Friday, April 21, 2017

No, Not That Star Wars Trailer, a Different One

Well, the teaser trailer for the new Star Wars film was released last weekend and it’s already been watched about 30 million times on YouTube.  Pretty impressive for a clip that showcases less than two minutes of footage, some of which might not even end up in the finished film (right, Rogue One trailer?).  I’m not going to link to the clip here, mainly because if you’re reading this you’ve probably already watched it a dozen times.  This is a post about other trailers, and I’m not going to pour over the scant footage to try to work out any and all plot points and clues from the- OH MY GOD THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE ON LUKE SKYWALKER’S ISLAND:

Oh wait, on closer inspection that just appears to be a rock. But, I digress.   Apart from showing Rey levitating several small stones and enough shots of Skellig Michael to make the Irish tourist council happy, there’s not much to glean from the teaser.  I should mention at this point that I myself am a huge Star Wars fan and watched the trailer almost immediately after it was posted over the weekend (and several more times since then).  Seeing the original Star Wars at the drive-in when I was three is potentially my earliest memory as a human on planet earth.  I realize that many fans are also excited about the new movie and will spend the next few months watching the trailer frame by frame, trying to figure out the entire plot based only on the back of Leia’s head, and that’s fine by me, you’re dedicated and I respect your commitment.  I just try to avoid the endless speculation, and I stay away from spoilers. So I’m using the release of the new trailer to talk about an older Star Wars trailer, as well as the evolution of movie trailers in general.

The idea of a highly anticipated movie trailer is a relatively new one.  Platforms like The Internet Movie Database and YouTube allows us to watch them whenever we want, as many times as we want, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.  You used to have to buy a movie ticket to see them, or settle for short 30 second TV commercials.  Now trailers are big business (and essentially free to watch), and movie studios spend time and money crafting them into mini movies, and their release is sometimes as eagerly awaited as the movie they’re advertising.  This can be taken to extremes (remember how the teaser for Rogue One had it’s own teaser?) but for the most part I think this just helps increase excitement for a film.

But trailers weren’t always an art form.  Older trailers, readily available to us today thanks to YouTube, often look like they were slapped together quickly, and seem like they’ve had only the slightest association with a thing called “editing”.  Take a look at this original trailer for the film Apocalypse Now to see what I mean (I have to link to it this way because Blogger isn't letting me embed the video I want)

Apocalypse Now is rightly considered a masterful film, but the trailer looks terrible.  The beginning, which features Martin Sheen’s voiceover, is o.k., but then it turns into a roughly chronological outline of the movie told through a bunch of strung-together clips.  There isn’t an overall soundtrack to the trailer, and it seems as if the music that’s playing is there because it was already in the scene.  This creates a disjointed rhythm to the whole thing and makes it look like kind of a mess.  This was the norm at the time.  There are many other old trailer you can find that look just as rushed as this one.  30 years ago, trailers just weren’t something that a studio put a lot of time and effort into, and it shows.  

To get back to Star Wars, the original trailer for The Empire Strikes Back upped the game a little.  It’s from around the same time as the Apocalypse Now trailer but seems to be showing a little more effort.  It’s not just a chronological series of shots, but aims more to reintroduce characters that are already familiar as well as introduce some new settings.  The music is still a mess, though, and seems choppy and random.  Compare this to the full trailer for The Force Awakens (which seems to have a soundtrack that was composed specifically for it) and the difference is clear.

Perhaps the strangest part of that original trailer is the voice-over narration.  Yes, it’s Harrison Ford, and no, I’m not the first person to notice this.  Voice-overs were incredibly common in older trailers, so it’s use here isn’t odd.  Don LaFontaine made a career out of it, but I always preferred the creepier narration of Percy Rodriguez I think LaFontaine's "in a world" shtick got old).  Rodriguez was doing trailer voice work in the late 1970s (he narrated the original trailer for Jaws), and even did the narration for the Star Wars special edition trailer in 1997.   So, why didn’t they get someone like that for The Empire Strikes Back?  I understand why the filmmakers might want to use one of the actors from the film, but Ford isn’t even narrating it in character as Han Solo (which admittedly would probably be stranger).  Instead, he gives us a corny delivery that makes it seem like he’s trying to rope us in to a sketchy ring-toss game at a carnival.  The disconnect between the tone of the film we all know today and that goofy, used car salesman narration is jarring.  Writer Lawrence Kasdan said that Empire was the film where “everything goes to hell”, and he’s right. Everyone’s betrayed at some point, Luke’s hand is cut off, and the rebellion loses so epically they actually have to flee the galaxy at the end.

Yes, cynical Family Guy writers, this is how it ends.  Everything the rebels are fighting for is visible through that window.
Why Ford chooses to narrate the trailer the way he does remains a mystery to me.  I wasn’t able to find much out about his involvement, other than confirmation that it is, indeed, him.  Was he intentionally trying to sound as cheesy as possible?  Was he trying to torpedo the whole thing by sounding as goofy as he could?  He famously hated the Star Wars dialogue, so perhaps this is meant to be his revenge? Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want him to be recognized, but then why even use him at all?  

How bad was the Holiay Special? Allow
me to present Exhibit A.
It’s almost as if there wasn’t a really clear direction that the franchise was heading in at this point, and the overall tone was just confused.  At this point in time, the only Star Wars based entertainments that had been released were the original film and the horrendous Star Wars Holiday Special.  I’ll take a second here to mention that the Holiday Special is just as terribly godawful as everyone says it is.  I was child in the 70s and was obsessed with the first film (I still can’t bring myself to call it A New Hope- it’ll always be Star Wars to me).  My family had a VCR at the time and my father taped the Holiay Special for me and my siblings (we couldn’t stay up late to watch it).   We watched it once the next day and then never watched it again.  We had recording technology in 1979 that would have allowed us to watch a Star Wars themed TV show as many times as we wanted and our response was “pass”.  That’s how bad the Star Wars Christmas Special was. Kids, who I'm presuming were the intended audience, wanted nothing to do with it.  George Lucas should be lucky that it didn’t kill all future interest in the franchise (and yes, I'm aware of the fact that Lucas was not involved in the planning of the Holiday Special, but viewers in 1979 wouldn't have necessarily known that).  Would future Star Wars films be adventure films that explored ideas of good and evil, or would they be variety show farces filled with goofy wookiees?  Ford’s narration of the trailer makes it sound like he was still in Holiday Special mode, ready to introduce Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman right after Lando Calrissian.

I think everyone exhaled a sigh of relief when Empire turned out to be such a great movie.  It’s consistently considered the best of the Star Wars films, and I don’t disagree with that.  George Lucas will repeatedly say that the Star Wars films are made for children, but I think Empire busts that idea a little.  Sure, it has space battles and giant ship-eating slugs, but also introduces more adult themes such as loss, love, personal responsibility, and destiny.  It vastly expands the story and improves on the first film, and is probably one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.  But you wouldn’t guess it from that corny trailer.

My last thought on the matter is a personal message to Harrison ford. Thank you for not using that cheesy carnival huckster voice while you were playing Han Solo. That might have traumatized me more than the Holiay Special.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Cesar Pelli's Lost Oasis: The Niagara Falls Winter Garder

Cesar Pelli's Winter Garden, nearing the end.
I distinctly remember the first time I experienced Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden in Niagara Falls, New York.  I was in high school, and I was visiting the Falls with a friend.  We decided to poke around in the Rainbow Center Mall, which by then was already declining pretty badly.  It was the early 90s and I don’t remember there being many stores that were still open.  After wandering in and out of a couple of shops, we came to the southern end of the mall and entered into an unexpected oasis.  One doesn’t often expect to find a lush tropical botanical garden attached to something as banal as a shopping mall, but there it was.  I was intrigued by the building’s multiple raised walkways and elevators.  A tall spiral staircase stretched to the highest level of the greenhouse.  Pools and fountains trickled through the thick vegetation.  It was certainly unlike other Niagara Falls structures I was familiar with.  The Falls are a tourist destination, so is filled with the normal tourist trappings one would expect like souvenir shops (with a generous dose of wax museums and goofy haunted houses thrown in).  This was completely different from what I knew of the Falls.  As a kid growing up in Western New York, regular trips to the Falls are a rite of passage, but this building had somehow not entered into my previous visits.  But, once I discovered it I made a point of visiting it every time I was there.  I’m glad I got to experience it when I did, because it was eventually demolished.

