"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Another “Star Wars” movie, “Episode Two: Attack of the Clones,” is about to hit the cineplexes. As with all cosmological phenomena, certain strange and even frightening things are likely to happen as the event horizon draws near.
Hardcore fans will prepare for opening night by polishing their toy light sabers and getting their Darth Vader costumes taken out an inch or so. Fast-food joints and toy stores will fill up with merchandise bearing the faces of alien creatures. And some gullible middlebrow — most likely Bill Moyers — will once again recite the pseudo-religious doctrine that attributes the phenomenal success of the series to producer-director George Lucas’ skill at tapping underground streams of ancient legends, using Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology as his dowsing rod.
Lucas himself was mum about any Campbell influence when the original Star Wars opened — “The word for this movie is fun,” he told Time in 1977 — but he began name-dropping the retired Sarah Lawrence academic (who died in 1987) as the movie became a pop culture milestone. Feature writers took him at his word, unwilling to believe that a mere science-fiction flick could be so popular unless some deeper meaning was at work. Campbell, happy to have his work associated with the most successful film series of all time, returned the favor by praising Lucas’ use of mythological motifs, though he had trouble keeping straight exactly which motifs were being used. The relationship built until the men have become as closely linked in the public mind as Chang and Eng.
Web surfers who click on the Joseph Campbell Mythology Center at Castlebooks.com can pony up $7.50 for thinly argued articles like “Star Wars and the Mythic Quest” and “Boba Fett: Archetypal Warrior.” (Frugal space voyagers will want the “Obi-Wan and Boba Fett Combo 2 Pak,” a steal at $10.) “Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth,” a television miniseries built around Moyers’ adoring interviews with the great man himself, was taped at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael, Calif., and the finished episodes offered plenty of “Star Wars” film clips along with the photos of Grecian urns and Hindu deities.
Three years ago, when Lucas was about to revive the series with “The Phantom Menace,” Time magazine sent Moyers to talk with Lucas about “the true theology of ‘Star Wars.’” Their dialogue, duly transcribed for the April 26, 1999, issue, reads like the minutes of the College of Cardinals on laughing gas. Trouble is, nobody’s laughing.
“With ‘Star Wars’ I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs,” Lucas says. “I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today.” For sheer pomposity, this is hard to beat, but Moyers does his best. “One explanation for the popularity of ‘Star Wars’ when it appeared,” he says, “is that by the end of the 1970s, the hunger for spiritual experience was no longer being satisfied sufficiently by the traditional vessels of faith.” So that’s why everybody lined up in 1977; they wanted a spiritual experience, along with really cool laser explosions.
Moyers isn’t the only institution in thrall to this proto-cult. A few months before the release of “The Phantom Menace,” the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum turned itself into a virtual annex of Lucasfilm by hosting “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” a promotional tie-in disguised as an examination of how Campbell’s ideas are used in the series. Even the normally sensible film critic Roger Ebert is part of the Greek chorus. “It was not by accident that George Lucas worked with Joseph Campbell, an expert on the world’s basic myths, in fashioning a screenplay that owes much to man’s oldest stories,” Ebert intones in his “Great Movies” feature on “Star Wars.” Thus is Campbell, who from his own accounts didn’t even meet Lucas face-to-face until the 1980s, virtually elevated to the position of co-screenwriter.
Like many of mankind’s oldest legends, this notion offers multiple levels of absurdity. First, if knowledge of “man’s oldest stories” underlies the popularity of “Star Wars,” then why is Lucas’ non-”Star Wars” résumé so dismal? Apart from conceiving the “Indiana Jones” films, which owe their box-office impact to the kinetic genius of director Steven Spielberg, Lucas has produced an unbroken series of flops. Anyone here remember “Howard the Duck”? Or “Tucker: The Man and His Dream”? “Radioland Murders,” anybody? And let us not forget “Willow,” which is a virtual textbook of Campbell’s mix ‘n’ match approach to mythology.
Second, and more damningly, the real roots of “Star Wars” are obvious to anyone not blinded by snobbery or the need for self-inflation. They lie not in “The Odyssey” or the “Upanishads,” but 20th century science-fiction magazines such as Astounding, Amazing Stories and Galaxy. The “true theology” of “Star Wars” was written not by Virgil or Homer, but Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, E.E. “Doc” Smith and a host of other S.F. writers.
