Friday, February 17, 2012

“Look, It’s Dick Skywalker!”

“[George] Lucas is the directorial equivalent of a prophesied sci-fi man-child who can levitate whole cities but can't master a knife and fork.”
—Matt Zoller Seitz

“George Lucas had spent almost two decades reinventing how movies are made. From special FX to sound design, no one person has contributed more to the techniques of filmmaking.”
—Anghus Houvouras, writing at The Flickering Myth website

“Face it. Star Wars sucked. Even the original movie, which I remember fondly and vastly enjoyed watching, was horribly written — that George Lucas did not have an ear for dialog, and once he drifted away from a simple mythic archetype couldn't put a plot together to save his life, was something that became increasingly evident throughout the series.”
PZ Meyers

“George Lucas is an appalling storyteller in himself, but at the very least he has common tastes, or had when he first banged together the original Star Wars film. The original Star Wars is a hydra-headed pastiche of… 30s adventure serials, 40s war films, 50s Kurosawa films and 60s Eastern mysticism, all jammed into the cinematic crock-pot and simmered in a watery broth made from the marrow of Campbell’s thousand-headed hero. With the exception of Kurosawa, all of this was stuff was in the common culture, and Lucas did a decent enough job spooning out the stew. Star Wars also benefitted from the fact that it emerged at the end of a nearly decade-long string of heavy, dystopic SF-themed films, beginning with Planet of the Apes and gliding down toward Logan’s Run. After a decade of this (and combined with the film’s brain-jammingly brilliant special effects), Star Wars felt like a breath of fresh air.”
John Scalzi

Where does the title of today’s megapost come from?
In conversation with Otto Mannix:
“I was trying to come up with a funny name twist on Darth Vader, to make [Otto Jr.] laugh, but wasn't getting very far, then [Otto Jr.] blurted out,
‘Look, it’s Dick Skywalker!’
It was the winner of the night.”

With the 3-D rerelease of The Phantom Menace (1999; and fuck that prefix bullshit!) as well as the recent release of the George Lucas-produced Red Tails (2012) (review below), The National Film Board of Ivanlandia thinks it’s time to pay some attention to one of the flicks that completely shaped us:
1977’s Star Wars.

I love Star Wars, and I hate Star Wars—it couldn’t be simpler.

First off:
George Lucas didn’t rape my childhood.
I have a pretty good idea of who “raped” my “childhood,” and it wasn’t George Lucas—he’s not that important to me.
But I understand the “Lucas Is Monster” theme—although I feel it’s now a horse that’s been beaten to tartar, and I won’t comment on Lucas’ repeated “tinkering” except to say that I’m firmly in the faction that believes he keeps “changing” the original flicks (now in 3-D! Woo-Hoo!) so as to avoid alimony payments to his ex-wife.

But out of all of Lucas’ Star Wars movies, the only one I truly like—heck, LOVE—is the original 1977 film known as STAR WARS, with no silly numerically incorrect subtitle. The movie I saw on the afternoon of Saturday, May 28, 1977, at the Loew’s Astor Plaza (RIP) was titled “STAR WARS”—nothing else.
And that’s the way I keep it.
(I will only refer to this film as Episode Four when in the presence of genuine children—like Otto Mannix Jr.—as to avoid confusion and/or pointless arguing.)

Star Wars was released May 25, 1977, a Wednesday. The TV ads for Star Wars had premiered on Saturday Night Live the previous weekend (anyway, that’s where my friends and I first saw them), and were the talk of the schoolyard.
Dude, we were psyched.

On Saturday, May 28, 1977, my family caught an afternoon showing of Star Wars at the Loew’s Astor Plaza, off Times Square.
The line went around the block, then the next corner, then the next. We got there at 12:30, thinking we were early for the 2pm show. Ha! We were in time to be in the middle of the line for the 5pm show.

After it opened, every birthday party that year wanted to go see Star Wars.
That summer, I caught the flick 10 times.

