January 30 - February 6, 1997
[Star Wars]
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Magnum farce

Star Wars remerchandises its own myth

by Peter Keough

[Star Wars] STAR WARS. Directed and written by George Lucas. With Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, and Anthony Daniels. A Twentieth Century Fox re-release. At the Cheri, the Fresh Pond, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Call it sheer perversity or curmudgeonliness on my part, but when it comes to the quintessential movie about the American myth, Star Wars loses out to The People vs. Larry Flynt by several light years. Unlike Flynt, George Lucas's multi-billion-dollar franchise is a symptom of contemporary culture, not a reflection of it.

A hodge-podge of low cultural dross, moribund genres, pretentious movie allusions, cartoon characters, ingenuous platitudes, thudding clichés, lousy dialogue, worse acting (quoted in a recent New Yorker profile of the Star Wars phenomenon, Harrison Ford told Lucas, "George, you can type that shit, but you sure can't say it"), and special effects readily transformed into a multi-billion-dollar merchandising industry and eerily premonitory of a nascent generation of video- and computer-game playing, Star Wars is a junkyard of cinematic gimcracks not unlike the Jawas' heap of purloined, discarded, barely functioning 'droids. It's a lousy if mindlessly entertaining frivolity; if this were the only film we had to judge Lucas by, he'd seem little more than an Ed Wood with state-of-the-art technology and an unprecedented pop-cultural marketing genius.

But then there is "The Force" to contend with. As Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, putting in the only thing resembling a performance by a human character in the movie -- which of course necessitates his early elimination) explains to the insufferably callow and vapid Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill; presumably Howdy Doody wasn't available), the Force is "an energy field created by all living things -- it surrounds, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together."

Well, it certainly binds Star Wars together. It might seem less a Force than a Void, one into which audiences starved for a valid faith could project their needs. But that would be selling it short -- and Star Wars is anything but undersold. The Force has a Dark and Light side, as is made more explicit in the film's finer sequels (finer, no doubt, because Lucas had other people direct and contribute to the writing), and it represents, I believe, the unbridgeable cultural contradictions that all generic Hollywood filmmaking has sought to resolve through the magic of the manufactured collective dream.

Star Wars indulges in these contradictions with unabashed hypocrisy. The film pays reverence to the mysticism and anti-technological credo of the Jedi (even Darth Vader has only scorn for the Death Star and those who believe in it) yet revels in its own glitzy gizmos. It espouses humanism, but the only characters with any humanity are aliens, beasts, and machines (significantly, almost all the computer-generated material in the restored re-release consists of the latter). It celebrates individualism, but its dominant tendency is conformity, not just to the uniformity of a military force (don't the Rebel warriors dress like workers in a Chrysler plant?) but to the conventions of decades of formula filmmaking.

Somehow, the Force elevates these inconsistencies to the level of paradox -- most movingly in the figure of Darth Vader (Guinness adds a taste of it with his brief, wry turn). A fallen Lucifer who radiates infinite power and loss, he's the film's unacknowledged protagonist, the dark carapaced crusader for our deepest desires and dreads -- freedom versus control, spirituality versus greed, pretensions of piety versus a thriving mega-corporation that manufactures illusions. It would be another two decades before Hollywood would have the honesty to cast such an archetype as a hero and not a villain -- what is Larry Flynt if not a Darth Vader emboldened by the Force of smut and the First Amendment?

That's why it's Vader and not Luke who's our hero. That's why we delight in the joyfully gluttonous and venal Jabba the Hutt rather than in Princess Leia. And that's why the favorite Star Wars action toy among the humans is the cynical smuggler Han Solo, a concept that springs completely to life in the full-blooded opportunist who would provide Harrison Ford with his defining role and Lucas with his most genuine icon. The Force may be with Star Wars, but the Holy Grail is found by Indiana Jones.

The opposing view.

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