“Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.” —Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”
This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of “Star Wars,” and the celebrations are legion and ongoing. The film became a cultural touchstone for a generation, and fundamentally changed the way movies were made, distributed, and marketed in America. But this anniversary ought to be more of a day of mourning than celebration—mourning for an American cinema that no longer exists, because “Star Wars” killed it.
I freely admit that as a child I adored “Star Wars.” My earliest memory of seeing a film was when my father took me at age three to a British cinema where, he says, the minute the giant star destroyer loomed out over the audience, my jaw dropped, never to rise again. Later I had the toys, the monogrammed shirts and bed sheets, the illustrated storybooks, the wonderful “Story of ‘Star Wars’” audiotape, which still arouses immense nostalgia for me, and once videotape emerged, the movies themselves.
But as I grew older, I began to realize that, ultimately, “Star Wars” was a children’s film. I still enjoy it, of course, just as I enjoyed its sequels, and recently “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One.” Nonetheless, I do not take them particularly seriously, and find the obsessional interest in them from a large segment of my generation frankly unhealthy. As Alec Guinness said of his encounter with one young fan, “I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”
The loss of young minds to empty fantasy, however, is not the real reason to mourn the emergence of “Star Wars.” The reason is what the film did to film itself.
Once Under Pressure, Cinema Worked Harder
It is slowly fading from memory that the years 1967-1977, roughly from the release of “Bonnie and Clyde” to the release of “Star Wars,” American cinema underwent an extraordinary renaissance. Blasted by the rise of television and government decrees ending their monopoly over distribution, Hollywood studios were declining, and were willing to take chances that contradicted their naturally cautious nature.
They turned to pictures that revitalized American cinema, creating films that were more daring, explicit, challenging and, yes, better than anything seen since Hollywood’s first golden age came to an end. Even a short list is striking: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” the Godfather films, “Raging Bull,” “Chinatown,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Nashville,” “Midnight Cowboy,” and numerous others. Along with them were second-tier pictures like “Klute,” “The Last Detail,” and “All That Jazz,” as well as notorious failures like “Heaven’s Gate” and “New York, New York.” These showed extraordinary ambition and uncompromising dedication to the idea that cinema could be more than mass market entertainment.
There have, of course, been numerous reasons given for why this second golden age of American cinema ended: Flops like “Heaven’s Gate”; the collapse of star filmmakers into drugs, sex, and general self-indulgence; the emergence of the new teenage demographic, which rejected more adult fare; etc. All of these played a role, but the most important reason was simple: The emergence of the blockbuster.
In the late 1960s and early to mid-‘70s, the men who ran Hollywood were desperate to find a way to bring people into theaters. This gave rise to a simple business model: We don’t know what works, so throw the dice, take chances, and find out what works. This opened the way to filmmakers who wanted to take those chances and throw those dice.
This was no invasion by bohemian artists. It was a throwback to the ancient days of cinema, when the medium was so young that no one knew precisely what it could do. It is illustrated best by a story about Daryl F. Zanuck. When told that preview audiences hated John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Selznick viewed the film and said simply, “Ship it. Don’t touch a foot.”
Slowly, however, the 1970s studios began to realize that they did know what works: Big, loud, simple, and relentlessly merchandisable spectacles laden with the best special effects money could buy. Many date the beginning of this to the release of “The Exorcist” and “Jaws.” But it was unquestionably “Star Wars” that drove the final nail in the coffin, cementing the domination of what a friend of “Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola called “twerp cinema.”
From Many Small Films to a Few Big Films
In Peter Biskind’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” several of the main figures of the second golden age spoke out on what happened next. Director Peter Bogdanovich noted that the phenomenon was “devastating to making artistic, smaller films. They forgot how to do it. They’re no longer interested.” Martin Scorsese noted, “The person who has something to say in a movie has got to make a picture for $50. They’re smothering everything.” Robert Altman asserted that American cinema had “just become one big amusement park. It’s the death of film.”
But perhaps the most damning comment on “Star Wars’” legacy was made by one of its makers: Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’ ex-wife, one of the editors of “Star Wars,” and a formidable talent in her own right: “Right now I’m just disgusted by the American film industry. There are so few good films, and part of me thinks ‘Star Wars’ is partly responsible for the direction the industry has gone in, and I feel badly about that.”
Lucas was wrong only by degree. In fact, “Star Wars” was entirely responsible for the domination of the blockbuster. By the simple fact of making and continuing to make so much money, “Star Wars’ became the film everyone wanted to make again: A big event picture, a cultural phenomenon, a sequel machine, and a goose that kept laying golden eggs in the form of toys, video games, and any other possible form of merchandise.
To create such pictures, however, is ruinously expensive: Special effects require an enormous outlay of cash, manufacturing cultural phenomena demands huge marketing efforts, and hedging one’s bets by purchasing stars even more so.
As a result, ironically, even as their costs make blockbusters a form of high-stakes gambling, the faith in their efficacy has made Hollywood aesthetically conservative, even reactionary. This attitude has become impervious to rational thought, as even the massive failures of blockbusters like “The Lone Ranger” have done nothing to encourage Hollywood to change its ways. Even Steven Spielberg, the ultimate blockbuster director, now finds it difficult to finance his more personal films. Clearly, Hollywood suffers from a psychological disorder born of “Star Wars” that has nearly destroyed American cinema.
“Star Wars” is a good film, in many ways a wonderful film, but in terms of its effect on American cinema, it is the worst film. What we have all lost as a result is incalculable: The destruction of possibility, the innumerable great films that might have been but never were made because of the mad rush to make another “Star Wars,” and another, and another, perhaps until American cinema will, ultimately, be nothing but “Star Wars.”