In 1966, George Lucas saw Jean-Luc Godard in person when the New Wave director made an appearance at USC, where Lucas was a grad student. Godard's approach to film influenced Lucas as the New Wave in general had inspired so many others. Lucas liked the spontaneity of the films and chumminess of the characters in them, the dirtiness and authenticity of the world. Godard's Alphaville was to have a significant impact on Lucas's short film THX 1138: 4EB and its later regeneration as a feature film. But shortly thereafter Lucas drifted away from the sorts of movies that Godard made, Lucas himself evolving from short films dissecting and anatomizing such objects as racing cars and cinema verite accounts of events in his life such as working on Coppola's The Rain People, to Hollywood style films of nostalgia and traditional narrative.
Will Brooker alludes to this Godardian moment in his terrific monograph on Star Wars (BFI Film Classics, Palgrave Macmillan, 96 pages, $14.95, ISBN-13: 978-1844572779) enough to set the mind pondering the future of cinema if Lucas hadn't disengaged from his interest in Godard. But as Mr. Brooker makes clear, Lucas was already set in his ways, and the apparent contradiction between his early short and "experimental" films and the "slick" Hollywood product is a myth. Mr. Brooker is excellent at illustrating the continuity between the early student and the later mature films, while illustrating the real contradiction of the films. As Mr. Brooker puts it, in the "supposedly clear-cut conflict between good and evil, Lucas is rooting for both sides."
There have been hundreds of books, magazine articles, blog entries, and fan speculations about Star Wars and its series successors/predecessors. But as Mr. Brooker points out, there are few attempts to treat the film as a work of art, to analyze content, trace themes, and scrutinize philosophy. Mr. Brooker salutes Robin Wood, who, in his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, has a critical account of the film and its impact on cinema. Yet Mr. Brooker still manages to find a nugget of helpful critical insight into the film from the late critic's essay on Star Wars, that totalitarianism can arise from within the forces of good, an insight that unlocks, at least for the generous Mr. Brooker, access to the aesthetic and thematic concerns of the film. Aside from Wood's essay (and a highly critical account of the film's fascism that appeared in Jump Cut, but which I don't think Mr. Brooker cites), Mr. Brooker's book is the first attempt to address the film as a film, rather than a symptom of Hollywood's decline.
Anyone who lived through the "great '70s" can well remember the excitement over the emergence of American filmmakers as diverse as Coppola, Scorsese, Jon Jost, and Bob Rafelson, among many others, filmmakers who brought an independent or film school sensibility to motion pictures, and some of whom stormed the citadel and began making their own films within the system, changing it, it seemed, forever. Yet by 1977, the year of Star Wars's release, there was a significant change in the mood of common cinephelia. Film buffs were no longer advocates of independent cinema, but apologists for the studios. They thought like studio chiefs, they followed the box office in Variety like studio chiefs, and they gravitated toward filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg who harked back to old fashioned, non-modernist, non-alienated modes of storytelling.
One of Mr. Brooker's ambitions is to see through the obfuscation of that shift and find the real art and coherence underlying Star Wars, one of the most popular films ever made. His short book is divided into four chapters. After the introduction – an overture to his themes and approach, with a good point about how Lucas constructed his fantasy world to have a life, so to speak, outside the limits of the frame – the chapters are "Before Star Wars," "Dirt," "Order," and "Border Crossing."
The first chapter, "Before Star Wars", traces Lucas's entry into filmmaking, his attempts to position himself in the press as a guy always yearning to get back to small filmmaking just as soon as he is done with his Star Wars saga (a complaint similar to those made by his mentor and competitor Coppola), and how Star Wars is both similar to and yet also something new in his oeuvre. He distinguishes between Death Star World (cold, clean, orderly, ruthless) and Rebel World (spontaneous, improvisational, scrappy, jokey).
"Dirt" tracks Lucas's various strategies and also his foibles as he mounted Star Wars. Mr. Brooker is good here on Lucas's desire to "dirty up" the movie. Even though it was a fantasy, he wanted realistic elements. He is also good on emphasizing sound production as a key, if not revolutionary, element of the film's design and success. Lucas apparently doesn't work well with others, and Mr. Brooker also delineates among the approaches of the various actors to their roles, and offers up some on-set gossip. The author points out that in the making of the film, he created a Rebel World but only by acting like an emissary from Death Star World.
In Chapter Three, "Order," Mr. Brooker uses Lucas's special interest in and talent for editing as an entry point in talking both about his technique and his thematic ambivalence. In other words, the Empire is evil, but Lucas admires aspects of it, such as its orderliness and shiny implacability. Here, Mr. Brooker also touches on some of the influences on the film, such as Kurosawa, especially The Hidden Fortress, with helpful frame comparisons between similar moments in The Searchers and 633 Squadron. In his joint biography of Kurosawa and Mifuni (Lucas's first choice for Obiwan), Stuart Galbraith mentions an obscure Japanese action film, The Magic Serpent, that is apparently very close in plot and tone to Star Wars, but this title seems to have eluded Mr. Brooker's expansive attention (Galbraith indicates that the similarities are probably a genre coincidence).
Finally, in Chapter Four, "Border Crossing," Mr. Brooker gets to the aesthetic and interpretive – and evaluative – heart of the film. Essentially, he concentrates on Death Star World versus Rebel World, while also noting the underlying and generally unrecognized complex nuances of the political history of the Star Wars universe, i.e., that the evil Empire actually has its roots in the old Republic, setting up a Hegelian thesis to the Empire's antithesis, resulting in the Rebellion's synthesis.
Will Brooker's short book on Star Wars makes for fascinating reading that expands and deepens one's appreciation for the film, and it is a welcome addition to a library of books on the film that are mostly tilted toward the Empire of business and box office rather than the Rebellion of '70s cinema's spirit of adventure and aesthetic exploration.