© Wiley Miller 2011
So, you'll find my report on my recent involvement with the Blu-Ray launch of Scarface here. I was asked to volunteer my opinions on the film in general and director Brian De Palma in particular ... Because I'm apparently an expert on him. I wrote a book about him in a previous life, you see. In fact, here's the chapter of that book on Scarface. Read this then you too will be a Scarface connoisseur! Each chapter was structured so as to, essentially, list the common elements - such as De Palma's use of colour or voyeurism ... Techniques and themes which appear again and again in his work.
The Plot: Arriving in America as part of Castro’s evacuation of Cuba’s prisons, Tony Montana is already a hardened criminal. He sees The States as a chance for him to realise his ambition to have “what’s coming to me ... the world and everything in it”.
Soon he has negotiated his way into Frank Lopez’s drug business. Progressively, his arrogance growing at a similar pace to his paranoia, he builds his own massive drugs empire but betrays and executes so many of the people around him that he finds there is nothing left for him to do – but defend himself.
After Blow Out, De Palma decided it was time for a change of direction again. He had spent more than ten years honing his visual grammar skills. It was time to put his Hitchcock phase behind him and move more in the direction of the Hollywood mainstream and the financial security that offered.
Then the explosive script for Scarface came along. Written by Oliver Stone, the film would need a director unafraid of controversy, as it would doubtless attract criticism for its depictions of race, organised crime, drug abuse and, most of all, violence. This wasn’t the sort of script a Hollywood mainstreamer could really do justice to. But De Palma, who was already perceived as a Hollywood outsider – well, he had nothing to lose.
|Like Michael Caine - everyone has a Tony Montana impersonation!|
Violence: One hardly need mention the violence in Scarface. The chainsaw in the bathroom sequence was probably the one scene which haunted the censorship-debate throughout the eighties, only to be replaced after some eight years by Reservoir Dogs’ ear-cutting scene. In common with most moments of De Palmanian violence, it involves white walls being sprayed with a substantial amount of red blood.
Voyeurism: During Tony’s show-wedding, we get the first glimpse of his paranoia. He has bought himself a palatial mansion, and surrounded it with surveillance cameras.
The final days of Tony’s life – his time as Nebuchadnezzar, conquering lord of all Babylon; begins with a close-up of his six security monitors, which he watches morbidly. He admits that he spends 12% of his profits on surveillance.
Ironically, when the cameras warn him of the approach of Sosa’s vengeful army, he is too wrapped-up in his own incestuous rage and self-pity to even glance at the monitors which have cost him so much.
Colours: Colour is more conspicuously important in Scarface than in any of De Palma’s previous films – even Sisters. The original movie poster was a striking black and white image, cut down the middle so the background was pure black on one side, pure white on the other. De Palma hired Ferdinando Scarfiotti as ‘visual consultant’ for this film and, I suspect, orchestrating its careful, thematic use of colour, would be one of his primary responsibilities.
|In a DePalma film, the badguys often wear white!|
Rebenga, Castro’s old torturer who Tony has to kill to secure his freedom, is dressed all in white. The white-is-evil correlation will never be more clearly defined than in this film where, of course, the Bolivian marching powder which fuels all of the chaos, is pure white. Miami Vice, the definitive American television show of the eighties also flooded the screen with bleached and designer whites, behind which untold corruption took place.
When Tony kills Rebenga, he is wearing a red T-shirt – the colour of blood and transition.
In this film, De Palma introduces the colour orange into his regular palette, especially in connection with sunsets. Miami is first seen as an idyllic sunset which is, in fact, painted on the side of a building. A similar painted sunset decorates the wall of the hotel room where the drugs buy goes so disastrously wrong. Later, when Tony makes his demand to meet Frank, and thereby force his way onto the ladder of success, he does so against the background of a real, vividly orange sunset.
Frank’s palatial home, which is both evil (it is bought with drug money) and transitional (it gives Tony his first taste of immense wealth), has stark white walls with conspicuous red details – carpets, ornaments, etc. Frank wears a white suit. His office, by contrast, is black with red highlights – and a painted orange sunset running all down one wall.
The first time we see Tony snort coke, which is very possibly his first time, it is given to him by Elvira, who is dressed all in white. Fuelled by the drug, he promptly attacks her.
By the time Tony has become a big man in his own right, and starts throwing money at his mother – he has a white suit of his own, worn with a contrasting black shirt. This is the colour of his power and corruption – much later, when he is powerless and the corruption has taken him over completely, his clothing will be the reverse of this – a black suit with white shirt.
