My Star Wars

Friday, December 18th, 2015 Movies / Writing


A true Jedi makes his or her own lightsaber—and a true Star Wars fan makes his or her own Star Wars. I never expected to create my own versions of the original trilogy, but in 2010, that’s exactly what I did.

For George Lucas, Star Wars has been, over the decades, a moving target, a changing daydream reflecting his ongoing fascination with film technology and with the evolving mythos inside his head, inspiring him not just to re-craft the old movies into the almost-universally-hated turn-of-the-century “Special Editions” (which presaged the profound wrong turn of his Prequel Trilogy) but to withdraw the originals, outraging the fans whose need to see Han shoot first led first to thousand-name online petitions, demanding that the unaltered versions of the original movies be restored and re-released, and then to an incredible wealth of labor by the film geeks who have painstakingly “De-Specialized” the trilogy, re-assembling simulations of the original versions and circulating them on websites like and

Yes, I am embarrassed to admit, I did this: five years ago, while deep in a mid-winter depression, I followed the links to those sites and began making “my” Star Wars: like William Alland’s faceless 1941 journalist searching for Charles Foster Kane’s true story, I embarked on an act of cinematic retrieval that led deep into the past, and straight to the heart of my childhood. In order to explain why, I have to recall the saga’s deep roots, not in any eternal cinematic mythos, but in the 1970s and 1980s. For me, and for my generation of fans (which includes J. J. Abrams), the movies are irrevocably tied to the deepest fabric of the years they were made, and to who we were, back then: like Kane’s boyhood sled, recalled decades later, they are playthings turned into monuments; they carry an indelible watermark of the past.

On an afternoon in the last week of April 1977, I walked to Farrell’s candy store around the corner from my school and saw a small, glossy, creased poster taped to the glass door: a minimalist advance promo flyer of unadorned navy blue with four lines of white Serif Gothic type* that read “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” above the now-iconic line-art title treatment and the original, art-deco 20th Century Fox logo—the only other graphic element, I vividly remember, was the prominently featured symbol for the mysterious, cutting-edge “Dolby System” I’d seen in magazine ads for stereo equipment. I was eleven years old and a science fiction fan, which enlisted me in a private society; I had no idea that my shameful, secret fascination would, over the following decades, become as mainstream and accepted as baseball or rock and roll (or disco, I would have automatically added) or that the instrument of that breakout was right in front of me that late spring afternoon.

There were other stirrings of something big: Marvel Comics had been running crazed, postage-stamp-sized advance ads in all their titles over the previous few months, promoting their (unprecedented) tie-in adaptation of what they called “The Greatest Space Fantasy Film of All”—I had heard similar, third-hand hyperbole from attendees of recent sci-fi and Trek conventions, and, weeks before, seen an older boy on the crosstown bus reading a rack-sized paperback called Star Wars by somebody named George Lucas (the famously bank-breaking novelization ghostwritten by industry journeyman Alan Dean Foster) with an unsettling, dream-like cover painting of a man with a glowing sword, two mismatched robots, and a looming iron mask filling the sky behind them—one of the famous early commissioned paintings by aerospace industry illustrator Ralph McQuarrie that, we now know, were the instrument by which 20th Century Fox executives like Alan Ladd, Jr. were persuaded to spend ten million dollars on “that space movie.”

Even those of us attuned to these signals had no idea what to expect: we lived in a starved pre-geek world of nightly Trek reruns (coming in over TV aerials) and pedestrian, shopping-mall-for-the-soul embarrassments like Logan’s Run and Westworld and Fantastic Voyage. The seeds of a majestic lineage of cinematic sci-fi had already been planted, tracing from Stanley Kubrick to Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 (the tech artists of each who would end up at ILM, Lucas’ legendary private effects fiefdom)—a new kind of poetic, post-NASA technical realism that would reach its baroque fruition that summer, replacing the worn-out tropes of Irwin-Allen/Aaron Spelling fantasy as swiftly and completely as Lorne Michaels replaced Johnny Carson—but we knew nothing about that. We didn’t know where we were in the flow of history that seems so indelible now: we didn’t know what would happen to Bruce Jenner or O. J. Simpson or Robin Williams or Bill Cosby or the other magazine-cover fixtures of our time; we didn’t know the fates of Michael Jackson or Richard Pryor or John Denver or Farrah Fawcett-Majors or John Belushi or John Lennon. Some of us had heard of Steve Jobs; Richard Nixon was still in San Clemente and would not find Manhattan real estate until two years later; Truman Capote and Calvin Klein rubbed shoulders with John DeLorean and Henry Kissinger at Studio 54; posters of Travis Bickle standing before his taxicab in the dark urban gloom had scared me just months before.

