At the time. Murch of course went on to be an editor, a director, and many other things, including a beekeeper and a guy who translates Italian prose into English poetry, and he's one of my favorite people ever. Seriously, read The Conversations.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:07 AM on November 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Amidst the flood of "Empire Strikes Back" remembrances I will strike a chord for a couple of underrated Kershner flicks -- "Loving" is a mess, but a glorious mess, and "The Eyes of Laura Mars" was another mess, this one with Faye Dunaway, but one of those 1970s movies that everyone seems to have forgotten that was on everyone's lips (and whose terrifying posters were almost ubiquitous in LA) back in the day.
posted by blucevalo at 11:01 AM on November 29, 2010


"The Eyes of Laura Mars" was my personal introduction to Tommy Lee Jones, and I thank Mr. Kershner profusely for it.
posted by hwestiii at 12:02 PM on November 29, 2010


he had the unenviable task of making a follow-up to a well-liked and entertaining movie

...that also happened to be the highest grossing film of all time. So..no pressure.

Star Wars is Empire. The first movie suffers from an overly long introduction and final battle

My seven and ten year old selves disagree. The second movie suffers for getting all soapy and not having a proper ending where shit blows up.
posted by Sparx at 12:16 PM on November 29, 2010


I freakin' love Empire. That movie blew my 6 yr old mind back in the day, and the opening Hoth sequence still gives me goosebumps.

RIP, Mr Kershner.
posted by BobFrapples at 1:37 PM on November 29, 2010


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posted by iviken at 1:39 PM on November 29, 2010


My seven and ten year old selves disagree. The second movie suffers for getting all soapy and not having a proper ending where shit blows up.

Actually, my inner 30 year old feels that way as well. It's still the strongest film in the series though.
posted by brundlefly at 2:00 PM on November 29, 2010


Not a household name? He was in my household. I have won a lot of arguments with uninformed nerds who didn't know George Lucas didn't write the screenplay for or direct Empire.

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posted by Tesseractive at 3:18 PM on November 29, 2010


Kershner talking about George Lucas and how he got involved with Empire at the Colorado Film School: Part 1 Part 2
posted by thescientificmethhead at 3:20 PM on November 29, 2010


Huh, Laura Mars was written by John Carpenter. I never knew that.
posted by octothorpe at 3:28 PM on November 29, 2010


The second movie suffers for getting all soapy and not having a proper ending where shit blows up.

No, that's what makes it great. It doesn't resort to some tired, stupid cliche. Hell, when it comes to blowing things up, Star Wars basically achieved perfection: the super-slow-mo giant fireball, the little bits of shit flying everywhere… you don't get much bigger or better than the first Death Star. But that's what makes Empire such a mature movie. It's about love and friends going to help each other and you can feel the impending ass-whooping that's about to unfold. You'll get blowing things up, don't worry. But until then, you get what the first movie failed to deliver on: hope. The second movie should really be A New Hope.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:58 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


the uninspiring sequel Robocop 2

Them's fighting words right there.


It's inspired me to think up ways in which it could recut to be less bizarrely awful.
posted by Artw at 4:14 PM on November 29, 2010


And here they are... (with additional commentary by shmegegge)

Empire, though, I would not change in the slightest.
posted by Artw at 4:19 PM on November 29, 2010


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Thank you for saving the line that carbonated my teenaged hormones, sir.

Also, NSNA was the only Bond other than the Craig stuff that I hadn't watched when I started my "rewatch in order" Bond project. One of the things that people don't remember is that the Moore Bonds, while by no means at their nadir, were veering downhill at speed at the same time NSNA again came out. This was really apparent in the watching order for me, and made NSNA again look even better than it was. It's not quite the Mad Men reboot I discuss in every Bond thread, but the people involved seemed to understand the reasons behind why I want to reboot it that way.
posted by immlass at 4:29 PM on November 29, 2010


There are parts, definitely, that are weak in Robocop 2, the whole mockery of political correctness (leading to lots of wincing and, good lord, why, Robocop, why? scenes) and derail with the new directives is pretty unnecessary, and in the end gives us a Robocop who doesn't even have the original three directives, which is a bit over the top. The telethon is pretty painful to watch, too.

