Friday 8 February 2013

Blows Against the Empire

(Because the Audience Always Cheers for the Rebels)

Caption: Insert obligatory Leni Riefenstahl joke here.

Yes, K-punk – we know, we know.

Why would anyone be surprised by this? And what’s the purpose of harping about it? Seems obvious enough. But look at how that comments section stacks up. Not that it isn't a valid thesis, but really – it isn’t the sort that’s likely to go over well with that venue's readership, is it?

But maybe it's just a matter of perspective. For instance...

* * * *

When the first Star Wars film was released, I was eleven years old. Some six years later when Return of the Jedi came out, I was about to begin my final year of high school and wasn't feeling any pressing need to rush out and see the latter movie during its premier weekend. Me and a friend had a conversation about it; about what we knew from the adverts and the advanced promotion, and about our waning enthusiasm. What could we expect this time, the third, time around? I offered a list of predictions:
1.  Han Solo would probably get a bad feeling about something,
2.  Darth Vader would at some point proclaim that something else "is now complete",
3.  There would doubtlessly be some short, cute aliens of some new variety or other, and
4. Five bucks says R2D2 gets shot again.
We'd been of the ideal age when the first one - or the fourth one, or whatever - came out in 1977, and we'd been some of the first in line. Not only that, but we then ran out and bought the action figures when they began to arrive on store shelves, collected the several series of baseball-style cards that followed, and even went so far at one point as to buy issues of the dodgy cash-in extrapolatory Marvel Comics series that followed in its wake. But now we were a little older, and - as happens in mid-adolescence - our interests had drifted into other areas. We were "aging out" of what had become the franchise's target demo.

And perhaps we were also becoming prematurely jaded. But fuck it, we also remembered being subjected to that wretched Star Wars Christmas TV special – so who could blame us?

* * * *

Some sixteen year later, a good many other people would get a strong dose of that same "aged out" and left-behind feeling when the Star Wars "prequels" arrived in theaters. By reviving the series for a second trilogy of films, Lucas and company were looking to appeal to a new and younger generation of viewers. What’s more, the studio and its licensees trotted out an extensive array of tie-in merchandise well in advance of the release of The Phantom Menace, more and more people – far more than usual – started to take to the notion that the films were becoming little more than thinly-disguised, mega-inflated toy commercials.

* * * *

One thing about K-punk’s article that sparked some comments-section incredulity: the claim that Lucas was originally slated to direct Apocalypse Now. Yes, that’s true, although perhaps not widely known. Lucas had been Francis-Ford Coppola’s co-instigator when the latter decided to start up his own production company, American Zeotrope. Since the idea for the film started out between Lucas and writer John Milius, Coppola originally had Lucas in mind to direct the film.

The founding of American Zeotrope had been a "New Hollywood"-type upstarts' venture – the result of Coppola and Lucas bristling against the sclerotic and stifling pressures of the major studios. Speaking to an audience at the Rotary Club in his hometown of Modesto, CA in May of 1973, Lucas reputedly said, "The future is going to be with independent filmmakers, ...It's a whole new kind of business. We're all forging ahead on the rubble of the old industry." He would later decree:

"The studio system is dead. It died fifteen years ago when the corporations took over and the studio heads suddenly became agents and lawyers and accountants. The power is with the people now. The workers own the means of production."

But for various reasons, Lucas lost interest in Apocalypse Now, drifting off (after the dismal reception that greeted the Zeotrope-produced THX-1138) to make American Graffiti, and eventually pitching his dream project that would become Star Wars to various producers.

Both films, as many have noted are products of both personal and cultural nostalgia. American Graffiti was a winsome revisitation of the 1950s, to a prosperous and supposedly more carefree time before the turbulence of the 1960s; whereas Star Wars' basis in the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of Lucas’s own childhood. If they seem – when compared with problem like Apocalypse Now or Coppola's The Conversation – as "escapist," audience-pleasing fare, then it was by design. On his decision to walk away from Apocalypse Now in favor other projects, Lucas would later say:

"Before American Graffiti, I was working on basically negative films – Apocalypse Now and THX, both very angry. ...We all know, as every movie in the last ten years has pointed out, how terrible we are, how wrong we were in Vietnam, how we have ruined the world, what schmucks we are and how rotten everything is. It has become depressing to go to the movies. I decided it was time to make a movie where people felt better coming out of the theater than when they went in. I became really aware of the fact that the kids were really lost, the sort of heritage we built up since the war had been wiped out since the '60s and it really wasn't groovy to act that way any more, now you just sort of sat there and got stoned. I wanted to preserve what a certain generation of Americans thought being a teenager was really about – from about 1945 to 1962."

Lucas didn't want to be dark or angry, apparently; and just wanted audiences to enjoy themselves. Speaking to American Film magazine in 1977, he would say something very similar about his idea behind making Star Wars, couching it once again in some socio-cultural context, complete with even more dubious assertions...

"Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realized that there was another relevance that was even more important – dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps – that you could sit still and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures. Once I got into Star Wars, it struck me that we had lost all that – a whole generation was growing without fairy tales."

So he did that first Star Wars film for us – for my generation. For me, effectively. Even though I know I already had a highly developed and active imagination as a child, and – to my recollection – was in no danger of going directly from The Six Million Dollar Man and Marvel Comics to stealing hubcaps or some other form of juvenile delinquency.

Sure, Lucas's remarks above might sound pretty self-aggrandizing, but I don't doubt he was speaking in earnest. Because ultimately, all he did was what any savvy artist or entertainer or businessperson aims to do. That being: You spot some gap or vacancy in a market or the culture at large – look for something that’s missing, for a need or a desire that's not being met. Look for a stimulus that's lacking and that people might be hungry for, and to then try and make or provide something that might satisfy that hunger. And judging from the response he received, he was pretty astute in sizing up the situation.1

* * * *

Fair enough. And why not? Why try and pursue a certain course if your heart's not in it, or be something that you're not sure you want to be?

And admittedly, there were plenty of "bummer" films on the market during the first half of the decade. Save the Tiger, The Last Detail, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarecrow, The King of Marvin Gardens, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (and any number of Altman’s other films), Carnal Knowledge, Straight Time,...a comprehensive list would be long one, and is too long to list here.

Yet somehow the remark about "how wrong we were in Vietnam" has a somewhat hollow ring to it. It's a moot point. Reason being, the American film industry had avoided the topic altogether during the years in question. It was a controversial, polemicized, impassioned topic that it was almost totally off limits – guaranteed "box-office poison."

* * * *

Credit: Thanks, Evan.

Despite all the "New Hollywood" that was afoot, the film industry was indulging in some of its own nostalgia, revisiting its former Golden Age. There were the occasional remakes of old blockbusters, such as A Star is Born and King Kong. But mainly there were the two installations of That’s Entertainment!, with their blizzard of complied clips of the highlights from MGM musicals from decades past.

In the midst of the film industry eating itself, one that came and went with little notice was the 1976 comedy Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood. Satirizing the film industry of the 1920s, the film sported cameos by numerous stars from previous eras; and as a running gag throughout there was Bruce Dern as an aspiring producer, enthusiastically pitching ideas for movies that might save the financially-struggling studio, only to be waved off by the studio chief each time. Proposals like: "I've got just the thing we need – how a movie about a big shark that terrorizes a peaceful seaside resort town?" Or, "Brace yourself for this one: A little girl...gets the devil!"

* * * *

But something about Lucas's comment concerning Vietnam rings a little hollow. Mainaly because there really weren’t any films about Vietnam until well after the war was over – until after the first Star Wars movie had been released, actually. There'd pretty much been one major film – John Wayne’s The Green Berets. And that one hardly fit the description of what Lucas was describing.

By fiml critic J. Hoberman’s account, there had been a fair number of films about Vietnam during the late '60s and early '70s, but only the sort that dealt with it obliquely or allegorically (e.g, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch). Pauline Kael would say in the early '70s that there had been a number of movies in recent years that had at least "felt like Vietnam" on some oblique or indirect level. But actually set in Vietnam – dealing with combat or the war itself? Not so much, no. At best you got a couple of generally anti-war themed black comedies (Catch-22, M.A.S.H., Slaughterhouse-5) which were based on recent semi-countercultural bestselling novels, which were in turn based in experiences from earlier – and uncontroversial – wars.

Or that was the case until 1978, almost three years after the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Two films appeared that year, each done directors associated with New Hollywood. The first being Hal Ashby's Coming Home. Close on its heels came Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. American critics at the time praised both movies, but many were deeply enamored with the latter.2  Apocalypse Now was originally slated to come out in 1978, as well; but it didn't. Its release date was pushed back into the following year. Coppola had held a test screening of the film for a limited audience, and in response to the audience's negative reaction, decided to withhold it from the market for the sake of extensive re-editing.

* * * *

In the end, we’re all far better off that Coppola – and not Lucas – ended up making Apocalypse Now. No disputing that.

* * * *

One thing I noticed years ago from talking to younger friends was that it’s assumed the films Apocalypse Now and The Shining were always regarded as undisputed classics – great films of their era. After all, each film has yielded its share of memorable and often-recited quotes, have been winkingly referenced on The Simpson and whatnot. But no, this wasn’t always the case. In fact, both films were treated quite harshly by critics and audiences when they were first released.

