Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Greatest American Films Part 5: #7 A Lucas Far, Far Away

For the fourth entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between Star Wars and Star Wars: Episode V-The Empire Strikes Back.

Many people fixate on the physical descent that Clarice goes through in The Silence of the Lambs because of the deep mythological impressions it leaves us with. Call it psychology, Jungian archetypes, the hero with a thousand faces, what have you. But there are simply things in stories that give us certain impressions which we don't realize or fully comprehend. I think that the general interpretation of Clarice's descent to Lecter is better understood as a turning inward to the depths of the human soul. But regardless her descent means something. Lecter is in a deep dark place. A place that is undesirable. That is where Clarice must go in order to complete her quest. 

When Joseph Campbell began publishing his writings about the power of myth I don't know if he was really saying anything new. When Virgil was commissioned to write the Aeneid it was specifically because Augustus knew that myth had power, a power that he thought could help Rome. I think we've known for a long time that myth has a certain power. We know instinctively what it means for some one to "descend". When John Rambo descends into the cave at the end of First Blood, we know its a kind of trial. Something he must go through in order to become more powerful and eventually confront the true nature of the conflict: his own volatile telos. Maybe it comes from Jesus' burial. Maybe it is something more primordial. But there are certain things which set off reactions in our hearts. 

And one of the great strengths of Star Wars is this mythological power. Star Wars is primordial in the sense that everything in it reeks of simplicity. The characters are all archetypes. We know who they are instinctively. 

But the true power of Star Wars comes from Lucas' (seemingly lost) ability to tell a story in images. The opening shot of Star Wars is one of the most perfect in all of Cinema history. The effects are dated, but that's almost what keeps it stunning, because they look vintage or classic compared with the overuse of computer generated imagery we see all over today. But when that little white ship appears, hounded by the humongous utilitarian dreadnaught, we know which side we are on instantly. It is epic, simple, and perfect. Right from the get go we know what's going on. 

The opening crawl is pretty cool but almost unnecessary. It allows Lucas to make us feel as if the story we are about to watch was scripted in the stars. It gives an even deeper mythic quality. But none of this information is essential to understanding what is about to happen. We know. We know what we are seeing because Lucas shows it to us. He shows you how big the galactic empire is and how pathetic the rebel force. The scale of the conflict. Everything right from the few opening moments. 

The little ship is white. The big ship is gray. Instinctively we see purity pitted agaisnt industry. It's not just the size difference. But then inside the ship we see that same color take on another meaning. Outside in space white means purity and gray hostility. But inside the ship we see the white of the stormtroopers and instead of goodness we see death. Their helmets look like skulls. The suits so blindingly white almost as if acid has eaten away their soul. But the rebels have faces. We can see the fear in their eyes as they await the menace about to enter their tiny ship. And then Darth Vader enters. Even the smallest child knows who and what he is right from the very beginning. He is death incarnate. He breaths like a sick man. He towers and lumbers about. He is dressed from head to toe in dark black. And his mask looks even more like a skull then the stormtrooper helmet. But his flesh and humanity were not eaten away by acid. He doesn't lack humanity like the stormtrooper; he positively reflects evil.

Then there are the moments on Tatooine. Luke walks out as the suns are setting. He forlornly looks out at the desert landscape and we know what is in his heart: adventure. Nobody needs to tell us this. We know. Because we have all felt that way at some point in our lives. He reminds us of childhood wonder and that desire to somehow escape the prison of mediocrity that we all feel so trapped by. This is brilliant filmmaking. No one has ever captured the center of the cosmic drama so perfectly as Lucas in the first two star wars films. 

Return of the Jedi has lots of problems besides just the ewoks. There are structural problems, as well as a general lack of sincerity. It just doesn't seem like the people working on that film cared anymore. And we all know that the prequels were terrible on the most basic levels of filmmaking. But when put together the six films compose a highly intricate story of family, good and evil, prophecy, tragedy, and epic warfare. Greatly flawed in some of the parts but also brilliant in the sum. But for all the problems that the other four films may have, with structure, integrity, whatever, these two films are untouchable. In Star Wars we see a brief glimpse of a greater cosmic struggle. The deepest struggle of them all: good vs evil. Everything is so clearly defined. It is brilliant. And if it were all Lucas had to say about the human experience it would be incomplete. Star Wars and Episode V form a sort of Yin and Yang. Star Wars is easily the most optimistic film of the series. And The Empire Strikes Back is the most cynical. The Empire Strikes Back is where we explore the depths of the evil which has invaded the universe. It runs so deep that it ultimately effects our main character. Our hero has been tainted by the evil that has stricken the galaxy. He refuses to learn from his teachers and so he must make mistakes and cause more problems for all parties concerned. And then the final astonishing truth about Luke's origins. This is the most evil outcome of all.

But what makes these two films even more remarkable is that while they deal with such deep subjects they are fun. They are not just enjoyable but a deep pleasure for many many people over the last few decades. They speak to who we are and at the same time make us laugh. Because that is part of who we are. We are beings of laughter. Great filmmaking is not always simply serious or somber. It is fun. 

Star Wars brings us up and Empire drags us back down. But of course that isn't all there is to the story. But after such a perfect beginning how could anything else have truly satisfied? In the end even if good does not triumph after the events of Empire at least we know that it can. Because we remember Star Wars. We remember that things were once this dark before and yet somehow good won out in the end. But the tragedy of Empire reminds us that things can always get worse as well. The good guys cannot stop fighting as long as the bad guys have not given up yet. Because the conflict can always go either way. And in the end the thing that truly makes the difference is goodness and wisdom. That is what the force truly represents. The wisdom to see what is right and the power to do it. Because in the end what can the few people who care about good truly do agaisnt such reckless hate? Unless they have something, something the other side does not have, something that makes them better, harder to defeat. Vader and the Emperor only receive power from the force, not wisdom, not truth, just strength. And we all know strength of arms does not always win the day. That's why the little people are what change the world in Star Wars. The smallest character in the first film carries the most important piece of information. The smallest character in the second film has the deepest wisdom:

"Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter." 


  1. Are you saying, one of the criteria for a great film is that it uses epic imagery to convey the story? There also seems to be a point about the need for "fun." My dear Mr. Gleason, I suggest you practice the art of good writing by beginning these articles with a good thesis statement, then supporting your thesis with clear and compelling arguments and concluding with a summary statement, in order for people like me to follow your brilliant thoughts. I want to understand what you are saying, because I think it has merit, but I have a simple brain and need it spelled out more clearly.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog dear Aunt.

    No I am not saying that all great films must or do convey epic imagery. One of the strengths of Star Wars it that is uses epic imagery to convey information. Such as the scope of the conflict. The opening shot tells us certain "facts" about the story we are about to see. It tells us the conflict is grand. It tells us that the conflict is ridiculously one sided.

    I also do not think that all great movies must be or are in fact are fun. But one of the great strengths of Star Wars is that it manages to be great fun while dealing with very important themes like good vs evil, the nature of wisdom, and the hero's journey.

    Your criticisms of my writing are probably valid, but this is part of an ongoing series. If you look at the entry history you will find an introduction to this 11 part series which more clearly defines my goals. As for a thesis, I kinda thought that was implied by calling Star Wars a great film. I wanted to describe my reasons for thinking that Star Wars and its immediate sequel should be considered one of the top ten greatest American films ever made. But I have been sort of intentional with my hap hazard writing here. It is supposed to copy typical modern film criticism. Which is itself mostly unfocused. But part of my project is to criticize typical modern film criticism, so maybe I should be more linear in my exposition.

    Thank you again for commenting. Feel free to drop by again.