Thursday, November 10, 2011

Star Wars in Question: The Decline of the American Film Industry

Back in the day, 1970s American cinema was ripe with fresh, new talent and great vivaciousness.  There emerged some promising directors (and some amazing beards).  The New American Cinema produced some great films such as Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Easy Rider (1969).  Through most of the 70s, there was an unprecedented creative freedom.  Yet that freedom, being exploited by these new directors, had a drawback. 

They removed the old guard and in turn removed the stability of the film industry.  However, that will come up later.  

There was one director who never really was that good.  George Lucas was never a great director to begin with.  He had only one good film in him and it wasn’t Star Wars (1977).  THX1138 (1971) is actually a pretty good film.  Not perfect, but its better than Star Wars.  Then Lucas wanted to make Flash Gordon, but he couldn’t, so he tried to make his own space fantasy, which he failed at.  The man can’t write at all.  I actually prefer the 1980 Flash Gordon to Star Wars but I’ll get into that later.  Star Wars was wish fulfillment for Lucas, which happened to be a perfect storm of production design and music and came out at a time when it was destined to stand apart.  I was into Star Wars a while ago, but I’ve found other movies I enjoy more.  Plus, the film I have found that the film is a rehash of the Joseph Campbell hero formula.  The story is quite one-dimensional and there isn’t anything more to it than what’s on screen.  Not to say the story doesn’t flow well.  Its just very cut and dry.  At the end of the day its a well designed, good looking film with some good lines, timeless score and likable characters.  However, the film would not have had as much staying power if it wasn’t for its merchandizing.  Star Wars didn’t really have a precedent in the era it was released.  

Most sci-fi films of the time were dystopic social commentaries, that still managed some fun, films like Logan’s Run (1978) and Soylent Green (1973).  But one of the only ways to garner fan support for Star Wars before it came out was to sell it throughout a merchandizing campaign.  When this proved very, very successful, the producers were quick to realize the potential of selling Star Wars Underoos.  

By that I mean selling anything and everything that could possibly be contrived to relate to a film.  But I want to mention that Star Wars is one of two films of the 70s which cemented the summer blockbuster and doomed the streak of brilliant films that were successful during that time.  The first of these was Jaws (1975).  Such a fine movie.  The essence of a blockbuster. 

However, this and Star Wars sounded the beginning of an era where films were pushed to completion faster if they showed promise with audience tastes (more so than before).  This really made things difficult for directors who wanted to make things that took risks.  Before this one saw many more personal projects being funded by producers.  There wasn’t too much of a problem of this, though, until the advent of the digital era and everything became ultra streamlined.  As a fan of genre films, especially sci-fi, I found the after effects of Star Wars disheartening.  After Star Wars established a swashbuckling scenario for science fiction, the fiction became fantasy and there was a loss of the kind of thought provoking stories which were like a mirror to society.  The films that tried to bring back that kind of sci-fi were swept under the rug.  Films such as John Carpenter's remake of The Thing and Blade Runner (both from that golden year of 1982) suffered because of the release of more intellectually tranquilized films like E.T.  

And yet one film that seems to have followed in the direct wake of Star Wars, yet, for me, supersedes it, is the film Lucas initially wanted to make.  A film that not too many people have shown favor on.  For me, 1980’s Flash Gordon is all the thrilling excitement of Star Wars, but with a slightly different tone that helps it immensely.  The thing is, the tone of Flash Gordon is tongue in cheek enough, but you can still get behind the characters as they experience the world of the film.  What sets it apart from Star Wars is that the protagonists are from earth and that’s where the film begins.  We can relate to people from earth.  Since these characters are being whisked away to a strange, new world, we are just as lost and amazed as they are when they enter Ming’s palace.  

Star Wars has really amazing visuals and that is part of the reason for its success, but it is somewhat dry for wonderment.  I think this is due to the fact that this is how the characters treat the scenery.  Since they’re not from earth they somewhat stifle the scenes with their stoicism at how banal the locations are.  Now, we can relate to them, but mostly as human beings and that only goes so far.  As for Flash, we are experiencing everything anew with the characters, so we sympathize more unconsciously.  I’d even venture to say some of the characters in Flash Gordon are more interesting than in Star Wars, but there’s a back and forth with that.  Dale Arden is much more engaging and fun than Leia.  I think that Dale goes through an arc somewhat, which I can’t really say for Leia.  However Luke Skywalker is a much more interesting protagonist than Flash Gordon is.  I’m in no way saying Star Wars is terrible.  I’m merely saying it had the most perfect combination of timing and....well pretty much timing.  But I wonder, what would have happened had the film had had not so good timing?  If Star Wars was just some neglected and lambasted cult favorite, how would the culture have differed?  

To conclude, I just want to return to what I had mentioned about the new batch of directors which Lucas was associated with.  They were responsible for bringing about a great period of creativity.  However, in doing so, they removed the faith in a tried and true studio system that, for better or worse, had birthed a golden age.  Thusly, the studio system had been destroyed and what was left was an industry.  Now, film has always been an industry, but within the studios there was creativity that was fostered.  The older producers were willing to take certain risks.  Now that the young producers think they know what the young people want to see, they’ll dictate the stories and formulas that these blockbusters have tested time and again.  The sun has set on the classical style.  In its place is an expedience that breeds mediocrity.   

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