The Mandalorian and The Kuleshov Effect

More than halfway through the first season of Disney+’s marquee original show The Mandalorian, the question everyone is asking, both on screen and off, is whether or not the title character is ever going to show us his face. The eponymous bounty hunter may not be Boba Fett or his father Jango, but he sports a similarly sleek helmet and has only taken it off once briefly (without showing the audience his face underneath). The choice to literally mask a key character is far from a unique situation in the Star Wars universe, but a risky one for the new show.

The Kuleshov Effect

In short, what The Mandalorian is doing is adopting an old-school cinematic technique known as the Kuleshov effect. This effect, so named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, was first demonstrated in the earliest days of cinema, in the 1910s. Kuleshov spliced together footage of an expressionless Russian actor with images of a plate of soup, a young woman on a divan, and a girl in a coffin. 

Though the images in between the actor would change among those three options, his face was intentionally devoid of any emotion or reaction every time Kuleshov cut to him. This, in short, was the effect: people who watched the series of images perceived the expressionless actor to be grief-stricken or hungry or lust-filled, not because of the actor but because of what he was “reacting” to. The effect was as much about the suggestive power of film editing as it was about how audiences are willing to graft emotion onto the emotionless when given the right resources.

Which brings us to the world of Star Wars, where grafting emotion onto the emotionless has been a major part of the series since almost its very first scene. Masks are a major part of the series, and so is the flat-out willingness to feature characters without distinctively human faces. This is a creative choice that’s not unique to heroes or villains — before we meet Luke Skywalker, we meet the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, both of whom come to life thanks as much to their designs as to the vocal performance of Anthony Daniels and sound design of Ben Burtt, respectively. The same goes for Han Solo’s furry friend Chewbacca, roared to life in the original trilogy by Peter Mayhew. These are some of the most beloved sidekicks in all of film history, and what they lack in physical expression (Chewbacca a bit less than the droids), they make up for in…having friends like Luke and Han, who essentially translate what they say.

C-3PO, of course, is intended to be a chatterbox — the running gag throughout the franchise is that he just can’t stop talking. But as lively as Daniels’ performance is, it’s always limited to what we hear, not what we see, even if the actor was in the C-3PO outfit at least during the original trilogy. That character and Chewbacca are more physically driven. We can’t always understand what Chewbacca is saying, but he often makes up for it by using his body in a way that’s clear enough. 

A Disturbance in the Force

The same is somewhat true of the series’ original villain, Darth Vader. Though it’s eventually made clear who Darth Vader really is (or, if you like, really was), we first know him as a true black hat, with a flowing robe, a terrifying mask, a breathing problem, and an angry voice provided by James Earl Jones. The magic of the character of Darth Vader is a Kuleshov effect in and of itself. By the time the climax of Return of the Jedi rolls around, in which Vader (now revealed to be Luke Skywalker’s father Anakin, under a new name) chooses to save his son from the fury of Emperor Palpatine, the audience is grafting a lot onto the expressionless ex-villain than could ever be present on the blank-slate mask we’re staring at. We presume that Vader is gripped by the notion to do right by his son vs. trying to please the Emperor, not because of an expressive performer but our own expectations.

The same is true of bounty hunters like Boba Fett, introduced in The Empire Strikes Back and summarily killed in the opening stretch of Return of the Jedi by falling into the Sarlacc pit. The character just looks cool, even if we know so little about him (though arguably, that air of mystery is what has allowed the character to remain a cult figure for so long). The prequel trilogy introduces us to the concept of clones, to Boba’s father Jango, and more, thus removing the mystery and providing answers that are both disappointing and do nothing to stop the character from still looking cool. 

With The Mandalorian, we have a character who is essentially all helmet. As played by Pedro Pascal, the Mandalorian is a cutthroat bounty hunter with a shaky past that presumably is what inspires him to keep his latest bounty — a 50-year old infant alien who’s the same species as the wizened Jedi Master Yoda — for himself as opposed to returning it to a mysterious client played by Werner Herzog. We don’t know much about Mando yet, aside from brief glimpses of his youth, when he was forcibly separated from his parents and taken in by fellow Mandalorians. And we know that he really never wants to take off the helmet, because of the Mandalorian religion or code.

