Those Near and Far Wars

I just watched the original “Star Wars” with my eight-year-old grandson. By original, I mean the one with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. It’s been years since I’ve seen the whole thing, and it reminded me why I liked it so much in the first place (and why the new series left such a bad taste in my mouth.)

I remember sitting with my friends in the balcony of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in 1977 as the opening crawl rolled across the screen (telling us about a galaxy “far, far away”). When the massive Star Destroyer made its first appearance, the audience burst into spontaneous applause. For those of us raised on the cheesy sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s (the ones where you could see the string holding up the flying saucer), we’d never experienced anything like it.

The film only got better from there, deftly blending all the fun of my favorite comic books with everything the latest technical imagery had to offer. It featured classic good guys and bad guys, universal themes and epic battles, with no less than the fate of entire planetary systems hanging in the balance. The nicest surprise was the chemistry between the then largely-unknown cast. I had never heard of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford. (I had seen Ford as Bob Falfa, the drag-racing cowboy in “American Graffiti,” but didn’t make the connection at the time). I’m sure I wore a goofy grin on my face from start to finish.

Fast forward 25 years to the eagerly-awaited new trilogy, everything the first installments were not: Heavy on dialogue, short on action, no chemistry between the well-known but wooden actors. And zero fun. I subjected myself to all three, hoping against hope that Lucas would be able to recapture the old magic. But the dead space between the few sparkling set pieces was like wandering through the Tatooine desert with no water. The only way I’ve been able to deal with the disappointment is to pretend these movies don’t exist.

So what went wrong? My guess is that George Lucas got older and more serious. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he decided that entertainment needed to take a back seat to “message.” That’s a formula for failure. And although the digital imagery vastly outpaced the original special effects, it couldn’t come close to carrying the added weight.

I’m frequently amazed by the creative output of young people and how it tends to deteriorate over time. Lucas’s best work was “a long time ago.” John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote their greatest songs before they hit 30. As much as I admire Sir Paul, he’s been essentially coasting since Wings. “Let ‘Em In” might be the most insipid hit song ever. (My personal theory is that he wrote it on a napkin as a bar bet with some of his Liverpool mates.) The artists who’ve managed to stay relevant across their entire careers is a small list indeed. In music, I can only think of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and John Prine. And the Stones, maybe. (At least they can   still kick ass. Is it possible heroin really is good for you?) I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Please feel free to weigh in.

In movies, I’m thinking Scorsese and Goldman (director and writer, respectively). Again, I’m positive there are plenty of others but I’m drawing a blank. In comedy, my list begins and ends with Carlin, bitter and hilarious to the end.

Personally, I might be an exception to the rule. In my humble opinion, the stuff I’ve written as a middle-aged man is much better than my production as a “kid.” My life experiences have surely helped. My writer friend Bob has a theory that quality work has less to do with age and more to do with a finite period of time. He says the average person has ten good years of productivity. If that’s the case, I’ve got a couple of years left.