Wednesday, October 17, 2007


What follows is my critical reaction to Stardust, centred largely on the success of its plotting. It isn't a typical review, not by any means, but it does draw attention to what I think is the most interesting element of the film, not to mention its most bizarrely underappreciated in any number of pieces by unfairly caustic critics.

On a scriptwriter's corkboard,
Stardust would look like a pretty much perfect film. That is to say, stripped down to a series of events, one after the other, there's not really anything to fault it for at all. Everything follows in a logical sequence, at a well-controlled pace, there's a good share of surprises, cliche is kept in its place, the characters' motivations read clearly and the rules of this odd fantasy universe are set up, exploited and subverted in nice, bold steps. Everything is, above all else, perfectly coherent. And don't underestimate this evaluation - surprisingly few films are so well structured. Kudos, then, to Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, the credited scriptwriters, and also to Neil Gaiman who not only wrote the original novel but provided some uncredited alterations to the script.

I think, in designing a film, the principal concern of the writers, directors and actors should be to make sense. The audience's understanding is not just some barren bedrock for their appreciation, it's planted with the seeds of investment, of caring, of being interested. If you can understand every step of the way what the hero wants, say, what will happen if he is denied it, why he wants it now and what might prevent him from having it, then you can truly and honestly empathise with him (though not necessarily sympathise - that's a question of what it is he wants and why, or perhaps simply why he hasn't got it already). It's when your film works perfectly on the corkboard - no matter how many index cards you break it down to, no matter how sophisticated a level of minutiae you zoom in to - that you, filmmaker, can move on to make your next layer of decisions.

Somewhere between this first layer and the next, Stardust lost its way a little. As further layers were added on, the meandering became even more erratic.

I'd say that this second set of filmmaking decisions appear to be the most glamourous ones because this is where the dressing up begins. This is where mood and atmosphere and style and tone and cinematic grandeur all get slathered on. The story - because that's what the corkboard contains - already has subtext, already digs into themes, already explains character (because, after all, we are what we do and we only do what we do because of who we are). It even already creates atmosphere and mood. On top of story, almost everything else is superfluous, no matter how glamourous.

The job, really, when styling up; when layering on top; when taking your corkboard covered in index cards and expanding it to a screenplay; when taking this screenplay and shaking a shot list out of it; when having these shots drawn as storyboards; when scheduling the shooting, when turning up on set and actually shooting; when taking this footage and slipping and sliding its colour scheme around, or putting in CG monsters and mountains and other magical things; when cutting everything together; and when you're putting music, voices, creaking doors, heavy footsteps and all manner of weirder noises on top is always the same thing. The job is to protect those original little 3 inch by five inch cards, those little windows onto your story.

Filmmaking is damage control - you've heard that before. The damage you need to control is damage to the story, those bare bones that come before there's even a full screenplay. To Matthew Vaughn's credit, he managed to deflect at least half of the shots that would otherwise have been on target.

But what of the other shots? The ones that hit? What damage did they do?

The real question, I suppose, is how do you damage a story? The first way (worst way?) is to distract from it. The key asset of the corkboard, as we were saying, is coherence. So incoherence is the enemy, of course, and even doubts, those moments of partial incoherence, or threatened incoherence, can be a serious problem if they persist.

In accepting a narrative, at least a narrative based in something like a real universe (and this includes everything from The Wizard of Oz to Mulholland Drive to Star Wars to The Bourne Ultimatum to Pandora's Box and pretty much any other film you could ever name - the exceptions being things like Mothlight or Bop-Scotch, with Meshes of the Afternoon being an example of a contentious film, though one that I would just about put in the former category) the audience will automatically perceive this narrative's universe as being rather like their own in some basic, fundamental ways. So basic and fundamental that it almost sounds a bit crazy to note some of them as examples but here you go: gravity has an effect; visible objects are also visible to the characters on screen; the characters have something like relatable psychology - and so on. It is (in part) because of these assumptions that we are able to happily suspend disbelief, lose focus on the illusion of the 2D rectangle flickering before us and start to perceive reality in the characters and events we see cast upon it. This is the glue that holds the engine of the film together while the clarity of cause and effect, as present on that corkboard, is the fuel, and if a filmmaker wants the film to make it to the finish line without breaking down into a disinteresting, maybe even frustrating wreck, then they don't want too many pieces of the engine to rattle free.

