Why does Michael Bay get to keep on making movies?
I guess “Pearl Harbor sucked…just a little bit more than I miss…you.
(from the song End of an Act, from Team America: World Police (2004))
Even after all these years, I still recall the previews for Pearl Harbor. Say what you will about Michael Bay’s films…whoever cuts the trailers to his films, usually manages to make them into delicious eye-candy.
The trailers certainly did their work on me. Even though I recalled feeling a sense of numbness after seeing Armageddon 3 years earlier in theaters (in 1998).But even with the placidly-acting Liv Tyler, and over-the-top attempts to save the planet in that film, the footage that was released regarding Harbor, seemed to promise a new step forward for the director.
I can still remember seeing the film at the now-closed McClurg Court theater (on Memorial Day weekend, 2001), which boasted a 60-foot main-screen, that the film would be projected on.
It was a given that some directors mature over time (look at Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) as they learn new things, and want to tackle new stories and ideas. Maybe this was it for Bay: a chance to pull back from his hyper-kinetic machinations, and actually get us to care about a historical event, and the fictional characters created for the story.
As it turned out, the answer was no.
I usually try to take a Jedi stance on anger or hatred, but there are certain elements of that Pearl Harbor screening, that have stuck with me, even to this day.
And so, I decided to list 5 things that bugged me…and one good thing, about one of Michael Bay’s most overly-patriotic films ever made.
Subtlety is not Bay’s strong suit
It feels that when it comes to Michael Bay, there’s no middle-ground. You’re either in the midst of a picturesque commercial shoot…or you’re in the middle of a hyper-kinetic action scene. Anytime you try to get him to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation, he grows bored really quickly, and just wants to get out of there as fast as possible.
That is one thing that seems to be missing from a lot of Pearl Harbor: the little moments that actually get you to care about anyone, let alone get any build-up.
One memory I still have to this day, is the audience I saw the film with, was already filling in the blanks before we’d gotten to the payoffs further down the line.
In one scene, Kate Beckinsale’s character rushes for the bathroom, as her clueless girlfriend just finds it odd that she’s been going a lot recently.
I still recall, from out of the darkness in the theater, almost in perfect surround-sound unison, I heard three voices say (with as much eye-rolling as can be imagined):
The sound of their voices said it all. And of course, there were plenty more eye-rolling moments.
In one scene, as she’s composing a letter to Affleck’s character, Beckinsale sits by some rocks, the waves crashing around her, as she waxes romantically about how much she loves and misses him. It isn’t quite as gratuitous as the animal cracker scene in Armageddon, but the lovey-dovey dialogue also doesn’t seem to have any underpinnings to really make us believe what the characters are saying is genuine.
Even in the early morning moments before the attack on the harbor, Bay shoehorns in as much Americana as he can. From little girls with fairy wings, to boy scouts on a camping trip, to a woman hanging wash on the line (which means if she’s drying the clothes before the harbor was attacked around 8 am that morning, she must have gotten up pretty early to do the wash!).
Pearl Harbor is no Titanic
In a number of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage I saw, one film popped up several times: Titanic.
Only a few years old, the “King of the World” was on the lips of several of the cast and crew, who felt that their film had all the same ingredients as James Cameron’s film. Therefore, they were bound to gross hundreds of millions of dollars…maybe a billion!
Ah, wishful thinking at its finest.
One of the film’s biggest problems, is that when we finally get the attack on the harbor, we see all sorts of men blown in the air, falling into the water, clinging to the decks of overturning ships…but these men are just unnamed soldiers. We see it’s a terrible tragedy, but we haven’t been among them long enough, or gotten to know much about the naval base, to truly feel the weight of the tragedy.
That was where Cameron’s film succeeded, and where Bay’s film fails.
In Titanic, the majority of our time is spent aboard “the floating city.” Sure there’s a love story involving fictional characters, but Jack and Rose actual mingle and interact with numerous persons all over the ship, even across its different classes.
This was a clever narrative device that Cameron used, and it helped to get us better acclimated with this world. When the ship starts to go down, and you see all manner of persons in peril, the visceral sense of death feels more tangible and real.
It also helped that Cameron’s film takes place largely in one location.
When it came to Harbor, Bay’s story jumps across multiple locations, but fails to spend as much time where we need it the most.
One almost feels that if the story had simply focused on Affleck and Beckinsale’s characters meeting at Pearl Harbor, and intertwining them within that world, the peril and emotion might have been more impactful.
There is a small attempt to intertwine fictional characters with real-life ones, such as in the case of Doris Miller, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Though he has a minor role, Gooding’s character portrayal feels like it is one of the strongest in the film, and he seems to do plenty with the small amount of screen time he is given.
There isn’t much “Pearl Harbor” in Pearl Harbor
One would assume that with a title like this, we’d be spending quite a bit of time around the naval base on Hawaii.
As it happens, we only get small glimpses of what goes on around the base, as if Bay feels that by just showing us small images prior to the attacks, it will get us to care.
Unfortunately, the editing of the film keeps bouncing back-and-forth across a number of locations, never really seeming to give us enough time or pacing to care about the ‘set-dressing,’ or at times, the characters (who often seem to be little more than set-dressing themselves).
Of course, Pearl Harbor isn’t the only film to use the title of a place for a film, that doesn’t full involve said place.
Take Steven Spielberg’s Munich, released 4 years later. Munich’s location figures largely into the opening moments of the 1972 Olympic Massacre, but its ghost lingers on throughout the film. It’s an event and a name, that signifies a point in time, where tragedy at a specific place, affected a number of persons and their future actions.
One more…for America!
One of the most famous films about the attack, was Tora Tora Tora. Unlike Bay’s film, this one takes place largely at the harbor, with the enemy as largely faceless entities. Though one of the biggest surprises, is its ending.
Instead of a happy one, we see numerous ships on fire in the harbor, as the credits roll, almost making the audience wonder, “what happened next?”
With Bay’s film, there is no room for thought or contemplation…just action!
With an additional hour of time to go after the film’s centerpiece, Affleck and Hartnett’s characters volunteer to become part of The Doolittle Raid, which took place 4 months after the attack.
The raid itself feels severely shoehorned in, as if the studio mandated that they needed some form of retaliatory ending in order to show that America doesn’t back down when attacked.
The Doolittle Raid was even brought to film, a few years after the event, with the film 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.
What are your thoughts?
It’s one of my minor nitpicks out of the entire film, but I still recall a scene where a number of Japanese men are preparing for the attack.
As we focus on one young man, we hear his thoughts…spoken in English.
Up until this point, all the dialogue from Japanese characters have been spoken in their native language, so to suddenly have their thoughts in English, felt jarring for me.
One wonders why we couldn’t have had the young man’s thoughts translated on-screen instead. It might have made the scene of the many other men around him, a little more impactful.
As much as I dislike the film, I will admit there is one moment that just works for me (yes, I am going to say something positive about the film).
As the battle rages on, Affleck and Josh Hartnett’s characters make their way onto the base, and meet up with several of their cohorts.
There are a few planes that haven’t been hit, and several of the men attempt to get into the air with them (guess which ones?).
The scene lasts probably 10 minutes, but it feels like the one area that just seems to work for me, with Hans Zimmer’s score pumping away, and a handful of men on the ground attempting to get into the air to combat the enemy forces.
This moment actually feels like the most well-edited, and concentrated part of the film…before we then start hopping around again from place-to-place, Bay once again unwilling to just chill in one spot for a bit, and trying to make us feel the impact that the attack has had in different places.
I still remember reading all sorts of reviews about the film in May of 2001, with the only thing almost all of the critics seemed to agree on, was that the 45 minutes Bay spent destroying the harbor, was the only good thing to write home about.
The film quickly sank in the box-office over the next few weeks, and while it wasn’t a bomb per se, its worldwide take didn’t come close to justifying its $175 million budget (let alone its multimillion dollar advertising campaign).
The studio attempted a last-minute cash grab in September of 2001 as well, releasing the film around the time of the Labor Day weekend, though the limited run didn’t add much to its box-office tally.
As for me, after walking out of the theater after seeing Pearl Harbor, I felt that I had seen my last Michael Bay film…or so I thought.
While I passed on Bad Boys II and The Island over the next several years (and I was working in a theater at the time those films came out), there was soon one word that trilled like a siren song, to that toyetic child inside of me. The word, was Transformers.
In-between the Transformers film series, Bay continued to try and direct ‘smaller’ films based on real-world events, such as Pain and Gain, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
Though the two films boast big-name stars (and show that Bay can make films that cost less than $50,000,000), word is that just like Harbor, they seem to be hyper-stylized variations on their actual events (and both have resulted in several persons raking Bay across the coals, on how some people or situations were portrayed).
15 years after Pearl Harbor, as Michael Bay gears up to film Transformers: The Last Knight (aka Transformers 5), one has to wonder if he will ever grow up.
He has a small penchant for wanting to do more real-world stories, but he still seems trapped in his “Neverland” of fast cars, hot women, big explosions, and teenage levels of comedy…which I guess to some out there, is just enough to get them coming back for more.
It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, I was into my third quarter as an animation major, and had just begun working at a local movie theater’s box-office (a step up from my previous year spent studying graphic design in Iowa, and working box-office at my hometown theater).
The Summer of 2001 was marked by a plethora of films that I had pegged as ‘must sees.’ Along with Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Walt Disney Pictures’ Atlantis: The Lost Empire, there was another film that was on the minds of many, due to its previews and marketing campaign.
One of the most talked-about films of the summer, was Dreamworks SKG’s animated feature, Shrek. Based on the story by William Steig, Dreamworks’ version saw a re-imagining of the book’s disgusting ogre, as a grumpy ogre who is sent on a quest to rescue a Princess, along with a talking donkey.
The film would become one of the most talked-about features of the year, long after it had left movie theaters. Its release on VHS and DVD that fall would also garner big numbers, and at the next Academy Awards ceremony, the film would claim a triumph over Disney, when it ended up winning the first Best Animated Feature award given out in the newly-created awards category.
Thinking back on the film, I thought I’d create another “thoughts” column, this on probably one of the 21st century’s most influential computer-generated feature film.
Of Fairy Tales and Twists
Unlike William Steig’s book, the film’s take on Shrek became a riff on fairy tale cliches.
- Unlike a handsome prince going off to rescue a Princess, the vain and egotistical Lord Farquaad sends Shrek off to complete the task.
- Unlike the stereotypical Princess who lets others do everything for her, Princess Fiona also has some skills of her own (though where she learned “the art of bullet-time,” we’re never told).
- Unlike an ugy beast who turns into a Prince, it is a beautiful Princess who becomes the ugly beast (or so we assume)
The third item was something that I thought was a clever twist from the filmmakers, with Fiona feeling self-conscious about the spell that was placed on her, giving the film its Beauty and the Beast style twist, but in a more unconventional way, than just having an Ogre like Shrek, fall in love with a beautiful Princess.
What was very surprising in 2001, was that even though many saw Shrek, I never saw many persons or news outlets just immediately giving away the film’s secret regarding Fiona. It reminded me of the quietness that surrounded the twist ending to The Sixth Sense, 2 years before.
Beating Fairy Tale cliches senseless
I recall numerous articles about Shrek at the time, just ignoring anything about the story, and largely going on and on about how the film was Jeffrey Katzenberg’s “revenge” on The Walt Disney Company, whom he had left in 1994.
Though in truth, much of the stuff regarding the fairy tale creatures, is more secondary, as the story is largely Shrek and Donkey’s quest. But then again, the news media rarely looks for the good, and tries to focus on “the juicy.”
We see quite a bit of outside-the-box attitudes. Gepetto turns in Pinocchio to claim 5 shillings, the Gingerbread Man has his legs removed, and is dunked in milk, forced to talk (of course to the MPAA, such torture methods are okay, since Gingy’s a cookie, and not a human being).
What some viewers don’t realize, is there is a rather ‘ghastly’ fate regarding Mama Bear of the Three Bears. When we see the Fairy Tale creatures having set up residence near Shrek’s place, we see Papa Bear sadly comforting Baby Bear.
We don’t know just what happened to her, until we get a slow pan-shot across Lord Farquaad’s bed chambers later on:
Yep…that’s pretty messed up right there.
The film also played with the ‘Princess as a friend to forest creatures’ cliche, when Fiona’s singing accidentally makes a bluebird explode. The next thing we see is the camera focusing on the bluebird’s eggs, which elicited some emotional sounds from the audience:
Though with the scene that followed, there were audible gasps, and chuckling:
Pretty resourceful, that Fiona…and of course, one assumes she doesn’t tell Shrek or Donkey just where she got the eggs from.
Perfection requested from the Imperfect
Lord Farquaad is the ruler of the film’s kingdom of Duloc, though sees the fairy tale creatures in his kingdom as inferiors, and as such, rounds them up to be removed.
However, it should be noted that Farquaad’s call for perfection, is done so from someone who is imperfect. As is made clear in an early joke, the Lord is not of average height.
This often seems to be a given of many who have a dictatorial streak that they feel ‘perfection must be achieved,’ and if you look in some fictional works and history, you can see it.
Another fictional example is Lord Voldemort, who goes on about excising Muggle and mixed-blooded witches and wizards from the world…even though Voldemort himself, is the product of a Witch mother and a Muggle father.
Dreamworks Identity Change
With Shrek becoming one of 2001’s most profitable films, one would assume its parent company would make some changes given its success, and pretty soon, the writing was on the wall.
Doing things differently had seemed to be Dreamworks Animation’s mantra when they first made Prince of Egypt back in 1998. But now, it seemed almost every other film had to be passed through the pop-culture machine.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was released in 2002, and pretty much made it out intact (with the exception of Bryan Adams’ music, and Matt Damon voicing Spirit’s “thoughts”), but the films going forward, seemed to try and really be ‘hip and edgy,’ and it seemed to be how the viewing audience would define a Dreamworks Animation experience. In 2004, the animation division was given its own logo, and an overlay of Harry Gregson-Williams’ Shrek theme was incorporated over it.
A Game-changer, both inside and outside Dreamworks
Dreamworks Animation was all about doing things differently than their crosstown rival, and it didn’t take long before the first film’s success spawned talk of a sequel, which when it came to feature film releases, was rare (Disney had gotten into the habit of making direct-to-video sequels in the 1990’s, the majority of them made overseas).
Shrek 2 was released 3 years later, and pulled in bigger numbers than its predecessor. This would lead to a new business plan for the studio: the development of feature-animated franchises, with the expectation that if the company made enough popular new animation properties, sequels could guarantee a big return investment from sequels, and repeat viewers.
Shrek also seemed to wheedle its way into the minds of other studios, notably in films that were ‘a story you think you know…but with a pop-cultural twist.’ And usually, they ended in a big raucous song-and-dance number at the end, to something pop-cultural.
The most shocking thing to me and many others, was that soon after, even Disney followed Shrek’s example! Following the shutdown of Disney’s hand-drawn animation division following the 2004 film, Home on the Range, The Disney Studios proudly proclaimed they were going full-on computer-generated in the realms of animation. Their inaugural start? The 2005 film Chicken Little, which tried shamefully to ape Shrek’s formula, but crashed-and-burned in a number of ways.
15 years later, Shrek is mostly a memory to many of us. I will admit that I haven’t watched the film in a long time, and when it came to the sequels, I only found myself purchasing the second one.
After 4 feature films, a theme park experience, several holiday specials, and a stage musical adaptation, there’s been no additional attempts to revive the ogre…for now.
Though the film gave the studio one of its most iconic figures and seemed to cement Dreamworks Animation in the minds of many, in the last 5 years, the outlook has not been a rosy one for the studio.
Jeffrey Katzenberg’s thought that sequels and 2-3 films a year being released from the studio, would appease the public and their shareholders, put the company in a shaky position. In 2014, amid box-office takes falling short of production and marketing costs, massive layoffs were announced, and the company was forced to sell off its animation campus in Glendale, California (though they would still house most of its staff there).
One of the biggest blows, was that the company’s restructuring, would also mean the closure of PDI/Dreamworks, formerly Pacific Data Images…which is where Shrek’s production took place, all those years ago.
In the last month, it was announced that Dreamworks Animation had been purchased by NBC/Comcast to the tune of $3.8 billion, and it sounds like the new parent company may surely find some way to re-spin the company’s properties.
NBC/Comcast also holds the keys to the animation company, Illumination Entertainment, who has churned out the Despicable Me film series, to widespread acclaim and box-office returns. Word is that the head of Illumination, has also been installed as the head of Dreamworks Animation, though just what this may mean for the future of the company, is hard to say.
….though I’m sure a few out there, are envisioning the following scenario happening:
Growing up in suburbia, I wasn’t schooled much in the ways of “dark comedies.” Most of my entertainment either came from the world of animation, or family-friendly blockbusters like Star Wars, or Back to the Future.
Probably my first encounter with a dark comedy, was when previews for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice enticed me to want to see it…only for my 8-year-old mind to wonder what I had wandered into, seeing people tear their faces off, and pin-toothed snakes terrorize a wealthy family.
It would be some years before I could really get into, or understand dark comedies (such as Dr Strangelove!). One of the earliest I saw, happened to be by director Robert Zemeckis, who had captured my youthful attentions with The Back to the Future Trilogy, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I can’t recall exactly when I finally saw Death Becomes Her, but its imagery and storyline was one that just plopped right down inside my head, and never left.
Around the film’s 20 year anniversary in 2012, I lamented in a blog posting, how a proper Blu-Ray release, was still out of the grasp of the average American. As it stood, Universal Studios had only released a bare-bones, pan-and-scan version on DVD, that cropped off the sides of the main imagery. The only way to view it on widescreen, was with the film’s laserdisc release.
Fortunately, help came in the form of distributor Shout Factory in 2015. Under their Scream Factory horror- release banner, we finally have the film for the 21st century!
The film follows three people: Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) , Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), and Ernest Mennville (Bruce Willis).
Madeline has been an egocentric ‘friend’ to Helen ever since they were young, and also stole several of her childhood friend’s boyfriends…including Ernest, who eventually became Madeline’s husband.
However, as time has gone by, Madeline’s acting career has fizzled, along with her looks. Ernest, who once held potential to be a surgeon, is now little more than an alcoholic undertaker.
Madeline falls into further depression when she finds out that Helen has written a book, and seems to have regained her youthful appearance!
Pretty much at the end of her rope, Madeline takes the advice of a doctor, and visits a mysterious woman named Lisle Von Rhuman (Isabella Rossellini), who is willing to give her a special potion…for a price…
Thoughts on the Film
Following a successful (if exhausting) directing run from 1985-1990 (in which he directed The Back to the Future Trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Robert Zemeckis’ first film of the 1990’s, plays with its dark comedy storyline, by touching on the culture that most likely was within walking distance of the studio that produced it!
Martin Donovan and David Koepp’s script takes the rather vapid and superficial world of beauty and Hollywood, and just relishes roasting those who struggle to hold on to their beauty, in some of the most shocking ways.
Streep’s turn as a harpy-ish diva, is probably one of the film’s highlights. Meryl seems to have some fun with the part, and I think it’s one of her more unusual roles in her filmography.
Hawn’s character is one who has harbored a grudge against Madeline for years, and is finally at a point where she is in a mental state of mind to ‘put Madeline Ashton out of her life.’ Hawn’s portrayal of the character from meek-to-vengeful, never feels as solid as what Streep brings to her character…but then again, maybe it’s to show how the character of Helen has never been able to put herself back together properly, after Madeline stole Ernest away.
Speaking Ernest, Bruce Willis’ turn as the hen-pecked undertaker, is a nice change-of-pace, from the more action-oriented roles we’ve seen him do. Willis seems to have fun playing with his character’s vocals, ratcheting them up and down depending on the craziness of the scene. But even so, one can definitely get a sense of Ernest’s frustrations, that his life seems to have reached a dead-end in a number of places, making him yearn for some meaning.
The film also seems to have the pacing of several of Zemeckis’ films (like the first Back to the Future), in which the first act slowly sets up the pins, but in the second act, he knocks them down, and grabs our attention…in this case, with a cadre of mind-blowing effects (well, for 1992, anyways).
Watching the film’s centerpiece in which Madeline and Helen just go at each other in a special-effects-heavy fight, has made me wonder what the audience was thinking back in 1992. It feels like the effects were largely the crux of the film’s marketing campaign (just look at the DVD cover art!), and left little for the audience to expect.
While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that it almost feels like an extended episode of the television series, Tales From the Crypt (of which Zemeckis would be an executive producer on!). Koepp also has fun with playing around with the character’s names (the lead’s nicknames for each other are ‘Mad,’ and ‘Hel’).
That seems to be what Death Becomes Her mainly wants to be: a funny black comedy, with the added bonus of continuing Zemeckis’ penchant to keep dabbling in advancing effects technology. This also feels like the director taking a breather after Back to the Future and Roger Rabbit, and falling back on the kinds of slapstick comedy that one recalls him and Bob Gale writing/working on almost a decade before (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars). It’s basically a $55 million ‘vacation’ for the director, with him getting to continue playing with his new visual effects toys.
The Special Features
While a dream release for me would have delved into the film’s visual effects with a feature-length audio commentary over the film, Scream Factory actually plays nice, and gives us a brand-new, 25-minute retrospective. The featurette includes new interviews from director Robert Zemeckis, writer David Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, and many more.
Sadly, the cast is nowhere to be seen, except in a making-of featurette, that was created during the film’s production. They sit for the typical candid ‘talking head’ bits, and we even get to see some of the behind-the-scenes material, showing how they shot one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
We also have a photo gallery, and a theatrical trailer thrown in.
Menu-wise, Shout Factory shows a commitment to making the menu screen ‘pop,’ and we get some of Alan Silvestri’s music, along with full-motion clips from the film.
Probably one of the most fun ‘easter eggs’ I encountered, was when I opened up the clamshell case…only to find that the paper cover for the movie, contained a reversible, alternate cover!
This allows you to wrap the case in its more conventional DVD cover (also seen on the cardboard sleeve), or one featuring an unknown woman, holding the vial of pink elixir. Unknown to some, this was the original poster art image used to promote the film, in 1992.
If there is a big area of disappointment for me, it is that there’s no acknowledgement of the ‘original cut’ that was altered into the final product, after a poor test-screening. One would have assumed that maybe in the 25-minute special, Koepp might have shed some light on where he had wanted to take the film originally.
Supposedly, Ernest actually had a confidante, in the form of a bartender named Toni, played by Traci Ullman. Though she showed up in some of the movie trailers, nothing of Ullman’s performance is left on the final print, making Ernest lonely and frustrated with his life, with seemingly noone to confide in.
With the release of Death Becomes Her, we are now only two films away from having all of Zemeckis’ filmography on Blu-Ray format (the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand and What Lies Beneath, are still DVD-only).
While the release didn’t blow me out of the water, I was at least glad to see that Shout Factory
was willing to put some time and effort into not only releasing the film in a decent quality widescreen release, but even threw in the brief retrospective and a few other features.
As many have seen over the years, Hollywood has pulled back from the special features idea of the digital video disc. One assumes that if Universal Studios had released this film, it would have been just the film by itself.
While not one of the best lost gems of the 1990’s, if you’ve got a soft-spot for dark comedy, or are a fan of Robert Zemeckis (or want to simply vent on the vapidness of the media fawning over how youthful and beautiful a celebrity looks), this is definitely the release for you!
When I first heard about George Lucas’ plans to build a museum to house his extensive art collection, its plans were being presented to The Presidio Trust in San Francisco, in 2013.
Lucas’s vision was to build his museum on park land near the north side of the Presidio (a converted military base near The Golden Gate Bridge), giving it a bay view. The upside to the proposal, was that George would fund both the construction, and endowment for the facility, which would be in the multi-million dollar range.
However, after altering his building design to fit more in line with surrounding structures and guidelines, the Trust was not willing to give him the area he wanted. Though they offered him another section (closer to his Lucasfilm headquarters, away from the water), Lucas decided to pull up stakes and look elsewhere.
