Thursday, August 27, 2015

New hope

Now, don't think I'm embracing the newly popular practice -- even among people who should know better -- of referring to the original Star Wars as A New Hope, or even worse, as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. I'm not down with that. It's revisionist history and I don't like it. Even recognizing the need to differentiate the movie you're talking about from the other movies in the series, I don't like it.

However, I do think it's useful as a title for this post, because it welcomes us to the second half of my "Star Wars year" -- and to the movies in this series that we can all agree are actually good.

As you recall, I'm watching one of the current six Star Wars movies, in order by episode, each two-month period of 2015, leading up to the release of The Force Awakens in December. By the end of August, it was my task to watch the one movie actually known as Star Wars -- the first, which then became the fourth.

And new hope is indeed what I felt when I watched it.

In fact, I kind of felt like I was watching it for the first time, which was indeed an enthralling experience.

Star Wars is a bit of an oddity for a movie in my top ten movies of all time, in the sense that it may have been as long as 18 years ago that I last saw it. In fact, grimacing at the "newly" added scenes and digital effects as I watched it this time, I feel quite certain that my only previous experience with them was when I saw Star Wars for its digitally enhanced re-release in 1997. My wife and I watched Empire and Return of the Jedi between Christmas and New Year's in 2007, but we left off Star Wars at her suggestion. Although she might disavow having said this if I confronted her with it, I believe she said something like "Let's not bother with Star Wars. Let's just watch the good ones."

What? The good ones?

To be fair, I don't think she actually said that. But I think she implied it. I think her tone implied that Star Wars was slow, or old, or like a black-and-white movie compared to the more colorful Empire and Jedi. (Not colorful enough? Did she forget about the cantina scene?)

But my wife is not alone in feeling this way, if she did indeed feel the way I'm saying she felt. A guy in my Flickcharters group conducted his own rewatch for the first time in five years -- he's in his early twenties, see, so he can't afford 17 years between viewings. Here's what he said about it in describing his re-ranking of Star Wars from #3 down to #57.

"It's still a technical marvel, and I can't separate how much it's impacted me. But, well, I think it was [a person in our group] who commented on how the droid stuff drags on Tatooine, and I think he's right. It does kind of drag, not giving you really any stakes or characters to invest in yourself. Until Luke is excited that the droids are a part of the Rebellion, the most interesting scene has been Vader stomping around the Tantive IV. And the fight scenes, while well-planned, are not very tense because of the film's genre aspirations; it homages constantly to films without these tensions, so why would you carry them?

"Additionally, for the first time, I see exactly why this first Star Wars might not even appeal to someone at ALL on their first watch. There's so much inextricable information for me in scenes like the cantina, the R4 unit "Red," details about the Imperial Naval Academy, the fate of Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba, the excision of the awful Jabba scene, what in the heck a Jawa is anyway. I understand not finding anything to attach to and finding the rest of the film a little annoying."

Although I almost regret giving this guy's views so much real estate on my blog, because I don't know half of what he's talking about anyway -- Dr. Evazan? Ponda Boba? -- I can't deny that these words (or the memory of their general tone) was in my head as I sat down to watch Star Wars. (With my wife alongside me, returning to this project for the first time since she fell asleep halfway through Attack of the Clones.) I didn't have it at #3 on my Flickchart, but I did/do have it at #8. Would this viewing of Star Wars drop it to #57 or even lower?

Well, I don't re-rank on Flickchart after each instance of revisiting a film, but if I did, I don't think it would even move down one spot.

In fact, I was overjoyed to reckon with how elemental of a piece of filmmaking it is. The last time I remember feeling this about a movie, it was during a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark sometime in the early 2000s. The feeling I had in both instances was "This movie is so effective, it could just as easily be in black and white." That's not some kind of backhanded compliment or outright insult about black-and-white films. Rather, it's a declaration that the things we might think we need to draw us to the movies we love -- modern effects, colorful scenery, etc. -- aren't remotely necessary when you have a good story and great characters. (Incidentally, this was years before Steven Soderbergh put his black-and-white version of Raiders on the internet.)

So yeah, there was a part of me that felt like I was seeing Star Wars for the first time. It felt like that kind of a revelation about its fundamental greatness. On the other hand, it was equally surprising to see how much I remembered exact lines of dialogue and exact vocal inflections on those lines of dialogue, a recognition of how this movie has become ingrained and enshrined in our collective subconscious. Although there are certainly more mainstream examples, I specifically remember noting this when C3PO spots the Jawa transport on the horizon and yells "Over here! Help! Please help!"

And let's talk about those "boring" robots and their time on Tatooine. Actually, this was the most enthralled I was in the whole film, perhaps because I was watching it the most closely for cracks in Star Wars' armor. I marveled over the fact that the movie takes its time -- but really, not too much time -- getting to the sale of the droids to Luke and his uncle. With the Flickcharter's comments in the back of my mind, I imagined that the scenes of C3PO and R2DS roaming the desert on their own might go on interminably, and I had just forgotten about it. Nope. This script actually keeps things moving along, it's just not in a hurry to bypass scenes that all have their place in establishing this world.

And I loved the notion that this major intergalactic power shift is hinging on the crash landing of an escape pod on a desert planet, and these two battle-weary droids getting sold to the correct farmers. Sure, there's a fair amount of coincidence involved here, but when isn't that the case in a story worth telling? And sure, the whole rebellion could have been quashed if the star destroyer gunner were just a little more trigger happy and had blasted the escape pod out of existence, rather than adhering to his superior's unusual request not to waste ammunition on a craft carrying no life forms. And sure, in retrospect it's a bit odd that a small disagreement between R2 and Threepio would prompt robots who had been friends for decades to go their separate ways and potentially not see each other again. (Hey, it's debatable how much of this story George Lucas actually knew about at the time, especially when Ben Kenobi has selective amnesia about the two droids.) But those things don't even register to me as problems. They are just delightful details of one of my favorite movies.

When an hour had elapsed and they hadn't even left Tatooine yet, I found myself amazed that an hour had passed -- not that they hadn't left Tatooine yet.

There's a lot more I could say about Star Wars, I'm sure. But it's Star Wars. If there's one movie almost anybody reading this already knows, it's Star Wars.

I will say that my wife no longer had a tone, implied or otherwise, about this movie. At the start she was making noise about not knowing whether she had the stamina for the whole movie, but at the end, there she was, still awake -- until the Death Star exploded and beyond.

New hope? I've definitely got it for the next movie as well. In part because Empire was the special edition that they meddled with the least.

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