Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A history lesson and an answer to a question about Star Wars

I have met, in my travels, younger people who are interested in film, but they have seen almost none of the classics. Sometimes they have never heard of them. Not only is this sad, but it could stop them from becoming the best filmmakers they could be.

A sadder thing is that it is not just students but working professionals who know little of film’s past. I once spoke with a former film executive who, in a meeting of fellow executives, discovered that he was the only one in the room who had seen Casablanca. 

I believe students of film should watch, and study, films from every era of the medium—and it’s best if they watch these films chronologically. That way they will be able to see when and how an innovation has been made. They will know why the close-up was so powerful when D.W.Griffith learned how to use it. 

If students watched these films in the order they were made and released, no one would ever have to explain why it was cool that GreggToland showed a ceiling or used deep focus in Citizen Kane. They would get a sense of what it may have been like to see these things for the first time.

Last summer I was a guest speaker at a summer camp for teenage filmmakers where I showed a short film I made, in which I mentioned Star Wars. After the film, a boy close to the very age I was when Star Wars came out asked, “Why did people like Star Wars so much?” Time stopped.

Here was this kid who looked so much like many of my friends back in 1977 but saying something no kid would have ever said in 1977. It was a surreal experience for me and I am sure I left my body.

Now, when I say Star Wars, I mean what younger people call A New Hope or Episode IV.  I call it Star Wars and it was Episode I. In its original release Star Wars had no Episode IV in the opening title crawl. Trust me, if it had, all of us 12-year-old boys would have had a lot of questions. Many people remember a later re-release of the film where the New Hope title was added to the crawl.

But I digress.  Why was Star Wars so cool? It is an interesting thing to be at the beginning of something that has that much impact on the world. I wasn’t there for the first issue of Superman, or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but I was there for Star Wars and it was one of the coolest things I have experienced in my lifetime.

Many have commented of the Hero’s Journey aspects of the film, based on what Joseph Campbell had observed was a recurring structure in mythology, so I will not talk about that here—except to say that story pattern has worked since the beginning of storytelling and that it certainly worked for a vast audience in 1977.

But there are other things in addition to this ancient story form that gave the film such power. First of all, things were dirty. This may seem small, but it’s huge. If you look at the way high tech and sci-fi realities were depicted pre-Star Wars, you will see that things are immaculate. The future was always shown to be clean. Pristine. Perfect. 

But in Star Wars the robots got dirty and had dents. The main character Luke Skywalker had a hovercraft that had pieces missing. There was something beautiful about how something so high tech, when it was beat-up and dirty, communicated so clearly that it was still a teenager’s first car.

Today there is a cell phone called a Droid, but back in 1977 no one had a cell phone and droid was not a word. Android was a word. Robot was the standard word for these automatons, but droid was brand new (as far as I know). Not only was it a new word, but also it was a way cooler word than robot.

These droids also had great personalities. They were more like the comedy teams of Laurel & Hardy or Abbot & Costello (if you don’t know those references, you should) than robots. Before this, most robots had no real personality. They were machines, after all.

There were Huey, Dewey, and Louie from the film SilentRunning, and they were cute, but were light on real personality. The Star Wars droids were characters that happened to be robots. It was amazing to a mid-seventies audience to see anything like this.

The design for one of the droids was inspired by the design of a robot from the classic silent film Metropolis. Good thing Lucas knew his film history.

There were also the amazing effects. I once called Star Wars a special effects film to a kid I was tutoring, and he replied, “Star Wars isn’t a special effects film!”.

He’s right. Star Wars was THE special effects film. No one had ever seen anything like this. It was the first use of the computerized motion control system, which ushered in a new era. Even something simple like a lightsaber was amazing. There was no such thing as a lightsaber before Star Wars. I’m sure you know that, but imagine being a kid seeing this crazy light-up sword for the first time.

And don’t get me started on the great Ben Burtt and his sound design. His sounds seem so natural that you can’t even imagine a blaster sounding any other way. Before Ben Burtt all sci-fi sounds were electronic bleeps and bloops with no warmth.

So many of these creative choices influenced special effects and sci-fi from that day to this.

If there had been no Star Wars, the special effects films so popular today would be vastly different in design, tone, and pace. Many of the movies, TV shows, and video games of today are still ripples from the splash that Star Wars made.

If you have grown up in a world that has always contained droids, lightsabers, and Wookies, then you can never know what is was like to be among the first people to see them. But what you can do is watch what came before and then see Star Wars; see if it doesn’t look better to you. This is true for any film. If you want to know why The Godfather was so groundbreaking, look at what came before.
Have you ever heard Martin Scorsese talk about film? It’s like he’s seen every film there is, and has committed each shot to memory. Steven Spielberg is the same way. These filmmakers have been able to make films that transform film because they know their history.

Film history is full of lessons. All you have to do to learn them is watch.


Jamie Baker said...

Great post, Brian. YEs, I remember that summer VERY well. What a a cultural explosion that was.

By the way, I am now reading book called THE SECRET HISTORY OF STAR WARS which traces the evolution of the sage from its earlier known outline (1973, I think) and tracks the development of the ideas. Not a bad read.

Leigh Fieldhouse said...

Hi Brian,

Earlier this year a great series on the history of film aired over here in the UK called The Story of Film: An Odyssey.