Decades later, taking the commercial DVD of Star Wars apart on my computer—or rather, extracting and doctoring the sequences that Lucas’ 1997 digital team had enhanced, in an effort to undo their efforts and “de-specialize” the movie—was an exercise in reverse archeology; like restoring a damaged painting by adding, rather than removing, debris. For every shot, there are archival elements (including retrieved vintage stills, old laserdisc and VHS copies, and even scratched, faded, and meticulously scanned and restored 16mm and 8mm editions) that have been mined and distributed by the tireless archivists. (“Popular Downloads” include a high-res image of the original, pre-tilt opening crawl text for each episode.) And, even amongst these self-taught archivists, there are fierce differences of opinion: the adherents of one school of thought, for example, prefer the amped-up color mix of the newer DVDs, despite its infidelity to the original release, while others debate the merits of different stereo and six-track soundtrack mixes (one downloadable edition of the trilogy has twelve separate audio programs, incorporating every possible version of the audio mix including a music-only track).

What emerges from this backwards excavation, as the additions to the famous scenes are painstakingly covered over—as the CGI dewbacks and rontos and digital crowds disappear, revealing the original, sparsely-occupied Mos Eisley sets; as the final space battle reverts to its original, simplified form; as the Millennium Falcon rises skywards offscreen (rather than in a jarring CGI shot that already looked dated five years ago); as Jabba the Hutt remains an unseen figure; and, yes, as Han shoots first—is the astounding artistry of this exuberantly analog artwork: the actors banging wooden sticks together beneath reflected beams of light that comprise the swordfights; the guns that fire hand-drawn cel animation, the “laser blasts” painted frame by frame; the full-sized wooden spacecraft that cannot move, suspended by ropes and pulleys, and, over all of it (along with Williams’ allusive score) the dense tapestry of sound; the hammers hitting miked California highway suspension cables to create the blaster noises and the blend of animal growls that comprise Chewbacca’s howls, along with the thousands and thousands of other elements on Ampex magnetic tapes that come together to create that post-Phil-Spector, post-Beatles “wall of sound” comparable to Orson Welles’ best radio work. Frame after frame are filled with painstakingly hand-animated, “claymation” stop motion (more than in King Kong or any other Ray Harryhausen epic), and everywhere you look are invisible sheets of glass; the hallucinogenic matte paintings that fill in the backgrounds of shot after shot (The Empire Strikes Back has 45 matte paintings, providing not just the rebel hangar and its surrounding snowscapes but the entire “cloud city” of Bespin, a mirage built, like Welles’ “Xanadu,” almost entirely of hand-brushed acrylic paint—with, on several occasions, three or four paintings providing different vantage points on the same imaginary locales, including the German-Expressionist balustrade where Luke and Vader have their penultimate confrontation).

Ironically, given the storyline, there are no computers involved in the production at all; all the onscreen tactical displays are handmade animation, and the robots speak in distorted human voices and whistles. (The only computer-generated onscreen content is the primitive, Pong-level vector-graphic of the Death Star approach shown to the Rebel pilots, preparing the audience for the tour-de-force final sequence—“you are required to move down this trench to this point […] only a direct hit will trigger a chain reaction”—that presages the frameworks, environments and scenarios of PlayStation/Xbox “levels” that wouldn’t be available or even comprehensible for decades—Star Wars is the very first movie to intrinsically work like a video game.) And yet, the story is full of computers; the main plot of the 1977 movie is essentially a pre-Snowden tale of an errant email attachment (the “old data” digital hologram Artoo Detoo shows to a smitten Luke Skywalker, setting the plot in motion, that’s actually a superimposed picture-tube television image). Throughout, Lucas presents a reflection of the 1977 world, with its Casio digital watches and Radio Shack “home computers,” poised on the brink of globalism and technological revolution; his filmmaking team’s wood and paint and wire and glass comprise a forbidding but romantic “Future Shock,” an epic, analog vision of the digital world to come that paints it as a lost landscape that we already seem to know.