It’s tough to describe the incredible mindbomb that Star Wars ’77 was for me—
bringing to life in a fantastic mélange/pastiche/mash-up of all the crazy goofball shit running through my head then, like:
Jack Kirby’s cosmic-theology-technology comic books;
James Bond movies and their supervillains’ secret superscience hideouts;
the special visual effects of 2001, Silent Running and the TV shows of Gerry Anderson;
make-up effects from Star Trek, The Outer Limits, or The Planet of the Apes films;
war movies, lots of war movies;
and tons of other pre-adolescent obsessions, like stop-motion animation and explosions (I used to make my own gunpowder!).

Most of all, Star Wars ’77 was overloaded with eyeball kicks, LOTS of eyeball kicks.

So with excellent pacing, witty-goofy banter and those technically perfect hyperdimensional eyeball kicks, Star Wars ’77 was also the ultimate stoner flick—surpassing 2001 because with Star Wars ’77, if you were really stoned, there was no chance of you being lulled into a nod.

Star Wars ’77 was the perfect drug: it excited the lizard brain, while also neutralizing the higher thought centers, with a phantasmagorical sensory overload—no one was immune to the overwhelming awe inspired by that first shot of the star destroyer zooming overhead; it hit the audience like five hits of LSD zlorching the brain of a college freshman.

[Which is why I think the psychic fallout from Star Wars ’77 helped set the stage for Uncle Ronnie’s 1980 presidential victory:
People were encourage by Star Wars ’77 to “turn off the targeting computer” (logic) and “use your feelings, trust the Force” (go with their guts).

A nationalistic-spiritual vibe that may have been reinforced by The Empire Strikes Back’s release earlier that year (and repeating The Big Lie of “Trust the Force…”)
[And “Force”?!? Wow, how militaristic and pugnacious!]
—I guess Jack Kirby’s previous use of “The Source” superseded using that word—
And look how quickly Ronnie & Crew started using Lucasian terminologies: “The Evil Empire” and “Star Wars technology” most notably.]

These days, it’s easier to see Von Stroheim’s original nine-hour cut of Greed than to see the Star Wars released in 1977. (Georgie can’t stop trying to hurt Marcia! Awwww….)

Now, I haven’t seen Star Wars ’77 since CBS first aired it in 1988 or 1989 (I have seen the 1997 revamp—and was shocked and horrified by it—Han shot first: that’s what makes him cool—’nuff said).

But look at these photos I’ve culled from around the web-o-verse: Star Wars is everywhere, and people love to have fun with it—it’s grown out of its garden, wildly!
And often in a deliciously absurd manner. Disco Pimp Stormtrooper, indeed…

As such, I am totally in love with the fan-created version of Star Wars 1997 that is the STAR WARS UNCUT project.

And that overgrown, gone-native, personal Dadaism is throughout Star Wars Uncut. It’s maximum evidence of total Star Wars cultural infusion/infection—

The brainchild of superduperfan Casey Pugh, Star Wars Uncut, according to Wikipoopia:
“is a 2010 fan film remake of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It is a shot-for-shot recreation of the ‘Special Edition’ version of the film made from 473 fifteen-second segments created and submitted from a variety of participants.”

This fan-made, often miles below shoestring budget (jeez, how many trashcan R2-D2s can there be?) postmodern meta-recontextualization/remix cross-cultural pollination was perhaps the most joyous film-viewing experience I’ve had in a long, long time.
Every frame exuded joy and love and pure unadulterated enthusiasm!
If anything, it is the most exquisite tribute to the original film.
It filled me with hope (“A New Hope,” perhaps?), and,
yep, it even melted my cold, cold heart.
(And it restores Han to shooting first! Good job!)

And the plethora of ideas! Film noir tributes are as likely to show up as three guys in a bathtub reciting dialog to some drag queens performing a “vogue”-ish version of a scene.
From serious and cheap, to expensive, complicated and irreverent!
There were:
Civil War reenactment Star Wars
The Back to the Future DeLorean as the land speeder—
So many different animation styles—
Cats as Jawas—
Princess Leia played by octogenarians as well as newborns—
Paper sandwich bag puppet theater—
The plethora of household items retrofitted to become alien technology is magnificent—
SO MANY inappropriate reactions and behavior (but never more than PG-rated)—
One of my faves was the Doberman Pinscher who played Chewbacca—
And so many more...

Since each "segment" is only 15 seconds, no style EVER wears out its welcome—from genius to moronic, the project is wonderfully egalitarian (and utilitarian, by the looks of it), and it’s awesome how much gender-bending is going on, and how many children, pets and grandparents show up in completely miscast ways.

--Maybe I missed it, but I was slightly disappointed no one took J.Hoberman’s suggestion of the revolutionary act of dropping a reel of Eraserhead into Star Wars—Henry Spencer as Han Solo? The Baby as Darth Vader? The Radiator as the Millenium Falcon?—
but what can you do? Nobody's perfect.

Of course, one could say the whole Star Wars Uncut project bordered on the Lynchian when you have scenes of the planet Alderaan and the Death Star singing WAR’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” to each other; or Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman showing up on the battle station’s bridge as a manic officer.

Routinely silly and goofy, Star Wars Uncut is never disrespectful—and watching it, I felt like I was 12 again.

Honestly, despite any gripes I might have about The Empire Strikes Back (see below), I hope Mr. Pugh & Co. make an “Uncut” fan-version of that flick: I think it would make my head explode.
As for the rest of the Star Wars saga:
The criticism and hatreds towards Return of the Jedi and the prequels is voluminous, so why beat that tartar some more?
However, I am not the biggest fan of The Empire Strikes Back, either—primarily because it’s only two-thirds of a movie!

Yeah, the stuff that is there is great—but I remember sitting in the Loew’s Astor Plaza on Sunday, May 25, 1980—the weekend after it opened; the same place I’d seen Star Wars ’77, but nearly exactly three years later—
and when the credits rolled, I was so disappointed.
(A disappointment magnified by how lame Return of the Jedi turned out to be three years after that—both in comparison and as a continuation.
But by the summer of 1983 (I didn’t bother to see RotJ on its opening weekend),
I was 18, and not much was going to impress me, no sirree—and after the previous summer’s release of Blade Runner and The Thing, RotJ didn’t even come close.))

And the high quality of The Empire Strikes Back’s effects, acting and script only increased the disappointment—and begin my mistrust of Lucas. If the guy’s gonna charge you full price for an unfinished movie, what other treacheries has he got hidden up his sleeve? (Little did I know…)
I would have been more than willing to sit through a three-hour TESB had it been a flick with a genuine conclusion.

Personally, I wish there never were any sequels—the first flick is so good natured and goofy.
Unlike Bond sequels (more of the same, but done well), Star Wars mutated itself right up its own ass and got all Tolkien ‘n’ Campbell ‘n’ Shit.
And I’ve never liked the cliffhanger ending of Empire Strikes Back.

With all that talent (they got Leigh Brackett out of retirement!), it seemed like a real cop-out to end the film when they did. Or not end it, I should say.

(And y’know what? I actually preferred it in Star Wars ’77 when Luke Skywalker’s dad and Darth Vader were still two different people.)

I only saw TESB twice in the theater, the first time on opening weekend—also at the Loew’s, and then several weeks later somewhere else, probably on Brooklyn’s Kings Highway—either the Avalon (RIP)—where I saw The Poseidon Adventure in 1973—
by myself. (Jesus, that’s amazing—I was eight! Or maybe even still seven
Mom dropped me off and picked me up, but I went in by myself and sat by myself.
Children of Today, I laugh at you! Hahaha! Experience and guile are on my side!)

—or else my second screening of TESB was at the Kingsway Theatre (RIP) on the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Kings Highway, where I also saw so much back in the day:
Blazing Saddles (my stepdad and I really bonded over that one), Belushi & Ackroyd’s Neighbors (on Xmas Eve!), First Blood (cut school eary for this one), The Missouri Breaks (a weird western I liked as a kid, and—having somewhat-recently rented it—still like), Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (my stepdad and I REALLY bonded over that one), Return of the Jedi, a gazillion other flicks, as well as
Death Race 2000: Before the theater was triplexed, there was a balcony where you could smoke, and that’s where we sat, so mom could puff away—
She had to be there—the flick was rated “R”—but the trailer on TV the previous Saturday had so enthralled me, I tortured her until she agreed to take me.
I remember getting scared before one of Machine Gun Joe’s kills—I was only 10, and the gore was pretty intense for me then—so I looked away from the screen at the projector’s beam of light in the smoke—first it was white, then as I heard Joe mow somebody down, the beam of light turned red.
When it was white again I looked back at the screen.).

That said, I’ve seen five-and-a-half of the six theatrical films in the series (and Genndy Tartakovsky’s very good—now seemingly disappeared—animated series The Clone Wars (2005)), and coupled with my once-deranged love for the 1977 film (While I was visiting the Dowager Empress of Ivanlandia (hi, mom!) for Xmas, I found my polybagged copy of Marvel Comics Star Wars #1 from 1977, illustrated by Howard Chaykin!),
I figure I’ve got enough geek cred now.

So, even though with my profound and childish sadness over the direction the Star Wars series has taken ever since I plotted out its hundred movie saga in my head during the summer of 1977, I’ve not ignored where it’s been going, even recently visiting its ancillary revenue stream of the spin-off novels.

Of course, I read the novelization of Star Wars in the spring of 1977, and Alan Dean Foster’s sequel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (no longer considered canon, right?) about a year later, but hadn’t paid much attention to the star-cruiser’s worth of mass-market paperbacks churned out about various characters and offshoots of the Lucas-Star-Wars Universe since then.

Credited to George Lucas, the Star Wars novelization was actually written by Alan Dean Foster, based on the film's script—part of his hush-money was points in the film, which made him really rich. Same thing happened to Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz.
The couple had co-written American Graffiti with/for Lucas, and he called them in to polish his original clunky script called “The Star Wars.”
Reportedly, the movie’s charm and warm is all their responsibility. Anyway, their hush-money was a healthy set of “points,” and honestly, the pair hasn’t had to work a day since then. Nor should they have, considering the movies they did make.

Additional BTW: The opening crawl of Star Wars ’77 was reportedly written by Brian De Palma!

Now an aside:
Speaking of the Summer of ’77, while I enjoyed Spike Lee’s overloaded film about that time in NYC, Summer of Sam (1999)—and liked how it touched on the major events of the city that season: Son of Sam; the blackout and subsequent looting and fires; and the Yankees’ stunning record—I was disappointed that a film nerd like Lee would ignore the seismic shift in cinematic culture that Star Wars ’77 unleashed. But that’s just me griping.

All that said, in the past 18 months, I’ve managed to score from the NYPL (love ya!) the books STAR WARS: Death Star and STAR WARS: Death Troopers.
Both of them were fun page-turners, although one is more of a “traditional” space opera; the other a splatterpunk horror entry into the usually more sterile Lucas Universe.

The space opera Star Wars: Death Star is a nerd’s delight.
One of the best books I read in 2010—

Wtitten by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, it’s a
damn fine pulp space opera that’s reminiscent of From Here to Eternity or Titanic (the former I love, the latter I despise).
The mass-market paperback Star Wars: Death Star is a richly detailed, multi-character chronicle of the first and last mission of the gargantuan battle station.

I’m sure when you’re writing a Lucasfilm™ book in the “STAR WARS” universe, certain rules are followed, one of which is a quick pace shifting back and forth between different locations. The other is the appearance of one or two of the canonical characters (Vader and Tarkin in Death Star; special supercool secret guest stars in Death Troopers—I’m not saying because the characters’ showing up was unexpected, to me).

Death Star is a very pleasant surprise, a good example of military space warfare fiction.
Because so many of the characters were new, I had the honest feeling that with a little work regarding the backstory, a fascinating stand-alone post-modern sci-fi novel could be crafted out of it.
Because the 9/11 references are RIGHT FUCKING THERE.
The Death Star was the Empire’s WTC? Luke Skywalker is Osama Bin Laden?
The novel actually makes metaphorical note of the endless wars the US is fighting having some of its soldier characters grumbling about their tours being extended without their consent, with a specific mention of “stop loss.”

The characters are a hodge-podge, none thankfully as cartoonish or grotesque as Jar-Jar Binks, though, and no Mary Sues and cardboard cut-outs like in the films.
The characters in Death Star act as much like real people can act when locked into a space opera from a major franchise.

And we get to see Tarkin bump uglies with a foxy admiral!

Intercut between the bridge and lower decks,
the majority of the book is taken up with mundanities: troopers drill; the flight deck gets alerts; the station gets built (good detail: unafraid of heights, Wookies are like the Native American steelworkers of the Empire); the plans get stolen; Vader broods; there’s a bar, and a lot of drinking gets done (actually, there’s a whole shopping complex, like a mall!); weapons are tested; some characters develop political consciousnesses; people fall in love; a couple of planets are blown up; and there are random acts of terroristic sabotage—at one point, some political prisoners escape, blowing up four chasing TIE fighters in the process, but Vader’s tracking device leads them to the moons of Yavin—
There are always reminders that the station is doomed—and no guarantees that anyone will survive (except Vader, but you knew that already).

It’s kind of neat in a fanboyish way to catch moments of coinciding Star Wars: A New Hope (I give in) timeline (“Did you get that report from the Mos Eisley Spaceport?”), and to be able to read recreations of moments from the film (like the whole “I find your lack of faith disturbing” moment, with before and after)—and you get to spend some time with that Imperial Intelligence analyst who warns Tarkin that there “might” be a hole in the Death Star’s defenses.

A great little companion-piece to Star Wars Uncut, if you ask me.

What became the elephant in the room with STAR WARS: Death Star, though, was whether Luke Skywalker-Bin Laden et al (otherwise known as The Rebellion) ever felt any remorse towards blowing up the Death Star battle station (with its million-plus crewmen/citizens)—
since we see several characters of the novel Death Star, specifically the Imperial gunnery-master in charge of firing the planet-killing superlaser, and some other Imperials, start to feel shame and anguish over being able to kill so many—especially for a cause they’re not really sure is right.

But I always figured that after The Rebellion took over, the purges would make the streets run with blood….Becuase the Rebellion is right, and the Empire is wrong.


Could the Death Star really destroy a planet?

How it works

The Empire needs massive bureaucracy/why not build Death Star?

Death Stars are uneconomical

More cost analysis

Death Star disaster: Inside Job?

Even more a creation of bonghit-infused fanboy speculation is STAR WARS: Death Troopers
Dude! It’s Star Wars Meets Zombies!
Not quite a goofball “Return of the Living Droids,” Death Troopers, for its first half, is an excellent entry into the splatterpunk genre of horror.
Like Death Star, the book could actually be tweaked to become a stand-alone post-modern sci-fi/horror hybrid.

Set on an Imperial prison barge that gets infected by some sort of zombie plague from a derelict star destroyer, the plot runs from madness and gore to madness and gore—and even after the midpoint introduction of two of the most famous characters from the Star Wars iconography—the madness and gore doesn’t stop.
I was actually a little disappointed by the superstars’ showing up—you know nothing can kill them, and the aura of doom and nihilism that had permeated the proceedings beforehand gets diluted. (I’m not saying who these characters are, but I have left a hint…)

Written by Joe Schreiber, the book is a page-turner, and never resorts to the dreaded info-dump—but unfortunately things are left obviously open for a sequel (or prequel), and that feels like a cheat.
However, the first half is a blast, with a warped sense of humor (convicts and zombies on a spaceship can produce a lot of twisted imagery),
and Death Troopers even does super-nerdy things like make refences to Nigel Kneale (a stormtrooper-guard is named Quatermass) and Thomas Pynchon (a chapter is titled “The Whole Sick Crew”).
And let’s face it, even the book’s title is weirdly humoroid: Death Troopers --> Death Troop --> F Troop?

Will I visit the Star Wars biblioverse again soon? Unknown, but who knows?
And why not? After all, I hear K.W. Jeter once wrote a Boba Fett book.
I wonder if the library has it?

Right this very minute in a galaxy too close for comfort…

Red Tails (2012) directed by Anthony Hemingway

This film doesn’t have the gravitas of something that was supposedly a long-germinating personal project, but it often has an epic feel, and the art direction was perfect.
Because the cast is made up of a lot of vets from The Wire (Yo! Bubs!) and the various Law & Order shows, I was very pleased to see them—and thought everybody did a good job acting-wise, in what is essentially a recruiting poster for the USAF.

Remember Michael Schultz? Few do unfortunately, but Red Tails reminded very much of a Michael Schultz film.
More or a journeyman than an auteur,
Schultz didn’t have a flashy or memorable style, but he had themes:
He directed several now-famous “blaxploitation” flicks, like Cooley High, Greased Lightning and Car Wash, that were definitely more than “exploitation.”
His flicks concentrated on the black experience, and often created insular worlds—the flicks aren’t about “white vs. black,” they are more about people’s lives, except they are black people.
In some of Schultz’s films, not much ever happened—but it was awesome because I love watching people do their thing, and that’s what it was. Look at Car Wash, specifically, as well as the really underrated Cooley High, for examples.

While the parts of Red Tails with its souped-up CGI dogfights is nothing like the style of those Schultz films I’m referring to, other scenes, like in the officers’ quarters or in the mess, where we are simply watching people do their thing, most certainly are.

That said, why shouldn’t the African-American population have a jingoist, pro-military propaganda flick? Us Yankee ofays have Flying Leathernecks and Baa Baa Black Sheep, and the limeys have The Battle of Britain, why shouldn’t black Americans have their own patriotic flyboy epic?
Additionally, the fact that this is a “Lucasfilm” should tell you something: you will not be entering Spike Lee or Norman Jewison or Stanley Kramer territory here.
Not social melodrama.
Primarily, this is a flick about SPECTACLE!

Or if I may quote aviation-writer, historian and pilot Stephan Wilkinson,
“None of them seem to understand that the film is for an audience of teenage boys--particularly African-American boys--and not 60-year-old rivet-counters.”

There’s no reason Red Tails shouldn’t be shown regularly on TV during Memorial Day or the Fourth of July from now on—I’d watch it again.

I will say, though, that I can’t help but wonder about George Lucas’ recent conversion to the Cause of the Black Man—especially since there really have never been significant characters of color in Lucas’ films—and the only one that was never introduced due to market dynamics was Don Pedro Colley’s hologram man from 1971’s THX-1138—a movie absolutely RUINED by Lucas’ incessant CGI tinkering, BTW.

Both Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu are “market satisfiers”—Lando created in response to the criticisms leveled at Star Wars ’77 for being lily-white, Windu to prevent the same from happening with The Phantom Menace (and because Samuel L. Jackson was VERY hot at the time)—although Shaft in Space was nothing to the nightmare of Mr. Binks, as well as the Fu Manchu impersonations by the Trade Feds, or the Jew-Bug on Tatooine…

Honestly, George Lucas has no idea what he’s doing, right? He’s in an echo chamber of merchandizing wizards, and his lack of socialization is preventing him from creating anything real anymore. Look at the insanity of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull From Outer Space That Ate Cleveland! Even Uncle Steve says he threw up his hands at that one.
On the other hand, these flicks are kind of like weird extensions of Lucas' subconscious, aren’t they?—and anyway, because he’s paying for it, the movies are now exactly what he wants them to be.

So after I typed up all my notes and poured onto paper all the Star Wars memories rattling around in my brain, I tried to watch the 2007 History Channel documentary Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed
and couldn’t.
In fact, I had to turn it off after about five minutes: too many serious, earnest pontificators spewing hagiography all over Lucas and his creations, giving them much more meaning than they deserve. Besides, anyone who needs Dan Rather to justify their love of sci-fi to them isn’t someone I want around my party…

And now, I will never speak of Star Wars again.


  1. My head is spinning...this may be the first time I've given a shit about Star Wars since The Phantom Menace came out and completely torpedoed any goodwill the series had earned during my childhood. WOW.