Recently, I tried to show "Star Wars" to my daughter, and here are some ruminations about that experience. If you don't want to read about that, and are only interested in some thoughts about some aspects of the film's structure I noticed while viewing the film again, please scroll down to the part labeled "The Film Making Part". I can't believe I have to say this, but just in case you've never seen the movie...there are spoilers.
My daughter, who is six, has never seen any of the "Star Wars" movies but she knows about them, because every boy she knows loves them. She got to play a "Star Wars" video game at a birthday party and she was asking me about certain characters, so I asked her if she wanted to check out the movie (the original, "Episode IV" if you will). She said yes.
Now she's about the same age as I was when I saw the movie and my life was changed by the experience. But I am always careful not to let on what I like and don't like so that I can see her unadulterated reaction to things, and I always wonder how many of her six-year-old friends like "Star Wars" because they know their dads love it.
As I sort of figured, she wasn't able to even make it an hour into the movie before she grew tired of it and said she was bored, and we turned it off to go play outside with our marshmallow shooters.
Anyway, the bad news is that I'd hoped she would like it so we could share the experience of enjoying the film. The good news is that it confirms that I know her as well as I thought I did. Somehow I just didn't think it would be something she would like, but it was even more interesting than I thought it would be to watch it with her and gauge her reactions to things (it didn't enhance the experience much that her four-year-old brother was running around the room and yelling through the whole thing).
It's been a long time since I saw the movie and I had never really realized just how much talking and sitting around there is at the beginning of the film. Worse yet, there's a lot of talk about concepts like "The Force", "The Empire" and "The Rebellion" that are really hard to illustrate and come off as kind of hard to understand (now don't get me wrong, I still think it's an amazing piece of work).
Back when the film came out there was nothing like it, of course, but kids today are bombarded by so much media that something has to catch their interest and engage it right away. So "Star Wars" comes from a time when film makers were a little more free to take their time and go at a slower pace.
I don't think that this means everything these days is all flash and no substance or anything like that, which people are always tempted to say. It's actually a good thing that film makers have to work hard to capture our attention and hold it; it makes them have to be sharper and smarter in how they do things. And films that are all flash and all substance never really make an impact; a film has to both capture our attention and give us something deeper and more satisfying to stand the test of time and be considered "great". Film makers today face greater challenges than ever before to both stand out from the competition and deliver something meaningful to an audience.
It's ironic to see how slowly "Star Wars" begins, because of course it's been blamed for creating the blockbuster genre, movies that are all spectacle and no substance and move at a breakneck pace. Because it definitely doesn't move at a breakneck pace. Also much of the film centers around ideas of spirituality, rejecting technology in favor of faith, and pursuing a moral path at the expense of personal wealth, among other things, hardly trivial or shallow areas of human experience.
And anyone that thinks that "Star Wars" and films like it have killed the type of film that moves slowly, deals with difficult issues and doesn't resolve itself in an easy way for the audience to swallow should look no further than this year's crop of Oscar contenders. There are more films made today than in 1977 - by far - and there are way more of those types of film made today than ever before, for sure.
Unfortunately none of those Oscar contenders has made a lot of money this year and they rarely do in any other year either. People happen to like the kind of thrills and satisfying good vs. bad morality that "Star Wars" offers and that's the kind of movie that most people want to see. It's not hard to understand this; after a week of working long hours and all the pressures of your job and taking care of your family, few people want to pluck down $20 to see a movie (and more than that for the babysitter) to see something that may let them down or be totally confusing and/or unsatisfying. They want two hours of something that will take their mind off all of their troubles and re-affirm their fervent hope that good will win over bad and that everything will be all right in the end.
For all of the talk that we hear that Hollywood is full of soulless monsters just trying to squeeze a dishonest buck out of a nation full of mouth-breathing saps, I am glad we live in a world where films like "Pirates of the Caribbean" can be seen alongside films like "No Country for Old Men", "There Will be Blood" and "Atonement". People are still able to make films that ask difficult questions and explore complicated themes, even with all of the "giant big evil corporations" running the film industry.
One more interesting thing, lest you think that the next generation is doomed to be a mass of attention-deficit-disorder riddled morons, my daughter loves dinosaurs and so has seen "Jurassic Park" (I didn't think she was ready but my wife showed it to her one day while I was at work). She loved the movie and enjoyed it all the way to the end. The interesting thing to note is that "Jurassic Park", if anything, is way, way slower to get started than "Star Wars" and takes a lot longer to get to any exciting action. And just like "Star Wars", it also has a lot of exposition about things that are hard to understand and visualize.
So, if you want to worry about the next generation, worry about this:
Concerned that the violence of the movie was too much for my daughter to take, I asked her about it, and she revealed that the only thing that bothered her about the film is that the dinosaurs didn't "win" in the end and that the people got away. She loves dinosaurs so much that she was rooting for them to eat everyone - although maybe that says something about the paper-thin characterizations of the people in the movie. The dinosaurs in the movie have way more personality than the people do.
Okay, now here's the
THE FILM MAKING PART.
So, I noticed a couple of interesting things that I hadn't noticed before (at least in the part we watched).
A lot has always been made of the fact that Luke and Leia wear white in this film because they represent the "good" side. And of course, Luke wears darker and darker clothes in the succeeding two films as he struggles with his morality and becomes tempted by the "Dark Side" of the Force.
But I had never thought about applying that same visual template to Han Solo. If you remember, his outfit is a white shirt, black vest and pants, so he is a mix of the two colors, which suggests that his costume reflects his dual nature in the first film: he is torn between self-sacrifice (doing what is right) and self-preservation (doing what will save his neck).
The structure of the film has some really great components to it. As I said, the first part of the movie is full of some really hard concepts to visualize for the audience. There's a lot of talk about the power of this thing called "The Force" as well as the struggle between "The Empire" and "The Rebellion".
That's why the opening of the film is so great: starting the film with a big exciting battle not only gives you enough action to carry your interest through the slower parts to follow, but it also illustrates visually and personalizes the war that's going on so we can see it and know what they're all talking about when we're seeing people just sit around and talk about the conflict.
Also, the way that opening battle is handled does a great job of telling you who is winning and who is losing. The giant Imperial ship is hundreds of times bigger than the pathetic rebel ship and has no trouble subduing the craft. Then when we see the guys in the rebel ship preparing to defend it from a boarding party, they don't look very confident or well-equipped, and when the stormtroopers enter they look much more professional and well-suited for the fight with much better armor than the rebels.
The most interesting thing to me was this: the first we hear about "The Force" is in Ben's house as he tells Luke that it exists and how powerful it can be.
Now this is a really strange concept to introduce and talk about, definitely something you'd want to visualize for the audience so they know what the heck you're talking about, and so that we know it's real in this world and that the old man isn't just losing his marbles.
A lesser film maker probably would have had Ben demonstrate his power over the Force by having Ben move some objects around his house with the Force, or something, just to illustrate what he can do and move on with the story. But this would have been very weird and felt very false, and stuck out as exactly what it is: a moment that stops the story to illustrate a concept without any dramatic purpose to it, and it would have broken the spell the audience was under and cause them to think: "Oh, they just attached wires to that chair and moved it to make it seem like he was using this 'Force' stuff".
So they let the scene play out organically and we leave the scene hearing about the Force but not really quite getting what he means - but we know that we're not totally supposed to get it yet, because Luke looks confused as well.
Now, the part that comes immediately after this scene is the scene aboard the Death Star, where some sort of council is meeting, and they are arguing about how much of a threat the rebels are. Darth Vader enters, one of the council members starts questioning Vader about why he hasn't been able to find the stolen plans, and mocks Vader by saying that Vader's control of "The Force" hasn't helped him conjure up the missing plans.
So Darth Vader begins to choke the guy from across the room without touching him, and Vader says that he finds the guy's lack of faith in the Force disturbing.
Now isn't that brilliant? To go from the scene in Ben's house, where the idea of the Force is introduced, but is all words, right to a scene that clearly illustrates how the Force actually works and how Vader can wield it? And it's such a nice touch to work in the idea that the guy is actually questioning the whole idea of the Force when he gets choked, and Vader is actually strangling him for not believing in it?
That's great structure, and great writing, and the most amazing thing about it is that it works and doesn't feel jammed in there as exposition and as just conveniently placed to explain a difficult concept to the audience.
That is great writing. Most people think a flowery exchange of dialogue between two characters or a long monologue from an actor to the audience is what "great writing" is but I totally disagree. Ninety-five percent of writing is structuring the events of the story correctly so that they are in the right order, build properly and resolve themselves in a satisfying (and hopefully surprising way.
Another interesting thing is the use of the light saber in the story. we first see it in Ben's house, where he tells us that it is a weapon, and that it's more elegant than a blaster. We see Luke wave it around but, again, we don't see it's effect on anything. Lucas could have had Luke cut a chair in two so we could see what it could do, but he didn't for the same reason that he didn't have Ben fling a chair across the room using the Force: this is a quiet, intimate scene and anything that would have destroyed that feeling should be avoided, and besides, the audience doesn't need to be force-fed everything all at once. This is a scene where we hear about things we don't quite understand yet, and Lucas is a confident enough film maker to know that he will have enough time to unfold all we need to know in later scenes and make everything clear. In fact, if everything about the Force could be explained in one scene it would undermine the mystery and scope of the Force, simplifying it to something anyone could understand in five minutes. And every movie should hold back things from the audience; tease them, let them be confused for a minute, so that when the get the answer they feel satisfaction and delight at having figured it out. As the saying goes, don't just give them four, give them two plus two and let them come up with four by themselves.
Anyway, so all we know after that scene is that the light saber is some sort of weapon.
Now when they go to the bar a while later to find a pilot, there is a scene that might seem unnecessary: Luke unintentionally runs afoul of some criminals at the bar, and they threaten to kill him. One of them pulls a gun and Ben reacts quickly by cutting off his arm with his light saber.
Again, this is a great scene for many reasons: the most important is that, without it, we won't see how a light saber works until the end of the movie, when Ben confronts Vader. Sure, we see Luke training with one in the middle of act two, but that's not really showing what it can do. If the audience had to wait until the very end to see what they can do, you risk the audience being disconnected and not really remembering what this thing really is, and more importantly, we wouldn't really be as scared for Ben if we didn't know exactly how quickly efficient and deadly a light saber can be.
The moment of the bar fight is perfect, because it also serves as some action to get us through one of the slower parts of the movie, and because - again - it does a really good job of hiding the fact that it's exposition and just there to show us what a light saber can do. It hides itself well because, after all, Ben just told us this was a tough place, so it seems natural that someone would start a fight here, and a boy fresh off the farm would probably be the one they would pick a fight with. You know, once someone says "watch yourself, this bar is full of tough characters" you almost owe the audience some sort of fulfillment on that promise, and Lucas is smart enough to know that we want to see that expectation fulfilled. It also helps to make Han seem cooler and tougher by extension, because he hangs out all the time among these type of people, and also helps the moment a beat later when Greedo sits down, because now you know that people actually die here all the time so Han is in real trouble.
Of course, it goes without saying that it's also the only moment in the movie where you get to see the other side of Ben, until he takes on Vader. Despite Ben's affable and kindly exterior, he's still quick and deadly when he needs to be. This is really important so that when he faces off against Vader st the end, the audience doesn't laugh at the idea of this old man in his bathrobe going up against The Terminator. Instead, we are totally intrigued and sitting on the edge of our seat, because we know Ben can be tough when he wants to be, but now he's going up against the toughest guy in the universe. which one will prevail in the end?
And then Lucas does the great thing and surprises us by having one of them lose intentionally, but that's another thread, and I suppose I've talked enough for now!
Oh, just one more thing I never noticed before: a nice little piece of foreshadowing. When Luke meets Ben, he asks if he knows "Obi-Wan" and if Obi-Wan is till alive, Ben has a great reaction as he says "Oh, no he's not dead..at least not yet". This plays on a whole different level once you know that he will be dead by the end of the film. It helps set up the idea that he's considered his own mortality, and I think it softens the blow to the audience at the end when he's cut down because he's grappled with and come to terms with his own death. It makes it easier to believe that he could sacrifice his own life in the end for a greater purpose.
Maybe sometime I will sit and watch the rest of the movie and see what else I see that I missed before.
So many of the moments in the movie has become visual icons that it's hard to see them objectively and realize how great many of the compositions in the movie are, and how well they tell the story at times.
Gotta love this shot.
This next series of shots is great - Artoo hides while the Sand People drag an unconscious Luke into frame and pillage his Landspeeder. The fact that Luke was attacked by the Sand People is all R2's fault for running away, so this little sequence gives you the idea that R2 feels bad about it and concerned for Luke, which is great so we don't end up not liking the little guy. We sympathize with him because he's just trying to fulfill his mission and he didn't mean for Luke to get hurt.
Maybe I will try and post more screengrabs later. Thirty years later, the film continues to astound and surprise me.