When Tony goes to Columbia and makes the deal which will set him up in his own business – he wears the empowering red shirt. The Babylon, the night-club he comes to look upon as his own, has red doors. The bent cop – Bernstein – he meets there, wears the obligatory white suit; whilst his first show-down with his promiscuous sister, is in one of the Babylon’s toilets – all gleaming in white, with black marble fixtures. The black and white locale is particularly ironic, since his motives for keeping Manny and Gina away from each other are never less than grey.
Once Tony has acquired his money, power and woman, the colour-scheme of his life loses the white, and runs more towards the blacks and reds. More befitting a man-made hell! More indicative of the fact that his ambition has about run out. All that is left for him now – is violence.
The gallery in which he hangs the portrait of himself and his wife, has very deliberate red walls. Implying that their marriage is all about power, not about love. The carpets and corridors around Tony’s office are red, whilst the walls and his throne are jet black!
When Tony returns to Colombia, to Sosa’s for a council of war, they meet in a room of red walls! So now we know from where the violence come.
As his last ragged breath leaves him, Tony falls forward and explodes into a final gush of red blood, as he falls into his own fountain. The red aggression of his ambition brought him all the money and power he wanted, and the red of aggression finally collected the bill.
Doubles: As Tony begins to show the first signs of breaking under the strain of his own ambition, he sits in his mirrored booth – alone – his own head reflected back at himself from several different angles, illustrating that he is beginning to live in a world which requires him to develop new skills, and new personality traits. The fact that these heads are all turned away from him, possibly implying that he isn’t capable of this much transformation. He will remain a barely-literate thug.
Slow/Fast-Mo: When Tony’s career takes an upswing, time flies by in the form of a montage. We see hints of Tony’s enormous wealth, and his spectacular wedding to Elvira. It is not without significance that we don’t actually see them happy together.
As so often happens with moments of extreme pain – De Palma extends the moment when Tony learns the truth about Manny and Gina, by reducing the sound to the bare minimum (the gun shots), and slowing the motion down. As Gina hurls herself down stairs, he shoots Manny, point-blank.
The next slow-motion sequence also involves guns and stairs – as Tony engages in a ferocious shoot-out, with his military-style heavy-ordnance.
Split Screen: In his office he has six security monitors, watching different sides of his house. In his humongous bathroom, he has five television screens, offering him five simultaneous distractions from his own life.
Long Takes/Tracking Shots: When Tony is caught in a sting operation, laundering vast quantities of money, the scene continues as a protracted take, all under the watchful eye of the camera hidden in the clock.
When his marriage is finally falling apart, along with any vestige of self-control, Tony rants at the diners in the prestigious restaurant: “You need me ... I’m the badguy ... so, say goodbye to the badguy ...” Self pity is rarely so ugly as when practised by the successfully ambitious.
|The 1932 version - With Paul Muni's career-defining turn as Tony Camonte and Ann Dvorak as his sister.|
References: Tony begins by explaining that he learned to speak English by watching gangster movies “Humphrey Bogart ... James Cagney”. So, in the film’s opening moments, De Palma pays tribute to the 30s Hollywood genre which, ironically, was about to revitalise his career. During this same sequence, one of the unseen cops asks Tony “Do you like to dress up like a woman?” His denial underscores that we have moved on from Dressed To Kill into new, less psychologically complex territory.
Tony and Frank sit in a mirrored booth in The Babylon night-club. De Palma will employ similar booths for Farrow in Bonfire Of The Vanities and for Carlito in Carlito’s Way.
Although I’m not sure if it counts as a direct reference to Hitch – the master of suspense’s movies were known, among many other things, for their unconvincing back-projections. Here, the driving scenes are always acted out against obvious back-projections.
One of the few specific details which this film carries over from the 1932 version – is the sign saying ‘The World is Yours’ at the foot of which, Tony will eventually die.
The car-chase, with the bomb under the lead car, and the children playing in it, combined with the dodgy back projection, puts one in mind of the child on the bus with the bomb in the birdcage in Hitch’s Sabotage (1936).
|Lucas' portrait by, of course, the incomparable Drew Struzan|
This piece was written immediately after seeing Phantom Menace for the first time - when having an entirely CGI character was revolutionary ... If annoying.
It's twelve years since I stood in the queue in Leicester Square ... Surrounded by people dressed as Darth Maul - a character they apparently loved but knew little about. Twelve years that have seen Lucas name dragged down and kicked around by an world wide web full of commentators. I like to think I got there first. This piece exploring the artistic emptiness at the heart of what became the prequel trilogy. It was published in Model Mart magazine, which published a Star Wars special to tie-in with the release of Phantom Menace and its accompanying avalanche of merchandise.
