Friday, May 21, 2010


When the son bested the father

"For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer."
— Horace, "Odes," III, 6, l. 1.

"He thought I was going to fail. Which was reasonable."
— George Lucas, talking about his father, 2008

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
— Philip Larkin, This Be The Verse

By Ali Arikan
The interwebs was abuzz last week with the news of a letter George Lucas sent to the producers of TV’s Lost. In it, Lucas apparently stated that he had made up the whole story of the Star Wars saga as he went along — a nonadmission, really, but one on which the fanboys pounced anyway, as if a meticulously detailed trope from the start were automatically greater than a naturally evolving one in service of its characters (it isn’t). Since Lucas is the great pariah when it comes to genre fiction, the backlash — such as it was — was hardly unexpected, but most definitely unfair.

The unjustly despised prequel trilogy has had such a retroactive fallout on the original three and their reputation that Lucas’ involvement in the Star Wars saga (and, to an extent, the Indiana Jones films) can be boiled down, by many, to ultimate responsibility for all the saga’s missteps, and none whatsoever for its triumphs. Spectacularly unfair, this claim, nonetheless, has become a shibboleth amongst the most ardent fans of the saga, as well as its saner aficionados. One doesn’t need to be well versed in Star Wars lore or Lucas’ biography, however, to see how major an influence the latter had on the former (and, naturally, vice versa) — even in the two films that he did not direct. In fact, it is in the beloved first sequel that the saga reached its philosophical apex, and it was because of Lucas’ direct involvement. The Empire Strikes Back is not just the finest chapter of the Star Wars saga, it is also the most personal.

On this day in 1980, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back was unleashed on movie screens in the United States to almost universal acclaim (for the sake of brevity, and sanity, from this point on I shall abbreviate the film’s full title to the colloquial ESB). Coming on the heels of the previous film’s unprecedented — and unexpected — success, the second chapter of the saga (retconned to serve as the fifth within the in-movie chronology) had a completely different feel from its predecessor, and this narrative contrast was hammered home during the film’s first few minutes.

Whereas 1977’s Star Wars (re-titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1978) opens on the desert planet of Tattooine (after the initial space age shenanigans, natch), ESB sets the action on the ice planet of Hoth. Even though both environments are extreme wastelands, the direness of the situation is made more explicit by the expository opening crawl (“It’s a dark time for the rebellion”) as well as the dialogue: there is almost no life on this planet, and what there is of it, is hostile. On the run from the Empire following the destruction of the Death Star at the end of the first film, the Rebel Alliance has taken refuge here, but they are soon discovered by Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) and the Empire, and have to flee for their lives. The heroes are separated: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) goes to the swamp planet of Dagobah to train under the tutelage of the impish Jedi Master Yoda (Frank Oz), while Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) end up going to Cloud City, where the betrayal of Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams – Billy Dee! Billy Dee! Billy Dee! Billy Dee Klump!) will have dire consequences for everyone involved.

The first Star Wars was admittedly more a cacophonous, albeit endearing, hodgepodge of boys’ own and pulp stories of yesteryear than a holistic tale. Auteurist touches were sprinkled like fairy dust, haphazardly, and not coherently. It was in ESB that this earlier promise was fulfilled: multifaceted and rich, George Lucas’ sequel, directed by his film school mentor Irvin Kershner, implied to the world just how personal an affair these films would end up being, from a philosophical as well as psychological standpoint. I recently struggled through the film while suffering from a particularly bad spell of food poisoning (not that there are good spells of this messiest of ailments), and was struck by the fiendishly systematic way themes and motifs are built up to culminate in one of the most depressing, yet hopeful, finales in the history of genre storytelling. One fully comprehends the gravity, and sheer precision, of both those notes only after seeing ESB’s 1983 sequel, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi; but to contextualise it, appreciation — or, at least, experience — of the Prequel Trilogy is also equally crucial.

Of all the movie brats, George Lucas is commercially the most successful one and also the most maligned; and I doubt the two are completely unrelated. Even though people with short memory spans tend to make a direct connection to the auteur’s general deprecation with the prequels, they are wrong: as far back as 1977, people were upset with Lucas for daring to opt for levity rather than portent. Recently, the inimitable Girish Shambu published on his Facebook feed a quote he discovered of Lucas, which originally appeared in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Sight and Sound review of the first film:
“Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realized there was another relevance that is even more important — dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps — that you could still sit and dream about exotic lands and strange creatures.”

Then came a number of comments that chastised Lucas, some going as far as pitching him as some sort of a modern Pied Piper, leading an unsuspecting audience to piffle (because, obviously, if it weren’t for Lucas, we’d all be lining around the block for the new Kiarostami); until Glenn Kenny The Wise sagely offered these words of observation:
“Let us remember, however, that 'angry' and 'socially relevant' do not automatically equal 'good.' In fact, more often than not, in art they tend to equal 'strident,' 'obvious,' 'condescending,' etc.”

This conversation was nothing new. Lucas was ostracized by a bunch of his contemporaries, and a fair few of the critical establishment, in 1977, for breaking from the pact, and having the audacity to discover edge, and profundity, through subtext rather than text. Art is subjective, and if any work of art, be it a film, or a book, or a piece of music, doesn’t work for one, it just doesn’t work for one, but secondguessing the reasons why is silly, and is a direct road to mind-numbing vacuity and conformism. It wasn’t the Ewoks wot killed Lucas’ reputation, and it wasn’t Jar Jar. It was because he did not make THX-1138: he made Star Wars.

Even though disapprobation of Lucas is relatively old news, a recent trend, which could be dated back to the lukewarm (boom, boom) reception of 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, is the attribution of the saga’s failures to Lucas, while crediting its triumphs to his collaborators. Since ESB is generally regarded as the finest chapter, it’s no wonder this oversimplification applies to it the most.

A period of De-Lucasisation began around 1999, the gist of which was, “Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan (ESB’s writer) did all the hard work, and made the film what it is while Lucas crunched numbers in Marin County.” It is unfair to downplay the importance of Kershner and Kasdan, but to completely write Lucas off is egregious. However, blame, in this case, also rests with Lucas.

According to Laurent Bouzerau’s 1997 book Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, work began on a sequel to the first film almost right away. Lucas put together a number of story conferences with friends, and then hired Leigh Brackett to write the first draft of the script (which was recently leaked on the interwebs).

These initial conferences show some major diversions from the final film. First of all, Darth Vader and Luke’s father, by the later drafts that bear at least a modicum of resemblance to ESB, are two very separate people. In fact, records show that Lucas came up with the idea of their being one and the same well into the development of Empire. From the first transcript of the story conferences between Lucas and Leigh Brackett, entitled Chapter II: The Empire Strikes Back, through to the two subsequent treatments written by Lucas, to the imaginatively titled first draft, Star Wars Sequel, Vader is most definitely not Luke’s father (in fact, even the concept of Ben Kenobi’s (Alec Guinness) Force-ghost only appears in the first draft — in all the previous treatments, Luke uses a talisman that used to belong to Ben to find out about Yoda).

The notion of Vader’s being Luke’s father appears in the second draft. Lucas nowadays argues that that was the idea all-along, and that he kept it quiet. Through five separate treatments and a full first draft of the script? OK, from Leigh Brackett maybe, but from himself? Eh? That’s either bullshit, or batshit insane. Besides, it makes no sense whatsoever as, in the earlier treatments and the first draft, Luke contacts Ben during his training, and the latter brings along with him Luke’s father from the netherworld for an interplenary father and son tête-à-tête.

Hell, the possibility of romance between Luke and Leia, already pretty icky, is full-on in the earlier drafts. And even though Yoda says, in ESB, that “there is another,” Irvin Kershner explains in the DVD commentary that it was a later addition to unsettle the audience with regards to Luke’s apparent invulnerability. It’s clear that Lucas never thought ahead to the third film, and this, too, attests to Lucas’ aversion to coming up with an overall storyline (even though Star Wars lore argues otherwise).

Fans have used this to wag their fingers at Lucas, for not having figured out the plot to the saga when he first sat down to write it in 1972. I’d like to invoke a favorite quote here from Stephen King: “Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story that results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story.” Plot, obviously, is different from story — and while Lucas worked out the plot as he went along, he must have known the story, subconsciously, from the start. And that’s because the films have all been so deeply personal to him. And, albeit directed by Kershner, in retrospect, ESB is the most personal film in the saga, and betrays a true auteurist touch.

First of all, certain motifs are delicately worked in to the narrative like subtle melodies in a symphony. Take, for example, the cave motif, one that figures out in all drafts going as far back as the first story conferences. Earlier in the film, Luke gets attacked by a Wampa, and is dragged into its cave. When he comes to, he is suspended, head down, from the ceiling: it is in this cave that his world is turned upside down for the first time. Luke’s lightsabre has fallen off his belt, resting gently on the snow a few feet away. Luke can’t reach it. Finally, he closes his eyes; and as the “Force Theme” — the true leitmotif of John Williams’ Star Wars scores — begins, Luke starts to concentrate, uses the Force, and, for the first time, wills an object to his hand. The transformation to his true self has begun.

Later, Luke confronts the image of Darth Vader in a cave in Dagobah, and, after a brief clash, decapitates the mirage, as the exploding mask reveals Luke’s own face underneath. Similarly, Han and Leia first kiss while hiding from the Imperials in a cave (which turns out, literally, to be the belly of the beast), and what is the Carbonite Chamber in Bespin but a metallic cave: one where both Luke and Han pay the heaviest price. Cave allegories go all the way back to Plato, and Lucas, having immersed himself in the Campbellian idea of the monomyth, employs it to splendid thematic use in this film.

Further, Lucas (and Kershner) play around with masks, scars and revelations: when we first see Luke, he has his face covered to protect him from the blizzard: he looks like an outlaw. After the attack, as he heals in the Bacta tank, an iron lung of sorts is attached to his face, and, in hindsight, gives Luke a sort of proto-Vaderesque look. On a practical level, masks not only act as a way of hiding one’s identity, but also as protection against damage. Or, once that damage is done, to conceal its effects. The way Darth Vader’s helmet is lowered over his scarred, corpse-like head, and the way Luke gets pulled out of the bacta tank, work as mirror images: in the former the helmet hides Vader’s scars, and, as we know from the next film, his true identity. The latter learns from his scarring experience, and has an epiphany to set off on his journey. The Wampa attack leads Luke on his way to Damascus.

Of course, there is a more obvious reason why Lucas went to all that trouble to underline the contrast: in one of the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema, Darth Vader reveals to Luke that he is, in fact, his father. The revelation comes after Vader bests Luke in a lightsabre fight (“The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet”), and chops off his right hand. For all intents and purposes, this is emasculation at the hands of the father. Lucas’ uneasy relationship with his own father, especially as he was growing up, rears its head.

Lucas said in an interview in 2008 that, “(My father) wanted me to go into his business. I said, 'I'm absolutely not going to do it. He sold office equipment in a store. I said, 'I will never go to work every day doing the same thing day in and day out.'” As Anthony Breznican of USA Today noted at the time, “It sort of gives a new perspective to all Darth Vader's talk of, "Join me and together we can rule the galaxy!" Lucas’ father hated his love of fast cars, and chastised him when he got into an almost-fatal accident. Later, he was less than enthusiastic when his son decided to become a filmmaker, and not a businessman (though he ended up being both, which is also interesting).

Unable to receive support from his father, Lucas sought other paternal figures, fathers, if you like, by proxy. Francis Coppola was one of them, and their master-apprentice relationship is analogous to that of both the Jedi and the Sith. Kershner was another paternal influence: Lucas’ hiring of his old mentor to make a film about rising up against the legacy, the sins, of the father was no coincidence.

