Star Wars remerchandises its own myth
by Peter Keough
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
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
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.
Star Wars Links.