The first half is a Story So Far resume of Lucas' career for those who had forgotten or didn't know (it had been seventeen years since the previous Star Wars movie) and the second half was my consideration on that damn film
I stand by many of the conclusions I pre-emptively drew ... Now you can decide for yourself:
|Have camera, will travel ...|
Those lazy summer days were a great time for George, a memorable time, spent cheering on his filmic heroes in run-down old flea-pit cinemas, or dreaming of the days when he would be old enough to fly hot-rod cars at break-neck speeds down the county’s long, straight roads. At eighteen, he crashed one such car and spent three-months in hospital; plenty of time to evaluate what little life had had, and what more he wanted.
That car-crash sent a metaphorical pebble rolling which would, over the next thirty-seven years, turn into a cultural avalanche none of us can now ignore. That car-crash caused George Lucas to enrol at film-school, and the listless dreamer became a driven story-teller.
He was an intellectual, troubled by dark and complex ideas that, in turn, became dark and complex films. This interview - I have linked to in the past - perfectly represents who he was in these early days and where he was artistically. This is a time when the ideas that became Star Wars had hardly formed in his mind.
He was an intellectual, troubled by dark and complex ideas that, in turn, became dark and complex films. This interview - I have linked to in the past - perfectly represents who he was in these early days and where he was artistically. This is a time when the ideas that became Star Wars had hardly formed in his mind.
I only mention all of this because it is crucial, when trying to assess his ‘Star Wars’ films, to understand that those early-years experiences have stayed with Lucas, to this day, and his exploration of them has had a profound effect on American cinema over the last quarter-century.
The world-altering phenomenon of ‘Star Wars’ really began with Lucas’ previous movie ‘American Graffiti’ (1973), a film which looked back across a decade to 1962, a time before the Kennedy assassination, before the disaster of Vietnam, before campus riots, to a time when America could still consider itself innocent and pure.
|I suppose anyone's memories of 1963 would be a bit fuzzy now!|
The tale was little more than a romanticised recollection of Lucas’ own adolescence, to a time when having the greasiest hair, the dumbest blonde and the fastest car were all-important ingredients in the acquisition of ‘cool’. It even featured the hot-rod race and the crash which had played such a key part in his own life.
|Charting the seismic changes in America in just ten years ... With this marvellous poster by Mad Magazine's Mort Drucker.|
Innumerable exploitation films of the fifties and sixties had focussed on these young, nomadic people and their live-fast-die-young attitude, but ‘Graffiti’ was the first American film to look back at this time with affection, to invite the audience to think: “Remember when we did that!?” The film was pure, unapologetic nostalgia, and the post-Kennedy, post-Vietnam, post campus-riots population lapped it up, desperate for something stable to cling to in a rapidly changing world.
Earning fifty times its production cost, ‘Graffiti’ became, proportionally, the most successful film ever made and inspired a national taste for nostalgia exemplified by the TV series ‘Happy Days’. To misappropriate Robin Williams’ phrase: If you claim to remember the sixties, they were probably the seventies re-runs!
‘Graffiti’s’ success made George a millionaire, and elevated him to be one of the most influential young film-makers in seventies Hollywood. The Powers That Be were prepared to listen to any idea he came up with, however ludicrous. So his next idea was to venture even further into his own past, back to a childhood when his major distraction was the Saturday afternoon serials.
|How can you NOT love Flash!?|
Total madness. Yet, even in these early years, Lucas’ skill as a salesman far outweighed his artistic gifts. The Powers That Be at Twentieth Century Fox looked at the mountain of money their competitor Universal had made out of ‘American Graffiti’, and decided that, as he had already made one hit against all the odds, they would roll the dice.
‘Star Wars’ generated income unimagined until that time, and bombarded popular culture with its influence. ‘Star Wars’ memorabilia remains the most collectable, most hotly fought-over media-related merchandise there is, leaving ‘Star Trek’ a distant second. Magazines like ‘Starlog’, ‘Starburst’ and ‘Cinefex’ were born or grew to prominence in the wake of ‘Star Wars’ - catering for the audience’s new-found passion for sf films. The studios were not slow in pouncing on this new-found market.
|The original and still the best - the British poster by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt|
At college, the older Lucas had been introduced to more mature influences – English Lit. gave him T.H White’s ‘The Once and Future King’, Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ as well as JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’. Film Studies brought him to Akira Kurosawa’s ‘The Hidden Fortress’ (1958), John Ford’s ‘The Searchers’ (1956) and Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ (1935), all of which loaned details to ‘Star Wars’ and all of which have continued to be largely ignored in that respect. Yet, when Lucas admitted that the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell – particularly his book ‘The Hero Has A Thousand Faces’ - had had a profound effect on his laying out the story for ‘Star Wars’, it became compulsory reading throughout Hollywood. In his book ‘The Writer’s Journey’, Christopher Vogler relates Campbell’s theories to both of 1977’s big SF hits:
“I worked with Campbell’s idea of The Hero’s Journey to understand the phenomenal repeat business of movies such as ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters’. People were going back to see these films as if seeking some kind of religious experience. It seemed to me these films drew in this special way because they reflected the universally satisfying patterns Campbell found in myths. They had something people needed.”
And the people had something the film companies needed – their money – so Campbellian movies became the backbone of the Hollywood production line. So it was that, in very short order, vast quantities of money was thrown at simple hero-villain movies, preferably with a science-fiction flavour: ‘Superman’ (1978) took to the skies for the first time in twenty-five years, the old-dark house movie moved out to the stars in ‘Alien’ (1979), ‘Star Trek’ (1979) finally lumbered onto the big screen, as did Lucas’ point-of-departure: ‘Flash Gordon’ (1980). ‘Buck Rogers’ made it to the small screen in 1979, as did ‘Battlestar Galactica’. Disney banked its largest-ever budget on ‘The Black Hole’, a thinly-disguised re-make of its own ‘20,000 Leagues’. Even Lucas himself was caught-up in the furor, producing the clearly serial-derived ‘Indiana Jones’ trilogy, as well as the indifferent ‘Willow’ (1988) and the appalling ‘Howard the Duck’ (1986). The list is, unfortunately, endless.
When Lucas came to make his follow-up ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980), it debuted in a radically different market-place – one now awash with simplistic child-oriented vaguely-sf-inspired block-busters. Every year the average cost of a movie, along with the amount it could be expected to earn, climbed stratospherically. Every year the film companies made more noise to promote their ever-more expensive movies. For the first time since the fifties – films were big events, the ragged remnants of Britain’s once glorious cinema industry heaved under the weight of attendance unlike any since the war.
|And my favourite Empire poster by Japanese artist Noriyoshi Ohrai|
So it was a brave decision for Lucas – the first movie-mogul of the modern age – to invest all of his time and a good deal of his own money into breaking all the rules once again. ‘Empire’ was a solemn and mature film compared to its predecessor: the climactic show-down came only twenty-minutes in, the middle act explored this buddhist-ish religion he’d invented, then he wrapped it up with a down-beat, cliff-hanger ending where the hero didn’t win.
By this point Lucas had set up his own film studio, enigmatically named ‘Lucasfilm’, and had sunk much of his earnings into creating ‘Industrial Light and Magic’ – the first of what would become many separate companies all working under the pretentious and inaccurate ‘LucasArts’ banner. These would come to include ‘Sprocket Labs’ the pioneers in digital editing, ‘THX’ the industry standard in audio reproduction (now available at your local multiplex) and ‘Pixar’ the first production house dedicated to CGI animation (and producers of ‘Toy Story’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’). In a brilliant and – at that time – unique move, all of these companies were in business to provide expert services to other film companies, as well as to his ‘Star Wars’ franchise. Thus George’s investments began to reap rewards far beyond the earnings of one mere film. Progressively he became The Powers That Be. He no longer needed anyone else’s assistance or permission to continue his work.
The first ‘Star Wars’ film had spawned a marketing revolution whereby even the most insignificant back-ground character could, it seemed, be turned into a toy children would pay through their parent’s noses for. The acid-test second movie introduced new characters and new toys and the world’s appetite seemed unquenchable. The third film was therefore carefully and cynically designed to sell such toys, games, books, stickers and comics. Simply telling a story came a long way down the list of priorities.
Of course, power-broking his ever-growing empire meant that George had less and less time to spend at the sharp-end of movie-making. The first film had been written, directed and produced by him, the second was co-written and co-produced by him, with his old film-studies tutor Irvin Kershner handling the directing. By the time the third movie came around – George only had time to fit in a little executive producing. You see, George The Artist was quietly being put to sleep, to make way for Mr. Lucas The Businessman. One could, with some justification, compare this to a sedate and liberal Republic being consumed by the greed and efficiency of a machinic Empire. The result was ‘The Return of the Jedi’ and the less said about that, the better!
To this day, every producer in Hollywood wants to reproduce Lucas’ success, and chooses to do so by emulating his methods, rather than his original motives. Nowadays, no film of even a medium-sized budget will be green-lighted until it has a bankable ‘star’ attached - a name of which the worthy burghers of Pig’s Knuckle, Nebraska can be reasonably expected to have heard.
|Lesbian Leia in nearly-nude naughtiness ... Or just Carrie Fisher and her stunt double sun-bathing. You decide.|
Why? Because ‘Star Wars’ brought back the personality cults that had pretty much died out with Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Dean. The public began to look up to ‘stars’ again, and therefore make the effort to go and see their films. Schwarzenegger and Stallone were among the first to capitalise upon this, by being the first to earn ever-more outrageous amounts of money for effectively re-making the same film over and again.
