Star Wars was released 35 years ago this week. On the one hand it’s like, OK. Time passes, we get older. But on the other hand, wow. To gain some perspective, just think: 35 years before Star Wars came out was… 1942.
I won’t get all into what an influence it has been on me. It’s too monumental a topic; and anyway I don’t think the cloudosphere is waiting for my contribution there. It’s kind of been done. Some other time maybe. Let’s just say it’s meant as much to me as just about anyone else from my generation. Which is to say, it changed my life many times over – and it may have saved it a couple of times too.
Today I celebrated this quietly momentous milestone not by watching the entire trilogy in one marathon, nor by getting out my collection of original Star Wars figures (actually, they’re gathering dust in a basement 10,000 miles from here), but by reflecting on the very different initial reactions of two influential 20th-century thinkers at the dawn of this cultural epoch: Pauline Kael and Joseph Campbell.
Kael, one of the major American film critics of her era, still beloved by cinephiles for her highly passionate, individualistic and sometimes sardonic writing, famously panned Star Wars in a review in The New Yorker a few months after its release (when it had already exploded into a box-office and pop-culture sensation). Here’s the text of her review:
The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it all over again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts – it has no emotional grip. Star Wars may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring. (Going a second time would be like trying to read Catch-22 twice. ) Even if you’ve been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension – a sense of wonder, perhaps. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.
All right. So it makes me so angry I can hardly see straight. So it’s the epitome of East Coast elitist cluelessness. That’s not the point. I don’t mean to attack it as such. It’s a valid perspective. Kael clearly foresaw all the evils of the Hollywood blockbuster’s iron grip on the film business – which began immediately after Star Wars hit, and has only gotten worse and worse since she passed away in 2001. True, how one could say that Star Wars is “devoid of wonder” and “without a dream” is quite beyond me – but if you imagine she’s addressing a world where Wrath of the Titans and Battleship are taken seriously, it seems prophetic.
Still. Who would go back and change it? George may have opened Pandora’s box in Hollywood, and may have done a lot since to tarnish his own legacy (another topic that doesn’t need any input from me) but his original achievement is transcendent and lasting.
American mythologist and philosopher Joseph Campbell saw that right away. He enthusiastically argued that the massive universal appeal of Star Wars was due to the way it taps directly into ancient mythical archetypes. These primal patterns inform every story (not to mention every culture and every religion), but Campbell marvelled at the way Lucas purposefully and insightfully reworked powerful elements of mythology into such an accessible form. Since Lucas had relied on Campbell’s classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces to write the screenplay, it was a case of real recognizing real.
Campbell’s theories made their way into the mainstream via the very popular The Power of Myth, an extended TV interview with Bill Moyers conducted at Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch shortly before Campbell died of cancer in 1987. It lent the saga legitimacy and informed future critical appraisals of it. (It’s probably just as well that Joe passed away before the “prequels” were released.)
Comparing Campbell’s views with Kael’s, it’s hard not to see the latter as extremely shortsighted. Campbell taught that “Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.” I doubt he thought Star Wars was lacking in dreams.
Here’s more from The Power of Myth, specifically focused on the meaning of the struggle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and delving into how a living mythology encourages freedom of thought:
CAMPBELL: Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute… Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.
CAMPBELL: Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. [I know, I know, he’s not a robot, but whatever. – Ed.] He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it? It doesn’t help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That’s something else, and it can be done.
MOYERS: By doing what?
CAMPBELL: By holding to your own ideals for yourself and, like Luke Skywalker, rejecting the system’s impersonal claims upon you… When Ben Kenobi says, “May the Force be with you,” he’s speaking of the power and energy of life, not of programmed political intentions.
On a more conventional level of writing about film, here’s an excellent reassessment of the original Star Wars by Colin Fleming in The Atlantic last year that might wash away the bad taste from Kael’s review a bit. Fleming tackles Lucas’ creation not as a myth or a phenomenon, but simply as a film, which is increasingly rare even among fans (especially among fans). With all that’s happened since, it’s hard to remember that Lucas was one of a generation of filmmakers, along with close friends Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who fought in the early ’70s to make American independent film a viable alternative to Hollywood. His naturalistic low-budget ensemble comedy American Graffiti was one of the first films of its kind and can be considered a forebear to the American indie scene. At a certain point Lucas was like the Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson of his day. I’ve always felt that you can still detect that simultaneously fierce and innocent independent spirit in Star Wars all these years later, especially compared to our contemporary ideas of what movie blockbusters are supposed to be like. Fleming nails it:
It’s the one movie out of the six Star Wars movies that you can put alongside The Searchers, Bride of Frankenstein, or The Wizard of Oz as an American film masterpiece. There’s a lot of talk in it, but that dialogue is not deployed merely for exposition, as it often is in the Star Wars films, but rather for fostering a feeling of place and community within the picture. Its overall look is rougher, with less chrome and gloss, and more dirt and ash. But that griminess lends the film a mood that – despite the triumphant climax – infiltrates you, rather than pumps you up. And there’s a beguiling innocence in the filmmaking that might be unmatched in the medium’s history. You get full on visual derring-do, balls-to-the-wall-style, almost as if Lucas and his crew had been granted one chance to do a movie and one chance only…
There are plenty of gutsy cinematic moments. The heartrending shot of Luke staring toward the horizon with the two suns overhead is a perfect example of how an internal emotion like longing can be made visual. We’re talking distances: a boy far removed from what he wants to be, and celestial bodies far removed from where he is presently standing.
But the film reveals its characters’ personalities in more subtle ways, as well. People hang out a lot in A New Hope. Luke and C-3PO get to know each other in a glorified tool shed; Luke and Ben bond in the latter’s hut; space chess and early Jedi training occur simultaneously as our plucky band travels from one spot of adventure to the next. We understand these individuals because Lucas had the courage to simply show them together, during their downtime. Viewed in relation to the rest of the franchise – especially the prequels – A New Hope‘s restraint seems radical.
…And as much as we enjoy being thrilled by on-screen action, and pulling for one side over another, there is nothing like feeling as though you’ve been rendered invisible and inserted into a film, relegated to stand just out of view, but privy to every breath and whisper. That’s what movie magic really is, and few films put it on display better than the first Star Wars.