George Lucas is a great technician. But an indifferent artist.
There: I said it.
This week I have entirely enjoyed ‘revisiting’ (explanation of scare-quotes, below) the first three Star Wars movies. By “the first three Star Wars movies” I mean: Star Wars (d/b/a A New Hope, first released in 1977), The Empire Strikes Back (first released in 1980) and Return of the Jedi (first released in 1983). I first saw all three at about the time of their initial release, and probably only once each. They’re great fun and well made; they would not be mistaken for great art, but (to repeat myself) they’re great fun and well made. It has been well observed that (per the classical Roman maxim, “Joy is the most serious business there is”), Star Wars was a peculiarly radical movie to make at the time. So much of the movie-making of that epoch was Complicated, Gritty, Dour. America was still flogging herself over Vietnam, culturally (I suppose), and there was an all-but-ineluctable wave of movies digging around the Flawed Humanity Sandbox.
Consider Serpico of 1973. It’s a serious movie, but not fun to watch. Star Wars is not a serious movie, but it’s fun to watch. And that was Lucas’s accomplishment, and gift to American cinema. Snap out of it! he seemed to say, It’s okay to have a good time at the movies.
What I mean by qualifying revisiting is, the movies I am watching this week are the later, tinkered-with versions.
There are fans for the whom the changes are execrable, intolerable; and while I honor that perspective, it is not my own.
I do enjoy the fact (as I read it via Wikipedia) it was one of the first films to be selected for the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”; the movie is a cultural phenomenon, and a landmark in cinematic technique, and no one can take that away from Lucas.
That said, I equally enjoy reading (via Wikipedia, different article) that the National Film Registry refused the 1997 “Special Edition.”
First of all: I had a great time watching the movies again – “space opera” with astonishingly elevated production values. Call it my opinion, but I hardly care about most of the tweaks/changes. I don’t think they are necessarily the improvements which Lucas claims. In fact, in the case of the added Jabba scene in A New Hope, in which some of the dialogue is literal repetition of lines we already heard between Greedo and Solo shortly before (a scene which itself was probably rewritten when Jabba wasn’t going to work out at the time). That Lucas does not hear (or does not care) about this tedious repetition, illustrates the problem. For the most part, the changes have neither my blessing nor my curse. Honestly, I did not even much care about Jabba’s girlish squeal when Solo stepped over (on?) his tail. I mean, what sex is a bloated space slug, anyway? It may be sex, but not as we know it.
The very real job of taking Lucas to task for his weaknesses as a writer, I leave to others. Though I still smile from time to time to reflect on the fact that probably the best line from the entire franchise was Harrison Ford’s ad lib, “I know.”
I did finish with Return of the Jedi yesterday, and I have to go on record as approving one of the changes. I was so glad not to have the “Ewok Celebration Song” to endure at the end. I may not think all that highly of the cut-rate Graceland-sessions-outtake vibe of the replacement – but it is agreeably unobtrusive, anyway. In the cinema, back in 1983, I felt with an awful strength that ending the three-movie space saga with that (as dim memory perceives) cheesy quasi-disco number, degraded the whole endeavor. Now it kind of resonates with Working Girl, and I don’t believe I much mind.
So, what else? The crawl text at the start of The Empire Strikes Back tells us that Vader is obsessed with finding Luke Skywalker. And yet (as I perceive by watching the movies in rapid succession) Vader and Luke never met in the first movie; it is unclear whence Vader would have engendered this obsession. Oh, well, poor writing.
Generally, Vader somehow knows that Luke is his son. I mean, he springs that “I am your father” on Luke, at a particularly awkward time for the young man. He does not, however, know that Leia is his daughter, until he perceives so through resonance with Luke’s inner thoughts, in Return to the Jedi.
I just think it’s a little odd that Vader is obsessed with finding Luke (whom he never met in A New Hope) at the outset of The Empire Strikes Back, when he had repeated interviews with Leia (including a chemically enhanced interrogation) yet never “felt” (in that indefinable, Force-ey way) that Leia is his daughter.
None of those quibbles really matter; I knew 39 years ago that Lucas isn’t Shakespeare, so his writing deficiencies are already baked into my model.
A huge factor in the successful tone and flow of the movies, is John Williams’s score. This comes as a surprise to no one, but I wanted to go ahead and acknowledge this afresh because, while I know many musicians who admire Williams greatly, my own appreciation for his work generally is less fulsome. I don’t say there were never times, in this week’s survey, when I near had to bite my tongue (“This is the Luke-wallowing-in-self-pity cue”) but the score for Star Wars is a thing of magnificent beauty. Personally, I don’t need it in the concert hall; but I rejoice in it while I am watching the movie. I think I should have to be an unfeeling brute, not to. Even a Wookiee, as they say . . . .