Saturday, December 26, 2015

Street Life, It's the Only Life I Know: The Laid Back Pleasures of JACKIE BROWN

.45mm or .9mm? That’s the existential debate pondered by Samuel L. Jackson’s smooth-talking, samurai-coiffed, sub-sociopathic minor league arms dealer Ordell Robbie in the first post-credits scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Whilst pontificating to his newly sprung from the pokey partner Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) on the relative merits of the industrial strength firearms on display in Chicks Who Love Guns (the hilarious infomercial spoof that feels like a Jim Wynorski b-reel, all bikini-clad, bosom-heavy beauties on display), he laments that as soon as a film popularizes a certain type of gun, all of his prime street customers become obsessed with owning one, no matter the quality or drawbacks. In particular, he namechecks John Woo’s The Killer, and how since it other Hong Kong gangster films of its ilk made their domestic bows, everyone wants to own a .45 (despite his advice that a .9mm jams far less.)

As an opening salvo for two of the film’s main characters, it’s a goofy bit of comedic jesting, a callback to the Jackson-John Travolta bull session at the opening of Pulp Fiction, and a self-referential stab at the romanticism of violence and pop culture junkiedom that lie at the heart of Tarantino’s film (and which are often the main criticisms lobbed his way.) But this smidge of dialogue also provides some key context for the time that helped to spawn this 2.5 hour character study of a crime drama. In the grand scheme of Tarantino’s filmic oeuvre, Jackie Brown stands as an intriguing sidebar, one which provides a glimpse into an alternate direction in which his career might have progressed.

As QT was directing Pulp Fiction (which captured so much of the post-modern, ironic GenX sensibility that was becoming a standard in the early ‘90s), another wildly influential cultural marker was embedding itself on the pop consciousness. For a period in the first half of the decade, the nascent Hong Kong Action genre was the hottest thing going in the then-potent U.S. underground film scene. Magazines like Film Threat devoted copious space to chronicling the transgressive thrills in films that, in a pre-internet era, were hard to see outside of bootleg VHS tapes. Art houses across the country hosted retrospectives featuring recent wire work epics and hyper-violent bullet ballets.

At the heart of this genre explosion was John Woo, the superstar director of A Better Tomorrow, Hard Boiled, and the aforementioned The Killer. His crime sagas were a reinvention of the noir cycle on par with the French New Wave tough guys films of Jean-Pierre Melville, with impossibly cool leading men (particularly the iconic Chow Yun Fat) blazing their way through a morally conflicted world awash with cigarette smoke and dual pistol standoffs. And doves. Lots of doves. Woo was an arch-stylist through and through, and the neon lighting, atmospheric shafts of light, and symbolic birds of freedom that populated his landscapes brought a poetic weight to the proceedings.

Ironically, by the time Woo’s films gained greater exposure in the States, the Triad film genre was already in decline, slowly being replaced by another wave of wire work films. But they still seemed radical and fresh to domestic audiences. The hip hop world, in particular, latched onto the genre in a massive way, aping the stoic, badass signifiers of Woo and company in their style and lyrics. The most notable purveyors of this influence were the rap superstar collective The Wu-Tang Clan, who took their moniker from a 1983 Gordon Liu action film and peppered their tracks with samples and soundbites from the burgeoning Honk Kong filmic arena.

Always the inveterate, voracious cinephile, Tarantino had latched onto this Asian New Wave early on, a fandom that was bolstered by the access he enjoyed during his tenure at the famed Video Archives. You can see some of the classic Hong Kong cinema themes at play in his first two films: loyalty, respect, the codes by which warriors live, the ritualization of violence. And as was becoming evident by this point in his career, he also held a deep appreciation for black culture, especially the Blaxploitation genre so popular in ‘70s grindhouses. Jackie Brown would see the fullest realization to date of QT’s affinity for this dual cultural imperative in its loose, weed-infused mood.

And it would see this realization through his adaptation of Elmore Leonard, the poet laureate of Detroit crime fiction, whose hard-boiled books are populated by the kind of eccentric criminals, wild card elements, and an intense love of language that seem right at home in the Tarantinoverse. In Leonard’s Rum Punch, QT saw the same talky crooks that lent his previous two films their dark, vital heart. But he also saw something more, the chance to build a narrative around two decidedly more non-criminal types floating around this world of thieves, both trying to make their way to a better life. And he saw the chance to resurrect the careers of two of his favorite actors.