Bozo Buttons said...

I was literally the last kid on my block to see Star Wars. It was the last weekend of that summer when my father finally broke down and took the family. By that time, it was already a cultural phenomenon, but I wasn't disappointed at all when I finally saw it.

From a kid's point of view, the special effects were the initial draw, but there was also the vastness of the Star Wars Universe. There was much more to the world than what they needed for the movie, and it just felt real, exciting and huge.

Brian McD said...

Hey Jamie,

That summer was amazing wasn't it? And it was all word-of-mouth rather than slick marketing. Everywhere you went people were talking about Star Wars and saying "May the force be with you". It was crazy.

Brian McD said...

Thanks for the link, Leigh. I'll check it out.

Brian McD said...

Hey Bozo Buttons,

I had the opposite experience I was the first person at my school to see it. My family went right away. My mother loves sci-fi so she was all excited about the movie. I thought the trailers looked stupid and didn't want to see it. But my mother made us go. That was the day it opened.

But the thing is we didn't see it that day because the lines were too long and in those days it was just on one screen. One screen for the whole city and surrounding areas.

Seeing that line got me excited. The two movies that had crazy lines like that that I knew of were Jaws and The Exorcist. But I hadn't gotten to see those movies because I was too young.

Anyway, seeing that line and knowing that I was not going to miss this film because of my age got me all excited. We saw it a few days later.

At that point I didn't know anyone else who had seen it. So I was the guy at school telling everyone that they had to see this movie.

And you're right there was something about the Star Wars universe that was captivating. It felt so complete and real.

Leigh Fieldhouse said...

Hi Brian,

Where would you suggest people start their chronological viewing of film?
All the way at the beginning with Lumiere films?

Brian McD said...

Hey Leigh,

That’s a good question. Starting with the silents isn’t bad, but that can be hard for people. They can be hard for modern viewers to get through. But I think is a least worth seeing all of the landmark films from every era.

If it is hard for you to get through a really old film my advice is to watch it in stages. It took me a week to get through Birth of a Nation. But I thought it was important that I see it and be familiar with it.

Back when I was a teenager the VCR became popular my buddy Scott and I decided to watch all of the films we’d heard about all our lives. We’d rent all of the gangster films for a while and then all the classic westerns and so on. Or we’d rent the films of Hitchcock, John Houston, Howard Hawks or somebody. And we did it mostly chronologically. We learned a lot that way.

If you can find interviews with the filmmakers that can be really helpful.

So, I guess I’d say at the very least try to hit the big movies, the ones that made an impact or their time. Which probably means that it has made some impact on our time even if it’s a couple generations removed. I think recognized some influence in the first Pirates of the Caribbean from the silent film The Black Pirate starring Douglass Fairbanks.

There is a documentary that HBO made years ago about silent films. It was a really informative film. They made this film in the early 80s I think so many of the people involved in those early films were still alive to be interviewed.

I just found the HBO documentary on line. You’ll learn a ton about how those old films were made and that might help you get into them a little more:

Leigh Fieldhouse said...

Hi Brian,

Thanks for the link to that documentary. I'm slowly working my way through it.

I found a resource of all the very first short films in chronological order.


Watching these early shorts reminds me of your post "On the Shoulders of Giants", as you can see Melies copying early films from the Lumiere Bros before moving onto his own films.

Other pioneers then copied Melies work before advancing developing their own techniques.

I'll be interested to see how D.W Griffith developed these techniques into a visual grammar to tell a story.

It was interesting watching alot of the short silent films which used a single locked off camera, to then suddenly see the first close up used.

Leigh Fieldhouse said...

These clips might also interest you Brian, they are from older films which inspired Lucas & Spielberg when creating Indiana Jones.



Harvey Jerkwater said...

This is all true, but also a huge part of "Star Wars"'s success came from its era how that era forced Lucas to structure the story. The late seventies zeitgeist was exhaustion and disillusionment: post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, rising crime, the horrors of polyester, etc., etc. What "Star Wars" did was to bring open, un-ironic heroic fantasy to the movies...but it did so slowly.

Remember that after the whiz-bang opening of Vader and the Star Destroyer, we immediately downshift to a farm kid who drives a beat-up car and thinks about getting away. Then the fantastic world of lost princesses, space knights, and rebellion against distant tyranny crashes into his life, and we follow him into the larger, more brightly colored and amazing world. (With the requisite foil of Han Solo reminding us of how ridiculous it all was, so we didn't have to tell it to ourselves.)

Yes, if you want, you can drag out the Joseph Campbell theory about it all ("rejecting the call!" etc.), but the key is that in 1977, Lucas knew he couldn't throw Flash Gordon up on the screen. Audiences would tune it out as unsophisticated silliness. We were smarter than that now! He had to ease us into it, taking into account that just as much as we want to be sucked into the fantasy, we don't want to be taken for naive dolts.

Lucas piloted the audience of a cynical time into a fantasy of unambiguous adventure and zap guns, and they loved him for it.

That, and never underestimate the wow factor of laser swords.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I know you know all this, but I had to yammer.

Also: how the hell can you be a studio exec without having seen "Casablanca?" That's like being a surgeon without ever having practiced on a cadaver. Yoinks.