Finding the Force 

I am not looking forward to this summer. Not one bit. We’ll see the release of the long awaited – but not by me – Star Wars prequel. The nerds will take over the multiplexes and those of us in search of air conditioning will have to contend with hordes of former camera club aficionados doing battle over seats.

Like countless millions of others, I switched on "60 Minutes" out of habit recently, only to find Lesley Stahl doing an impersonation of Barbara Walters. Her guest was none other than Star Wars impresario George Lucas. Full of morbid curiosity, I stayed tuned, reaching for the wine bottle to steady my attention.

The interview consisted of two segments. The first was a tour of George’s working empire, revealing to us all the special magic of its various wings. It is here that the maestro conducts his symphony.

Lucas allegedly is spending $150 million of his own loot to make this prequel against a projected minimal return of more than $1 billion. Those are good numbers. To be able to bring that kind of capital to bear on a film single-handedly is impressive. For a technophile, it must have been a wet dream made in heaven. But as I, a hard-bitten Luddite, watched Lucas and Stahl move from one state-of-the-art digital graphics studio to another, I couldn’t help but feel depressed.

My feelings took another dip when I saw the baleful visage of Francis Ford Coppola praising his pal and contemporary. "Francis, baby," I screamed at the screen. "Cut the crap, you fat bastard. Tell her all about what it’s like to make a big movie without all this black box nonsense. You came out of the jungles of the Philippines with Apocalypse Now for God’s sake."

Indeed, the very next day, I trundled to the video hut and rented both Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991, a documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now) and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990, a docudrama on the making of The African Queen) to soothe my soul. Say what you will about egomania and vanity, both Coppola and John Huston put their visions on the screen the old-fashioned way – they earned them out in hellish locations. Their quests were akin to those of the anthropologists looking for a lost tribe and, in the end, finding only themselves.

What a powerful moment it is when Huston (played by Clint Eastwood), returning from a botched elephant hunt in which his beloved guide is killed, slumps into his director’s chair and whispers, "action," as if he’s just taken a bullet. To get to that moment, he has suffered terribly, in no small part due to his own foolish caprices, yet he is at last "ready."

Once you get past Eleanor Coppola’s whiny narration, Hearts of Darkness offers a harrying portrait of a film in terminal crisis. Typhoons, the craven caprices of President Ferdinand Marcos, Martin Sheen’s heart attack, a fly-by-night script – all conspired to drive Coppola into the turf. He endured almost 300 days of snafus and cock-ups, yet when you watch Apocalypse Now, you’re amazed at how well the film works the dark border between order and chaos. It’s a masterpiece, if only on its own terms.

Huston and Coppola lived larger than life, taking more than their share so that they could give back in kind. They were risk takers, willing to buck conventions and knit the brows of countless studio executives. Perhaps this is all romantic, macho bullshit. Perhaps. But what are we to make of Lesley Stahl when she asks George Lucas, master of the black boxes, if he is "more like a woman" in his manicured, Mr. Mom existence, looking after the kids and tending to his perpetually broken heart. The insinuation might be anachronistic, but is well taken. If art and life are inextricably linked, how you live is going to affect your art, no?

As a child, I was resistant to Star Wars, because even then I sensed that its appeal was dangerously close to that of Dungeons and Dragons. In short, it was too rooted in fantasy, too unreal. And the moral certitude that Lucas professed to Stahl is possible only in extreme fantasy. I suppose that is the elemental appeal of most entertainment – the moral and spiritual murk of reality can be banished for a couple of hours. As the world grows faster and more complex, we look harder for simple stories with simple truths, even if they are delivered by the very same technology that so alienates us. Star Wars has, if nothing else, a mythos that is rock solid.

The Star Wars phenomenon echoes beyond mere entertainment. For many of the gents that one will see standing in line at the box office, I think it must be a crutch, allowing them not to deal with their geekiness. The whole subculture of Star Wars works through a paradox of self-loathing and self-affirmation. Members know they’re "different," but at least they’re in a brotherhood of difference. The savage marketing of doo-dads and fast food tie-ins will do little to diminish the strength of convictions. Faith is faith.

Will I go see the film? You bet. In November. Until then, I will sit tight with a brace of electric fans and give the theater a wide berth. May the Force be with you, whatever that may be.

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