‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Four): Changes in Altitude

Star Wars: Episode IV Logo (dvdactive.com)

Star Wars — Episode IV: A New Hope Logo (dvdactive.com)

The “Hope” of the Hopeless

As the first film in the original series, Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) provides the basic introduction to this fantastic, at times slow-moving world of the future. It’s creaky in spots (I’ll give you that), enlivened by the occasional fly-by or Imperial star cruiser roaring overhead.

Yet despite the almost insurmountable obstacles the project faced in coming to the screen (see the judicious “making of” features on the latest Blu-ray/DVD re-releases), the finished work represents a huge leap forward — an allegorical jump into hyperspace, if you will — in the art of movie-making, an oftentimes lyrical ode to gee-whiz, can-do rugged individualism.

(Reader Alert: Prior knowledge of the film’s plot may be required in order to follow the story outline below.)

After a brief opening skirmish on board a diplomatic ship — a fracas that ends before it even begins — we find ourselves on the outwardly lifeless desert planet of Tatooine. Mundane chores are the themes of the day as we are introduced to one of the saga’s chief protagonists: the restless Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in this modern reinvention of the hero’s journey from classical mythology.

This was a deliberate choice on the part of its creator, writer, director, and producer, a visionary filmmaker named George Lucas. Deliberate in the sense that Lucas’ depiction of routine, commonplace occurrences of daily life would soon find themselves clashing with, and be far outweighed by, the necessities for survival (think: Naked and Afraid with clothes on).

Consequently, the entire middle section of the movie drags a bit — that is, up until the last third, where the ever-popular, video-game portion of the program happily takes over. A lively, fast-moving, and uninterrupted flight of programming fancy, this rapid-paced conclusion does, indeed, offer a new hope, a new outlook, and a new vision, at events that are still to come; a prescient and farsighted forecast into a technologically advanced future where all things are technologically possible.

In view of this analysis, it’s only right that the first figures to be introduced onto the screen are the robotic butler C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and his little droid companion R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), with another Threepio unit (clad in silver, not gold casing) seen directly behind them. This is followed by the entrance of Rebel Forces in heavy duty helmets with enormous visors — ostensibly in the shape of makeshift, inverted chamber pots resting on their noggins.

Rebel Alliance preparing for battle (Star Wars -- Episode IV)

Rebel Alliance preparing for battle (Star Wars — Episode IV)

Imperial Storm Troopers burst in, and a fire-fight ensues aboard Princess Leia’s flagship. The Rebels race down a long corridor, blasting away with their laser weapons as they go. As Artoo and Threepio perilously cross the line of fire, we see the huge black frame and hear the breathing apparatus of the series’ main heavy, the formidable Darth Vader — voiced by James Earl Jones, with body by Dave Prowse. (Note to the wise: This entrance is repeated, in like manner, in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, as Vader penetrates the Rebel Alliance’s hidden base on the ice planet Hoth.)

This leads to a quick cut of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) feeding Artoo the stolen plans for the dreaded Death Star, which the Galactic Empire has been building in outer space lo these many years.

An irate Darth Vader orders one of the Storm Trooper commanders to “tear the ship apart until you’ve found those plans and bring me the passengers! I want them alive!” Now, now! Temper, temper! We feel his pain and anger. It seems that underneath that Nazi-style helmet lies an emotionally-wasted, angst-driven Anakin Skywalker (or Starkiller, if you go by Lucas’ original intention for that surname).

This is hardly the manner in which a follower of the Dark Side should act, but then again we’re only at the beginning of the story. At this rudimentary getting-to-know-you stage, it makes perfect sense that Vader is not in complete control of his emotions; that will surely change as the saga deepens and develops. Besides, this initial outburst makes Vader’s character all the more potent, especially after he chokes the life out of one of the Rebels with his bare hand (his left to be exact, i.e., la sinistra = Italian for “sinister”). Vader casually tosses the dead Rebel aside. So much for the future value of one’s life!

Next, we hear the Princess Leia theme for the first time (courtesy of composer John Williams), but it doesn’t last long, as the princess herself is brought before Lord Vader to face the music. Leia insists she was on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan, her home planet, while Vader points an ominous, black-gloved finger at the girl and shouts, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor – take her away!”

Again, Vader’s voice soars to a crescendo of impotent rage and fury at the petite, five-foot-nothing Leia. Talk about a height advantage, this guy is impatience personified. I wonder how he would react if he knew that little Leia was, in reality, his own daughter! (Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves …) The princess is banished forthwith to one of the Death Star’s many prison cells to be, how shall one put it, “interrogated.”

Paradox in Paradise

Artoo and Threepio in Tatooine (starwars.wikia.com)

Artoo and Threepio are lost in Tatooine (starwars.wikia.com)

We revert back to the Tatooine Desert, where the blue sky contrasts with varying shades of red sand, a sight straight out of Sir David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (a model for Lucas’ vision). Artoo and Threepio have split up and gone their separate ways. With that, there’s a brief glimpse of Threepio shouting to a lone desert transport: “Hey! HEY!!” But instead of being rescued, he winds up inside the transport, a victim of his own insipidness. Transports are the principal means of conveyance used by the shady and secretive Jawas, hooded little creatures with flashlight-like eyes and Alvin the Chipmunk voices.

This smacks of a similar incident in Lawrence of Arabia, where the title character and Farraj, one of his native servant boys, reach the Suez Canal. On the other side of the ridge, a British soldier shouts at them: “Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?” That soldier was none other than director Lean himself, in a brief bit. I seriously doubt that Lucas was the one who provided the voice of Threepio in the desert yelling “Hey!” (glad you asked: it was Anthony Daniels), but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.

Artoo happens to be held in the Jawas’ desert transport, where he meets up with other abducted droids, all rather bizarre looking. One of the captured robots reminds us of a walking gas pump, while another bears a startling resemblance to Pixar’s Wall-E (were you watching, John Lasseter?). It’s here that Artoo reunites with his old buddy, Threepio, who is overjoyed to see him. Ah, those two! They enjoy a bubbling, argumentative relationship that has carried them near and far, from one end of the galaxy to the other.

The huge transport lumbers across the desert surface, slowly but steadily, with deadening music mimicking that same lumbering quality. It could be a stand-in for Terry Gilliam’s gigantic traveling-circus wagon, last seen in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), but in point of fact it’s hard to predict what was on Gilliam’s mind at the time, it being entirely unpredictable at best.

At last, we are introduced to our hero Luke, a geeky, cheerful lad of post-adolescent age who’s stuck on his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru’s (Shelagh Fraser) cheerless farm. This is where we hear the name “Biggs” mentioned, just before Luke takes the two droids back to his place for proper grooming and cleaning (Uncle Owen barters with a belligerent Jawa for their ownership). Audiences unfamiliar with the original script may be perplexed at the mention of Biggs’ name, a character that doesn’t appear until the last 15 minutes of the picture and is promptly never heard from again.

Biggs Darklighter (listal.com)

Garrick Hagon as Biggs Darklighter (listal.com)

In case you were wondering, Biggs Darklighter (played by Garrick Hagon) is Luke’s childhood pal, recently returned from the Academy, wherever or whatever that is (it ain’t Starfleet, that I can assure you). According to established Star Wars movie lore, Lucas has stashed away Luke and Biggs’ scenes (along with those of their friends Deak, Camie, and Fixer) in an off-sight vault somewhere, possibly in area 51. The rumor this so-called “lost footage” would someday be “restored” in subsequent revivals of the saga has been lingering for well on three decades without substantiation.

It’s my learned opinion, fellow sci-fi fanatics, that if maverick filmmaker Mr. George Lucas ever had plans to release this lost footage in the first place, he surely would have done so by now. Still, the rumor persists and continues to be one of those ongoing paradoxes associated with the series from time immemorial. Perhaps with the Disney Studio’s acquisition of the financially lucrative franchise we may yet be treated to this innocuous little side episode, even as part of the deleted scenes. Until then, let’s hope it’s worth the wait!

Uncle Ben’s Converted Lightsaber

"Help me, Obi-Wan." (hollywoodreporter.com)

“Help me, Obi-Wan.” (hollywoodreporter.com)

Meanwhile, after showing Luke the holographic message uploaded by Princess Leia, a suddenly impatient Artoo decides to go off on his own to seek out somebody called Obi-Wan Kenobi. With Luke and Threepio in hot speeder pursuit, they eventually meet up with Old Ben, who rescues them from the nomadic Sand People (commonly referred to as Tusken Raiders). With this, the group retires to Old Ben’s abode. This send-up of Cowboys vs. Indians, and the mountainous Far West terrain, will remind viewers of those Monument Valley locations so favored by director John Ford (and, by implication, Lucas himself).

At the mention of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Old Ben makes this observation: “Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time …” A smiling, bewigged Sir Alec Guinness in a one-size-fits-all robe plays a smiling, bewigged Uncle Ben Kenobi, aka Obi-Wan. Old Ben unwittingly echoes the sentiments of the film’s focus in the aforementioned declaration, in a slogan that defines the very crux of the drama that will appear in every Star Wars manifestation hereinafter:

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….”

Laurence E. MacDonald, in his book The Invisible Art of Film Music: A Comprehensive History (1998), notes that the above inscription harkens to a “time and place of the story” that “are mythic rather than futuristic.”

“I haven’t gone by the name Obi-Wan,” Ben tells the guileless Luke, “since, oh, before you were born.” That’s good to know! And we’ll be learning a heck of a lot more about this mysterious stranger in long-flowing robes in the flicks to come. Right now, Old Ben’s got his hands full with two pesky droids, the presence of trigger-happy Tusken Raiders (vicious walrus-like creatures), and an excitable teenager clamoring for adventure.

Soon the conversation gets around to Luke’s deceased father and Ben’s participation in the so-called Clone Wars as a (gasp!) Jedi knight. As proof of his assertions, the old man hands Luke a lightsaber, claiming it once belonged to his old companion and friend, Anakin Skywalker: “An elegant weapon for a more civilized time.” I’ll bet! “Civilized,” as Old Ben politely puts it, is a bit of a stretch and, as it turns out, a matter of opinion.

Just then, the dastardly appellation of Darth Vader gets thrown out as the individual responsible for the death of Luke’s pater. “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force,” Ben insists. Aha, now we’re getting somewhere! Ben tries to recruit the reluctant Luke into learning more about becoming a Jedi knight and joining him on his quest, but the boy’s got troubles of his own — especially after he finds his aunt and uncle burned to crisp by the Galactic Storm Troopers (in a clear homage to Ford’s classic Western saga, The Searchers).

The scene shifts to a conference room in the interior of the Death Star. To lend his feature an air of legitimacy, Lucas decided on casting British-born thespian Peter Cushing as the iniquitous Governor Grand Moff Tarkin. A bit worse for wear, the thin and wan Mr. Cushing still makes for a sinister villain. In a similar move, Lucas later employed the talents of Cushing’s old friend and partner Christopher Lee, in Episodes II and III of the series (as Count Dooku)  — two Hammer Horror veterans with a long and honorable lineage in filmdom.

"Your lack of faith is disturbing." (dvdactive.com)

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” (dvdactive.com)

Prior to Darth Vader’s convincing display of telepathic powers (in response to Commander Motti’s putdown of the Sith Lord’s “sorcerer’s ways” and “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” meaning the Force), Governor Tarkin is, for all intents and purposes, the featured bad guy. His commanding presence attempts to put order to the endless bickering carried on by his Galactic officers. Vader is loathe to release the helpless commander, but does so nevertheless.

Getting back to Tatooine, Luke resolves to join forces with Obi-Wan. They Landspeed their way off to Mos Eisley, a notorious spaceport and haven for smugglers, pirates, and criminals with prices on their heads. The pair, along with their trusty droids, are looking for a way off the planet via a freighter pilot they can trust. Their mission is to fly straight on to Alderaan and rescue Princess Leia (so they think).

In the thrice-familiar Cantina Bar sequence, Luke is pestered by several of the local inhabitants. He serves as witness to Obi-Wan’s skill with the lightsaber as the old gent slices off a malefactor’s arm. This attracts the unwanted attention of Storm Troopers nearby. Shortly afterward, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), their “pilot,” introduce themselves to Ben and Luke. Haggling over the price of their venture, Han finally accepts their offer. Now all the adventure seekers have to do is sell their Landspeeder.

Not wanting to regurgitate every nook and cranny of the plot, we move on to an inserted scene with Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt — or more correctly, a digitally-enhanced Jabba (or “DEJ”) speaking in Huttese. To these eyes, there is something unreal about this CGI-created slug. British-born actor Ian McNeice, who portrayed the vicious Baron Harkonnen in the Sci-Fi Channel’s excellent adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, was hired to stand in for the repugnant Hutt. This scene, while easily dispensable, does serve to explain why Jabba had it in for Solo: he owes him quite a lot of money.

Also making his screen debut is the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett, who is part of Jabba’s advance guard, to include the green-skinned creature known as Greedo (Paul Blake), an aptly chosen moniker for such a loathsome smuggler. In the previous scene, Greedo gets blown away by Han Solo in the Cantina Bar at the Mos Eisley spaceport. What a way to go!

In the revised version of this particular sequence, however, Greedo is made to fire first, thus negating the effect of Solo’s wanting to gain the upper hand in their brief encounter. Hey, a smuggler’s got a right to protect himself, right? Think of it as an intergalactic re-creation of the “stand-your-ground” law.

We’re Off and Running

We shift to a brief bit where Lord Vader is planning to interrogate Princess Leia. After another visual wipe, the gang of five escape the spaceport with the Storm Troopers firing their blasters at them. Luke makes a snide remark to Han about the dilapidated state of the Millennium Falcon, the freighter ship that will take them to their destination.

As the boys battle the Imperial Star Destroyers, their ship finally makes the belated jump into hyperspace. This gag, where the Millennium Falcon manages to have oodles of problems avoiding space combat, amid its inability to escape its pursuers, will become a running gag in future episodes.

Chewbacca, Luke, Obi-Wan & Han Solo on board the Millennium Falcon

A scene change takes us back to the Death Star, where Governor Tarkin meets the pugnacious Princess. Their dialogue is clipped and brusque, with Leia getting the better of the confrontation with her caustic wit and faux “charm.” However, Tarkin tricks her into revealing the location of the Rebel base on Dantooine (a sister planet of Tatooine, most likely), which is too far for the Empire to seek and destroy. Instead, Tarkin instructs his men to open fire on Alderaan, Leia’s home planet, putting all of its inhabitants at risk.

The destructive force of the Death Star is equivalent, in this prime Nixon-era / Vietnam War example, to what U.S. bomber planes did to the North Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Laotians. The plan was to bomb the enemy into submission (via the retaliatory aftermath of the surprise 1968 Tet Offensive), or at the least to bring the enemy back (in the early 1970s) to the bargaining table for more “talks.” The mantra spouted by the Nixon Administration was “peace with honor,” in the midst of endless bombing raids that accomplished little in the way of actual gains on the ground. (In many documented instances, the bombing only prolonged the conflict.)