Nonetheless, ESB never offers a true black-and-white view of Luke and Vader’s relationship — the dichotomy of good father vs. bad father is not clear in any of the films, especially with regard to Luke. For one, Luke’s proxy parents all lie to him, from his aunt and uncle in the first film, to Obi Wan and Yoda in this one. They, too, want to use him for their own ends: to destroy Vader and to destroy the Empire. The latter is also Vader’s ultimate objective. Both parties want power, and they want Luke to help them get it. But, Luke is not the only one to suffer from the sins of his father. In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Darth Vader becomes a slave to the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), his “bad father,” but only after being betrayed — according to him — Obi Wan and the Jedi Order (his “good father”). And Obi Wan is forsaken by his “father,” Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), who, in The Phantom Menace, takes on the responsibility to train Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) when the Jedi Council refuses to do so. It is only after the murder of Qui Gon that Obi Wan is handed the burden to train Anakin, something he’d initially protested. “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Indeed.

ESB shows that the old guard, good or bad, are intrinsically manipulative: that the children live with their parents’ sins, and end up having to atone for them. By the end of Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes a tragic figure; as Robin Cross put it in his 1985 book Science Fiction Films, “Like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), he has saved those around him, but can find no peace for himself.” Since Lucas identifies so much with Luke (Luke-Lucas, etc), is this how he sees himself? I wonder. Even when taking a stand against his father, and redeeming himself through his actions, does he, nonetheless, become a slave to his past? The answer is ambiguous.

Note: Some parts of this essay were appropriated from the author’s previous writings on Star Wars.

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Very well-said in this also well-thought out piece! I really love this film and it is definitely the best film of the franchise even if my heart (and nostalgia) sides with STAR WARS. But with EMPIRE, everything was firing on all cylinders and Lucas and co. did the impossible by actually topping the first film. While there are several things I do love about RETURN OF THE JEDI, it was a bit of a disappoint after this film.
A wonderfully written essay, Ali. EMPIRE remains my favorite because of the complexity you write about, here. Splendid post. Thanks for this.
Well done, though I do disagree on one point. I think the backlash on Lucas began not with the second trilogy, but with the release of the special editions of the originals and changes such as making Greedo shoot first, adding the unnecessary original Jabba scene which was almost word-for-word the same as the Greedo scene and in Jedi when he changed the music at Jabba's palace and the Ewok celebration. It was made worse when he originally said he was going to try to get rid of all the copies of the original versions and let the special editions be the only ones available, ruining the memories of the original fans forever. Thankfully, he backtracked on that and has both versions of the original trilogy on DVD, though it is completely stupid and makes no sense why Hayden Christensen's ghost would be the one that joins Alec Guinness and Yoda at the end of Jedi instead of Sebastian Shaw. My geek moment is done for today.
“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story that results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story.”

I must say that I believe this is bull, a rationalization for making it up as one goes along. If writers manage to succeed when writing this way, it is generally despite this approach, not because of it.

(And of course I don't mean the writing process for a single film, I mean for a multi-film series, a multi-book series, or a TV show. Setting up a mystery without knowing the ending in advance with hopes that you'll figure it out later? Uh, tends not to work out so well.)
I like this piece. Thoughtful, well argued, analytical and yet casual (without being too casual). Good stuff, Ali.

I was going to take issue with one part, but the fine host of this blog beat me to it.

Yes, the smoking gun of Lucas' idiocy is the Greedo scene. And there's a lot of smoke. First, he fucked with a cherished scene. Second, he fucked with a cherished scene in a way that provided he didn't have a fucking clue as to why the scene was cherished in the first place. Naturally, even the most casual of Star Wars fans called him on his bullshit. So, third, Lucas tries to stubbornly hold on to his bullshit version and the original theatrical version by having them shoot simultaneously. This was like apologizing to fans for pooping in their faces and pulling out his dick to piss on them instead. (Forgive the imagery.)

