13 June 2016

Blows Against the Empire

(Because the Audience Always Cheers for the Rebels)

Archival post: Originally published at ...And 
What Will Be Left of Them?, February, 2013

Insert obligatory Leni Riefenstahl reference here.

Yes, K-punk – we know, we know.

Why would anyone be surprised by this? And what’s the purpose of harping about it? Seems obvious enough. But look at how that comments section stacks up. Not that it isn't a valid thesis, but really – it isn’t the sort that’s likely to go over well with that venue's readership, is it?

But maybe it's just a matter of perspective. For instance...

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When the first Star Wars film was released, I was eleven years old. Some six years later when Return of the Jedi came out, I was about to begin my final year of high school and wasn't feeling any pressing need to rush out and see the latter movie during its premier weekend. Me and a friend had a conversation about it; about what we knew from the adverts and the advanced promotion, and about our waning enthusiasm. What could we expect this time, the third, time around? I offered a list of predictions, based on a pattern that seemed to have already been set in concrete with the first two films:
1.  Han Solo will get a bad feeling about something,
2.  Darth Vader will will at some point proclaim that something-or-other "is now complete",
3.  There would doubtlessly be a gaggle of short, cloyingly cute aliens of some new variety or other, and
4.  R2D2's gonna get shot. 
We'd been of the ideal age when the first one - or the fourth one, or whatever - came out in 1977, and we'd been some of the first in line. Not only that, but we then ran out and bought the action figures when they began to arrive on store shelves, collected the several series of baseball-style cards that followed, and even went so far at one point as to buy issues of the dodgy cash-in extrapolatory Marvel Comics series that followed in its wake. But now we were a little older, and - as happens in mid-adolescence - our interests had drifted into other areas. We were "aging out" of what had become the franchise's target demo.

And perhaps we were also becoming prematurely jaded. But fuck it, we also remembered being subjected to that wretched Star Wars Christmas TV special – so who could blame us?

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Some sixteen year later, a good many other people would get a strong dose of that same "aged out" and left-behind feeling when the Star Wars "prequels" arrived in theaters. By reviving the series for a second trilogy of films, Lucas and company were looking to appeal to a new and younger generation of viewers. What’s more, the studio and its licensees trotted out an extensive array of tie-in merchandise well in advance of the release of The Phantom Menace, more and more people – far more than usual – started to take to the notion that the films were becoming little more than thinly-disguised, mega-inflated toy commercials.

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One thing about K-punk’s article that sparked some comments-section incredulity: the claim that Lucas was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now. Yes, that’s true, although perhaps not widely known. Lucas had been Francis-Ford Coppola’s co-instigator when the latter decided to start up his own production company, American Zeotrope. Since the idea for the film started out between Lucas and writer John Milius, Coppola originally had Lucas in mind to direct the film.

The founding of American Zeotrope had been a "New Hollywood"-type upstarts' venture – the result of Coppola and Lucas bristling against the sclerotic and stifling pressures of the major studios. Speaking to an audience at the Rotary Club in his hometown of Modesto, CA in May of 1973, Lucas reputedly said, "The future is going to be with independent filmmakers, ...It's a whole new kind of business. We're all forging ahead on the rubble of the old industry." He would later decree:

"The studio system is dead. It died fifteen years ago when the corporations took over and the studio heads suddenly became agents and lawyers and accountants. The power is with the people now. The workers own the means of production."

But for various reasons, Lucas lost interest in Apocalypse Now, drifting off (after the dismal reception that greeted the Zeotrope-produced THX-1138) to make American Graffiti, and eventually pitching his dream project that would become Star Wars to various producers.

Both films, as many have noted are products of both personal and cultural nostalgia. American Graffiti was a winsome revisitation of the 1950s, to a prosperous and supposedly more carefree time before the turbulence of the 1960s; whereas Star Wars' basis in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of Lucas’s own childhood. If they seem – when compared with problem like Apocalypse Now or Coppola's The Conversation – as "escapist," audience-pleasing fare, then it was by design. On his decision to walk away from Apocalypse Now in favor other projects, Lucas would later say:

"Before American Graffiti, I was working on basically negative films – Apocalypse Now and THX, both very angry. ...We all know, as every movie in the last ten years has pointed out, how terrible we are, how wrong we were in Vietnam, how we have ruined the world, what schmucks we are and how rotten everything is. It has become depressing to go to the movies. I decided it was time to make a movie where people felt better coming out of the theater than when they went in. I became really aware of the fact that the kids were really lost, the sort of heritage we built up since the war had been wiped out since the '60s and it really wasn't groovy to act that way any more, now you just sort of sat there and got stoned. I wanted to preserve what a certain generation of Americans thought being a teenager was really about – from about 1945 to 1962."

Lucas didn't want to be dark or angry, apparently; and just wanted audiences to enjoy themselves. Speaking to American Film magazine in 1977, he would say something very similar about his idea behind making Star Wars, couching it once again in some socio-cultural context, complete with even more dubious assertions...

"Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realized that there was another relevance that was even more important – dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps – that you could sit still and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures. Once I got into Star Wars, it struck me that we had lost all that – a whole generation was growing without fairy tales."

So he did that first Star Wars film for us – for my generation. For me, effectively. Even though I know I already had a highly developed and active imagination as a child, and – to my recollection – was in no danger of going directly from The Six Million Dollar Man and Marvel Comics to stealing hubcaps or some other form of juvenile delinquency.

Sure, Lucas's remarks above might sound pretty self-aggrandizing, but I don't doubt he was speaking in earnest. Because ultimately, all he did was what any savvy artist or entertainer or businessperson aims to do. That being: You spot some gap or vacancy in a market or the culture at large – look for something that’s missing, for a need or a desire that's not being met. Look for a stimulus that's lacking and that people might be hungry for, and to then try and make or provide something that might satisfy that hunger. And judging from the response he received, he was pretty astute in sizing up the situation.1

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