The Empire Triumphant

How "Star Wars" Ruined American Movies


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Charles Taylor
January 28, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

"i felt a great disturbance in the Force. As if a million souls cried out in torment and were silenced at once." That's Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) speaking, after the evil Empire has obliterated Princess Leia's home planet. Heard 20 years later, in the new "Special Edition" of "Star Wars" released this week, those lines might as well be an elegy for the most creative and vital era in American movies, a period that "Star Wars" brought to a screeching halt.

With "Star Wars," director George Lucas didn't completely kill off American movies, but he did manage to cripple them badly. Since "Star Wars," it's become infinitely harder for movies that aren't prepackaged, formulaic blockbusters to get made at all, let alone seen. American filmmakers who've tried to create something other than the next merchandisible megahit or who've gone against the tide of retro sentimentality that's swept over movies, or who've simply tried to address audiences as adults have become the equivalent of the "Star Wars" rebel alliance. "Star Wars" enthusiasts love to talk about George Lucas as if he were a Jedi master, ruling over his self-created universe with benevolent wisdom. Those are the terms in which Lucas is treated in John Seabrook's January 6 New Yorker profile. If it weren't painfully sincere, the piece could be the work of a wicked satirist:

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"Of course your perspective changes when you get older and as you get battered by life," he said.

"Have you been battered by life?"

"Anyone who lives is going to get battered. Nothing comes easy."

I believed him. He was Yoda, after all. He had lived for almost nine hundred years. He had known the sons who triumph over their dark fathers only to find themselves in the murkier situation of being fathers themselves, and that knowledge had made him wise but it had also worn him out.

Back here on earth, Lucas seems a lot closer to Darth Vader. Lucas is the architect of an empire the production company, Lucasfilms and special effects studio Industrial Light and Magic determined to remake the world of movies according to his own vision. He has largely succeeded, although his legacy an industry predicated on finding the next $100 million grosser to the neglect of all other, less lucrative, movies may be the puniest of anyone who's ever changed the course of Hollywood. Lucas is, in the words Paul Schrader used to describe the weasely private eye played by Ralph Meeker in "Kiss Me Deadly," "a dwarf among midgets."

"Star Wars" had more of an effect on the way movies are made than any other single picture since "Birth of a Nation." But while D. W. Griffith catapulted movies beyond their two-reeler status, Lucas has returned them to that nickelodeon mentality. There was no irony to Lucas' replication of the artlessness of Saturday-afternoon serials in "Star Wars." If you're out to parody bad movies, you don't add sanctimonious gobs of New Age-speak about the power of the Force, or expensive state-of-the-art special effects.

It's no use pretending that Lucas' obviousness wasn't entertaining. I was 15 when "Star Wars" came out, and what I loved was that it did away with both the pretensions and the cheesiness of so many sci-fi films. Seeing the awesome opening shot of the underside of the Imperial war ship, the jump to light speed, the tiny lights on the Death Star that looked the way a city does on a night-time plane ride, you knew you'd never be asked to settle for cheap special effects again. That combination of naïveté and technical sophistication must have been what attracted Alan Ladd, Jr. at Twentieth Century Fox, who was ridiculed by his fellow execs for greenlighting the project. For the suits, "Star Wars" was a godsend, the hero with a thousand faces
for the industry that shared a brain.

But Lucas' mixture of Buck Rogers and Joseph Campbell turned out to be just what the MBAs then coming to power in Hollywood needed. Men with no experience in show business or in the arts, they wanted a safe return on their investment, and recycling readily identifiable elements into a slick new package provided just that.

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Lucas says that this "Special Edition" of the trilogy (which continues with the rerelease of "The Empire Strikes Back" in February and "Return of the Jedi" in March) will not only give a new generation of moviegoers a chance to see it on the big screen, but will allow him to add the effects that limited time and money prevented when the pictures were originally made. (It will also act as massive pre-publicity for the next "Star Wars" trilogy he's planning, which should start hitting screens in 1999.)

What's stunning about seeing the "Special Edition" of "Star Wars" (especially if, like me, you haven't seen the movie in 20 years) is simply how bad it is. This is a fantasy film without a single moment of poetry or grace in it. The picture lurches along from one sequence to the next, just as movie serials did. Lucas doesn't give the story an overarching momentum; the finale is just one more sequence, not a culmination. The dialogue is so wooden it seems as if Lucas' only experience of spoken English comes from pulp writing. And he's so oblivious to his performers that he even allows Carrie Fisher to employ a phony English accent in her first scenes. For all the new effects he's added (which give you the unpleasant sensation of someone doodling on your memories), the most remarkable sight here is Alec Guinness. "Look!" you want to cry out, "an actor!" ( Although Harrison Ford's wise-ass wit is still amusing.)

There's no better way to see what's wrong with "Star Wars" than to watch "The Empire Strikes Back." In this wonderful second film of the trilogy, director Irvin Kershner (one of our most talented and underrated filmmakers) treats the characters as human beings, not genre types. He not only brings them close to us, he allows them to ascend to the level of myth. It's here that Luke, Leia, Han and the others become figures as worthy of a place in our fantasy lives as the Oz characters or E.T. (And Kershner allows Fisher and Hamill to prove themselves actors; they're terrific.)

Kershner and his ace cinematographer, Peter Suchitzky, give the movie a dark, lustrous look that's the perfect compliment to this film's darker emotions. Even the pulp dialogue is suffused with loss and longing (Leia to Han, as he's about to be plunged into a carbon freeze: "I love you." Han: "I know.") It's not just the big moments that stay with you, like Luke's horrific confrontation with Vader, but smaller ones like Chewbacca wailing as he holds C-3PO's head in his hands, a hairy Hamlet mourning his droid Yorick. You could call it sci-fi noir. It's more accurate to see it as fairy tale raised to opera.

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But Kershner, unlike Lucas, has his roots in the American movies of the
`60s and `70s (he directed pictures like "The Hoodlum Priest," "Loving,"
and "The Return of a Man Called Horse"), the world "Star Wars" altered. Seabrook's New Yorker article lays out some of the changes "Star Wars" brought about — sequels, merchandising, the advent of "high concept." He also touches upon the subsequent, incredible leap in sophistication in how movies are sold to the public — the way films are now targeted, tested and tailored to specific audiences, their probable grosses calculated, their post-release advertising budget determined by the opening-night box office.

But Seabrook left out the most enduring legacy of "Star Wars:" the infantilization of movies. The years before "Star Wars" was released — roughly from 1971 to 1977 — were the greatest period ever for American movies. A generation of filmmakers who'd been raised on classic Hollywood pictures meshed with a generation of moviegoers hungry for pictures that confronted the new realities of American life.

The self-loathing produced by Vietnam and, eventually, Watergate could be overpowering and dispiriting. But in the best pictures from that period, something else happened. Directors like Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse and others injected a new realism and a new candor, into the classic genres: gangster movies ("The Godfather" films, "Mean Streets," "Thieves Like Us"), detective movies ("The Long Goodbye," "The Late Show"), musicals ("Cabaret," "New York, New York"), westerns ("McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "The Return of a Man Called Horse"), romantic comedies ("The Owl and the Pussycat," "Annie Hall"), horror films ("Carrie"). Not all of these films succeeded at the box office. But even crowd pleasers, like "The Last Picture Show" or "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," were made with an adult sensibility and a willingness to avoid the false happy endings Hollywood had always insisted upon before. Even a blockbuster like "Jaws" could operate from a subversive sensibility, with the brainy landlubbers outsmarting Robert Shaw's epitome of heroic movie machismo.

George Lucas reversed that approach to genre. "Star Wars" made it possible to drag the hoariest old clichés back into movies without irony or apology. By 1977, the core adult moviegoing audience — an audience that had been able to make "Taxi Driver" a hit the year before — had begun drifting away. After the unprecedented success of "Star Wars," execs would never again be content with modest grosses. And since they decided that what audiences wanted was retro-fitted feel-good entertainments, adult pictures got put on the critical list. By the time Reagan was elected president three years later — resurrecting the white-picket fence iconography of an America that never was — Hollywood was ready. Reagan dominated culture as "Star Wars" dominated movies. (He even paid homage by naming his nutbrain intergalactic nuclear defense pipe dream after the picture.)

The new Hollywood showed its face in more than just all the "Star Wars" wannabes that invaded theaters. Suddenly, all the clichés that had been laughed off the screen 10 years before were back. Weepies like "Ordinary People," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "Terms of Endearment" were what passed for adult movies. And those of us who groaned or guffawed were often met with reproachful looks, often from people who, a few years earlier, would have been groaning right along with us.

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Anyone who thinks that trend has abated today need only take a look at the most acclaimed "adult" movies of the holiday season just past. What is the overwrought melodrama "Shine," beyond an update of the classic Hollywood biopic on the tortured genius? What's "The English Patient" but an artsy version of a '40s wartime weeper (albeit one where collaborating with the Nazis has become the ultimate romantic gesture)? "The People vs. Larry Flynt" is being lavished with praise for its daring, but it needs to turn Flynt into a patriot who awakens to the importance of the Constitution instead of portraying him as a self-serving scumbag who wins a crucial First Amendment victory in the process of covering his ass.

Although I wish "Star Wars" had never been made, I can't deny that a bunch of movies I love probably wouldn't have been made without it: "E.T.," "Batman" and "The Black Stallion," among others. And it's doubtful whether filmmakers who specialize in fantasy and the otherworldly — directors like Carroll Ballard, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam — would have gotten their chance at the helm if "Star Wars" hadn't made a place for fantasy in American movies.

The danger that awaits critics who lament a past era is that they'll fall out of synch with the present. I treasure American movies of the early 1970s, and I'm heartened by the filmmakers who still show that iconoclastic spirit. But some of the movies I've loved best in the past ten years — "Blue Velvet," "Something Wild," "Trainspotting" — are so entirely of their era that they would have been unimaginable in the '70s. It's ridiculous to claim, as Susan Sontag did last year, that nothing of interest or risk is being done in film. (That's an apologia for not getting off your ass to seek out what's good.) And it's snobbish to ignore what's lively and inventive in mainstream movies. One of the joys of the movies is the way they can connect you with a larger audience. But looking for what's daring and innovative now can make you feel as if you're rummaging on the margins of the culture. For me, now, watching Luke Skywalker blow the Death Star to smithereens is like seeing part of what I loved about American movies go kablooey. Obi-wan's voice drifts in, "The Force will be with you always." Who'd ever have thought that would come to sound like a curse?


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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