Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Every Instalment Was the Holiday Special: Some Better, Some Worse

Recently, I attended the second-run showing of the Hateful Eight, the “Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino.”  

It was released, to little fanfare as I recall, during the Christmas season. 

Starlog Magazine, Issue no 19, dated February 1979, but published circa November 1978.

The publication of a Tarantino movie was – as recently as his last film, Django Unchained – something of an event. 

And although the Hateful Eight did respectably at the box-office (according to Wikipedia, earning $145 million in theatres), the success of the Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens, overshadowed all other late-year releases in 2015.

The Hunger Games film series was, at one time, a cultural phenomenon. The final installment in the series, Mockingjay Part 2, came out in November to the yawns of most sci-fi fans (perhaps not as many as were caused by viewing the first Mockingjay film, however). 

Although Mockingjay the second went on to gross more than US$600 million at the box office, the majority of this came from overseas’ audiences.

And, who can recall that December also saw the release of a movie by the once-hotshot director Ron Howard? In the Heart of the Sea, with a production budget of one-hundred million dollars, grossed just a quarter of that amount in general release.  
By contrast, the Force Awakens has taken in more than two billion dollars in revenue since its release a week before Christmas. 

This total makes the seventh Star Wars film the top-grossing film at the box office, surpassing the record held by the 2009 film Avatar (although, adjusted for inflation, the most successful theatrical film is Gone with the Wind, which was released almost eighty years ago). 

Seeing the Force Awakens just after it came out, I quite enjoyed the experience. The film has been hailed as a return to form for a film-series that definitely lost its way with the three prequel films released between 1999 and 2005. 

Yet, I’ve not been able to get over the notion that the fate of the Force Awakens will be similar to that of Avatar, another highly popular sci-fi film whose impact, as it turns out, was not at all enduring. 

When news came in 2012 that Star Wars mastermind George Lucas had sold his property to the Walt Disney company, and that the latter would commence with the production of further sequels, I remained sceptical that there was any story left to tell of this “saga.” Even having enjoyed the film, I think my scepticism was warranted. The Force Awakens is hardly a terrible movie (as was at least the first of the three prequels directed by series creator George Lucas around the turn of the century). 

It is, however, transparently not original, being largely a retelling of the first, and most successful of the movies, released in 1977. This the movie’s director, J.J. Abrams, has all but acknowledged, but it is remarkable how much that Force Awakens conforms to the original, from its settings, to its characters, to the thrust of the overall story. 

The satirical website Cracked had a mock film-script with famous scenes from the first Star Wars crossed out, their equivalents in the new movie placed beside them.  


My idea has long been that the galactic setting of the first movie was not an imaginary place (as is, for example, the Middle Earth of the Lord of the Rings novels and movies), but a device through which several distinct adventure genres (the western, the war flick, the samurai picture, the medieval romance) could be combined into a single movie through the magic of sci-fi technology. 

The original Star Wars was thus a kind of variety show, something that was perhaps unconsciously signalled through the conclusion of several comic elements in the picture (such as the robotic oddball sidekicks, the hulking canine-man, the dance-band of assorted aliens in the famous “cantina” bar scene, which of course has a close counterpart in the Force Awakens). 

It is interesting in this regard that the very first sequel to the original Star Wars was not a movie, but a television show: the Star Wars Holiday Special, broadcast in 1978, and which was actually a variety program that featured the singing talents of Carrie Fisher (who played Princess Leia in the first trilogy as well as the Force Awakens), comic-repartee between Bea Arthur and Harvey Corman (popular television personalities at the time), as well as a cartoon segment that introduced the Boba Fett villain seen next in the Empire Strikes Back

Badly-received at the time, it was never aired again, has never been made available through home-video, and its existence was scarcely acknowledged thereafter. 

Regarded as a strange, “non-cannon” outlier in the whole Star Wars “universe”, the Holiday Special should have been viewed as an unsettling portent of Lucas’ lack of artistic judgement as well as his ambition to pander to the most juvenile elements of the target audience, both of which were on full display with the Phantom Menace and the other prequels. 

Returning to point, I think it is unlikely that the sequel-stories will be as compelling as the Force Awakens simply because of the conceptual insufficiency of the setting in which the whole story takes place. It was a framing device for a variety show, and like any background, it doesn’t stand for much scrutiny until its phoniness is revealed. 

The Star Wars sequel inspired another idea relating to the “retro-mania” described by Simon Reynolds in his recent book of that name. 

The Force Awakens is a sequel (and retelling) of a movie that was released theatrically thirty-eight years earlier. It would have been inconceivable in 1977, though, to make a sequel to a movie released in 1939. 

The cinema of that earlier time was, if not largely forgotten, then viewed as irredeemably antique and outdated in a way that at least certain films of the mid- to late 1970s are not today, apparently. 

This is verified by the fact that Star Wars itself actually was directly inspired by features released in 1939, Buck Rogers, and three years earlier, Flash Gordon. Both starred the former U.S. Olympic athlete Clarence “Buster” Crabbe as a regular earthman who finds himself in the 25th century (Rogers) or in a far-off galaxy (Gordon). 

Presented in about a dozen serial-installments with each but the last ending in a cliffhanger (the term “cliffhanger” itself deriving from a typical climactic predicament in these serials), Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had total running-times of twice or even three times the typical ninety-minute length of a regular feature film of the era. 

The acknowledgement by Lucas of his debt to these serials, resurrected them from the complete obscurity to everyone but the age-cohort to which he himself belonged. Buck Rogers was revived as a network television series for a couple of seasons around the turn of the 1980s, while Flash Gordon was made into a disastrously-received big-budget picture in 1980. 

I remember this movie quite well...
because I saw it the evening that John Lennon was shot.

I recall seeing the serials themselves on TV during this period, but they nevertheless remained curiosities, and no one to my knowledge has sought to continue the unsuccessful revivals that came in the wake of the original Star Wars. It was not only that the 1930s’ movies were in black-and-white, and the visual-effects were rudimentary (and even colour films of that time appeared unreal in Technicolor garish). 

The serial format itself was part of a cinematic experience that hadn’t existed for decades, when the “feature presentation” was accompanied by another half-dozen films, including the newsreel, a couple of cartoons, a short comedy film, a song-and-dance routine, even a sing-along, in addition to an adventure serial (which were typically cowboy or crime stories). 

Cinema-going in the Flash Gordon era was a kind of variety show in itself. But as television became the chief medium of entertainment, cinemas pared back their offerings until the feature-film was accompanied only by a cartoon (then this disappeared as well, its place taken entirely by coming attractions trailers). 

After the 1950s, there was no place at movie-theatres for serial-features, and while Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and other serials were edited and presented on early television, their narrative structure (with a cliffhanger occurring at a set interval) seemed awkward when presented in one sitting (as opposed to being stretched over several weeks or months). 

There was, in sum, a far greater disparity between the movie-going experience in the thirty-eight years between 1939 and 1977 that made the earlier features inaccessible to all but a small number of the latter-day audience, than was the case in the same period of time between ‘77 and 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment