Why does Star Wars suck? Let me count the reasons:
1. Star Wars is a story about a boy who wants to go to war and does. In fact, he becomes the greatest war hero ever. It’s a pro-war story. It’s pro-war because it shows war as fun, the equivalent of a theme park ride. War does not get more glamorous than this. Extremely violent, but bloodless and clean. The victims of the violence might as well be robots. In fact, a good percentage of the film is devoted to shots of bloodless robots, and these robots seem to have stolen the personality genes from the film’s official human characters. (Some will say this is also true of 2001, ie HAL is more “human” than the astronauts. But that’s the point of that film. Is Lucas really saying that his robots are more “human” than the humans everyone in the film is fighting to save? I’m more inclined to go with something like, “Blowing things up is cool!”)
2. The scene in which he learns his uncle and aunt were killed is a cheap plot device. How much does he really care about his relatives when they never appear again in the story? Compare this scene to the source, The Searchers, the film that Lucas pilfered for the “homage.” In that film, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter really do care about the people who were killed. And they care about the children who were kidnapped because that’s what the film is about. In Star Wars, the attack on the farm is a cheap plot trick designed to get Luke off the farm without making him seem like an asshole.
3. Because no one ever questions the rightness of the rebels’ cause nor the wrongness of the empire’s cause. Because no one questions much of anything. It’s classic Manichaeism. The forces of the empire are faceless, robot-like. Nothing they do shows any indication of being motivated by anything other than evil. In other words, motivations are boring.
4. Star Wars vs Star Trek. The difference in the titles are telling. Star Wars is about going to war. While there’s plenty of fighting in Star Trek, at least there are those who question it. I can’t imagine an episode such as the one in Star Trek in which humans and Klingons are forced to stop fighting by an apparently helpless population of aliens. There’s no character like Spock in Star Wars. Certainly not Obi Wan Kinobi. Everyone wants to fight. Weapons of all kinds, whether fighting ships, swords, or bombs, are meant to impress. Where’s the wonder in life, the wonder in encountering new, mysterious things which happens all the time in Star Trek?
5. Star Wars is designed the way commercials are designed. While not explicitly a toy ad, it’s made like one. So it’s no surprise that Lucas made the most money from toys. Images, sounds, dialogue: it’s all presented to us like a fetish. A thing to be bought. Easily identified, understood, quickly.
Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys (“I love them, I’m really into that”), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.
From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. “Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio,” he says, “but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn’t ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade.” Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, “already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff.”
Lucas could argue, with reason, that he was protecting his own investment of two years’ research and writing as well as his share of the $300,000 from Graffiti which he and Kurtz used as seed money for developing Star Wars. “We found Fox were giving away merchandising rights, just for the publicity,” he says. “They gave away tie-in promotions with a big fast-food chain. They were actually paying these people to do this big campaign for them. We told them that was insane. We pushed and we pushed and we got a lot of good deals made.” When the film appeared, the numbers became otherworldly: $100,000 worth of Tshirts sold in a month; $260,000 worth of intergalactic bubble gum; a $3 million advertising budget for presweetened Star Wars breakfast cereals. That was before the sales of black digital watches and citizens’ band radio sets and personal jet sets. (Source.)
6. Star Wars vs The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The connection between these two films is the character of Han Solo who, of all the characters in Star Wars, would be most at ease alongside the good, bad and ugly characters of Leone’s film. He’s a mercenary with mercenary attitudes, just like Eastwood and the gang. That is, until he miraculously sees the light. There’s plenty of war to go around in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but those characters are under no illusions about its being a good war.
7. Star Wars feeds off of and reinforces the myth of the Good War. It doesn’t do so intelligently, that is, it doesn’t present arguments for such a view. It merely assumes it. Despite the Sixties and early Seventies being seen as a cynical age, the fact is that the main American myths were never in danger of being pushed aside. The majority never doubted that World War II was won by angels against devils. A simple case of black vs white. And Star Wars does nothing to question those beliefs. In fact, it plays on those beliefs as if they are a religion.
8. Darth Vader is nothing but a hired gun. If he’s such a badass, why does he have to work for someone else?
9. Star Wars is bathroom break-friendly. No matter what point of the film you leave to take a pee, when you return to the film the answer to your question, What’s going on now?, will be the same: They’re trying to blow up the Death Star? What are they up to now? Still trying to blow it up. Have they blown up that Death Star, yet? Not yet. So they finally blow it up, and that’s it, until the Empire builds another, and they have to blow that one up, too. Who’s the destructive ones here anyway? It’s funny how weak the sequence is in which the unfortunate planet that plays the role of demonstrating the awesomeness of the Death Star is blown up, compared with the destruction of the Death Star, that is, the awesomeness of blowing something up without any moral qualms at all.