Hand-in-hand with this, a world-wide industry has evolved around the pursuit of celebrity - not just in producing fanzines, posters, ‘their own story’ books etc, but now informally through the ever-present paparazzi and, increasingly, the instamatic rumour-mill of the Internet. Every single column inch (including this one) whether good, bad or indifferent, is free-publicity and therefore money in the bank for Hollywood. Star’s faces have become a permanent fixture on every magazine cover and chat-show sofa.
Then there’s the merchandising question. Learning from ‘Jedi’s’ example, big budget summer movies must generate spin-offs. This can be seen particularly clearly in Disney films where every single character is specifically designed so it can become everything from a cuddly toy to a screen saver. This Spring saw ‘A Bug’s Life’ re-telling ‘The Magnificent Seven’ with ‘cute’ bugs – each one targeted squarely at your disposable income.
Increasingly, the celebrity-obsession of the media, and the telephone-number figures paid by merchandising companies, have met in the middle – with innumerable magazine and newspaper articles over the last few months under the inevitable witty heading ‘May the Market Force be With You’, discussing the billions that the new ‘Star Wars’ had earned before a single frame of it played to a paying punter. The US premier of the ninety-second ‘The Phantom Menace’ trailer actually made headlines in the UK, and it wasn’t even a slow news day!
Of course, bigger special-effects and ever-more grandiloquent ‘stars’ mean bigger budgets. Consequently, the drive to be bigger, faster and louder than last year’s hit is sending the financial band-wagon racing completely out of control. Now Jim (King of the World) Cameron has successfully spent $300 million of somebody else’s money to make the completely backward-facing ‘Titanic’. This film became the first ever to earn over $1 billion worldwide. After video and TV sales have been added in, it will have very probably crested $2 billion. Does this mean we can expect more films about sinking ships? No, it means we can expect more films to cost $300 million plus!
This means that no one dare risk making a movie unless they know it’ll be a hit, and how do they know that? By copying something that already is a hit – and hits have never come bigger than ‘Star Wars’.
|Let's bankrupt Hollywood! Hell, yes!!|
The overwhelming belief in Hollywood - founded on nothing more secure than Lucas’ fondness for the films of his childhood - is that if it hasn’t been a hit already, it won’t be a hit now. It is an obsession which William Goldman, in his delightfully clear-eyed view of Hollywood: ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’, calls simply ‘Past Magic’. Hollywood lives to evoke past magic!
This is madness. The first ‘Star Wars’ cost less than $10 million to make. This resulted in Lucas having to leave certain ingredients out, or find cheaper, more creative alternatives. He managed to ‘correct’ some of these details with the recent wash-and-brush-up job: ‘Star Wars – The Special Edition’, which cost another $10 million. Even so, almost $1 billion have been earned from a, by comparison, minuscule investment. The new ‘Star Wars’ installment has apparently cost $130 million – and is considered relatively cheap given the number of expensive special effects crested 1,900, almost three times as many as in any other film … ever.
The entire movie-making industry of the United States has come to be about numbers, not about telling stories. The truly sad thing is that this has come about almost entirely because one single film-maker never fully got over the disappointment of not being able to make a living driving fast cars. This is evident from even a cursory analysis of the content of the ‘Star Wars’ films:
The past is a supremely important place to Lucas and to the characters he creates. Famously, ‘Star Wars’ begins with the motto: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …’. This not only serves, as intended, as a sort of ‘Once upon a time …’, thereby giving the film instant legendary or mythical status, it also tells us that the past is still a relevant and exciting place.
He weighs his dialogue down with hinted-at back-story, and most of the weight of this was shouldered in the first film by Alec Guinness’ Ben – Obi Wan – Kenobi. This is why in only his third line of dialogue, he confesses: “Obi Wan? Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time.” It is Ben who first mentions – in passing – the Knights of Jedi. Luke then goes on to ask if Ben fought in ‘The Clone Wars’, during which, he believes, his father was killed. This early exchange was to prove crucial in the development of the whole ‘Star Wars’ myth. Since that all-too-brief mention, the Clone War saga has gone undiscussed in official ‘Star Wars’ circles, until now.
|See, you have to imagine yourself as Ewan MacGregor ... Only twenty years older.|
Similarly, Darth Vader’s appellation ‘Dark Lord of The Sith’ goes by in all three original films, without comment, only to be raised once more – and partially explained - in the new film.
