Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Like Something Out Of A Dream

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Familiar words to any STAR WARS fan out there and, as some may have noticed, also spoken by Jorge Garcia’s Hurley at the end of the teaser of the final episode of LOST. The show has made numerous references (some subtle, some pretty blatant) to various elements of STAR WARS during its six seasons but this hugely obvious example so close to the end came off as one final way for the show’s creative personnel to pay tribute to something that was very much a key inspiration point--hey, it's the last episode, why the hell not? It was also fitting that it came at a time of year when these films once opened and I doubt that I’m the only person who will forever associate the period around Memorial Day weekend with the excitement they used to generate.

I think it was around the time several years ago when I started to write this blog that I started to mentally remove myself from the whole STAR WARS thing. The thirtieth anniversary of the original film hit, REVENGE OF THE SITH was long since done with and something deep down inside of me just thought, “I think I’m done.” I felt I had squeezed everything I could from the many times I’d seen these films, I’d had every exasperated argument about the prequels I could ever have and I’d made just about every dialogue reference I could ever make in my daily life, though I probably still make some occasionally anyway. It wasn’t that I suddenly didn’t like the films and it certainly wasn’t that I felt like I’d outgrown them—anybody who knows me would tell you that I’m not mature enough to have outgrown anything. I just needed to move on. I needed to do other things, see other films, to expand my horizons a little. Life is finite. There are too many films I still have yet to see but I’m doing my best.

And then suddenly we hit the thirtieth anniversary of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, released May 21, 1980. Not just the date, but a special benefit screening for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood that would feature special appearances by certain famous people. A very close friend procured some difficult-to-acquire tickets, said to me, “Happy Birthday,” even though my birthday was still over a month away, and I changed the date on the plane ticket I’d bought for a trip to New Mexico. Not because I felt like I had any obligation, but because I wanted to revisit this film once again and pay tribute to how it’s stayed with me all this time.

Looking at THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK now the film seems almost miraculous in its daring approach, not in any kind of bash-George-Lucas way, but because of all the chances it takes throughout beginning with a structure that almost seems as if it shouldn’t work at all. The lead characters don’t even do anything particularly much in the film’s first fifteen minutes which is an odd way to start things off but it definitely prepares us for how much more serious things are going to be. We never could have expected how it would send the STAR WARS universe beyond what any of us kids expected during those years before 1980 playing with all those action figures in our rooms. Instead of simply sending our heroes on another adventure (Luke, Han & Leia have to go on another mission to try to defeat the Empire, yadda yadda) it found ways to deepen the characters, truly turning them from fun archetypes that we were happy to see again into a part of genuine myth. The screenplay is credited to Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan with story by Lucas but much of the credit for its success should probably go to director Irvin Kershner who takes an approach to infuse things with a true feeling of depth and humanity not seen in the saga before or since, giving a reality and strength to the continuation of this saga. It almost seems defiantly dreamlike in how it refuses to make any real sense if you think about it—what exactly is the timeframe of this movie? How long is Luke on Dagobah? A day? A month? Do you care? Do I?

On the DVD audio commentary Kershner offers his view that, “There’s nothing more interesting than the landscape of the human face,” a viewpoint that Executive Producer George Lucas doesn’t seem to have expressed at any point in his career and certainly not in the creation of the prequels. Taking some time away from this film allowed me to look at it with fresher eyes, probably an advisable approach for any film a person loves, and the one thing that stuck out to me more than anything is how Kershner’s statement is proven time and again—all throughout I found myself paying attention to the looks characters give, bits of business that say much more than any dialogue ever could and this as well all know is a film with very memorable dialogue. George Lucas has often spoken in interviews of how his stories are told through images but it’s Kershner as director here who seems to understand how much the human element really matters in putting those images together to tell this part of the story. That look Luke and Han give each other before the Hoth battle doesn’t need them to say anything, as if the movie knows that all the time we’ve played with their action figures has allowed us to fill the dialogue in on our own. Carrie Fisher’s constant looks of dread throughout, Billy Dee Williams’ deadly serious turn to the silent Lobot when the deal has been changed once again pays off each time we’ve seen the guy standing there behind him. The coolness of Boba Fett (of course, we kids had already been introduced to that character in the infamous Holiday Special) transcends the mere handful of lines he has, even that side glance Yoda gives after raising the X-Wing fighter, a moment with such strength that I can never think of the character as a mere puppet. I’ve also always had a particular fondness for the subplot involving Captain-then-Admiral Piett (nice unheralded work by Kenneth Colley) which seems to take place almost entirely with nervous expressions given all through the film.

But really, everyone involved seems to be working at peak form here from Kershner to Director of Photography Peter Suschitsky to the quantum leap from the first film in the special effects from ILM as well as of course John Williams who provides possibly the best single score of his entire career—there are too many moments to single out but I always get a kick out of the hyper-intense rendition of the Imperial March when they move the ship out of the asteroid field to send a clear transmission. For the first time ever I found myself thinking about the character of Lando Calrissian being a renegade forced by success into becoming successful and how that related to Francis Ford Coppola in the APOCALYPSE NOW days trying to make a full studio out of Zoetrope Pictures. For that matter, Lando’s comments about how his facility isn’t part of the Mining Guild made me think of Lucas’s own problems with the DGA, leading to his resignation, back during this time. So are Han Solo and Lando meant to represent the warring sides of Lucas and Coppola in their struggles to remain independent of Hollywood? These definitely weren’t issues that I was thinking about when I first saw it (a few times in 1980 and I remember also going during the summer ’81 re-release), thinking more about the anguish that Mark Hamill was projecting as his character learned things about himself he never wanted to know. The tone is perfect for the age I was at the time—the first film is giddy youth, this one moves to the time of adolescence and acknowledges just how confusing and baffling everything is—were we really just supposed to go back to all our STAR WARS toys after experiencing this? How to reconcile what this film achieves with the adulthood that the saga arrives at in RETURN OF THE JEDI is something I’m just going to avoid thinking about for the time being.

For the record, the version shown at this event was the most recent version of the Special Edition which includes the Ian McDiarmid version of the Emperor added in for his one scene. Of the three films, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK probably had the least alterations made to it for the ’97 re-release (“…and a few new surprises,” as the trailers went) but it does feature what I think is the absolute worst—following Darth Vader as he travels via shuttle back to his Star Destroyer at the end of the film which wreaks havoc on the masterful editing of the climax and seems totally unnecessary. Was anyone really confused by how he got back there? Why didn’t they show us how he got on Hoth at the beginning of the film while they were at it? Even as a kid the simplicity of Vader stating “Bring my shuttle,” after what had just happened with Luke stuck out to me and spoke volumes. Now that’s been wrecked. The whole Greedo shooting first thing in A NEW HOPE certainly makes for a better punch line in a Kevin Smith movie but I’ve always looked at this change as far more damaging.

To help celebrate this anniversary, guests attending the event included Billy Dee Williams, Peter “Chewbacca” Mayhew, Ewan McGregor, directors Christopher Nolan and Jon Favreau, Ashlee Simpson (Seriously. I was wondering what she was doing in the row in front of me) and, most importantly, Harrison Ford, making a rare STAR WARS-related appearance which included a Q&A after the film. You get pretty used to seeing celebrities in this town but spotting the one and only Harrison Ford from just a few feet away was still pretty damn cool. I was also impressed to see that he actually watched the entire film, right down the row from me no less, and claimed during the discussion that it was the first time he’d seen it in thirty years. When asked what he thought of it he replied, “I think I’ve been a really lucky guy.” Among the topics Ford discussed was his original casting in the role while working as a carpenter for Francis Ford Coppola, the travails of location shooting in Norway on EMPIRE as well as amusingly recounting getting acquainted with the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon on the first film. He didn’t get to see the set until the first day they shot there (“I was anxious to get into it and see what 'my office' looked like”) and no one had an answer when he asked how he was supposed to be appearing to ‘drive’ the thing. It also wasn’t discovered until then that Peter Mayhew was too big to simply slip into the seat and it had to be done through the magic of editing. When asked what advice Alec Guinness had given him at the time, Ford said that it mostly had to do with finding acceptable housing for the duration of the shoot and he said that when taking a look at STAR WARS just a few days before this screening (for ‘reference’ he said and it’s amusing to picture him sitting at home watching it) he realized that he was now six years older than Guinness was when they were shooting that film. He mused about being fortunate to work for Coppola, Spielberg and Lucas at the height of their powers and when asked about the infamous “I know” line to Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia he seemed to confirm that he was the one who came up with the line to give the moment more character than simply “I love you too”—which he says was also shot—but gave full credit to Irvin Kershner for being the one who fought to keep it in against George Lucas who thought it would get a bad laugh. He also briefly discussed the upcoming COWBOYS AND ALIENS which is to be directed by Jon Favreau and in which Ford will be playing, no real surprise, one of the cowboys. It was briefly mentioned by the moderator that the 87 year-old Kershner is apparently not doing well but no details were given. At one point during the discussion I noticed that while motioning to make a point Ford briefly pointed with his finger as he has done so many times in his films and I just burst out into a smile. I don’t know how many other people there noticed this brief moment but it certainly made me very happy and made the night that much more special.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK remains so good, has dated so well that just looking at a few minutes of it is a reminder of how many would-be blockbusters over the past thirty years have lacked the depth and passion it achieved, not to mention the skill in how it was all put together. EMPIRE is one of the most successful examples of that dream of movies that those of a particular generation saw when we were growing up that mattered to us more than we could explain and they rarely ever rose to this level again, but in some ways we still haven’t woken up from that dream. The legacy of STAR WARS will always be a part of my love for films for better or worse and even if I don’t need to spend much time in that world right now it’s still going to mean a great deal to the kid in me who still has yet to actually grow up. I can't say enough times how glad I am that I got to be at the Arclight that night. As for how I’ll feel when we get to the thirtieth anniversary of RETURN OF THE JEDI, well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


The Driveindude said...

Pete...wonderful article. I'm very jealous but extremely grateful for your blog and for the wonderful way you've captured for me in words what I'm sure was an even more visceral experience for you being in that theater with those associated with a film so near and dear to your heart. I concur wholeheartedly. I'm gonna watch Empire right now. Thanks again.

