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
(“Entertain”/Sleater-Kinney)

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.   

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