In the case of Apocalypse Now, rumors about the fiasco of the film's production had been circulating in the entertainment press – about how Coppola had gone off the rails, over schedule and over budget, all but lost control of the project. During that time, the movie became the topic of all sorts of wary speculation, and would become the brunt of a number of jokes upon its eventual release. Critical reception was, at best, mixed; with a majority of the opinion falling on the negative side of the scale. By the reckoning of its detractors, the film was a long, bloated, indulgent, and at times nearly unintelligible mess – a ludicrous waste of $31 million, and the studio really should’ve reined the director in earlier in the process.

Stanley Kubrick's screen adaptation of The Shining would appear some nine months later, just in time for the 1980 summer season. The reception was, by my memory, overwhelmingly hostile. Overly-long, boring and poorly-paced, indulgent and misguided, bafflingly miscast and far from frightening were the common complaints, with several critics declaring it the worst film of the year.3  Between the two films, one sometimes got the feeling that people were poised to hate them before they'd even been screened; and at times it seemed that certain critics were taking genuine delight it tearing each to shreds.

With each film, it seemed like a large number of people were poised to hate it in advance. What I was too young to be aware of at the time was that I was watching a backlash unfold. Earlier in the decade, moviegoers had welcomed a new generation of filmmakers, master storytellers whose works would define the times. And soon enough, a number of these directors were given the means and the budgets to tell bigger and more epic stories. But in a short span of time – during those years of the decade’s middle stretch – viewers had been treated to the likes of Jaws, then Saturday Night Fever, and eventually Star Wars. And they discovered what they’d been missing – big, thrilling productions that could more inclusively appeal to large audiences.4  And that shift in attitude manifested itself in a wave of apathy and animus for many of the important, widely-heralded American filmmakers of the several preceding years. To a considerable degree, it was as if a majority of the population had decided: "Enough with the auteurs and their long, heavy, self-important epics and Big Cinematic Statements! How about entertaining us for a change?"

The pinnacle for all of this was, of course, Michael Cimino’s highly-anticipated frontier epic Heaven's Gate. Costing nearly $44 million and running upwards to four hours, the film was universally pilloried upon its release in the autumn of 1980. I myself can remember critics Robert Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing the film on their PBS TV show. After showing an excerpt from the film's climactic siege sequence, both critics leaned back in their seats with exasperation, crying, "Bah! Completely incomprehensible – you can't even tell what the hell’s going on in that scene! This entire film’s a muddle and a bore!" Ebert would later describe the film in print as "an example of wretched excess." As you would expect, barely anyone went to go see it, and the movie was soon pulled from theaters.

* * * *

Heaven’s Gate would quickly earn the reputation as the Biggest Flop of All Time, and result in the bankruptcy of its studio, United Artists. But Cimino's film would eventually fare better many years later, and was re-released on DVD this past year. From a recent write-up in the New Yorker, critic Richard Brody noted the "grandeur" and "breathtaking energy" of some of the film's sequences, particularly in the scene of a "deadly vortex of an encircling cavalry charge." Ironically, he was referring to the very scene that I remember Ebert and Siskel singled out for severe punishment on their program.

* * * *

Returning to where I started: I couldn't quite get the point of K-punk’s spiel. Maybe it was I felt because his argument was – for the most part – pitched to the wrong readership; but mainly because the core of his argument is one that I realized myself many years ago, and have since taken as a given.

So what point do I have to offer in return? Not much of one, probably none. Truth be told, it’s been over 25 since I was inclined to give a shit about Star Wars. Sure, when the first one arrived back in 1977, I was at the ideal age for such a thing. In fact: I fucking loved it. As did a lot of people – not just kids my own age, but most adults, too. But whatever, that was a long time ago. The one thing we can acknowledge it that when George Lucas created the first Star Wars movie, he was creating a universe – one of his own making, and one that would provide him with unimaginable mileage throughout his career. And at the same time, without knowing it, he created another universe. Because after the first film proved such a smashing success, we’ve been living with the film and entertainment industry that followed in its wake.

* * * *

And about what’s followed in its wake – the perpetual churn of big-budget, glam-strewn, special-effects laden blockbuster fare that has become the thing Hollywood (re)oriented itself years ago and has unflaggingly stuck with ever since?

Thinking about it now, I can’t help but think of the legacy of Heaven’s Gate, and detect a twinge of irony. After all, lately I’ve been hearing some of the discussion about certain recent films – some critics and viewers starting to complain about long certain types of films have become lately. About how they stretch out unnecessarily, padded out with extended and visually-complicated battle scenes made possible by rococo paroxysms of the latest in CGI technology, now frequently clocking in close to the three-hour mark. Some critics shruggingly offer that this is because the studios reckon that more is more, and that means that more is better, and that every one of these things is be given the epic treatment and trotted out as if it were a major culture-defining, life-altering event.

