Nostalgia: Star Wars

Posted on May 25, 2007


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Paying obeisance to Star Wars, which turned thirty on May 25…

MAY 27, 2007 – THREE WHOLE DECADES have passed since Star Wars burst into our collective consciousness – in other words, it really was “a long time ago…â€? – and yet the way many of us remain gripped, even today, by George Lucas’ space opera would suggest that the film is a fairly recent phenomenon. One reason for this is, of course, the constant influx of newer episodes. Star Wars was followed by parts two and three of the initial trilogy, and these gave way to their spruced-up Special Editions, which in turn laid the groundwork for the prequels – so if we continue to remember this strangely wondrous universe, it’s because we’ve never actually been allowed to forget.

And yet there are those who’d like nothing better than to forget the whole thing ever happened. These are the people who love “grown-upâ€? cinema, and who lament that the never-before success of Star Wars put a lightsabre through the heart of a golden age of personal filmmaking. Before Star Wars, a mainstream blockbuster meant something like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an idiosyncratic celebration of the counter-culture. Star Wars, though, so thoroughly altered the economics of mainstream moviemaking that only films that could sustain the widest release and ensure merchandising returns from Moscow to Mexico became viable. If One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest were made today, it would likely be an indie product that would depend on Sundance word-of-mouth to make money. Because the average multiplex-goers – the audiences who are either teenagers themselves, or who seek out entertainment targeted at their inner 13-year-olds – would rather catch a big-budget, thrill-a-second, special-effects extravaganza (in other words, an offspring of Star Wars).

Strangely enough, Lucas would be the first to agree with his critics – for his pre-Star Wars superhit, American Graffiti, had demonstrated to him the significance of skewing young. “When I did Graffiti, I discovered that making a positive film is exhilarating,â€? he is quoted as saying in Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. “I thought, Maybe I should make a film like this for even younger kids. Graffiti was for sixteen-year-olds; this [Star Wars] is for ten- and twelve-year-olds, who have lost something even more significant than the teenager. I saw that kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had – they don’t have Westerns, they don’t have pirate movies… the real Errol Flynn, John Wayne kind of adventures. Disney had abdicated its reign over the children’s market, and nothing had replaced it.â€?

There’s a universality to this statement that goes beyond America and shows why Star Wars permeated the popular culture of the entire world. For those of us – in India, for instance – who were kids then, this was our first serious engagement with sci-fi. We weren’t born when Kubrick made 2001, and we were still a few years away from Star Trek being beamed onto our television sets on Sunday mornings – and bang in the middle came Star Wars. Throughout his saga, Lucas transported us from one exotic geography to another, from the deserts of Tatooine to the icecaps of Hoth, from the leafy lushness of Endor to the marshlands of Dagobah – but the setting that grabbed us the most was the inky blackness of Outer Space. We’d seen nothing like it.

And the thrill was compounded by the fact that the film – in accordance with Lucas’ vision – spoke to us and resonated with us. At one level – and critics of Star Wars would say at all levels – this was a kids’ movie, which is why it’s irrelevant to question the logic behind, say, why there are so many Stormtroopers with so many blasters and yet no one important from the group of Rebels ever gets killed. For all the shootings and killings, the only instance of blood in Star Wars is when Obi-Wan Kenobi slices the arm off an anonymous troublemaker in the famous cantina sequence at Mos Eisley. It isn’t till The Empire Strikes Back that we see a bloodied major character, when Luke Skywalker is mauled by a wampa – and if just reading this line made you smirk, you have good company among the grown-ups. (A… wampa? Hyuk, hyuk!)

I am always amazed by the vehemence in some people’s hate for Star Wars, as if it’s not enough that they don’t care for it, but they have to undermine the tastes of those of us who do. Maybe they were spoiled by the intellectualism (or at least the attempts at thematic richness) in 2001 and Quatermass and the Pit and Soylent Green, all of which – to varying degrees – put the science back into science fiction. (In contrast, Star Wars is just fiction.) Maybe they felt the characters were puny cardboard types, with barely any depth (this, despite at least three great performances – from Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing). Or maybe it was just that most ridiculed of aspects of Star Wars – the dialogue. (One of the great anecdotes about the film is Harrison Ford’s remark to Lucas: “George, you can type this s**t, but you sure can’t say it.) And even I will admit that there’s a lot of the dialogue that makes you smile today – either because the lines are genuinely funny (C-3PO’s name-calling of R2-D2: “You overweight glob of grease!â€?) or inadvertently so. It’s hard not to suppress a giggle at the sci-fi portentousness of Uncle Owen’s query to C-3PO when the latter is lined up for purchase: “What I really need is a droid who understands the binary language of moisture vaporators.â€?