It's one thing to make up the stories as they go. I've got no problem with that. But you've still got to complete the thought when you get to it. And throughout the prequels Lucas seemed incapable of doing that and, somewhat rightfully, that raises questions as to how much credit he deserves for the first three films. (Even the first film is said to have been saved in the editing room.)

Again, I still agree that it's unfair to pin all the crap on Lucas. You're right about that. And I certainly don't belittle the fantasy entertainment that Lucas was trying to achieve. But I have no doubt that he's earned his spot in the backlash hall of fame.
Spike TV was showing the trilogy yesterday (unfortunately, the special edition) and I still can't understand the need for changing the song at Jabba's palace. Lapti Nek was a Huttese classic! Also, if someone theoretically were watching the "original" movies yesterday for the first time without any knowledge of the second trilogy, they must be confused when Luke takes off Vader's mask and sees Sebastian Shaw but when his ghost joins Yoda and Obi-Wan, it's some young guy they've never seen before.
I really like this piece for the way you've supported your arguments

but for one. and it's in the first paragraph

" unjustly despised prequel trilogy "

i'll never be able to see how this despising is not fully / totally / comprehensively justified. So there needs to be some back-up there ;)
"I said, 'I will never go to work every day doing the same thing day in and day out.'". It's funny when this comes from Mr Lucas, considering all the plot elements you see both in the original trilogy and the prequels. No need to make a list in here, just go and see the reviews of Harry Plinkett. This would also help you to understand why the prequels are justly and deservedly despised.

As for TESB, could someone please tell me how a film with its beginning 35 minutes is completely disjointed from the rest can be a good one? Other than a ghost telling Luke to go to Dagobah, nothing happens in Hoth has any effect on the remaining 90 minutes of the film. Is this good filmmaking?

And I think that Mr Lucas has failed to bring the tension gradually to a climax between Luke and Vader in TESB. Most of the second half of it is about Han Solo, and this subplot occupies larger than necessary a place in TESB which pushes Luke-Vader plot to the background, at least until the duel between the two at the of the film.

With all respect to your research, and to the depth of your analysis of the subject matter, I don't think that TESB is a good film.

A New Hope is a simple story of good and evil. Mr Lucas has no problems telling this story, it flows smoothly from the beginning to the end. Making Luke the son of Vader makes things very complicated. I agree with you in the complexity of the themes in TESB. I wish Mr Lucas did have more focus on this one, and I wish he didn't fail in transferring this story on to film.

All I know is, the prequels bored me, and the originals didn't - well, Jedi kind of did but the other two were great. Mainly I figure it was the reliance on the green screen with its obvious limitations (resulting in a lot sitcom or soap opera type scenes), and shoehorning in a lot of characters from the originals - C3PO, R2D2, Chewbacca. It was also said that Anakin was won over slowly and gradually to the dark side but this wasn't the case as we saw in the prequels. He seemed to turn mainly because the script said so.
Though I agree with the premis that GL has been unjustly seperated from credit for ESB, I fail to understand how this somehow justifies any defense of the PT. I'm not even sure, after reading the post, why it is even mentioned as the PT and it's failings may, in my opinion, be a legitimate argument against the premis that GL held any responsability for the success of ESB.

Curtis Bloes
I'm happy to give him all the credit he deserves for the originals, but he also must accept his share of blame for the crappy prequels. It may be a case of Sick Boy's Theory of Life in action. The author doesn't justify the assertion that the prequels are unfairly maligned.
I have a hard time taking people seriously when they start finding allegories and motifs everywhere. I particularly winced when the author suggested that the climax of ESB was some sort of 'cave metaphor' just because it took place indoors.

More than that though, I find myself taking issue not with Lucas, but with Stephen King's comment on plot. King's disinterest (inability?) in plot is the reason why The Dark Tower was ultimately such a steaming failure; he simply had no clue where he was going. Plot matters. Just ask JK Rowling, hardly a dullard. Which would you rather sit down and read all the way through right now? Dark Tower, or Harry Potter?

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