What’s So Great About Star Wars?

I can’t remember the first time I heard about Star Wars or encountered a Star Wars reference. As a version of A New Hope adapted to a children’s storybook format was read to me in preschool, I already knew who Luke’s father was despite having never seen the movies. Even my mother, who is a leader of the “this movie is so stupid” movement, can recognize Darth Vader or Princess Leia. Star Wars has completely immersed itself into our cultural consciousness. So what’s so great about it? It can be argued that the later success of Star Wars is partially due to Lucas’ obsessive re-releasing and intensive marketing, but that doesn’t explain the initial appeal. The storyline, while well-loved and inspirational, isn’t spectacularly complex or full of societal critique. I had never watched a Star Wars movie when I was twelve, and I never could see what all the fuss was about. Once I saw the original trilogy, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about the movies. The acting wasn’t that great, I think Carrie Fisher looks kind of funny, and the constant re-releases are irritating, but I still fully enjoyed it. There’s something about Star Wars that allowed me to be suspended from reality in a whole new way.

 

A quick Google search reveals the massive extended universe based around the Star Wars franchise. I can’t think of many more trilogies that have inspired as much nitpicking and arguing as Star Wars. Did Han shoot first? What language do Rodians speak? How many children did Luke and his future Jedi wife, Mara, have? Star Wars has inspired a universe in which millions of people have collectively created a past, present, and future. A canon was decided on by writers and producers under the head of Lucas, and thousands of different story lines for individual characters have sprouted from that. For some people, the Star Wars universe is as real as reality is. What makes it so believable? First, the idea that the film occurred “a long, long time ago” rather than on a future Earth gives us a sense of possibility. Something that happened in the history of a galaxy far, far away could have actually occurred. George Lucas might be a carbonite-frozen representative of Tatooine, sent to Earth to keep the heritage of the galaxy alive. There are plenty of myths circulating how Lucas came up with the idea for Star Wars. My favorite claims that he was in a coma and dreamt the entire thing from start to finish. It could be a message from God! That’s right; Lucas is an oracle.

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I think what really makes Star Wars unique is the fact that the universe which it takes place in is so worn. We meet Luke Skywalker on a dirty, tired moisture farm in Tatooine. He’s having dinner on plastic plates, getting cheated by salesmen, griping about his chores, and beating away at broken droids with tools that look like they’d probably break any delicate technology. Mos Eisley’s buildings are dirty and the town itself is rough around the edges. The Tusken Raiders are using outdated technology and wearing rags. We meet Han Solo, badass smuggler extraordinaire, when he is attempting to weasel his way out of a bad deal. His ship “doesn’t look like much,” and comparatively, the viewer understands why. The Millennium Falcon looks like it will break down any day now. The sleek, clean Imperial ships seem no match for the tired Falcon. The dirt and grime in the everyday world contrasts well with the sterile, institutional Imperial world. The contrast creates an idea that the Rebels are ragtag, the underdogs, while the powerful Empire can afford to pay a stormtrooper to personally clean Grand Moff Tarkin’s over starched uniform. Image

 

When I watch Star Wars, I see a universe I could actually live in. Previous science fiction movies tended to feature a shiny, clean future. This future seems so distant from the world that exists in 2013. It makes more sense to me that Han Solo wears a white shirt and some basic brown pants, but the clean, perfect uniforms in Star Trek bother me. People love the glamour of a rough world. From the gangster movie onward, a dirty, scruffy existence has a certain type of romance associated with it. There are so many types of professions displayed in Star Wars as well. Not everyone is a spaceship captain; some people are moisture farmers, bartenders, smugglers, bounty hunters or weird old hermits that have apparently been watching a seventeen year old boy since he was a baby. Star Wars isn’t just a set of movies. It’s an idea, a universe, that has been developed within the grimy, imaginative sandbox Lucas created.  

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Silent Film: Quietly Changing the World

For someone who was supposedly such a great inventor, Edison has a lot of bad press circulating him. I feel like every time I open up a book about the early 1900’s (which isn’t often, but still) there’s some “fun fact” about what a gigantic jerk Edison was. Edison stole the design for the lightbulb! Edison tested the electric chair on an elephant! Edison peed on the White House lawn and then blamed it on Tesla!