The grand demonstration of the battle station’s immense power results in Alderaan’s explosion. On board the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan has a momentary falter in his step. He steadies himself as best he can, rubbing his forehead and resting his weary form onto a seat. He senses the cries of terror of millions of silenced voices (an after effect of being “linked in,” as it were, to the Force). While Luke practices his lightsaber lessons (with intermittent snipes at hokey religions by the non-conforming Han Solo), Artoo risks a game of holographic checkers (or chess, if you prefer) with the mighty Chewbacca. Upon learning that Wookiees are “poor sports” at losing, Threepio councils his friend to let Chewie win.

When the Millennium Falcon re-emerges from hyperspace, the crew sees nothing but debris where the planet Alderaan should be. The worst appears to have happened. Even more troubling is that the Millennium Falcon is now caught in the battle station’s tractor beam. Unable to break free, and with TIE fighters buzzing around from all angles, Han and the crew have no choice but go with the tractor beam’s flow by making a forced landing within the large moon-shaped Death Star’s innards.

In the meantime, Tarkin is informed that the supposed Rebel base on Dantooine is deserted. Incensed at Leia’s treachery, Tarkin orders her immediate termination. Back on board the Millennium Falcon, Vader’s men report the freighter appears to be abandoned, but Vader, in tune with his extrasensory perception, feels that something is amiss, a “presence” he hasn’t felt since …. He departs before completing his sentence.

Of course, we know that Vader has been feeling the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Amazing! That sixth sense of his, albeit corrupted and twisted by the Dark Side, can still detect his old nemesis — even in the outer reaches of space.

Emerging from their hiding places below deck, Luke, Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, and the two droids chatter among themselves. Lucky for them! As two of the Storm Troopers enter the freighter, they are overpowered by Han and Luke, who assume their guise and places. Blasting their way (noisily, one might add) from the Forward Bay into the Command Office, Luke and Han are able to determine Princess Leia’s whereabouts with Artoo’s aid. However, Old Ben needs to disable the tractor beam’s hold on their freighter in order for them to make good their escape. Ben saunters off into the hallway to do the deed.

This leaves the two comrades in arms (more like friendly rivals) discussing the merits of rescuing the Princess, and the ensuing reward it entails. Threepio is nearing his wits’ end as he asks Master Luke for instructions on what to do. Following their lead, Han and Luke escort their “prisoner” Chewie close to the area where Leia is being held. Chewie pretends to put up a fight, which gives both Luke and Han the opportunity to fire their blasters in the direction of the two guards. Finding her cell, Luke frees Leia from her prison and informs her that Obi-Wan is with them.

At that same instant, Vader lets Governor Tarkin know that Obi-Wan is on board the Death Star. “I must face him alone,” Vader intones ominously. Switching back to the detention area,  the three are united at last, but the pleasantries are short-lived as their presence has drawn more Storm Troopers. Blasting their way into the area, the self-reliant Leia takes matters into her own hands by blowing an opening in the detention area’s wall. She slips through the opening, along with Luke, a reluctant Chewie, and Han. But not before Han has the final word.

“Wonderful girl!” he yells out. “Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.” I don’t think today’s #MeToo movement would have approved of that comment, but so be it.

Plunging down a long chute, the four adventurers land onto a huge pile of garbage. This is where Lucas injected a dose of those old Saturday-matinee Flash Gordon serials into the mix. At first, something snaky and slimy slides around at the bottom of the trash pile. And then, it strikes, grabbing onto young Skywalker and dragging him to the bottom. Firing their blasters does no good. Luke breaks through the surface again, gasping for air. Thrashing around in the muck, he is once more submerged by the monster’s tentacles. As the chute starts to tremble and groan, the beast disappears. Luke bobbles back up to the surface, relieved to be free of the menace.

The garbage masher scene, with Leia, Han & Luke

What more could happen to our friends? No sooner said than the walls of the chute start to close in. It’s a real Indiana Jones moment, something Lucas and Spielberg would take extra care to reintroduce when they eventually got around to making those features. Our intrepid heroes try placing a long pole between them and disaster to keep the walls from collapsing, but to no avail. Luke tries to communicate with Threepio, who does not answer his distress calls (the droids have been hiding from some snooping Storm Troopers in the Command Office). Both the garbage chute and the Command Office keep miscommunicating with each until, finally, Artoo is able to shut down the garbage masher walls.

The comic banter and wry sarcasm of this and many other scenes are bandied about in the style of the Marx Brothers, or better yet the Three Stooges. Add to the formula the asides of the fey C-3PO (who gets louder and more acerbic as the series progresses) and the incomprehensible squeaks and squeals of R2-D2 (in the best tradition of Laurel and Hardy), and you have yourself a merry old time at the cineplex.

After their tribulations, the hearty (and still lively) group continues to make their escape. There are more slapstick shenanigans in the back-and-forth routine of Han trying to chase after his pursuers, only to find more pursuers than before; he then tries to outrun them in the opposite direction, and vice versa.

Finding themselves separated and balancing precariously in one of the central core shafts (as well as being constantly shot at), Luke uses his Trooper disguise’s utility belt to swing a la Tarzan to safety, with Leia clutching for dear life and giving him a kiss on the cheek for good measure. It can’t get any better than that!

