Saturday, May 17, 2008

Star Wars (1977)

Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian Formalist literary critic, held that the purpose of art was to "enstrange" us from the language of everyday life, to turn the familiar and automatic into something unrecognizable and startling or weird.

But what about when the startlingly weird has become so familiar that we approach it with utter familiarity, unflinchingly?

This is the case with the Star Wars films. The first film has two oddities in its title, "Episode IV" and the subtitle "A New Hope." When the film opens, and the scrolling introduction shows that we are already on the fourth episode--well, if anyone ever asks for a good example of what I take pretentiousness to be, it is this "Episode IV" business. And isn't the film just called "Star Wars"? Not until The Phantom Menace ruined the convenience of saying, "the first one," did it become necessary to ever *say* "A New Hope."

The confusing introduction is succeeded by ~20 minutes of one robot talking to himself--in space, in the desert--before we meet our hero, the ridiculously-named and badly-acted Luke Skywalker. At this point, the film settles into a fairy tale/adventure plot that is easy to follow: his family is murdered, he runs off to join the rebellion and take revenge, meets strange and exciting new people, is captured, escapes, loses his mentor, but wins the day in the big battle. A lot of ground is covered very quickly and not always coherently. Nonetheless, once Alec Guinness shows up, the movie is in good hands, and Harrison Ford brings some much-needed coolness to the nerdiness of the first half.

Compare this film with the near-contemporaneous Alien. While Star Wars is not "really" a sci-fi movie, but is obviously in the Arthurian tradition (what else could explain the light sabers?), Alien is also not really a sci-fi movie, but is truly a horror movie. Both movies have long, slow build-ups that I can imagine would tax most viewers' patience nowadays, but Star Wars chooses to spend this time with a lot of awkward explanatory dialogue, while Alien just sets mood. In Alien, the viewer initially does not know that there *are* aliens (title notwithstanding)--we are terrified when they pop up, just as the crew is. In Star Wars, ever oddity is weirdly taken for granted: nothing in this universe is weird FOR the characters.

The lesson here is, viewed "as though for the first time," Star Wars is clunky and weird. The Empire Strikes Back is the superior movie because it dispenses with much of the exposition and just advances several plot lines simultaneously (like Die Walküre as compared to Das Rheingold). On the other hand, Star Wars is made to be watched over and over--it is a film for nerds who want to know everything about this imaginary universe. There is no need for mood or even coherence. Alien is a well-made film. But I will never want to "go deeper" into its world.

The logic seems to be that something happens in the film because "that's what happens next in Star Wars." This is maddening from a technical perspective, but it is ideally made for fans (The Good the Bad and the Ugly is like this, too). Star Wars has surprisingly little action, only a dozen or so speaking parts, and truly awful dialogue. Long stretches are without charm. But like the Bible, King Arthur, the Song of Roland, or anything else you know the story of by heart, every part of the movie turns out to be perfectly situated and masterfully-ordered. Not because it couldn't have been done better or tighter, but because for all the weirdness of the organization, I want the same thing that is in my memory up on screen again: that's "how it goes."

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