 

The third one probably didn’t happen, but I can imagine it after all I’ve heard about him. I learned another fun fact the other day: Edison attempted to monopolize the early motion picture industry, effectively putting independent producers out of business and standardizing equipment to Edison’s own. He then proceeded to sue the tar out of anyone who attempted to make a motion picture with his cameras. By forming the Motion Picture Patents company (called “The Trust”), Edison managed to piss off yet another group of would-be innovators. Although the standardization of film equipment helped theaters and filmmakers, the formation of the Trust resulted in a huge crop of formulaic and quickly made films. Admittedly, this fact is less fun than the elephant one. Sorry about that.

 

Enter Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was an immigrant who used European film cameras in an attempt to break the Trust. The cameras were crappy, and Laemmle didn’t like that. So, he bought one of Edison’s cameras and started making films on the black market. Edison soon catches on; Laemmle is sued by the Trust 289 times. The Trust knew they were being broken by a couple of guys with black-market cameras, and they tried to fight back the only way they knew. But the results were simple; the Trust’s formulaic, cash cow films were being replaced by independent films that adopted the star system and were generally filmed in the middle of nowhere. That’s right: Hollywood, the iconic capital of weird boob jobs and huge sunglasses, was created by an immigrant with a dream to make great film and a generation of actors and producers willing to travel across the country to a tiny, scenic town in California to escape big business. How romantic does it get?

 

So now we have Hollywood, Laemmle’s newly opened Universal Studios, and a bunch of independents relying on a newly-formed star system rather than a plug-and-sell formula built for entertaining the masses. As it turns out, the masses loved it. Stars gave people an icon to hold fast to as a representation of all they hoped they could achieve. American films were no longer the equivalent of cheap Harlequin novels; they had depth, plot, and could even be considered art. Hollywood grew larger working with the government during WWI and entering a market of middle-class people who now saw movies as more than cheap entertainment. The 1920’s brought an era of city-versus-country messages, with swirling flappers and moral tales of the downfalls of booze filling the screen. As scandals grew in the early twenties, outrage began to blame Hollywood for the downfall of America’s morality. The industry knew that it had to have a new face, and Will Hays was the one they chose to represent them.

 

Now, Will Hays was not the kind of guy you’d see running around your cocktail party with a lampshade on his head doing Mickey Mouse impressions. In fact, he’s the complete opposite– a total bore who manages to censor all of the fun out of Hollywood. I don’t really blame him; without some sort of self-censorship, the industry likely would have been heavily censored by the government themselves at this early stage. The introduction of Will Hays is an interesting reflection of the “roaring 20’s” stereotype that permeates our historical memory. We often remember society in the twenties as being a tumultuous mess of alcohol, loose women, and few worries. What we don’t remember is the fact that most people were a lot more concerned with going to church, working hard to provide for their families, and being decent, law abiding citizens. My great-grandpa was probably a lot like Will Hays, and my great-grandmother probably did not appreciate the Fatty Arbuckle scandal or intense romantic scenes on-screen. They would have attended movies to be entertained within their comfort zone.

 

Even though Hollywood was growing as a glamourous cultural powerhouse, everyday people still wanted to be entertained in ways that spoke to them directly. From the country-versus-city themes that mocked the loose morals of the big towns to Charlie Chaplin’s hopeful depression-era messages of happiness through hardship, the lower and middle classes looked up to the movies as a way to have their fears, hopes, and ambitions expressed. While controversy about the responsibility of film as a media and scandal brought heavy censorship to the film industry, basic messages remained powerful enough to attract filmgoers throughout the rest of the silent era.