The original “Star Wars” and its sequels are echo chambers of tropes and images from literary science fiction, used in ways that strike a careful balance between affectionate familiarity and outright plagiarism. The first glimpse of Luke Skywalker’s desert homeworld, Tatooine, evokes the setting of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel “Dune”; Lucas even throws in a shot of a skeletal desert serpent reminiscent of Herbert’s gigantic sandworms. The amazing visuals suggest an eye nourished by the magazine art of Frank R. Paul, John Schoenherr, Kelly Freas and Chesley Bonestell.
Some of the borrowings are as close to theft as anything on the Stephen Ambrose rap sheet. Coruscant, the world-girdling capital city of Lucas’ galactic republic, is a direct steal of Trantor, the planet-wide megalopolis in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” novels, which share with “Star Wars” the use of a watered-down version of Roman history to chart the rise and fall of galactic empires. Theed, the ornate city featured in “The Phantom Menace,” is a dead ringer for James Gurney’s Dinotopia. And the dread Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” are just cutesier versions of the forest-dwelling aliens in H. Beam Piper’s “Fuzzy” stories of the 1960s.
Overshadowing all of them in terms of influence on “Star Wars,” however, is E.E. “Doc” Smith, whose mastery of galaxy-spanning space operas made him one of the most popular writers of pre-World War II science fiction. Starting in the 1930s, Smith began writing a series of space adventures set against the backdrop of an eons-long war between a race of benevolent aliens called the Arisians and their enemies, the evil Eddorians. During this proxy war, in which civilizations and races are pawns in an infinitely long chess game, the Arisians use Earth and other planets to breed a race of super police, the “Lensmen.”
The central figure in this struggle is Kim Kinnison, the cream of the Arisian breeding program, whose children ultimately deliver the coup de grace against the Eddorians and their multiclawed cat’s paw, the Boskonians. To read the novels of the “Lensman” cycle — beginning with “Triplanetary” (1934) and concluding with “Children of the Lens” (1954) — is to trip constantly over reminders of the Jedi and their grapples with the conspiratorial Sith.
Like the Jedi, Lensmen enforce order throughout the galaxy with an arsenal of paranormal powers that render them virtually invincible in combat. Where Jedi pay homage to the Force, Lensmen invoke the “Cosmic All.” Lucas’ Jedi get their Force quotient boosted by microscopic entities called midichlorians; Smith’s heroes are turbocharged by “lenses,” collections of crystalline, semi-sentient life forms attuned to their personalities. An early draft of “Star Wars” revolved around the search for the “Khiber crystal,” which sounds an awful lot like one of Smith’s lenses. There are even hints that Lucas has worked a Lensman-style breeding program into his saga, judging from the story of Anakin Skywalker’s immaculate conception in “The Phantom Menace.”
The scale of the action in the Lensman books is broader than anything in the Lucas universe — not content with wiping out whole planets, Smith’s Lensmen detonate entire solar systems without breaking a sweat — but the quality of the writing is about the same, which is to say awful. (Everyone has heard the story of how Harrison Ford, during the filming of the original “Star Wars,” groused about the dialogue: “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it.” E.E. “Doc” Smith goes him one better — you can’t read it, either.) The series underwent a successful paperback revival in the early 1970s, when Lucas was sweating out the first drafts of “Star Wars.” Dale Pollock’s biography “Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas” puts the Lensman novels at the top of Lucas’ pre-”Star Wars” reading list, though Pollock clearly didn’t realize the extent of Smith’s influence.
The last and most crucial link to “Star Wars” and literary science fiction is Leigh Brackett, the original scriptwriter for “The Empire Strikes Back,” the first sequel, and by any reasonable standard the best of the series. The late Pauline Kael was a tireless champion of journeyman director Irvin Kershner, and many film buffs take her lead in crediting Kershner with the movie’s sense of urgency and drama. But this does an injustice to Brackett, whose career uniquely bridged pulp science fiction and Hollywood. Brackett started out writing space operas in the Smith mode. Her first short story was published by Astounding in 1940, and she quickly became known as an expert pulp technician. She was also a capable teacher, upgrading the work of her husband Edmond Hamilton and tutoring the young Ray Bradbury, who credits her with getting him started as a writer.
Brackett was also adept at other genres. Her first novel, “No Good From a Corpse” (1944), was a mystery story couched in hard-boiled prose so convincing that director Howard Hawks told his secretary to contact “that guy Brackett” to help on his adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” Even when he found out she wasn’t a guy, Hawks liked her work well enough to use her on several other films: “Rio Bravo” (1959), “Hatari!” (1961), “El Dorado” (1967), “Rio Lobo” (1970) and “Man’s Favorite Sport” (1962). When not writing screenplays, Brackett cranked out a stream of novels: Westerns and mysteries as well as science fiction. Prior to signing on with Lucas, she scripted Robert Altman’s 1973 version of “The Long Goodbye” and wrote one episode of a short-lived television series based on Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer mysteries.
Brackett died of cancer shortly after submitting her first draft of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Though the film’s credits list her as screenwriter along with Lawrence Kasdan, Pollock says Lucas had to throw out her draft and start from scratch with Kasdan’s help. This is hard to swallow, bearing in mind that Lucas and Kasdan also co-wrote “Return of the Jedi.” The strengths of “The Empire Strikes Back” echo those of Brackett’s own work as surely as the mediocrity of “Return of the Jedi” matches that of Kasdan’s subsequent films, all built from secondhand materials: Chandler-lite for “Body Heat,” warmed-over John Sayles for “The Big Chill.”
“The Empire Strikes Back” is the film that makes obvious the paper trail linking George Lucas to literary science fiction; ironically, it also marks the beginning of Lucas’ unheroic journey from honest entertainer to galactic gasbag. The first recorded blats are to be found in Time magazine’s May 1980 cover story. Associate editor Gerald Clarke, who had praised the original flick for its lighthearted refusal to offer anything like a serious message, now finds “a moral dimension that touches us much more deeply than one-dimensional action adventures can.” A sidebar, ponderously headlined “In the Footsteps of Ulysses,” cites everything from “The Odyssey” to “Pilgrim’s Progress” before concluding that the “Star Wars” films “draw from the same deep wells of mythology, the unconscious themes that have always dominated history on the planet.”
The long and noteworthy career of Leigh Brackett, needless to say, figures in none of this; her links to a despised genre made her invisible to the pop-culture savants at Time. Lucas himself, who had guardedly acknowledged three years earlier that he enjoyed science fiction, now offers a carefully pruned reading list. “I wanted ‘Star Wars’ to have an epic quality, so I went back to the epics,” he says. “Whether they are subconscious or unconscious, whatever needs they meet, they are stories that have pleased or provided comfort to people for thousands of years.” Not only that, they aren’t protected by copyright laws.
Better still, “the epics” make for an infinitely classier set of influences than stories rooted in what remains one of the most stubbornly down-market literary genres America has produced. Would an eminence grise like Bill Moyers want to be seen trifling with spaceships and ray guns? Would film buffs who pride themselves on knowing every nuance of a silly Western like “The Searchers” stoop to analyze a lowly science fiction movie? Certainly the New Yorker would not have sent John Seabrook to profile Lucas for its January 1997 issue if people thought there were nothing more than sci-fi thrills going on.
Seabrook’s profile signals the completion of the papier-mâché Parthenon that Lucas erected around his series. “One can go through ‘Star Wars’ and almost pick out chapter headings from Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces,’” Seabrook writes, helpfully listing them as “the hero’s call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the arrival of supernatural aid, the crossing of the first threshold, the belly of the whale, and a series of ordeals culminating in a showdown with the angry father.”
Campbell specialized in treating religious imagery as a set of metaphors divorced from historical context, a method that allowed him to talk, for example, about the Crucifixion as symbolizing the tree of life in an agrarian society, when in fact it was a very concrete reference to a particularly atrocious form of execution, rooted in a very specific period. Campbell’s ability to generate whirlwinds of cross-cultural references makes his chatter sound tremendously erudite — his disarming style reduced Moyers to an awestruck supplicant in the “Power of Myth” series — but once the dust settles it’s hard to grasp the point of it all. So it’s no surprise that these alleged correspondences between mythical themes and “Star Wars” get a tad slippery when one tries to nail them down.
That “belly of the whale” business, for example, is supposedly evoked when the hero is swallowed up by a large monster. “This represents the entry into a mystical world where transformations occur, and the eventual escape represents a spiritual rebirth,” explains the program to “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” the exhibition that turned the Smithsonian into a “Star Wars” gift shop.
According to the program, this motif appears twice in “The Empire Strikes Back”: first, when Han Solo and Princess Leia unwittingly fly into the gullet of an enormous space slug; later, when Darth Vader is shown chilling out in “an egg-like meditation chamber.” But in neither instance does a significant transformation occur: Darth simply resumes his bad-guy duties, while Han and Leia keep on a-fussin’ and a-feudin’ until they declare their love near the end of the film.
Ur-daddy Joseph Campbell, on the other hand, found the motif in the original “Star Wars,” when Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie fall into the Death Star trash compactor, which promptly sets to work squashing them. This is explicated in the most unintentionally hilarious section of the “Power of Myth” interviews. “My favorite scene was when they were in the garbage compactor,” Moyers says, “and the walls were closing in, and I thought, ‘That’s like the belly of the whale that swallowed Jonah.’” Campbell replies that the scene is “a variant of the death and resurrection theme,” in which the hero begins to discover his power.
All of this would make sense if Luke used the Force to hold back the crushing walls. But nothing of the sort happens in this scene: Luke and his friends escape only through the timely help of the dithering robot C3PO. Innumerable action-adventure heroes have had to fight their way out of rooms in which the walls or ceiling slowly close in. Campbell is taking a standard cliffhanger plot device — one as hoary as having a mustachioed villain tie the heroine to a railroad track, or send her trundling toward a sawmill blade — and trying to pump it full of significance, with predictably flatulent results.
Other links between “Star Wars” and classical mythology tend to evaporate when subjected to a little thought, a chronic problem with so many of Campbell’s utterances. Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example, is supposed to represent the “wise old sage” who instructs and guides the hero, Luke Skywalker, but Obi-Wan dies midway through the first film and reappears later only as a hologram offering supremely unhelpful advice, such as “Trust your feelings.” If the Force already resides within the hero, what need then for sage advice — especially when Obi-Wan sees no need to advise Luke that he is going off to duel with a villain who is, in fact, his father? That’s a bit of information any idiot, let alone a wise old sage, might consider just a wee bit important.
If this is the level of analysis at work, then why should this myth-mongering stop with Lucas? The original “Rocky,” released the year before “Star Wars,” follows Campbell’s mythic template much more closely than “Star Wars”: just imagine Burgess Meredith as the wise old sage, Burt Young as the guardian of the threshold and Carl Weathers as Darth Vader. (Pop quiz: Where do the pet turtles fit in?) Campbell’s approach can give any adventure story, from “Bulldog Drummond” to “The Perils of Pauline,” a place in the pantheon. In fact, his acolytes are hard at work doing just that with such movies as “The Matrix” and “The Wizard of Oz.” It adds up to little more than a party game for drunken grad students, or a smoke screen for filmmakers covering their tracks.
Worse yet, it continues the Hollywood practice of ignoring established science fiction works and writers while plundering their ideas. William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” which established the science fiction subgenre called cyberpunk, paved the way for “The Matrix” as surely as the Lensmen inspired the Jedi. Philip K. Dick enjoyed a late surge of mainstream credibility, but his intellectually charged, emotionally vivid novels have yet to be properly filmed — all we have to date are dim genre exercises like “Blade Runner” and “Total Recall.” (One hopes the upcoming “Minority Report” will raise the bar a bit.) Steven Soderbergh is set to direct a new adaptation of “Solaris,” but odds are he connected to the material via Andrei Tarkovsky’s art-house film version rather than Stanislaw Lem’s challenging novel.
It’s long past time to pack away the togas, put the chariots up on blocks and send the spear carriers home. Let George Lucas spare us any more mystagogic claptrap and come clean about the real sources of his inspiration. His talking-up of Joseph Campbell did wonders for the man’s visibility. Lucas can now sprinkle some of that same stardust on a generation of unappreciated creators whose work mapped out the territory he has so profitably colonized. At the very least, he can spare himself a truckload of bad karma. Even Joseph Campbell could get behind that.
Steven Hart is a freelance writer in New Jersey at work on a novel.More Steven Hart.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)