Now, we can argue all day about what shatters the suspension of disbelief (or perhaps more properly put, halts the suspension of a new belief) but I sincerely believe injudicious use of zooms, jump cuts, unmotivated camera movement, obtuse stylisation - in short, the visibility of an author's hand - will do the trick every time. To protect the immaculate story he had at his disposal, Matthew Vaughn was required to keep his touch light, his choices apt and subtle, his shot designs and cutting fluid, inobtrusive and articulate (in a film grammar sense) and, sadly, he has routinely failed.

The saviour of many of Vaughn's bad decisions is convention. The current cinemagoing culture in most places that Stardust will play, certainly for the foreseeable future, are used to many of his failed conceits of cinematography and montage. For example, the constituent levels of an early shot that leaves one scene, twists around unbroken and follows a shooting star into a new location (and doesn't maintain simple spatial consistency) definitely seem familiar enough, and certainly have accepted, conventional denotations that Vaughn capitalises on. However, stripped of this specific acceptance, the shot's many flaws, and its disruptive connotations, would be far more damaging to the audience's attentions. Basically, we've seen enough mediocre films and muddled filmmaking to get by with shots like these.

Many other faults are more of an immediate issue: wavering accents, dodgy FX work, overwrought scoring, conspicuous performances (Gervais - that means you) all drag down if often only a little. These are all minor strikes against that perfect film, the imaginary one powerfully suggested by a stripped-down corkboard version. And that's the issue with Stardust, really - the constant barrage of little imperfections in the cinematic realisation, where in its purest story form it would imply an almost perfect film.

Neil Gaiman's novel, illustrated by Charles Vess, embodies the story far more ideally and if I didn't know this, perhaps I would have been more patient with the film. His control of the written word far outweighs Vaughn's way with a camera, even his acting (as it were), the realisation of character through small details and inflections, is as good as, if not better than, the best that anybody on the silver screen has to offer.

Nonetheless, Stardust has, at its core, the heart of a masterpiece and while even the kidneys or bladder of a masterpiece can be hard to come by, I can't truthfully have any strong reservations against urging you to go see it. The film opens wide across the UK this Friday, 19th October, with previews tonight and tomorrow, the 17th and 18th. Afterwards I'm sure you'll decide for yourself to check out the original novel and that is already there, just waiting for you, in bookshops, ripely reissued to tie-in with the movie.

(As a final note, I think it's worth mentioning that Gaiman actually wrote the original novel in longhand, in fountain pen, in books - the old fashioned way. This amazing job of structuring apparently took place in his head, not on any corkboard, which makes it all the more impressive to me.)


Anonymous said...

What a douchey review.

Brendon said...

It isn't a review, really.

C. said...

For a not-really-a-review I think it's rather good. Quite informative about storytelling and all that.

LTAR said...

Anonymous is of the modern "blog" culture that embraces one-line summaries and pointless sound bite drivel.
This review works and the writing helps make it work. Haters are everywhere, but in my humble opinion, this is what can set this site apart from all the lesser film blogs...(ahem...Cinematical...ahem...)
Please post more of these reviews, reminds me of Film Comment.
This not-review-review was excellent reading and I hope more of it is forthcoming.

LTAR said...

Seriously, I'm not being a douche, but this is a GREAT paragraph, and a joy to read:

"The job, really, when styling up; when layering on top; when taking your corkboard covered in index cards and expanding it to a screenplay"...."the job is to protect those original little 3 inch by five inch cards, those little windows onto your story."

Please keep it coming.