And along with the ersatz computers, Lucas’ vast, imaginary universe is filled with tall tales and exaggerated falsehoods, both verbal and visual; the “ion cannon” and the “cloaking device” and the “garrisons” and “blasters” and “regional governors” and “diplomatic missions” and other words that mean nothing beyond their suggestive sounds; the exaggerated statistical numbers (a hundred star systems, a thousand generations); spacecraft the size of cities and “battle stations” the size of moons with “docking bays” large enough to enclose the pyramids that are just more acrylic-covered panes of glass—George Pal or Gene Roddenberry would have understood (and explained) what powered those engines and guns, how those governments and societies worked, what this “period of civil war” is all about, but Lucas knows (or, knew) that it doesn’t matter; that it’s all elemental and sensual, making no sense beyond the ferocious noise and rushing forward motion, the industrial light and magic.

Of course, as everyone now understands, Star Wars a perfect storm; a once-a-century juxtaposition of cultural, historical, sociological, political and spiritual forces and drives that define the era’s hinge-point, the apex of the arc that leads from World War II to 9/11 and the violent birth of our new millennium—but, more directly, it’s a seismic re-definition of cinema, on the granular level: when you take the Academy-Award-winning cuts apart** and examine the pieces you find not just a clever music-hall fraud—a wood-and-glass, vacuum-tube simulacrum of an incipient technological world—but an artwork that’s all surface; that has no “depth” beyond those elemental dream states, Luke’s severed hand and endless fall, Ben’s resurrection as a vision projected against the snowscape, Leia and Han’s desperate kiss as they are pulled apart by stormtroopers in that orange and blue, steam-and-steel cauldron at the heart of the floating city.

As fascinated as Lucas has always been with the byzantine internal logic of his mythological saga—what Tolkien called a ‘feigned history’—what’s important isn’t the falling Republic or the rise of the Empire, but that particular cinematic moment, and the exuberantly sensual filmic elements of that time: the lightsabers whose sound is a recording of the USC film projectors Lucas studied with; the booming retro-classical John Williams score; the robed desert figures (Alec Guiness and “the sandpeople” conjuring a child’s view of Lawrence of Arabia); the electrifying documentary-style camerawork and tumbling-dice cutting technique that Lucas developed as a utility cameraman on Gimme Shelter and under Francis Ford Coppola’s tutelage on his first, brilliant pop-art piece, American Graffiti. By repeating the boldly abstracted steps of Graffiti, willfully divorcing himself from the conventions of the immediate cultural past—rejecting the nihilism of Bogdanovich and Cassavettes and Arthur Penn while retaining their technical prowess in order to conjure his “galaxy far, far away”—Lucas created a work of art whose eternal value, like that of all masterpieces, is tied indelibly to its historical moment. 

Star Wars, despite its abstractions, its studied timelessness, its Joseph Campbell pretensions, its postmodern lineage, is a fixture of its era: it may seem to be about the past—about decades of movies or centuries of myth and legend—but it’s really about its own year, about the rush of the ’Seventies after Watergate and Vietnam (where bodies were incinerated beneath the open air, like Luke’s aunt and uncle with their Tupperware and denim clothes), about New Hollywood, about Jimmy Carter and the Shah of Iran, about Warhol portraits and Sony Betamaxes and Atari games, about the boomer generation coming of age on the eve of the Reagan years and taking over the culture and the world, about the birth of the American summer blockbuster as the lingua franca of global imagination and desire. It’s about the coming turn of the century, about robots and computers (although the only computer involved in its creation was the hand-built logic board within John Dykstra’s groundbreaking Dykstraflex motion control camera); it’s about the coronation of cinema as the primary modern art form and science fiction as the primary post-industrial, postnuclear storytelling mythos. And, as the world learns today—and as I first suspected when J. J. Abrams joyfully presented his fake Topps-bubble-gum “trading cards” for the new movie, exactly duplicating the originals that I collected at Farrell’s candy store around the corner from my school—that mythos is less about George Lucas’ “galaxy far, far away” than about that vanished world of 1977—that fragile, hopeful, “long time ago” that we’ll never forget.

* The logo and artwork for The Force Awakens brilliantly resurrects that same font, as well as subtly rounding the logo’s edges to approximate the blurry lithography of that time.
**Star Wars was edited by Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch and Lucas’ wife, Marcia, who also cut Taxi Driver.