December 1, 2011

Do you like this?

No matter how much I argue against movies that substitute slick special effects, nonstop action scenes, and plot-driven stories for good writing and character development, I know deep down that I’m a hypocrite.

I can criticize Michael Bay movies endlessly for focusing on visuals to the detriment of story. I can call Sucker Punch the worst movie of the year because it was essentially one long experiment in computer-generated graphics. I can make jokes about the stilted dialogue commonplace in many comic-book films. But in the back of my mind, I know that I once drove 12 hours to New York City to camp out in front of the Ziegfeld Theater for tickets to Star Wars:  Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith.

I like to tell myself that it was for a good cause; all proceeds from ticket sales went to charity. But I know that if pressed, I couldn’t tell you what charity it was for. For all I know, I might have been supporting a group that reintroduces nerds into the wild. No, I went because it was “Star Wars” and “Star Wars” has light sabers and Wookies and the Force and spaceships and is so much cooler than Harry Potter ever will be. Just this weekend, I spent an inordinate amount of time ignoring my family in order to beta test a new computer game based in the “Star Wars” universe. If I wasn’t careful (and had unlimited access to funds), I might have something of a problem. So when my editor offered me a chance to review an advance copy of the paperback release of The Secret History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic by Michael Kaminski, I was cautious. By cautious, I mean I immediately ordered a copy and set up a tent by the mailbox.  

The book arrived last week. It is approximately 450 pages in ten-point font and contains eight (8!) appendices. The amount of detail included in the book is astonishing. It goes beyond any documentary included on any release thus far, compiling facts from innumerable interviews conducted with cast, crew, and associates from the beginning of the film releases. It contains excerpts from multiple drafts of every script from every movie, with commentary and in-depth analysis of plot changes and character development. It is, in a word, tedious. That isn’t a criticism really, as I found the tedium fascinating and fun. It simply reads like a textbook. If there were a college course on “The making of Star Wars”, this would be required reading.  

As much as I love the subject, the book isn’t without its faults. There is no primary source information; everything is secondary, pulled from interviews, scripts, and press details. Kaminski has a tendency to indulge tangential information; there are long passages explaining the films of Akira Kurosawa and their influence on George Lucas. The author’s voice is dry and at times can read like an academic thesis, interested in padding word count or covering material interesting only to experts. The book isn’t for the casual “Star Wars” fan or moviegoer. It is for the obsessed only.  

The most interesting part of the book for me is the characterization of George Lucas as a filmmaker. In particular, Larry Kasdan, screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back was quoted as saying, “[George] doesn’t care about the relationships between people beyond the broad strokes…what he’s interested in is moving the plot forward. He doesn’t want to see a three-minute scene about character.”  

Lucas is described consistently as an experimental, visual filmmaker. Film for him is primarily about the visual experience, not the emotional impact of character discovery. Actors for Lucas aren’t much different than props, which is why R2-D2 gives as good a performance as Harrison Ford. It also explains why good actors like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor are so wooden in the prequels. But for all his faults in working with actors, Lucas has led the way in the development of special effects. He created Industrial Light and Magic with the profits from the “Star Wars” franchise. Without his efforts, we would never have seen dinosaurs come to life or learned what shapes a boggart can take. Before we dismiss his blatant merchandising and constant reissues as mere greed, we should look at what he’s given us as an audience.

“The Secret History of Star Wars” was an enjoyable read for me. I was worried that I might have finally outgrown the series. I recently sold all my “Star Wars” books and didn’t even consider buying the Blu Ray release. But the other day, while watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with my 2 year old, I asked him what happened to the Beast at the end. He looked at me, smiled and said, “He’s turning into Luke Skywalker.”  I guess I’m not the only hope. There is another. The Secret

History of Star Wars: The Art of Storytelling and the Making of a Modern Epic

By Michael Kaminski

Legacy Book Press, 2011, $39.95.


December 1, 2011

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