On the other hand, the actual Robocop 2, with Kane in it? Absolutely badass piece of sci-fi battlesuit fantasy. It's like a Warhammer 40k Dreadnought come to life.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:33 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


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Listen to his commentary track with Fisher on Empire, and all other commentary tracks will be dead to you forever.
posted by mimi at 7:48 PM on November 29, 2010


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I remember (at the age of 10) reading prerelease publicity for Jedi in Time magazine, where they interviewed Marquand on set. The bit that stayed in my mind for years afterwards was his insistence that Jedi would 'respect' the rules of the SW universe, unlike that self-indulgence which went on on the set of Empire under the 'careless' eye of Irvin Kershner: '...like that bit where Darth Vader is holding his lightsaber with one hand. Everybody knows you need two hands to hold a lightsaber!'

Been a big Irvin Kershner fan ever since, although I had never paid much attention to who was behind the camera up to that point.
posted by anigbrowl at 8:18 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


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posted by germdisco at 8:22 PM on November 29, 2010


Thank you, and peace be upon you, Mr. Kershner.
posted by Minus215Cee at 10:31 PM on November 29, 2010


No, that's what makes it great. It doesn't resort to some tired, stupid cliche.

It's interesting. I'd disagree. The cliffhangerness, the soap opera "Oh noes, you are my father" all irritated me at the time and aren't exactly cliche free as I became more aware of narrative tropes. Parts of it (Dagobah) were definitely a step up, but what I remember thinking at the time (as a ten year old) was disapointment. I'm sure it's a better movie as an adult - but the first one was, for me, lightning in a bottle.

When I was seven I made a death star out of crumpled up paper I had taped together, tied it to a string, and then had paper dart x-wings attack it with a lighter. You can't do that with the kind of "I am your father" revelations that seem more at home with (in retrospect) the kind of stuff my parents watched.

Obviously, Star Wars is all kinds of personal response, and subject to the Golden Years of Science Fiction being whenever you had the most fertile imagination. But there you go. I don't know if absolutes are appropriate.
posted by Sparx at 10:55 PM on November 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


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posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:46 AM on November 30, 2010


I watched ESB last night--the Special Edition, since it's the only one on DVD in widescreen--and I was reminded how nearly every change Lucas made to this movie was the cinematic equivalent of shitting in the punch bowl.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:06 AM on November 30, 2010


I have a promo book for Empire that tells a story about how Kersh was out on the Norway glacier location where they shot the Hoth scenes and decided to go for a walk or something, and wound up being caught outside in light clothing, a few miles from the camp when the sun went down. So he walked all the way back to the camp on his own - no Tauntaun! - with only a little frostbite, heh. Pretty badass, I think.

. indeed.
posted by zoogleplex at 8:10 AM on November 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a lifelong serious 007 fan and I'll give NSNA props as well. The thing I dislike about it more than any other is that ... it's just a remake of Thunderball (because for complicated rights reasons, that's the only script they could make). But it's a pretty decent remake of TB for all that. There are elements that disappoint me, but I find those regularly (especially in the much-denigrated Moore era) all over the official films, so it wasn't any worse in that regard. I'd have been quite happy if Connery and Kershner had wanted to do another.

As for "I know", I recall an endless USENET discussion about that line in the early 90s. It certainly sparked reactions. Women seemed to react differently depending on their romantic expectations of the Solo character. There was a lot of discussion about whether it showed him to be a callous, cocky ass or someone who was (for example) humbly and gratefully accepting her love in a perilous situation. No matter, it was a terrifically human moment in what had pretty much up to then been a comic book story.
posted by dhartung at 1:36 PM on November 30, 2010


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