If John Travolta often served as the young Tarantino’s avatar of cool, then Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier was his inspiration, his crush, and his template for femininity. Since her ‘70s heyday, Grier had never really gone away, but she was a long way from her most famous roles in Foxy Brown, Coffy, Black Mama, White Mama, et al. Much like Richard Roundtree, she had been pigeonholed as a sub-genre action star, which ignored the authoritative presence, knowing wit, and emotional depth that she often brought to roles. Being able to use his newfound Hollywood clout to make his next film a Grier vehicle was a dream come true for QT. Once again, the lazy narrative might have pegged this as nostalgic stunt casting, but like Travolta’s turn in Pulp, this was a case where a somewhat forgotten star was the perfect choice for the character. Unfortunately, Grier’s career didn’t match the resurgence that came to Travolta; Hollywood tends to marginalize women over 40…or, these days, over 30. Nonetheless, her work in this film is tremendous. Uma Thurman may have electrified Pulp, but it was still very much a man’s man’s man’s world. Grier’s Jackie is still beset by the wills and whims of the male-dominated war between cops and criminals, but she more than holds her own, ultimately outsmarting all of them to deliver herself from the middle-aged morass of her flight stewardess life. She’s the first truly alpha-female presence in a Tarantino film, and it can be argued that after two features in which men must rely on their resourcefulness to find redemption, Jackie Brown finds a similar crew of men helpless before the titular female.

One of those men who ultimately finds himself in thrall to Jackie’s charms is career bail bondsman Max Cherry, played with stoic aplomb by Robert Forster. Another favorite of Tarantino’s youth, Forster was the very definition of a working actor, gaining some notability in Disney’s space epic The Black Hole and the sewer horror thriller Alligator, but otherwise never reaching even the temporary level of fame that Grier achieved. The budding romance between Max and Jackie forms the tender heart of this film; looking back at it today, the casting of two middle-aged actors in these roles in a Tarantino film seems positively subversive. Forster doesn’t carry the pyrotechnic presence of Pulp’s leading men, but Max requires an actor who can wear the weight of the years in far subtler fashion. And this is where Forster excels, communicating a world-weary humor and sadness throughout, his furrowed brow indicative of a life spent witnessing all manner of malfeasance, his deep stare a well of regret for the life he might have had.

From a purely objective standpoint, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro are the two megastars in this film, even though they’re supporting players to the Jackie/Max story. Both actors give some of the finest performances of their careers, playing against type in fascinating ways. De Niro’s Louis is all comedic shrugs and bemused reactions, a man lost in the real world after four years in the clink. But that confused stoner demeanor hides a raging frustration that finally explodes when he kills Bridget Fonda’s Melanie in a fit of rage after the money exchange at the Del Amo Fashion Place. It’s a shocking bit of violence to this day, made all the more powerful by the relatively monotone character build that comes before. It’s also a deeply troubling moment that forces the audience to question whether they should laugh or gasp. That dynamic was at play with much of Jackson’s role as Jules in Pulp Fiction, and the same feeling permeates his role here as well. That opening discussion of guns and their cultural cache always elicits laughs from an audience, but while Jules is ultimately revealed to be a morally motivated person who has spent a lifetime putting on malevolent airs to serve as the tyranny of evil men, Ordell is a stone cold psychopath who wears a mask of conviviality to lure in his victims. In the film’s climactic scene, in which Ordell threatens Max before their meeting with Jackie, the look in Jackson’s eyes is pure cold, calculating menace, a moral vacuum at the heart of the plot.  

Watching Jackie Brown today is as interesting an experience as it was back in 1997. I remember seeing it several days after its Christmas Day release, loving the laid back nature of the plot and the deeply ‘70s haze in which it seemed to dwell (even though it’s set in the present day.) Of course, the film was a financial disappointment, and pundits saw it as either a step back for the boy wonder director or a comeuppance for his sudden mega-stardom. Seen in the context of his subsequent films, it’s somewhat of an odd duck, an almost total retreat into the extended conversational world that his previous films used as backdrop, which creates an overall effect that at times can seem almost too relaxed. But by the time all is resolved in the final scene, and Jackie and Max part after a poignant kiss, the collective power of the film really comes together. We, the audience, have lived with these people for several hours, and what in the moment might have seemed like minor and incidental details are now revealed as building blocks in a relationship that is unusually mature, not just for a crime film but for a major Hollywood product. There’s no melodrama in their parting, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t get a bit choked up as Max retreats into the soft focus of the scene’s background (and into his barely concealed tears) and as the camera focuses on Jackie’s face as she drives away into her new life, Grier singing along to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” (which also opens the film) with a twinge of sadness over leaving one of the only people in her life who seems to have truly gotten her.

