The River

Friday, May 25, 2007

30 years ago today

(a repost in honor of the 30th anniversary of Star Wars)

Star Wars: What happened?

A very long time ago...

It is nineteen seventy five. Every other boy in the Hometown High School yearbook has long hair. The football team smokes reefer and congressmen are wearing extravagant sideburns. Many people who ten years earlier had been questing for Autonomy gave up and became Born Agains, Greenpeace members, Hare Krishnas, or Investment Bankers. Who will speak for the youth? The Eagles? I don't think so. Allow this mixture to ferment for a few years and the next thing ya know you've got Luke Skywalker riding in to save the day on a white horse and wearing a purple mohawk and large size safety pin nose ring.

-- The Post-modern Autonomous Footsoldier: an Historical Perspective

It’s been almost 30 years since Star Wars blasted its way onto the American scene. 30 years? Can that be right? No wonder I’m having trouble casting my mind back that far. Things, to put it mildly, have changed.

But travel back with me to a more innocent time. 1977. I’m 14. Culture is comic books, Rockford Files, Hollywood Squares, Laugh-In. Paul McCartney and Wings, Elton John, The Captain and Tenille. Jimmy Carter, Six Flags, recession.

I’m on a summer vacation with my next oldest brother and Mom and Dad. We’ve driven up the Eastern U.S. from Atlanta to Atlantic City, with a stop in D.C. Previews for a new science fiction movie have been on TV, some teaser posters have been displayed, but otherwise there hasn’t been much hype or attention to a new movie from the director of "American Graffiti."

It has caught my attention, however. The previews are riveting in a “my curiosity is definitely being piqued here” kind of way. I probably said something like, “that looks kinda good, doesn’t it Dad?” We often watched TV together, particularly The Rockford Files.

The new movie has me so intrigued that I’ve picked up the mass market paperback novelization, and have been reading it in the car. The vacation is almost over. We’re on our way home from up north, and we stop in college town for the night rather than try to drive it all at once. It so happens that it’s a Friday night and Star Wars is premiering across the country. I suggest we all go see it. I look in the phone book to find nearby theaters and call for show times. Yes, it’s spontaneous as hell. We get there uneventfully, on time, feeling good, successfully almost-completed vacation trip behind us. I still remember the college kids standing in the surprisingly long line, couples, date night.

Darkened, full, expectant theater. Previews over, and here it comes. The stage-setting crawl, the music, the imperial cruiser. A desperate message; strange, endearing robots escaping to a desert planet; a young dreamer; a mysterious old man. Adventure. Swashbuckling. A kiss and a swing across an abyss, just ahead of the forces of darkness. It is all fantastic and all real. It is an experience, it is elation, it is hope.

I’m sure we cheered the destruction of the Death Star. And we most certainly weren’t alone.

"For me, Star Wars is Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia" -- friends answer to why he hasn't bothered to see the latest Star Wars trilogy.

Flash forward to 2005 -- "Revenge of the Sith" and George Lucas, who seems to be stuck in some 80s Michael Jackson Thriller video hell. Only his videos are two-hour installments of wooden politics and “the force” mumbo jumbo punctuated by slickly produced, fast but incredibly bland, and, at times, sadistic battles.

The recent trilogy, the one that precedes the original (it makes sense in bizarro world), carries one extremely dispiriting American message: more is better, which has been our mantra since the Reagan and Gordon Gecko ‘80s. Greed is good.

So now, no one blinks when Lucas foists a meaningless piece of cultural detritus on a credulous public. If a light saber duel is cool, then a light saber battle against a droid wielding four of them is better. Isn’t that obvious? If a light saber face-off between arch representatives of good and evil is compelling, then two such battles simultaneously are even more impressive. And look! Light sabers now come in purple!

Unfortunately, more always transfers more of your money to wealthy schemers, ultimately leaving you exhausted and broke. Or, if you apply the paradigm to our government and its wars, exhausted and broken in body and soul.