With that in mind, one can't help wondering if this sort of thing might reach its own tipping point, might prompt its own backlash. Perhaps it will, and the studios will respond by exercising a little restraint, trimming off lots of excess for the sake of reducing a film’s duration (and hopefully ridding of several plot-holes in the process). That’s pretty much the most, in the way of change, that anyone could expect to come of such a scenario. Other than that, it’ll just be business as usual.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1.  The cited quotes from Lucas can be found in Andreas Killen’s book 1973 Nervous Breakdown. Killen, in turn, extracted the quotes from Dale Pollock’s Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas (1983), and Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998). Killen goes the extra yard by relatedly (and in this context, pertinently) citing the final words of Pauline Kael's 1973 review of the film The Last American Hero. Discussing what she termed a prevalent "defeatist" attitude in many American films of early 1970s, the closing sentences of Kael’s review are perhaps quoting more fully:
"We will never know the extent of the damage movies are doing to us, but movie art, it appears, thrives in moral chaos. When the country is paralyzed, the popular culture may tell us why. After innocence, winners become losers. Movies are probably inuring us to corruption, the sellout is the hero-survivor of our times." [Emphasis added.]
2.  But as a number of people have pointed out over the years, The Deer Hunter isn't "about" Vietnam much at all, either – at least not in any literal or factual sense.

3.  It could be argued that Kubrick primed that pump himself just a few years earlier with his previous film, the long and tepidly-received Barry Lyndon.

4.  The story had it that Saturday Night Fever ranked as one of critic Gene Siskel's favorite movies of all time. He liked the film so much, that he bought the white polyester suit that John Travolta wore in the movie at an auction a couple years later, and kept it on display in a glass case at his home for years thereafter.


David K Wayne said...

Yes - more movies!

Regarding your last point: Hollywood is already trimming the fat drastically. The power of 'super-agents' has rapidly gone downhill since 2008. 'Package casting' is out, so despite the bad casting we still get, it isn't due to CAA etc. telling producers who they have cast in supporting roles to secure a big name (arguably the big reason casting got so bad since the 90s). An epic like 'Lincoln' would have cost double, three times as much to make five years ago. Major stars are accepting less in salaries (not all, but still..). Plus there's the competition of 'quality TV' making a big splash on the DVD market. Sure, there was games and porn stealing away attention - which they solved by borrowing from stylistically. But the demand for story won't go away. They need to bring adults back to movies - the young simply don't have as much disposable income now, especially for the wider 'night out' cinema-going is designed to be part of.

This is not to say that movies are getting 'better' - may be too late after three decades of relentless pinball narratives. Just that entertainment markets are more crowded than ever. It's a rare 'event' that can command enough mass attention in a world where you can watch the Superbowl on the bus. My guess is that they're rehashing so many old, old franchises not so much because of 'lack of originality' but that they want to make audiences feel forever at home wherever they go. The continuity of trash you absorb as a toddler right through to middle-age - like bypassing the pain and tribulations of 'leaving home' and having to decide on your own entertainment. Hollywood as your eternal babysitter, or as Adorno put it: Wolf as Grandmother. Lucas was on to this in the 70s, and very open about reviving the childhood comforts he pined for. The 'movie brats' should have really been called the 'TV brats'. A generation raised by TV had no problem connecting with the latch-key kids of the 70s and 80s.

Greyhoos said...

Good points, all, Herr Kasper. Especially with those final remarks.

> "They need to bring adults back to movies - the young simply don't..."

Right, the dwindling returns of the "mall movie" premiere weekend. And there's the other target-audience -- the foreign/overseas market. Which I gather Hollywood has been consciously tailoring movies to for a good while; because the amount money that goes into the things is so huge, there's no way to make a solid return/profit in the domestic market alone. So more big-budget films are put together with the broadest audiences in mind. Meaning: Stick to basic story formulae and conventions, dialogue that's simple and direct and kept to a necessary minimum, and with the whole thing padded out with lots of action and special effects. (Or at least that was the industry trend for a long while -- dunno if that's changed in recent years.) It's kind of like the equivalent of what's commonly taught in most U.S. journalism schools -- in order to get the information across to the broadest possible readership, never write above an eighth-grade reading level.

Phil Knight said...

What I like about Star Wars is how its production and release tracked the development of the Prudhoe Bay oil field:

Star Wars released May 25 1977, first production from Prudhoe, June 20 1977.

It was Prudhoe Bay that made Reaganism possible by creating enough price margin to break the OPEC stranglehold. Cheap Oil = America rides again = no more Post 'Nam movie pessimism.

It's as if Lucas could sense what was going to happen....

LBP Stunts Chicago said...

Good readingg your post