I Can’t Go Home Again
Jeff Reichert on Return of the Jedi
Given that our latest symposium finds Reverse Shot in an uncharacteristically (or not, depending on your perception of this rag) self-reflexive mood, be forewarned: the following pages will be marked by a somewhat greater than usual amount of swooning reminiscence. But then, given the task at hand, how could it be any other way? Asking writers to recall their lifetime experience of a particular film is an assignment steeped in mythical “whens” populated by rickety oversized VHS decks, garish furniture, dark wood paneling. Over beers at a routine film festival soiree a notable film critic remarked on the oft-used “I” amongst the Reverse Shot stable, and while acceding the word’s occasional usefulness, chided us all lightly, suggesting that keeping this obvious inward glance suppressed, while often difficult, was a goal to strive towards (something like subjective objectivity, perhaps for the “I” is always implied). Point taken, but in the current context, where our act of writing is directed specifically at defining bits of the ever-complicated cinephilic impulse, the realm we’re traversing may be less film criticism than sociology, at points even approaching philosophy. Here that pesky “I” becomes essential; not just a linguistic crutch, but an object of examination. We watch, therefore we are.
For each of us, once the whole expanse of cinema opened up—whether from a new local repertory cinema, program of study, oddball video store or some combination of these—time for habitual, comfortable viewing grew scant. Who among us now can afford to be anything but an insatiable scavenger, skipping briskly between nations and genres heretofore unexplored? And what better expanse for a voracious “I” to roam than an ever-ballooning worldwide canon that’s most usually experienced alone, in the dark? The serious consideration of one’s own impulses and feelings, not in the immediate wake of watching a film, but in choosing to watch a certain film repeatedly is what we’re after, an inquiry wholly bound up in all the swirling questions around the defining viewing technology of the Reverse Shot generation: home video. Without it, this exercise wouldn’t be possible, or necessary. For some of us, Reverse Shot: On Demand will serve as a clearinghouse for the questionable taste of earlier years as the youthful transgressions of the gestating movie lover are wrenched into the cruel light of day. For others, these writings represent nothing more than a written record of visual forensic analysis carried out silently through repeated viewings over many years. In some cases the watched and re-watched film may be nothing more than a dead end, in others (perhaps all) a crucial step on the road to where we are as viewers today.
So yes, I remember well that summer in which pleasure found no higher expression than wearing out a bootlegged VHS copy of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Sitting cross-legged on our living room floor (blue carpet if memory serves), staring directly up at the television screen as if it were an altar, I’d watch not much else, and had grown so into the fabric of the film over those few months, that I felt less myself when that tape wasn’t playing. Only my threadbare blanket spent more time with me in those days when Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and cohorts acted as my babysitter two hours—four if I demanded a repeat viewing, a not altogether uncommon occurrence—at a time. For a child aged five or six, the Rebel Alliance’s cascading near-failures turned miraculously into grand success was the perfect agent of cinematic wish fulfillment—a narrative culminating in total satisfaction with loose ends firmly tied in a fantastic Endor hoedown. It’s not unlike the experience of reading those first few Harry Potter books—that sense that the world created in the text is far richer, far more fascinating than the mundane drudgery of the one we actually have to live in. That summer may have been my first experience, however peripheral, with real disappointment—each time the movie ended for dinner, an errand, and eventually, the beginning of another year of schooling, the sensation was one of being ripped away from that thing which was most vital. Return of the Jedi offered no enigmas, nothing to question—a far cry from life as experienced through the limited perceptual range of a child.
By the time I’d gotten to college, it had been years since I’d seen, much less thought regularly, about any Star Wars film; I’d label it a natural function of growing up, but then there are those who hold Lucas’s series dear well into adulthood. Immersion into film theory and the avant-garde taught my classmates and I to be wary—Spielberg became avatar for all the ills of the capitalist Hollywood machinery, Star Wars so far gone that it barely warranted more than a snigger, even though more than a few of my compatriots to this day surely stumble over the skeletal remains of Millennium Falcons on trips to their parents’ attics. Theory demanded a more rigorous, personal approach to filmmaking; movement from the margins as opposed to the broad-based appeal of Hollywood centrism. At least that’s what we, in our first blush with the academic study of film, believed. As such, those crucial first years of film education were shedding years as old favorites dropped by the wayside in favor of wholehearted embrace of Godard, Fassbinder, Eisenstein, Brakhage, and a world of video art. Personalities reformed around new tastes, and the impulse to esotericism ran rampant (and unfortunately still does in many cinephilic circles). But what we were really being taught, without quite appreciating it at the time, was not a simple equation that would allow for the formation of easy opinions (Bresson>Fassbinder>Spielberg>Lucas), but rather tools of critical apprehension. We were trained like prizefighters working towards a heavyweight title bout against cinema, in all its myriad forms. Not to merely judge good or bad, but to understand our enemy’s machinery, spot its weaknesses, respect its strengths. It was upon this realization that I started spending a great deal more time in the kind of “lower tier” films my classmates would scoff at; I still do to this day. You can never know what a “bad” film might do tremendously right, and how is a cinephile to truly appreciate the greatest of works without a suitable yardstick for comparison?