Old Soldiers Never Die

We cut to Old Ben in the narrow passageway leading to the tractor beam’s switch. Vader is there, too, waiting to bate his old mentor. Meanwhile, Threepio is in a panic because he can’t locate the gang. Moving back to Obi-Wan and Vader, both adversaries trade barbs at each other in a snail’s paced recreation of Errol Flynn (as Robin Hood) dueling with Basil Rathbone (as Sir Guy of Gisbourne). Their lightsabers cross as the two combatants clash every which way. Note that Alec Guinness, as Old Ben, is slower and more methodical than the larger and swifter Lord Vader (Dave Prowse) — deliberately so, I would imagine.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Old Ben) versus Darth Vader, in a duel to the death

In a flash, we see Han and Chewie with Luke and Leia gathered at the Main Forward Bay. They are searching for the entrance to the freighter. At that moment, Vader and Obi-Wan waltz (or rather, glide) into view, still flailing their brightly-colored lightsabers at each other (royal blue for Ben, and fiery red for Vader). At that moment, Old Ben catches sight of Luke who calls out his name. Pausing from the battle, Ben raises his lightsaber high and, with hands clasped, lowers his weapon. Vader takes strategic advantage of the moment and strikes Ben down. However, there is nothing left of Ben except his hooded cloak. Where did the old bloke go?

Luke is shocked at Ben’s sudden death. He cries out, “No!” in a solemn preview of what will come in the next installment. The fun has started to turn serious. Leia, Han and Chewie start blasting away to cover Luke’s escape into the Millennium Falcon. But before they can enter the freighter, Han charges Luke with sealing the front door shut, which collapses on the other Storm Troopers and Vader as they approach. Luke suddenly hears Ben’s disembodied voice, urging him to “Run, Luke! Run!” He does so, and makes good his escape.

With Han and Chewie at the controls, the Millennium Falcon is able to make a clean getaway out of the Death Star. Looks like Old Ben came through after all! He saved his comrades from certain death, if not a terrible punishment. Luke is saddened at his friend’s demise. Noticing his discomfort, Leia comes over and wraps a blanket around him — a gesture she will repeat in the next entry, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, upon Luke’s eventful encounter with the Dark Lord.

But the intrepid band is not out the woods yet! Han summons Luke to the Falcon’s gun port so they can take potshots at the oncoming TIE fighters. This is where the show really starts to move in the direction of a massive video game. Some of the fun, dialogue and action of days gone by are recaptured in this homage to 1940s war movies. Yee-haw!

Of course, the boys are successful in wiping out the enemy. But, alas, we return to bad old Governor Tarkin, who seeks reassurance from Vader that a homing device has been successfully planted on the Millennium Falcon. Hmm, so it was too easy for the gang to escape. What’s in store for them now, we wonder?

Victory is Its Own Reward!

All in all, in a comparison to the later trio of Star Wars movies — Episodes I, II and III, to be exact — there’s a palpable realism and solidity to the earlier pictures that are most welcome here and completely missing further down the road; a feeling of sturdiness, of real physical structures surrounding the all-too human figures that no CGI-created atmosphere can beat or replicate.

Moving on to the conclusion, Leia is suspicious of their quick getaway, but Han’s only interest is in getting paid for his efforts. This leads to her storming off in a huff. Han remarks to Luke as to whether or not Solo and Leia can make it as a couple, to which Luke gives a curt, “No!” However, in reality Han has other plans in mind besides paying back Jabba the Hutt.

When Luke’s old buddy Biggs re-emerges onscreen (in one of those previously cut scenes us fans are still waiting for), his usefulness is made evident in vouching for his friend’s superior piloting skills. Once that business is out of the way, we’re off to outer space and video-game land, the second of many such happenstances. Let’s take a look at one of them: an earlier encounter that takes place aboard Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship.

Luke attempts to master the Jedi art of stretching out with one’s feelings by covering his sights with a helmet, while preventing a floating “seeker,” a chrome baseball-like automaton with built-in antennae, from hitting him with its blood-red laser beam. If this isn’t a precursor to virtual reality games (or a similar apparatus in the still-to-come Harry Potter series), I don’t know what is.

General Dodonna (2nd from right) in the briefing room (pyxurz.blogspot.com)

General Dodonna (2nd from right) in the briefing room (pyxurz.blogspot.com)

We fast-forward to Rebel Base Headquarters, where the leader of the group, General Dodonna, gives a mid-seventies re-enactment of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech — you know the one, the rallying cry that Shakespeare’s Henry V gave his battle-weary troops before the English victory over the French at Agincourt. Dodonna’s discourse, unfortunately, is not all that inspiring. In fact, it’s chock full of techno-babble. But he concludes it with the line, “And may the Force be with you,” which is certainly not the last time we’ll be hearing this popular catchphrase.

The good general does look incredibly like veteran filmmaker-actor John Huston. Incidentally, the fellow who plays him, a guy named Alex McCrindle, even manages to capture “some” of Mr. Huston’s familiar voice mannerisms and cadences, although the resemblance ends there. Perhaps it’s another of those “art imitates life” moments we hear so much about. We do know that Huston made his residence in western Ireland at the time of the Stars Wars shoot. In addition, outside of the desert sequences in Tunisia, the bulk of the movie was shot at Elstree and Shepperton Studios in the UK. If Huston wouldn’t come to the mountain … well, then, why not take the mountain somewhere else?