Despite its financial failings, Jackie Brown allowed Tarantino to expand his dramatic chops in ways that are still interesting. He would hang onto the narrative of a strong woman beset by grief and regret, using it as a launching point for his next project, a massive film that would serve as a summation of his entire career, nay his entire life to this point. It would be five full years before another QT film would hit theaters, but Kill Bill would prove to be more than worth the wait.          

Friday, December 25, 2015

PULP FICTION and the Path of the Righteous

Sometimes a film comes along that becomes more than merely popular, that stamps its imprint so distinctly on the collective cultural consciousness as to become part and parcel of the lingua franca, an almost subconscious connective bond in the social tapestry. The advent of the mass media hurried along this process. Once a film could be viewed again and again on television and video, it became easier for it to achieve such a totemic status. It’s why The Godfather remains so ubiquitous in the mass parlance, even amongst those who have never actually sat down and watched Michael Corleone’s descent into darkness (granted, its wry commentary on the American Dream also helps, but hey…) It’s why the Will Ferrell empire of laughs has managed to colonize minds of all ages: Anchorman is a great party film, but it also works as a loosely connected series of clips that can be shared virally.

In 1994, Pulp Fiction became this type of film. And Quentin Tarantino became this type of director. “And nothing was ever the same” is one of the hoariest clichés imaginable. But truly, post-Pulp Fiction, nothing was ever the same.

As I mentioned in my essay on Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s ascent occurred at a precipitous time for the indie and art film world. Throughout the ‘80s, the influence of the Jarmusches and the Hayneses and the Wenderses of the art house realm had been bubbling under the surface of a mainstream film scene increasingly dominated by empty action epics and slick, sanitized dramas and comedies, a reflection of the go-go Reaganomics bubble. Spike Lee was arguably one of the first directors to transcend the indie milieu with Do the Right Thing, a righteous, morally complex, smart bomb of a film that confronted a fairly wide audience with its own deeply held prejudices. It took an ace provocateur and cinephile like Lee to blaze such a path. Five years later, an equally passionate cinephile and provocateur (and future sparring partner in the press) would torch that path, breaking it wide open for better and for worse. Time may have bestowed more enduring respectability on Lee’s film, but Quentin Tarantino’s raucous, ribald coming out party is, in many ways, just as a deep of a morality tale. It just came dressed up as the ultimate explosion of the culture junkie instinct.

For as transcendent as Pulp Fiction has become over the ensuing two decades, for as easy as “Royale with Cheese” can still effortlessly spill from so many lips, for as archetypical as wise-cracking criminals whose conversations are peppered with cultural ephemera have become, it has to be difficult for a first time viewer in 2015 (especially a viewer who wasn’t a teenager or older when the film was released) to fully appreciate how strange and radical it felt like in 1994. A huge part of that galvanizing sense was borne of a ‘70s revival that was reaching its peak, right at the time when post-modernism and irony were becoming forever entwined in the cultural DNA. Seeing Pulp for the first time today, its arch-ironic ‘70s references can seem a little goofy and dated, but at the time such winking humor felt fresh and vital (if you were a teen, as I was at the time, it felt like you were the first generation to experience such an ironic embrace of the past.) In the ensuing years since 1994, the acceleration of the mass media has mainstreamed irony and sarcasm to such a degree that their effect is almost anodyne. But back then, such markers were reaching a crest with Nirvana’s repackaging of ‘70s metal and punk as rebuke of the ‘80s pop excesses and the rise of a pseudo-alternative counterculture that aped that same sense of appropriation, a pop-psychology ideal for a generation still trapped in the shadow of Woodstock and the ‘60s. (It’s no coincidence that even though the 1994 Woodstock revival tried to emulate the peace and love ethos of 1969, the breakout stars of the weekend were Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, sonic collage terrorists whose newest album was recorded in Sharon Tate’s Hollywood Hills home, the site of the true landmark counterculture event of ’69.)

To those who grew up in the ‘70s, or were at least touched by its influence, Quentin Tarantino felt like an avatar of a mass experience, a conjuring of all the weird, seemingly mundane obsessions that populated their subconscious. He simultaneously provided a dream scenario in which a movie obsessive could become a self-taught superstar (even though he went out of his way to dispel that myth) and offered safe haven for the most unkempt aspects of the burgeoning geek culture that would overtake pop culture in the 21st century. Today, QT is almost an old master, but in 1994 his hyper-nerdy demeanor stood in stark contrast to a pop culture universe that still venerated the jock-geek dichotomy.

And what he brought forth from the ‘70s was also refreshing and radical. His references to the cultural junk of his youth, his veneration of character actors from that decade…they seemed not like attempts at hipsterdom, but as loving evangelism for lost artifacts. The most notable of his achievements in this milieu, of course, was the resurrection of John Travolta’s career. At the time, it was generally accepted than an actor of Travolta’s caliber was doomed to never again reach the height of his faded Danny Zuko/Tony Manero fame. His descent into relative mediocrity was just how things went. But Brian De Palma fanatic QT knew better; the easy narrative around Travolta in Pulp is that he’s part of the wax museum with a pulse that Vincent Vega refers to, but Tarantino knew his legit dramatic chops from films like Blow Out, knew that at his best he was an actor who could be suave, funny, and moving all in the same breath. Travolta’s renaissance proved to be relatively short-lived, but in the moment it was quite the big deal.

Of course, bringing a ‘70s icon back from the grave isn’t the only reason that what Tarantino achieved in Pulp Fiction seemed so fresh. It’s fairly standard practice now, but an A-list actor like Bruce Willis taking a massive pay cut to work on an indie film like this was a much rarer concept in 1994. Modern fans accustomed to a relatively humorless Willis might forget, but his breakout role as Moonlighting’s David Addison drew its power from the breezy humor and rakishness that he brought to the proceedings. His subsequent ‘80s action star career tapped into this humor, but in increasingly brutish ways. QT saw the Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly in Willis’s tough guy posturing/bullying, and the way that his script and direction channel the actor’s prickly tendencies while also infusing them with a weight and gravitas is still moving to this day. Butch Coolidge stands aside 12 Monkeys’ James Cole as Willis’s best roles, and it should be no surprise that two filmic alchemists like Tarantino and Terry Gilliam helmed these high water marks for the actor.

But even beyond the Travolta/Willis reinventions, Pulp Fiction marks the film in which Tarantino found the two actors who would serve as his muses and prime channelers of his aesthetic. Uma Thurman’s pre-Pulp career was a scattershot series of turns in a mish mash of genres, but none of those roles managed to capture the inherent vitality that she displays in this film. Every time I watch it, I’m immediately floored by just how electric she is as Mia Wallace, her portrayal a keenly observed send-up of the femme fatale archetype as coked-up seductress delivering rat-a-tat dialogue. Her spontaneous dance to Urge Overkill’s cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” is still one of the high points of the film. On second viewing, a viewer knows that she’s dancing on the edge of the disaster of her accidental OD, but the way that Tarantino stays with the totality of her wild abandon to the song is still exhilarating. It’s a testament to the power of Thurman’s performance that she’s only a significant presence in 20 minutes of the run time, and yet the energy she brings to the proceedings can be felt long after she’s been reduced to a cameo in Bruce Willis’s segment.

And then there’s Samuel L. Jackson. This was the film that turned a struggling actor and recovering addict who had shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career as a supporting player (including a memorable turn as Mister Senor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing!) into SAMUEL L. JACKSON the larger than life charisma machine. In an era in which the star system of old appears to be dead, Jackson still makes great hay out of portraying embellishments on his own gregarious personality, and at his best he manages to fuse that star quality with genuine dramatic power. And is there a better combination of writer and actor in this era than Jackson and Tarantino? Even with the ablest of interpreters, the subtle nuances of QT’s motormouth dialogue (Mamet on trucker speed as I put it in my Reservoir Dogs essay) can be hard to fully capture. But Jackson understands the natural, giddy delight in language that his scripts, the arch bravado they require, and the almost mythological power that they tap into.

It’s that mythological aspect that forms the spine of Jackson’s Jules Winnfield, and that informs so much of the aforementioned morality tale at the heart of Pulp Fiction. Loyalty has always been a major theme in Tarantino’s oeuvre, and Pulp plays that focus to the hilt. Vincent Vega explicitly questions his own loyalty to Marsellus Wallace when tempted to romance Mia after their date, and the way that his story plays with the noir conventions of the monolithic heavy, the moll’s wife/femme fatale, and the good soldier gives things the feeling of an age old cycle being played out once again. Butch’s struggle to escape his downtrodden life requires his betrayal of Marsellus (after being tempted to betray the ethics of his ancestry), and it’s during his struggle to finish that escape that he essentially becomes a Theseus figure, drawn deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of his deceit until he must face the Minotaur in Maynard’s torture dungeon. Now whether said Minotaur is Marsellus, Zed, Maynard, or The Gimp is up for debate. But it’s only through that deepest of physical and ethical descents that Butch can overcome his predicament.

In some ways, Jules’s journey is the most mythological, or at least the most religious-oriented, a revelatory rededication to something much greater than himself. Jackson’s initial reading of the Ezekiel 25:17 speech remains one of the most lauded passages of the film, but often the focus of viewers is on the comedic aspects of the scene. But here again lies the complex brilliance of Tarantino on display. Go back and rewatch this pivotal scene between Jackson and Frank Whaley…with the sound off. What plays as thrilling and highly theatrical with sound is uncomfortable and terrifying without it, Andrzej Sekula’s framing all tight close-ups and low angles, Whaley’s face a mask of sheer terror, and Jackson’s eyes gleaming with the malicious intent of a man possessed by either total purpose or total commitment to a role…or both. As Jules notes to Vincent before they enter Brett’s apartment, “Let’s get into character.” Playing the part of the thugs is integral to these men’s existence, from their icy demeanors to their spartan tough guy suits.

It’s only at the film’s conclusion that this performative drive comes full circle, and it’s here that the power Jackson can bring to a role comes out in full force. As he repeats the Ezekiel 25:17 quote to a captive Tim Roth, Jules is finally forced to come to terms with the real meaning of the verse, and with his true role as the tyranny of evil men. As the years pass, this scene gains more and more weight for me. Pulp Fiction is such a wild, profane, breezy ride, but in the end its concerns are focused on the possibility of redemption. Most of the characters either escape with a modicum of redemption in their lives or end up dead, but Jules is the one person who must come to terms with the horror with which he has been complicit. As Jackson runs himself down to Roth in a measured, even patter, the total effect is both devastating and galvanizing, a refutation of the sexiness of evil that is too often the only takeaway that some have from Tarantino’s films.

Even moreso than the moments of high drama and bombast that make up Pulp Fiction, it’s the quieter and more subdued passages that really define the film and establish its foundation. Because once again, as in Reservoir Dogs, this is a film about people who love to talk. For all its reputation as a violent gangland comedy, it’s striking to watch Pulp today and remember how much of its running time is composed of extended conversations. Vincent and Mia’s famed dinner at Jack Rabbit Slim’s is a measured study in the seductive allure of opening oneself up to the improvisational vulnerability of a one on one confab. Jules and Vincent talk so much about the politics of the foot rub that they almost cost themselves their lives (what would’ve happened if they hadn’t dawdled in the hallway for a few minutes?) In what amounts to her only scene, the lovely Maria de Medeiros (Thurman’s co-star in Henry and June) lends tenderness to her relationship with Wills via a goofy conversation about the pleasures of the potbelly. In Tarantino’s world, language is a vital part of existence, as essential as the coffee these characters mainline and the plots they hatch to preserve their livelihoods.  

Indeed, Tarantino continues to establish a key thread from his first feature, that of the power of the character as storyteller. Amidst all of Dogs’s tough guy banter, it’s Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange who works the magic of deception through his skill with the extended tale of his alter ego. The power of the storyteller runs rampant through the eccentric assemblage of lovers, buggers, and thieves in Pulp Fiction. In the famous opening diner scene, Roth convinces the sublime Amanda Plummer (another livewire performer in this excellent ensemble, albeit one who never got her full due in Hollywood) to rob the join by spinning an extended tale of the inefficiencies of robbing liquor stores. Willis’s character trajectory is propelled by memories of Christopher Walken laying out the tale of his family watch’s legacy, an almost mythological line of duty and loyalty encapsulated in a gold pocket piece. Harvey Keitel’s Winston Wolf delivers Jules and Vincent from doom by spinning what amounts to an extended tale/plan of the right way to do things. And Jackson’s show stopping climactic moment of revelation is filtered through the Road to Damascus story that he tells Roth at gunpoint. Tarantino would bring the storyteller’s power to even greater realization later in his career….but more on that eventually.