So, to return to Return of the Jedi after all these years and merely state that it’s “just not that good” defeats our purposes here, as much as my tastes may have shifted in the meantime. And to remark upon its dated character and move on does little justice to a film that does a few things admirably right. I can say, with the wisdom of hindsight, that at the age when I so fully immersed myself in Jedi my appreciation for the aesthetic side of cinema must have been nearly nil—director Richard Marquand’s framings are barely utilitarian, and, in the face of the wondrous sets and models he’s been given to work with, often downright ugly. I also probably wasn’t much of a performance guy, either—as with the B-movies Lucas was so fond of, character isn’t carefully drawn so much as briefly sketched and set off into the world leaving actors with little to room to maneuver. The entirety of the Star Wars saga rests on thinly veiled archetypes shorthanded through a few lines of dialogue, a way of walking, or piece of costume, and Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and the rest recognize this reality, but seem held back from pushing into an area more pleasurably campy by the reverence of the series’ creator. Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, which did manage to conjure some drama from its unexpectedly dire twists, Jedi seems exhausted of ideas, perhaps no more so than in its Endor battle sequence, a numbing succession of high speed chases and furry warbling, that, of course, was my favorite section growing up.
What Jedi should be applauded for, even at its advanced 24 years of age, is how well it exposes the paucity of imagination running in contemporary special-effects circles. Granted, much of the work done in visual effects these days is invisible to the naked eye (retouching blemishes, fire, wind effects—different shops specialize in the minutest of details), but the ability to render anything at all from massed sequences of 0s and 1s has led largely to increasingly diminished returns. Where once cinema of this sort promised spectacle, now the ability of movies to surprise through wonder seems almost a memory. Watching one of the Empire’s star destroyers float into view from the top of the frame, the sense of weight, of an actual object being lit and filmed, is palpable. Of course, this is the observation of an adult filmgoer nostalgic for the days of spray-painted Styrofoam models labored over in minute detail, but even if I’d have been unable to articulate that sentiment at age six, the wellspring of the awe remains the same: craft. I’d be hard-pressed to find an image in any recent digital abortion that conjures a similar sense of menace (this may be why audiences have turned so readily to horror films over the past few years: their promise of rending flesh is more immediately visceral). If the characters of Jedi are archetypes, they’ve stuck meaningfully in the culture because Lucas and his team at Industrial Light and Magic had the sense to spend plenty of time realizing a galaxy for them to inhabit. I can’t go and ask my younger self what it was that sparked so many viewings of Return of the Jedi, but I’d wager that the answer lies somewhere in the production design.
The only problem with this assignment vis a vis this film lies in the fact that I’m simply unable, without performing an extensive search, to go back and watch the film I grew up with. This has less to do with availability—where can’t one find a Star Wars film?—than with that always-able distorter of perceptions and memories: commerce. We all remember how George Lucas, ever the canny marketer, dusted off the Star Wars brand with late Nineties rereleases of episodes IV, V, and VI as a prelude to a new round of films that would conclude/prelude the original trilogy. So, the rereleases happened, each film hitting theaters with a few “added bonuses”—Lucas, P.T. Barnum-like, touting his digitally inserted tweaks and remarking that the films now played as he’d always imagined them. Unsurprisingly, the insertions are largely distracting, and embarrassingly pasted in—in Jedi a new singer performing in Jabba the Hut’s fortress seems weightless and fake next to Henson’s more tactile creations, and the intimacy of the Endor celebration has been exploded into a whifty intergalactic party that jumps from one digitally rendered world to the next. The whole thing’s tarnished, and my memory along with it. Seeing Spielberg, Coppola, and Lucas gathered together at the Academy Awards to hand the Best Director Oscar to their friend Marty Scorsese, the lack of approbation afforded Lucas was noticeable, and joked upon (Lucas has never won an Oscar, and is only the recipient of an Irving G. Thalberg award). Once the envelope opened and the camera caught the tableau of the four together, this omission became obvious. Say what you will about these filmmakers, but Lucas is by far the most closely aligned of the four to the tawdrier commercial imperatives of cinema as industry. He’s DePalma minus prolificacy and smarmy self-awareness; impossible to ignore due to his impact on commercial cinema, impossible to fully embrace because of the same. It was there from the very start of the Star Wars series, and watching Jedi again after so long brought it to the fore—George Lucas succeeded so grandly because he figured out a formula to get me, and seemingly everyone else literally hooked on his films. But after a while I stopped buying the junk.