10. Death triumphs, no matter which side “wins.” The film concludes with smiles all around. What great satisfaction it is to kill. As Chaplin says at the end of Monsieur Verdoux, kill one, and you’re a villain; but kill a million and you are a hero.
11. Much of it plays like a video game. But it’s actually worse than that. It plays like a video game that is being played by someone else and all you get to do is watch him play. Despite being released before the heydey of the video game, even before 1977 there had already been several video games with space themes. One of them was Spacewar!, which was written way back in 1961. It was a two player game in which spaceships battle each other while avoiding the gravity pull of a nearby star. It even had a hyperspace feature which could be used as a last ditch attempt to avoid enemy missiles. There were several arcade versions of Spacewar! released in the Seventies including one called Space Wars which was released the same year as Star Wars. How much do you want to bet that Lucas was an early fan of these games?
12. Today Star Wars is considered the ideal template for Hollywood movie scripts. If you write a script that’s even remotely similar to an adventure or science fiction or fantasy genre film, you will be judged against Star Wars by your script’s readers. This wasn’t always the case, as this passage by Michael Pye and Lynda Miles from 1999 demonstrates:
But he does not tell a story. This is the basic failing of the film. It lacks true narrative drive and force. It is a void, into which any mystic idea can be projected; entertainment, brilliantly confected, which is quite hollow. Its only idea is individualism-that a man must take responsibility for others, even at great personal cost and peril. Its idea is, in classic form, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
The iconography is bizarre. Darth Vader, the dastardly villain, is black. That is commón in science fiction. In the supposedly liberal Planet of the Apes series, the wicked and stupid gorillas are the military, and they are black. The honey-colored chimpanzees are the wise, good scientists. The closer to the color of a California WASP, the better the character: it is a fair rule of thumb. But Darth Vader’s forces are storm troopers armored in white. The wicked Grand Moff Tarkin lives in a gray-green world, with gray-green uniforms; he is clearly a wicked Nazi. Yet when our heroes take their just reward at the very end, there are images which parallel the finest documentary of Nazism, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. “I can see,” Kurtz says, “why people think that. I suppose it is like the moment when Hitler crosses the podium to lay the wreath.” Critical confusion is not surprising when there are allusions to Nazism as both good and bad. French leftist critics thought the film was fascist; Italian rightists thought it was clearly communistic.
Nor is the vague, pantheistic deism of the film coherent. Star Wars talks much of The Force, a field of energy that permeates the universe and can be used for both good and evil. It is passed on with a sword, just as the sword Excalibur is passed on in the Arthurian romance; the influence of chivalric stories is strong. But when The Force is used by Luke Skywalker to help him destroy the monstrous Death Star, he is urged only to relax, to obey his instincts, to close his eyes and fight by feeling. The Force amounts to building a theology out of staying cool.
Star Wars has been taken with ominous seriousness. It should not be. The single strongest impression it leaves is of another great American tradition which involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action, technology, and thrills. It is pinball-on a cosmic scale.
13. Even Lucas agreed Star Wars sucks:
Ned Tannen says, “The fact that Star Wars is the biggest hit ever made and that he doesn’t think it is very good—that’s what fascinates me about George.” (Source.)
Now I should do (and definitely could do) a list of reasons why Star Wars doesn’t suck, but I’m tired and I’m sure you can do that list better than me.
(This post was written in November 2012, but not published until February 2017.)
My wife won this Elle poster in November. Then we heard nothing. We almost gave up hope, but then it suddenly arrived via Fedex yesterday. As it turned out, it was very timely because Isabelle Huppert was nominated early this morning for Best Actress by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Even though the Academy was wrong to overlook Elle in the Best Foreign Film category (time, once again, will prove them wrong), the actors’ division got it right. As far as I’m concerned, it’s no contest. However, for me, this poster (which by the way is signed by both Isabelle Huppert and Paul Verhoeven, and adorned by an “I Love Huppert” button which my wife and I received at the AFI Festival Elle event last November) doesn’t just represent a prize won. Now proudly displayed on the only bare wall in our apartment, it’s a symbol of a personal year of lows and highs, a year that could easily have been my last, but, as far as moviegoing goes, thanks to filmmakers such as Huppert and Verhoeven, turned out to be a year that gave my wife and I some memories that we will always cherish.
By the way, Elle is not a revenge fantasy. If you want a revenge fantasy, try Moonlight.
Also: thank you Sony Pictures Classics and The Playlist.
La La Land just set a record for Golden Globe wins (7). Does it really matter to cinephiles? Yes and no. Yes, because if you like the film, it helps get the word out and reward the kind of filmmaking you like; no, because what matters is your own standards and tastes. (Note: it’s worth remembering that just because a film wins a lot of awards does not mean everyone agrees. Winning a Golden Globe or an Oscar probably means 20-25% of the votes went to the winner. Hardly a majority. Hence, those who think the winners deserve the win more than the other nominees are almost always a minority.)
But we can still ask: Is it really that good?
- Opening/Overture: it starts with one of the best long takes in the history of cinema, perhaps best in nearly fifty years (since Sixties master of the long take Miklós Jancsó made his best films, including the musical Red Psalm (Még kér a nép). Yes, better than the famous long takes in Russian Ark and The Player. Plus, the entire movie is in the opening scene, even the opening lines: “I think about that day, I left him at a Greyhound Station… I knew what I had to do, ’cause I just knew….”
- “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” My English teacher always said that. Apparently Chazelle’s said it, too, because that’s how this film is structured (with a twist for the last part).
- The ending one-ups the ending of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s a cross between that film and the ending of An American in Paris. It’s a triumph of visual storytelling and imagination, imagining what could have been as opposed to merely showing what is.
- It’s cinematic. According to the dictionary, anything suitable for motion pictures is “cinematic.” If that’s the case, setting up a camera, hitting record, and playing back whatever you capture is “cinematic.” Maybe. But to me it means something that’s mostly missing from most films which come off as little more than filmed theater, people talking, and talking, and talking. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s clever talk, but it’s still talk and it’s not cinematic. Cinema is capable of so much more than what Hollywood usually allows, and La La Land is proof. Hollywood money is not the only thing holding cinema back from realizing its full potential. It’s also audiences and critics. We need more films like La La Land. That doesn’t mean more musicals; it means more films that explore what films can be. Musicals came in with sound film, but something was also lost. The promise of cinema as a distinct art form that was so promising during the 1920’s disappeared and film seems to have become a medium to translating books and plays for people who for whatever reason cannot read the book or see the play. This is not cinematic. La La Land is.
- It’s realism. Not phoney or melodramatic, lugubrious realism of a film such as Manchester by the Sea, but the realism that most people experience every day. (Incidental thought about Manchester by the Sea: Comedians are making a living with jokes about how depressing this film is. But can a film that tells you what you want to be told, i.e. it’s really OK if you can’t change, be that depressing?) “La La Land is a light escapist romp through musicals past.” This appears to be the preferred description of La La Land by online hipsters, that is, people who think they don’t need to watch the movie. They already know what it is after reading wikipedia and watching the trailer. If they did watch the film, they were probably unable to break free of their phones.
- It’s fantasy. Fantasy in the cinematic sense of using visual means to express emotion, making visible something that not only is invisible but doesn’t really exist, i.e. emotion: love, joy, depression.
- It’s rhythm. In his book, In the Blink of an Eye, Walter Murch writes about a hierarchy of values to respect when editing a film: emotion above all else, then story, then rhythm, etc. For me, a great narrative (i.e. story) film does not know the difference between these. If it does not have rhythm, it can’t have emotion or story. La La Land‘s rhythm is the rhythm we long to live by. It’s a utopian rhythm. A utopian vision. Utopian not in the sense of pipedream, pie in the sky, but of a vision of a better world, a world that we long for, dream about, and never give up dreaming about. La La Land is not about people living in the clouds, in Never Neverland, but about a world where everyone dreams of making the world a better place for everyone.
ADDENDUM ONE: Some More Comments About Rhythm
I like variation in all artistic forms, and especially in the cinema for the evocation that it implies in the unconscious. Rhythm and synchronism make the magic of cinema. — Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch’s comment applies perfectly to Paterson, a film unfortunately dissed by the Golden Globes and many critics. To me it’s obvious that a film without rhythm is a hopeless film. But apparently not to some other people. One such person is A. S. Hamrah, a film critic who wanted to see the farmers market where Paterson’s wife sells her cupcakes. This might seem a valid idea, except it would rupture the perfect rhythm of the film. Yes, A. S. Hamrah did not like the film, but did this critic watch the same film as me? Did this critic not notice this film’s perfectly structured rhythm? Based on this wish for the farmers market scene, it appears not. This leads me to wonder if some people have a blind spot for film rhythm, like some people are tone deaf or don’t like music at all. To them, film (and probably graphic art in general) can never be musical without literal music. To them, film is drama, not music. And so they will never get a film such as Paterson. But here’s a quote from someone who would get it:
A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. — Stanley Kubrick
In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie. — Jean-Luc Godard
an activity or form of entertainment that allows people to forget about the real problems of life (source)
The Comics Journal asked 31 for their list of the best comics of 2016. The lists are here. However, they did not tally the results. So I did it for them.
Some films that came to mind watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
- The Searchers (similar plot twist; see also Taxi Driver and Hardcore.)
- The Silence (Bergman’s silence is also Scorsese’s.)
- Sophie’s Choice (dilemmas, dilemmas.)
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (parts of Scorsese’s film recall this film’s WWII Japanese POW camp and its commander.)
- Andrei Rublev (vallis lacrimarum, i.e. vale of tears)
- Saving Private Ryan (these kind of quests never end well.)
- Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses” (The Searchers plot twist, again.)
- Manchester by the Sea (similar Job-like story.)
- Arrival (communication problems, alien and domestic.)
- Shōgun (TV mini-series. Fish out of water, culture clash.)
- 7 Women (what is it with missionaries?)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (burn, saint, burn.)
- The Last Temptation of Christ (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)
- The Keys of the Kingdom (more missionaries)
“The rest is silence.” Just a smart-ass way of saying: You’ll have to see Scorsese’s film to see why these other films popped into my head.
While watching Moana, I felt there was a problem, but the film is the very definition of entertaining. It draws you in, takes you on a journey through a whole new world, and leaves you with a smile on your face. In other words, it leaves you no time to think while your watching, but once the lights come up, it cannot stop the brain from doing its job.
So there’s a problem with Moana. I’m not sure what, but I’m going to try to figure it out.
Moana is made up of two parts. There’s the setup, then there’s Moana’s hero’s journey. I have the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier between the two that separates them, like the barrier reef that separates Moana’s island from the larger world. Perhaps the film’s problem is simply a lack of unity between these two parts. Let’s see.
- Setup. The situation is this: the islanders have used too many resources. Fish have disappeared; coconuts are rotting.
- Solution: fish beyond the barrier or leave the island for a new one
- Problem: the King says no. His reason is simply personal: a personal tragedy makes him stand firm
- Solution: get rid of the King. Replace the absolute (but benevolent, of course) monarchy with some kind of democracy. That is, revolution is the logical solution to the problem depicted in the story’s setup.
But for some reason the story goes in an entirely different direction: it turns into a single hero’s journey. In the discussion after the film at my screening, the two directors and screenwriter specifically referred to the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell. Like so many Hollywood creators nowadays, they know the hero’s journey template backwards and forwards. And they wanted this story to follow that template even though the logic of the story as they set it up did not lend itself to this type of story.
So what did they do to get it going in the direction they wanted it to go? Well, the film doesn’t actually begin by depicting the situation. It begins with a myth, the story of a Hercules/Prometheus type figure, Maui, and he is blamed for the “darkness” falling on the land, the reason why the coconuts are rotting and the fish have vanished. What did he do? He stole the heart from a goddess. Why? Who knows?
What this does is shift the blame for the ecological catastrophe the islanders face to a mythical demigod and therefore the solution to the problem is also placed in the realm of magical thinking.
The solution to a real world problem is shifted into the realm of fantasy. This division in the film’s structure is actually quite common in Hollywood films. But this film makes the division even more blatant than it usually is.
5. Why is Moana chosen by the Ocean? Because she saves the baby turtle. She shows empathy for other creatures and therefore passes the Ocean’s test to become the Chosen One. Such a low bar test , however, implies that the other islanders are all unworthy because they all lack basic empathy. They just don’t care about other living beings, and this sort of fits the situation: they’ve used up resources, killed off all the fish. But the film does not have the courage to depict them as lacking empathy. Once again, the natural causes of their problem are bypassed and the demigod Maui is blamed. Before we meet him, we expect him to be a badass evil guy. He turns out not to be evil, but it’s never explained why he stole the heart of the Goddess other than getting carried away. Something like: he did it because he could. In any case, blaming him lets the islanders of the hook. But it also produces a film that lacks unity.
6. Perhaps the greatest problem with the film, however, is that it is formulaic. I’ve already said that the filmmakers referred to Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. But other screenplays gurus seem to be in control of their minds, too. Every time Moana saved a turtle or the chicken, it made me think: “How many copies of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder does the screenwriter own? The topper may have been this, said by the screenwriter during the post-screening discussion: “The audience has expectations for these types of films that they want fulfilled, but in a new, surprising way.” “Expectations” = formulas.
This film never had a chance to be as good and original as it could have been because the filmmakers felt they needed to take the story down the well-trodden road of the hero’s journey, and it lacks unity because they could not or would not risk offending people by showing the islanders themselves as the cause of their environmental problem. Given that our own, real world faces a problem similar to the islanders of Moana, is this really the type of story we need?
Application of the formulas: B+
Clear Thinking: F