The serials didn’t generally have time to indulge in these sorts of red-herrings, there was too much derring to do on the way to the next cliff-hanger. Cliff-hanger episode-endings (still a staple of genre television … I saw one in ‘The X-Files’ only last week) were a vehicle designed purely to bring the paying-public back next week. Anticipation was everything. Watching Flash Gordon struggling in the clutches of the mildly ridiculous crab-monster, on your own, at home, on TV, dilutes the experience. You need the group hysteria of an audience of your peers to fuel the suspension of disbelief which will get you over the holes in the plot.
Lucas set out to re-awaken this passion and group kinetic of group cinema-going in a decade where the only cinematic boom-market was the porno-movie. The seventies were marked by a cynicism and disbelief in the magical. ‘Star Wars’ was always intended to be a group experience. Year after year the film (then films) enjoyed cinematic re-issues. This is also why, as soon as he could, Lucas borrowed an idea from TV shows and pop-stars, and set up fan clubs – to hold on to this manufactured feeling of community. The Internet now serves his purposes very well, because people can be alone and spread out over the world, yet united in their love of The World According To George.
Although ‘Star Wars’ came to a rounded-off conclusion (the only loose-ends being the survival of the badguy, and all that pesky back-story), ‘Empire’ didn’t, it ended on a cliff-hanger. Han Solo was lost, Luke’s hand was lost, Luke’s faith was lost, all-in-all, things were in a bad way. The miracle was that, despite a two-year wait (as opposed to the seven-days of the original series) the audience’s anticipation didn’t leach away, it increased exponentially.
Well, it's been seventeen years since the last instalment of the ‘Star Wars’ saga wrapped everything up in a very final manner. How do you maintain anticipation over such a protracted length of time? The ‘Star Wars: The Special Edition’ project was a stroke of genius, it brought all the nostalgia and all the memories flooding back to the thirty-somethings who had seen it in their teens. Now they were old enough to take their own children to see it and the message, the group experience, the consuming habit, was passed on to a whole new generation – like a light-sabre being passed from father to son. Like a tumbling pebble gathering whole new kinds of stones into its wake as it rolls past.
Now Lucas’ message is far more evolved, and he is far more confident in delivering it. He doesn’t have to be like Ben Kenobi, trying to generate interest in his listener by hinting at the mere existence of ‘The Force’, now he has a whole generation keen to know more. So, where do you go when you’ve finished your story off? Well, if you’re George Lucas and you are looking for inspiration, there is only one port of call - you go back into your past:
|Me and my Shadow ...|
Ben: “A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all-but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of The Force."
Luke: “The Force?”
Ben: “Well, the Force is what gives the Jedi his power. It is an energy field, created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
Such a simple notion, on the face of it, and yet this exchange contains the seed which would give rise to a whole new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. Also, the pseudo-religiosity of this ‘Force’, is the one thing (other than the box-office receipts) which sets the ‘Star Wars’ saga apart from all of its copyists. It would be fair to say that it surrounds, penetrates and binds Lucas with his films. Increasingly, Lucas claims that the preaching associated with the Force has become his primary motivation for staying with ‘Star Wars’. The four years’ work that went into ‘The Phantom Menace’ was, he would like us to believe, a labour of love, and not at all motivated by the 100% of the opening-week’s takings that he demanded.
As he told ‘The Sunday Times Magazine’ (16 May), in his single interview with a British paper: “Somebody has to tell young people what we think is a good person … I mean, we should be doing this all the time. That’s what ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’ are about – ‘This is what a good person is; this is what we aspire to be.’ You need that in a society. It’s the basic job of mythology. [It tells you] This is how you fit. This is how it works, what’s expected of you, how you define your role in society and what your obligations are.”
Giving morality back to the masses, it’s a dirty job, but George is prepared to do it; and in return, since piety is its own reward, he only asks for complete control of the associated merchandising.
As ‘The Observer’ noted (March 28): “The American toy giant Hasbro ... [have paid] ... Lucasfilm some $610m ... [also] ... the Tri Con Restaurant Group, which owns Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken chains in the US, has bet right. It has paid Lucasfilm a record $2bn for the fast food marketing rights.” Companies are queuing up to pay George to promote his film for him.
So, what does he do with his billions? ‘The Sunday Times’ article also goes on to mention that the modestly entitled ‘George Lucas Educational Foundation’ exists to reform educational policy and improve schools by encouraging use of advanced technology. Charities are laudable organisations, and am I right in thinking that they are, coincidentally, as tax-exempt in America as they are in the UK?
In keeping with Lucas’ drive to romanticise the past – the prequel has a much plusher look to it than the original ‘Star Wars’, as if to imply that ‘A longer time ago, in a galaxy not quite so far away, relativistically speaking …’ things were better. The first ‘Star Wars’ trilogy exists in a point of galactic history where everywhere is run down save the galactic core where the despot ruler has feathered his nest. Our story opens in orbit around a dirty little planet out in the unfashionable reaches of an unpopular solar system, it doesn’t even hint at the breadth of experience and civilisation to be found Out There.