 

Working-class Perspectives and Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley

The story of Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley is a familiar one. A young working-class girl has her fate decided for her; she will work hard her entire life, marry a local bartender, and live in a tenement in Clothes-line Alley. When she has a run-in with a very wealthy man, however, her luck changes. For a while, it seems as though Amarilly and her rich lover, Gordon, are playing out the familiar Cinderella story. At the end, though, Amarilly returns to Terry, her poor barkeep. She is shown happy and content with her place as a worker, and gains some social mobility through hard work. Amarilly is a champion of the working class. She does more than accept her place in society; she prefers it, and illustrates the classic “American dream.” She has no desire to be part of the wealthy, snobbish upper class that rejects her family. Instead, she incites pride in the hearts of blue-collar workers. Mary Pickford tells her audiences that they are good enough for America and that they should be proud of who they are. While the fairytale story line might not be an accurate representation of the working-class in 1918, the target audience is reflected in Amarilly’s acceptance of her lower-class status. The rich characters lampooned by the filmmakers are a result of progressive-era class politics; in this way, films were a way for the lower-class to have their anger expressed in a public forum. In its typicality, Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley tells a story of a crushed lower class looking for validation when none was readily available.

            Frederick Lynch describes the Progressive Era as a time when the nation suffered “gross political corruption, corporate arrogance coupled with consumer impotence… pockets of acute poverty, and urban decay.”[1] Class in early films was a distinct divider between industrial giants or old money and immigrant or blue-collar workers. Sometimes, working-class themes in early films were highly politicized. Movies about strikes, union organizers, and working-class fights against the upper crust reflect the strong sentiments held by the working class.[2] One way in which filmmakers catered to their working-class audiences was through the mockery of the upper classes. Jokes concerning the trivial worries or practical foolishness of the upper class created a feeling that the upper class was out of touch or not part of the “American dream.”[3] The upper class of the progressive was both extraordinarily powerful and afraid of losing status due to the rising influence of worker’s unions and immigrant populations. These fears led to an attachment to rigid social and business practices.[4] Together, these factors created an upper class that was an easy target for filmmakers wishing to appeal to workers.

            Amarilly contains several elements that reflect the dislike of the bourgeois upper class by working-class audiences. Different scenes serve to divide the upper and working classes culturally. A scene portraying the two families eating an evening meal illustrates this concept. Before showing the upper-class family eating, the screen reads “Dinner, when it is eaten.” When the working-class family is sitting down for their meal, the screen says “Supper, when it is ‘et’.”[5] The effort at marking clear linguistic differences between the two families shows that Amarilly’s household is not interested in propriety; the busy, happy family in the tenement home compared to the prim, bored looking family in the large estate convey that the message directed toward moviegoers is one in support of a working-class audience.  One character in particular, the Mrs. Phillips who attempts to “fix” Amarilly into a society woman, represents the upper class in a way that gives the viewer a portrait of an elitist, out of touch element to root against. Steven Ross remarks that films directed at the lower class “did not offer solutions, nor did they present sophisticated critiques of capitalism. [They] offered audiences something more immediate and gratifying: revenge.”[6] While Amarilly does not contain many elements of harsh revenge, it does give a sense that Amarilly is “winning” by coming to her senses and living a good life. In an important scene, Amarilly’s family is invited to the decadent home of the woman taking her in. The “fish-out-of-water” imagery presented after the scene describes how Amarilly and her family feel in the presence of these people. The upper class is presented at the party as being judgmental and petty; one woman, in particular, is just as worried about her dog’s illness as Amarilly’s mother is about her son’s. Another woman, ashamed of her lower class past, feels insulted when Amarilly’s mother asks if “enny of youse ever took in washin’,” revealing to the audience the moral character of someone who abandons their place in society.

