CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now to look at the Star Wars phenomenon we are joined by David Ansen, a movie critic for Newsweek and Howard Suber, a film historian and chair of the Producers Program at the UCLA School of Film, Theater, and Television. And starting with you, Mr. Suber, how do you explain this extraordinary appeal of Star Wars?
HOWARD SUBER, UCLA Film School: (Los Angeles)Star Wars combined both of our modern obsessions, technology on the one hand, and some search for some spiritual values that in many ways goes against the technology. And it was the putting together of the two that I think accounted for the original success of Star Wars and what's happened to it since.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Spiritual values?
HOWARD SUBER: "The force," the last line we just heard in your clips, this was a line of--that Lucas originally got from Carlos Castaneda's book "The Teachings of Don Juan." And in an early draft of Star Wars he called it the force of others. Then he decided, no, let's leave it more ambiguous about what the force is.
Hans Solo at one point early in the movie when Obi-One-Kanobi is trying to teach Luke about the force, says, "Kid, I've flown from one side of the galaxy to the other, I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything make me believe there's one all powerful force controlling everything," then just smiles sagely at that point. In many ways Star Wars was the first film that incorporated what we would now call new age materialism.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: David Ansen, was it message or technique that accounts for this extraordinary success of Star Wars and impact?
DAVID ANSEN, Newsweek: (Los Angeles) Well, it came at a certain moment in history too. I think we have to remember when coming out of the Watergate era when people were ready for sort of a return to good guys and bad guys and comic books in the cities. Star Wars was a movie that, that looked back on the whole history of Hollywood films.
I mean, there are conscious echoes of the Western and the war movie. There is even a quotation from Triumph of the Will, quotes from The Searchers. It was an attempt to kind of recreate for the audience that innocent experience of movie going, what going to the movies was like when you were a child, and at that moment in 1977, it hit home.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So neither of you has talked about the technique, but the technique was revolutionary, was it not, Howard Suber?
HOWARD SUBER: Yes. But there are other people who were being equally as experimental. Let's not forget that 2001 in many was both truer to real science than Star Wars was. It's ironic Star Wars' only Academy Award was for sound, and, of course, there is now sound in space. The technology was experimented with by a number of people, but I think it's the combining of the very deep-seated, you'll forgive the expression, religious level of content within Star Wars with a form that was as high-tech as you could make it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. David Ansen, what do you say to those who say that the literary elements, the characters were subordinate to the purely cinematic elements, the motion of the film, the techniques, if you will?
DAVID ANSEN: I think that's true. Really, this was a watershed movie, I think, in terms of Hollywood film making, where suddenly kineticism was all, special effects was all, acting--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Kineticism meaning movement.
DAVID ANSEN: Meaning movement, yes, fast cutting; it was a ride, a great joy ride. And while it was enormously fun at the time, I think it's had a very dangerous effect on movies subsequent to Star Wars. I mean, this was really the beginning of Hollywood's infatuation with the youth market and with comic book movie making, with movies that emphasized action over plot and movement over character. And I think there are a lot of people in Hollywood who feel that Star Wars really was a movie that destroyed Hollywood.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Howard Suber, what do you say to that, destroyed Hollywood?
HOWARD SUBER: It's doing pretty well today.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doing pretty well in destroying Hollywood, or--
HOWARD SUBER: No, Hollywood is doing pretty well.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Oh, Hollywood is doing pretty well.
HOWARD SUBER: In fact, Hollywood has destroyed film making elsewhere in the world by its dominance. But Hollywood I think failed to learn the lessons of its own--of its own story in Star Wars. There's a major fundamental paradox in this film. On the one hand, as David says, technology is up front; it's the thing that gets your adrenalin going. It's perhaps more fun than any movie anybody had seen up to that time. But what Star Wars really says is technology doesn't matter.
It's the evil empire that depends on technology, and at the end of the film, at the very crucial moment when Luke has to go in and drop that bomb into the nuclear reactor, he hears on the sound track, "The force, Luke, trust the force." And he pushes aside his computer, and he goes in with what he has inside his head, or perhaps what he has inside his heart. It's a very spiritual message, I think.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about the merchandising, though, David Ansen, what impact has that had on all of this spirituality and Hollywood?
DAVID ANSEN: It's had an enormous impact, I think. The studio executives never realized until Star Wars just how much money you could make off a single movie. I mean, in its first year it made about $200 million in grosses, but ultimately it made $3 or $4 billion in merchandising, and once they realized what a movie could do, it really changed the way the studios felt about their product.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In what way?
DAVID ANSEN: In the sense that after that--and many people in Hollywood will tell you the same thing--they started swinging only for the home runs. It became over the years harder and harder for small, personal movies to get made.
What--you'll see it now this coming summer where there's maybe ten movies coming out that cost close to $100 million, movies that are specifically aimed for the youth market. And because of the amount of money you could make in merchandising, it could change the very reason why movies were made after Star Wars. Often they were made to sell lunch boxes and CD's, and the peripheral things.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Howard Suber?
HOWARD SUBER: Unfortunately, I do. This is something that really was new in the history of Hollywood. The first merchandising tie-in for a movie I believe was 1937 with Snow White. But it hadn't been something that was terribly important in the decision-making process until Star Wars came along. Many people have told the story about where Lucas really built his empire.
He insisted in signing the contract that he would hold back the merchandising rights, and in return for that, he'd take a cut in his director's salary. And Alan Ladd, who was head of the studio at the time, pushed his buzzer and contacted the head of merchandising and said, what have we made on merchandising last year?
The figure was a matter of a few million, and Ladd thinking that this kid out of USC was really an innocent, naive kid, said, sure, you can have the merchandising rights, and the rest of course was history. Well, Hollywood learned its lesson, but I think it is the wrong lesson.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: David Ansen, very briefly, how do you think the sequel and the pre-quels, which are going to tell what happened before Luke Skywalker--very quickly, how are they going to do, good, bad?
DAVID ANSEN: I think they'll do very well. There's a whole new generation that grew up on Star Wars toys. It's their mythology. It's their religion, is how it's said. And just from the reaction of the audience at the screening of the new enhanced Star Wars that I saw they were screaming before it even started. They knew every foot of this movie, backwards and forwards.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you both for joining us.