Saturday, May 26, 2012

Star Wars 35: A Cautionary Tale

GL among his pre-digital models. I got a chance to run
my hands over a lot of these things at a Lucasfilm
exhibit at the Marin County Fair. After I left, I saw
the sign saying "Do Not Touch." Oh well.
So it's the 35th anniversary of the opening of Star Wars. That's a lot of Wookies under the bridge.

It's hard to express how exciting and unique a film it was when it came out, how much a part of my life it became-- and, as the years passed, how the franchise (and my admiration for it) stumbled and fell, becoming something emblematic of a primal fear, one that all of us share.

Sure I remember when Star Wars opened up. I was totally primed for it, for three reasons: 1) a totally inaccurate but exciting article about the upcoming "The Star Wars" in Cinefantastique magazine; 2) that amazing, amazing trailer-- They showed it on "Creature Features" in spring '77 and it got such a strong response Bob Wilkins had to show it several more times; 3) I was fourteen.

The Saturday after Star Wars opened (roadshow movies opened on Wednesdays) me and my Soquel High Sci-Fi Club buddies rocketed over the hill to San Jose and took in an afternoon screening at the Century 21 Theatre. Back then, big tentpole movies were platform-released: They would open up in a few dozen major markets in 70mm, then break wide a few weeks later. We waited in the long, long line, took our seats under the apex of the dome, watched the giant gold curtain roll out unveiling the deeply curved screen and the 20th Century Fox fanfare (no trailers whatsoever!)

It totally blew us away. It's difficult to think of a film since that so exceeded my expectations for transcendence. I was the right kind of kid at the right age in the right place in history, and the cultural phenomenon that was Star Wars entered me like an X-Ray. I lived Star Wars. I memorized Star Wars (It's all still in there). I wanted to meet George Lucas*: he was my personal God, and promised to be a font of endless creativity and magic.

I managed to see the it at least two dozen more times that long summer. When Empire came out three years later, we made it to opening day at the Century 21. Same with Jedi-- though, due to a ticketing mixup we saw that one in Pleasant Hill, but it was still in 70mm.

Fast-forward to 1999: Jeffrey Sargent and I are seeing Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at the AMC in San Francisco at the very first midnight screening. It had been sold out for weeks: Jeff did some major wheeling and dealing to secure us tickets. But the world had changed, cinema had changed and we had changed in the 16 years since Jedi's stirring ending (to the Ewok's "Yub-Yub Song," which George Lucas has since expunged from his improved version). I'm not sure Jeff coined it, but the next day he emailed our basic summary: "George Lucas Pissed In My Eyes."

From that moment on, the Star Wars universe appeared to a rapidly shrinking one, a galaxy under accelerating compromise. It may have started with the regrettable "Star Wars Holiday Special" from 1978, but that was sheer contractual obligation. No, it was the little changes and the little peeks into the Lucasfilm decision process that showed the Ozymandian artifice of the whole thing: the Special Editions, which both blunted the canon and disrespected the core audience. The little, sometimes condescending choices he made in the last three films, Jar Jar Binks and Annie Skywalker, the stilted dialog and the joyless, confusing plots. The final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith, was so devoid of surprise it was like watching a movie run backwards, characters and elements being assembled for their bow in a film then 28 years old. By that point, everything that had made me a rabid Star Wars fan back in 1977 had been systematically wrung out of me by George Lucas himself.

But it wasn't all him: I also managed to grow up (a bit) since 1977. I went to college, saw The Hidden Fortress, read Joseph Campbell and E. E. “Doc” Smith's Lensman novels. Seeing where Star Wars came from-- and how closely it was derived-- was inevitable, but instructive. One of the biggest jolts to my Star Wars fandom was reading sci-fi author David Brin's famous and devastating takedown of the ethics of Star Wars. One tiny bit:
George Lucas's version of romanticism is obsessed with nostalgia, feudalism, pyramid-shaped social orders, elitism, a hatred of science and the concept that only genetically advanced demigods matter. He openly avows to never having researched what real heroes do. He also expressed open contempt for this democratic civilization, telling the New York Times that he prefers a 'benign dictatorship.'
And now it's 2012: George Lucas recently re-released Episode I in painstakingly rendered 3D-- and the box-office response was startlingly indifferent. When I read the reviews for it I came to a realization: Star Wars was not the best thing George Lucas ever dreamed up: it was the ONLY thing he ever dreamed up.

God, I wanted to be just like George Lucas when I was a kid. Now he means something else to me. He's a cautionary tale: the embodiment of the frightening notion that we're only entitled to one really good, creative idea per lifetime.

Mmmmm... Ribs.
*In 1992, I got my wish: I met George Lucas. My wife and I were sitting down to dinner at Tony Roma's in Corte Madera (long gone) and he sat down next to us. Alone. It was just a week after the Academy Awards, and he had received the Irving G. Thalberg Award. Yet there he was, all by himself, George Lucas and a good-sized pile of beef ribs. I mentally collected myself enough to squeak out something to say to him (and I DO mean squeak: in my head, I sounded like my 14-year-old self in full conniption mode):

“Mr. Lucas?” (squeak, squeak.)

“Mm-hm?” (I think he was actually had a mouthful of ribs at the time.)

“Uh, Congratulations on getting the Thalberg Award!” Of all the f***king things I could have said to the guy, of all the thousands and thousands of things I fantasized saying to George when I was a kid, it all fled from my consciousness, and that was what I said. Yikes.

“Mmm.. thanks.”

“Alright, I'll leave you be.” Argh.


  1. It seems to me that the biggest cultural mission I have assigned myself in middle-age is to re-evaluate the culture of my youth and try to understand it. It seems like an essential loose-end tying project that will probably suffice until my inevitable demise. Perhaps its the only way I can evade hip-hop, but I'm not sure it's good for me.