A Good Day, Not a Dark Day, for Film

I still look forward to seeing Patrick Read Johnson’s feature 5-25-77 about his personal experience visiting Industrial Light and Magic, seeing a preview of Star Wars, and anticipating the official release day when others would get to know what he did, that cinema may have changed.  I reject the theory or accusation put forward by Peter Buskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and other sources blaming Jaws or Star Wars for a “blockbuster mentality” that killed brief golden era of the late Sixties and into the Seventies (Raging Bull being a 1980 film).  The theory goes that without Star Wars (released on 32 screens apparently, or at least under 40, with Fox coercing some exhibitors into accepting it or not getting to book The Other Side of Midnight which they wanted) there would be no hard cut to Hollywood only wanting big tent pole movies.  That spin overlooks the fact that a) Everything from Gone with the Wind to Abbott and Costello movies were moneymaking ventures, b) smaller movies and underdogs and sleeper hits as well as darker themes were still being made long beyond May of 1977, c) corporations from the oil, soda pop, and wine cooler industries were taking over the studios in the Eighties, and d) whatever artistic merit Apocalypse Now or Heaven’s Gate and various other films might have had the indulgence of directors frightened a lot of money people and the era where Pauline Kael for example elevated directors (even perhaps over-rated ones like Altman, sorry) was over.  Not because of Star Wars.

First generation Star Wars fans (according to a former Disney executive who disclosed this in a radio interview and lit up youtube recently) are considered by the current regime of Lucasfilm – particularly Kathleen Kennedy – part of a disposable demographic:  fifty-year-old white males.  So instead, the effort it so attempt to lure a new built in audience that frankly doesn’t exist.  My own ilk loves the Original Trilogy and likes The Mandalorian as a close approximation of the tone.  By 1997 we were complaining of changes made in the Special Edition releases, which were further tweaked for VHS, and then for DVDs and finally for Blu Ray and then Disney + adding Greedo’s line, “McKlunkey.”  1999 was also declared a death of Star Wars because The Phantom Menace was a dramatic mess with elements like Jar Jar that played only to children and lowered the score card for Star Wars as a series.  Under Disney, there was raised expectations, followed by mixed feelings, and for many of us a heart-breaking problem with leadership and priorities.  The newer films look slick and have a generally snappy pace but are also burdened by Kathleen Kennedy’s misguided ideology.  “If you don’t like Luke Skywalker, stay away from running Star Wars, please,” would have been great advice before it was too late.

Shaft (2019) honors its brand in terms of tone and continuity, even more than the 2000 iteration John Singleton did.  It could cast a critical and sarcastic eye on the safe space generation without apology.  Too bad the movie did not make much money.  There are so few examples of a follow-up not just being used as a counterfeit and a front for the transitory moods of the moment.

When you see Poltergeist (1982), you take for granted Beatrice Straight as an academic at a university and a parapsychologist.  When you see The Andromeda Strain (1971) you accept Katie Reid as a scientists, and in Dreamscape we accept Kate Capshaw as a scientist.  We might withhold benefit of the doubt from Denise Richards as nuclear scientist Dr.  Christmas Jones in 1999’s Bond offering The World is Not Enough but not because of her gender.  But when Paul Feig made a big deal about inspiring little girls to become scientists because of his remake of Ghostbusters in 2016, it was a head-scratcher.  Ostensibly progressive ideas did not begin current year.  My generation grew up watching Norman Lear sit-coms, as well as Mary Tyler Moore and the MASH series.  We don’t have to be lectured on liberal think by the radicalized extremes of the day.  Feigbusters might inspire little girls to become con artists exploiting a belief in ghosts, or to be a transit worker who just wants to hang out with supposed scientists.  Having fancier equipment to “kill” ghosts and more proton streams, and being able to do cartwheels while zapping ghosts doesn’t make for a better movie.  Sony and anyone associated with that movie, as well as talk show hosts, played up a gaslighting of fans for whom a stigma was invented.  A few years later, as we anticipate Jason Reitman’s reinstatement of the original continuity and ignoring the attempted reboot, the sour grapes are now coming from the other end of the spectrum.  Good.  I wish only the best for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, as the new movie is called.   Even if it has been pushed to next March instead of this summer due to Coronavirus.  One hopeful theory bandied about is that the next wave of cinema will stop patting itself on the head for its messaging and just make better movies that put story and character over side-shade and ciphers that insult the audience.

Star Wars was a practical essay on cinema that had preceded it, greater than the sum of its parts, and just fun to watch.  It also served as a primer for its components and inspirations.  We might not sit through every black and white Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serial, but we may give a chance to The Hidden Fortress or The Dam Busters, whether or not those movies play as well for young people of today as they did for George Lucas.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was also a visual essay summarizing the development of cinema and the best if can offer, coming from the fanboy whimsy of Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan and the best director in the world, Steven Spielberg.  Tarantino’s films like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and Django Unchained for example are also a culmination of one person’s broad exposure to and love of movies.  It is all about the love of movies and the transmission of that either overtly or subtly to the audience.

Right now the best way to watch the original trilogy is the De-specialized editions, which I believe may only be available as torrents. Had the bonus discs of the original trilogy been full DVD quality when they were made available with the second release of the Special Editions, we might have been satisfied to have that apparently laserdisc sourced version and not a low pixel dub that was designed to steer us toward playing the special editions.  Both Star Wars (later A New Hope) and Return of the Jedi have May 25 as the anniversary of release.  The Empire Strikes Back was May 17, 1980.

I like both iterations of the animated Clones Wars shows, and Rebels had some quite good episodes. Even though Revenge of the Sith is the least weak of the prequels, I have no feeling for that trilogy.  And the more I learn about the fix being in for the Disney era and how many things might have been so much better if, say, Dave Filoni had been put in charge of Lucasfilm instead of Kennedy, it makes the heart sink. People say Kennedy knows the “business” part of the job…. yet, once your source of movie funding is Disney and you only have to get your budgets from that one place just how much “business” acumen do you need?

Star Wars was like a drug and I kept going the the cinema as a regular habit attempting to chase the dragon of whatever magic I had felt from those films from 1977 to 1983.  The rest of cinema benefited from that because I saw most movies through the Eighties and Nineties at the height of my film going, and I could be the 13 year old going to On Golden Pond or 14 year old going to see Sophie’s Choice. Liking Star Wars did not limit anyone’s taste or interest but goosed a faith in the craft and an appreciation for anything well done.