Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Greatest Irony

George Lucas’s 1977 Star Wars is a great many things.

A childish romp, a sophisticated homage to Hollywood’s long-forgotten serials – Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers and the like – and a secular fantasy for the United States, one whose easily discernible vision of good versus evil rendered it easy fodder for defense department planners and journalists alike to utilize the film’s name as a moniker for America’s nascent Space Defense Initiative in the 1980s.

Star Wars also cleverly cast aside the somber, post-studio system cynicism that dominated Hollywood and film in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and hearkened back to the swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn, to the long, purposeful stride of larger-than-life John Wayne and to a time when the moviegoer, regardless of age, could watch a fun, thigh-slapper of film and come away from it with the simple enthusiasm of a child just returned from his first circus. As a result, it became one of the most successful films of all-time. Then, it became something more than a film...

When it was released, Star Wars was the independent film of independent films. It had no opening credits, but a strange scroll, for which Lucas was chastised by Hollywood's famous guilds, it had little known actors and an almost paint-by-numbers story. Then there was, as we all know, an endless array of Star Wars merchandise, most of which initially came about partly to help Lucas fund and re-coop the expense of making the film itself, but then stuck around and continues to stick around. Indeed, the film franchise would eventually be sold in 2013 for more than $4 Billion to Disney, largely on account of said merchandise and the potential for more of it. (As a famous aside: Alec Guinness became quite a rich man by foolishly – or so he thought at the time – agreeing to take a cut of the merchandise sales in lieu of his usual fee for acting).

All of the above is a long way of saying that we are all living in the post-Star Wars world, and that whether we like it or not, there is no going back to what came before. Star Wars helped finish off what little was left of the Old Hollywood, which had begun to fall apart in the mid-1960s with the collapse of the studio system, and subsequently helped usher in the New Hollywood of corporations, high finance and marketing. Summer blockbusters, an explosion of science fiction, toy tie-ins and – this more than anything else – a new reliance on advanced special effects, which up to this point in Hollywood’s history had largely been limited because they were not strong enough to carry a picture (actors and scripts did that), are all part of the cinematic world Star Wars created. 

That Lucas intended none of the above is relevant only if we choose to remember how radical a film Star Wars actually was when it was released and how uncertain its place in the American cinema would have been absent Lucas’s compelling vision and his drive to completely fashion an independent film out of the best pieces of myth, iconography, religion and popular culture. Put simply, Star Wars is the most important movie of the past 35 or so years, though I doubt anyone now or then, including Lucas himself, would say so if asked.

Part of the reason for this stems from the fact that outside of its obvious commercial success with audiences, Star Wars has enjoyed little critical fanfare.

Film writer Thomas Schatz dismissed Star Wars as “remarkably superficial”; Robin Wood called it “intellectually undemanding.” Little has changed since these initial pronouncements. Indeed, the arrival of the tortured and overwrought prequels has, if anything, only confirmed the view of many outside the usual fan-base that Star Wars is shallow eye-candy that relies on action and special effects to overcome wooden actors, dull plots and intellectually undemanding themes. Lucas’s aforementioned heavy borrowing to generate the grist of Star Wars material has not helped him on this account, either. 

There are, as my own eyes show me, entire shots lifted from brilliant films, such as The Searchers and Lawrence of Arabia, and from lesser efforts, such as 633 Squadron. There is also the matter of the cantina scene ripped straight from a Western, a character named Han Solo who is the interstellar incarnate of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and the film’s two climaxes, the first of which is essentially a sword-fight, shot almost frame-for-frame like a Kurosawa scene, with the second portraying an attack on a space station that plays out in similar fashion to The Dam Busters.

This is not to say Lucas is not an original, for as I have already suggested, Star Wars was indeed a radical film when it was made, a fact that is lost in time and the film’s subsequent success. Nobody, and this includes most of the cast and crew, understood what Lucas was after in Star Wars and when the first cut of the film was completed, the studio heads were terrified to release it. Talking Robots? A Princess? A villain dressed all in black armor? Spaceships? A furry and howling sidekick? It was all quite out there back then and all something no one knew how to classify...