No matter, the speech has the desired effect of getting the journeymen star pilots to perform at their peak. Speaking of journeymen (or journey-boy in this instance), Luke runs into Leia. He can’t help mouthing off to her about Han’s selfishness and egotism. Leia brushes away his comment by implying that Han’s got to “follow his own path. No one can choose it for him.” Well, she’s right about that. Luke wishes Old Ben were still with them. (And you know what? He might just get that wish after all.)

As Luke is lifted into his X-wing fighter plane (with the ubiquitous R2-D2 going along for the ride), he hears Ben’s voice again, intoning some needed encouragement: “The Force will be with you.” And also with you, Old Ben! Amen to that. The next sequence is probably the most exhilarating of the entire picture, and the most complicated in terms of special visual and sound effects. From this sequence alone an entire industry was born: Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM for short.

Sound effects expert Ben Burtt (a former teaching assistant at USC Film School) wanted everything in Star Wars to sound real and relatable: the motors, the equipment, the flybys, the planes, the engines, the explosions. This obsession with reality came into its own in this fascinating interplay between the outgunned and outmanned Rebel forces versus the invincible space armada amassed by the Galactic Empire.

Between shots of the approaching Death Star and the fired upon X-wing fighters, the sense that the Rebels are in for the fight of their lives never lets up. This whole episode places movie audiences smack-dab in the middle of the action, as if instead of outer space the U.S. Pacific Fleet (which, by the way, the Star Destroyers closely resemble) were on hand to swat away those annoying Japanese Zeros (except in this case, the fleet is represented by the bad-guy Empire, with the good guys being the Zeros). Battle cruisers, single engine jobs, high-speed chases, downed space-crafts, direct hits — all the heavy FX artillery has been brought out to bring the first part of Lucas’ story to a satisfactory finish.

Despite Vader’s deadly aim and his success at picking off one X-wing fighter after another (in the mode of World War I’s infamous air ace, the Red Baron), the Dark Lord is no match for the Force (or for Obi-Wan’s disembodied advice to the wet-behind-the-goggles Luke), along with Han Solo’s last-minute riding to the rescue. Finding the Death Star’s weak point, Luke launches a full-scale attack just as the battle station is locked and loaded. The end result: Kablooey!!!

But most important of all, both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are reunited as friends who save the day. Han gets a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his comrades (and the gorgeously bedecked Princess Leia) in the Throne Room sequence. This is especially significant, since it appeared to everyone that Solo was about to abandon the Rebel’s cause by taking the reward money and run. Ta-dum!!!!

The Throne Room sequence (nydailynews.com)

The Throne Room sequence (nydailynews.com)

On a final note, the additional scenes inserted by Mr. Lucas for the 1997 “Special Edition” re-release, in the digitally-enhanced realm we’ll have you know, add little to the film’s overall structure and content. On the contrary, these so-termed “improvements” tend to favor the original’s cleaner, uncluttered productions, which are parsecs removed from the upgraded versions.

If anything, they prove how much better the original films were as opposed to these bowdlerized and patently ersatz enhancements.

(End of Part Four)

Transcript of dialogue from George Lucas’ original Star Wars screenplay was taken from the Public Version of same. 

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes (Revised – 2018)    

I Can See ‘Russians’ from My House — The Cold War Makes a Comeback, Thanks to Sting

Let’s Play Thermonuclear War!

Sting singing "Russians" (A&M Records)

Sting singing “Russians” (A&M Records)

Russia, the Ukraine, military invasion, tensions, conflict, Putin, Obama… Oh brother, here we go again! If the news from Moscow is bleak of late, then turn off that CNN program and turn up the volume on your CD player.

Not that hankering for the “bad ole days” of the Cold War is good for anyone’s health, but we’re certainly up for some great pop music to help set aside our fears — played, naturally, by one of our all-time favorite singer-songwriters, Sting.

For a nostalgic round of Communists vs. Capitalists, there’s nothing that can compare to the track “Russians,” the Stinger’s fondest stab at “serious classical hymnology” (in the words of reviewer Jon Pareles). Recorded in July 1985 — and one of the major components that comprised his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles (A&M) — Sting’s lyrical outburst puts our country’s testy relationship to the former Soviet Union into context by taking a plainly humanistic perspective.

If you’ve never heard this piece before now, prepare for a shock, dear listener. While Sting has had his fair share of politicized statements throughout the years (for example, his work with Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and his later song “They Dance Alone,” about the Pinochet regime’s crackdown of Chilean dissidents), this one slices through the bullcrap and goes straight to the heart of the matter: how can we possibly fear all-out nuclear war from these folks if our Russian rivals venerate their families as much as we do? That’s the essence of the number in a nutshell.

Beginning and ending with the ominous ticking of a clock (or is it a portentous time bomb?), Sting makes full use of a memorable melody that Soviet-era composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote for the film Lieutenant Kijé (circa 1933). It’s the Romance from a suite of tunes he compiled soon after that’s become a concert hall standard.

In the original scoring the tune is played by the saxophone. Ironically, in Sting’s treatment the theme resounds forcefully, at key intervals, via the employment of a present-day synthesizer. The companion video clip is even more impressive, with black and white images of Ruskies, young and old, in various guises: from gymnasts and ballet dancers to priests with crosses painted on their foreheads, along with some retired bureaucrats gazing nostalgically at their younger selves, or those being led away in wheelchairs to a convalescent home.

