Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Star Wars

Why did you lure us on like this,
Light-year on light-year, through the abyss,
Building (as though we cared for size!)
Empires that cover galaxies
If, at the journey's end we find
The same old stuff we left behind,
Well-worn Tellurian stories of
Crooks, spies, conspirators, or love,
Whose setting might as well have been
The Bronx, Montmartre, or Bedinal Green?

C. S. Lewis, "An Expostulation (Against too many writers of science fiction)" 


George Lucas's film Star Wars was released in the summer of 1977. I was 19 and I had just finished my first year of college. And I hated everything about it. What I knew about George Lucas really didn't prepare me for this magnum opus. I had seen American Graffiti in '75, and I liked it very much.(1) It remains an intricately crafted re-creation of a moment in time - a late summer night and early morning in a town much like Bakersfield, California in 1962. Later I saw his first feature film, the experimental THX 1138, starring Robert Duvall. What I found strange about it was that it was idea-driven, rather than effects-driven, science fiction - virtually the opposite of Star Wars.

I never liked science fiction, since its visions of the future - even if it isn't necessarily our future - are so erratically inaccurate. Some agenda or other is always being foisted on tomorrow, some idea shaping things to come. The worst science fiction, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in the poem above, is the sort that simply transposes common everyday human experience to outer space. Peter Hyams's Outland (1981), for instance, was little more than High Noon in space. And so many of these forecasts of future living conditions always get too far ahead of themselves. Technology develops more slowly than our imaginings do. And very little science fiction, whether in print or on film, manages to escape the eras in which they were created. 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, now looks and feels quaintly redolent of the 1960s. 

I didn't - wouldn't - actually look at Star Wars until some years after it was released, when my hatred for it had cooled down. By the time I watched it, with a bunch of friends who all thought highly of it (many of whom won't like what I'm writing here), I knew all about how Lucas had patterned his story on Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958), which was about how a princess in 17th century Japan, the last of her clan, is helped to escape through enemy territory by an unemployed general and two incompetent thieves. Like Lucas, I, too, was a Kurosawa fan - although I took a dim view of all the remakes (The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars) much lesser directors had made of his films.(2) For Kurosawa, and his newly formed Kurosawa production company, The Hidden Fortress was supposed to be, in his own words, "good, old-fashioned entertainment."(3) Whatever Lucas intended Star Wars to be, I seriously doubt that what he got was quite what he had in mind.

What made me hate Star Wars in 1977 was everything it represented, some of which Lucas himself hated prior to making the film. Lucas had fought strenuously against corporate Hollywood and becoming one of its employees. He met Steven Spielberg at the USC film school in the 60s, and when both of them embarked on film careers in the 70s, they would transform Hollywood productions for the worse, without exactly meaning to. 

Although produced by Lucas's own company (Lucasfilm), Star Wars needed the production facilities and distribution network of a major studio, 20th Century-Fox. This gave Lucas the freedom to make the film the way he wanted, but it also showed him the severe limitations of conventional studio technical resources. He was in almost constant despair of the rushes - the results of each day's shooting - that were so far below his "vision," how he imagined his film should look. Once he managed to bring the shooting in on schedule, he hired two extra editors to assist him in what turned out to be the most involved stage, the post-production. 

It's clear to me that Lucas gave up directing after Star Wars because movie technology was too cumbersome, too primitive in the 70s.(4) Rather than deal with the dissatisfaction of the day to day compromises of technical limitations that could only approximate his vision, the direction of the next two installments in the Star Wars franchise, The Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back were delegated to Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, dependable journeymen who could could do all the dirty work for Lucas while he pulled the strings from a comfortable distance. There is a sad paradox here from which new filmmakers can learn: in his efforts to keep his independence as a filmmaker by creating his own production companies, George Lucas effectively ended his filmmaking career with the insurmountable workload of running them. 

The box office success of Star Wars was - in more than one sense - phenomenal. The film quickly developed a "cult" following of fans, mostly teenagers, who returned again and again to see the film and its two sequels. It started a deplorable trend in Hollywood productions toward bigger budgeted "blockbusters" that effectively forced out interest in small-budgeted, less ambitious films. Every conscientious filmmaker and filmgoer has felt the impact of this trend and we're still feeling it. 

The overwhelming dependence of these effects-driven movies on the advances of movie technology is revealed by the curious way that Lucas revisited his trilogy in the 90s, making "improvements" on the originals that some of his fans found objectionable. There is even a bustling trade in copies of the original films in their pristine, unimproved condition. I've seen enough "director's cuts" of classic films restored to something closer to what their directors intended to know what a dubious procedure this tampering can sometimes be. 

Many critics and fans were disappointed by Lucas's return to directing three more installments of his Star Wars saga in the 90s (A New Hope, Revenge of the Sith, Attack of the Clones). The last installments, directed by J. J. Abrams (who also gave new life - if you want to call it that - to Star Trek), will begin release this month. For weeks, even here in Asia, the hype for The Force Awakens has been ramping up. Over the decades, I have watched the extraordinary success of the Star Wars franchise with mixed emotions. Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars franchise were sold to Disney in 2012. On the George Lucas page on Wikipedia, it matter-of-factly states:

"In January 2012, Lucas announced his retirement from producing large scale blockbuster films and instead re-focusing his career on smaller, independently budgeted features."

With no knowledge of the plots of the Star Wars films, I still can't steel myself sufficiently to sit through any one of them for very long. For me, watching them is like trying to make sense of a cricket match. Millions of people around the world are passionate about cricket, but knowing everything about the game would not account for all that passion. Perhaps looking for a hero (or a "role model"), I was an avid sports fan - baseball and football - when I was a boy. Some time in my late teens, however, my avidity for sports vanished.(5) It's fairly easy to see why. American popular culture has a strong infantilizing influence, in films, television, books and music. How else does one explain the enormous popularity of the Harry Potter books and films, and comic books, graphic novels and super-hero films? It certainly wasn't just children that made J. K. Rowling the wealthiest writer on earth, or that filled theater seats every time DC or Marvel released a movie. In 2003, some readers of The New Republic wrote in asking why Stanley Kauffmann, the magazine's resident film critic, hadn't commented on The Matrix films. In a "note" in his column, Kauffmann saw fit to write:

"Several readers have asked why I have not reviewed either the first Matrix film or its sequel, especially since the theme has evoked so much serious comment. But serious themes are hardly new in science fiction. In the 1950s, when I was a book editor, I dealt with, among other sorts of books, some science fiction, including novels by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and C. M. Kornbluth, most of which were built on serious ideas and were really readable, not mere aggrandized juvenilia a la The Matrix. Intellectuals comparable to those who are now discussing the Matrix films might just as easily have examined back then the core themes of Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury and The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth. In any case this quite familiar utilization of serious thought does not in itself make the Matrix films more than the adolescent fodder that they are."(6)

The "themes" in Star Wars, for all the talk of them being a "morality play" about good versus evil, make the Wachowski brothers look like Stephen Hawking. 

But there is another explanation for the Star Wars phenomenon that makes it more analogous to sports: it's a social pursuit. No one wants to be left out of the conversation. We all want - need - to belong to something. Another reason why I avoided Star Wars when I was 19 was because of its obvious appeal to nerds - to belatedly precocious, overgrown kids. Star Wars provides millions of people with a sense of belonging. They are provided with a whole jargon, a folklore, a mythology of sorts, and a cosmos of their own. And, more significantly, they are members of a social group. Like "Trekkies," but far more extensively, there are Star Wars fans everywhere, and social media provides them with full time access to one another. And the lengths to which many people will go to assure their social availability - to let everyone know that they're no better than them - is practically immeasurable.

George Lucas has made so much money from the Star Wars franchise that he is giving much of it away to charity and has even pledged, along with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, that half of his personal fortune - by now in the billions - will be given to charity on his death. The notion that an individual has the right (never mind the skill) to control sums that beggar the GNPs of some small nations has become a peculiar feature of our age, and these deceptively generous pledges from Buffett, Gates, and Lucas are a tacit acknowledgement of the fundamental injustice of the trend. (And, while I'm at it, why just half? The inheritors of a fraction of these fortunes would still be among the richest people on earth.)

Lucas is now 71 years old. Looking back on it all, I wonder how much of it was what he had in mind, and how much he wishes he could've committed more time to just being a filmmaker.


(1) See Up All Night: American Graffiti.
(2) Perhaps in return for borrowing the Star Wars plot from Kurosawa, Lucas helped to finance Kurosawa's production of Kagemusha (1980). A funny show of respect, since he then found it necessary to cut the film by twenty one minutes for its American release.
(3) As quoted by Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa.
(4) This also explains Lucas's close involvement in the creation of the special effects company Industrial Light and Magic, and the sound recording services THX and Skywalker Sound.
(5) Coincidentally, whatever religious faith I had (and I can't have had much) vanished shortly thereafter. 
(6) Stanley Kauffmann, "Differing Lives and Places," The New Republic, June 16, 2003.

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