Monday, May 29, 2017

Star Wars at 40: Part I

Star Wars was released without much fanfare.  It wasn't the kind of boxoffice breaking insta-hit that everyone expects today.  The lines around the block didn't start on Memorial Day.  \

Movies didn't work that way back then.  The movie mega-plexes weren't everywhere yet.  The attitude in those days was, sure I want to see this one but it can wait.  Movies were typically in theaters for months at a time.  You could always wait.  "It will be around eventually."

My Mom used those exact words on me when I begged her to take me to see this new movie that had just come out.

She refused.  After all it was Memorial Day and I should find something better to do than sit in a theater.

I remember being sold on the trailer.  And that part is kind of interesting.  Take a look at the original trailer.

That trailer doesn't look anything like the movie that we saw.  If anything it felt sort of like the sixties Italian science fiction like Wild, Wild Planet.

Clearly the Effects were going to be better and it did have robots.  Good enough I wanted to see it.

But instead we got something quite a bit different.

EMyrt has a few thoughts on this. 

Most of the mass commercial audience, especially children, have no inkling of this history when they encounter popular films, although consumers are becoming ever more sophisticated in this regard (see, for example, the wonderful TV Tropes Wiki). Film buffs, by definition, join me in feeling that our enjoyment is enhanced by awareness of the source material, although many, like Tarantino, dig no further than earlier films for inspiration, ignoring the deeper artistic or mythic sources of resonance already recycled by the films they plunder.

However, once a franchise is sustainably established, the fan base (and alas, the creators) enter a self-reflecting universe, where the films increasingly borrow only from each other, with ever-receding referents to the historical or real-life content that fueled the launch of the first installment. Some franchises, like the James Bond films, are suspiciously solipsistic from nearly the beginning (after Goldfinger, the formula crystallized; the Daniel Craig reboot only managed two films before the complete formula reasserted itself).

George Lucas and his creative team conjured Star Wars from a particularly rich tradition that included not only the works of cinema auteurs (Kurosawa, John Ford, Sergio Leone, Michael Curtiz), but also mid-20th Century pulp science fiction, plus Nordic and British myths as reworked by Wagner and Tolkien, all highly syncretic artworks themselves. Propelled by a vivid yet gritty visual imagination and realized through an unprecedented team-effort blend of traditional (models, stop-motion, matte paintings, blue screen) and then-new digital special effects, the end product was a stunning tour de force of galaxy-building within which familiar Jungian archetypes enacted a story with mythic power as formulated by Joseph Campbell. Too bad about the screenwriting.

Lucas was particularly drawn to the 1930s Flash Gordon film serials (originally, SW was to be a remake, but he couldn’t get the IP rights). Based on a comic strip and radio serial, these black & white shorts were played before feature films, with cliffhanger endings to entice audiences back to the cinema to pay another nickel to see how the story progressed (my father was one of this audience). Flash Gordon was populated by mid-20th Century racist archetypes: Yellow Peril villain and his Dark Action daughter versus blond hunky Action Hero and his blonde Damsel in Distress; the heroes helped by a Mad Scientist (Russian and/or Jewish) and a variety of weirdly costumed Exotic Alien Allies. Despite a low budget, it boasted, for its day, state of the art FX. The whole enterprise recycled Art Deco sets, skimpy costumes (until the Hayes crackdown), props (oh, those ray guns!) and, most effectively, music, from earlier Universal films (including Bride of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, and The Invisible Man), scores that were, in their turn, largely rip-offs of Romantic art music. My own first hearing of Liszt’s Les Preludes was from watching the Flash Gordon serial on TV (I loved it then and still do today).

Back to Star Wars.

In January 2016, I went to see The Force Awakens, based on the seemingly universal positive reviews, delighted (if PC) media buzz and enthusiastic word of mouth from fans. Blinded by the Disney hype blizzard, I naïvely thought I had properly calibrated my expectations (as I did for SPECTRE, which met them more than adequately). I did go in knowing the Big Spoiler, but that turned out to be the least of my problems.

Imagine my distress, when, large popcorn in hand, I found myself annoyed at the flatness of the characters, irritated by the moral obtuseness of the story, and exasperated by the endless, predictable video game explosions. Rather than swept away, I was cold and detached, aggravated, even angry. I found the film bloated, incoherent, shallow — heartless and soulless.

What went wrong?

Start with my mind-set: I am not a fan, but I loved the first two Star Wars movies. I was a graduate student when Star Wars burst into the zeitgeist. I was one of the first three viewers in line for the opening in Madison, WI (two hours early was more than enough to put us in the front of the line!).

I was primed by friends who shared my love of science fiction (including the ’30s Flash Gordon serials and Doc Smith Skylark space operas). Moreover, this couple hung out with Heinlein, Pournelle and Niven at the ’76 MidAmericaCon (before Social Justice invaded the SF World); they were all blown away by the Star Wars preview. The cover article in Time magazine (back when Time was still a popular and respected publication) also set me up, with its discussion of the new computer FX and the mythic dimension in the film. There was remarkably little other publicity (those posters!) or media coverage, and the trailer, as everyone knows, sucked. I already knew my Jung and Joseph Campbell (and Mircea Eleiade) and had enthusiastically applied those lessons to multiple encounters with Wagner’s Ring cycle (and other works) over the previous 10 years.

Despite or because of that build-up, Star Wars: Episode 4 (wtf?): A New Hope, blew me away! From the Flash Gordon crawl and spaceship FX across a Dune-like planet, through Princess Leia’s retro-neo-classical getup, Darth Vader’s Scarpia-esque entrance, the tight PoV on the androids (Hobbits in Fritz Lang tin cans), Luke’s double-sunset Destiny (the Skywalker motiv, so like the Walsungs), to Alec Guinness reprising his Marcus Aurelius shtick in a burlap hoodie, I was entranced. I felt I had been studying my whole life to appreciate this gesamtkunstwerk!

More than anything there was the music. If Star Wars was George Lucas’ pastiche of the SF and movies he loved, John Williams’ score was a perfect pastiche of the neo-Romantic and early modern music I loved (Liszt, Wagner, Mahler; Stravinsky, Prokoviev, Bartok; Korngold, Steiner, Hermann) a leitmotivic idiom for the ultimate space opera. The soundtrack albums were the only tie-in merchandise I bought, and I played the LPs to death. I was too poor and too old to buy the toys (grownups didn’t do that in the ‘70s — just kids) and was blissfully unaware of the nascent fan universe, despite intimations picked up from my MidAmCon friends (first time I heard the term FIWOL — Fandom is a Way of Life).

In the three years before The Empire Strikes Back, my life changed utterly. I moved back to Chicago and lived through my own soap opera: new domicile, new school, reconfigured relationships, first real job. I’m still married to the man I saw ESB with (one of the MidAmCon couple); for us the film was a culmination of our love of neo-Romantic music, Jungian archetypes, science fiction and each other — we were Han and Leia flying through the asteroid field! I still consider it the best of all the Star Wars films, with a bittersweet tragic note that was bathetically overplayed in TFA and an appropriately Flash Gordon cliffhanger ending.

After Empire, Lucas, with Spielberg, went off to raid tinfoil-hat archeology. By Return of the Jedi, we were living in Berkeley, with new jobs and an increasingly psychedelic outlook. We still attended opening day, but after the Jabba sequence’s homage to Flash Gordon (scantily clad women, trapdoor, underground arena, stop-motion monster and all) and the Skywalker sibling revelation (which we, as Ring aficionados, had anticipated two films ago), it was clear that the franchise was losing its edge, even before the appearance of the Ewoks. The plot seams were showing (another Death Star to destroy?) and the politics had moved fashionably left (Ewoks as Viet Cong?). Although it was still a satisfying cinematic experience, it was clear that Star Wars and we were drifting apart.

In the meanwhile, Lucas’s filmmaking became ever more self-referential in Willow (which I rather liked, its PC still sweetly positive) and self-indulgent in Howard the Duck. The vein of archetypal magic had run out, leaving Lucas reworking the tailings. Watching the Prequel trilogy was more a duty than a pleasure — my husband gave up after Phantom Menace, and I only finished the trio because of friends who were fans. Lucas was bogged down by success, his projected triple trilogy petering out into solipsism. The archetypes that made the paper-thin characters resonate in the first films were now paint-by-number, the naïve politics and unintentional racist stereotypes (not just Jar-Jar) far more embarrassing than Flash Gordon’s innocent pre-WWII bigotry.

By 2005, Star Wars and I were thoroughly estranged. I had tried to read a few of the EU novelizations and found them mostly drek, although I did enjoy the Mos Eisley short stories retelling the sequence from the points of view of every minor character. I never got into the toys (the merchandising that made Lucas rich), nor the video games when they came along, despite thrilled reviews by my gamer acquaintances. My only ongoing contact was through my handyman — ex film FX guy, gamer, big fan (smoked pot with Mark Hamill at the ’76 Con!) — who relayed all the behind-the-scenes gossip, faithfully went to opening nights, and played the games with continued enthusiasm.

Read the whole thing.

1 comment:

L. Beau said...

I knew that I wanted to read the whole essay once the author mentioned that she loved the first two movies. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Yeah, while there were parts of Return of the Jedi that liked, it just didn't live up to the promise of the first two Star Wars films, which I had first seen as a pre-schooler (1977) and a schoolboy (1980.)

I didn't care for Lucas's prequels, but I dutifully saw all three in theaters, arriving at the cinema for the last two movies while silently hoping in vain that the series would improve. I haven't seen any of the Disney Star Wars films, a decision I made in part because I didn't like what director J.J. Abrams had done to the Star Trek franchise back in 2009, and in part because I really did not need to see a third Death Star get blown to pieces. Can't they think of any other plot?