Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 'Star Wars' Revolution

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars and so it seems like an appropriate time to revisit a series of commentaries that I wrote to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens. Here is the piece most directly relevant to the original film:

The Star Wars Revolution
Star Wars has been such a dominating presence in cinema for the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to imagine American movies and pop culture without it. But it’s worth understanding where Star Wars came from to fully understand what it has become.

The original Star Wars was released in the midst of the New Hollywood movement, which remains the greatest period of American film. Spanning from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, the New Hollywood movement gave rise to filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, and Stanley Kubrick who made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Coming Home, The French Connection, and A Clockwork Orange. These movies upended filmmaking conventions, redrew the boundaries of censorship, told stories of moral complexity, and dealt with difficult subject matter.

Two things happened at this time that made the New Hollywood movement possible. The first was the destabilization of American society. Watergate, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and insurgent social movements like second wave feminism and gay liberation shook up American society. At the same time the American film industry was going through its own structural change. The major studios were in financial trouble and the old standards of musicals and historical epics were no longer making bank. The studios went from standalone companies to divisions of much larger conglomerates. The new corporate owners didn’t know much about movies but they were interested in reaching the youth market and so they turned to young filmmakers. Under the old Hollywood studio system the average feature film director was in his mid-forties but now twenty year olds were given license to make what they wanted in the hope that it would regain the public’s interest in the movies. These young filmmakers produced motion pictures that reflected their own view of the world.

It’s in this environment that Star Wars was made and the movie was in its own way revolutionary. Writer and director George Lucas was operating within the studio system while alienated from it. He and his contemporaries were among the first graduates of film schools and Lucas saw himself as an outsider who would make experimental movies. His first two features, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, didn’t resemble traditional narrative filmmaking and Warner Bros. and Universal reedited them before release, angering Lucas and prompting him to assert more control over his films and properties. Star Wars was more conventionally narrative than those pictures but it was even more experimental in its style and technique. The rapid editing and technological innovations revealed new methods of producing visual effects and ultimately new ways of making movies altogether.

The story of Star Wars was also revolutionary or perhaps more accurately it was counter-revolutionary. The film spoke to the youth of the time as it depicted a galactic civil war in which young people figuratively (and later literally) rebelled against their fathers. But Star Wars rejected the ambiguity of the New Hollywood movement in favor of the optimism and moral absolutism of an earlier era. The youth of the 1970s saw their struggles against the establishment in the Rebel assault on the Death Star but their parents would have recognized Darth Vader’s headgear as a synthesis of the Nazi helmet and the SS Totenkopf symbol, giving the conflict a different point of reference. This mix of mainstream and revolutionary elements is a large part of what made Star Wars a hit and made it both a part of and apart from the New Hollywood movement.

Star Wars is also a revolutionary film in the way that it altered the trajectory of the film industry. The enormous box office of Star Wars recalibrated Hollywood’s barometer of financial success and so the picture is often credited—or blamed—with ending the New Hollywood era. But that’s not altogether true. Like any business owner, the executives running Hollywood studios were always interested in making products that would generate the most revenue. By the late 1970s the audience was exhausted with downbeat stories and the success of Jaws and Rocky had already begun to shift Hollywood’s tone. Following Star Wars, the subsequent box office failure of somber films like Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate and the success of upbeat pictures like Grease and Superman: The Movie completed the redirection of the industry toward escapist fare.

It’s become a cliché to say that Star Wars changed the American film industry. But that is so often said because it’s true. Star Wars was as important a cinematic milestone as Citizen Kane and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and like Orson Welles' and Walt Disney’s movies, the style and techniques of George Lucas’ original space opera have been so embedded in mainstream films that contemporary audiences can’t see what was so special about them. We’ve been living in the era of Star Wars for nearly forty years and what began as a youthful cinematic rebellion has become an empire in its own right. Now that we are on the cusp of a new era of Star Wars films, it is time for audiences, critics, and filmmakers to reevaluate what that means.

For further commentary on the past, present, and future of Star Wars, click here.

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