Star Wars Episode I and more
William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay Jr., Leanne Mullen
(BBC Films; US theatrical: 13 May 1999; 1999)
A boy appears onscreen, swaddled in drapery, spinning himself ever tighter. Suddenly, he’s dealt a smack upside his head, and berated, apparently by Mom, for playing in her precious curtains. The boy, blond-haired Glaswegian Ryan Quinn, heads out to play by a fetid canal with his mate, 12-year-old James. Before Lynn Ramsay’s stark 1999 drama Ratcatcher hits the five-minute mark, Ryan lies dead by the waterside. Ramsay’s camera records the lad’s corpse quite leisurely, in a series of disquieting stills.
How often does one see a film where the protagonist is offed before one can blink? But we—the viewers—stand corrected. The visual language of Ratcatcher’s opening sequence tells us that Ryan is our “hero”, but he isn’t; rather, the sharp-faced, jug-eared James (William Eadie) is, and the accidental death of his friend hangs over the film all the way to its elliptical, melancholy climax.
Ratcatcher represents a particular mode of cinema vérité, currently in vogue, as evidenced by recent festival favorites like Ballast, Chop Shop, and the somewhat talkier Frozen River, not to mention Ken Loach’ 2002 Sweet Sixteen or the banal whimsicality of Scotland’s own Bill Forsyth. It’s a film of smothering silences, decidedly spare in dialogue, but what verbiage exists is delivered in dense, mumbling Scotch accents, probably unintelligible to anyone outside that tiny remnant of England’s once-global empire, the land of haggis, Sean Connery, and the Baskerville Hound’s fabled moors.
The story unfolds during Glasgow’s punishing 1973 garbage collectors’ strike, and the title refers to the all-too-necessary “job” of trapping vermin, plentiful in numbers thanks to aromatic heaps of refuse piling up outside the ancient row houses James and his neighbors inhabit. James’ daily activities seem to exist simultaneously inside and outside the social world of the people around him. He isn’t keen on sports, unlike his football-obsessed “Da”, and finds his sister Ellen endlessly annoying—I know, what pre-teen boy doesn’t? His “friendship” with some older ne’er-do-wells is ambiguous, wavering between camaraderie and bullying sarcasm. He covertly lusts—romantically and otherwise—after plain-Jane Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen) who entices a more threatening desire from his raffish mates, while enjoying some sweet private moments with James.
All this occurs on the eve of the family’s subsidized relocation to council housing, far outside the city, as part of an urban redevelopment project. In one sequence, James hops a bus to see the unfinished flat his family will eventually occupy, in the UK’s. own version of America’s exurban fringes. James wanders the empty house like a prospective squatter, later frolicking in a desolate wheat field, seemingly alone in the world. It’s a distinctly American image for this Scottish neo-realist import, reminiscent of John Ford westerns or the teenage Clark Kent embracing his adopted mother amidst the amber waves of grain in Superman, but here, it seems to hint at the increased isolation James may feel in his new locale, away from the busy confines of his inner-city ‘hood. A dreamy boy like James might ultimately become ambivalent about these bucolic surroundings.
If the rancid waterway lurking outside James’ home is symbolic of danger in his precarious life, then perhaps the gray, post-industrial drabness of working-class Glasgow is as much of a trap for the family as a maze is for the titular rats, who will surely be eliminated under renewal dictates. The film’s mysterious anti-climax is certain to provoke argument, but Ratcatcher’s character-driven anomie mostly suggests that James’ family—and their fellow proletarians—are superfluous in a shrinking, de-industrialized economy, and are in fact “pests”, better brushed under the rug, by transportation to areas with even fewer employment opportunities than where they already are. If the early 1970s are James’ Wonder Years, one shudders to think what could follow. Somehow, I doubt it will be a headlining show at the Hammersmith Odeon. Terrance Butcher
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 19 May 1999; 1999)
There may be no way to gauge such things, but it’s possible that the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the most hyped entertainment event in history. Ironically, only a fraction of the pre-release fervor was created by George Lucas himself, since the film’s advertising blitz—two trailers, a handful of TV spots and a music video—seems quaint by today’s viral-marketing standards.
Instead The Phantom Menace’s status as a genuine cultural event was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which seemingly every magazine, website and entertainment news show took turns praising the film, sight unseen. I remember browsing in a bookstore in early 1999 and seeing an issue of George (the now-defunct political magazine founded by JFK Jr.) with a headline on the cover that announced: “How Star Wars Will Change American Politics.” Taken at face value that statement sounds ridiculous, but it actually makes perfect sense. Star Wars wouldn’t change American politics, but a magazine that featured Star Wars on the cover would sell more issues, while at the same time doing its part to convince one more sector of the populace that the movie was a work of great importance.
There are some apologists for George Lucas who would argue that any movie built up to such stratospheric heights would invariably disappoint, but the fact remains that The Phantom Menace is a mediocre film by any reasonable standard. Lucas hadn’t directed a movie in 22 years and his filmmaking instincts had atrophied badly; as a writer it’s debatable if he was ever that talented. The result was a lumpy, pretentious film that succeeded as neither art nor as simple entertainment. If the movie was made for adults, why did it contain terrible dialogue, awkward performances and lame jokes like Jar Jar stepping in a pile of dung? If the movie was made for kids, why were its characters so bland that it was tough to cheer for the heroes or root against the villains, while the plot was centered around political and tax disputes?
Unfortunately, I believe The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequel trilogy (even if “best of the prequel trilogy” is practically synonymous with “damning with faint praise”). It’s the only film of the three that possesses even brief flashes of life or energy, but the real reason The Phantom Menace occasionally works can be summed up in two words: Liam Neeson.
Most of the actors in the prequels can be separated into two camps: those that almost seem embarrassed to be there (Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor) and those untalented enough to fit right in (Hayden Christensen, Jake Lloyd). But Neeson not only manages to sell every line of dialogue, he creates a character with a surprising amount of humanity and ambiguity. He nails one of the few well-written scenes in the movie, in which Anakin Skywalker notices his lightsaber and asks if he’s a Jedi, to which Neeson mischievously responds, “perhaps I killed a Jedi and took it from him.” Anakin then says he doesn’t believe that a Jedi could be killed, and Neeson’s weary delivery of his next line—“I wish that were so”—perfectly captures someone who’s both a larger-than-life hero and an imperfect human being.
The Phantom Menace does have a few other high points. The pod race and lightsaber duel sequences are imaginative and fast-paced, and John Williams’s score is terrific (in particular, I love that the track “Anakin’s Theme” turns the iconic “Imperial March” into a haunting, childlike melody). But these seem like such meager pleasures for a film that was greeted with the same level of anticipation as a religious experience.
Yet in spite of the movie’s actual quality, I have to admit that I did have a lot of fun eagerly awaiting it. As our culture continues to splinter into ever-smaller niches, it’s rare to find events that can get a large mass of people excited. This decade has produced a few so far – the last Harry Potter novel, “Hey Ya”, The Dark Knight, Captain Jack Sparrow impressions during the summer of 2003 – but even those look a little small compared to the mania that preceded The Phantom Menace. 1999 is generally remembered as a great year for cinema, with a number of films that reaffirmed the importance of the movies. By uniting so many filmgoers with a collective desire to see a corny sci-fi movie, The Phantom Menace deserves to be included on that list. Jack Rodgers