            The handsome rich man that Amarilly falls in love with is another example of the upper class being portrayed in a negative light by filmmakers. While he is good looking, he is shown as being flaky and shallow. At the beginning, Gordon is seen telling a fib to his aunt about his “Bible study” class, which in actuality consisted of him and his friends drinking and enjoying a spa. In contrast with Amarilly’s or the bartender’s hard work, the Gordon’s waste of time on frivolous activities paints him to be a poster child for the spoiled rich. Films in this era often made it a point to exaggerate the decadent lives of the upper class, and Amarilly takes particular liberties in this area. [7] The table settings, lavish parties, and focus on “training” Amarilly to become part of the desired upper crust give the viewer a sense that the people participating in these activities have nothing better to do, and are part of the group living off the wealth earned by the working man. At the end of the film, when Amarilly realizes that her place is not among the rich society, Gordon continues to attempt to take Amarilly “away from all this.” He insinuates that “this,” or Clothes-line Alley, is not good enough for a girl with as much potential as Amarilly. Gordon looks disappointed when Amarilly compares mixing the classes to mixing “ice cream an’ pickles.” Working-class pride is felt at Amarilly’s refusal to be “fixed.” The downtrodden look on Gordon’s face gives the audience a sense that Amarilly’s choice was her own, and Gordon’s surprise at her unwillingness to come with him is a result of his lifelong belief that his class is superior. While Gordon may be goodhearted, he is also out-of-touch with the cultural context in which Amarilly exists.

            In conjunction with elements that represent the upper class as undesirable, Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley also contains moments that directly support the lifestyles of working-class immigrant families during the Progressive era. Amarilly and her family are happy to engage in what others might view as “dirty work.” The first scene of the movie is Amarilly joyfully scrubbing windows, while her mother works running her laundry business. Even when she is given the opportunity to live in the house of the wealthy characters in the movie, Amarilly resists. She comments, “I’d rather stay here an’ go on with the scrubbin’. Gran’ma scrubbed… Ma scrubs…”[8] Amarilly’s sense of familial and class loyalty and gives her a quality that is likeable to people who hold work and family in high value. Her attitude about generations before her doing the same work reveals that she is not “too good” for work that the upper classes would never do. In a scene where she unfairly loses her job at the theater due to a fire, the contrast between the wealthy theater owner and innocent Amarilly is strong. The theater owner, enraged at Amarilly’s interruption and the fire, tells her to leave which leads to her job celling cigarettes at a local cafe. Here, she meets Gordon. When she speaks to Gordon, she remarks, “My regular business is in the theatrical perfesshun.” This line is put into place to comment on Gordon’s removal from the society he is used to and Amarilly’s refusal to become what he expects. The audience expects to hear that she is an actress when this line is spoken, but instead is reminded that she’s just the scrubwoman at the theater. This scene reinforces the idea that Amarilly’s life, while anything but glamorous, is not something to be ashamed of. Her pride at the idea of being a scrubwoman gives the audience a character to relate to.

            Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley is a film that reflects several common themes of Progressive era films. While not as outwardly political as trade union films, films like Amarilly “allowed the filmmakers to demonstrate the moral superiority of the working class while lavishing attention on the glamorous life-styles of the wealthy.”[9] At the end of the movie, Amarilly and Terry are seen five years later with two children and nice clothes. They are driving a car, which contrasts with the broken-down bike Terry drove five years ago. They are living the middle-class dream of upward social mobility without betraying the working-class roots that relate to the audience. Movies that represented this social mobility or transplanted poor characters into lavish settings gave the audience hope; nice clothes and a car are things that an immigrant could reasonably attain, in contrast with the decadent life of the extremely wealthy that would never be attainable.[10] Like many cross-class fantasy films of the time, Amarilly give viewers a chance to see how the rich live, while at the end suggesting that they would be happier living within their own social boundaries.[11] In a Progressive era where the working class had few modes of expression, films that reinforced the values of hard work, family, and practicality gave audiences someone to validate their lives and look up to. While Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley teaches working girls to dream, it also shows them the probable end result of their hard work in a practical way. The message is simple: it’s all right to make money and a good future, but dreams of upper-class existence are lacking in moral fiber.


[1]      Frederick Lynch, “Social Theory and the Progressive Era”, Theory and Society 4, no. 2 (Summer 1997): 161.

[2]          Steven Ross, Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), xii.

[3]    Ibid., 65.

[4]    Lynch, “Social Theory and the Progressive Era,” 163.

[5]    Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley, directed by Marshall Neilan (Artcraft productions, 1918.)

[6]    Ross, Working-Class Hollywood. 79.

[7]    Ibid., 78.

[8]    Amarilly, 1918.

[9]    Ross, Working-Class Hollywood, 198.

[10]  Ibid., 199.

[11]  Ibid., 201.

 

Bibliography

 

Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley. Directed by Marshall Neilan. Artcraft Productions, 1918.

 

Lynch, Frederick. “Social Theory and the Progressive Era.” Theory and Society 4, no 2. 1997.

 

Ross, Steven. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton:      Princeton University Press. 1998.

 

Ross, Steven. Struggless for the Screen: Workers, Radicals, and the Political uses of Silent Film.” The     American Historical Review 96, No. 2. 1991.

Living through celluloid

There isn’t just one reason that people watch movies. Individuals have different reasons for doing anything; movies are no different. Take my dad, for example. He’s not a huge movie person. Getting him to sit down long enough to watch anything more lengthy than an episode of “The Three Stooges” is considered a Vatican-certified miracle. Just like anyone, though, he has a few favorite movies that he will watch over and over. I’ve noticed that most of the movies share a couple common themes, not limited to:

-Awesome airplane scenes.

-Revenge.

-Really, really boring dialogue.

-War, but not the lame action movie type war with too many explosions. Strategic war.

-Characters with a strong moral compass. No moral ambiguity for this man. No steamy affairs, heavy drug use, or shady salesman techniques will be excused when my Dad’s watching a movie.

-Bizarre situations concerning in-laws.

-Cats dying in comical ways.

 

These themes are reflected in a lot of his favorite movies: 12 O’Clock High, Tora Tora Tora, Chevy Chase’s Vacation and Christmas Vacation, Airplane, Lonesome Dove, The Ten Commandments, Kujo (for some reason). So my dad, being the morally upstanding yet comedically bizarre pilot he is, enjoys movies that validate the way he views the world. I’m kind of the same way; I watch movies because, in a way, I like feeling like someone understands me. I don’t think this position is unique, but I also don’t think it’s the only reason everyone watches movies.

 

Take early films. A lot of comedy, some melodrama, nothing too deep (in most cases). Early movies, meant for the lower classes, provided an escape from daily reality for a lot of people. People working hard and living a hard life don’t really want to go see something that is trying to reach a way deeper meaning; they just want to be entertained. A lot of parallels can be drawn to Bollywood now. In India this summer, I noticed that most of the Tamil films that were released contained a few crucial elements: catchy song and dance, romance, comedy, and ridiculous drama. Theaters there are relatively inexpensive, and a lot of the time serve as a release for the lower classes who are living very difficult lives. Someone who spends all day worrying about their sick child and laying bricks does not usually want to see an in-depth film about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes, people just need to be removed from reality for a while. These films definitely still exist in the United States as well; I don’t think anyone’s going to see Jackass 2 with high hopes of being enlightened.

 

From my standpoint, though, modern cinema (and most of what would be considered “good” cinema from the past) aims to do one of two things: criticize an aspect of society, or make the viewer feel alive. Gone with the Wind doesn’t necessarily criticize society all that well (apart from some nostalgic scenes of the “good ol’ days,” but the sweeping, colorful scenes and emotionally tense plot make the viewer feel as if they themselves are living on Tara and trying to squeeze into an 18 inch corset. Movies like Clockwork Orange and Soylent Green use scare tactics and psychological elements to criticize the current society, with less focus on the feelings of the main character and more focus on the events occuring in the story. Making the viewer feel as if they are really experiencing life, as if they have fought in the Vietnam war or lost a child to a desperate cause, is a crucial element of “good” modern cinema. If the viewer doesn’t have a dramatic emotional connection with the movie, the movie just doesn’t stick.

 

The perceived security of the society we live in mandates that people must seek outside sources of humanity. Simply put, people in the United States now generally live comfortable lives. We know where our next meal is coming from, we have shelter, and we have some sort of political voice. Movies, with their dramatic endings and unfortunate characters, help us to feel empathy toward people we deem less fortunate. Slumdog Millionaire, for example– you mean they really live like that? In those houses? And there’s so many of them doing it? They must be really living life, then. To know what really struggle is– that’s really living life.