Sunday, November 23, 2008

Star Wars: A New Hope

I’m rewatching “the trilogy” this weekend. I suppose future generations might think of Lord of the Rings, or perhaps even the prequels when saying the trilogy, but for me, there’s only one set of films that will forever be known by that name. I think it’s so hard to look at the Star Wars films as films, apart from the merchandising empire, and the troubled prequels and other spinoffs. I wrote about this a bit when I reviewed Empire last year, and I think the release of the Clone Wars film and animated show has only exacerbated a lot of the issues already out there.

Watching Star Wars this time, what jumped out at me was a couple of things. One was the astonishing production design. There’s so many iconic visuals from the film, the Darth Vader outfit, the stormtrooper outfits, the various ships. It’s easy to forget that all of these things didn’t just exist, somebody had to go through and design all this stuff. Lucas pioneered the concept of the lived in universe, and that’s really what you feel as the film begins. This is something that exists somewhere out there, and we’re just looking at it. Lucas had a documentary background, and this film does have a slightly edgier, more verite feel than the other films in the series. It’s got a carry over from 70s filmmaking, while the other films in the series feel more timeless.

That’s not just true of the visual style, the principles of the film are very much in tune with that 60s generation. I think part of the reason that these films are so much more successful than the prequels is that the conflicts of the prequels are very complex, and more ambiguous. The story of the prequels is about the gradual corruption from within of essentially good institutions. I think one of the most audacious things that Lucas did in the prequels is to make it clear that to some extent, the Jedi had become apparent, and were complicit in their own downfall. Obviously, that sort of genocide is never justified, but the Jedi largely bring it on themselves by trying to stifle all of Anakin’s emotions, and not evolving with the times. Anakin was prophesied to bring balance to the force, and that’s what he did.

What the Jedi in the prequels, and even Yoda in Empire and Jedi say is that you have to disconnect from your feelings to be a Jedi. Yoda doesn’t seem to understand why Luke would run after his friends, surely his training would take priority? What Luke does in Jedi is channel his emotions into fighting the Emperor and Vader, he’s not removed from the world, his friends are his strength, the rock that lets him pull Vader back from the brink and ultimately pave the way for a new kind of Jedi, one that’s less monastic, more integrated with the world.

The thing that frustrates me about the prequels is that the ideas are a lot more complex than those in the original trilogy, and when you talk about the films from an analytical point of view, they’re full of endless material for analysis. The issue is with the moment to moment to execution, and just one good script pass, and someone to tell Lucas to hold back on the CG and you’d have a trilogy of masterpieces. I think a large part of the problem is that Lucas sees things in big picture terms. He saw the prequels as something he had to do, to complete these vague outlines he had from years ago. It’s like building a house that’s architecturally incredible, but a total mess inside, so you can’t totally love it. I read once that if Revenge of the Sith was a foreign film, people would absolutely love it, and I really agree with that. Look at Wong Kar-Wai’s My Blueberry Nights, the same kind of philosophical musings that Western critics loved in his other films were criticized when they actually heard them spoken aloud in English. I think it’s easier to give leeway to a foreign film because we assume that weird stuff is a cultural difference, and the dialogue in Clones or Sith would play a lot better with that in mind.

But, there’d still be the CG issue. I think one of the things that people who use a lot of CG in films forget is that the joy of special effects wasn’t just about telling the story, it was the spectacle on its own terms. There’s a reason George Melies was both a magician and a filmmaker, special effects should have that “how’d they do that” element, and on the original trilogy, that’s definitely there. Watching Jedi, I have no clue how they got so many ships flying around, watching the prequels, you know it’s just CG. I think CG can look totally photorealistic, and still take us out of the film on some level when we know that it can’t exist in the real world. When you’ve actually built something, it’s there and we believe it because it exists. With CG, it’s a lot trickier, and I think that leads to one of the key things that artists have to keep in mind in a new CG age, namely just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, sometimes limits help art.

Looking at the mishmash special edition cut of ANH that’s on DVD, the CG elements jump out as totally removed the rest of the film’s world. The incredible documentary realism of the film is broken when you’ve got a giant animated lizard walking around. That Jabba the Hutt scene is probably the worst offender, but those random CG critters in Mos Eisley take you right out of the film. Now, maybe that’s truer to Lucas’s original vision, but film is a medium where reality and vision have to meet in order to work. There’s a reason that totally invented universes frequently fail, it’s because the crazier you go in someone’s vision, the more difficult it can become for people to engage with it. The CG environments of the prequels feel inherently unknowable on some level, while we can all relate to the desert or snow or barren industrial corridors. In the end, film isn’t about throwing the images in your head onto the screen, it’s about working with actors and set designers to find a way to realize those images in a believable way that works with the narrative.

If you want to pass a couple of hours, head over to The Secret History of Star Wars, a site that looks behind a lot of the myths surrounding the production of Star Wars, and explores how the films we’ve got now came about. The key theme of the site is the idea that what made the original trilogy so great was Lucas’s collaborative partners. On the original Star Wars, it was his wife, Marcia Lucas, and screenings with his creative friends, like Coppola and De Palma, that helped shape the film into what it is today. The basic thesis is that Lucas didn’t “lose it” with the prequels, he just lost the strong collaborators who could help realize his ideas in successful ways.

I think that’s true for a lot of artists. A lot of times you need that Lennon/McCartney antagonistic relationship to keep pushing things forward. Once people decide that you’re a genius, and you can surround yourself with people who won’t challenge you, it becomes a lot harder to make good art. I still love the prequels because I see so much brilliant filmmaking there, and can look past some of the surface flaws, but those films don’t match up to what the original trilogy was.

Anyway, going back to the original film itself, watching it what really jumped out this time was how Lucas reconfigures the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey myth to fit with the concerns of the world at that time. It’s simultaneously a very classical story and one that deals with what’s going on in the world, and I think those are the best kind of blockbusters, the films that really resonate with people. The only film since I can think of that fuses these two things so well is The Matrix. I love art cinema, but there’s something amazing about watching a film that can simultaneously be as artistically successful as this one and incredibly popular.

So much has been written about the connections to classical mythology, but the film also feels very much at home amidst other 70s cinema classics like Easy Rider. This is a film about a young man’s journey away from his boring home to a kind of Buddhist enlightenment in a politically radical protest group. It’s a fusion of 70s spiritual and political concerns, all the while taking on a government that abuses peoples’ rights and tries to stop this ragtag band of freedom fighters. I think Star Wars is one of the best films that kids could watch because it instills values that are very positive. Unlike most blockbuster films, it’s a refutation of the status quo and governmental order. It’s a call to revolutionary action and consciousness evolution. I think it’s easy to forget that when you focus on the coolness of the fights, but listen to what Obi-Wan says about the force here, replace the lightsaber with a bong and you’ve got Easy Rider.

What Obi-Wan is telling Luke is essentially the path to enlightenment, about transcending the material world and existing on a higher level of consciousness. The blaster shield helmet sequence is about Luke learning to look beyond the material world and realize that there’s more out there. As Obi-Wan says, “Strike me down and I’ll become powerful than you can possibly imagine,” he’ll finally transcend this reality and become one with the force. Han Solo is a materialist, as are most of the Imperials. They denigrate this “old religion,” the Empire is a world that doesn’t believe in anything more than cold physical reality. Ironically, it’s run by a borderline insane Sith lord, but I’m guessing the Emperor didn’t show that side of his personality much in the later years. It would have been appropriate to end the series with the Emperor never existing at all, the idea that they built this Emperor figure as a way to create a self sustaining bureaucracy, a pyramid scheme where everyone reports to someone higher up, but there’s no one at the top.

Having the heroes as “rebels” is by no means something only Star Wars did. Most blockbusters involve battling some kind of oppressive force, but what Star Wars makes explicit is the idea that revolution is a viable thing to fight for. In a post-Bush world, I think it’s inspirational to watch a film like this and see those small planes fly in and destroy something so much larger. We just kind of took it for the past eight years, where was our rebel alliance? The sad reality is that most of us would just live under the Empire and not try to fight back. I think the live action Star Wars show could get great mileage out of exploring the way that the Empire tries to frame the Rebel as domestic terrorists, and uses the “war on the rebels” as an excuse for huge weapons projects like the Death Star. I also think there’s something very relevant about the idea that you can build this gigantic battle station and have it undone by one person who’s totally committed to take you down. That’s why we can never win this ‘war on terror’ when all it takes is one insane person to take down anything we can build.