Do or Do Not

There are still three episodes left in this season of The Mandalorian, and leaving aside where the story is going (if the story, indeed, is going anywhere), the big hit has been the nicknamed Baby Yoda. People have been champing at the bit for Baby Yoda merchandise (and so far, Disney has offered woefully little, implying that showrunner Jon Favreau and the production crew were very effective in convincing everyone to keep the new character a secret). There are memes aplenty with Baby Yoda cropping up every day, and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have an opinion on the character. (My own: Baby Yoda is fine! It’s a cute little guy who will sell a billion toys once they’re available.)

Baby Yoda is, honestly, the biggest Kuleshov effect of all — even though the character is maneuvered by puppeteers, there’s not a whole lot of expression in its face, and since it’s a baby, it doesn’t talk. Mando, on the other hand, is intended to be a more physically expressive character, but one whose face is impenetrable and whose voice is often heard in a flat affect. A true cynic could even wonder how much of the show Pedro Pascal has worn the mask for — he’s not recognizable enough physically underneath all the gear. Moreover, Bryce Dallas Howard, who directed the fourth installment, offhandedly mentioned a fight sequence where she was working with Pascal’s stunt and body double: “It wasn’t like I was working with Pedro on a day-to-day basis, so Gina [Carano] was the face of the episode.”

Because these two characters are paired together — Pascal’s the only actor who’s credited in each episode of the show, and Baby Yoda the only alien to appear in each one as well — they manage to bounce off one another in charming fashion despite the fact that you can’t ever really know what they’re thinking. When we watch the mask of the Mandalorian look to or from Baby Yoda, we can presume that he’s annoyed or frustrated, or maybe swooning over the cute little alien. But the vocal performance belies any emotion, thus making it so whatever we presume the Mandalorian feels is entirely on us.

Size Matters Not

This is what makes The Mandalorian such a frustrating show during its first go-round. Even with the fourth episode’s side-track storyline in which Mando and Baby Yoda encounter a new, friendly group in need of help from marauding bandits, this show still feels like a movie that’s been elongated to raise social-media awareness and interest. The fact that our title character is so stolid and taciturn (even though he talks more in the fourth episode than prior installments, he’s not a C-3PO-level chatty Kathy) only makes it a more opaque experience. The Mandalorian looks incredible, with directors such as Deborah Chow and Rick Famuyiwa capturing the same visual grandeur the original series evoked, having been as inspired by Westerns as by samurai films.

As much as the show looks the part, and as much as the new characters feel appropriate enough to the world of Star Wars, the level of audience surrogacy is too high. Reading into what the Mandalorian thinks or feels is a dangerous game to play, because it essentially allows the filmmakers to do less of the work. With each new episode, there are implications that the Mandalorian is growing closer to Baby Yoda, or that we’re meant to feel that way. Instead, each passing installment makes it harder to understand why this specific character has helped out Baby Yoda. 

The audience doesn’t need to explain its own affinity for Baby Yoda. The Jedi Master is one of the series’ most well-liked characters, even though he too is treated as expressive as much because of a vocal performance as anything else. (Muppet characters like Yoda are equally a case of voice performance doing a lot of the work.) But Mando doesn’t know who Yoda is, unless we’re all about to get a shock to the system in the back half of the season, a potential plot twist that would explain his choices even if it’s deployed later than it should be.

The Mandalorian is a handsome-looking show, and there are still characters we’ve yet to meet with just three episodes to go. The straightforward, serialized style of the program, coupled with the whole of social media embracing Baby Yoda as their new lord and savior, has helped the show become one of the most talked-about pop-culture objects of the year.

And in some ways, The Mandalorian harkens back to one of the oldest tricks in the cinematic book. The Kuleshov effect is almost as old as the moving picture itself, and the Star Wars franchise has proven extremely adept with deploying it in ways that audiences don’t even realize is occurring. The Mandalorian is the latest, most extreme example of Kuleshov’s effect in principle and action — it’s just leaning too hard on this in favor of something beyond the mask.

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