Friday, March 31, 2017

On Watching Star Wars as an Old Man

I almost fell asleep during the final half hour of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016), and though I didn't fall asleep during Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), there was only one part that interested me, the appearance of an aged Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill, whose presence in the culture since Star Wars: Episode 6 - The Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983) has mostly been limited to video games, his appearance as the Trickster in The Flash (1991) and The Flash (2014-), and his voice of the Joker -- his finest role! the best Joker! -- first in Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), and then in its spinoffs. A cute 20-something grown old and fat, with a beard, and the wear of age. We live in a culture that calls Hamill a loser and Harrison Ford a winner. Our losers are more interesting than our winners. Hamill's reprisal of Luke Skywalker was more moving than Ford's reprisal of Han Solo.

I rewatched the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) on Blu-Ray last year, and the new technology revealed the obsolesence of the special effects. These movies probably look more impressive on faded VHS tapes, which is the only way I saw them for the first 16 years of my life. I found myself feeling a sensation I never thought I would have when watching them. I was bored. I own a large set of Looney Tunes DVDs and a wonderful collection of Central and Eastern European animation that is not available on YouTube. I have a collection of novels that I've picked up at one-dollar book sales that I plan to read one day when I finish my dissertation. If I wasn't lecturing on the Star Wars trilogy for a class, I would have probably shut the whole thing off sometime during the trip to Cloud City. Cloud City is beautiful, but it's nowhere near as well-imagined as the Rome of Fellini Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969). Compared to the cast of characters in the prequels (1999-2005), the characters of the original trilogy could have been written by Shakespeare, but, hell, there were several hours of quality television series, with long, drawn-out, rounded and never fully rounded out characters, that I could have been watching.

I didn't care for the explosions anymore. I don't know if I ever really did. I admire Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005) as well as its predecessors from the 1950s, because they are more depressing than spectacular. When Spielberg destroys a city, he reminds you that there is far more to love than hate in the things humans have created, and gives you at least a few minutes of screentime to mourn. George Lucas can blow up Alderon and the Death Star, cause deaths far greater than Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the psychopathic God of the Old Testament combined, and not shed a tear. He could kill Skywalker's loving aunt and uncle and treat them as mere footnotes in a life dedicated to violence. A light saber may be an "elegant weapon for a more civilized time," but Lucas forgets that it is still a weapon and that anyone who wields a weapon is guilty of something.

And yet, the sublime is there if you pay attention and know where to look for it. I almost shed a tear for the lone fallen Ewok in Jedi.  I have hung out in many bars in many countries but I have yet to find the Mos Eisley Cantina. One day I will talk to those aliens with insect eyes, and alien with devil's horns,  and the murderer with half his face melted-off wanted on how many solar systems again? I will breathe in their incense, the scent of which I will one day learn, and taste their alcohol, which I will discover as well. I have been to the Redwoods and Death Valley, but Lucas's camera turns them into giant stages. Our national parks have a way of making us feel elevated as well as diminished by nature. Lucas discovers something in between the two sensations. And Jabba the Hut and Darth Vader (James Earle Jones) are still wonderful. The former still makes me laugh as much as Sydney Greenstreet's Casper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), even if the latter doesn't scare me as much as John Huston's Noah Cross in Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). Hell, I give in. I still love the movies, in my own way. Like an old crush from high school or an idol from childhood, the memory of what obsessed me once still lingers somewhere.

This quarter, I am teaching a class called "Writing About Film." We are reading great works of film criticism, both from academic and non-academic writers. And on this, the first week, my class watched Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977), and read Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Excessive Use of the Force," which was written on the occassion of the re-release of the original trilogy in 1997, and Ursula K. Le Guin's 1978 essay "Close Encounters, Star Wars, and the Tertium Quid," (Did I mention that I interviewed Le Guin four years ago? Because I did. I totally interviewed her. Did I mention that Rosenbaum once quoted me in an essay? Because he totally did.) Rosenbaum's assessment of the film, that it follows the aesthetics that would be picked up by CNN at the time of the Gulf War, that it is a celebration of violence, that it is "worthless," is something that is hard to argue with, but Le Guin's narrative of her experience as a spectator is more interesting.

"The end of Star Wars kept bothering me after I saw it the first time. I kept thinking, what a funny silly beautiful movie, why did George Lucas stick on that wooden ending, a high-school graduation, with prizes for good citizenship? But when I saw it again I realized it wasn't high school but West Point: a place crawling with boots and salutes. Aren't there any civilians in this Empire, anyhow? Finally a friend who knows films explained to me that the scene is a nostalgic evocation or imitation of Leni Riefenstahl's famous film of the 1936 Olympics, with the German winners receiving a grateful ovation from the Thousand-Year Reich. Having dragged Dorothy and Toto and that lot around the cosmos a bit, Lucas cast about for another surefire golden oldie and came up with Adolf Hitler."

There are a few major differences for those who first encounter the Star Wars movies at age four, as I did, and those who encountered the movies when they're in their late forties. The overstimulation of sounds and what looked like fast-paced editing in 1977 would disturb a middle-aged spectator brought up on classical Hollywood cinema, but with no past knowledge, such techniques manage to indoctrinate a four-year-old into a different manner of film spectatorship. A swastika is a pretty thing for a four-year-old, but a dangerous thing by the time he turns 10, or earlier if he sees Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1980). Surface aesthetics of military order disturb someone in their late forties. They don't disturb the child who, like the Riefenstahl-championing Lucas, sees no politics behind those aesthetics.

And yet there are adult complaints about the movie that were there for me even at age four, I'm sure, only because I remember always wondering at the moral differenes between the movies and cartoons that I watched and what my family and teachers taught me. Don't hit people who disagree with you. Solve problems peacefully. But what about those policemen in special uniforms who carry guns? Why are we supposed to respect them so much? What about those rebel fighters with weapons? You always tell me not to touch those swords you bought in Southeast Asia. Don't gloat. Don't be a sore winner. But Spider-Man always makes fun of the criminals he defeats? I'm sure there was at least one passing mention in my head when I saw the deaths of Luke's uncle and aunt, some thought that said, I don't get it...Why isn't he crying? There is an adult in the child, just as much as there's a child in the adult, just as there is an adult in the adult who loves Hamill's face grown old. But all children are different. To paraphrase Rodgers and Hammerstein, some children have to be carefully taught to love guns and others have to be carefully taught to hate them.

So what would I give my kids, if I had them? Well, I would give them the original Star Wars trilogy. I mean, really. What monster would deprive their children of Hoth, Cloud City, and Jabba the Hut? But if I believe movies are instructive, I would sooner give them my other golden oldies, The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Peterson, 1984), Little Shop of Horrors (Frank Oz, 1986), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988). And I would skip through the disc to what will always be for me David Bowie's finest performance in Labyrinth (Jim Henson, 1986).

And because I'd never win father of the year, when he's 15, I'd sneak him Fellini Satyricon.

1 comment: