Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Don't Miss McFarland's Pop Culture Sale

Don't miss McFarland's biggest sale of the year!  

McFarland has published more than 2,000 books about horror and science fiction films, old time radio, biographies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, current television series, and more.  (Hint: several of my titles are for sale!)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Happy National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuable, and more resonant in a simple, emotional sense than "Come Wander with Me." Many Twilight Zone segments also boast superior twist endings.

And yet, for my money, there are few segments more haunting or dream-like than this superb fifth season phantasm, penned by Anthony Wilson and directed by a young Richard Donner (The Omen [1976]; Superman: The Movie [1978], Ladyhawke [1985]).

Simply stated, "Come Wander With Me" casts a hypnotic spell.

"Come Wander With Me" was the final episode of The Twilight Zone filmed/produced for CBS, and the third-to-last episode to air on that network in prime time. It premiered on May 22, 1964 and dramatized the tale of Floyd Burney (Gary Crosby), the so-called "Rock-a-Billy Kid."

Burney is a cocky but insecure "celebrity," an up-and-coming music star without the slightest sense of originality, individuality or artistry. As the episode begins, Burney has arrived at the foothills of Appalachia in hopes of "stealing" a song from the naive locals there and "conjuring" another hit to augment his singing career. He justifies this act of creative theft by noting that all the folk-music stars of the day do it...

This narrative set-up mirrors a real-life context of the times. From the 1950s-to-early 1960s, there was a folk music revival movement in the U.S., one in which a wide variety of artists imported the fiddle and banjo-style of Appalachian folk songs (often ballads...) from remote, poverty-stricken Appalachia into the nation's musical mainstream.

This local music style proved increasingly popular -- especially as the Beatnik "coffeehouse" movement came to life -- but so did the notion of Appalachia as a backward, violent, isolated realm of cultural separation and inscrutable mystique.This geographical region in the South East U.S. became increasingly feared and derided because of popular stereotypes; for the sense of it as a setting of oppressive fundamental religion and...ghost stories.

In "Come Wander with Me," we see such a world-view fully articulated.This Appalachia is a dangerous, foreign place that doesn't conform to the "rules" of life as Burney understands them. In other words, cash isn't God; and actions (such as pre-marital sex...) have consequences. And far from being an authentic musician (or even boasting a particularly "Up with People" attitude...) Floyd Burney is but a slick, self-centered celebrity looking simply to steal a resource. Even his car is gaudily decorated with the titles of his insipid hit songs. We recognize immediately that he's out-of-his-element...and playing with fire.

There's a great visual touch that inaugurates "Come Wander with Me." As Burney stops his car at the foot of a rickety, damaged bridge, we can see that a floorboard is missing directly ahead. So Burney exits his car, and steps over that gulf himself, unawares.

That missing plank in the bridge, however, is the specific demarcation point between reality and the supernatural; between the American mainstream and isolated Appalachia. And, as Rod Serling would no doubt declare, it's our point-of-entrance into...The Twilight Zone.

Once in the woods, the hungry, exploitative Burney begins hunting for his "new" song. He tells a gargoyle-esque junk/music shop owner "Anything you got is PD - public domain! You've got no rights!" and then graciously (!) offers to buy the old man's songs for a meager handful of cash. The local declines to help, but Burney refuses to relent...until he hears a recurrent, eerie melody emanating from somewhere deep within the forest ahead.

Burney passes into a heavy mist as he treads deeper into the seemingly-endless woods, and is so consumed with his mission that he misses something important nearby: his own grave-stone, jutting roughly out of the Earth.

As Burney goes in search of the obsessive melody, he misses something else too. In at least two separate shots, we detect a mystery figure shrouded in black...reaching out for him in the distance. This apparition appears in the background of the frame (as Burney hunts in the foreground...), and the long-shot, deep-focus composition crafted by Donner is creepy as hell. Because the figure is at first stationary -- and almost camouflaged -- we don't see it right off the bat amid the ancient woods. When we do see it, we're startled. 

This Life and the After-Life have merged...

Burney soon discovers that the source of the song is an innocent young woman, Mary Rachel (Bonnie Beecher). This siren is beautiful, a bit sad, and all-together reluctant to sing Burney the entire song.

Ever the smooth operator, Burney romances Mary Rachel, even though she's already "be-spoke" to a local gent named Billy Rayford. Successfully taken-in by promises of a life with Burney, Mary Rachel finally reveals the melancholy song in its apparent entirety: a haunting, timeless composition by Jeff Alexander, called, appropriately, "Come Wander with Me." 

As the song is repeated -- and as Floyd and Mary Rachel consummate their relationship 'neath an old willow tree -- the episode cuts to another montage that seems to fracture time: a series of progressive zooms leading into crisp dissolves. The zooms always draw us nearer to the intermingled duo (sometimes from doom-laden high angles). It's as though Fate itself has locked them in its cross-hairs.

"That song was meant for me." Floyd declares, more accurate than he realizes.

"It can't be bought," Mary Rachel counters, but Burney doesn't understand what she means.

Then a jealous Billy Rayford shows up -- a man with the odd, shambling gait and blind, lifeless stare of the living dead. There's a scuffle, and Burney (too easily, perhaps...) kills him. 

Suddenly, Mary's song changes. It is no longer soft and melancholy. Now it is loud, strident, and fearful. A new verse emanates from the tape recorder and states "You Killed Billy Rayford...bespoke unto me..."

In fact, as Billy's brothers relentlessly hunt down Floyd Burney to avenge the death of their kin, Mary Rachel's song continues to morph and grow, adding new, more disturbing verses all the time.

Mary Rachel begs Floyd not to run "this time," but he does it anyway. As he flees, he sees Mary Rachel once more, now garbed in black...a mourner at his grave

And when the Rayfords finally come for Floyd, we never actually see them as human beings. Rather, they are suggested as inhuman Furies. They are depicted as long black shadows which stretch malevolently across the ground, and then, finally, eclipse the light over Floyd Burney's terrified face...

What "Come Wander with Me" circumscribes, however, is truly a vicious circle. A cycle without end and without beginning, very much like a song being composed before our eyes and ears. If we could ever truly feel what it likes to be trapped inside a song -- inside a personal melody -- I have the feeling it would seem just like "Come Wander with Me" because the story is graced with a sense of the inevitable, the inescapable

And the main character, Floyd Burney, has already been "conceived" or "imagined" by the composer as the subject of this tune, and therefore cannot change his path, his destiny, his crescendo. He will always be the Rock-A-Billy Kid...the one who trespassed (by stealing a song and a woman...), and who paid with his life. The song tells us who he is; and he can never change because those verses are already written and sung. The song which can't be bought...defines him. He already "owns" it. 

Or it owns him.

The less-important supporting characters, like the doomed Billy Rayford, are barely "human" at all. They are merely ciphers -- musical notes, perhaps -- who help bring the song round to its final stanza. As Mary Rachel explains, they do only what is expected of them. "He always comes here," she says, in regards to Billy. He has no choice in the matter, because this isn't his song...it's Floyd's.

If you remember the story of Sisyphus, you might recognize "Come Wander with Me" as something more than a never-ending song. 

It's also a personal Hell for Floyd Burney (meaning, perhaps, that it occurs after his mortality ends, in Hell itself). 

Just as Sisyphus's punishment was to always push a rock up a hill, only to see it roll back down, and have to start over, our Floyd Burney must likewise re-live -- again and again -- the avaricious song hunt (and personal manipulation of Mary Rachel) that led him to his trespass and demise. 

In each refrain of the song (and of his personal Hell...) Mary Rachel begs Floyd to change his course (to hide, rather than run...) but Floyd is stuck in a rut -- like a record repeating on the same groove again and again. Even Fate (or is the Devil?) is seemingly against Floyd: when he returns to the junk music store to hide, all the musical instruments come miraculously to life to reveal his position to the Rayfords.

And, finally, when Burney states that he has "come too far, too fast to be buried in Sticksville," I wondered if he meant, perchance Styx-ville.

There's a majestic sweep, and subtle, cerebral horror underlining "Come Wander with Me." The song was deployed to similar haunting effect in Vincent Gallo's 2003 film, Brown Bunny. Several contemporary bands have covered the tune too, and it even appeared in a Dutch insurance commercial in 2006.

But for me, it's virtually impossible to separate "Come Wander with Me" from Bonnie Beecher, Floyd Burney's personal hell, Applachia, or this unique, brilliantly-crafted episode of The Twilight Zone

This is a song (and an episode) you just can't get out of your head.

Happy National Twilight Zone Day: "One for the Angels"

"One for the Angels" opens with Rod Serling's staccato narration about "summer in the present." His words introduce us to Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn), a "pitch man whose life is a tread-mill," a character aged about 60. Today, Lou lives alone on a bustling city block, and is well-loved by the local children, who take an interest in the toys he sells on his stoop.

Then, one day, Mr. Death (Murray Hamilton) shows up in Lou's one-room apartment, and tells Mr. Bookman that the old man's departure from this mortal coil has been scheduled for midnight. The "pre-ordination is death in your sleep."

Lou tries to escape his death, and learns that there are only three valid reasons for appealing a death verdict: family hardship, priority for important individuals (a scientist working on a cure for a disease, for example) or unfinished business of a major nature. 

Lou feels his appeal falls under the third category because he's never made a truly big pitch, "for the angels." Mr. Death reluctantly agrees to give him more time to achieve that dream, but quickly learns that Lou has exploited the loophole. Now Bookman plans never to do another pitch again...so he will never die.

Unwilling to be outmaneuvered by a mortal, Mr. Death selects an alternative soul to take with him that night. He decides to take a little girl from the street, a friend of Lou's. When Lou realizes she is to be taken at midnight, he tries to delay Mr. Death by launching into a pitch for the ages, and the angels...

As the above-synopsis makes plain, this early Twilight Zone concerns both mortality and morality. In our effort to avoid one (mortality), we can, somehow, manage to ignore or circumvent the other (morality).  

Lou Bookman is 69 years old, and yet he very much wants to continue to live. He believes that he can trick death, and manages to do just that.  But Death chooses to kill a little girl, and that is an immoral thing, a that, for Lou, he cannot abide. So Lou steps in and makes his pitch for the angels, knowing full well that it is he, not the girl, who will travel with Death that night. Bookman's understanding of right and wrong ultimately wins out over his desire to keep on living.

"One for the Angels" is both sweet and sad for its depiction of Lou, a kindly, unmarried senior citizen, scraping by, barely making a living, and having lived in a one-room apartment for 21 years. And yet Rod Serling sees a kind of dignity in this man, and his life. Lou leaves the mortal coil having saved a child's life, having made room for another soul. Lou's life is not one we might choose for ourselves, but it matters, both to him, the children whom he has befriended, and, in fact, the cosmos itself. 

"One for the Angels" also remains memorable for its depiction of Mr. Death as a kind of mid-level bureaucrat. He is smartly-dressed, attractive (but not too attractive), and he uses the jargon of his job ("pre-ordination," etc.) He seems to rather dislike having to prove his identity, and he is obsessively concerned with administrative details. "When might we expect it?" He asks of Bookman's pitch "for the angels."  Like many bureaucrats, Mr. Death also seems to possess a limited imagination.  

Or, that's one reading of his character, anyway.  

Perhaps, Mr. Death knew all along that Bookman was going to try to outsmart him, and his ploy with the little girl was all pre-meditated, part of the overall plan to make Bookman feel his death was more meaningful, more palatable. Again, this goes back to Serling's view of humanity, and the notion that all people are valuable, that all people matter. 

The episode's only let-down, perhaps, is the underwhelming presentation of Bookman's big pitch. The episode cuts to shots of Mr. Death sweating, forking over cash, etc., but the audiences doesn't get to hear all of the sales pitch "for the angels." This is a bit disappointing since Lou's gift of gab is the thing, in a way, that saves a child's life. It feels like a failure of writing and presentation for the pitch not to come across with more stellar specificity than it ultimately does.

"One for the Angels" is sweet and humanistic. In this outing, Mr. Death is not someone to be feared or loathed, but  just a regular guy doing his job. In the end, this Not-So-Grim Reaper and Mr. Bookman walk off together, under the moonlight, and it's not hard to imagine that both men feel they have done a good night's work.

Happy National Twilight Zone Day: "To Serve Man"

“To Serve Man” remains one of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes ever broadcast.  And since today is National Twilight Zone Day, it seemed appropriate for a revisit!

Everyone remembers the tale’s unforgettable punch-line: “it’s a cook book!!!”  But by the same token, it’s easy to forget what a sturdy, brilliantly-constructed episode it is. 

Based on a 1950 short-story by Damon Knight (1922 – 2002), “To Serve Man” features a flashback structure.  

From his room (or cell…) on a spaceship in flight, an American man named Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) recounts how alien Kanamits (Richard Kiel) came to Earth promising friendship and peace, but actually executed an insidious and secret agenda.

Chambers explains how the alien spaceships were first seen over many cities across the globe, and how the U.N. Secretary General welcomed the aliens, with some reservations. 

But the 9-foot tall Kanamits promised peace and honorable intentions. They planned to transform Earth into a veritable paradise by offering economical new power sources, and radically improving means of agriculture.  And if humans didn’t want their help, the aliens promised that “nothing would be forced” upon them.

All the while, Chambers worked on translating an alien book that one Kanamit representative left behind at the U.N.  

The deciphered title?

To Serve Man.

Over the months, Chambers toiled further on the extra-terrestrial book even as excited humans boarded Kanamit spaceships and headed to the distant home-world for vacations, shopping excursions, and guided tours.

Chambers then decided to go on one such visit for himself.  

But before he left -- right as he was boarding a saucer in fact – Chambers’ assistant discovered a terrible secret.

To Serve Man was a cook-book…

Much of “To Serve Man” appears to concern humanity’s short-sightedness.

Chambers regrets that the human race should have been focusing on the “calendar” and not the “clock” while contending with the Kanamits. 

He states that humans should more often be worried about “tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow.”

This is a universal real-life refrain, certainly, in regards to man’s stewardship of the environment, and even his foreign policy principles. 

Too often, it seems, we are focused on crisis-management and dealing with what is right in front of our face, rather than planning for the looming disaster just around the next curve.

Here, humanity is taken in by the Kanamit promises of a brave new world, and immediate gratification too. 

“It was the age of Santa Claus,” Chambers notes with cynicism.

In other words, because things seem to be good at present, humans don’t look beyond that “shiny” surface to the future. In “To Serve Man,” no one really examines the alien race’s long-term motivations for fundamentally transforming the Earth. 

In this case, the Kanamits end war (with the creation of national force-fields…), hunger, and poverty…but for the express purpose of growing and fattening the herd.

Clearly, given the episode’s prominence in the pop-culture, “To Serve Man’s” most memorable moment arises when the other shoe drops. 

Chambers assistant tells him that “To Serve Man” is a cook-book. And then he is forced on the ship anyway…by a hulking Kanamit.

In that moment, Chambers learns that mankind has gone from “being ruler of a planet to an ingredient in someone’s soup.” 

Sooner or later,” notes Chambers caustically “we’re all of us on the menu.”


“To Serve Man” doesn’t really reveal much detail or background information about the Kanamits. We don’t know if there is famine on their world…only that we are their latest smorgasbord, and that they have been to other worlds…and done the same thing before.

And, I suppose, we know that their name -- Kanamit -- isn’t far from our word “cannibal.”

That's enough.  This episode is one of the most chilling of all the Twilight Zone canon.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

The House Between: The 2020 Relaunch

A long time ago...in the summer of 2006, a group of intrepid and talented individuals joined me in an old house in Monroe, North Carolina, to shoot a no-budget sci-fi web series called The House Between (2007-2009). 

We shot a 30-page script every day for 7 days, for that first season, and the cost was approximately 500 dollars a show. We worked every day from early morning to the wee hours of the night. Some nights, we slept for barely four hours before starting all over again.

And most of the budget, the aforementioned 500 dollars per show, went to meals.

The House Between ran for three seasons on Veoh, and ultimately lasted more than twenty episodes before we had to stop making the series. It was nominated two years in a row by Sy Fy Portal for best web-series.

I always intended to release the web-series series on DVD, but then streaming and YouTube really took off...and then, well, my life really took off. 

My son was born. My family moved. We were carrying two mortgages for 3 years during the Great Recession. I went to graduate school. I became a teacher. And then I became a department chair.  During the long years, one of our beloved cast members passed away, and I had to just put the series down for a long time, to grieve.

But I never forgot The House Between, and last summer I picked up the work I had put down, and began re-re-re-editing the series for modern consumption.  

Hence, "The Relaunch."

What is The House Between?

The House Between concerns a group of five very different individuals who find themselves trapped in an empty house, and are unable to escape from it. They attempt to learn the secrets of their "prison" while also contending with each other.  

Those five individuals are Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Bill (Tony Mercer), Travis (Lee Hansen) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood).

When creating the series, back in 2006, I was inspired by Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit (1944), which came up with one of the most memorable lines of dialogue I ever read: "Hell is other people."

In terms of the black and white look of the series, I was inspired by One Step Beyond (1959-1961), and The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), or more accurately, my personal discovery of those series as a youngster.  

I was a teenage insomniac in middle school, and those series would air on WPIX Channel 11 at 2:00 am and 3:00 am on weeknights.  I would leave my bed in the dark of night, tip-toe to our family room, and watch these grainy black and white visions of mystery, suspense and terror that seemed timeless, and piped in from another dimension, or galaxy. 

The stories explored the paranormal, the supernatural, the weird. That was the look and vibe I sought to capture with The House Between.

As much as I wish it weren't true, the series offers renewed relevance today in the issue of shelter-in-place quarantines and COVID-19.  That wasn't the original context, but now the series can certainly be viewed in that light. It's about people trapped together, who can't go outside or escape each other's company. 

Also, these episodes haven't been available for audience viewing in 11 years, so I hope people who are tired of reruns will have something new and different (or, old and weird, as it were...) to watch to keep entertained.

So, starting next Thursday, I'll be uploading an episode of The House Between here once a week, along with a plethora of behind-the-scenes material. 

The series was created in the age before HD was the norm, and before people watched entertainment on 80 inch TV sets.  It first streamed in an age when YouTube wouldn't process videos that were longer than 10 minutes. We not only aired on Veoh originally, but the now defunct Google Video!

I hope, if you choose to watch, The House Between will be an experience you remember, like my teenage insomniac experience discovering One Step Beyond, or The Twilight Zone.  It's a series from a different time but also, I hope, in its weird way, timeless too.

So, next Thursday, the door opens, and you are invited to enter The House Between...

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Memory Bank: Standing in line to see Star Wars (1977)

Before the age of social distancing, standing-in-line to see a movie was a communal experience first, one allowing fans to connect to other Star Wars fans and to plug-in to the community’s sense of enthusiasm and excitement  

And secondly, standing-in-line qualifies as a nostalgic experience for older fans, at least for ones of my (advanced) age. Mass distribution for theatrical releases, and insta-streaming precludes the necessity.

Because let me tell you, back in the day, if you wanted to see Star Wars (1977) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or E.T. (1982), for that matter, standing in long lines was absolutely an unavoidable part of the experience.

I will always remember the summer of 1977 and the coming of Star Wars.  I was in second grade at the time, and a friend who lived up the block from me in Glen Ridge came to school with a Star Wars movie booklet; one that featured imagery of Dewbacks, Banthas, Tusken Raiders, Jawas, C3PO, Chewbacca, Darth Vader and other characters of seemingly impossible and unbelievable imagination.  

I had never seen so many strange creatures assembled between two covers, and I so listened in awe as Stephen, my friend, described the film to me in some detail.  I still didn't quite understand why robots were co-existing with monsters and other creatures. It seemed...weird.

At this point, I should add, I was still high on King Kong (1976), and could not quite believe that any movie might possibly surpass that particular viewing experience.  So sue me.  I was seven.

Soon after my introduction via Stephen to Star Wars, my parents took me and my sister to see the film at a movie theater in Paramus N.J., and I couldn’t wait to see what I would make of the movie. 

Only -- in actuality -- I could wait.  

In line.  

For close to three hours.  

The line at the theater stretched around the large rectangular building -- around three corners -- and then led out into the huge parking lot. And the line moved at a snail’s pace.

Finally, of course, we got into the auditorium, and it was absolutely packed. Everyone in my family had to squeeze past other patrons to find four seats together. 

And then the movie started and my life changed.  That night before I went to bed, my mother asked me if I liked the movie. My mind was still reeling, and I said that I did.  But I suppose I was a little reserved. 

She then absolved me of my guilt: “It’s okay, John if you liked it better than King Kong,” she said, apparently sensing my loyalty and allegiance to the big ape.  My façade cracked quickly at that point and I was glad and relieved to admit the truth.

I had liked Star Wars a whole lot better than King Kong.  It was…amazing, like nothing I had ever imagined.

By the time The Empire Strikes Back arrived in theaters in 1980, I knew to expect a long line.  And so did my parents.  Before queuing up for the sequel, they bought me Marvel Star Wars and Shogun Warrior comic books to read for the wait.  I also had my Star Wars novelization in hand, and a few action figures in my pockets.  The time in line still seemed eternal, but again, the wait was worth it.  I left the theater wondering how on Earth I was supposed to wait for three years to discover Han Solo’s fate.

Then, by the time of Return of the Jedi, there was no need to stand in line, at least in Montclair, N.J., where I saw the film at the Clairidge Theater.  I came out of the film deflated, thinking “that’s it?”  And now I must wonder if part of my disappointment came about at least a little bit because I missed waiting in line.  There was no build-up to the experience, and no plugging-in to the enthusiasm of other Star Wars fans and even general audiences. More likely, the movie was just disappointing, and the experience played almost no role.  Right?

Of course, I’m glad that, by and large, we don’t have to wait in line to see movies anymore…unless we choose to. 

But I do wonder what the lengthy standing-in-line experience meant in terms of a movie meeting or not meeting audience expectations.  By waiting for hours in line for a film, were we just relieved to be inside -- in the air conditioning -- and therefore more receptive to a film’s spell?  

Or did the waiting-in-line actually build up our anticipation to such a degree that nothing could meet those expectations?  I wonder.

I do know this for certain: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. certainly surpassed my wildest expectations, and those are the films I remember most vividly standing in line for.

Monday, May 04, 2020

May the 4th Be With You!

Okay, it may not be the best movie ever made.  It may not even be the best movie I have ever seen.  However, I can safely assert that Star Wars (1977) is the movie that most changed my young life. 

I first saw director George Lucas’s blockbuster space opera when I was seven years-old.  Up to that point, I had never witnessed a fantasy/sci-fi/monster movie crafted on such a grand scale, or one presented with such an incredible, unshakable sense of reality.

Unlike many genre films of the epoch (for example, Damnation Alley [1977]) there was never even a single moment during Star Wars when the “spell” was broken, or the fantasy facade broke down to accommodate a bad special effect, a lousy performance, a cheap set/costume, or some other weak production component. 

Rather, that atmosphere of reality – of a different and fantastic reality, no less – was rigorously and impeccably sustained for two hours.

And because of that fact, Star Wars was the most exhilarating movie I’d seen up to that point.  I remember coming out of the movie for the first time and feeling like I had been holding my breath for two hours.  Then, over a period of several weeks, I saw the film in the theater at least three more times...and felt precisely the same way.

Last weekend, I went back and re-watched the original Star Wars again in its first theatrical cut, the cut before it became known as “Episode IV: A New Hope,” and before George Lucas tinkered with and updated the special effects.  My express goal was to attempt to discern what had made the film so precious and magical to me as a second grader.

I now understand, I believe, at least partially, the answer to that riddle. 

The great joy of Star Wars, even today, all comes down to George Lucas’s incredible ability to ground his otherworldly “space opera” world in a reality that is immediately recognizable to all of us.  For instance, underneath the flashy lasers and colored light sabers, or the strange aliens and robots, the film boasts this driving, human feeling of yearning, of almost anticipatory anxiety.

Star Wars’ lead character, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) gazes up at the night sky of Tatooine, and he wonders what awaits him.  Where will he go next?  When does his life really begin? When does he finally get to grow up and chart his own destiny?  What is he supposed to believe in?

Lucas grounds the viewer in Luke’s personal “coming of age” story, yet that’s far from the only grounding the director accomplishes here.  Without explaining in significant terms a back-story, Lucas crafts in Star Wars a lived-in world which nonetheless points to previous adventures, and to a larger universe beyond the main narrative. 

It’s such a big (and yet consistent…) place, in fact, that it almost can’t all fit within the boundaries of the movie frame.  Thu,s at times, it almost seems as if Lucas didn’t make it up his universe at all, or build it all from scratch.  Rather, it’s as though he took a camera in-hand and actually traveled to a galaxy far, far away, filmed what he saw there, and brought that footage back for us to enjoy.

The film’s dialogue, filled with descriptors like “this time,” or “no more,” captures obliquely the notion that this adventure is set on just another day in this faraway galaxy, and that there are many, many other adventures to witness, and personalities to meet there.  The film boasts many half-explored implications, from intimations about unseen characters like The Emperor, Captain Antilles and Jabba the Hutt, to tantalizing hints about the previous adventures of Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2 and C-3P0. The scenery or set design itself possesses a kind of unexplored depth and breadth. There's a staircase leading up -- where precisely? -- beyond Docking Bay 94 on Tattooine. There's the packed-to-the-gills interior of a bustling, junk-filled Sandcrawler.  There are even alligators in the sewers, so-to-speak, or rather a Dia Noga in the trash compactor.

The visual form of Star Wars reflects this narrative content in a most unusual and resonant fashion.  Specifically, Lucas utilizes visual homage or visual tributes to previous and well-established cinematic productions to help us -- the audience -- process quickly and thoroughly the essential nature of life in the world of the Galactic Empire. 

So even if we don’t consciously recognize or identify all the visual touches in terms of the original source material (such as The Hidden Fortress [1958], Metropolis [1927] or 633 Squadron [1964]), our eyes nonetheless understand the touches as belonging to some common “language” we all share.  Star Wars is an accomplished blend of the familiar with the unfamiliar, the past with the present, and with the (imaginative) future.  And Lucas’s choice to re-purpose imagery from film history is one key to help us understand his universe.  Underneath this technique of tribute or homage is a simple yet elegant message about man's nature, and not least of all, his spirituality.  In short, Star Wars offers a renewal of movie spirituality in an era of anti-heroes, cynicism, and the personal, idiosyncratic cinema.

“If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from.”

While being pursued by the Emperor’s minion, Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse), Princess Leia of Alderaan (Carrie Fisher) hides the tactical plans for an Imperial battle station called the Death Star with a small droid called R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). 

With his counterpart, protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) in tow, R2-D2 escapes to the desert world of Tatooine with the goal of finding former Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and soliciting his aid.

On Tatooine, however, the droids are captured by scavengers called Jawas and sold to the Skywalker farm. There, a young man, Luke (Hamill), hopes to leave his dreary life working at the moisture farm, and tender his application to the Academy.  But his uncle resists.  He doesn't want Luke to go.  He doesn't want Luke to grow up.

Soon, Luke and the droids meet up with Kenobi,  an old man who urges the young man to help him  reach Alderaan with R2 and the technical schematics.  After his aunt and uncle are murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers, Luke agrees to join Obi-Wan's quest.  They book passage to Alderaan aboard the Millennium Falcon, captained by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and co-piloted by a Wookie named Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Unfortunately, the commanding officer on the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) plans to make Princess Leia reveal the location of the secret rebel base, and destroys her home planet of Alderaan to coerce her cooperation.  

When the Millennium Falcon arrives in the Alderaan system from Tatooine, it finds not a beautiful planet, but the Death Star.

Now, Luke and his friends must rescue Leia, Ben must confront his old student, Vader, and they all must get the plans to the rebels, before the Empire and the Death Star carry the day…

For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the 
Old Republic. Before the dark times... before the Empire.

When you stand back and gaze at Star Wars from a good distance, you can detect that the film tells a very old story: the hero's journey.  But it tells that tale in a new way, and in a new (final?) frontier: outer space.  

Rather, it is the explicit details of the narrative that are new to audiences, from the history of the Jedi Knights and The Force to the explanations of such things as snub-nosed fighters, T.I.E. fighters, tractor beams, hyper-drive, Wookies, land-speeders and droids.  The way to make all these people, concepts, and ideas immediately understandable, Lucas understands, is to mine much of film history for visual antecedents, ones that make the story graspable for audiences, even though they don't know the precise details of the Old Republic, the Galactic Empire, or the Clone Wars.

From the film’s opening crawl, this is the very technique Lucas regularly deploys.  In particular, the crawl that appears immediately after the film's title harks back to Flash Gordon (1936), and the title cards used in each serial opener. In Flash Gordon, such screens conveyed important information about previous episodes in the thirteen installment production.  This crawl is actually our first visual indication that Star Wars is a pastiche, or a work of art imitating and honoring the work of previous artists.   It also sets the jaunty, almost retro tone of the picture. By recruiting this technique from the Flash Gordon films, Star Wars announces, specifically, its intention to be pulpy, lighthearted, swashbuckling fantasy and fun.

This was not a small detail in the 1970s.  The disco decade was an era when such swashbuckling adventure films were not in vogue.  In terms of the sci-fi genre, Dystopian-styled films dominated the landscape (The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and Damnation Alleyfor example.).  Not coincidentally, the same decade was the age of growling, violent anti-heroes like Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey (of the Death Wish films).  

By commencing Star Wars with a 1930s-era, serial-like crawl, George Lucas effectively renounced contemporary cinema, and reached back to an older tradition, a “golden age” of more innocent fantasy fare. Not incidentally, the screenplay seems to share his point of view, describing the light saber of the old Republic as an "elegant" weapon for a more "civilized time."  In other words, the past inside the Star Wars universe, and the past of Hollywood history outside Star Wars were both more elegant and civilized than the present of the Galactic Empire/anti-hero cinema.

Our invitation to adventure in a more elegant and civilized time: Flash Gordon (1936).

Our invitation to innocence in a cynical time: Star Wars (1977).

After the opening crawl, Star Wars very much begins to deliberately ape elements and details from Akira Kurosawa’s film, The Hidden Fortress.  That film also used “wipes” as visual transitions between scenes, but more importantly, involved two pseudo-comic individuals, Tahei and Mataschici, who escaped a pitched battle, wandered for a time in a wasteland, and were then captured and enslaved.  They then became involved with the rescue of a Princess and the exploits of a General.  

This familiar sequence of events is repeated with the droids R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars.  Two likable (and funny) robots escape from the rebel blockade runner battle, become lost in the Tatooine desert, and unwittingly become involved with the rescue of a princess and the exploits of a Jedi-Knight.  The point in both films is to highlight two unassuming, even “common” individuals who become caught up in huge, important events beyond their control, and even their understanding.  It's a ground's eye view of world-shaking incidents, of history unfolding.

In terms of Star Wars, the first twenty minutes of the film or so mostly revolve around the droids and their exploits, and this kind of “macro” focus is one way to introduce the Star Wars universe without inundating audiences with tech-talk and difficult-to-pronounce names or sci-fi concepts.  Matters of galactic import (like the Death Star), can wait, and Lucas introduces his core concepts one at a time without risk of sensory overkill or confusion.

Two common men get caught up in world-changing events, in The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Two lowly droids get caught up in galaxy-changing events, in Star Wars (1977).
A trek through the wilderness, their future uncertain.

A trek through the desert, their future uncertain.
The first hour of the Lucas film is, on retrospect, my favorite portion of the film. After things settle down a bit, there's a quiet yet vital scene set in Ben Kenobi’s desert home. What Star Wars accomplishes here, again, is revolutionary, if in an unassuming kind of way.  Kenobi quietly and steadfastly introduces us to his faith.  He describes the Force as the thing that “gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”  

Again dismissing the tenets of the contemporary and cynical 1970s Hollywood, Star Wars thus reintroduces “spirituality” to a cinema that had asked, explicitly, “Is God Dead” in films such as 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, and also, to some degree, Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973).  Certainly  Lucas's film is not a strict re-assertion of Christianity, necessarily, but rather a non-denominational acknowledgment of man’s inherent spirituality and interconnection.  The Force, like belief and faith in Jesus Christ, is a promise of immortality in  the Star Wars universe.  We see this quality of belief depicted in Ben Kenobi’s heroic death – or disappearance – after his duel with Vader.

This famous Time cover set the tone for the late 1960s and early 1970s American cinema.
But Star Wars re-introduces spirituality in the form of "The Force..."

And the film even promises "eternal life" for those who believe in its precepts.

As Star Wars continues, the film spends more time in space, and indeed, in space combat.  Again, George Lucas chooses to make his “space opera” one that visually resonates in terms of film history.  When Luke and Han take to the guns of The Millennium Falcon to destroy several pursuing TIE fighters, Lucas explicitly references combat visuals from Twelve O’Clock High (1949), a film about American flying fortresses in aerial combat during World War II.  

Once more, viewers may not exactly recognize the specific reference, but they absolutely "get" the allusion to a previous  global conflict, and a previous form of warfare.  We may not understand how lasers work, or what powers TIE Fighters, but we do understand the settings and dynamics of aerial combat, even translated to space.

The underside gun of a flying fortress in Twelve O'Clock High.