The buildings are a rough-hewn, little more than holes in the ground, the clothes are somewhat shoddy, the robots are rusty and the aliens distinctly low-rent. The Millennium Falcon is a dilapidated pile, held together by inertia and its pilot’s ego. The soldiers of the Empire are a bunch of dim-witted buffoons, only good for running into things, missing vital clues and blasting wildly and inaccurately at anything that moves. It is a second-hand Ford Escort of a universe, with too many light-years on the clock and one careless Emperor.
The new movie is set some thirty years earlier, when the universe was ruled by a benign Republican Senate. In this universe, the architecture is rarely less than spectacular, the clothes fit better, the robots are shiny and new and the aliens are now numerous, exotic and occasionally even convincing. The Queen’s Naboo Transporter is sleek and gorgeous and works first time. The android soldiers of the soon-to-be-Empire are clean, impressive, numerous and … still unable to hit a planetoid at thirty paces. Ah well, you can’t have everything.
Lucas has written his idealised rememberings of imaginary things past on a huge canvas, and they look better than they ever did. Which, I suppose, gets to the heart of nostalgia and the not inconsequential part it plays in people’s reasons for collecting memorabilia. The past always looks better than the present.
Maybe this is why an entire generation still venerates the original ‘Star Wars’ enough to generate some 500 web-sites dedicated to the new one. Maybe this is why The Queues outside sun-drenched Californian cinemas have been called ‘This generation’s Woodstock’. Over the months before the Glorious 19th of May, anticipation grew into hysteria. People flew from all over the world to attend the first midnight screening in Times Square – three hours before LA’s midnight screening.
|Struzan's attempt to give the new film the nostalgic feel of the old ones.|
Maybe it is all just a trick of imprecise memory, maybe they thought they had enjoyed ‘Star Wars 1977’ more than they really had. That, at least, would help explain the howl of disappointment which reverberated around the world’s media when they all finally saw the film, and returned to their homes bereft of purpose. The despair of their knee-jerk reactions could be likened to – to coin a phrase – “ ... a great disturbance in the Force ... as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
What the hell were they expecting?
Well, if the mythic and religious significance which is now constantly attributed to ‘Star Wars’ is carried to its logical extreme: they were expecting The Second Coming.
What they have instead, is a re-tread of the first and third existing movies, with far, far more product placement. As with ‘Graffiti’ and the original ‘Star Wars’ the young hero races cars for recreation. As with ‘Jedi’ (and, of course, the Vietnam war) a primitive people fight a hugely sophisticated war machine to a halt. As with all pulp fiction – and not, unfortunately, like real life - the heroes and villains are clearly identified (yes, I know Darth Sideous is supposed to be a mystery, but if you can’t work out who he is, you aren’t really trying!).
Basically, you have another bubble-gum movie aimed at kids, with a bit of spiritual sub-text to give the critics something to write about. Nothing, in other words, that you didn’t get last time round. The problem, from the point of view of the fans who grew-up on ‘Star Wars’, is that they are older, more mature and hopefully more sophisticated. George Lucas design for ‘Star Wars’, on the other hand, is just older.
|The REAL Dark Side|
The problem we Brits encounter is a little different from that which faced those first-night Americans. In the grand scheme of things Britain accounts for about 3% of the world cinema-going market. Consequently, we don’t matter that much. Therefore, when all of the ‘Star Wars’ merchandising burst on the market two weeks before the film opened in the States, we got it too – except for us it was three months before it opened.
For us, all those jealously guarded secrets, all the hysterical anticipation, all the pressure to be there first, is tempered by the fact that a mere glance at the back cover of the soundtrack album will give away one of the movie’s main surprises. You can buy the comic adaptation, the entire script. You can find out how every single special effect was constructed. You can play the movie out on your computer as a strategy game, or simply play endless pod-races in another computer game. Should you be suitably inclined, you can even wander down to your local car-boot sale and purchase a knock-off copy of the pirate video (although you’d be a bloody fool to try since the legit video will be out before Christmas).
Essentially, what you have is a finely tuned machine for mesmerising munchkins and making moolah, employing very old and well-established techniques. Any spiritual guidance the film offers is purely collateral. So, if you go to see/went to see ‘The Phantom Menace’ expecting anything other than a big, noisy, good-looking movie, you would doubtlessly be disappointed. If you wanted something that would change your life, you’ve got problems.
|Don't buy bootlegs, kids ... I did and look what happened to me!|
Granted, there is, amongst the mish-mash of other mythic sources Lucas has culled to cobble together his saga – a trace of Biblical imagery here and there. If you fancy stretching a few points.
