A vast sea of stars are broken.
So begins the first page of the first draft of a screenplay that would eventually come to be filmed as Star Wars. Of what mercifully little escaped that first draft, those first five words, “a vast sea of stars” survive every iteration and sequel. Outer space is black in the Star Wars films; this is important. In Forbidden Planet or Captain Harlock space is blue, in Dino de Laurentis’ exploits like Flash Gordon or Barbarella it is all the merry colors of the rainbow, but in Star Wars space is black. The vast sea of stars where the Death Star hangs over Endor, could be the same sea of stars that hung over the bottom of my parents driveway as a kid. And I liked to think that they were.
Space being black is a new thing. It only really started after the Apollo missions and the first photographic pictures of Earth in space. Before then, space was a jazz frenzy of quarks and pulsars, a pseudoscience promised-land informed by Renaissance images of heaven and the beyond, the other side of the clouds, Earth’s sky writ large. Then, after we discovered that blue was the color of the Earth, not the sky, was ours not theirs, space became black.
2001: A Space Odyssey remains the definitive text on the blackness of space, a new creation myth for the endarkenment. Thus spake Zarathustra, “and God said let there be black”. Ridley Scott’s Alien, a triumph of professional jealousy penned by an excommunicated zealot of Kubrick’s black church, is the inevitable reactionary telling of the same tale – don’t go into the darkness, God isn’t there, and no one will hear you scream.
Yet while the former dealt largely in speculative futures and the latter warned you to stay home, it was only Star Wars, silly old Star Wars with its talking bears and camp robots, which one could walk outside ones house, look up, and see it. In the space between the stars it could actually be happening, right now, a long time ago and far far away. You believed that sort of thing in the 80s.
If you asked Simon Pegg, he would tell you in no uncertain terms that his was generation X-Wing; the adolescents of 1977. But I would contend that it is those a little younger, my own generation that are the true children of Star Wars. Like most children, my parents are older than me. I was born in England in 1978, a year after the first theatrical release, into a world where Star Wars simply was. Like oxygen or Jesus it was just a thing that was there, rammed down ones throat irregardless. You couldn’t choose it any more than you could choose Coca Cola. It was simply the best option available, and you liked sugar, so you drank it. And when you looked up to the stars over the bottom of your driveway in your sugar fueled frenzy wanting to believe it was all real, you knew that you were sort of correct. Because up there somewhere Star Wars was happening, the other Star Wars, that one on the news.
When they compile the montages about the Reagan/Thatcher years, the money, the aspiration, nuclear satellites, Wall Street brokers on yachts, cocaine lines and Saatchi windows, they always forget the children. It was the children who really drank the kool aid. The yuppies and neocons had the advantage of arrested adulthood to fall back on, they knew at some deeply suppressed level that their doctrine of self-determination was hollow and apocalyptic. But a child in the early 80s had no means of understanding that they couldn’t really be an astronaut when everything, everything kept telling them they could. A child in ‘78 just wanted to be Evil Knieval, the equivalent child in 82 wanted to be the most powerful man in the universe, or Malibu Sindy or drive a talking Trans Am. Who were all these homoerotic muscular men that had replaced the funny talking animals in cartoons? Castle Grayskull wasn’t a fold-out playset with collapsible drawbridge, it was a status symbol. And providing the glue to all this, making the serialized infomercials feel like part of a coherent youth culture, were those two arch mages who when history ends, will be seen to have given even Reagan and Thatcher a run for their money. The twin towers of Spielberg and Lucas.
It is an accepted chapter of history now, how those two figures more than any other turned cinema into the movies, revitalising the corporate ambitions of an already commercial industry, ending a brief reluctant sojourn with the anti-establishment American New Wave. To listen in 1971 to George Lucas*, UCLA wunderkind and hip young master-craftsman of compositional storytelling, he sounds like a one man Occupy for frustrated creatives, but in context we understand he became more of an Ayn Rand for nerds. The adjective “spielberg” was used in those days to denote an ambience, a mood. One that matched a homely coziness with starry possibilities and tied both those ideas to new untold production values (we now use the adjective “pixar”). Frequently was the beard credited, sometimes wrongly, often not, with being the magician behind anything that pulled the heartstrings and had believeable special effects. If you enjoyed it, it must have been Spielberg. It felt at times like he was teaching us how to feel. As if we didn’t know before. That dying alien seemed like the most important thing in the world that year. But this wasn’t a genre thing, this wasn’t some niche market, this is what had replaced cinema.
