Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Over the festive break, Talkhouse Film is revisiting some of its most read (or listened to) pieces of the year, including this one. Happy holidays! – N.D.
I’ve never been one of those people who thinks dialogue-driven movies are somehow less “cinematic” than purely visual ones, or who bought into “show, don’t tell” as a screenwriting rule; the sharp insights and observations contained in the badinage of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Paul Mazursky and Aaron Sorkin are as integral to my view of film history as Antonioni’s architecture, Kubrick’s tracking shots or Peckinpah’s fast cutting. (My own movies are so verbally promiscuous that they make My Dinner with Andre look like Wall-E.) Yet I must admit than in recent years I’ve been more and more drawn to silent cinema, both to become more aware of how to create meaning via mise-en-scène and as a way of getting back in touch with the purely emotional response to movies I used to have as a child. Of course, barely anyone makes silent films anymore, so the pleasures of the form are largely gone from contemporary cinema. But not entirely. One of the best silent movies I’ve ever seen is only a few months old and hiding in plain sight on the Movies Anywhere app: it’s the “score-only” version of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
This special feature is exactly what the description promises, an edition of The Last Jedi stripped of all its dialogue and sound effects, accompanied only by John Williams’ score. Based on Johnson’s tweets about the release, he wanted to put out this version so that people could fully appreciate the breadth and depth of Williams’ music, which is indeed awe-inspiring – no mere pastiche of his previous work in the series but, like the film it supports, a stunningly inventive leap forward that honors the earlier films while moving the saga in surprising, gratifying directions. Yet the “silent” edition of The Last Jedi is far more than a tribute to Williams’ talent; by removing the dialogue and sound effects, Johnson has given his film a newfound purity in which all of its big ideas having to do with memory, legacy, regret and hope are amplified and made more intellectually and emotionally penetrating. He’s also transformed it into an entirely new movie that has different pleasures and more poignancy than the theatrical version while retaining most of what made that movie great. In this sense, the relationship the score-only version of The Last Jedi has to the original is similar to the relationship between The Last Jedi and the previous films in the franchise.
Putting all my cards on the table, I should make clear that in its theatrical release version I thought The Last Jedi was the best Star Wars movie since George Lucas’ 1977 original: the one most in touch with the primal satisfactions of myths, the one with the greatest variety of expertly calibrated tones, and the one with the greatest sense of visual ingenuity. (I should also make clear that this is no faint praise, since I’ve loved every movie in the series – yes, even the prequels.) It was spectacularly entertaining in terms of its dynamic action set pieces and had a delightfully playful sense of humor, yet also managed to be the most adult entry in the saga since The Empire Strikes Back; its examination of grief and its exploration of the ways in which people struggle with the difference between the way things are and the way they want them to be were positively devastating at times, largely thanks to Mark Hamill’s brilliant performance, one that equals Robert Forster’s Oscar-nominated work in Jackie Brown in its combination of weary resignation and buried romantic hopefulness. Interestingly, this idea of people either enduring in the face of a schism between their longings and reality or being destroyed by the weight of the disappointment is oddly relevant to the film’s reception; although a deservedly massive hit, The Last Jedi met with a hyperbolic backlash on social media from fans who felt that Johnson didn’t give them the Star Wars movie they wanted. In a way, maybe the silent version of the film is the answer to their grievances – shorn of dialogue and exposition, it allows the viewer to make up his or her own version of the movie … though why anyone would want to when the existing one is so rich is beyond me.
For those of us who love The Last Jedi as is, seeing it without the dialogue and effects is an opportunity to fully appreciate the weight on these characters – on Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, on Daisy Ridley’s Rey, on Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, on Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia, and so many more (it’s amazing how many storylines Johnson finds time to fully develop in his exquisitely balanced structure) – as the faces convey the burden of their decisions as vividly as in a Bergman film. I find Johnson’s dialogue too witty to refer to it as a distraction, but there is something advantageous to distilling his characters’ relationships and inner tensions down to their essence by removing speech; the telepathic connection between Rey and Ren, or the final moments between Luke and Leia in which a lifetime of victories and tragedies are summed up in a simple series of looks and touches, or a young heroine’s final sacrifice for the man she loves, are all more beautiful, poetic and affecting in the score-only version. The poetry extends to the violence and action as well – people have been comparing this series to Kurosawa ever since Lucas name-checked The Hidden Fortress as an influence more than 40 years ago, but this is the first time I’ve ever felt the Star Wars movies truly matched Kurosawa’s sense of visual elegance. In the sound version of the film, the densely layered effects give the battle sequences a riveting, kinetic energy that’s undeniably involving and powerful, but when those same set pieces are accompanied only by Williams’ melodic, graceful score, they suddenly achieve a hypnotic lyricism that puts The Last Jedi closer to the great musical directors – to Michael Powell, or Vincente Minnelli – than to any kind of action tradition. The climax, set on a planet where a red surface emerging from underneath the white salt makes it look as though the landscape itself is bleeding, is as transcendent in its visual splendor as anything in The Red Shoes or Ran.
The Last Jedi turns out to be perfectly suited to reinvention as a silent film for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that the whole idea of looking back and forward at the same time is woven into its narrative fabric – just as the characters have to decide which traditions and patterns to be beholden to and which ones to leave in the past so that they can move forward, Johnson exhibits a historian’s reverence for the old masters and an innovator’s desire to design new worlds. Thus images echoing silent classics like Wings coexist alongside the most cutting-edge visual effects that Johnson can conceive and Industrial Light and Magic can execute, and all of it feels totally unified by Williams’ score. But the real reason The Last Jedi works so well as a silent film is that it’s the most unabashedly moving of all the Star Wars films, the one that goes for the heartstrings more often than any other and earns each moment of sentiment to which it aspires. This is no truer than in the scenes involving Carrie Fisher, to whom The Last Jedi became a posthumous tribute. Although her many moments of emotional catharsis and resolution existed in the script and were shot before her passing, there’s an added bit of resonance that comes from knowing we’re seeing her as Leia for the last time. That resonance is enhanced in the score-only version; accompanied by Williams’ valedictory music, the images of Fisher are iconic yet give the viewer the time and space to see her in all her human frailty, and to be deeply moved by it. One wouldn’t think that a version of a movie that removes all of the actors’ speech would be a gift to them, but that’s exactly the case with the score-only Jedi – not only for Fisher and Hamill, but for the younger cast members like Ridley, whose ability to convey 20 years of heartbreak in a look or a savage thrust forward with her lightsaber is mesmerizing.
Ultimately though, the score-only The Last Jedi isn’t just a gift to the actors or to Williams, or even to Star Wars nuts like me – in its delicacy, clarity and beauty, it’s a gift to anyone eager and willing to rediscover the magic of movies.