Sting’s vocals are placed stratospherically in near-falsetto range, giving a sense of strain on the highest notes which helps to convey the urgency of his message. There is no lack of hope. However, a noticeable sense of caution is present, as is a touch of guarded optimism — despite an apparent nuclear winter in the barren, windswept landscape. The tolling of Kremlin-like bells completes the sonic picture.

Along with this “synthesized snatch of Prokofiev’s music,” the powerful and opportunely-timed lyrics are what make this tuneful relic a near-classic. Note how Sting’s verbal imagery and his use of repeated phrases (“I don’t subscribe to this point of view” and “I hope the Russians love their children too”), along with the conditional tense, make for a convincing argument for greater understanding and rapprochement among the world’s nuclear powers — a theme that’s as relevant and newsworthy as today’s front-page headlines.

"What save us me and you / Is if the Russians love their children too" (Sting)

“What might save us, me and you / Is if the Russians love their children too” (Sting)

Russians

In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets
Mister Khrushchev said, ‘We will bury you’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too

How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent to put
Words in the mouth of the president
There’s no such thing as a winnable war
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore
Mister Reagan says ‘We will protect you’
I don’t subscribe to this point of view
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too

We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
What might save us, me and you,
Is if the Russians love their children too

(Words and music by Sting, with a sampling of Prokofiev)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Waste Land – The Musical’: ‘Ninety-Nine is Not a Hundred’ (Part Two)

The conclusion to a proposed musical theater piece about the award-winning documentary ‘Waste Land’ (‘Lixo Extraordinário’)

Artist Vik Muniz

Artist Vik Muniz

In the first part of my tribute to the denizens of the Jardim Gramacho slum (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/waste-land-the-musical-we-suffer-we-die-and-were-buried/), one of the catadores was hurt by an unfriendly encounter with a garbage truck and its contents. Meanwhile, the office was looted by drug thieves who made off with the monthly payroll.

Act II: Resolution

Number 12. “Rescue Attempt” – The garbage pickers pull Zumbie out from under the crumbling rubbish heap. “The truck’s gate fell on him,” yells Big Carl, one of the slum’s inhabitants, “but he’s going to be okay.” With a huge sigh of relief, the garbage pickers take the stricken catador de lixo to the hospital. “Over 20 people will donate blood,” Zumbie announces proudly. “I’m surrounded by good fr-fr-friends.” He’s well on his way toward mending, both physically and emotionally.

Number 13. “Vik’s Visit” – The famous artist, Vik Muniz, now comes to call on Jardim Gramacho with a unique proposal for the pickers. He wants to take their pictures – i.e., photographs of the workers, in all sorts of weird poses. As Vik explains it, he intends to recreate the classic paintings of old. The garbage pickers look at him in alarm and amazement. “What’s this all about?” they wonder openly.

Vik tries to clarify his idea, but they still don’t get it. “Pictures? Pictures of what?” they inquire in unison. “Pictures of garbage,” Vik replies, rather matter-of-factly. They are even more astonished at this alleged clarification. They still can’t believe their ears. “Who in their right mind would want to do that?” they declare. “I would,” says Vik. “It’s what I do for a living.” “And people say we’re crazy!” is their response. This leads to an extended discussion (via an ensemble passage) where everyone chimes in with their own ideas about the project.

Eventually, the issues are resolved and the garbage pickers’ reluctance begins to fade. Vik is making headway in his appeals to their self-esteem: he wants them to think of his project as a possible “way out” from the dead-end lives they’ve been leading.

Number 14. “Death of Marat” – The first to take his turn at the canvas is boss-man Tião, who decides to pose for the painting of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat,” followed cautiously by the other participants. In a humorous episode, Tião starts to undress before the other participants, who shyly look away as he slips into Marat’s outfit. “Irmã’s Painting” is next in line. After posing for her picture, she is finally able to see herself as others do. “Artists have to suffer,” she offers, which leads into the next number.

Magna portrait

Magna’s portrait

Number 15. “Isis’ Suffering” – “They aren’t the only ones,” cries Isis, another of Jardim Gramacho’s put-upon residents. “I don’t see myself in this trash heap anymore. I don’t want to go back to the garbage. I don’t…” Isis then reminisces about her young son, who died in a nearby hospital of pneumonia. The scene shifts between her recollection of the recent past and the events at the landfill, which are taking place simultaneously – in parallel – but on two different levels. Some of the garbage pickers are transformed into doctors and nurses, keeping Isis informed of her son’s deteriorating condition.

This becomes the emotional crux of the drama, wherein Isis sings about the ant crawling on her deceased son’s face – the same ant that, if one pulls back far enough away from the landfill, everyone appears to resemble. “We’re just a bunch of tiny insects in this life,” Isis insists. “I saw my son die at three years old,” as she resumes her story. “He died of acute pneumonia. His name was Carlos Igor.” At the mention of his name, Isis breaks down in tears. In trying to comfort her, Vik tells her that no one can do anything more to her than has already been done. His mission, then, is to help the populace see what life is like on the outside, beyond the confines of the garbage dump. That is the most that he can do – the rest is up to them!