But, on a larger level, very little of this matters because what we fans thought – and still think – is that Star Wars is essentially visual filmmaking, harking back to the days of silent cinema in terms of the representational nature of the characterisations. I mean, a hero dressed in white and a villain attired in all-black – really, what dialogue is necessary? And looking at the film all these years later, you cannot deny that there’s at least one line of dialogue that’s strangely prescient. When Luke sells his beat-up, old landspeeder at Mos Eisley, he doesn’t get much for it, and he complains to Obi-Wan, “Ever since the XP-38 [the newer models] came out, [these] just aren’t in demand.â€? And is there a better testament to the obsolescence of technology than Star Wars itself?

One reason many people who missed the Star Wars bus then find it difficult to hop on now is how much more dazzling and realistic the special effects have become – for how can you recapture, today, the excitement when the Millennium Falcon jumped into hyperdrive, when the stars stopped being mere dots in space and blurred into silvery streaks converging at an invisible infinity, giving us the forward momentum of actually being on the ship? Our jaws dropped with awe, at the beginning, when the tiny Rebel ship was pursued by the Imperial Star Destroyer, a spaceship seen from the point of view of its unending underbelly – but today, this same cruiser looks like a dinky plastic toy, just as the shooting sequences with grid-screens and joysticks seem little more than primitive video games.

But I return to Star Wars every so often, and I find that after an initial period of recalibration, this isn’t an issue at all. (It’s probably like that for those who saw Dr. No when it was first released. They thought it was the ultimate action adventure then, while for me – a product of the Roger Moore era – it’s entertaining and all, but undeniably a bit quaint.) And in any case, it’s the small things – the non-high tech stuff – that keep drawing me back. I look at the Jawas – those small scavenger-creatures in brown cloaks – and I take in their only visible feature, the two bright yellow eyes, and I wonder: Do these things actually have a face? Or do those eyes hover in emptiness? And when Obi-Wan is fatally struck down by Darth Vader, his robe collapses to the floor but there’s no physical body there anymore – which happens with Yoda too, when he dies. Are these Jedi knights made of the Force? Is that why they leave no corporeal remains?

It’s these quirks and these characters that stay with you – along with their musical leitmotifs. Few scores in motion picture history are this instantly identifiable – and this indelibly scorched into the fabric of a film. Without John Williams’ music in the scene where Luke gazes at the two setting suns of Tatooine, it’s just a pretty sight. But with the music – the wistfulness outlined by the flute and filled in by the strings – it’s a statement of the yearning in Luke. He’s not just staring at beautiful scenery, he’s looking at worlds he can – thanks to a slave-driver of an uncle – never get close to. The score accentuates the discontent that he’s voiced to C-3PO a little earlier: “If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.â€? And that’s why we keep going back to Star Wars – because it’s as primal a movie experience as you can get, with good battling evil against a melodramatic backdrop of near-Wagnerian intensity.

If this piece so far has read like an apologia – “Why I Love Star Wars (Though So Many People Don’t)â€? – I guess, in a way, it is. What I’ve outlined here are many of the things I say to younger cousins, for instance – those brats whose first exposure to special effects and spectacle was through Jurassic Park. I tell them to remember that this is one of the few blockbusters that came entirely from the mind of one man. (Think about it – The Godfather and Jaws were based on bestselling books, The Sound of Music was first a smash Broadway musical, and even if E.T. came from Spielberg’s head, it’s a one-off movie set in a very identifiable suburbia.) It’s just too bad that the films that followed Star Wars – with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back – offered steadily diminishing returns, especially the late-in-the-day prequels. These were the failures of a man who was better at creating than at writing or directing, a man who wasn’t willing to let other (and better) craftsmen shape the worlds he’d imagined – but thirty years later, I’m just grateful that he imagined them at all.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: English