Joe Valdez said...

I was wondering how you'd fandangled tickets to this screening. Very, very cool report, Peel.

It's difficult if not impossible to determine who "deserves" credit for a movie like The Empire Strikes Back. As a writer, I'm biased here, but I think that Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan's script was of equal if not greater importance than the work of Irvin Kershner, who didn't seem to bring much emotion or human scale to the flick he directed right before (Eyes of Laura Mars) and after (Never Say Never Again).

Too bad they couldn't show the original version on the big screen, but count yourself lucky that you have FWT (Friends With Tickets).

christian said...

Glad you got to see this. Had I been closer, I might have arranged a Wampa "accident" to take your place.

I did see Lucas and Ford at the Jules Verne awards a couple years back and that a was geek out moment -- the red carpet was lined with stormtroopers.

Would be nice to see this in its original 70mm format -- it was 70mm right?

le0pard13 said...

Tickets for this event?!? Now that is a friend, Mr. Peel. And, you've covered the 30th year look back and the event in this post so damn well, my friend. I'm grateful you shared this with your readers. And that finger point moment... great, great catch (I smiled, too, coming across that image you placed in the piece and reading your words of it). I have no doubt you'll cherish and remember this point in time for the rest of your life. Thanks very much for this.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this report on that very special screening! Wow, that must've been something else to be in the presence of a movie star of Ford's stature. It's a shame that they used a print of the film that featured Lucas' CGI makeover. The example you mentioned is why I can't bare to watch these new versions, EVER. It's just too painful. I'll stick with my copies of the unmolested versions thankyouvermuch.

I certainly echo your sentiments about EMPIRE. I think that for those of us who saw these films at a young, impressionable age, they will always be a part of our lives and will affect us in different ways as we dust them off and watch them again and again. It's funny how you view them with the passage of time and also how EMPIRE instantly transports me back to my childhood every time I watch it. Few films have the ability to do that.

Joe Martino said...


Excellent article -- wonderful insight...all I can add is "Amen"!

Anonymous said...

Great post Mr Peel and you are very lucky to have been able to see the film in such good company. Even here in the UK there was a photograph in one of the newspapers of Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew outside the cinema.

TESB was when Star Wars started to go wrong for me. In Star Wars the Force is perfectly understated. A few throttling incidents aside it could almost be an allegory for faith, or concentration. Even as a nine year-old I knew something had gone badly wrong when when it morphed into telekinetic powers in that icy cave on Hoth.

Alex Gunniess was no longer a disembodied voice, now he was a hologram or a ghost or something much worse, a thesp with a contract stuck in a sequel.

The 'meteorite' crashed twice to show we had clumsy narrative. The young star suddenly looked different, we had a green muppet as a principal character. In the next movie there would be teddy bears.

We have a thrilling ice battle and then strongest element with the chase of the Millennium Falcon. Fantastic music and stylish effects, lasers, spaceships and asteroids. Vader loose from his leash with no tactical boss to keep him in check. This is the dramatic centre of the movie right in the middle and everything that comes after disappoints.

We have a bolt-on scene to bring the movie up to date after Alien had made dark caverns so compelling. The the Falcon crew plod along with Lando, Luke rolls up his sleeves and has a laboured, slow-mo fight with himself. Nothing much else happens in the swamps. Is this how Jedi are trained? No wonder they were brushed aside in ROTS.

I already knew about Luke's dad. I found out in the playground. Even in England.

The ending renders the movie as a stop-gap unable to stand on its own. Meaningless without what has gone before, or crucially, after.

Mr Peel I am sorry, I love the blog and you are far more articulate than I. We must disagree on this one.


Anonymous said...

As always Mr. P , beautifuly written article about a part of my youth. The series of films and as you say the time of year always remind me too of what it was to wonder about life in the other universe far, far away.

As for actualy being in the presence of some of those concerned, you're a very lucky man.

Thanks for your blog, one of the best around.

Mark D Land of forgotten passwords, UK

Unknown said...

I first saw Empire as a part my friend Jon's 8th birthday party. I hadn't seen the first film by 1980 (my parents never took me or my sister to movies) I was intimately familiar with Star Wars thanks to books, audio adventures and Dynamite magazine.

After the screening, a bevy of kids piled into a station wagon. The wood panels along the side had to have been shaking from the half dozen kids collectively going apeshit in the back. I chose to sit next to Jon's mom as everyone else squeezed in the back. I was quiet. She asked if everything was okay and didn't I like the movie. My response was simple, and one I will never forget.

"I want to go to sleep right now so that I can dream about it."

Its the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. Its a dream I never want to wake up from. Thanks for articulating that, Peter.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

No, thank you for that wonderful comment, John, that really was touching. And though I had seen STAR WARS by 1980, I certainly remember what a role Dynamite Magazine and that old Story of Star Wars album played in it all.

And thanks to everyone for their fantastic comments. Long live STAR WARS, long live EMPIRE. At least in their original versions.

Mark West said...

Coming to this very late, sorry, but a great little essay.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

However late it might be it's definitely appreciated. Thank you very much Mark!