The building has sort of a sad history that ties into the City of Niagara Falls in general.  It was built in the 1970s in an effort to revitalize the downtown core. Large sections of the city had been razed during ill-fated attempts at urban renewal, and Cesar Pelli was one of the modernist architects hired to re-build the city, pretty much from the ground up (buildings by Philip Johnson, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Paul Rudolph are also close by).  It was an attempt to create a tourist destination, but perhaps a tropical greenhouse was an odd, and eventually unsustainable, proposition.  As I researched the Winter Garden, I read about how it had been glazed using non-insulated single pane glass.  Heating the building during Western New York’s harsh winters became a burden for the city.  As time went on, the Winter Garden became difficult to support financially.  Niagara Falls may be an iconic world landmark, but the city itself has suffered with poverty and falling property values for decades.  Any fixes to the city-owned building would have been difficult and costly.  Re-glazing the structure with insulating glass would have cost millions.  Charging an admission fee for the building also posed problems (visiting the Winter Garden was free).  It was attached to a shopping mall, and the building itself was supposed to act as a pass-through from one side of the tourist district to the other.  The building had already been criticized for being built over what had once been a street, so closing it off to all but paying customers would have hurt business in the city even more.  There were other ideas proposed, such as converting the plantings to native species that could weather the cold, but nothing panned out.  In the end the plants were auctioned off and it was (for a brief time) converted into “Smokin’ Joe’s Family Fun Center.”  It was filled with video games and bounce houses, but that venture only lasted for a couple of years.  The Winter Garden was finally torn down in 2009.

Say what you will about the demolition and the successes or failures of modernist architecture in general, but there’s no doubt that a unique (and admission-free) attraction was lost when the Winter Garden came down.  It was an unexpected oasis in the middle of the city.

As I began writing this article a little while ago, I started researching the Winter Garden on-line, looking for photos that could give me information on the building’s design as well as the plantings within.  I came to the quick realization that there isn’t a lot out there, unfortunately.  For a building that stood in the middle of a major tourist destination for 30 years, it’s lack of representation on the internet was both puzzling and a little frustrating.  Pictures of the outside of the building are fairly easy to find, but interior photos that show the tropical plants and fountains are rare (maybe 12-15 pictures will show up in a Google search).  Of course there are photos out there.  I took pictures of the building during my visits, and I’m including some with this post. The building was also a common location for weddings in the Niagara Falls area, so countless wedding photos surely exist, they just haven’t been uploaded to the internet.   Many photos of the construction of the building’s interior spaces, as well as many people’s accounts of the building can be found in this post. (a good article that's definitely worth a read) 
I found this interior photo in an old architectural magazine.

This photo is from the same magazine article.
This is a photo I took in the late 90s.  The seating area was where special event like weddings were held.

This photo shows the pool and stairs, and shows the many different levels contained within the structure.
This pic was taken from an upper walkway, looking down at the main path that cut through the garden areas.
When I first visited the Winter Garden, the large dove-shaped decorations (visible in the above photo) were mounted on the front of the building, and were there for several years.  These are a vestige of the Festival of Lights, a winter/holiday themed event that was held throughout the city in the 1980s and 90s.  I was able to find one YouTube video that showed the doves illuminated. The footage of the Winter Garden comes near the end, but I took a screen cap:
This is literally the only footage I could find of the illuminated decorations.
On a final note, I noticed an interesting inconsistency while viewing the site of the Winter Garden in Google Maps.  I went to the street view in to see the area now (it’s essentially been turned into a large pedestrian walkway and plaza) and found something unexpected- some of the street views are old and still show the Winter Garden.  They’re all views from the periphery, as if you’re catching a glimpse of a ghost from the corner of your eye.
The street is now closed off, so when the Google cameras recently captured new images of the area, these shots couldn't be updated, so the Winter Garden's ghost lives on.
Now you see it, now you don't.
Cesar Pelli’s Winter Garden: Once an oasis, now a mirage.