Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank the Maker! (STAR WARS)

Happy Thanksgiving, and happy 1001 Movies Blog Club day! I suppose it was a statistical inevitability that eventually the Club would get around to Star Wars, entry number 642 on the Must-See Master List. The fact that said number coming up happens to coincide with our national feast of giving thanks strikes me as too delightful a coincidence to ignore.

Because, I mean, come on, what am I going to do, perform some kind of serious English major cinephile analysis on Star Wars? And even if I did, would I actually manage to add something to the conversation that hasn’t been said a few dozen times before? (Not if I’m writing this post at work while running out the clock on a snow-shortened day before Turkey Day, I’m not.) I am a huge Star Wars fan and a huge nerd, so I could go long on the history of the franchise, or the technical details of the making of the first movie, or the various other movies it homages or has been homaged by, or the spinoffs and tie-ins it generated both in terms of comics and novels with specific narratives and toys and such without. But as I said, I’m not particularly inclined to do that, perhaps partly because I already have many times. Here I am reflecting on a couple of movies Lucas was riffing on; here’s a mention in passing of a wonderfully odd reinterpretation I read; here’s another admission that my long interest in practical special effects hearkens back to watching and re-watching the Making of Star Wars. The list, I’m sure, goes on.

Instead, I’ll just take a seasonally appropriate moment to express my gratitude to Star Wars. I’ve had a lifelong, tumultuous relationship with all things related to the Empire and the Rebellion, up to just about verging on consigning the entire Expanded Universe to the junk drawer of Stuff I’ve Fallen Out Of Love With. But I’ve never been able to let it go, not completely, and while the extent to which I would qualify as a full Star Wars apologist waxes and wanes day-to-day, I do still consider myself a huge fan, present tense and without shame. And a lot of the ebb and flow of my ambivalence arises from stuff like the prequels, and the legacy, and the remastered re-issues, none of which really has anything to do with the singular movie Star Wars, box office champ of 1977. It’s hard sometimes, in general and for me specifically, to separate the movie which would later be referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope from the entire mass of its own gravitational continuity, but that’s the task I’m setting for myself here. Thus, a few reasons why I’m grateful for Star Wars in and of itself:

I’m grateful for the simplicity of its story. At heart it’s a fairy tale, a chivalrous romance about a good knight rescuing a princess from an evil knight. It’s set in space, with droids and hyperdrives and moon-sized battlestations, but it’s still one of the oldest stories in the book. That’s worth being thankful for because it stands as a reminder that even as modern life gets more complicated and cynical and seemingly hostile to the trappings of childhood, something assembled from the most basic building blocks can still have something to say, and speak not just a to a select few but basically to everybody.

But I’m also grateful for its unapologetic weirdness. I know, from an evolutionary biological standpoint, that banthas on a desert planet make zero sense. For that matter, the Empire either flying in their own trained dewback lizards, or the stormtroopers just snagging wild indigenous ones, somehow makes even less sense logistically. And yet those are the little details that made Star Wars so magical for me from the very first time I saw it. You can tell all the stories you want that boil down to a new twist on old archetypes and monomyth, but they’ll feel pretty thin unless you flesh them out with slightly quirky backdrops and hangers-on. And man, does Star Wars do a lot of heavy lifting in that department.

I’m grateful for the possibilities that Star Wars opened up. The movie (and, yes, the franchise extensions, for good or ill) casts a long shadow, but that’s partly because it kicked down a door filled with blazing white-hot potential. For all the talk about how the new millennium has become the era of the geek ascendant, and how all the underground dorky genre stuff has finally gone mainstream, it’s really more a matter of culmination, and it started almost forty years ago. Star Wars is a crazy mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, and purely that. It is not a story about a guy from Earth who winds up dropped in the middle of an intergalactic civil war far, far away, nor does it have any other overt connection to the real world its audience lives in. And yet it was and is insanely popular anyway. Every crazy idea for a movie that might have encountered some resistance along the lines of “nobody will understand that” objections owes a debt to Star Wars.

So, along those lines, I’m grateful for the embarrassment of riches we have today, and all of the enjoyment I derive from my pop culture consumption, because of the straight line you can draw back to Star Wars. I don’t go the movie theater that often, as I’ve mentioned now and then, and when I do it’s usually because there’s a movie coming out which I think demands to be seen on the big screen because of its scope and spectacle, whether it’s Gravity or The Avengers. Star Wars might not be the first summer blockbuster, I’m perfectly fine with assigning that distinction to Jaws, but it is the first grand scale effects-driven genre blockbuster. Basically it’s the reason why there are at least a few movies every year which do justify the whole waiting in line for tickets and popcorn experience, which I enjoy. And I don’t mean to gloss over the genre part of those earlier qualifiers, either. Lucas could have, theoretically, made an epic movie with lots of dogfights and shootouts and a rescue mission and a capital-E Evil bad guy, and made it a World War II re-telling of the fairy tale. In which case we’d no doubt have still gotten Raiders of the Lost Ark (actually that’s kind of what I just described, or pretty close) and Die Hard and Con Air and various other movies I love, but we might not have gotten Ghostbusters and Independence Day and Serenity and Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe a few but almost surely not all of them.

Last but not least, I’m grateful for the common ground that Star Wars has helpfully provided for me and my friends, year in and year out, for as long as I can remember. One of the things that brings me a lot of joy in life (above and beyond what I hope are the obvious and go-without-saying candidates: my wife, my kids, my efforts to be a good person and make the world a better place) is engaging with other people about ideas, where there’s room for interpretation and multiple perspectives. Star Wars is the first thing I can remember being at the center of conversations like that, really nothing more than elementary school playground shouting about whether or not a lightsaber or a blaster really is better in a fight, but still. All of the most important people in my life, my parents, my siblings, my wife, my buddies, the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all had long conversations with me about Star Wars at some point or another. (For my kids, so far, it’s been pretty one-sided, just me telling them about how there’s this thing called Star Wars and we’ll watch it together someday and also it is awesome.) I don’t consider being into Star Wars a litmus test for whether or not I want a person around, but I confess it’s hard for me to imagine a person who was indifferent to it, or actively disdainful of it, being my kind of people.

So that’s my paean to the Skywalker Saga. By this time next year we’ll all be up to our eyeballs in hype for the imminent release of Episode VII, but hopefully I’ll be able to muster up similar amounts of thankfulness, come what may.

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