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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Deep Throat, shallow Sith

For those aging baby boomers who are still alive, it has been an amazing couple of weeks. Within the space of several days, two of the major pop culture events they have spent long years hanging on for have finally come to pass. Not only did survivors among this major demographic cohort live to see the last of the Star Wars movies but they also managed to find out who Deep Throat was. Now, if someone could just locate Jimmy Hoffa, we’d have a real grand slam.

It says something about our culture that a major political event like the Watergate has become so intertwined with the movies. The nickname of Woodward and Bernstein’s legendary informant is taken from the title of a movie, although not one that should be discussed in detail on a web site that aspires to any degree of family friendliness. The uncovering of the scandal was portrayed in a major Hollywood movie, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The movie’s title came from Woodward and Bernstein’s own book and deliberately evoked yet another movie, Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s novel about a corrupt southern politician, clearly modeled on Louisiana’s Huey Long.

I have been struck by how the television coverage of the Deep Throat revelation has been accompanied inevitably by the clip from All the President’s Men in which Hal Holbrook, as Deep Throat in a dark parking garage, tells Robert Redford to “follow the money.” (The movie portrayal of Deep Throat has since become a stock character, as exemplified by the mysterious fellow played by William B. Davis in the TV series The X-Files.) It’s as though the Hollywood movie has become “documentary” footage of the actual event. This is not surprising since a couple of generations of journalists have grown up worshipping that movie (if not also the source book) for their entire professional careers. After a while, it is hard to be sure where the reality ends and the mythologizing begins. Anyway, now that the last major piece of the Watergate puzzle has been found, maybe someone will put it all into context for us. By making another movie, of course.

As for the whole Star Wars phenomenon, record grosses aside, I am still not sure if the three newest films have enhanced and burnished George Lucas’s legendary tale. Episodes I through III of the Star Wars saga are essentially what is known in the movie business as a backstory. It is the extra information that usually doesn’t make it onto the screen but which is useful to directors, writers and actors in giving movie characters more depth. Often a movie’s backstory is never explicitly told. Sometimes the viewer can piece it together from bits of information dropped into the script. Usually, the backstory doesn’t get made as a movie on its own and less usually (like once ever) does the backstory get made as a big-budget trilogy.

Sure, there have been prequels before, but usually these don’t actually give us all that much new information. Such movies as Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1979), Amityville II: The Possession (1982) and Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985) tend to be exercises in getting around problems with potential sequels, i.e. unavailable actors (because of age, death or obstinacy) or characters killed off in the previous film. Sometimes a film prequel results from the fact that a film happens to be an adaptation of a book that is a prequel to a book that has already been adapted. Examples of this include Ken Russell’s The Rainbow (1989), in which Glenda Jackson played the mother of the character she played in Russell’s Women in Love 20 years earlier. Both were adaped from D.H. Lawrence novels. Michael Gordon’s Another Part of the Forest (1948) was a de facto prequel to William Wyler’s The Little Foxes (1941). Both were adapted from plays by Lillian Hellman. Henry Hathaway’s Nevada Smith (1966) wasn’t exactly based on a Harold Robbins novel, but it should have been. It was a prequel to Edward Dmytryk’s The Carpetbaggers (1964), which was based a novel by Robbins. Steve McQueen took over the title role from the late Alan Ladd. And then there is the case of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was technically a prequel to Wim Wenders The American Friend (1977). Minghella’s film got its own sequel when Liliana Cavani made a 2002 movie from the same source novel that Wenders used, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game. Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and John Malkovich essayed the title role, respectively.

Lucas’s Episodes I through III are the first case I can think of where a writer/director actually filmed an elaborate backstory to a previous movie or movies. If this doesn’t happen often in films, it is common enough in comic books, a medium which is the spiritual inspiration for the Star Wars movies. It has long been a standard practice in comics that, when a new character catches on, to do an “origin story” on him or her. Sometimes in a comic book, a super-villain or guest super-hero shows up without too much thought given. But if the character strikes a chord with readers, comic writers may belatedly give him or her a history and maybe even his or own comic title. Or sometimes, under the pressure of having to come up with new stories at regular intervals (as often as once a month), writers will use the origin story of an established character as simply a way of manufacturing something to write about. Given the time and expense in making movies, on the other hand, there is much less pressure to do “origin movies.” But here we have an origin movie in the form of a big budget trilogy.

Telling the entire story of Anakin Skywalker, from beginning to end, was clearly important to George Lucas, and it is evident that he invested much of himself in the project. Still, there is the nagging feeling that greed has something to do with it as well. There has been an awful lot of marketing and merchandising (especially for the first film, The Phantom Menace) for a series of movies that tell us a lot of stuff that we largely already knew from watching the first trilogy. There was even a whiff of Lucas wanting to get on the same political controversy bandwagon that Mel Gibson and Michael Moore expertly profited from last year. In interviews, Lucas let it be known that some of the politics portrayed in Revenge of the Sith were inspired by the Bush administration’s war on terror. At one point the evil Chancellor Palpatine, as he seizes dictatorial powers, declares that those who aren’t with him are against him. Amid cheers, the senate endorses a new reign of totalitarianism. This echoes George W. Bush’s declaration that those who are not with the U.S. and its allies are with the terrorists. Predictably, commentators (primarily conservative ones, as far as I could tell) took the bait and began discussing the movie. In spite of Lucas’s massive net worth, this was the kind of publicity even he couldn’t purchase with a checkbook.

Frankly, as an observer of the capitalist marketplace, I applaud George Lucas for a well-conceived and well-executed series of movies and accompanying marketing campaigns. He deserves to be as rich as anybody. As a self-appointed critic of arts and polemics, I’m a little less impressed. I discussed my admiration and qualms over the movie itself in my review. As a potential political tract, it’s a bit silly. As a tried-and-tested (and sometimes derivative) tale of good vs. evil, Revenge of the Sith allows the observer to impose whatever allegory he or she wishes to on its template. Its one clear message (same as in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a whole bunch of other epics) is that evil must be confronted and defeated. Sure, Palpatine could be George W. Bush. (An aspect of that comparison delicately avoided by Lucas and the commentators, as far as I can see, is the fact that the Chancellor seems to be some sort of religious fanatic.) But, for a conservative, Palpatine could also be Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, and the Jedi council could be the U.S government or, even better, the United Nations, since its inability to do much beyond discuss and debate seems to lead to its own destruction.

In the end, the most unsatisfying thing about the latest Star Wars trilogy is its simplistic view of good and evil. As we watch Anakin’s descent into the dark side, we are meant to know he is succumbing because his hair gets greasier and his makeup starker (kind of like a Calvin Klein ad for a new men’s cologne called The Dark Side) and finally his eyes glow red. It’s as if evil is a virus that infects one (a truly comic book view) rather than a series of choices. In terms of character, Anakin Skywalker is unpleasant and hot-tempered and has such fuzzy thinking that he makes a Faustian bargain, or so he thinks, to save his wife. The idea that he could rule the galaxy seems to come as a vague afterthought. The wily Palpatine definitely is evil. (And please, George Lucas, don’t ruin it by making a trilogy of movies about his youth.) Anakin is just an idiot.

Despite the several fun moments this latest trilogy (mainly the last film) have given us over the past six years, there is still the nagging feeling that the Star Wars backstory should have remained a backstory. As I wrote after seeing Attack of the Clones (and I can’t improve on it), “we have had way too much time to create a fuller, richer backstory in our own imaginations than this trilogy provides.”

-S.L., 2 June 2005

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