Emperor Palpatine’s destruction of the Jedi Order can be compared to Pharaoh casting the Hebrew boy-children into the Nile (which I suppose would make Tatooine one big basket of bulrushes). Jabba the Hutt serves a similar purpose as Pilate, which presumably makes Lando at least a temporary Judas. Does that make the spectral threesome of dead Jedis – Ben, Yoda and Anakin – three wise men, or a holy trinity?
And, while we're on the subject, what is one supposed to make of the insinuation that Anakin’s mother Shmi was impregnated not by a person, but by the previously unmentioned microscopic organisms ‘Midi-Chlorians’. Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) stands before the Jedi Council and confesses his suspicion that, since “... [Anakin’s] cells have the highest concentration of Midi Chlorians I have seen in a life form. It is possible he was conceived by the Midi-Chlorians.” Which, co-incidentally, would make him “The one who will bring balance to the Force.” In other words, Qui-Gon is fairly sure that Anakin was not conceived in the normal manner and is, therefore, The Messiah.
It’s all fairly mixed up, and not a tad pretentious. After all, you could just as easily apply the same logic to ‘Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars’ (1938) and decide that the quakes and tidal waves caused by Ming’s earth-shattering Nitron Lamp are a metaphor for the brimstone and fire which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Which would make Flash into Lot and Ming into God. I think not!
Still, faith is where you find it, and for a generation which had their dreams shattered by the social and political corruption of the seventies, and then ground into the dirt by the greed and bigotry of the eighties – there were precious few heroes to cling to. Traditional dogmatic religion was, at least in the Western World, perceived largely as a lost cause; yet the simple truths behind the tenets of most religions can seemingly gather converts if presented in a new and different manner. Maybe superheroes are the new saints, and maybe they can be just as reassuring and inspirational as their secular forebears, if in a less obvious way.
Well, replace the pulp buzz-word ‘superhero’ with the nineties teen-cult phrase ‘jedi knight’, and the same could very well be said of ‘Star Wars’.
Maybe this is where George is going next. Following L. Ron Hubbard’s example, maybe we can soon expect the founding of ‘LucasFaith’™. After all, religions are tax exempt too!
Of course ... There are other theories as to why George has turned into the film-maker he has:
Of course ... There are other theories as to why George has turned into the film-maker he has:
So, I was down on The South Coast, doing my turn, telling people How To Have an Opinion when I received an interesting and unsolicited "tweet" on my Twitter account - @cellulord. This intriguing message was from James King - @jameskingmovies - and he had a tempting proposal which I simply couldn't turn down
Turns out he was going to introducing a special screening of the new Scarface Blu-Ray and he wanted me to be his guest interviewee. It seems he knew of the Brian DePalma book I wrote in a previous life and, having written said book, made me an 'expert' on Brian DePalma. I had to re-read my book on the train since I'd written it eleven years ago and had successfully forgotten most every word but but, y'know, I'll take 'em where I can get 'em.
The screening was to take place here:
That is one of the two screening rooms in The Soho Hotel which is, I am assured, London's swankiest residence these days. Think Hotel Babylon crossed with Derek Flint's apartment and you're about there!
So down I went to That There London and met Mr. King - who has failed entirely to grasp the point of film criticism, in that he stands there tall, slim, handsome and cheerful with a particularly distressing full head of hair! Critics are short and bald with an attitude problem, doesn't he know this?
Anyway - we got on very well, despite having first about five minutes before going on stage. Of course, we have a shared love of movies and a radio background, so there is a lot of common-ground.
The whole event was organised by Katie Aust on behalf of HMV and their rewards programme (which you can involved with here) and Sarah Jackson, who was also kind enough to take some photos of me in full flow.
|James does a bang-up job of feigning interest as my point rambles on ... and on ... and on ...|
|... Before I treat him to my Lady Gaga impersonation.|
|Okay ramblers, let's get ramblin' ...|
So, it’s all kicking-off! After interminable weeks of piddling-about, waiting and wondering if Bill was ever going to man up and Sookie was ever going to wake up now, finally, we have the show-down between the armies of the night and the most dangerous enemy they’ve ever faced. Yes? Well … Sort of.
Essentially we have a siege, but it’s a very sedate siege, really. With a lot of talking and not much besieging. However, we do have Eric performing the coolest blood-suck of the series and then, suddenly, it’s all over!
After such a long, rambling build-up I was really hoping for more energy, more peril … More dead vampires.
You'll have to read the full review to learn all the gory details. You can find it on What Culture here.
And you can some behind-the-scenes video action (with lots of spoilers) here: