Thursday, June 23, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Star Wars (1977) 2h 11m

On Saturday, 25 June, at 6:31pm, the Phnom Penh Film Club will savor one of the most impactful motion pictures in history, Star Wars (1977), directed by George Lucas and starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, and the voice of James Earl Jones.

Really, what is left to say? Shall I recount the story of how, convinced that the film would flop, the suits at 20th Century Fox re-negotiated Lucas’ compensation, with the merchandising rights transferred back to Lucas as a way of making up the difference? So that, until very recently, every Star Wars action figure sold, every in-game purchase online, every parody, every adaptation, every Halloween costume put yet more money in Lucas’ bursting pocket? No, you know that one.

Should I tell the story of David Prowse—the man who wore Darth Vader’s costume and spoke his lines all through principal photography, having no idea that he’d be looped-over by the leaden gravitas of James Earl Jones? Indeed having no idea, as legend has it, until he heard Jones’ voice instead of his own while sitting next to family and friends at the Hollywood premiere? You know that one too. 

In fact you probably know them all. And maybe, maybe that’s the point. Maybe the cachet of Star Wars is really all about the stories that we all already know, and the simple fact that we all already know them. Maybe that’s what’s left to say. At its beating, luminescent heart, Star Wars is after all a story in which people tell stories. Primitive, fire-in-a-cave oral tradition is everywhere and at all times the unlikely backbone of relevance for this galactic war saga, not Hyperdrive Motivators or NaviComputers or moon-sized space stations with curiously un-defended tractor beam controls. Story is the thing. 

Luke tells his uncle a story about a young man’s readiness to leave his desert-planet home. Obi Wan Kenobe tells Luke a story of swashbuckling galactic intrigue. R2D2 interrupts to tell a story of damsels in distress, albeit on video. Not far away, Han Solo tells a story of fast ships and dumped cargo bought with dangerously borrowed money. And so on. And so on. And so on, and so on, and so on, each story more affecting and momentous than the last. How fitting, then, that our enduring love affair with the franchise should hinge so essentially on our own, primitive, water-cooler-in-a-cave commitment to the awesome power of small-bore word of mouth. How perfect that we have all heard the many stories about the making of this story about stories. 

Of course a sci-fi story about stories will need a good deal more going for it if it hopes to steal our hearts: It’s going to need unforgettable visual effects, a thrilling score, iconic characters and circumstances, and vignettes so pitch-perfect that they literally redefine the popular culture in real time. Lots of movies aspire to this ideal. But none of them is this one. None of them captivate us the way we were so permanently captivated by this clumsily written, ham-acted schmaltz-fest with wooden conflicts and planet-sized holes in plot continuity. And Star Wars captivates us, still after all this time, as much because of these problems as in spite of them. Star Wars is as homely as it is homey. Star Wars is your grandma’s quilted housecoat. Star Wars is family. We don’t care that a visibly green Hamill could barely even read his icky lines, any more than we feel cheated by a tie-fighter battle with results so predictable that we could have excused ourselves to the concession stand for the entire scene and still not missed a beat. All of these are petty quibbles. Story is the thing.  

I resisted Star Wars as a child—a sentiment you wouldn’t have heard often from the square-pegged male offspring of Poughkeepsie IBM’ers in the 1970s, but so it was. This is mostly because Lucas had (cleverly, except where I was concerned) positioned his cinematic opus not as a sci-fi shoot-em-up, but rather as a fantasy adventure. Yes, the TV ads showed spaceships grappling in existential combat but, just as the movie itself, the marketing always emphasized eccentric characters living inscrutable lives on exotic fantasy-adventure worlds. But I myself had never been drawn to exotic fantasy-adventure worlds. Tolkien? Pass. Narnia? Nah. Dungeons and Dragons? Thanks, I’m good. The universe I actually lived in was plenty inscrutable enough for my tastes, without the added suspension of disbelief that it took to ride shotgun while some  reluctant hero bought casting stones from a dude who just called the waitress ‘Wench.’ 

Thus it was that for an entire summer in ’77 (while my single and more-or-less abandoned mother struggled to keep me fed and relatively quiet), a village-sized support network of kindly adults kept telling and retelling me the primitive story of how much I was surely going to love this movie. Bill ‘Booga-Booga’ Gordon told me the story of how much I’d love Star Wars. Helen and Ed Klaas told me the story of how much I’d love Star Wars. Jimmy Kolfrat, Linda Muller, George Pixley, Bob Manotte. The Neumanns, the Ryans, the Nussbaums and the Avnettes. Our cave fires flickered and very often burned themselves to ash, but for a calm and languid summer—for what would be the last calm and languid summer before Khomeini and blindfolded embassy workers and $1/gallon gas—the story was always there. All I had to do was ask and someone would tell me, all over again and patiently from scratch, the one about how sure they were that I’d love Star Wars when I finally climbed down enough to go and see it. 

And you know how that one ends, too. 

I think often about many of the films we’ve shared in our short time together. I think often of Blow-Up and Baraka and Blazing Saddles, of Chinatown and Crouching Tiger. I think of Alien and Pulp Fiction and Cleo 5 to 7 and The Third Man. But no other movie in our repertoire chokes me up just thinking about it—just because it’s *there*—like Star Wars. We were all a different people the moment that first Imperial Destroyer thundered down the screen. From the moment Obi Wan serenely raised his light saber and gently shut his eyes, we would literally never be the same. The story of this silly movie is, for a great many of us, the story of our very lives. Story, *that* story, is the thing. 

I hope everyone will make a special point of joining us, Saturday, 25 June at 6:31PM, for this indelible masterclass in cinematic storycraft. It’s been an incredible ride, sharing so many excellent (and more than a few excellently cheesy) movies with such a fantastic group of smart and patient people, and I thank you all. If Star Wars is to signify the final curtain in our grand experiment, then I say let it be the perfect symphony with which to play us off.

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