Sunday, January 27, 2013

In Defense of George

In anticipation of a visit to the Star Wars Identities Exhibit next Friday, the girls and I watched the film that started it all (also known as Episode IV: A New Hope) this afternoon.  I explained how George Lucas, for his third studio picture after THX-1138 and the far more popular and well received American Graffiti, had hoped to adapt the Flash Gordon serials of his youth, but was unable to obtain the rights to do so.

Having failed in this, he set out to create his own space opera, and influenced in equal parts by Joseph Campbell's "Hero with a Thousand Faces" and the films of Akira Kurosawa (especially The Hidden Fortress), managed to succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

Sure, looking back at how elements of the prequels and subsequent elements like the Clone Wars animated television series have diluted the brand for those of us who grew up on nothing but the original trilogy cuts an unforgiving silhouette of a man determined to wed art and commerce but unsure of how to do so.  But for all his foibles, and amidst all the celebrating and recriminating going on around the recent sale of his Lucasfilm studios to Disney, and the subsequent revelation that J.J Abrams will be directing a new Star Wars movie in the immediate future, it felt good to look back at the first film.  It might be good for us to recognize that George Lucas's success was far from accidental, however we may feel about his having squandered the potential of this particular franchise.

Cinematic Worldmaking - You can't say Star Wars as made on a shoestring budget, but the cantina scene in Star Wars shows a filmmaker and his colleagues pulling out all the stops to create a multi-species tableau in a way that future iterations of Star Trek and all their wrinkly foreheads never could.  It may have scored a C+ for effectiveness, given how few of the aliens had working mouths or eyes, but it certainly earns an A- for audacity.

Pictorial Chops - I'm sorry, but has anyone come up with a more iconic opening for a space picture than the ominous overtaking of the rebel blockade runner by the immensity of the Imperial Star Destroyer?  Watching that oppressive wedge descend from the top of the screen as well as the boarding action that follows makes we want to hop into my wayback machine to 1977 and just watch the faces of audience members having their minds blown.  After years of largely introspective, often insightful, but generally languid and recurrently boring science-fiction movies, someone had finally brought the scope and fun of the 1930s matinees back to the big screen!

Classic Tale - As the comic strip Penny Arcade has succinctly surmised, "Star Wars is about space wizards who live in the past-future." They're not wrong.  I tried to explain to the girls that there is only a hair's breadth difference between Star Wars and the story of King Arthur: young hero, secret heritage, elderly wizard mentor, magic sword, damsel in distress, impregnable castle... the list goes on.  Like James Cameron's Avatar, the familiarity of the story is part of what gives it lasting appeal.  Even without the prequels and such, the cultural footprint of Star Wars was never likely to be forgotten, in part because of the carefully measured timelessness of the tale.  If only the hairstyles were as immune to the march of years!

Used Future - To be honest, it is not as though there was a lot of competition at the time, but Lucas deserves come credit for presenting the first non-dystopian future where the technology looked used.  From the asymmetric (but still beautiful) Millennium Falcon with its scuffed interior and exposed cabling, to the scorch marks on the Incom T-65 Space Superiority Fighter (aka the X-Wing), Star Wars gave us a future with a past, where the spaceships and floating cars had mileage and a resale value, and maintenance was needed just to keep a ship in the air, not just to repair it after battle.

Steal from the Best - Many scenes from Star Wars echo Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress so perfectly as to practically be a homage, despite no credit being given.  Many of the shots from the climactic attack on the Death Star (especially the destruction of the attacking ships) were based on ones from The Battle of Britain.  While the lack of originality is unfortunate, you have to wonder how much added resonance this sort of attribution brought to the film, especially to young viewers like myself, who wouldn't see these other movies for years or even decades afterwards.

As a child in the fifth grade who had seen Star Wars multiple times over the summer, had you asked me what I would like to be when I grew up, I might have told you I was conflicted, since I couldn't decide between Jedi Knight or X-Wing pilot, and I was pretty sure only Luke Skywalker could be both.

Star Wars engendered in me a love of films and curiosity about how they are made that persists to this day.  It also created a curiosity about warrior cultures, especially the samurai of feudal Japan, which affected a lot of my learning and interests throughout my adolescence, and even into college.  Ben Kenobi's admiration of the lightsaber as being "Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster, but an elegant weapon for a more civilized age," was the lament of a Meiji-era samurai, facing obsolescence as gunpowder came to the fore.  His admonition to Luke to trust his feelings, to have faith in the force, was Lucas' own belief that "technology cannot save us", at least, not by itself.

Watching the force, an admittedly tenuous concept from the original trilogy, distilled into sentient micro-organisms dwelling in the bloodstreams of potential Jedi in the first prequel, was disappointing to me to be sure.  It didn't eradicate the joy of watching Qui-Gon Jinn and young Obi-Wan Kenobi derail an invasion all by themselves, or the satisfaction of watching a pupil avenge his master in the third act.  Watching Lucas struggle with the difficulties of bringing a legendary character such as Darth Vader through his adolescence and into a murderous adulthood though, that was too much to bear.  I haven't called myself a fan in years, and only saw the third prequel, Revenge of the Sith, last year, seven years after it arrived in theaters.

To be fair, the prequels and tv show have kept the brand alive and vibrant in a way that nostalgia alone never could, and the universe has remained a colourful and exciting place to explore in these mediums as well as video and computer games, toys and action figures, comics and novels.  In the end, it is (or at least was) Lucas's sandbox, so if he wants to build forts in it or just poop in it, that is up to him, right?

Forgetting for a moment the various editions, Han shooting first (or not), and the multitude of leaps needed to tie together a convoluted and arbitrary timeline and bloodline, the original trilogy, and especially that first film, still have a sense of wonder that a lot of other films have struggled to capture.  

There is still a lot of merit in visiting that far, far away galaxy from a long time ago, and I hope that with new hands on the lightspeed throttle, I might enjoy returning there again in a couple of years.

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