A thing like that can’t last. Eventually the whole audience hit adolescence all at once. The entry point for dissonance was to join the counter-culture movement, align your tastes to the pantheon of alt auteurs in the ‘video nasty’ market – that jealous derogatory term used by corporate media to describe properties it didn’t own yet (yet). A new unmediated platform where better, more creative films were being made, and at greater proportional profit. But Raimi, Carpenter and Argento were the flip-side of the same coin, and even if the messages were different the language was the same – theirs was the language of prosthetic transformations and fake latex bodily mutilation. There yet remained a need to wrestle the gorgeous spectacle of the 80s from the nagging realization that it had been lying to you, and most peoples recourse was to reject the whole sordid affair.
Between 1977 and 1987 the language of spectacle acquired unprecedented currency in cinema. The sophistication of an animatronic puppet would frequently take advertised billing over the actors, yet seldom at the expense of story. A golden age for production departments, unheard of since the days of Cecil B Demille. But in the late 80s comedown, the image associations of Muppetry were seen suddenly as vulgar and frivolous, and the whole arena of dreams was abandoned.
If you were the kind of kid who drew pictures, the 90s hit you like a tonne of shit. It hit the way the 80s hits in Boogie Nights. The dreamscapes were gone. Somewhere after the inexpensive, apologetic pantomime of Superman 4 came a long, endlessly long walk in a desert with no sea of stars. A walk punctuated only after the longest trek by the crushing inadequacies of Stargate. It wasn’t like cinema had put away its toys and resumed where it left off after Chinatown, no; instead it tried to move off the coke by trying new drugs. It toyed for a while with high-class sexploitation, an era of Hitchcockian pastiche that never really took. But magic was blacklisted.
Everyone forgot what The Exorcist and Alien did to our souls, what Brazil reflected back at us or how intricately funny Ghostbusters had been. Méliés was a closed chapter and Harryhausen was a footnote again, rather than a cornerstone. So by the time Steven, always Steven – the man, the adjective – genetically revived the now by making us believe a man on a toilet can be eaten by a dinosaur, something had come loose that even he couldn’t fix. Not even in post.
Someone might tell you, probably Harry Knowles, that we are in a new Golden Age of Stupid Imaginary Magical Bullshit now that all movies are comic book adaptations or 3D cartoons. But what has really happened is that the body has become severed from the head, yet continues to move.
The production department are in a new renaissance. The puppeteers and the modelers have never known such decadence. Truly this is their time, and if you are the kind of kid who draws pictures, you are down with that. But as human beings we only go see a Transformers: Dark of the Moon because it’s a spectacle. The guide book says it’s the thing to go see, so long as you’re in town. All that other stuff, little things like relatable human experience and meaningful emotion we get from Breaking Bad. The totality of what was once the movie experience has, for the most part, been divided between two distinct platforms.
Yet, even in the art of spectacle the cinema struggles for relevance. Promethean fire has been given to the mortals, such that the only perceivable difference between what a bloated Hollywood budget can display and what the home auteur can achieve, is polygon count – the number of exploding buildings on screen, not the realism thereof. And in trying to blot out democracy with excess, the night sky has been filled once more with a frenzy of quarks and pulsars, or particle clouds and lensflares, there is no room, no time for the long silent blackness that still beckons above the end of your parents driveway, waiting to have its stories told.
Yvette is only small, one short independent film. I have no greater ambition for her than to get her finished and get her out there and ferry her as far as she can go, but I thought you should know something about why she is, and why ‘a tale of vengeance, romance and interstellar piracy’ feels to this director like something worthwhile, something pertinent, even necessary as an adult pursuit. Something to might make the world just seven and a half minutes better.
*Please do watch the 1971 George Lucas interview linked above, since it contains the exact moment, caught on camera, when George Lucas became George Lucas©. You can almost see in his eyes, as the interviewers proselytizes about new video distribution models, a game plan evolving for the building of Skywalker Ranch. The desert setting, and incongruous Gregorian chants at the end contribute a distinctly biblical ‘Jesus in the valley’ pathos to the affair.