March 17, 2014

Star Wars

Star Wars (1977) is really a lot of fun to heckle. When Luke Skywalker whines, "I wanted to go into town and get power converters," I laughed hysterically and re-wound it to listen again. When Carrie Fisher's voice slips into that horrible English accent--slightly evocative of Julie Andrews--I couldn't help myself, even though I love Carrie Fisher. "Thah rebellion will slip through yoor feen-guhs." I recalled listening to the audiobook of Fisher's wonderful memoir Wishful Drinking, where she makes fun of her role in Star Wars and especially at that tyrannical madman George Lucas, the creator of this monstrous franchise. Fisher took acting lessons in England, where she learned elocution techniques that served her well in the first 30 minutes of Star Wars. But as soon as some real crisis emerges, the blowsier Carrie Fisher--with the less pretty, decidedly un-mid-Atlantic tongue-- emerges. That's the Carrie Fisher I love. The one who plays an alcoholic has-been sitcom writer that terrifies Liz Lemon in an early episode of 30 Rock. (I highly recommend Wishful Drinking. If you like Carrie Fisher, you'll like her even more. If you dislike George Lucas, you'll have even more reason to jeer at him after you hear about his strict no-underwear policy for Princess Leia's costume.) But don't let me catch you bashing Ms. Fisher. She always seems to be the butt of jokes because of her very public struggles with addiction and mental illness. But I find her honesty and her humor truly uplifting.

Instead, I want all of you haters to channel your rage at George Lucas, the man who destroyed American cinema, a man so full of himself that he has succeeded in coasting on the success of Star Wars for nearly 40 years. He made another "classic"--American Graffiti--before that. It's nothing more than a bland nostalgia trip to the America of the 50s and early 60s. Likewise, Star Wars is a kind of nostalgia trip too. A trip to boyhood adventure-land, where men battle each other and say, without irony, "it always helps to have a blaster at your side." Guys like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas turned cinema into their own personal childhood playgrounds.  

Star Wars grabs all the classic story archetypes and throws them into one big pot. There's plenty of corny dialogue too. What results is an admittedly compelling story of very, very big proportions. But most of the good stuff doesn't come until the sequel. One cannot deny George Lucas's vivid imagination. He obviously spent a lot of time thinking up side characters and names of planets and other aspects of this world. (Perhaps it was all part of the marketing plan. Why else would characters who got three seconds in the film get turned into action figures for sale to the kiddos?)

One can, however, deny Lucas's ability to do anything with actors. (See Portman, Natalie and McGregor, Ewan.) Pauline Kael said it most deliciously, that they were educated at the "Ricky Nelson School of Acting." The performances aren't embarrassing, and they do improve over time. But the first installment is pretty banal. Star Wars is still kind of exciting in a cheap way, and there are lots of colorful characters, like all the slimy creatures the farm boy Luke Skywalker meets in that sleazy bar. But this movie is essentially an empty-headed adventure tale. Mindless entertainment is certainly not a crime. There are a lot of wonderful examples of it. But Star Wars is a double sinner in this regard: it's mindless and cinematically pretty uninteresting. Nothing is ever really dangerous enough to keep you in suspense. It's the kind of bland, safe entertainment that parents think is good for their kids. (A good example of the opposite: the novels of Roald Dahl, whose young characters were never spared the horrors of life. Those stories are marvelously colorful and smart.)

As a child I resisted watching the Star Wars films for what I thought was a long time. It wasn't until 4th grade that I sat down and viewed them all. By then all my friends were well-versed in the lore. My brother (five-and-a-half years older) had the action figures. He was old enough to be taken to Return of the Jedi and then promptly removed from the theater after Jabba the Hut scared the living hell out of him. So I was certainly aware of Star Wars. I was just trying to hold out for as long as possible. (Does this make me one of those wretched hipsters?) When I finally watched them I was captivated. I spent a few years being a Star Wars nerd, even writing a Star Wars novel in 6th grade. But eventually I grew out of my Star Wars mania and went on to other kinds of mania. I'm so happy I did. I can't quite figure out why so many have chosen to linger behind. Come to us. It's wonderful over here where other movies besides Star Wars exist.

Of course, you already know who plays who, but here are a few notes on the cast: Harrison Ford's sarcastic mugging is weirdly reminiscent of Chevy Chase's. Ford has that same rugged, scruffy look but with a shorter face and of course a stronger on-screen persona. As the farm boy who gets caught up in galactic-sized political struggles, Mark Hamill is upstaged by just about everyone around him, but he's plucky enough to be likable, and likability is enough in this movie. Peter Cushing is great fun as the wicked general who's leading the dark empire against the small but feisty rebellion. The generals talk and look like Nazis, and the rebels act like Americans fighting the British for independence. James Earl Jones gives the most magnetic performance, providing the voice of Darth Vador. With Alec Guinness as an aging wizard who wants to pass his mystical religion onto Luke, Peter Mayhew as the endearing fuzzy giant Chewy, and Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker as the bickering robot couple.

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