Star Wars: always

Star Wars: always

Andrew Lewis Conn

This Article had its genesis in the fall semester of 1993, when I was a junior at Cornell University, where I double-majored in Film and English. (Please reserve all Liberal Arts jokes for the end of this article.) I was enrolled in a course entitled Jung and Film, taught by a wonderful, wooly professor by the name of Don Fredericksen, one of those magical teachers who effortlessly burrows into the consciousness of all the students lucky enough to make his acquaintance. Besides being a film scholar of some repute, he also happened to be a certified Jungian psychologist, and in this small seminar he was able to give free rein to his dual obsessions. We would read the work of Carl Jung, watch films by world-class directors like Fellini and Ingmar Bergman who were purported to have been influenced by the great man’s teachings, and then do critical/psychological readings of the work.

One day, during a heated discussion of Ingmar Bergman’s swampy, mazelike film Persona, Professor Fredericksen offered up an interesting critical distinction. A film like Persona, he argued, is a “hot” film; that is, the filmmaker is laying bare his obsessions and his personality, using the film medium to expose himself and explore the contours of his confusions, instead of hiding behind empty craftsmanship. Professor Fredericksen continued that, on the other hand, a film like the crassly commercial Star Wars is a “cold” film with no personality, no ambiguity in it, rigged to elicit the same response from every viewer.

My hand shot up. I was, to put it mildly, in a state of shock. Perhaps the good professor — normally a humorous and rather randy fellow — had expressed his true opinion. Perhaps he had momentarily fallen into familiarly elitist academic prejudices (i.e., popular films make for bad art — or, put mathematically, the artistic merit of a film is inversely proportional to its box-office receipts). Perhaps it was a simple faux pas. But to me and my hard-won sensibilities, he had just pissed on sacred ground. The classroom was no longer big enough for the two of us.

For the next week, classwork essentially stopped as we argued the Star Wars issue back and forth — myself (loudly) leading the Hollywood-loving proles against the more refined silences of the Antonioni-philes. The issue, essentially, was this: is Star Wars a film worthy of serious discussion in an academic film setting?

I get where my old professor was coming from. A film like Persona is consciously difficult and elliptical; it traffics in ambiguity and mystery. (Which is why it holds up — and deepens — on repeated viewings.) And, to Professor Fredericksen, a film like Star Wars is all calculated, surface flash and pop. (Cheerful, sweet Rice Krispies to Bergman’s hearty, grainy Mueslix.) But, on closer inspection, the Star Wars films might have been up to the same game as Bergman.

“Everything Belongs,” Carl Jung once said, and indeed, the basis of Jung’s theological/philosophical/psychological /aesthetic system can be distilled from those two very simple, very humane words. They are, at heart, a profoundly plain plea for ambiguity — the slippery psychological topography on which our adult lives are played out. Seen early enough, the Star Wars films are as good an introduction as any to the rigors, challenges, and paradoxes of adulthood.

Let us take for granted the effect the original Star Wars had on our collective imagination and the future of moviemaking in general and skip directly to its gothic, lacquered sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. As the bridge film in the trilogy, Empire, of necessity, must end with a cliffhanger. But, historically, Empire was also the first sequel to the (then) most commercially successful film in cinema history, and The Empire Strikes Back, surely one of the greatest cinematic ass-kickings a commercial popular audience has ever been treated to, put kids through the wringer.

At the end of this second installment, Luke, after expressly disobeying the wishes of his mentors Yoda (the last Jedi Master living, shriveled, soiled, and alone in exile on a swamp planet in the Dagoba System) and the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi, learns that his father is, in fact, Darth Vader, heavy-breathing, black-helmeted baddie of the universe. Daddie Darth, after failing to convince his talented son to join the family business, slices off Luke’s hand with a light saber and sends him tumbling into oblivion, it seems. Meanwhile, Luke’s chatterbox sidekick C3PO is blown to bits, and, in a neat bit of surrealistic imagery, is left a disembodied head, carried around, backpack-style, by the hairy, clothesless Chewbacca. Chewbacca’s partner (owner?) Han Solo, meanwhile, has been sold out to the bad guys by his old drinking buddy, Lando, and now Han, Luke’s bad-ass buddy (hepcat Neal Cassady to Luke’s square Jack Kerouac), is lying frozen in suspended animation, while his beloved, Princess Leia, is on the run in the Millennium Falcon (a spaceship, mind you, that was won in a poker game and can barely even attain hyperspace.)

Let us travel back to the beginning of that first (run-on) sentence: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. If I, along with many other cine- and Star Wars-philes. believe that The Empire Strikes Back stands head and shoulders above the other two films, it’s on the basis of the painful knowledge of that sentence. In The Empire Strikes Back not only do the good guys lose — grandly. We learn that the boy in white sprung from the man in black (a dude so bad we don’t even get to see his face.) It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that for the youth of America, the moment caused a collective frisson.

A personal recollection: When The Empire Strikes Back opened in theaters in 1980, I was close to 8 years old. Star Wars, which opened in 1977, was probably among the first ten films I had seen in a movie theater. (All I remember from the experience was a British voice emanating from a strangely stiff-jointed, gold-painted man, and a huge fireworks display at film’s end.) I was obsessed. Star Wars sheets and blankets, paper plates and Dixie cups. (Strangely, I steered clear of the line of action figures.) I would fixate on Star Wars so thoroughly that sometimes the thought that I would have to endure another year or two for the follow-up seemed almost physically unbearable. I was so anxious to see the sequel that, weeks before its release, I started begging my dad to take me to see Empire on opening day. We went. Just me and him. Quality Time. I remember holding his hand during the film, happily watching Luke getting trained by a cute muppet who, while green and wizened, sounded suspiciously like Fozzie the Bear. All was going well … until, suddenly, Han was a frozen block of clay, Luke was hanging from an antenna, Darth Vader had sliced off one of his hands, and then announced, breathily … Luke, I am your father. My own hand flinched and went cold. I remember that. I remember feeling slightly sick. I remember not being able to look at my own father in the parking lot. I also remember beginning to come to terms with certain dualities that until then I couldn’t approach in my father. This was the beginning of my understanding that “everything belongs.”

Put simply, to many of my movie-drugged generation (the generation that saw Madonna go from a sexily paunched guidette to a don’t-cry-for-me mamacita, the generation that, through the Reagan regime, saw politics and entertainment join hands and merrily wed — that is, Generation X, or, continuing with the alphabetic motif, Generation OJ), Star Wars was our introduction to the shocks and disappointments adulthood held for us. It was, for may of us, our first taste of ambiguity — the very ambiguity and moral complexity that Bergman and the art films trade in. That Star Wars snuck those complexities into a flagrantly entertaining popular framework and sold them to a huge popular audience of children (much like the medicine pill served on a heaping spoonful of apple sauce) is to Mr. Lucas’s infinitely humane and everlasting credit.

George Lucas, with universes swimming in his head (and thankfully, a Wonderland-like production facility at his disposal), is clearly one of the great mad hatters of modern cinema. (His shy, reserved, gentlemanly manner in interviews belies this.) His plan to first elaborately restore his three existing films and then go ahead and make the remaining six of his proposed nine-film cycle smacks of an incredible act of hubris. But hubris is also the only word available to describe the act of creating an entire lexicon — a language, a world, an entire cultural system, that has entered our own.

Moreover, the more one knows about film genres and film history in general, the richer, more knowing, more resonant the Star Wars trilogy becomes. Supposedly, Lucas’s original inspiration for the first film was a couple of early Akira Kurosawa films; the interaction between R2D2 and C3PO recalls a lost English vaudeville stage tradition, the imagery of storm troopers marching in formation borrows from the best/worst tradition of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda masterpieces; Han Solo and Princess Leia’s sparring brings to mind the best Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell/Tracy/ Hephurn screwball comedies. And besides the filmic cross-references, Star Wars offers a cornucopia of literary nods as well; a liberal smattering of Greek mythology, J.R. Tolkein, Bible, fairy tale, and Arthurian imagery. And through their use of mysticism, ghosts, and surprises of identity, Shakespeare also seems to be clearly invoked. Finally, in the films’ simple invocation of The Force — that strange New-Agey power — Star Wars gave many of us our first stirrings, our first inkling towards a rudimentary basis for religious belief. To a child, these magnificent films, seen early on, could prove as profound, as emotionally wounding, as morally challenging as a film like Persona can be to an adult. That is, overpowering.

My Professor and I never did resolve our conflict of taste. And perhaps it’s foolish to write of the artistry of a film like Star Wars in comparison to a film such as Persona, because art is already too pretentious a term for Star Wars and would falsify, academize, what I and millions love the films for in the first place.

Pauline Kael once wrote something to the effect that films are so rarely great, if you can’t appreciate great trash, there’s not much point in going. While I agree — and can appreciate the humor in the remark — to argue that an artistic medium is essentially crap and can best be appreciated through a good wallowing session In said material is, at best, a dubious position. Perhaps a better way to state the position is to suggest (as Kael did, repeatedly, throughout her career) that film is reverent to no tradition. As a medium, it’s indebted to nothing. Analogous, in its way, to a new America forging a history instead of being bogged down by one. Perhaps this is why Hollywood films are America’s great cultural export — there is a little something of our collective sensibility embedded in them. It is this irreverence, this capacity for lowdown humor and cheap thrills, for explosive bouts of violence and sex, that we respond to in American movies. Which is why our movies dumbly lead with their crotches and fists as often as with their heads. (Keel didn’t entitle her second collection “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” for nothing.)

Our best films are filtered through loopy trash sensibilities. The Godfather features the sight of a severed horse’s head enfolded in satin sheets and the sounds emanating from Marlon Brando’s bull-like, tissue-stuffed jaw (until his final scene, in which the big man expires by stuffing an orange in his mouth, producing an interesting Kleenex-through-orange effect.) Citizen Kane is resplendent with its cheesy gothic horrors. Dr. Strangelove, a comedy about nuclear annihilation (!), was originally intended to end with a custard-pie fight. Birth of a Nation, the film that invented parallel editing (that is, the film medium’s storytelling vernacular), has, for its finale, American history being saved by the Klan. Nashville presents the whole mess of America as a traveling country/western show, and pulls the whole trick off in a neat three hours. King Kong features a hundred-foot ape raping a giggly blond before climbing, in an orgiastic celebration of the event, to the top of the Empire State Building. Jaws gives us a Moby Dick with teeth chomping its way through half of Martha’s Vineyard. (Is it blasphemy to suggest, as Kael did in a recent interview, that Jaws is a finer film than Schindler’s List? No. And you can add E.T. and Raiders to my List.) And so it is with the Star Wars films long, lousy stretches of dialogue, predictability of plot, characters roughly the thickness of a good grade of corrugated cardboard, and with the third film, a plot that all but lifts the climax from the first.

No matter. I’ll lay my prejudices bare: If I had to choose between two filmic wisemen, between Yoda or Bergman, it’d be the puppet. In a cakewalk.

And may the force be with you. Always.

Andrew Lewis Conn, age 23, recently graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell. He lives in Brooklyn.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

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