[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.
I wonder which of the ingeniously placed revelations will get the biggest cheer in the new Star Wars movie. My money is on the way the camera casually discovers a certain neglected hunk-of-junk spaceship in the middle of a frantic escape.
No spoilers on the other big moments. You’re going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens anyway, so let’s leave the surprises to be enjoyed fresh. And you will enjoy this movie, unless you’re disenchanted with the world-dominating nature of “Star Wars” hype, or such a purist that you think any Star Wars movie made after 1980 is a stain upon the original holy text.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
Ever since the Lumière brothers first fascinated audiences with cinematic recreations of trains entering stations, waves breaking on shores, and street traffic in Paris, theories of Realism have been the aesthetic engines of the film medium. A language with an almost mystical capacity to replicate reality, film has for three-quarters of a century created and recreated its own aesthetics and, although the spectrum of approaches to film art is vast and various, nearly all of the critical theories that have been functionally important have been in some intimate way connected to that primal mimetic power of the medium. Even Expressionist theories, for 75 years opposed in dialectical tension to the Realist theories, have substance simply because the language of film is so highly replicative: if film did not have the innate power to capture reality, it certainly would not hold much interest for those whose desire is to distort it. Forty years ago Rudolf Arnheim warned against the rapid technological development of the medium which would of course only increase the power of replication and therefore limit the freedom of the artist to create “art” and relegate the camera “to the position of a mere mechanical recording machine.”
The history of film is marked by Realist mileposts: French poetic realism in the 1930s; Italian neorealism in the late Forties; the British documentary tradition; the Eastern European humanist heritage; and finally the New Wave of the last 15 years, so thoroughly rooted in the thought of André Bazin, whose influence is still central even now almost 20 years after his death. In our own country theories of realism have had a much more muted effect, especially if we judge our own film traditions against those of France or Italy or England. Yet, within its limited context, much of the best of American film shows the force of realism, from King Vidor and Raoul Walsh to John Cassavetes, from Scarface to On theWaterfront, the styles and subjects of Realism have provided American films with vitality and relevance. During the brightest period of American film—the Thirties and Forties—Warner Brothers, the studio most closely associated with the Realist tradition, is now increasingly seen to have been the major force in the studio system. The gritty and direct Warner Brothers style marked a body of films which surpass in many ways the slicker output of MGM and Paramount and give us a much more exciting and intriguing image of that past America. If the witch-hunts and Blacklists of the late Forties and early Fifties purged the studios of much of the talent that had created that emerging realist tradition, nevertheless we still had the films of Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan during the period that followed. The American film tradition, moribund in the Fifties, was near death in the Sixties and the focus of attention turned, even for most American cinephiles, to European cinema.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
Relevance has always been the great bugaboo of science fiction film. Among film genres, sf (“sci-fi” is a flippancy coined during the Fifties by people who took the genre less than seriously; those who know and love science fiction call it sf) has been a distinctly poor relation for the last several decades, sharing with hardcore pornography the obligation to have redeeming social value in order to be acceptable. Even when Westerns, swashbucklers, historical epics, war films, romances and those most improbable of fantasies, musicals, were allowed to justify themselves for entertainment’s sake, or for the sake of a well-crafted work, meaning and social relevance aside, the sf film had to teach a lesson if it was not to fall under suspicion of rotting young minds. It’s as if all those scientists existed to show us that we must not meddle in things man was not meant to know, and all those monsters and invaders came to teach us that we must use science wisely, or that we must trust in God, or in love, or in each other, or remain eternally vigilant against those who would destroy us from within.
The extent to which George Lucas’s StarWarsliberates an entire film genre from this stigma is signaled by the film’s tagline, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a way of saying that this film has nothing whatsoever to do with human life on earth, now or in the future. In making that clear, Lucas sets his film apart from every other science fiction film. But in setting aside the sf film tradition until now, and returning (might one call it “pre–Flash Gordonism”?) to the aboriginal wellsprings of mythic art, above the watershed where social relevance diverges from the course of pure fantasy (many call it “escapism”), Lucas nevertheless has had to acknowledge the influence of several generations of motion picture genres and styles on his new adventurism. If StarWarscelebrates its own freedom from the generic restrictions of Metropolis, Things to Come, The Thing, This Island Earth, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also commits itself to the tradition of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, James Bond. Lucas uses opticals that place us squarely in the world of the Republic serials; and an analysis of the structure of Star Wars reveals a seemingly insoluble crisis about every ten or twelve minutes, with appropriate combat scenes in between (it would be interesting to see how easily commercial breaks could be spaced into Star Warsfor a TV run). The message, if there is one, is nothing more than that adventure is fun;exhilaration of the human spirit is enough to justify a work of entertainment or of art.
Way back in the original Star Wars (before it was branded with a “IV” and subtitled “A New Hope”), it did not escape notice that at the end of the film, it was human heroes Luke Skywalker and Han Solo who got the glory while the non-humans – the wookie, Chewbacca, and the two robots – stood to the side to watch the royal blessing laid upon the Republic’s two great white hopes.
After six feature and countless spin-off reiterations, not much has changed. The Jedis (mostly human, though at least those ranks are not completely Caucasian) roam around the galaxy like the master race, swooping in to save the lesser races with their gift of protection and leadership. There are a few token races sprinkled through the supporting parts, mostly providing exposition and exclamations, and only Yoda has any real authority or distinction among them. The droids are essentially happy slaves. These robots talk and offer opinions and often suggest emotions, while R2D2 and C3PO have distinctive personalities. They’re offered up as characters as real as the humans, but in the scheme of this enlightened era of interstellar unity, they are treated as servants or pets at best and cannon fodder at worst. Decades after Blade Runner and Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, it’s a little arrogant to give a robot personality and self-awareness without suggesting they might be, in their own way, people.
All right, maybe that’s picking apart a little point, but the last two Star Wars features introduced the Clone Army, a race of genetically hatched humanoid soldiers designed solely to fight. They are treated, essentially, as organic robots, flesh and blood slaves sent to fight the Republic’s battles.
I’m sure Lucas never thought any of this through, which is really the point. What began as his paean to the innocent attitudes of the old sci-fi serials and the swashbuckling thrills of classic Hollywood adventures and pirate movies feels more and more like Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist adventurers in the stars. Read More “George Lucas: The Last Champion of Colonialist Cinema”