The smash success of Pulp Fiction, which at the time became the most successful independent film of all time, transformed Miramax Films (recently acquired by Disney) into a major new power in mainstream Hollywood. Harvey and Bob Weinstein were now the studio moguls they always dreamed of being, and Harvey’s aggressive, bullying promotional moxie came to dominate awards season for years to come. But this newly gained renown came with quite the price. I worked at a local art house during Miramax’s purple patch, so I witnessed the formerly plucky indie become slightly bloated, manufacturing instant prestige pix that too often came across as almost cartoonish in their pre-fab sincerity and manufactured gravitas (a great irony, considering that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were such iconoclastic raspberries to some of the more po-faced tendencies of the ‘80s art film world.) In similar fashion to the Seattle music scene of the early ‘90s, once Miramax broke through, every major studio wanted a piece of the suddenly hot indie film scene. And much like the decline of the so-called ‘90s Alternative Rock era, once the studios got their hands on smaller film distributors their output began to suffer, and the creative wiggle room they had as independent entities disappeared. Today, most of those studios have either been completely subsumed into the major studio maw, or are altogether dead. To a certain extent, the internet has democratized great swaths of indie film distribution, but without a strong network of smaller film companies and indie theaters, it’s much harder for a little film to build word of mouth, or to gain traction in the rapid pace of the modern cultural conversation.

Quentin Tarantino broke such new ground for the possibilities of indie authorship, yet he also paved the way for a slew of imitators who threatened to turn much of the non-prestige art film scene into a ghetto for second-rate gangland pictures. With a Best Original Screenplay Oscar under his belt, he plowed through 1995 as a certifiable celebrity, a pre-figuration of the demythification of fame that reality television would soon usher forth in full force. But as with any artist who produces a work that hits so big in so many ways, the inevitable question about his career became how he could follow up this landmark film. In the short term, he realized his youthful dreams by having several of his old screenplays produced by other directors (From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is a notable example, and one in which Tarantino got to indulge his acting jones again.) And he became that guy, a near-ubiquitous public figure in the style of an old Tonight Show regular…sometimes to his own detriment (his segment of the much-derided anthology film Four Rooms comes across simultaneously as self-satire and excessive self-parody.) But eventually, he would turn in a completely different direction for his next project, a near-complete retreat into the quiet conversational moments that had come to populate large swaths of Pulp Fiction. For the first and only time in his career, he would consciously adapt the work of another author. The result remains a fascinating sidebar in his career, a film that says as much about its time as Pulp Fiction does about the mid-‘90s. But Jackie Brown warrants an essay all its own.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About STAR WARS

You come around sounding 1972
You did nothing new with 1972
Where's the smile you?
Where's the black and blue

George Lucas did not rape my childhood.

Let’s get that out of the way first of all. Would that he possessed such interdimensional powers as to transcend the boundaries of time and space in order to molest all that encompassed my formative years. And I’ve never held my youth so close to my chest as to allow a scenario in which Lucas could come along and snatch it away like so much day old candy.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

On May 25th, 1983, my mom pulled me out of school early so that we could venture to the General Cinemas Great Western Twin. As a child, it was one of my favorite places to see a movie, a single screener that had been split in half, but which still possessed the sprawling, high-ceilinged lobby so common to ‘60s and ‘70s theaters. I still have fond memories of those tall, thin windows in the foyer, which let in just enough natural daytime light to endow the earth-toned interior design with a golden hue, a visual palate that perfectly complemented the warm fragrance of popcorn wafting through the air. Or maybe I’m juxtaposing these images with my memory of the dear, departed Drexel North….but more on that Proustian detour on another day, in another essay.

The reason for our afternoon sojourn, of course, was to see Return of the Jedi, which at the time was about the hottest ticket around for a 6 year-old, let alone the general movie-going population. It’s strange thinking back to those days, and to the massive influence that the Star Wars franchise held over an entire generation of young people (I was just on the tail end of that influence.) I know that I saw the first film in a theater, probably in one of its reissues, and I definitely saw it a few times on television. And I have confirmation that our family saw The Empire Strikes Back theatrically. More importantly, I knew the mythos backwards and forwards. It was hard not to when I owned so many of the action figures, the coloring books, the die cast collectible figures, the records that featured long snatches of the dialogue, etc.

But even though the marketing force was strong in my head, I still have a hard time cultivating solid memories of seeing those first two films in person. Which makes the trip to see Jedi so interesting: because I knew the storylines so well that my recall of the five times we saw this entry in theaters is still vivid. And how couldn’t it be? When you’re an impressionable, imaginative 6 year-old, the fate of carbon-frozen Han Solo and the prospect of Luke Skywalker garbed in black (a pretty badass notion for any young male) and hellbent on revenge can hold a powerful sway over all sections of your consciousness. No matter the specifics of a young person’s recollections, the Star Wars universe was so heavily draped over ours as to form a secret parallel existence, one which you always felt and could just barely see if you looked in the right direction…or if the flickering projector light caught your eye in between frames.

It’s also odd thinking back to that General Cinemas Twin because reading the scattered online writings about its existence (I’ve never found any pictures) gives me the distinct impression that it was a decidedly non-spectacular venue, positively cookie cutter according to several sources. And despite my childhood enthusiasm for Jedi and all things Star Wars, when I saw that third film again some 19 years later…it was okay. All those criticisms that even the long-time fans had for it? Yeah, most of them held true.

And that was perfectly fine. I didn’t mind. Star Wars would always hold a special place in forming the person I became, but I was also comfortable leaving it alone as a trilogy of films that came to have a major impact on its era. Although I always found the concept of a sequel to Jedi to be marginally interesting, I never harbored a deep, all-consuming desire for a new film to come along and renew my faith in cinema, life, righteous fury, and the ability of a legion of furry bear warriors to topple an empire. So when Lucas announced the filming of the now-infamous prequels, and when I saw that first theatrical trailer for The Phantom Menace (in front of, appropriately enough, The Corrupter) my reaction was just about the definition of agnostic. And I know full well that, in many ways, I was the exception.

To talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is of course, to talk about the undying phenomenon that George Lucas wrought and the fandom that still surrounds it.  I’m a firm believer that when you boil it all down, a film can usually be separated from the sociological conditions surrounding it. To tip my hat to Bret Easton Ellis, aesthetics and ideology don’t always have to intermingle. But the relentless fervor that has surrounded the Star Wars universe since 1977 makes the proposition of this new film, this entry that (as the throng dutifully recites) finally honors what is considered to be sacred about those previous texts, a case study for how sometimes the work and the context are one in the same. And for the sleek, seductive power of our collective memory palace can serve as both haven and trap (sez Admiral Ackbar.)

I know quite a few people who uttered that infamous line about Lucas raping their childhood when The Phantom Menace made its bow in 1999. I wasn’t even that interested in seeing it; after all, who really wanted to watch three prequels to a story that had already filled in many of those narrative blanks? Although Star Wars would always occupy a cozy space in my past, I had since discovered the claustrophobic space terror of Alien and the wondrous noir nightmare of Blade Runner. These were films which spoke to my evolving sensibilities, which built on the childhood foundations that Star Wars had helped to construct. Han Solo would always be one cool mofo, but Rick Deckard was a complex, prickly, almost impenetrable cipher of a hero…which was a lot more interesting a concept to contemplate as an adult. And if I wanted to gaze back into my cinematic past, 2001: A Space Odyssey proved to be a far richer formative experience to mull over. Seeing the last half of that film on television as an 8 year-old blew my mind, opening up neural pathways that I might not have understood at the time, but which I knew would expand my view of existence for a lifetime to come.

2001 is a key point of comparison, because Star Wars stands as its mirror image in the canon. Kubrick’s vision of outer space gleams with a pristine beauty, an almost sterile sheen that makes HAL’s crackup almost a defiant strike against staid perfection. The much-lauded appeal of Lucas’s vision was in giving his space odyssey a lived-in feel (a concept that Alien developed even further two years later), imbuing the proceedings with a working class appeal that definitely aided its connection with a mass audience. Say what you will about his subsequent career, but with the original trilogy he took a lifetime of influences both high and low art (from classic serials to Kurosawa) and blended them into a filmic mixture of great pop art, a cinematic time machine about a futuristic past that in some small way introduced generations to a dramatic history that they might not otherwise have glommed onto. But for as much as 2001 and Star Wars both center around a mystery, the latter film’s Force is an enigma that’s easily handled. The philosophical questions posed by Kubrick and Clarke are something quite more slippery.

I was reminded quite a bit of Kubrick and effects wizard Douglas Trumbull’s handling of their vision of space while watching The Force Awakens. The irony of Lucas’s wild success with his space opera is that it gave him the clout to make the prequels, films that were so in thrall to the siren song of technology that they often resembled the stereotypical image that many have of 2001: beautifully sterile in a manner so calculated as to drain the emotion and fire out of the fictional world it represents. J.J. Abrams can be a somewhat problematic, inconsistent director, but this new film finds him excelling in crafting a world that feels just the opposite of sterile, a fully realized stage environment on which his characters play out their dramas (he achieved similar success in the Spielbergian Super 8.) As Lev Grossman accurately notes in a recent Time profile of the film, this is a world in which the ships are encrusted with dirt and wear, in which the costumes are those of people who have lived in them for some time. And Abrams’s dedication to practical effects work not only aids in making Force Awakens feel like a direct continuation of the original trilogy’s Lucasfilm house style, but also makes it a remarkably tactile experience in a modern blockbuster landscape that is so heavily reliant on the tricky CGI dream machine. It makes the numerous flight action sequences a thrilling counterpoint to the ground-based activity. But as fun as these scenes are, they also lack the distinct sense of awe and grandeur that 2001 so ably captured, and which Interstellar recently replicated (yeah, I’m beating the old dead horse of awe again….I’ll probably be having that subject inscribed on my gravestone some day.)

I’m not sure how much Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt intended it in their screenplay, but this tactile, weathered aesthetic also bleeds into the main narrative threads, constructing a thematic undercurrent that crafts a meta-commentary on the resurrection of the series itself. The presence of Jakku as a giant junkyard for an AT-AT, a Star Destroyer, and the Millenium Falcon among others, obviously serves as a metaphor for the elephant graveyard of ideas that has been the resting place of the franchise for ten years (more if you side with the prequel critics). And much of the plot focuses on the revival of the Force as a real, tactile concept; it takes the gravitas of Harrison Ford/Han Solo (because really, at this point are they even separate characters?) to convince Rey and Finn that even a cynic like him eventually learned that the transcendental magic of this belief was true, that the legends were more than stories.

And in a film that was specifically pre-sold as a return to a theoretical concept of what was right about the series, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and others end up serving as stand-ins for the fan culture that has env)eloped this filmic mythos. Kylo, in particular, literally worships the crumbled helmet of Darth Vader like the biggest cosplay fanboy in the universe. Sure, he also happens to be Vadar’s grandson, but the care with which he assembles his persona in tribute to his dead ancestor mirrors the fetishistic delight and dedication that so much of the Star Wars fandom has applied to it. Indeed, Vader couldn’t quite kill Han, Luke, or Leia, but Kylo can do him one better in his Vader 2.0 costume (which, granted, is also a nice inversion of Luke defeating his father in Jedi.)

All of this meta-commentary, intentional or not, also brings up the matter of the devotion to fan service that Abrams promised from the outset, a promise that has already met with some critical derision. The main beats of the plot echo those of the first Star Wars almost to a tee, which poses the question of how much of this tactic serves as thematic observation on history’s cyclical nature and how much as salve to the fans left disenfranchised by the prequels. It also poses the question of the nature of said fandom in general. I admire the verve with which some of my friends pursue their deep passions for Star Wars culture in all its forms (the conventions, the massive product tie-ins, the side stories and franchises), but I also sometimes feel like this fanbase in particular is one of the most retrograde in popular culture. That feeling of satisfaction I had upon Jedi’s conclusion has lasted with me through adulthood. I understand that those films were of another time, that Star Wars was a breath of pulpy, yet fresh air in a static science fiction world and a late-‘70s, post-Watergate culture in search of a Manichean moral clarity. The rabid desire amongst some of the fans to recapture that feeling, to do it the (ahem) right way again sometimes evokes the image of millions of Jay Gatsbys reaching out to the green Jedi light across the bay. But you can’t relive the past, old sports.

Is this all necessarily a bad thing? Probably not. After all, we’re talking about a space opera that has brought multiple generations together in ways that should be a welcome development in our increasingly fractured culture. The TLDR version of this essay would state that yeah, I enjoyed The Force Awakens. Once Han and Chewie enter the fray, I had about ten minutes where I thought that it was outstanding, before some of the creakiness and predictability took over. Star Wars established a band of reluctant heroes fighting against an established, veteran evil; The Force Awakens plays in the same speculative field, but the rookie heroes are opposed by what amounts to a rookie villain leading a splinter force of the Empire. This film needed Ford, Fisher, and Hamill to pass the torch to the newbies, but at times this gambit feels like what would happen if Obi-Wan Kenobi was cloned and took over the first film. There’s also the wildly evolving nature of the Hollywood star system in play; even as relative unknowns in 1977, those leads carried a gravitas borne out of their background in that decade’s artistic milieu. Try as they might, it’s hard for Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver to capture that same feeling in an era in which stars have lost their mythical, distanced status.

But hey, maybe that’s the point. Maybe after all of the hype, and discussion, and debate over the legacy of this sci-fi franchise, this is a Star Wars tailored for the Millenial fans who, much like the young’uns in Force Awakens, heard their ancestors speak in hushed tones about the magic they experienced back in 1977, or 1980, or 1983. Maybe the main purpose of this film is to prove that the magic can still be conjured, even if it’s more a simulacrum of something that, in its original form, is long gone. For better and/or for worse, Star Wars beats us on against the current, bearing us back ceaselessly into a galaxy and a society far, far, away.