Another notable 70s era element is Leia. In recent years, the strong female protagonist has become something of a must have for action movies, they’re not just there to get rescued, but at the same time, they still exist as an object for male lust, a supporting character for the central male hero. Here, the narrative initially places her in the damsel in distress role, but once she gets rescued, she takes total control of the characters, and leads them out of the Death Star. She’s the political leader, and has the most agency in the narrative.

I saw Star Wars when I was three or so, I have no memory of a time before I’d seen Star Wars, I was always obsessed with the movies, they’re what made me want to make movies myself, starting from an early age. So, the films are just sort of logged in my subconscious, and as such, they’ve influenced my perception of the world. I never saw women as the sort of “princesses” you see in most Disney movies, objects to be rescued and adored, Leia is how I imagine a princess should be, doing her own thing and taking charge when she needs to. There is something of a love triangle in the film, but it’s only the men who talk about it, she’s not really involved in the romantic side of things, she’s too in to her mission. Admittedly, in Empire, Leia takes on a more traditional romantic role, but the brilliance of that film is the way that her and Han are treated as equals. It’s very much that 30s Tracy/Hepburn equal partnership kind of relationship.

Star Wars has the unfortunate reputation of marking the end of 70s auteurist cinema and instituting a period of soulless blockbusters that persists to this day. To some extent, that’s true, but it’s no fault of the film that it connected with so many people. Watching the movie, I did wonder why I sometimes have such a commitment to make more obscure films. Isn’t there some joy in making a movie like this, something that’s smart and true, but still accessible to a lot of people. Hollywood dreams of making four quadrant movie, films that appeal to all audiences, and I’d imagine a lot of filmmakers want to do that too, but it’s so tough to do. I think most “four quadrant” films wind up aiming squarely at 13 year old boys. Star Wars is a film that kids can watch and love, but I wouldn’t call it a kids movie, or a family film or anything like that. It’s a throwback to classical Hollywood in a lot of respects, a movie that everyone can love.


nicholas reed said...

I think, having read a few books on the making of Star Wars (and on Lucas' career in general), that the departure of producer Gary Kurtz had an enormous impact on the general quality of Star Wars. Kurtz seems to be one of the few was was willing and able to say "No" to Lucas, and have Lucas actually listen.

Kurtz left after Empire (depending on what source you go by, he was either pushed out or left on his own), and the beginning of the "Yes, George, of course, whatever you want" era began, culminating in Rick McCallum, the Special Editions and the prequel trilogy on into today.

It's actually somewhat fascinating, Lucas' journey from "maverick hollywood outsider flying by the seat of his pants" to "lord of the manor". I recently watched THX-1138, and wonder how things might be now if he'd gone in that direction after JEDI, instead of... well, the way he went.

Patrick said...

Rick McCallum does seem to be the worst kind of producer, every interview I've seen with him just involves him talking about the kind of CG stuff they can do, nothing involving story or character ever. Kurtz did seem to do a lot more of what a producer should do, and guide the story to a better place.

Lucas always claims that he wants to make experimental films again, and it's like, why don't you then? He's got so much money, at this point he can do whatever he wants, no matter how it's received. THX is a great film, and the short it's based off is even more raw and experimental, he's clearly got that kind of talent, but at a certain point, he became a success and decided to stick to the big crowd pleaser films.

I feel like David Lynch could have had a very similar career if Dune had been a big success. Coming into Star Wars, Lynch had done a really experimental film, then American Graffiti, a lot like Lynch's Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. If Dune had been huge, Lynch would have done a sequel to it, and never have made Blue Velvet. It may sound weird to think that now, but Lucas was just as experimental as Lynch in his early days, circumstances really determine the kind of artist you turn into.

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