By Alan Scherstuhl
By Michael Atkinson
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But Lucas has had subtler legacies, too. Would Diner have been financed if the success of an earlier vignette-style coming-of-age ensemble period piece--American Graffiti--weren't in studio executives' heads? And the credits to Lucas's directorial efforts are also a credit to his taste, from actors such as Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford to that sound and editing wizard Walter Murch. The second-unit photographers for Star Wars alone included Carroll Ballard (who went on to direct The Black Stallion), Robert Dalva (who edited The Black Stallion), and Tak Fujimoto (who shot Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and The Silence of the Lambs for Jonathan Demme). Too bad Star Wars has become such a commercial vortex that it's weakened Lucas as a catalyst, sucking down his time.
The highly publicized changes Lucas has wrought for Star Wars Special Edition won't alter anyone's view of the picture--if anything, they're dismaying in how they betray the picayune level of his obsessiveness. He uses computer tricks to animate creatures in scenes that he always thought too static, to populate the streets outside the Mos Eisley Cantina more friskily, and to reincorporate the intended (but ultimately cut) debut of the loathsome, gelatinous Jabba the Hutt (now computer-generated) and bounty hunter Boba Fett. (He also includes a brief rah-rah segment pumping up Luke's reputation as a pilot prior to the screaming-eagle finish; the total of the "new" outtake footage amounts to four and a half minutes.) The one Star Wars devotee in my viewing circle considered the new stuff classy, enlivening, and superior to what Spielberg offered up in Close Encounters--The Special Edition. I actually think that apart from punching up one gag that now has Han Solo dashing headlong into a horde of Stormtroopers, the additions are a wash. They may draw one breed of "close readers" who'll scan the screen for the slightest alteration. But others will feel as if their long-term recall has been zapped.
And the slicker the movie gets, the more it loses character. Because Lucas pioneered seamless meldings of special effects into live-action footage, his trilogy has left a glossy afterglow, though one of its charms is how knocked-up its futuristic vision gets--even that golden boy C-3PO has a charming collection of dents. Part of the Star Wars appeal for a non-technical, non-cult audience came from its transposition of World War II propaganda and baby-boomer youth culture to that "long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." It was a daydream come true for many members of the Woodstock generation--fighting Nazi-like Imperial Stormtroopers as their fathers did, but with the vaguely countercultural Force as their weapon. One of the several spontaneous chuckles at the screening I attended came when Luke begs off cleaning up the androids because he's got to go to "Tosche station to pick up some power convertors," sounding for all the universe like a Valley Boy aching to get some new shocks for his jalopy. In his enormous "Letter From Skywalker Ranch" in the January 6 New Yorker, John Seabrook writes that people applaud for Lucas "because he is Star Wars. It's difficult for brains braised in Star Wars from early adulthood to conceive of Lucas in any other terms." But even at the time of its premiere, movie fans couldn't help seeing Luke as Lucas. In Star Wars, Luke is thrust into an intergalactic civil war when he's nothing more than a kid from a desert nowhere-land who would fit right into the Modesto of American Graffiti--and he ends up triumphing over the evil Empire by sticking to his gut urges, just as Lucas ended up conquering Hollywood. The movie's one heartfelt twinge comes when John Williams's music wells up like tears as Luke, profiled against a melancholy double sunset, laments what promises to be a fate of rural drudgery. (In general, Williams's score carries the emotional load: When you saw the film without the score, Carroll Ballard told Lucas biographer Pollock, "you couldn't take it seriously. But the music gave it the style of an old-time serial.")
The filmmaker means for the fresh-faced innocent Luke to function as our stand-in. But he's inadequate except as a mirror image of Lucas, who was already an American success story after American Graffiti. The other human characters don't fill the bill, either, at least not at this point in the saga. Harrison Ford hadn't yet gained the swashbuckling authority to pull off the role of a bluff gambler-adventurer. He may grimace and snarl like a rough, but he looks unmarked by experience, like a kid doing Bogart for Halloween. Carrie Fisher plays interstellar royalty like a summer-camp thespian, hitting every wrong note imaginable for a freedom-loving princess; even when she stoops to admiring Han Solo's gumption--"He's got courage"--she descends with a nincompoop's noblesse oblige. And Alec Guinness lathers on his trademark understatement as Obi-Wan Kenobi: He's so wise-old-owlish you half expect him to say, "Whoooo." Those few curious adults who'll be seeing the film for the first time may wonder, as a friend of mine did, "What's the difference between an archetype and a stereotype?" (In Skywalking, Pollock finesses the issue by calling the heroes and heroine "fairy-tale prototypes.")
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