Not unlike various films by Fritz Lang
November 1, 2010 10:59 AM   Subscribe

Notes on 'The Duel of the Fates.' Bob Clark of Wonders in the Dark takes a look at a single scene from The Phantom Menace by way of Eisenstein, aspect ratios, The Last Temptation of Christ, the NFL, Slim Pickens, Godard, Fantomas, and of course Kurosawa.
posted by shakespeherian (32 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
This has got to be someone's counterpoint to Red Letter Media's skewering of The Phantom Menace and the other Star Wars prequels. Part of me likes to imagine that Lucas himself engaged in some shady behavior to make that amazingly crafted review occur.
posted by redsparkler at 11:09 AM on November 1, 2010

If I hadn't actually seen the prequels and the documentary "The Beginning" on the TPM DVD, I might be willing to swallow this analysis.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:28 AM on November 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Maybe I should note, in the interest of preserving my own reputation, that I don't post this as advocacy of the linked viewpoints. Mostly I think it's breathtaking beanplating to the point that I have nothing but admiration and respect for a guy who would write 11k+ words about a single scene from a film that most people thought was stupid.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:31 AM on November 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

If I hadn't actually seen the prequels and the documentary "The Beginning" on the TPM DVD, I might be willing to swallow this analysis.

I don't think "swallowing this analysis" requires you to think any more highly of TPM (or the other prequels) than you already do. He's only talking about one particular, individual scene. A film can have a great scene in it and still, on balance, be utterly crap.
posted by juv3nal at 11:39 AM on November 1, 2010

Wow. That's impressive. Someone's a student of film who smokes WAY too much pot and thinks about movies. But I'm not going to say who.
posted by hippybear at 11:40 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Augh. Yup. Lucas is one monster of a craftsman, which just makes his godawful past twenty years even more painful.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 11:45 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

In fairness to the writer and the movie, that duel is pretty kickass.
posted by wabbittwax at 11:46 AM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Duel of the Fates was so awesome it made me almost forget how shitty the rest of the movie was. However, I have always had one major complaint that has to do with marketing more than movie making:

Darth Maul's double-lightsaber was kept secret from the audience throughout the film, in his only other lightsaber using scene, he only activates one side. When the duel of the fates begins, the 2 jedis vs. one sith aspect almost makes it seem unfair. But when Darth Maul ignites first one then the other side of his lightsaber, it evens things up in a surprise to both the Jedi and the audience, a great moment. Or it should have been. But we all knew that the bad guy had a double-lightsaber because it was in every trailer released. So a great moment was tremendously reduced because there was no restraint by the filmmakers to avoid cheap thrills to build toward something more powerful. And that was basically the theme for all three prequels.
posted by bluejayk at 12:01 PM on November 1, 2010 [15 favorites]

This is awesome, thanks. I'm gonna read this to my 5 & 7 year old kids tomorrow to get the psyched about watching the movie itself. Which I'll let them do when they turn ten.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:04 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I notice he didn't address the shot in which Darth Maul's lightsaber blade passes harmlessly through his own hand.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:07 PM on November 1, 2010

With an army of 'droids made possible by CGI, Lucas was able to portray the lightsaber as a weapon for more than just duels without Kill Bill levels of murder and dismemberment. Unfortunately it became just another part of the CGI arsenal which came to replace other tools like "plot" and "character."
posted by bgrebs at 12:08 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Barring personal preference or nostalgia-flavored favoritism, it almost without doubt stands as the single most impressive sequence of lightsaber combat in the six-film series, as well as a high point for the director’s career in his command of all the elements of cinema.

Apparently the elements of cinema are overrated.
posted by mazola at 12:11 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wait, wait, wait ... Darth Maul is a Christ figure? His head is an allusion to the cover to the Last Temptation of Christ trade paperback?

Methinks this whole review can be better summarized thusly:
"You ever watch 'Dual of the Fates?' ... Did you ever watch 'Dual of the Fates' on weed?!?"*
posted by grabbingsand at 12:16 PM on November 1, 2010

I'll admit the critique does seem a bit overblown (and certainly is, for some of it) but I feel that the majority of it is really insightful. There's no question that the fellow knows his cinema and has done the research, which I reckon allows him leeway to use phrases like "the franchise’s long-harbored ruminations on Manichean morality".

And you know, I had to google that Anakin / Dooku duel, as I had completely forgotten it, but it's really good too. It isn't something that I would ever describe as a "tone poem", but I also can't say that such a description is completely off base either.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 12:23 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the writer is absolutely and spectacularly overthinking this plate of beans. I don't think that what's on the screen comes close to carrying all the meaning and depth that he's freighting it with. Mind you, the lightsaber duel at the end of the Phantom Menace is an exciting and well-executed bright spot in a movie that is otherwise lackluster at best. The fight choreography easily outstrips anything in any of the other movies and in particular, makes the duel scenes in the first trilogy look pretty tired and hackneyed. On the other hand it does not carry anything close to the emotional baggage that the duels in the original trilogy had, which maybe makes it ring a bit hollow. It's still super wicked awesome when Obi-Wan cuts Darth Maul's lightsaber in half. One last thing: I think calling that duel the "Duel of the Fates" is really cheesy. I just don't think it lives up to the implications of that name, awesome though it may be.
posted by wabbittwax at 12:24 PM on November 1, 2010

Ooh, wow, thanks for linking to a French dub of the Anakin/Dooku duel, Squid, so I could enjoy it without having to listen to Lucas' tin ear for words.
posted by egypturnash at 12:45 PM on November 1, 2010

I've mentioned before my dislike of the double-sided lightsabre. Because it doesn't make any sense. Dual lightsabres, sure. But double-sided? Fuck that noise.
posted by kmz at 1:03 PM on November 1, 2010

Just noticed this note from the author in a comment at the bottom;

Something I forgot to mention– This piece was primarily motivated by a comment posted by Joel/MovieMan awhile back stating that with my emphasis on action-scenes in cinema that he’d like to see me concentrate on one in essay-form, or something to that effect. Originally I was planning to release this essay along with a couple of others focusing on other stand-out sequences– the gunfights from “Heat” and “The International”, the extant combat from the original footage of “Game of Death”, the contrasting versions of the swordfight from “Rashomon”, etc– but a nasty computer virus took those off the market for the time being. The next one I tackle will probably be “The International”, which I feel is just as underrated as TPM in its own ways.

(Just a note; it really was "of the fates" [internal to the story; sure anyone observing is free not to like it]... but it was the immediate cause of death for a "hot headed Jedi mentor" who managed to not go bad, just as he might have been able to train the 'chosen one'. Look at the anger utilized by Kenobi in that showdown, after he sees his mentor impaled, you can almost see the urgency in his strikes and motions... he needs to get to his masters' side to hear final instructions, he expresses earlier that he "is ready" for the trials... but like us all, we may have times when we use bluster to say we are prepared to face that which comes at us, but still we harbor fears that our 'best' simply may not be good enough.
Fear leads to anger, anger to hate, hate... to sorbet. er, suffering.

Not saying it's a perfect movie/myhtos, just that it's a nice, intricate, and beautiful communally mapped plate on which to put ones beans.
posted by infinite intimation at 1:38 PM on November 1, 2010

Somewhere back in early 1999, when I was looking with anticipation at my tickets for the upcoming premiere, I read an interview with Nick Gillard, the stunt coordinator for the prequels (probably leafing through Starlog or something in a bookstore). The interviewer asked about the duel scene (which already had some buzz): specifically, if the editors had digitally sped up the footage any to get the fast-and-furious going on. Gillard replied to the effect that, "No, in fact Ewan and Ray were so pumped and going at it so hard that we actually had to slow it down a bit so that viewers could follow the action."

He then then listed a catalog of hand injuries to the actors and stuntmen acquired while filming the scene in question: two broken fingers here, a sprained thumb there and so forth. This only served to intensify the appeal of this duel for me.

I gotta say: my sinking feeling about TPM started about six minutes in and I never recovered. I had written it off as a shoddy piece of work long before we got to the duel, but that is the one scene I can watch with something like pleasure.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:41 PM on November 1, 2010

Cutting to a medium shot, Darth Maul is shown igniting his double-bladed lightsaber, a classic addition to the series’ villains which serves to deepen the film’s ties to world-religious iconography as a dark Christological figure. Evoking the cross image of the crucifixion, Maul’s saber deepens the Biblical associations of his entire ensemble.

posted by usonian at 2:36 PM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, yeah that was just the first version of the fight that I found, but I loved the French. Especially because of this web comic...
posted by Squid Voltaire at 3:22 PM on November 1, 2010

One of TPM conceptual designers said the "spikes" on Darth Maul's head were feathers, and that the costume and make-up people simply misunderstood the drawing. So there was likely no intended "crown of thorns" motif by Lucas or his team.
posted by asfuller at 3:36 PM on November 1, 2010

There's no way I'm going to read all that, but I would like to say that, while there isn't much wrong technically with that scene, there's still the crappy writing of having the unmotivated pink force field thing. I really do think it's cool that Darth Maul and Qui-Gon have to park it for a few seconds during the midst of the fight. It's frustrating that no attempt was made to explain why the force field was there and what the rules were governing it.

That, and the fact that the article's writer couldn't bother drawing any sort of comparison between the force field and to a similarly impregnable glass vestibule that featured prominently in Dario Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage. I MEAN COME ON
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:59 PM on November 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

So there was likely no intended "crown of thorns" motif by Lucas or his team.

Eh, there's authorial intent and then there's fun overthinking, and never the twain shall meet.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:44 PM on November 1, 2010

It's sad that this is more eloquent than the vast majority of papers written in my film studies department. On the other hand, phrases like "Though a savvy Eisensteinian tactic" make me cringe.
posted by Menomena at 7:01 PM on November 1, 2010

Someone's a student of film who smokes WAY too much pot and thinks about movies. But I'm not going to say who.

Oh, oh! Let me guess: Every single person who has ever attended film school?
posted by The World Famous at 8:16 PM on November 1, 2010

1) Even things you think are dumb pop culture are really complicated.
2) This complexity is not always a matter of conscious intent.
3) This complexity can come from the meeting between the audience and the work.
4) Allowing this to arise and tuning how it does is the mark of interesting work.
5) Identifying this in points where it possesses resonance with what many of us might feel but not necessarily say is the mark of relevant criticism.

I think the essay is pretty good and only overdone in a few places. The brilliant takeaways for me are Maul as Christ (he carries the bar of a cross, has a crown of (t)horns and yes, seems to jump from the imagery used for the most notable book and film about Jesus in the last 30 years.) and the use of framing to exaggerate aspect ratios.

That particular fight scene really is one of the best. (And yes, I have seen Captain Blood, Once Upon a Time in China and Rob Roy, etc, etc.) I don't get tired of it easily, even if the rest of the movie . . . well, my kids like it.
posted by mobunited at 8:32 PM on November 1, 2010

It's total bullshit that at the start of that scene, Amidala and her honor guard just shrug and are like, okay Jedi, you guys deal with this psycho, and walk off in a different direction. She had at least a dozen guys with laser weapons with her, they could have pinned Maul down with fire while the Jedi fucked with him using force tricks! Surely his ability to deflect blasts couldn't stand up to an enfillade from a dozen dudes.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 10:44 PM on November 1, 2010

Clark misses the point entirely. Yes, the lightsaber duels in the prequels were better cinematically but the lightsaber duels in the original trilogy were better dramatically. Sometimes less is more. The whole problem with the prequels is that they are cluttered on both a cinematic and dramatic level. I don't care how great a craftsman Lucas is; my issueis that he is a terrible artist.
posted by KingEdRa at 2:03 AM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

She had at least a dozen guys with laser weapons with her

Um... Blaster weapons, I think. They're not really laser weapons. They do some kind of thing where they bundle all the light energy into a slow-moving compact bolt of energy which is desctructive but also able to be dodged. A laser gun would fire a beam, not a bolt, and that would travel at the speed of light.

Just like a lightsaber isn't a laser sword, a blaster gun is not a laser weapon.
posted by hippybear at 9:39 AM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The whole problem with the prequels is that they are cluttered on both a cinematic and dramatic level. I don't care how great a craftsman Lucas is; my issueis that he is a terrible artist.

Clutter is the least of the prequels' problems. The big problem with the prequels is that the writing is awful (and I don't mean the plotting, although that suffers at times too, but the actual words that come out of people's mouths). And that's saying a lot given that I'm putting aside my absolute hatred of Christian Haydenson's performance as Anakin, but when it comes down to it, what did he have to work with? "Your skin is smooth, not rough like sand." Right.
posted by juv3nal at 11:41 AM on November 2, 2010

She did have smooth skin tho'. Just sayin'.
posted by mazola at 11:51 AM on November 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

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