Friday, October 21, 2016

The Favorites - Star Wars (#17)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Star Wars (1977/USA/dir. George Lucas) appeared at #17 on my original list.

What it is • Every touchstone of pop mythology has been thrown into the pot and brought to a boil: a poetic/kitschy opening ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."), spaceships rumbling overhead, lasers blasting against a starfield, a trek through the desert, an isolated farm, a princess, robots, aliens, a bar crowded with outlandish characters, a black-masked/cowled supervillain, a shrewd old mentor, a wisecracking outlaw, a republic transformed into a ruthless empire, aerial dogfights, shootouts, sword fights, a sneaky rescue operation, heroes disguised as villains, a daring swing across a chasm, a descent into a monster-haunted pit, a fearsome weapon, a noble ragtag resistance, a mystical religious code. The pleasure of Star Wars derives from two sources: the delightful eclecticism with which it gathers together its diverse inspirations, and the awesome clarity and precision with which these disparate elements are coalesced into a unified whole. Star Wars fuses the spirit of backyard play with careful craftsmanship and the result is unlike anything before or since - despite how often its accomplishment has been imitated (most recently by a new Star Wars film, shorne of its creator but still in the thrall of his creation). The story? Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives on the spot "furthest from the bright center of the universe," the desert planet Tatooine, but the war between the Empire and the Rebellion comes to him in the form of two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) who arrive with a secret message from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) for the nearby mysterious recluse Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Escaping his home in the Millennium Falcon, piloted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Luke will attempt to rescue Leia from the Death Star, while Obi-Wan must face his former pupil turned dark lord, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones). But you probably already knew that. The context? That you certainly know: Lucas, fresh from the popular rock'n'roll nostalgia of American Graffiti and the dystopian sci-fi nightmare of THX-1138, wrote an ambitious, nearly incomprehensible story outline and dedicated himself to realizing its sprawling vision with a makeshift special effects operation and a troubled British production tepidly supported by Twentieth Century Fox. Nothing much was expected (except perhaps a dangerous flop) before the film debuted in 1977 and changed movie history forever, following the lead of The Exorcist and Jaws by cementing box-office blockbusters as Hollywood's mainstay - and identifying the blockbuster with fantastical content, an action-oriented tempo, and a very youthful audience. The legacy? Beyond that broader impact, the film spawned a vast universe of narrative spin-offs, playful merchandise, and three phases of film franchises. First, the two sequels (1980 and 1983) continued this film's story, deepening and darkening until it became an Oedipal struggle between father and son. Second, the three prequels (1999 to 2005), further darkened and expanded the universe while revolutionizing digital effects; this trilogy alienated many fans of the original series from Lucas until the filmmaker was a pariah within the community he himself had invented. Third, an open-ended series of films (2015 to, well, as long as Disney can make money), probably one a year, will continue the story but also expand around its margins with stories taking place in between existing films, focusing on tangents and side characters until no one narrative can define Star Wars anymore. The world of Star Wars has escaped the bounds of its creator, its original audience, the cultural moment that gave it birth, and the very first film phenomenon that initially seemed like a sui generis standalone marvel, not the kickoff of something much bigger. That Star Wars - not Episode IV: A New Hope but simply "Star Wars" - can become obscured by its own legacy, but that's the Star Wars I am here to celebrate. Part Pop Art, part pulp fiction, very much an auteurist project, Star Wars remains startlingly original if you can see through the haze: the home movie as big-screen epic.

