By Alan Scherstuhl
By Mark Holcombe
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By Keith Phipps
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"The Republic is crumbling," declares the deep-space scroll at the start of the last Star Wars episode that George Lucas will ever unleash on the known galaxy. "Evil is everywhere."
Into this fiery hell--or rather the hot-ticket Star Wars press conference at the Cannes Film Festival--hobbles Jedi Master George, reluctantly greeting the lightsaber-strength flashbulb blasts with his trademark smirk. That look--the unflattering public face that Lucas has worn ever since Episode I menaced us at millennium's end--has always been a mite inscrutable. (Is it condescension? Indigestion? The dark side of digital photography?) But as I'm now a mere 10 feet away from the mogul himself, I believe I can report that the Lucas smirk signifies a sort of willful defeat, the billionaire knob-twiddler's faintly bemused recognition that the crumbling of the republic, if you will, is one of the few things that he can't control. "This," Lucas says halfway through the press conference, referring sarcastically to public relations, "is every actor, director, and writer's favorite part of making a movie."
Woof. Even Chewie's weariest bark has more soul than Lucas's speaking voice at its most upbeat. But hey--these are dark times. Indeed, what redresses the master's cold contempt even for the process by which we reporters help cover his cleaning costs at Skywalker Ranch is the fact that anger--which, you know, leads to the Dark Side--is something the new movie and the current zeitgeist have very much in common. Episode III might still take place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." But with its corrupt Imperial Senate swaying public opinion by falsely accusing the Jedi of having stockpiled WMD, it's a lot closer to the here and now than any of the other Star Wars films ever were in their time. (As Natalie Portman's doomed Padmé puts it: "What if the democracy we thought we'd been serving no longer exists?")
Not that Lucas--arguably the canniest filmmaker who has ever lived--will admit to anything but a Jedi's good luck in this regard. "When I wrote [III]," he claims, "Iraq didn't exist. We were just funding Saddam Hussein, giving him weapons of mass destruction; we didn't think of him as an enemy at that point. We were going after Iran, using [Saddam] as our surrogate--just as we were doing in Vietnam. This [movie] really came out of the Vietnam era--and the parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we're doing in Iraq now are unbelievable."
Though the wars in Episode III remain nearly as bloodless as those in the post-Vietnam New Hope (a.k.a. Episode IV), they don't lack consequence in human terms. Once the evil Sith lord Palpatine issues "Order 66" (not to be confused with Plan 9, much as Lucas's dialogue resembles Ed Wood's), the Jedi death toll mounts quickly and horribly. Not even kids are spared in a narrative act that the 61-year-old director might well liken to the My Lai massacre.
Conscious or not, part of Lucas's intent in invoking 'Nam may be to bridge the demographic gap between new and old Star Wars fans--given that the latter tribe hardly waved their freak flags high for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Lucas offers an analogy. "It's like one group saying, The Rolling Stones and the Beatles are everything, man--that rock 'n' roll is the greatest thing you've ever heard, and other people saying, Well, hip hop is great--that old folks' stuff is no good anymore. And Rolling Stones fans saying, Hip hop, my God, you know, that isn't even music."
Speaking as one who paid dearly for the privilege of seeing Episode VI's radio-station sneak at the Skyway in '83 (40 bucks was a lot for a 15-year-old back then), I'd say I mostly fit the director's description of his elder fans: Though I do like hip hop, Clones (Lucas's, not the Neptunes') is a bit...uh, atonal for this old man's taste. By comparison, Episode III rather sings. Lucas's style purveys an impressively operatic elegance right from the first, epic-length tracking shot, whereby the movie comes on like a sci-fi Touch of Evil. At last, the images of this animated trilogy possess the "painterly" quality that Lucas has been bragging about ever since the muddy-looking Menace came out in '99. In III, color, light, movement, and even CG "shadow" combine in complicated varieties to create the series' richest visual palette, one that communicates far more about the dark side of shock and awe than Lucas's ridiculous words ever could. (For the full effect, Minnesota-based Jedi are strongly advised to catch III in the Eden Prairie 18's all-digital auditorium: Like it or not, this state-of-the-art blockbuster simply doesn't reveal itself in 35mm.)
If only Lucas would make Episode III available in a version without the dialogue track. (Or perhaps the phantom editors in cyberspace are working on that remix as we speak.) As it is, the movie has a couple of tiny moments--no more than a few shots, really, but they're priceless--whose vaguely nonnarrative psychedelia seems to look back to David Lynch's Dune and forward to the kind of "uncommercial" films that Lucas used to make in the '60s and says he'll make again. Maybe it's just the old Jedi mind trick and not an extension of the saga's tale of youth redeeming the old, but the salt-and-pepper-haired Lucas does talk as if he's ready to become a rebel--the billionaire Jonathan Caouette, perhaps.
"I have enough money," he says, surprising no one, "to make my kind of movies. God knows where they'll be shown. I'm sure they'll be shown in theaters somewhere: I don't know how big the release will be, because I don't have control over things like that. But now, with the DVD market and stuff, there's room, I think, for a sort of alternative cinema. Just as we've got documentaries now in theaters, which is a great thing, I think eventually there's a whole other area of [experimental] cinema that hasn't really been pushed into the mainstream. Hopefully I can help change that."
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