(continued from part one)
Okay, so onto my actual serious thoughts for real this time.
Star Wars did the right thing at the right time. The 70s were a particularly grimdark age in American pop culture; the upheavals of the 60s, combined with the fallout from stuff like the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam Wars, had made the atmosphere a little bit jaded and cynical. Apocalypse Now, although it came out two years after Star Wars, is a good summation of the era’s aesthetic ethos: that underneath the thin veneer of civilization and rationality is only a chaotic, amoral world.
George Lucas instead looked back to the entertainment of the 1930s through 50s, which were far more idealistic and traditional. Serialized pulpy stories like Flash Gordon, Lensman and John Carter, as well as genres like the Western/Samurai flick, and various other bits of cultural detritus, all welded together by a reading of Joseph Campbell. The principal achievement of Star Wars is that it made all this stuff cool again. You didn’t have to be an edgy Ingmar Bergman or Francis Ford Coppolla to be cutting edge. You could earnestly tell an exciting story about good conquering evil and love conquering all again.
And I think that’s a good thing. The cultural defibrillation is worth the price of the usual terrible blockbuster. And, I mean, we otherwise wouldn’t have Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger either, so there’s that too.
As for my opinion about the actual films, I’ll depart from orthodoxy in placing the original above The Empire Strikes Back. I won’t argue that the latter features better dialogue, better performances, more arresting cinematography and all around higher production standards. But none of those things are really what I enjoy Star Wars for. The original is always exciting: in true pulp serial fashion, the characters are always being thrown into one crazy situation after another, the danger continually mounting until the climactic X-Wing attack on the Death Star, which remains the best action sequence of the series.
It’s perfect: the goal – fly down a trench and shoot a torpedo into an exhaust pipe – is simple ans straightforward; there’s just enough happening for the action to feel frenetic without becoming confusing, the danger and difficulty of what needs to be accomplished is established; the whole sequence (accompanied by John Williams’ perfect musical cues) is one of continually mounting tension until the cathartic release of the Death Star going kaboom.
Compare that with the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, which is in essence a remake of the same fight. The forces on both sides are greater, and the task is even more daring: the pilots now need to fly into the Death Star to take it out. But it’s less exciting because it’s just so dang busy that it becomes difficult to parse, added with the fact that our attention is being split between three different plot threads instead of having them all converge on one. Actually, if I could make one ‘fix’ to Return, it would be to keep the movie fixed to Luke’s perspective during the climax.
But I was supposed to be comparing the first two. Another reason for preferring the original is that Empire is a dramatic torso, while Star Wars is a complete story. I suppose its fitting that Star Wars, being itself inspired by serialized fiction, helped to inspire the serialization of movies themselves. But I find this harder to take in movies than in books for whatever reason, perhaps because movies are more obviously separate, discreet worlds unto themselves than, say, a multi-volume book series penned by one author is. Then again, I have no problem with this in something like Wagner’s Ring cycle, so maybe I’m just inconsistent. But that’s opera, man. It’s totally different!
Anyway, Empire is where we meet Yoda and I begin to start liking the Jedi a whole lot less. We find out that the Jedi follow a kind of asceticism that is contemptuous towards human nature and its attendant attachments and loves. And we also learn that it is a severe philosophy where there is no room for redemption or forgiveness: “Once you start down the dark path,” Yoda says, “forever will it dominate your destiny!” Ghost!Obi-Wan in Return seems rather disappointed that Luke feels some conflict over killing his father.
To their credit, the films don’t actually seem to believe in this: Luke’s love for his father ultimately saves him from temptation, and Darth Vader repents of his evil. But this is a weird philosophical inconsistency in them, since the Jedi – and Obi-Wan and Yoda in particular – are always presented to us as admirable figures.
The original dodges all of this by vaguely defining the Jedi as some sort mystical space knight.
Now look what you’ve done; you’ve got me ranting about Star Wars.