A view on the inside looking out (from the same film) as a gunner targets evading fighters.

From Star Wars: Targeting evading fighters.

And again, an underside gun mount.
The battle to destroy the Death Star follows the same film making approach. Only this time, Lucas re-casts a critical set-piece from the 1964 British film 633 Squadron as his point of origin and point of audience recognition.  In that film, several Allied Bombers make a run against a Nazi base lodged between two mountains (essentially in a trench...).  As the bombers make their attack run, they  attempt to avoid blistering anti-aircraft guns.  There is also an initial false start, and a false detonation at the target site.  Additionally, enemy fighters swoop in to challenge the bombers and pick them off as they focus on their quarry on the ground.   If you’re at all familiar with Star Wars, you will recognize the setting, sequence, and outcome of the Death Star trench scene as being very similar indeed to 633 Squadron.

The point isn’t that Lucas stole anything.  The point is that when “you’ve taken your first step into a larger world,” to quote Obi Wan Kenobi, elements of that world need to be understandable immediately, so that other important concepts can be grasped.  In other words, if you’re focusing on something like how a tractor beam works, or what is hyper-drive is, you’re not paying attention to the details of Luke’s quest, and Lucas’s story.  

By updating old cinematic imagery, Lucas conveys his story -- and his message about spirituality -- in a way that we visually accept and understand, almost at once.

From 633 Squadron: the Nazi's strike back at attacking Allied aircraft.

From Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back at attacking rebel spaceships.

On the horizon, enemy fighters swoop in for the kill (in 633 Squadron).

TIE Fighters swoop in for the kill (in Star Wars).

In the trench, planes avoid blistering gunfire. (633 Squadron).

In the trench, rebel X-fighters avoid blistering gunfire (Star Wars).
I’ve long argued that Star Wars may not be a perfect film, but that the film offers a perfect presentation of a galaxy “far, far, away, and I think that’s the point of all the tributes and re-framing of scenes from The Hidden Fortress or 633 Squadron.  But the deeper point is the one I mentioned in connection with the Force and Flash Gordon.  George Lucas’s epic space fantasy serves as an explicit indictment of the 1970s self-involved “personal cinema,” and harks back to a time of greater innocence and greater adventure in terms of movie narratives. 

I suspect this is the reason why, seriously, that George Lucas altered the dynamic of the Han Solo/Greedo sequence. In that scene as it was originally crafted, Han fires his blaster, and Greedo doesn’t shoot at all.  It’s an almost anti-hero, Dirty Harry-esque moment for the Solo character.  I believe that’s precisely the kind of aesthetic Lucas wanted to eschew and avoid, and so on retrospect, did just that by making Greedo shoot first.  Han’s act was thus transformed from one of preemptive murder to self-defense.  I’m not arguing that his selection was the right one, or that Lucas should have tampered with the scene, only that some of the changes Lucas has forged in terms of Star Wars tend to play into this very notion of Star Wars as pastiche, of a call-back to an earlier, more innocent generation of film productions.  

Even the idea to title his Star Wars films numerically and with melodramatic sub-title fits in with this tradition of the crawl concept of Flash Gordon which boasted titles such as “The Unseen Peril.”  That sounds a lot like The Phantom Menace, doesn’t it?

If Han Solo shoots first, is he Dirty Harry?
The two concepts I have discussed most frequently in this review are: 1.) how Lucas grounds the reality of Star Wars by creating a lived-in, recognizable universe and 2.) how Lucas attempts to hark back to a more innocent, swashbuckling, spiritual age of movies.  If you link those two concepts, you will arrive at my unified theory of Star Wars, and at the very essence of the film itself.  Star Wars presents a universe so authentically-rendered and well-thought out that you can truly believe in it. The careful forging of the world discourages cynicism or disbelief.  

The idea of “May the Force be With You,” not unlike the exclamation “Go with God,” is inherently about belief; about believing in yourself and your capacity to tap the spiritual center of existence itself.  Yet no one would possibly believe in Lucas's world or in that inspirational message if the special effects in Star Wars were unconvincing, if the aliens looked hokey, or if the space battles were confusing. 

I believe that by referencing these older films and older visuals, Lucas was making certain that we could relate to Star Wars. It’s a unique and intriguing technique, and I submit it actually works very well.  The later films in the franchise depend on vast, special effects set-pieces with digital backdrops and drooling creatures, and yet the greatest emotional thrill I felt during the saga occurred here, in the original Star Wars, as Luke and Leia swung boldly across a chasm together, and John Williams’ scored blared heroically underneath their leap. 

A boy, a girl and a universe.  The thrill and appeal of Star Wars are almost literally that simple. Despite making a high-tech film filled with laser blasts, spaceships, robots, and a complex internal history Lucas directs us through this complexity and gets right to the mythic, spiritual heart of his film.

As of today -- how many years after I first saw the film?? -- that pure-hearted (but intellectually-conceived) approach still works for me.