The other major piece of radicalism in Star Wars is its inherent conservatism, which is also another of its ironies. Lucas chose to make an epic science fiction film that was fantastically different from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Franklin J. Schnaffner’s The Planet of the Apes, the other two high-budget science fiction films that garnered mainstream attention. Lucas intentionally eschewed Kubrick’s cold intellectualism and Schnaffer’s hip political sensibility and chose instead to make a movie that recalled myths from Ancient Troy to King Arthur. At its heart, Star Wars is a hero quest, with a protagonist who is chosen by destiny (Luke) and guided by an old sage (Obi-Wan Kenobi) to first confront and then overcome evil (Darth Vader and the Empire). Lucas set his film to a soaring John Williams score that echoes Wagner and created powerful visual contrasts – the colorless Vader and Storm Troopers and the rag-tag Rebels in their orange jump suits – that ensured audiences saw and felt the difference between good and evil on the screen as much as they understood it. Add the equally simple and powerful themes of maturation, of leaving home, of finding and sacrificing for one’s friends of committing one’s self to something outside the self and you have a palpable mixture of emotion that should have assuaged some of the concerns studio executives felt about the film’s content.

At the same time, it has become impossible to separate Lucas the filmmaker from Lucas the businessman and entrepreneur, a fact even his close friends acknowledged by the early 1980s, when the Lucas Empire had become large enough that many began to openly question the man’s priorities. Francis Ford Coppola, John Milieus and Stephen Spielberg, all of whom were Lucas’s contemporaries at film school at the University of Southern California, all speak highly of Lucas and his talent, both then and now. Coppola, who made at least three of the greatest American films in the latter half of the 20th century, has even called Lucas “one of the most talented directors of that time," but like the others, there is a limit to what he will stomach from his old friend's various conversions.

For example, Coppola has said Star Wars does not show one-tenth of what Lucas is capable of as artist. Lucas, Coppola believes, chose the “industrial marketing complex" instead of art. This is a creative collapse that Lucas himself occasionally acknowledged back in the 1980s, when his empire was much smaller than it is today and he was still uncertain of its ultimate direction. Star Wars, he once griped in between installments, “took over his life,” and in doing so, he became precisely what he hated when he struck out on his own as an independent filmmaker: A corporate CEO. “What I was trying to do was stay independent,” he said in 2005, when it was clear he had given up on this desire. “I’m not happy with the fact corporations have taken over the film industry. But now I find myself the head of a corporation. So there’s a certain irony there.”

Indeed, there is Mr. Lucas.

I would venture farther that such a moment of self-awareness, which now have become almost unheard of as Lucas more and more speaks like the media-savvy fight promoter, is even more ironic when one realizes that the corporate takeover Lucas appears troubled by occurred precisely because of the great commercial success of Star Wars. That is, in order to capitalize the increasingly expensive special effects moviegoers demanded after becoming accustomed to adventures like Star Wars, it became necessary for filmmakers to secure tremendous amounts of funding. In most cases the necessary amounts could only be had through the kind of merchandising Lucas pioneered, which more and more was reliant upon corporate partnerships and a new sort of Hollywood money-man who cared not a whit for the artistic value of their financial ventures. Return on investment, and not just return, but staggering Star Wars-like levels of return became the new expected norm.

For all his aloofness and lack of acknowledgement for what he hath wrought, Lucas remains something of a sympathetic character, if for nothing else than for the sensation one has in reading some of his comments that at one time Lucas genuinely believed he would make other films after the Star Wars trilogy concluded and that those films would be more in line with his earlier, more expressive work. Instead, as we are all well aware, Lucas went on to help invent Indiana Jones, yet another fantastically successful amalgamation of Old Hollywood tropes, and tinkered and then re-tinkered with his original three Star Wars films. Lucas then found – or more likely, invented – reasons to make three additional Star Wars films, none of which approached his initial effort in terms of impact or quality, though all made their creator staggering amounts of money.

With each new Star Wars film, with each new scene of perfectly sculpted Computer-Generated-Imagery (CGI), which is to say with each new piece of rubbery unreality that a director who once boasted of hating actors has been able to utilize, we are one step farther away from the magic of Hollywood’s Golden Age and one more step within contemporary Hollywood’s age of visually shallow wonder, for it impossible to imagine nowadays a major film without the kind of staggering budget and without the kind of staggering effects Star Wars requires to capture its audience. (This is especially the case with the prequels, bereft of emotion as they are. Would there be any reason to watch them at all if they were not visually stunning? Lucas has indeed rid himself of actors in those films). And while some of this might be good for the child in all of us, I cannot help but feel like something else has been sacrificed, something that George Lucas of 1977 might have appreciated about classic film, which he borrowed from so successfully. It is a shame then, that he is both the creator and the destroyer of worlds he loves and that we all must both thank him for all the joy his 1977 vision has given to us even as we all suffer from what that vision so crudely discarded and replaced.