How to Hold Your Queen

It takes a lot of time and effort to make a movie, even a bad one. Take “The Pacifier,” for example. This trainwreck starred Vin Diesel as a Navy SEAL who has to babysit a brood of mischievous children. The finished product is unspeakably bad, a repulsive and unfunny combination of poop jokes and jokes in which the punch line is that Vin Diesel is doing something un-Diesel-like, such as singing or changing a diaper or walking upright.

But even this freak show didn’t just make itself. (That would have been even freakier.) The screenplay alone probably took upwards of an hour to write, plus maybe another two or three minutes to run Spellcheck. And then there were the endless script-revision meetings with studio executives, who wanted to ensure the film would reach the widest possible audience and make the most possible money. “Can we insert another poop joke?” one exec surely asked. “Market research indicates our PG-rated-family-movie audiences love poop jokes.”

“And what about a scene in which Vin Diesel runs afoul of a harmless animal?” asked another. “Could something like a hamster or maybe a duck assault him? Our market research suggests family audiences like it when animals do funny things, and by ‘funny things,’ I mean ‘anything.'”

Then there’s the actual shooting schedule, which takes several weeks. Even simple shots require technicians to set up the lights, load the film into the cameras, put the makeup on the actors, and train Vin Diesel where to stand and how to approximate human speech. (His trainer is just off-camera, issuing commands, a tranquilizer gun at the ready in case he snaps his tether and begins mauling crew members.) An ordinary two-minute dialogue scene might take all day to film. And a complicated scene, like the one where Vin Diesel falls into a sewer and emerges covered head-to-toe in human feces might require a week just to compile the feces.

All that work, and the film turns out to be terrible. What gives me pause, time after time, is realizing that, despite all the hours spent in the process, no one seemed to notice that they were creating an abomination. No one ever pulled the director aside to say, “You do realize, don’t you, that what you’re making is dreadful?”? The actors didn’t notice when they read the script that it was awful? The screenwriters’ mothers didn’t call to find out what they were working on and then, upon hearing it described, scold them into changing course? It is bewildering to contemplate.

Let us also consider the dialogue in “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” the punctuation-heavy new film from George Lucas. Now, dialogue has never been Lucas’ strong suit, and dialogue that is meant to express emotion of any kind is particularly a weakness for him. Witness my very favorite line in “Revenge of the Sith,” spoken during a moment of great stress by Padme to her beloved Anakin:

“Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo — so long ago, when there was nothing but our love.”

I’m going to say it again, so you can fully digest it.

“Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo — so long ago, when there was nothing but our love.”

This line is fraught with peril. Any time you command someone to “hold” you, you are already on shaky ground, cheesiness-wise. It is virtually impossible for a movie character to declare “Hold me” without causing snickers in the audience. To BE held is marvelous, certainly. But to request it by name is presumptuous. If you ever tell someone you love “Hold me,” you will be getting what you deserve if the person declines to hold you and mocks you instead.

In the case of Padme’s line, though, the situation is even more dire. For not only is she telling Anakin to hold her, but she is demanding he hold her in a particular fashion. What’s worse, she’s not even telling him how, exactly, he is supposed to do it. Instead, she has phrased her declaration in a way that suggests he should already know. She has embedded a mini-quiz into it, and if this is real life, his mind is thrust into a frenzy of thought:

“How did I hold her by the lake on Naboo? Didn’t I hold her the way I usually hold her? What did I do that time that was special? Am I supposed to remember this? Have we discussed this before? Think, Anakin! Use the Force!”

Then he tentatively puts his arms around her, doing essentially what he always does and hoping this is right. Then they have this exchange:

PADME: No! Like you did by the LAKE on NABOO!
ANAKIN: Sorry! (readjusts)
PADME: No, your arm was like this! (positions it)
ANAKIN: Ah, right, of course. (fakes it)
PADME: NO! Your other hand was over HERE!
ANAKIN: I’m sorry! I–
PADME: Just forget it! You’ve ruined it!
ANAKIN: (chokes her with the Force)

But I digress. In the movie, Anakin doesn’t reply at all. He just holds her, and then the scene ends. But the stench of that line lingers. “Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo? So long ago when there was nothing but our LOVE?!” A line that bad shouldn’t have even stuck to the tape. When they played back the audio, they should have heard only static, or perhaps the voice of Satan.

I also liked this exchange, between Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi:

ANAKIN: If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!
OBI-WAN: Only a Sith deals in absolutes!

But isn’t THAT an absolute, saying that only a Sith deals in absolutes? I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, in this case, it’s easy to figure out how the final version of the dialogue turned out so corny. George Lucas wrote it, and then he directed the movie, too, so there was no one to serve as editor or revisionist. And since he films everything in studios nowadays, with actors standing against green screens and the background added in post-production, his contact with other humans is limited.

Besides, how is anyone going to make suggestions? He’s GEORGE FREAKIN’ LUCAS! I think he knows he writes bad dialogue, and I think he doesn’t care. He knows how his fans punish him when one of his movies disappoints them: They only watch it 10 times in the theater instead of 20. I guess if I could be certain that writing lame dialogue would earn me a billion dollars, I’d probably do it, too. In fact, if you know of such an opportunity, please send me the details.

After seeing "Revenge of the Sith" for the first time, I enjoyed text-messaging Padme's line to my friends who had also seen it. One friend suggested it sounds like a line from a song, and we decided to watch all three prequels, compile the cheesy romantic dialogue, and write a song using nothing but those lines. Except then we never got around to it. Maybe someday.

I enjoyed the movie enough to see it again at the second press screening (and to give another lucky friend a chance to see it before it opened), but I had an agenda, too. I wanted to make sure I transcribed the dialogue correctly. I'm glad I did the double-checking, because I had Padme's line slightly wrong in my notes from the first viewing. (I had "when there was only our love" instead of "when there was nothing but our love.") Let it not be said that I don't worry about getting the important details right.

This column was intended mainly to be about the "Star Wars" dialogue, but I needed another recent film to introduce the topic. "The Pacifier" was selected because a) it was very bad, and b) a lot of people had seen it. Several films that year have been worse, but few were as popular as "The Pacifier" (a fact that makes my head hurt).