Friday, 17 April 2015

The Harrison Ford Shaped Hole

There's nothing I can say about the new Star Wars trailer that hasn't already been said by people much nerdier than me and with a much better collection of action figures (and all, no doubt, still in their original packaging). For the record, I don't actually own any Star Wars action figures and I don't think I even owned any of the official merchandise, with perhaps the exception of some old dusty paperbacks and a super deluxe collector's edition box set of the original VHS tapes probably now not worth shelf dust.

Anyway, I sat down today to watch the new Star Wars trailer and my first conscious thought was about the opening shot of the Star Destroyer, lying ruined in a rocky desert on some unknown planet. I should imagine on the big screen it will have the same 'wow' factor that the opening shot from the original movie apparently had on audiences in 1977. That shot established mythology, history, scale, wonder and was just possibly the most evocative way of introducing the series beyond the familiar strains of John William's score.

My second thought was about that strangely mangled Darth Vader helmet. I think it's because it seems to have strange teeth that I found it slightly creepy but also mildly amusing. For no explicable reason, I thought 'melted Chuckle Brother' and I now can't get that image from out of my mind.

What followed, though, really told me nothing about the movie. More X wings flying through water, men whooping, a noticeably young, pretty but (I thought ) bland set of casting choices, vaguely defined bad guys with red light sabres, and the whole thing having a slightly modern vibe, with chromium troopers reminding me of the original series of Battlestar Galatica. And none of that really excited me.

Then I heard the voice I recognised and I felt a shiver.

Sure, he's looking older but he's in no bad shape. I know this is Harrison Ford pre the plane crash Harrison Ford but I'm not sure if it's the post-broken ankle Harrison Ford. I know my Fords but I struggle to identify vintages to that level of specificity.

This leads me to my revealing and slightly sad confession of the week: I've been checking for progress reports on Harrison Ford every morning since he went propeller-first into a golf course. I've probably not missed a day checking Google for news. On quite a few days, it might even be the first thing I do when walking up, sometimes even before checking my email. I know. I know. It's pathetic. I can't explain myself. I didn't even realise that I was this much of a Harrison Ford fan.

Yet there's always been something about Ford which defies logic. There are certainly better actors out there, many with more personable personalities. And though Ford is the star of some great movies, he has also, admittedly, made some stinkers too ('Hollywood Homicide', 2003). He's an actor who seems to have a particularly difficult sense of his best qualities and sometimes seems to go out of his way to infuriate his fans. For a time, he thought of himself as romantic lead, making many of his fans (myself included) pull out our hair in frustration. I mean, what the hell was he thinking when he made 'Sabrina' (I'm not even going to bother looking up its year)? Then there was 'the earring', which, I confess, I've never totally excused or accepted. There was no rhyme nor reason behind it, so I resorted to telling myself firmly postmodern arguments such as 'well, he's ironically commentating on his place in male culture... He's so far over on the manliness spectrum, he's started to come back around the other way...' Or something like that...

Ford has often been his own worst enemy, which is itself an endearing quality. It's only recently that he's been anything other than dismissive about 'Blade Runner', a film celebrated for its production design but a film I only go back to because of the stars: Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, and Daryl Hannah and, well, just about every speaking role in the film, filled with exceptional talents. People talk about the look of the film but I maintain it's the cast, all of them great, but the whole thing is held together by Ford.

Ford is best when he's not the straightforward hero. Sure, I love Indiana Jones and I'll watch the new Star Wars films with eager anticipation. But they're franchises and I rarely get excited by marketing. They're certainly not the films I reach for when I'm having a bad day or week and want to cheer myself up. My favourite Harrison Ford movies were not even blockbusters when they were released and they aren't even all that highly rated now except by myself. My favourites are movies like 'Frantic' (1988) and 'Patriot Games' (1992), films that are generally forgotten but, for me at least, are better because they lack the lights and show.

They have Harrison Ford and Ford fits the shape of my world. He's complicated and truculent, largely hostile to the spin machine that operates everywhere these days. He plays the lead without the swagger you get in most movie leads these days. I'm sure he knows which is his 'best side' but I hope he'd never dare suggest as much to a director of photography. Ford is a man of the short quip, the demoralising put down, the cutting admission that he's been lucky in a bat shit crazy world. As he was recently quoted to have told actor Oscar Isaac about 'flying' in the new movie: 'It’s fake. And it’s in space, so none of that applies, really.'

The defining quality, I guess, is that ability to express our very modern frustrations. He shines when trying to explain his troubles to inept policemen or bureaucratic officials. My favourite Ford moments are those when he's struggling to explain the world. I love the way he manhandles John Mahoney around the office in 'Frantic', sticking his fingers into his ribs imitating a gun. It's an almost bullying  physical presence but a presence made bullying by the inability of the world to follow his logic.

So when Harrison Ford crashes an old World War 2 plane on a golf course, the world asks why he's flying such junk around in a residential area. My answer to that is: I don't care and I hope he doesn't care either. The scar on the golf course is like the scar on his chin and (no doubt) the scars now on his head. People do dumb things that are fun and there's no point in trying to apply health and safety to the human spirit. It's a just a fact of the real world that people like doing the sometimes crazy things that define us as people. Screw Justin Beiber and screw his tattoos that mean nothing beyond his vain ego. It's the real scars that mean everything.

So, when I check first thing every morning, it frustrates me to not really know how Harrison Ford is doing. Yet I accept the reasons why nobody really tells us about his progress. I find it frustrating but, at the same time, I find it reassuring that he's not become the victim to the witless TMZ generation. He's not been pursued into his local grocers when he's buying beer or lactose free yogurt. Knowing about the earring was too much for me. I don't want to see him in yoga bottoms. I want to think that Ford is the few ordinary guys in an extraordinary business. He has something that no special effect or clever piece of production design can replicate. What he brings to a film isn't polish. It's something that's harder to define but is more essential. The second Star Wars trilogy films were fun, enjoyable (I'm one of their few defenders) but they were always lacking something. It was the Ford quality. For want of a better phrase, it's knuckle spit. It's that great big 'screw you' attitude that an otherwise bland uniform world would hammer out of all of us.

Currently it feels like there's a Harrison Ford shape hole in the world. I just hope he's doing well and will soon be fit enough to fill it again.

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