Why I like it •
EPISODE I (1992): I watch the Star Wars trilogy in order during the fall of my third grade year. Earlier that summer, or the summer before, I had watched part of the third film at a camp, with an audience already familiar with the Star Wars world. I was frustrated by the ease of their enthusiasm, which made the film itself seem smug and exclusive. But starting with the first Star Wars feels much fresher, more natural - I'm tugged into the universe exactly as Lucas originally intended. I meet the characters as the film cleverly introduces them - glimpsing the mysterious princess in a misty, pink-backlit hallway, casually coming across Luke as he strolls across his farmland, guessing that "Old Ben" Kenobi is - surprise! - old Obi-Wan himself. I am Luke Skywalker for Halloween, but the black-clad Skywalker from Return the Jedi...which is now my favorite. That winter, I will attend a marathon screening of all three films on the big screen at the Wang Center in Boston with my father, the climax of this initial phase of fandom. The audience cheers and applauds whenever a character first pops up onscreen, and this time I'm right there with them.
EPISODE II (1995): Following a somewhat disorienting personal experience, on the brink of adolescence and jr. high, I wrap myself in the familiar blanket of Star Wars - not even aware that the film is on the verge of exploding into pop culture again in a big way (the fan culture and merchandising seemed relatively dormant - at least compared to ever since - when I had encountered Star Wars for the first time a few years earlier). Within a few months, I am collecting toys, reading every Star Wars paperback, and subscribing to the Star Wars Insider magazine. I watch the films in a loop, even begin rewatching just scenes with certain characters, make Star Wars lists and sketches, all sorts of geeky endeavors. A new line of toys hits store shelves, the THX-remastered videos are out by Christmas, the Shadows of the Empire multimedia experience launches the following year, and the theatrical Special Edition rollout is just around the corner. As with Twin Peaks twenty years later (which I will begin rewatching mere months before the deleted scenes and, even more shockingly, the new series is announced), personal enthusiasm and media hype miraculously coincide. I watch the first Star Wars more often during these years than any time before or since, but it is always part of a whole, just one piece of a grander saga. As I mature, I replace the gung-ho Jedi with the brooding Empire Strikes Back as my favorite Star Wars film, though I tend to just rank the trilogy together at #1 among all movies.
EPISODE III (2000s): I'm not sure where 1999 fits into this breakdown - The Phantom Menace is released a few years after my mid-nineties obsession, following an interlude where I've shifted my attention back to movie history as a whole, rather than any one film or series (except maybe The Godfather - see a couple entries ago). But I still see - and like! - the prequel numerous times in theaters, a last gasp of fandom rather than a new beginning. By the time the next two prequels roll around I am much more disengaged, probably catching them once in the cinema and quickly moving along. When I watch the old films again around mid-decade they seem a bit thin to me; Jedi is hollow, Empire is a tad pretentious, and really only the first Star Wars film hits the bullseye, aspiring to be a fun popcorn flick and succeeding wildly. But it may even take a while to come around to that conclusion; for a while I am just completely burnt out on all Star Wars.
EPISODE IV (2010 & onward): During this period I experience a few bouts of Star Wars fascination, re-watching all the films (including the prequels) and covering them on this site. Whenever I do, I draw two conclusions: the overall saga is endlessly fascinating but also a bit too ambitious for its own good, and the first film is the standalone classic of the bunch. Watching the movies in order, it sticks out like a sore thumb: not trying to smooth its edges in order to fit in with later films (well, other than the Special Edition changes), not matching the more somber, portentous mood carefully cultivated by prequels/sequels, and not relying on knowledge of the larger context for its enjoyment. As the decades pass, it's become ever more clear to me that the first Star Wars movie is the pearl at the center of this universe and perhaps needs to be rescued from that somewhat suffocating context. I prefer to view it side by side with totally unrelated films: silent classics, rapid-fire cartoons, French New Wave riffs, avant-garde experiments, psychological dramas. That's when its true qualities shine forth, like a painting placed in the right type of museum exhibit instead of getting lost in the shuffle of similar but derivative works. I am thankful to the larger mythology for bringing me to the individual film (as well as for giving me great enjoyment as a child), but today I love Star Wars not because it's STAR WARS but because it's great cinema.

More from me • Let me start with the most recent: I joined Bob Clark on his Cinemaville podcast to cover Star Wars for the Wonders in the Dark sci-fi countdown (it hasn't even been cross-posted here yet, as I'm waiting till the daily Favorites series has ended). Rewinding to 2010, I covered Star Wars, alongside the other films in the saga, in two back-to-back posts, one a visual tribute chronicling Anakin Skywalker's dark journey, the other a short review of each Star Wars film examining their place within the larger narrative. A year later I featured a clip at 1:40 in "'Neath the Marquee Moon", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series and a year after that, the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney inspired my mournful reflection on the meaning of this moment, which included some discussion of Lucas' work on the first Star Wars. Earlier this year I wrote a long letter to the No Ship Network podcast which they read (and debated) in its entirety: I ranked the Star Wars films and explaining why I placed this at the top. My review of The Force Awakens also discusses that film's (parasitical and contradictory) relationship to Lucas' original movie.

How you can see it • The best way to see Star Wars is probably to subscribe to Netflix's DVD service and rent a blu-ray or DVD. A month's subscription is cheaper than the one-time fee wherever it's available for digital/rental purchase. Of course, it's also probably at your local library if their copy hasn't yet to be ground into dust by repeat viewings. Needless to say, all of these venues (except your rare lucky library) only exhibit The Special Edition with its various CGI revision - now, remarkably, as old as the film itself was when these revisions were made. If you want to see a version closer to the original, you'll have to track down the 2006 limited edition which includes a not-particularly-pristine copy of the 1977 cut. There may, of course, be other ways to see it, but I'll leave you to your own devices there. May the Force be with you.

What do you think? • Is Star Wars the best Star Wars film, or is it just a relatively modest beginning - what do you prefer: sequels; prequels; expanded universe books, shows, or comics; the new films? Do you value the changes made for the Special Edition - do you find some more successful than others? Looking beyond Star Wars, what connections do you see with Lucas' other work, including the films he took an active role in producing (most notably the Indiana Jones franchise), but more importantly the only two non-Star Wars features he directed, THX 1138 and American Graffiti; in other words, beyond being a storyteller and mogul, what defines George Lucas a film director?

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