But, ironically, isn’t Lucas supposed to be telling us that? So, with “Revenge of the Sith” we get pummeled with endless references to “the power of the darkside” and "the empire” and lots of shots of Hayden Christensen peering darkly from under his hood, flames dancing in the whites of his eyes. Do we really need all this pounding over the head, when we instantly understood the dark power of Darth Vader when he first strode through the dead bodies on a rebel ship back in the 70s, black cape flowing?

Do we really need all these references to the force, when we knew that Luke felt the entire panoply of human emotion as he watched the double sunset of Tatooine, heartbroken yet feeling a pull to play his part in a vast, incomprehensible, interconnected universe? Didn’t Alec Guinness already carefully and quietly demonstrate the principles of a spiritual approach to life?

Do we really need a “debate” over whether Lucas is warning America of its desire for empire when we all know America is The Empire, and many of us like it? There is something exceedingly hollow in being cautioned about the evils of empire with a movie that drips with consumerism and greed.

The Star Wars franchise and the American Empire are all about “more.” More product for you and me, and exported to others whether they like it or not. Free-Dumb for all. Consumerism, baby. Have you consumed Star Wars yet? Bought the video game, the toys, the fast food meal?

After viewing "Revenge of the Sith", you may, like me, feel like holding up your gloves and chanting “nada mas, nada mas.”

Like the Matrix series, these trilogies are nothing more than exercises in wretched excess. Every subsequent Star Wars film has been a parasite, sucking its life from the original, with the possible exception of "The Empire Strikes Back," which had Jedi training with Yoda, Lando Calrissian, and the memorable “I….am your father.” It was, at least, the dark counterpart to the first’s message of hope. is your destiny

But it also established one of the ills of the franchise, defining itself by how it’s different (this usually involves “more”): “hey! I know! We had a hot desert planet last time, how ‘bout an ICE planet?!”

If you do want to see big idea scifi, I suggest you rent “Nausicca of The Valley of the Wind,” the 1984 Japanese animated feature from Hayao Miyazaki. It doesn’t feature ham-fisted dialogue, in-your-face battles and graceless, frantic action. And it’s not about installing another nozzle on an already bloated money-sucking machine.

Poster for the Japanese mind-bender

It is about humankind struggling with what it has wrought – environmental devastation. It’s techno-militarism versus enlightened humanism. It’s told with imagination, style, pace, thrilling action, and it’s centered on a young, uncorrupted heroine. In short, it’s everything the original Star Wars was and the Star Wars franchise is not.

I viewed "Nausicca" recently, and appreciated it, but you never forget your first time. Rock-n-roll concerts, beer, girls, dirty brown Mexican weed, and the original Star Wars.

When you were young there were only two things you wanted. To be a Jedi Master and to have the power to stop time and wreak havoc on your sixth-grade classmates, frozen and impotent, as you wild through the halls hurling Apple II Pluses at cafeteria aides.

Harrison Ford made it out alive. Carrie Fisher does OK. But what happened to Luke? Did he go back to the Dagoba system for more training?

Petty jabs aside, this may be the only film in the last twenty-five years whose first viewing approximates the first time you got stoned. Not the first time you smoked pot, but the first time you didn’t have to fake being high. The moment that changed your life forever and landed you in this book.

No film has ever come close to the sense of sheer wonder that George Lucas’s work of genius provides. You can’t take it with you, but every now and then the feeling can almost be reclaimed. Almost.

-- “Baked Potatoes: A Pot Smoker’s Guide to Film and Video,” John Hulme, Michael Wexler

We have to sort this out, Bruce. I'm writing of Dylan's birthday and you're writing of George Lucas's boy. I point out that things have changed (contextually relevant, naturally) and so do you. You point to the BBC and so do I. Have you spoken to your mother yet?
ah Golby, you know no one will ever be able to figure this out. that's the beauty of it.

Blog on, brother.
Great post Bruce.
Post a Comment