Friday, February 08, 2013

Death of a Moonwalker: Captain EO

It's time to talk about Captain EO.

I will say it up front: the following is not an attempt at a persuasive article. I don't think you could get somebody to enjoy Captain EO who is not inclined to enjoy it with any amount of persuasion. Furthermore, I've never heard of anybody's opinion being totally changed by an article on the Internet, so I'm not here to convince you why I like Captain EO. I'm not even sure I could convince myself why I like Captain EO. So why bother writing about it? Because I'm nothing if not a sucker for Quixotian quests, and trying to write an article about the value of something so obviously commercial and ill-advised is my idea of a fun writing assignment.
Since the return of Captain EO in 2010, I've seen the film dozens of times at both Epcot and Disneyland, and if Disney allows me, I'm going to see it dozens of times more. I am always ready for more space-opera hijinx with Jackson, Hooter, Fuzzball, and whatever the other puppet characters are called. I wrote a super gushy review of it in 2010, and I still stand by that review, untold numbers of screenings later. But now I think I'm ready to put some meat on those bones I wrote three years ago, and perhaps make up for my own apparent lack of critical distance on this subject. How could I possibly enjoy something so obviously lousy, and so much?

There's a term for that reaction, and it's called "Guilty Pleasure". I feel no guilt about my love of Captain EO. Yet conversely, I do not regard the film to be camp. The film is simply too dogged in its pursuit of some kind of emotional response for me to turn it off the doorstep by laughing at it. I don't consider myself to be better than Captain EO, which is the essential attitude required to find "camp" enjoyment in unintentional comedy. There's something in the film that's better than the sum of its parts which dazzles me.

Last year, I had the pleasure of hosting a good friend of mine at Disneyland - he had never set foot in a Disney theme park before. This was a fascinating opportunity to get a fresh reaction to each attraction, and we did all of the classics. I offered no descriptive comment on each ride beforehand, nothing to set any of his expectations - he didn't even know if we were boarding a ride or theater show. At the end of the day he requested to see only two attractions over again: Pirates of the Caribbean and Captain EO.

I'm fascinated by this.

To suggest that the two are remotely comparable is laughable, but the very same person who shrugged off the Tiki Room with a deadpan "I didn't expect that" and Storybookland with a confused "Why is this here?" could not get enough of Captain EO. This, to me, was at least justification that my enjoyment of the show was more than just reheated nostalgia and the second-hand cloud of opium buzz that seems to settle over each theater it plays in. Does a film have to be good to be of value?

"Flock of Seagulls Guy" never fails to get a laugh.
I'm going to attack the question from the basic position of Captain EO as a film instead of an attraction. If I were to approach it as an attraction, I'd have to factor in all sorts of questions like "should it have returned" or "is it a good use of the space" - good questions, but ones that do fall outside the scope of my interest today. The only thing I will say is that I find EO to be a better use of the theater space than Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, and it will remain so until Imagineering either removes the theater entirely or comes up with a more appropriate tenant. Your mileage on that point will likely vary depending on your personal experiences with either attraction, as it should. I'm not here to argue for or against the decision.

To set up my article I'm going to embark on, as is typical for me, a long winded digression. But, hey, it's my blog, right? In this case I'm finding my explanatory analogue in the unlikely source of the 1935  Warner Brothers film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The scene in question comes near the end of this marathon-length filmed version, and represents Act 5 of Shakespeare's play - "The Tedious, Brief Scene of Pyramus and Thisbe". Those who have seen the film or read the play will recall that this scene acts as a self-contained self-parody of the proceeding four acts, as the craftsmen of Athens perform a tragic play for their royals and fail abysmally.

Coming at the end of Shakespeare's play, Pyramus and Thisbe comically inverts Midsummer Night's Dream, so that the nature spirits Oberon and Titania do not interfere with the romantic triangle in the mortal realm and the romances play out to an inevitable tragic conclusion.

But that's Shakespeare's play. The film is another thing entirely. The famous "Mechanicals" are cast by Warner Brothers with comic, working class actors from the most working class Hollywood studio of its era - James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Hugh Harlan, Dewey Robinson, and so on. They play their scenes not for sly wit, but out and out farce. They fall over, hit each other, overact, and generally do their best to turn Midsummer Night's Dream into The Three Stooges. Critics were horrified. This is high art, not low comedy (or is it?)! Cagney spent the rest of his life wincing from complaints that his Bottom does not resemble the traditional character written for comedian Will Kemp in 1595, as if there were only one way to play Shakespeare, or that every performance must be the definitive one.

Warner Brothers' Act 5 brings down the house - for Americans. It's the only part of the film that actually seems to come to life instead of just sitting there on the screen. Coming at the end of a film which is over two hours of actors stiffly posed before beautiful, expensive backdrops, the film finally breathes and flows. Despite the language, the Warner "Mechanicals" actually know how to eke a joke out of comedy that's hundreds of years old. Whether or not they perform exactly as Shakespeare intended, the result is a revelation.

Yet the sequence, as shown in the film, is gaudy, ill-conceived, awkwardly paced, and just plain weird, with Joe E. Brown stomping around in drag slapping the scenery like a refugee from a John Waters film. Cagney devours the scenery and the movie screen even when all he's doing is kicking his legs. The entire sequence is in atrocious taste, and it works perfectly.

In other words, the scene succeeds by daring to fail. By daring to depart from the tone of Shakespeare's text but not its' letter, the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream depicts working class heroes attempting to stage high art and failing by allowing working class heroes to attempt high art and fail. It's the perfect summary of not only the folly of the enterprise of attempting a Hollywood Midsummer Night's Dream, but by extension the entire Hollywood Studio System in the 30s, an unintentional effacing self-portrait. The pleasure of the scene resides not only in what it provides, but in the context of what it provides.

To me, this is part of the pleasure of Captain EO: by merely existing it damns its own hubristic creation. And yet, by repeatedly acting, over and over again, on the worst possible creative choices, the team which made Captain EO somehow stuffed it so full of terrible ideas that they eventually accumulate and cancel each other out. A film which should be a total creative disaster is compulsively watchable and even a little affecting.

How were these many terrible decisions made? Let me count the ways:

Lets start with the Granddaddy of all bad choices here, and as is usually the case in these situations, Michael Eisner is at the root of it. Eisner, on that very selfsame legendary trip to Flower Street in which Star Tours and Splash Mountain were approved, asked how long it would take to get the attractions open. Tony Baxter began to give ballpark estimates of three to five years. Eisner, who was accustomed to overseeing movie and TV production, was aghast. His solution was to green light a movie, and immediately.

In order to accommodate this, Magic Journeys at EPCOT Center would be vacated a mere four years after it opened. The seats were still warm from tourist butts when EO took over. As far as I know, this was and still is unprecedented - Magic Journeys was in no way an unpopular or poorly attended show, and Walt Disney World certainly saw fit to capitalize on their 1982 investment by installing Magic Journeys in Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, where it ran for another seven years. At Disneyland, Magic Journeys was being shown at night in the amphitheater in front of Space Mountain... the theater would now be enclosed, rather perfunctorily, to accommodate Captain EO. When you consider that both of these decisions were made in an era when Disney was still largely building specification buildings to house new attractions and would today come under immediate Internet fire, it becomes apparent how quickly and poorly thought-out the decision to make Captain EO was.

We'll just leave this here. (Al Huffman)
But then, even allowing for the fact that the actual production and installation came about in a miraculously fast two years - Eisner knew that he could produce a film very quickly because then as now Hollywood is mostly about getting product to market - the decision to make a Michael Jackson music video is equally baffling. In an era before Ellen Degeneres, Drew Carey, and Elvis ran rampant through Disney theme parks and those famous people and characters who were seen were carefully selected and designed by Disney, whether they be selling theme park tickets or orange juice, the decision to drop a Michael Jackson music video into a barely-vacated theater in a George Lucas production is nothing short of astonishing.

Granted, in 1984 it made a lot more sense than it does today. Lucas had just finished his initial wave of Star Wars films and generally had made more money than King Midas. In late 1983, Michael Jackson's Thriller, his fourteen-minute musical short film directed by John Landis, was changing the way the entertainment industry thought about how they could package and sell their products. Thriller was merely another hit single on a record selling a million copies a week. The "music video" was a fourteen minute stand-alone entertainment experience directed by a filmmaker coming off a string of box office successes. Rotations of the video plus the hour-long accompanying documentary put MTV and Showtime on the map. A video release of the documentary plus the short film itself finally brought a little format called VHS into homes around the country and helped put the final nails in the coffin of Betamax. Thriller was unprecedented in terms of scale, ambition, and effect, and then as now what works in Hollywood will be repeated ad nauseum.

Then there's the pairing of the supposedly unbeatable trio of George Lucas, Michael Jackson, and Francis Ford Coppola - the true rag-tag band, despite what the opening narration may say. Although Jackson throughout his body of work expressed interest in a vast array of cinema styles, by the mid-80s Lucas had settled into the comfortable role of producer, pulling together talent and overseeing the creative components of a project without actually assuming the directing duties himself. Jackson tended to put a lot of himself into his videos, his music, and his concerts while Lucas was by now accustomed to dropping teddy bears into cinemas to promote forthcoming TV specials and plush. Lucas, Jackson and Eisner are the guiding creative visions behind Captain EO and the film is perched on a razor's edge between Jackson's sincerity and the Lucasfilm whimsy-profit machine.

Lost in the middle of this is Francis Ford Coppola, a talented director but an unlikely choice to helm a space-fantasy musical. Coppola excelled at making lavish narratives out of intimate scenes, but nothing in his filmography up to then really seems to suggest him for the job. His Apocalypse Now staged huge battles but not in a way that allowed audiences to enjoy them as spectacle - he even dropped an expensive helicopter raid intended for the end of the film after shooting and editing it. Coppola's interesting One From the Heart, a sort of musical drama where nobody actually sings, is now well regarded but was a conspicuous failure, and Coppola frankly seems to have taken on the job as a way to retreat to the safety net of a smaller scale project following the failure of his 1984 The Cotton Club.

Coppola is marooned by his material. His only film that is anything close to a special-effects fantasy is Bram Stoker's Dracula, which would not be made for another six years and features not ILM rubber creatures and miniatures but intentionally weird and retrograde effects. Coppola brought his closest allies - cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Walter Murch - along for the ride and collectively these men manage to make the best of material where they labor under the duelling obsessions of Jackson and Lucas while tugging along millions of dollars of sets and effects. It's a thankless job and perhaps most remarkable in that the contributions of Coppola, Murch and Storaro are not buried underneath the torpid bulk of the film.

Let me repeat that -Vittorio Storaro and Walter Murch, probably the most revered cinematographer and editor-sound designer currently living, made Captain EO. Their contributions, along with Coppola, and perfectly judged even while the film itself struggles towards relevance, and it's always fun to see what superior filmmakers can do with inferior material. It's the eternal myth of spinning dross into gold. Others would say it's lipstick on a pig. Either way, while you can't exactly say any of them "save" the film, they do make Captain EO the theme park 3D film with the most impeccable credentials in history - a combination only a Paramount TV executive could love.

But none of this really conveys what it's actually like to watch Captain EO, which is somehow even more bizarre than any description can suggest. Michael Jackson plays a pixieish space commander who combines the powers of The Music Man and Bugs Bunny. He possesses rainbow powers that seem to emanate from his light-up t-shirt which mainly seem to involve jumpsuits, choreographed dancing, and Greco-Roman architecture.

That's the part of the film that's played straight.

Hurry up and fix it, Hooter!
For comedy relief we have EO's crew, which includes a slobish miniature elephant in a wife beater tee, two tin-man style robots who may be callbacks to Jackson's involvement in The Wiz, conjoined twin Muppets, and an orange thing with butterfly wings who seems to have been invented to give Jackson's pet monkey something to do. They land on an alien planet that looks almost exactly like the Death Star trench run and confront a transparent Wicked Witch of the West riff with the power of song and succeed in transforming her into Anjelica Huston.

For a short film which cost as much as a moderate budget feature film at the time (it cost nearly as much as Lucas' Howard the Duck), much of Captain EO is surprisingly sloppy. At least a third of the shots in the film required nothing from Coppola as they were obviously storyboarded, shot, and composited by Industrial Light and Magic well after the fact. Of the remaining material, the film is weirdly littered with gaps and continuity errors - especially in the opening ship battle, EO's puppet friends jump around the cabin from one shot to another almost as if Coppola were improvising from one shot to the next. Fuzzball sits in a hammock in Hooter's bunk a mere single shot after he's shown fluttering to his command post. After the ship crashes, Hooter appears to hang from the ceiling in some shots and stand at attention at others. I'm not trying to nitpick, but this short film had a bigger budget than most features - it cost over a million dollars per minute - and nobody seems to have been paying attention to some minor details that even cheap movies get right. There was almost certainly what was then still called a "Script Girl" to take note of blocking and coverage.

Once out of the ILM space battle, Coppola asserts himself more strongly, showing a greater willingness to work in and around Jackson's choreography and displaying a nice range of coverage of the big dance number which allows Murch to very nicely build the second half to three different climaxes. The two best shots in the film stage the action very simply in a center-stage proscenium arch, greatly enhancing the pleasing effect of the 3D. The film, in wide screen and 70mm, looks a great deal more carefully crafted and professional than the MTV full-frame bootlegs had made it appear.

Problems do persist, however. Jackson's dancing company are not actors, which seems okay on a television screen but they become a real liability when projected on a motion picture screen, hamming badly and sometimes stealing glances at the camera. As the Supreme Leader, Anjelica Huston has fun in a dry run for her role in The Witches, but otherwise seems to mostly be on view for reasons unknown - she's not bad, but there's no reason she particularly had to play the role. This was her big follow up to winning an Academy Award in Prizzi's Honor.

Elsewhere, the 3D effect is used rather unimaginatively, to poke us in the eye with sticks or have Jackson punch and kick the camera. Only one shot in the film seems to demand the process, which is the opening one, with a spinning galaxy and an asteroid that sails out into the audience's lap and explodes. It's a remarkably memorable effect, but EO uses its best reason to be in 3D in it's first minute of screen time. Some of the other good effects, such as sailing up through tree branches, simply repeat imagery from Magic Journeys.

I know, I know. So far I haven't given a single reason to admire Captain EO. But that's just the thing: I think EO is a very rare kind of film. It does so many things wrong that it somehow starts doing them right, rocketing past the sort of bland tedium of most bad movies and somehow minting a new threshold of lunacy. No truly weird movie can be truly bad, but EO does beg the question of what makes movies "bad" or "good".

Those movies that are usually considered "The Worst" - Plan Nine From Outer Space, Manos: Hands of Fate, Troll 2 - those aren't really the bad movies. They're certainly strange and uncomfortably incompetent, but they're also compulsively watchable because they venture so far outside our realm of comfort. The truly bad movies aren't watched because they're not watchable, flailing around through mediocre cookie-cutter plots and uninspired direction to reach predictable conclusions and submerge without a trace. A truly heinous film wouldn't even be fun in the "laugh-at-the-bad-effects" way popularized by Mystery Science Theater 3000 - it wouldn't even get released. If you did see it, you'd forget it by the time the end credits came up. I've seen lots of "consensus bad" movies and generally they had something in them that encouraged me to keep watching, even if out of mere fascination or frustration.

I say this as a longtime lover of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but most of the movies shown there were at least unique or even possibly good (their final episode, Danger: Diabolik, is a brilliant movie). Anybody who's ever sat through Manos: Hands of Fate carries with them scenes and sensations not found in other films, and thus Manos succeeds - indirectly - where many films fail - it sticks with you. The creepy atmosphere, the weird acting, the music - all highly memorable. Does anybody out there remember anything specific from Superman Returns?

An ever rarer - and thus infinitely more valuable - breed is when Hollywood accidentally makes one of these films. Manos or Plan Nine may traipse along on pure weirdness like whacked-out folk-art, but Hollywood has vast bureaucratic and technical systems in place to ensure that their films are at least watchable. Every so often, however, the right combination of factors locks the gears and they turn out something weird - a Waterworld or a Popeye or a Howard the Duck. Whereas most of what's seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000 qualifies as what we call in cinema studies "Outsider Cinema" - a great deal of it with its own unique merits - mainstream film production offers its own unique, rare sensations when its systems break down. In Hollywood these are called turkeys or fiascoes - films that for various reasons venture far from the mainline of public taste to create strange and new combinations that threaten to repel mass audiences.

This is because film making requires so many people and so much money that there is no sure fire formula to success: it's less like science and more like alchemy. If Hollywood knew how to make every film be a Casablanca, we'd have a lot more of them in the world. Some films fall short, most fall in the middle, and some go shooting off into some weird parallel dimension: flukes of the system, entropy.

What do we call these movies? Cult Movies?

I place Captain EO in this tradition. I've already mentioned Robert Altman's Popeye and I think that's still a fair comparison: Popeye gets so many things wrong in so many ways that it alchemizes it's own unlikely entertainment value. While years of availability of Popeye on cable TV and home video have restored some sort of legitimacy to a project that very nearly ended the careers of everyone involved, EO has largely not undergone the same sort of reappraisal. Where EO certainly doesn't belong is in the company of films like Robot Monster and Beast of Yucca Flats, the "so-bad-it's-good" category. I would place it alongside things like Last Action Hero and Hudson Hawk: movies that may not be great but which offer their own loopy charm.

One film which may be closer to home for Disney fans is Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, which by simply existing seems to be an act of subversion. Who would cast multi-million dollar actors then put them in makeup which makes them unrecognizable?  Who would get Stephen Sondheim to write songs which are barely audible? Who would decide to make a film with only seven identical colors? The answer, of course, is the apparently unstoppable Beatty and the cinematographer of Captain EO. Dick Tracy isn't exactly good, but it's never boring.

Now let's be honest: I've focused a lot on technicians and film makers but what makes Captain EO work when it works has to do almost entirely with Jackson. Jackson was not really an "actor" in any sense of the term but as a skilled performer his presence in the film entirely carries the effects it achieves. In other videos such as Thriller or Bad, Jackson seems a little remote, replicating some of the distancing effects of a Buster Keaton type of performer, who can casually do things nobody else can do. Whether this be the effect of a skilled actor's director such as Coppola or just a fluke, Jackson's space captain, after a few initial rough line deliveries ("We're going in!"), completely carries Captain EO, and the reason why has to do with the scale of Jackson's personal involvement in his craft. Jackson never did anything he didn't believe in - he signs the relatively lightweight Thriller with a disclaimer of endorsement of the supernatural as if it were The Exorcist - and he doesn't really act Captain EO so much as embody him. Compared to so many films and performers who seem to be resigned that they're selling us a bad bill of goods from the start, Jackson played everything with as much conviction as he possibly could, not matter what it was. He doesn't cheat with his audience. In the final sequence where EO dances his way out of the palace, Jackson's performance is so obviously striving for authenticity that he seems genuinely moved.

Who is Captain EO? He's a pixieish man from another planet who dances and wants to save the universe with music played by an almost imperceptibly different pixieish man from another planet who dances and wants to save the universe with his music. EO is the ultimate Jackson role because it seems to compile and synthesize the Jackson cultural myth into a fictional character.

The effect is that Captain EO presents us with a world which is disarmingly honest even while it revels in total outlandishness. In our modern era we have no defense mechanism against this: even while we see through the commercial motives EO is engineered to evoke, we can't reconcile the completely straightforward seriousness with which it treats itself, and we laugh. But it's hard to actually say that EO is kitsch or camp: Jackson seems to so completely believe in his music and his performance that it seems impolite to not take him seriously.

The scale to which one finds success or failure in Captain EO is directly proportionate to the level of investment one is willing to have in something so obviously silly. And EO is silly, outrageously so, but the silliness is disarming and prepares us for some genuinely thrilling moments further down the line. I discussed the larger generational attitudes that feed into this in You Do Have Wings, Orange Bird and they are relevant here too: metamodernism invites us to take Jackson seriously precisely because common sense and cultural conditioning today encourages us not to. If Captain EO works for you, the effect of the film is strangely, sadly moving. Through the sea of Lucas kitsch and Disney nonsense, something genuine and strange peers out at us. EO triumphs over itself.

Some of this has to do with the patina of history that has grown over Captain EO in the intervening quarter-century, and our own sad awareness of ourselves. This quality that nearly all films over a generation old, no matter how dire, eventually accrue is something too relatively new to have an actual critical term yet. The 20th Century was the first in history to be recorded from its first day to its last, including its unconscious anxieties and cultural fantasies. Both the material and the immaterial of an entire hundred years of history has been preserved. We now enjoy apparent banalities of the past with renewed fascination, like the workers at the Lumiere factory leaving the gate who fascinate not because they move but because they record the people and places of 1895. As the "time machine" effect of film continues to make itself known through history, we will develop ways to discuss this "magic window" effect in detail, but even relatively recent vintages such as EO possess charms that were not apparent to audiences when they were new.

Captain EO records 1986 extremely accurately as a cultural moment without ever having to show us the Challenger disintegrating, Ronald Regan and Iran-Contra, without ever mentioning Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee and Ferris Beuller's Day Off, and without ever showing us a leg warmer or a Madonna cassette. Because of this, as our own contemporary life has changed, the meaning of EO has changed with it. We now know that the puppet sidekicks of EO is the creative direction Lucas would pursue, eventually bringing us to the Star Wars prequels and defacing the reputation of his great creation. We know that Coppola's amazing accomplishments in the 70s would continue to haunt his declining influence and we know that ILM and Hollywood would shortly abandon the look and feel of these special effects and miniatures in favor of hollow-looking CGI. Depicting Jackson at the height of his success and power, Captain EO has the ability to rewrite history, allowing him to save the planet and sail off into the universe in a trail of rainbow light instead of succumbing to his personal demons and living the rest of his life as a tabloid mystery locked away in his own private Disneyland. Only through a creation like Captain EO can Jackson receive the "happy ending" such a sad life desperately needed. As a popular culture icon in a pop culture creation, Jackson's exit in EO is the way we can remember him for posterity. Here cracks a noble heart.

That's the queer power the film now has. Generally it's considered poor form to discuss any film in what David Bordwell has called the "Zeitgeist genre of criticism" on the grounds that we elevate the era instead of the art object, but we should remember that this is now a major attraction of classic films - a window into the past to what seems a simpler era. Ben Franklin reminds us that the "golden age never was the present age", but you can't change human nature. As long as time marches on there will be people and art objects to commemorate its dwindling passage. It applies to Casablanca, and also to lesser films like Captain EO.

And even if that doesn't make it a good film or excuse its many failings, it does add to its unique, one-off flavor. Whether you love or hate the film, you have to admit that the mold it popped out of is now broken. They literally do not make them them like this anymore. I believe by by nature of its origin, creation, and execution, Captain EO is both culturally and aesthetically significant, and that once it ends its run inside the theme parks I hope that it becomes available on video for posterity if nothing else. EO seems to reside in that weird limbo area that Hunter Thompson called "one of God's own prototypes - some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production."

It's a disaster of a movie. And every last, blessed frame of it is a vast, bizarre delight. I love it.