A number of other cities voiced their eagerness to take on the project, with George soon accepting the invitation from Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel.
It seemed like a slam-dunk choice, given that Lucas had married Chicago native Mellody Hobson in 2013, and had now expanded his stomping grounds to the Windy City (where he had been seen at several events).
In the Spring of 2014, a small meeting was held at the Chicago Cultural Center, where a number of persons in the community, were encouraged to come and sound off on the museum.
My friend Donna and I eagerly attended, but most in attendance, were there as representatives from surrounding neighborhoods, and communities.
The majority that came to the podium, envisioned the museum as an iconic facility, that could bring about a rebirth to their ailing communities across the Chicagoland area (one even mentioned how maybe a monorail could take those to the Museum if it were built on the far south side community he supported).
My thoughts on the museum when I got up to speak, were moreso the rantings of a kid who came from Iowa, and was enamored with ‘what’ the Museum could be, instead of ‘where.’ I didn’t quite have the same mentality as those in the room. All I knew, was that I wanted what was being offered to the city.
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s ability to show a variety of art styles beyond the norm (including storyboards, concept, and illustration art), was a big draw for me. There was also talk of how the facility could be used for film screenings/premieres, lectures from those serving in the industry, and…a way to show kids in the Midwest another side of art, that was not currently available!
After leaving that meeting, I couldn’t help but think in my head, that while many had high hopes that Lucas would choose their community surrounding the city, I could easily imagine him looking to centralize the location, closer to the heart of the city.
…and lo and behold, I was right.
The announcement came a few months later, with word that Lucas had chosen an area between the city’s Soldier Field stadium, and McCormick Place East convention center structure. The space was currently serving as a parking lot, used mainly for tailgating for Chicago Bears football games.
However, with the announcement, came word from a non-profit group called Friends of the Parks, that a lawsuit was being filed. The group claimed that the new structure violated the “Lakefront Protection Ordinance,”meant to protect the lake front from private enterprise building upon it (even though Rahm claimed the museum would be a public institution).
A number of other hoops were quickly jumped through regarding approval of the project, but when it came to the lawsuit, it was not easily dismissed, with the judge handling the case, claiming it had a valid point to be looked into further.
Acceptance of the museum didn’t get much better a few months later, when the MAD Architect Firm from Beijing (whom Lucas had commissioned to design the structure), unveiled their design:
Needless to say, its radical design immediately rivaled the metal-and-glass retrofitting of nearby Soldier Field, as well as led to all sorts of nicknames from a city that couldn’t understand why George couldn’t just ‘build a building.’
The design garnered such nicknames as “the salt pile,” as well as “Jabba the Hutt.”
The fall and winter period, as Chicago moved into 2015, didn’t get any better. The judge handling the FOTP lawsuit upheld the request to keep any work from taking place, claiming the lawsuit had merit in regards to the concerns of the Parks group.
Even the mayoral election that Spring brought up the museum, with rival candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, claiming it as “a monument to Darth Vader,” pretty much cementing that he wasn’t a fan.
Not much was brought up regarding the Museum in the summer of 2015, but by the fall, revamped renderings from MAD revealed a “compromise” to its design:
The design reduced the size of the museum, but also showed that they were willing to add park and prairie area to the surrounding grounds, nestling the design in a more eco-friendly landscape.
But even this didn’t placate the Friends of the Parks, let alone word soon after that the Chicago Plan Commission, had approved leasing the Park District land to the Museum, for just $10, as part of a 99-year lease.
Things then started getting testy in the early part of 2016, when word spread that Lucas might look elsewhere, given the sluggish approval pace. A number of people then threw out their own proposals for alternate sites. Some eagerly suggested again that George bring his museum to one of the south side communities (such as the former South Works US Steel site, 9 miles south of the Chicago Loop), while others said he should build it across the street from the lakefront. Several even suggested that the filmmaker rehab an existing structure downtown.
Famed architect Helmut Jahn even suggested that the Museum could maybe me ‘melded’ into the framework of the nearby McCormick Place East structure, re-purposing it.
Some have to wonder if that idea, may have led to the “Plan B” proposal, that was shown in late April.
The new proposal, called for razing the McCormick Place East convention building. The Lucas Museum would keep its same footprint size, with this latest proposal claimed as a win-win for park and lakefront fans: it would leave the Soldier Field parking lot untouched, AND add 12 acres of parkland onto the former East site, that the museum’s footprint didn’t touch.
Unlike the first plan, this one would end up needing an extra monetary boost…to the tune of $1.2 billion that the city would need to find. The funds would go to razing the McCormick Place East structure, and add additional room to the McCormick Place structures on the other side of Lake Shore Drive, to compensate for the floor space lost from the East building.
Even with the costs to demolish and add-on regarding McCormick Place, Lucas would still fund the museum’s building construction and endowment out of his own pocket.
Murmurings were that this might be the compromise to go with (since the parking lot situation was still tied up) and that Lucas might be okay with the new location, as a viable option! Even so, many complained that with a number of the city’s current issues, spending a billion dollars to knock down a building and build a new one, was really sounding more like a desperate “vanity project” on the mayor’s part.
And then came May 3rd, 2016.
In the morning, word came that the Friends of the Parks were suspending their lawsuit.
To many, it looked like there might finally be a compromise! Surely there must be some hope that the new proposal to raze the convention hall had some merit!
However, as the day wore on, it soon became apparent that this was not the case.
An additional note from a representative of the Parks group a few hours after the suspension news, claimed that they were actually not willing to accept the mayor’s “Plan B.”
The general message was, “while we aren’t against the museum, we don’t want it anywhere near the lakefront…however, we are more than willing to help the museum team find a new location away from the lakefront.”
A few hours later, Lucas’ wife Mellody Hobson then released a statement, claiming that she and her husband, were now officially looking elsewhere for a place to put the museum, and painting the FOTP persons in a not-so-rosy light.
Though she didn’t say the plan was dead, her words, along with the thought that FOTP would surely file a lawsuit blocking any action on the “Plan B” site/proposal, pretty much signaled the end for the city’s chances. By the end of the day, the d-word was being seen across numerous postings and articles on the internet.
Needless to say, I went through the rest of that day feeling numb. Social media didn’t help dull the pain, with most tweets online sounding like kids who were glad to be rid of the equivalent of a herring pie, given by their grandmother.
As well, looking for any talk about the project on social media over the last few years, had largely been persons just retweeting or reposting currently-running news articles.
If there were others out there who shared my same views on what could be, I never seemed to find them. The most I would often find, was the typical internet snark of people calling it “A Star Wars Museum,” or complaints about its unnatural design.
I had a lot in my head that had been building up over the last few years, and as with quite a few other blog posts I had done, I thought I’d get out some of my own views right here, on my blog.
This entire post is also one of the longest I’ve ever written for my blog (over 5,000 words), so you might want to have a sandwich or a drink nearby, if you wish to settle in for the long run. Above you got a summary of the 2-year debacle, and now, you’ll be able read some of my observations and thoughts, regarding what transpired.
Chicago isn’t a town largely known for its understanding of art
Though we do have one of the premiere Art Museums in the world, Chicago often suffers from the same issues that most Midwestern areas do: they don’t quite ‘get’ art.
From the start, many couldn’t fathom what “narrative art” was. For someone like me who had grown up understanding about concept art, storyboards, and costume design, it made sense…but to most people, they are usually more enamored with the finished product than the ‘why’ or ‘how.’
Most often think of art in the Midwest in the simplest terms, and sometimes, the only way to get around the weirdness of some art, is to give it a ‘simple name’ or go with the old adult standby (“that looks like something my kid could do!”).
Take the structure known as Cloud Gate in Chicago’s Millennium Park. It’s a massive curved, mirrored structure…but to many, given its kidney bean shape, it is moreso referred to as, The Bean.
Chicago has also had those who scoffed at other artistic endeavors over the years. In the heart of the loop, is a 50-foot sculpture, made by Pablo Picasso. Though one would assume getting a Picasso in your city would be cool, many were opposed to it back in the 1960’s (with people at the time mentioning everything from a statue of Ernie Banks, to a giant pickle would better suit the site!). Editor Mike Royko was even quoted as saying upon its unveiling, “Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect.”
Much like the Lucas Museum, it was considered by the artist as “a gift.” Four charities and foundations paid for its $350,000+ price-tag, but Picasso himself was offered a $100,000 payment (which he refused to take).
Chicago has moreso been a town that deals in the realms of business and sports: very ‘adult’ things that feel more like the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the average American. You’re more apt to find someone to talk to you about last night’s baseball game at the watercooler, than to have a discussion regarding The Art Institute’s latest Van Gogh exhibit.
Most locals couldn’t fathom the design of the structure
Unlike the more straight-lined design that Lucas proposed on the Presidio site, his designs for Chicago were going to take on a more ‘natural’ look.
In a stage interview with Charlie Rose (in the fall of 2014), Lucas claimed that the design would be more organic (“like a sponge,” he mentioned at one point), claiming that organic architecture was where he felt design was headed.
Most Chicagoans didn’t get the memo though, when the MAD Architect firm from China, revealed that first design. To most of the pedestrian minds in this major city…it was just, ‘weird!’
It wasn’t so much a sponge, but was moreso void of straight lines, almost like it had grown up through the grassy landscape, like a strange fungi.
It’s stark white structure looked mountainous, with several areas of its design, boasting upper levels would provide several areas to take in views of the surrounding landscape, with a 360-degree viewing area under an awning at the top.
Such stylings are relatively foreign to our shores. Many structures in our country, largely keep with the standard square and rectangle function (with minimal curvature).
Even so, the design of the museum wasn’t foreign to the MAD Architects. They have also designed a number of other organic structures, with the most recent completion being the Harbin Opera House, which was completed in China, in December of 2015.
As one can see from this concept picture on the right, its design and integration into the surroundings seems to mirror what Lucas was going for with his lakefront design. Even the description of the Harbin structure, told how it’s design was based on the thought that it had been ‘sculpted’ by the twin forces of wind and water.
One has to wonder if that same thought, may have influenced the architects when they were coming up with the Lucas Museum’s design.
In the shadow of Star Wars
To many out there, it’s hard to think of George Lucas, without someone immediately bringing up Star Wars.
Since it was announced, The Lucas Museum earned the rather pedestrian nickname of, “The Star Wars Museum.” And to many who read that, that’s all they could see: this weird structure being little more than a repository for props and production material related to George’s films. Pretty much, a shrine to his greatness as a purveyor of popular culture personification. Even mayoral candidate Chuy’s referencing it, shows how little the locals know, or are willing to know beyond the norms.
What many don’t realize, is that George’s entire life hasn’t always been the pursuit of a mult-billion dollar space opera. Throughout much of his life, Lucas has been a fan of (and studied) anthropology. That seems to be one of the main threads that have weaved through all of his works.
THX-1138 is an anthropological what-if, pushing into the future, based on observations of where we’ve come as a society, and intermingled with the Orwellian tones of 1984.
American Graffiti deals with the teen culture of the early 1960’s, as well as exploring the social norms and political climate, before the upheaval of American values in the late 1960’s.
With the Star Wars series, George was able to take his knowledge, and whirl it into a potent mixture that translated into a space adventure, intermingled with the shades of the sometimes hokey Saturday Matinee Serials of the 1930’s, along with political views of the young, standing in contrast to the rigid systems of an Empirical governing body.
Even with his personal art collection containing pieces by the likes of Norman Rockwell, R Crumb, and John Tenniel, many instantly zoomed in on the sight of anything Star Wars, claiming it as still being the main reason for the facility.
I will admit that though I did shun people calling it “The Star Wars Museum,” part of me did find the design that was proposed, somewhat similar to an early concept of structures from the planet Alderaan.
Though we never saw the surface of the planet (it was destroyed by the Death Star in the 1977 film), concept artist Ralph McQuarrie had done a painting, showing a number of rounded white structures, nestled into a green area by a body of water. Though the museum’s height would not reach those of the spires in McQuarrie’s work, one can’t help but feel some similarities if one looks at the concept and space that was being requested for the build.
There is, no, compromise
Throughout the entire debacle, has been mention of the non-profit organization, Friends of the Parks.
As soon as the announcement was made for the parking lot area next to Soldier Field, they immediately claimed they would file a lawsuit to ‘protect the land.’
I think many (including the mayor) didn’t think that case would come to anything, but as the lawsuit kept things halted for a year and onward, he must have started feeling the heat.
He even attempted to ask for the chance to start razing the parking lot (before a decision was made), but was denied even this. The federal judge handling the case, kept pushing onward, requesting the administration turn over all the information it had in regards to how the parking lot site was chosen (with some assuming it was possibly the only site offered).
The main weapon the FOTP organization used, was that the proposal was being done so on public land, left to Chicago via Public Trust Doctrine, which claims that the land should not be used for private enterprise, and remain open to the public (even if that land being considered, is currently occupied by a parking lot).
Given the way the events have gone, it has felt that the Mayor handled things in a decent light, moreso than one would expect. Unlike the days when the likes of the Daley administration would use some of that old-fashioned “persuasive power,” word about the handling of the situation, saw Rahm and the Lucases attempting to reach some form of compromise.
Everything from scaling back the size of the museum, to contributing space to park land, seemed unable to deter the main body of decisions at FOTP from even reconsidering.
There was also concern over the leasing deal being given to Lucas in regards to the spot, in which he would pay $10 for a 99-year lease on the land. Given the current money shortcomings in the city, many felt that the Mayor’s decision was not really ‘charitable,’ but more of a drop-in-the-bucket to a philanthropist valued in the billions of dollars (and to many when the b-word is used, “enough” is never enough).
Even in regards to ‘what’ kind of museum it was was up for debate. FOTP contested that its purpose was more for private purposes, as Rahm contested that it was a public museum. I went looking around online, and found a rather interesting article by The Huffington Post. It seems that in this day and age, the fine line between public and private, is pretty tricky to decipher.
Though in the end, the non-profit organization has never been one to back down from anything park-related. They vocally opposed the futuristic retro-fit on Soldier Field some years ago, and also were against Richard M Daley’s decisions to build parts of his 2016 Olympics bid on park land, as well as his plans to move the Chicago Children’s Museum over near Grant Park.
When it comes to the lakefront, the group has taken an all-or-nothing approach. Last October, word came they were in support of a proposal, dubbed The Burnham Sanctuary.
The sanctuary would reclaim 19 acres along the same area where the Lucas Museum has been proposed to be placed, though as one can see from the rendering, there would be nothing but parkland and trails. Plus, given that the entire area would be devoid of any revenue-generating structures, one would assume it would take someone (an institution or two) with very deep pockets to make this proposal a reality. Rahm Emmanuel’s “Plan B” proposal that called for the removal of McCormick Place East was estimated at $1.2 billion, and one has to assume that this project would most likely be hovering in the same price area.
As of this writing, there has been no further word of any takers to make the sanctuary proposal a reality.
Struggling for Freedom
One thing brought up on a number of occasions, was many feeling like the citizens of Chicago were kept out of the decision-making process. Some felt that Lucas should have attempted to be more out-going, and come forward moreso to the community as a whole, rather than seemingly just having private, closed-door sessions (word was, discussion for the Presidio site had the same approach).
Even so, George has largely not really been a big fan of committees. He’s been noted over the years as being rather quiet, and oftentimes some of his ideas, are not so easily stomached by a number of persons.
Much of his early filmmaking career was being told what he could and could not do. When Star Wars gave him his “freedom,” George set out to largely do things his way. There’d be no studio executives second-guessing his decisions, and he’d bankroll his own productions, following the success of his 1977 film. Since then, he’s largely been used to being his own person.
Some would claim him selfish, but come on: wouldn’t you want that kind of ease? One of the hardest things about being an artist or a creator, is many times having to deal with someone placing restrictions on what you do.
He’s also never been one to compromise easily. One can see that in a number of instances over his career:
- When American Graffiti was released, Universal Studios removed 5 minutes from the final print he turned in. After Star Wars was a success, he was able to convince them to put back the cut scenes.
- Though many praised and loved Star Wars: A New Hope, Lucas had gone on record saying how much of what he released, wasn’t up to his standards. When the 20th anniversary Special Edition of the film was released in 1997, he was able to add scenes in, and revamp certain effects shots, soon after saying it was closer to what he saw in his head.
- Talk of a fourth Indiana Jones film had gone on for quite some time, though George was adamant that since Indy was now in the era of the B -movies (the first three films had followed adventure serial stylings of the 1930’s), the film’s ‘idol,’ should be related to aliens (which were often a staple of 50’s B-movies). In the end, Lucas compromised with his friend Steven Spielberg, by making them “inter-dimensional beings,” that looked like aliens.
Lucas’ (Final) Passion Project
At age 71, George most assuredly realizes he’s in his twilight years. His selling of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company, pretty much cut him off from having a hand in any future films related to that company’s properties.
With his adopted children off and out in the world on their own, Lucas has turned his attention to his wife and new daughter, along with getting the museum completed.
Even so, it isn’t like Lucas has hoarded his money over the years. He is one of the most well-known philanthropists in the world, often making donations to numerous arts and school programs (he and his wife have also donated $25 million to a Chicago after-school program in recent years). There was also word that much of the $4 billion he received as part of the deal with Disney regarding his company’s sale, would also be used for philanthropic purposes.
Given he has turned away from filmmaking entirely, the museum is surely intended as his swan-song.
Some have said his adamant feelings about its location are a bit selfish, but one should also consider seeing things from “a certain point-of-view.”
Architect Helmut Jahn pretty much hit the nail on the head, when he claimed in one interview, that George most likely wants to go ‘all-in’ for the project. This could explain why Lucas has been so adamant to dig his heels in, and not be swayed from certain stipulations: It’s the last major project he’ll have a hand in, and he wants to do it his way.
Of course, my mind often kept coming back to that Cultural Center meeting, where many kept wishing for the museum to enhance their specific neighborhood/community.
Many in Chicago I saw on Twitter as the lakefront battle raged, just kept throwing out all sorts of locations. Though many look at it as just a building, many never seemed to consider Lucas’ original plans in San Francisco, or what was being discussed in Chicago.
There seemed to be a pattern to the areas of interest, in that they be located near a body of water. That seemed to show that Lucas didn’t want his structure to become land-locked. It wasn’t to be like Disneyland, surrounded by hotels, residences, and restaurants. He wasn’t looking to create a Star Wars theme park or shrine to his space opera…this was a museum, and he seems to want it to be a place, that could be allowed ‘breathing room.’
There also is the consideration on how one would access the museum.
The locations Lucas chose in San Francisco and Chicago, are in prominent spots, located around parks and recreation (as well as main thoroughfares). This leads me to believe that Lucas himself was not looking at just building the museum, and walking away. After all, if you have such a great collection of art, surely you’d want to go down and see it every once in awhile.
The Presidio site would have been close to his Lucasfilm headquarters, which had moved into the new Letterman Digital Arts Center in 2005. The site he chose, would have been right across Highway 101, which he surely was familiar with.
In Chicago, word is that George and Mellody have an apartment in a prominent building on North Michigan Avenue (some have even seen George taking a meal in the food court of Water Tower Place). If the museum had gone in at the southern end of the Museum Campus, it would have been easy enough for Lucas to make a straight-shot down the street for visits.
Though there’s been no official confirmation that The Lucas Museum is dead in Chicago, Mellody Hobson’s letter pretty much seems to signify that she and her husband are done waiting to deal with the current lawsuit (which is still in its pre-trial phase).
Word came at the time of this writing, that an appeal had been filed by the mayor’s office to dismiss the lawsuit regarding the parking lot (the main spot Lucas chose), but one has to figure it’s just one last gasp in the final process of pulling the plug. The mayor’s dream would most likely be for an immediate dismissal of the lawsuit, but one could see this thing dragging on for years…many that George is not willing to wait for.
Much like the submitted US Steel site offer a little while ago, the city of Waukegan (located an hour north of Chicago), has recently said they would welcome the museum along their lake front…though one has to figure if Lucas wasn’t willing to move his museum 9 miles south of Chicago (to the steel plant site), he most likely isn’t prepared to go further north. As well, whose to say the small town doesn’t have their own non-profit group gunning to make that space “open, free, and clear?”
The building of the museum will be an endeavor that will take several years, and I’m sure George would love to see it realized before he turns 80. The Chicago proposal expected an opening in 2019, though if the third times the charm and he finds a city willing to give him a lake view, one would probably expect to now see it open in the year 2021.
Personally, I’ve pretty much given up hope that I’ll ever see the museum built here. When it was being considered for the parking lot site near Soldier Field, it felt like a decent location, with minimal issue for “taxpayer consequences.” My faith in the project wavered when the proposed “Plan B” moved it further south, and included the $1.2 billion amount that would need to take care of removing and compensating for the McCormick Place East convention structure (a plan which would require state approval, in a state whose government is currently dead-locked on a number of other financial issues). I wasn’t as over-the-moon about it as the first site, but thought I’d wait to see what would happen…though deep down, the word ‘billion’ attached to that proposal didn’t sit well (former mayor Daley had used that word a few times when it came to discussing the costs of Chicago’s attempts 10 years ago to be the Summer Olympics’ host-city for the 2016 games).
Its a pity that Chicago lost out on getting The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. For me, I saw it as being the one shot that the city could use, to get exhibitions regarding animation and film, the likes of which have been shown in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. I could easily imagine the world-touring Pixar Exhibition, or maybe even the Tim Burton Exhibition, being part of the gallery space that would house temporary exhibitions. And though some have told me online that “we already have art museums,” I can’t see them expanding their scope beyond what they currently offer.
I’m sure The Art Institute of Chicago would never dedicate space to something like exhibiting stop-motion sets and creations from the likes of Laika Entetainment, or properly give over space to the production art of the golden age of Warner Brothers cartoons. Even the chance that The Museum of Contemporary Art would consider such things, seems like a fever-dream, and The Museum of Science and Industry wouldn’t showcase such things, unless it could work in a learning segment for kids. I guess in seeing how some other exhibitions regarding cartoon and animation art have been presented in several of my visits to California, it feels like the city is sorely lacking the capacity to open up past’ the norm.’
Some online who have seen me wax poetic about my thoughts on the museum, have inquired if I’m thinking about the city, or myself. I still feel that the museum could be a benefit to a place that many amazing exhibitions bypass in favor of more world-renowned cities, or overseas venues (Chicago often feels like a second or third-tier city much of the time). Chicago keeps wanting to pride itself on being a world-class city, but I often feel when it comes to more regarding the arts, that well-roundedness is sorely missing, and often leads persons like myself and others, to travel elsewhere, to seek out those things that we often know will never be considered for the museums the city houses.
Mellody Hobson said in her letter the other day, that many kids in the area would be missing out on what the museum could offer, and I agree with her. I wanted to study animation growing up, and coming from the state of Iowa, finding a place that would seem to encourage one in that regard, was non-existent. The museum’s intent to focus on a mixture of different media arts, makes it a unique creature, and one could definitely imagine the items on display here (as well as various programs and activities), inspiring future filmmakers, many who would be eager to escape the city’s confines, and head out west (or possibly consider the local film or animation programs at Columbia College).
One of the major cities that has come up in the news, has been Oakland, CA, which is right across the bay from San Francisco, and word is, they would be willing to discuss giving the museum a lakefront placement. I personally feel George will take another look around California. He’s spent much of his life in Northern California, and if he can stay close to the Bay Area, he won’t have to go far to visit the museum.
One can imagine him maybe one day in 6 years, taking his daughter to the museum. They would be seen walking around its curved floors, admiring the illustrations by John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham. Maybe they’d sit in one of the theaters for a bit, listening as a film historian lectured about Kurosawa’s Rashomon, before heading up to the cafe at the top for a snack. As their attention turned to look out over the waters to the western horizon, the skyscrapers of San Francisco would fill George’s eyes, as he thinks about where he’s come from, and where he’s going.
I hope you’re able to find a community willing to help you make your museum a reality, George…it’s a pity Chicago wasn’t able to give you a hand.