Number 16. “Lesson: How to Look at Art” – This is the scene where Vik instructs the residents of Jardim Gramacho how people who go to museums look at (and appreciate) the works of art they find there. First, they take a step up to the painting, and then they take a step back. This routine turns into an amusing vignette, with the onlookers contributing their own versions of “how to look at art.”

In the meantime, the lesson continues: back and forth, everybody leans in and everybody leans out; they move away, see the material, see the landscape, and then move out again. “Since we’re all garbage pickers,” they claim, “all we see are the recyclable materials.” “But that’s the thing,” Vik pipes in. “They’ll spend hours looking at your photographs. There is more to them than just garbage. Watch, you’ll see.” We know exactly what he means, which is: there’s more to the garbage pickers – much more, it turns out – than meets the eye. You just have to “get up close and personal” to simple folk, they retort, to learn “who we really are” – just like regular folk do with the paintings.

Suelem as "Madonna and Children"

Suelem as “Madonna and Children”

Number 17. “Madonna and Child” – A photo session involving Suelem and her two children takes place. In recreating the artwork, the garbage pickers themselves do the actual placing of the objects onto the photo – that is, they recreate the art from the trash heaps that they themselves have picked. In addition, each work is a commentary – a personal statement, if you will – on the personality and character of the individual who did the picking. For the “Madonna and Child,” this indeed is how Suelem sees herself and her brood.

This happens to be the real theme of the show: i.e., how others have perceived the garbage pickers to be, but, most importantly of all, how Vik, the artist, and especially the garbage pickers, see themselves and their roles in life. It goes beyond what anyone ever imagined at the start. How much they have changed in such a short time! Each finished photo is displayed in its glory. The garbage pickers are overcome with emotion by their wonderful portraits, especially Big Carl and his wife.

Number 18. “The Museum Visit” – In a change of scenery, reporters appear to gather around the garbage pickers doing makeshift interviews. At the museum, Vik and Tião stumble upon a bronze sculpture of a garbage bag. “What’s in it?” Vik asks. “Can you tell me? Can you venture a guess?” Tião pauses and ponders the contents. “Hmm, a cup of yogurt, hearts of palm, small boxes, a brand new cell phone, and the rest.” This scene is reflective of an earlier one, in Act I, in which the pickers made fun of people’s trash. It ends with Tião’s perceptive comment: “I feel like a pop star.”

We next revisit the skit, “How to Look at Art,” now called “Life Imitates Art,” but this time it is put into practice, with the garbage pickers seeing real people looking at their precious pieces of art, in exactly the way that Vik had taught them beforehand, the living embodiment of the phrase “life imitates art.” Both garbage pickers and museum visitors admire each other, first from afar and then from close up, a rather comical observation on how different groups of individuals behave and perceive the other to be – and a perfect illustration of the point that Vik Muniz was trying to make above.

Number 19. “The Auction” – It starts with the sale of an Andy Warhol original, beginning almost in staccato form, à la Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Interspersed with the auctioneer pointing to various parties gathered at the auction, there are comments and asides from Vik and Tião interspersed throughout, as well as from the other participants, somewhat along the lines of: “Did you hear? Did you hear?” and “Did he say twenty, did he say twenty?” “Is it true? Is it true?” “It’s been sold for fifty thousand and two! Did he say fifty, did he say fifty? Sold today, sold today? Is it true what they say?”

At scene’s end, Tião’s picture is sold for $50,000 dollars. He is overcome with emotion and breaks down, weeping with joy – quite a different situation from the earlier one at the end of the first act, where we found him bawling his eyes out at the loss of the company payroll. He simply can’t believe his good fortune. “It’s all worth it. It really is,” he admits. Vik and Tião embrace warmly, in friendship and solidarity, as the onlookers break out into spontaneous applause.

Tiao Santos & Jo Soares (YouTube)

Tiao Santos & Jo Soares (YouTube)

Number 20. “Finale” – The musical ends with Tião and the garbage pickers’ appearance on a popular TV talk show (in Rio de Janeiro, it’s Jo Soares’ program; in America, it’s Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert). Here, the talk-show host introduces the group as “collectors of garbage.” Tião has the polite audacity to confront him: “If I may correct you, sir. Garbage can’t be reused, whereas recyclable materials can. We are not pickers of garbage, but pickers of recyclable material.” What he’s trying to say is that human life is never wasted; it’s always salvageable – recyclable, if you prefer – even if you’re a lowly garbage picker. “I stand corrected,” Soares states, as he looks out approvingly into the audience.

The show comes to a rousing close with the repeat of Valter’s number, “Here’s wisdom aplenty: Ninety-nine is not a hundred, and nineteen is not twenty,” after the elder statesman’s personal motto. The entire cast comes out in a stirring rendition of “The Waste Land Song”:

Seven thousand tons of trash

Work all day for little cash

Robbing Peter, paying Paul

Look, here comes another haul

It’s a Waste Land

The set reverts back one last time to the garbage dump overlooking Guanabara Bay. Only this time, Christ the Redeemer is facing the audience. His massive stone countenance is seen looking down on the inhabitants. It almost appears as if He’s given His blessing to the goings on.

Blackout and curtain

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes