Jul 27, 2010

BEST FILM of 1977: Star Wars (dir Lucas)

1. Star Wars A
2.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind A-
3. Annie Hall A-
4.
The Spy Who Loved Me B+
5.
An Unmarried Woman B+
6. The American Friend B+

7. Saturday Night Fever B
8.
The Duellists B
9.
The Fury B
10.
Watership Down B-

In the summer of 1977, the sci-fi fanzine
Starlog ran a feature on the making of Star Wars and then didn’t stop for a decade. In the years to come, they ran articles on the film’s scenery painters, interviews with the actor who played Darth Vader’s right hand man, and with Mark Hammill’s stand in (“Randy here is a stand in for Fett. Glenn you can guess by his height. Darla, being the only girl, you can figure out”). By 1983, they had gotten around to printing the floor plans of Aunt Beru’s kitchen, and in 1985 — eight years after the film’s release — they finally laid their hands on that ever-ellusive interview with the actor who played Luke’s right hand man, Wedge — a character who had ended up on the cutting-room floor. To say that Star Wars inspired a loyalty bordering on the religious is understating it: when fans died, their obituaries would often say, simply, “he was a Star Wars fan.” Peter Suschitzky, Lucas’s cinematographer on The Empire Strikes Back, tells a story about the time he took his kids, then aged 10 and 4, to visit the set of the film, only to find that when they regaled their friends with the story, the next day at school, they weren’t believed, “not because it seemed too cool, but because they didn’t think of the Star Wars movie as ever having being made by human hand. It was simply there, like the Bible.” For a generation of fans, 1977 would forever be a sort of cinematic year zero: the year movies proper began. It certainly bears an almost comic lack of resemblance to every other movie released in 1977 — it’s the martian at the back of the yearbook photo. Unlike the other films that year, it didn’t feature Burt Reynolds, or CB radios, or 18-wheeler trucks, or banjoes, any other of the dust-kicking accoutrements of the Kentucky Fried movies that were tearing up and down America’s backroads at the time. What it had instead were hammer-headed aliens and high-speed dogfights, light sabres and landspeeders, twin suns and detonating moons, all strung together by a director who seemingly couldn’t wait to get from one end of his freshly-summoned universe to the other. Everywhere you looked in Star Wars you saw marvels, and everywhere you looked you found characters who treated those marvels with the disdain you or I might reserve for an egg whisk: when Luke and Han Solo are making their escape from the Death Star, and Han Solo tosses a blaster to Luke, he doesn’t have to say what it does, or where the safety catch is — Luke simply catches it in mid-air, like one of those L Dopa patients in Awakenings, and starts blasting. Even better was the moment when they first board the Millennium Falcon, start her up, and she stalls. Nobody had ever had a spaceship that stalled before.
To understand why this glitch might cause the hearts of the world’s youth to skip a beat, you have to realise that to the average 10-year-old, there was only one only thing that could possibly be cooler than the thought of owning your own spaceship. And that was the thought of owning your own spaceship for such a length of time that it had broken down on you repeatedly, reaching the same level of fond decrepitude into which people let their cars sink. “What a piece of junk!” exclaims Luke. “She may not look like much,” replies Han Solo, “but she’s got it where it counts, kid”— an exchange of dialogue that provides such a neat encapsulation of critical opinion on the film that you wonder why critics in 1977 didn’t simply put their feet up and leave the film to itself. For junk is everywhere in Star Wars. It fills its characters’ garages and homes, their spaceships and speeders. One race of creatures trades exclusively in junk: when R2 D2 and C3PO land on Tatooine, they fall into the hands of Jawas, small feral creatures who drive around the planet in a big mobile rag-and-bone shop for robots, stopping every now and again to hold a garage sale, which is how Luke comes to buy the droids — as junk. The Star Wars universe, in other words, seems to run on roughly the same principle as a New York thrift store, except with less in the way of woolly hats and more in the way of laser cannons. The only piece of new technology on display is, of course, the Death Star, which disposes of its junk in a big garbage masher, and into which Luke and his merry band naturally fall, like seeking like. That the Empire are the only people in the universe who haven’t yet heard of recycling is enough to mark them out at the bad guys. The good guys don’t buy off the peg; they tinker and solder, retrofit and weld. They are to be found in their garages, souping up their landspeeders, or up to their necks in the wiring of the Millennium Falcon. As Han Solo says proudly, “I made a few modifications to her myself.”
Everything points back, in other words, to Lucas’s most formative experience — souping up his Fiat Bianchina in his garage — and forwards towards his defining aesthetic as a filmmaker. For Star Wars, as many critics have pointed out, is itself junk — quite literally so. It is made up from the spare parts of other movies — offcuts of western, snippets of swashbuckler, and scraps of dialogue well past their sell-by date. “You can type this shit George, but you sure as hell can’t say it,” complained Harrison Ford — the only real actor in there, who further embarrassed proceedings by giving the only real performance, in which his disdain for the goings on is palpable: the sequels would fight hard to keep him and Luke separated, as if sensing that Luke’s ascent up the Jedi pole would never withstand Ford’s powers of sarcasm. But then Star Wars was never really about good acting, any more than the Road Runner cartoons were about the detailed delineation of beaks. A film which avoids close-ups like an introvert avoiding eye contact at a party, it is a movie consumed with motion blur and escape velocity, forward thrust and back blast. That’s all the Force was, really, once you had stripped it of some of the more mystical mumbo-jumbo in which Lucas wrapped it: that feeling you get when you’re driving so fast and well that you feel you’ve merged with your car, no longer really conscious of the decisions that you’re making, but thinking through the car’s fenders and chassis. If you’ve ever gone into the Zone while playing a video game, its much the same feeling. Star Wars is junk but it is fast junk. It’s got it where it counts. To American audience in 1977, it was cultural catnip. “The moment you saw that warship coming overhead, the audience just burst into applause,” remembers Alan Ladd. “Something I’d never seen in a theatre before, in all the previews I had been to. It brought tears to my eyes, I had to get up and walk out of the theatre and round the block to get a hold of myself.” The film “showed people it was all right to become totally involved in a movie again; to yell and scream and applaud and really roll with it,” and it met them half-way just as Jaws had done, ending with a ceremony in which its heroes turned to face the camera to riotous applause — a sort of cinematic high-five, across the fourth wall, between the movie and its audience. In San Francisco, the manager of the Coronet on Geary Boulevard reported scenes that looked like out-takes from the film’s alien cantina scene: “I've never seen anything like it. We’re getting all kinds. Old people, young people, children, Hari-Krishna groups. They bring cards to play in line. We have checker-players, we have chess-players. People with paints and sequins on their faces. Fruit-eaters like I’ve never seen before. People loaded on grass and LSD. At least one guy’s been here every day.” People even queued up to watch the people queuing up. "It's become a family amusement to watch the people in the lines," said one Washington resident. "It's really changing the neighbourhood," complained another. "We used to have quiet streets and now there are just people walking up and down the neighbourhood from 6 until midnight.” America is not, by nature, a queuing nation — preferring, in 1977, to leave that sort of thing to the Russians — but the queues for Star Wars marked the high-point of that venerable tradition, soon to be eliminated by the smooth-running efficiency of the multiplex: the cinema queue, in all its pushy, pullulating, rowdy, ragged glory. Only a few months earlier, in Annie Hall, Woody Allen had exacted retribution on a noisy fellow-queue-member by ushering on Marshall McLuhan to silence him, but that was a queue for The Sorrow And The Pity, a film to be received in an air of suitably church-like calm, not a blockbuster like Jaws and Star Wars, the queues for which, it is safe to say, were probably the only form of benign mass congregation America had seen in a decade, outside of a sports stadium. To most Americans in the mid-seventies, the sight of more Americans meant one of two things: 1) anti-Vietnam demonstrations, or 2) queues for gas. The 1976 Bicentennial celebrations in Boston, meanwhile, had proved a decided dud — denounced as a “Buy-Centennial” by those protesting its 300-plus corporate sponsors, while protesters dumped packages marked “Gulf Oil” and “Exxon” into the harbour, and hauled a Nixon effigy about the bay. When official re-enactors cried “Down with King George!” the shout came back: “Down with King Richard!” An official report into the incident concluded, “we entered the Bicentennial year having survived some of the bitterest times in our brief history. We cried out for something to draw us together again.” It was quite a conundrum: How could the nation celebrate its youth as a scrappy rebel republic, when all around it sat all the signs — Vietnam, Exxon, Nixon — that it had transformed into the very Empire it once opposed?
Star Wars was your answer. It was virtual patriotism — flag-waving without any of the embarrassment that then clung to the stars and stripes. It was pomp without the circumstance — a chance for the country’s pent-up triumphalism to play out in the harmless vacuum of space, where audiences could cheer on the scrappy rebels once again, boo the evil empire, and generally have themselves a ball. Lucas hadn’t just given America a hit film. He had given the nation something of its youth, and at a time when it was feeling, if not its age, then certainly a little middle-aged spread. One of the great things, in fact, about the early blockbusters of Lucas and Spielberg, is just how much of America they give you. Critics normally like to say that about films like The Deer Hunter, or All The President’s Men, films by more politicised directors who faced up, four-square, to the problems enmeshing the country at the time. Star Wars, on the other hand, is “just” escapism, although there is nothing is more revealing than an escape route — the velocity and trajectory with which fantasy finds its headway into a nation’s dreamlife, and in Star Wars, you got to see the nation’s dreamlife laid bare, in all its turreted, buttressed, John-Williams-scored glory.
Only blockbusters can do this, plugging into the national grid with a force that throws even more sophisticated movies for a loop. They are the quintessential American form, maybe even more so than the movies, for many countries have film industries, but only America makes blockbusters France once tried to turn a much-loved comic strip, Asterix and Obelix, into a fully-functioning film franchise and the results were not pretty. And America has its own arthouse and independent movie traditions, noble and thriving, but something about the gentle give-and-take of hundreds of millions of dollars seems to lubricate a certain level of creativity in American cinema in a way that it doesn't in other countries, which is why blockbusters have so quickly ascended to the pantheon of products — like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and MTV — which are both revered and reviled the world over as the embodiment of Americanness Incarnate, if only for the simple reason that their share with their parent nation two of its defining attributes as a nation: its size and its speed — its massive girth and the gait required to traverse it. The size, Hollywood already had covered — overwhelming scale was what distinguished and ultimately doomed the old DeMillean spectaculars — but it was the missing element, speed, that Lucas supplied in 1977, summoning a note that was both unmistakably American — a “jaunty, wise-ass, fast, very modern, sort of a teenaged thing, a polished chrome kind of feel” as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan put it — and wholly exportable at the same time. It went down a storm in Russia, where as one diplomat put it, “R2D2, whatever he speaks, it isn’t English.” In Britain, audiences could politely ignore the fact that the Empire sounded British and concentrate instead on the fact that they looked German. In Germany, the reverse. In Italy, critics found the film an allegory for communism, while in France, critics denounced it a “crypto-fascist”: the Death Star resembled nothing so much as Albert Speer’s models for Berlin, they pointed out; and even the rebel ceremony at the end was clearly modelled on the 1933 Nuremberg rally. It was the opening salvo in what would amount to an all out war between the French and the blockbuster, which would reach a bloody climax in 1993 — when half of France ground to a halt to watch Jurassic Park, and the other half denounced the first half for succumbing to American “cultural imperialism.” It is worth remembering, perhaps, that French film critics, perhaps understandably, tend to see crypto-fascism and cultural imperialism in a lot more places than critics from other countries, and that it is the Speer-like immensity of the Death Star that leads to its downfall, rendering it penetrable by the smaller x-wings, nippy manoeuvrability winning the day, just as it did in Jaws. Besides which, the politics of Star Wars are probably best wrapped up using that old rule of cinema, the one which states that no film starring Harrison Ford will ever cause you or your friends to submit to Nazi occupation.
But this rule — call it Dr Jones’ First Theorum — was a new rule in 1977, and yet to be rigourously tested, so the French can’t be blamed for not having heard of it. Amongst American critics, Star Wars got a great reception, much better than Jaws, for it was less ostensibly sensationalistic, with a more obvious scroll of movie-history hanging over it. In Time, Jay Cocks called it “a remarkable confection; a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film”. It’s rerelease, in 1997, was however, a different matter, which left Lucas’s reputation resting just a few notches above that of Mephistopheles. Three things happened in quick succession to secure a quick conviction. First, the centenary of cinema, in 1996, which gave everyone their victim. Second came the rerelease of Star Wars, which gave everyone their suspect. Thirdly and finally, we had the publication in 1997, of Easy Riders Raging Bulls, which supplied judge, jury and executioner in the form of film historian Peter Biskind. The book was a rousing bohemian rhapsody to the so-called “movie brats” like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Arthur Penn, who under cover of the studios confusion following the youthquake of Easy Rider in 1971, marched straight out of film school and snuck under the gates of the citadel to make such movies as Mean Streets, Chinatown, The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde — films high on equal amounts French New Wave, auteur theory and pot, which played fast and loose with genre, merrily splintered their time schemes, let loose as many moral ambiguities as you could shake a stick at, and arrived at endings as unhappy as any in Christendom. Lucas and Spielberg, on the other hand, are found guilty of returning “the 70s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-60s Golden Age of movies” and — worse — not taking anywhere near enough drugs.
They can’t help but come across as dweeby outsiders, standing out from Biskind’s Bacchanalian frieze like priests at the Playboy mansion, although one of the curious things about Biskind’s in-crowd is how even those on the inside of it feel like outsiders. It’s an inherent problem, I guess, with a group photograph of a bunch of mavericks — they’re always wandering off out-of-frame. Despite snapshots of Coppola and Scorsese in their Castro-beard phase, they both make for rather unconvincing hippies. Nor is it too hard to look at Biskind’s counter-cultural canon and sense audiences rewarding whatever Old Hollywood virtues they could find beneath these movies scuffed New Hollywood exterior. What made the French Connection a hit: its air of 6am scuzziness or fender-bending car chase? And what were Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and The Exorcist if not high-end retoolings of old pulp genres, just like Jaws and Star Wars? Biskind begins to realise this, and so the purges begin: Coppola and Friedkin are fine until they achieve success, at which point they are kicked off his team for being advance-gaurd Reaganites; then it’s out with Peter Bogdonavich for being too “classical” in his storytelling. If you further subtract Scorsese and Altman — whose talent survived the killing fields of 1977 — who, exactly were the true auteurist casualties of the blockbuster era? Basically, if you spend your movie-watching life according to Biskind’s fierce ideological strictures, you’re going to be spending an awful amount of time in the company of Dennis Hopper. A wild and crazy guy, but still. “Dennis believed, and this was a revelation after we found it out, because he cut for months under this misapprehension — that once you made a cut you couldn’t put anything back,” said one of Hopper’s collaborators on Easy Rider. “It was absolutely stunning. He was the worst editor that's ever been.” Or as Biskind prefers, Hopper “liberated Easy Rider from the prettifying aesthetic of technical excellence,” which is one way of putting it. Another might be that Easy Rider was as meretricious a bit of youth-exploitation as any of the blockbuster era, and that its true legacy was the bunch of b-grade biker movies and summer-of-love cash-ins, all wholly liberated from technical excellence, which followed: Getting Straight, The Revolutionary, The Strawberry Statement (“where a boy ... and a girl... meet... and touch.... and BLOW THEIR MINDS”). Watching a film like The Trip — written by Jack Nicholson, starring Hopper and Peter Fonda, and featuring, if memory serves, a joint-smoking scene shot from the point of view of the joint — it’s not too hard to see why so many of the nation’s youth were so eager to clamber aboard the Millennium Falcon in 1977.

— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)

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