I don’t want to dwell on this, mostly because it’s evidence of the extent to which I am ruined as a human being, but Star Wars is my earliest memory. The memory is so early, in fact — I was still getting a handle on stuff like “toddling” and “having teeth” when A New Hope dropped in 1977 — that I can’t even be totally sure that it’s real. I might be unconsciously inventing it, re-shooting the scene in my imagination based on some overheard family story, the way you do.
Either way, the facts appear to point to the tiny me being deposited one afternoon with my grandmother. We talked it over (I was 1) and decided to catch a matinee. Of most of what transpired at the theater, I preserve no recollection. The opening fanfare, the paragraphs-in-space intro, the rebel soldiers taking defensive positions in their dumb helmets, Vader’s cape swirling through the smoking doorway, Princess Leia bending over R2-D2 — none of this stuff, which I knew foward and backward a few years later, made any impression on me. Where my memory kicks in, with that watery-vivid hugeness of early childhood, is with the Sand People.
One second there was Luke, non-scary old Luke, scoping out some far-off Banthas with his macrobinoculars, not a care in the world. Then the whole huge screen filled up with this rearing, khaki-shrouded visage of death, blunt metallic tusks jutting crudely out of its head-linens. From its … throat, I guess? … there issued a wrenching bellow, like a plunger-trumpet solo combined with the casual tasing of an elephant. I couldn’t pretend to be an expert on body language, but from the way it brandished its mace over its head, I was certain of one thing: This creature was about to kill me. I reacted, I believe, in a manner appropriate to that realization. My grandmother and I, conferring, decided that the rational course of action lay in leaving the theater expeditiously. I was perhaps carried. In my defense, I had been through a lot.
I’m not sure why I’m telling you this story — I guess it’s because Disney has bought Lucasfilm, as you and I and all the kids on Kashyyyk have already heard, and every time George Lucas eases himself into a V-neck and signs his name on a contract it’s an occasion to reflect on the imaginative thralldom that Star Wars enforces on my generation, or a certain demographic within my generation, whatever my demographic is. And in my case, that thralldom is especially acute, because … well, I don’t remember being born, after all. My conscious experience of the universe begins with a hacked-off Tusken Raider. You never get over that, not really. Proust is just a thing I read one summer; Star Wars is there in all my neural pathways, encouraging me to spend money.
Plus — it would be dishonest to leave this out — there’s the fact that I now pretty much work for Disney, via writing for this website,1 and while my role in charting the future direction of the Star Wars franchise has been (uh) limited,2 you also have to add in all the other ways in which Disney influences childhoods, colonizes neural pathways, etc. I have this large, strange sense of circles being closed. I mean, I might meet the Sand Person, my existential parent, at a Christmas party. Imagine how a Baby Boomer would have felt if early-’80s Mick Jagger had somehow become the President of Vietnam.
Can we talk about Casablanca? We need to talk about Casablanca. OK, good.
Casablanca and Star Wars don’t have a lot of obvious stuff in common, but ever since I got the news that Disney is planning to release a new Star Wars movie in 2015 (I was sitting at my computer, drinking tea that I just barely didn’t spit out), I’ve been thinking that Casablanca is the key to the very unlikely possibility that they can do this and make something good. This is especially true given that there’s a large subsection of Star Wars fans who are basically pleading with the Force to put one of our modern geek-hero auteurs, Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams or whomever, in charge of the project. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I will come back to this in a second.
First, though, what I wrote before isn’t really true. Casablanca and the original Star Wars trilogy have a ton of very obvious stuff in common; it’s just that since there’s no particular reason to compare/contrast them, they seem to occupy non-overlapping movie universes, like Wreck-It Ralph and Last Tango in Paris.3 But think about it. In a very general sense, both stories revolve around a dramatic triumvirate made up of (1) a cynical, self-protectively closed-off hero who learns to open his heart to a larger cause (Rick, Han); (2) an earnest, unworldly hero who operates as a transformational figure within that cause (Luke, Victor Laszlo); (3) a girl who is complicatedly drawn to each of them (Ilsa, Leia). In both stories, the cynical hero has a devoted sidekick who travels with him through thick and thin. In both stories, a powerful figure allied with an evil government redeems himself by betraying that government at the last possible second. In both stories, a colorful bar in an exotic desert location serves as the backdrop for a dramatic escape. Both stories involve an untrustworthy gambler (Lando, Signor Ugarte). Both stories involve an obese crime lord, though in fairness Sydney Greenstreet is a cooler special effect than Jabba the Hutt. Neither main protagonist ends up with the girl. (OK, in Return of the Jedi, the main protagonist winds up being twins with the girl, but whatever.)
These similarities aren’t infinitely deep. The real story of Star Wars is the redemption of Darth Vader, while Captain Renault’s redemption in Casablanca is just a by-the-way bonus. But the resemblances are intriguing. Why do they exist? I don’t think the answer is that George Lucas deliberately copied Casablanca; I think it’s that Star Wars and Casablanca are both made out of a million spare parts from other and older stories, and some of the action-romance archetypes that George Lucas drew upon in Star Wars had also been drawn upon 35 years earlier by the committee of accidental geniuses that made Casablanca. I’m not even talking Joseph Campbell–level ur-myths; I mean pulp novels, Hemingway stories, Westerns, antique movie serials, Black Mask, Amazing Stories, One Thousand and One Nights. The two films have a kind of grandparent-grandchild relationship — genes that happen to be expressed in one place expressing themselves again, in a totally different form, decades later.
Here’s something famous that Umberto Eco wrote about Casablanca:
Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology. Made haphazardly, it probably made itself, if not actually against the will of its authors and actors, then at least beyond their control. … When all the archtypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.
The difference between Star Wars and Casablanca here is that Lucas, at least at first, maybe kind of intended the sublime-banality cliches-talking-among-themselves thing that Eco portrays as operating beyond the will of the director. (Anyway, George was pretty frank about cribbing from Kurosawa.) Otherwise, this passage says as much about Star Wars, aesthetically, as about the older film.
But there’s more, I think, to the particular kind of wonder that both these stories are capable of calling up. The best way I know how to put it is, The cliches are talking among themselves. But they are not talking to us. At least not about being cliches. That is, they aren’t drawing attention to themselves. They aren’t doing any of the million wink-y things that, say, the Scream series, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer,4 will do to let us know that they’re down with their own influences. There’s no moment when a genre convention is fulfilled, or subverted, and the filmmakers insert a little quip or beat or one-liner to let us know they’re in on the joke. The second Star Wars trilogy, the prequels, is particularly bad about telegraphing its awareness of our awareness of the first Star Wars trilogy; there’s so much stuff (Boba Fett’s backstory!) that only remotely matters because of held-over feelings from the first three movies. You’re constantly getting these scenes where, I don’t know, a Jawa shows up, and the camera lingers for a split-second too long, and the music plays this overly fond shimmery punchline figure like HEY! REMEMBER THESE GUYS??
In the original trilogy, though, and in Casablanca, all the mixed-up old elements are turned inward. Grand Moff Tarkin may be a cheekbone-for-cheekbone copy of Major Strasser, but he doesn’t know it. If you’ll forgive the expression, Star Wars and Casablanca are postmodern without being self-aware. They’re coherent, self-contained worlds that, because they’re made out of stories that have been fulfilling wishes forever, happen to conform in a particularly accessible way to both the weirdness and the innocence of our desires. They’re fully operational miniatures of the kind of world to which we want to escape when we’re at our most simple and open and thoughtless.
To my mind, the challenge for Disney in putting together Episode VII is that this particular kind of wonder is almost totally antithetical to the logic of the modern franchise reboot. Reboots generally assume, and maybe not wrongly, that what fans want in revisiting an entertainment property is a chance to talk about it, to remind ourselves of its place in the culture, rather than a chance to escape into the world it conjures up. For example: I liked the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot fine, but can you imagine any non-kid enjoying it who wasn’t already familiar with the fun-dynamics of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship, or who couldn’t parse the 40-plus years of agglomerated narrative that made it thrilling when Uhura kissed Spock? The movie was as much about flirting with our memories, reminding us of what we already knew, as it was about telling a new story. And this is probably going to get me screamed at, but I think you could make the same argument about the Christopher Nolan Batman films — it’s just that the conversation they wanted to have about Batman and American culture was deeper and more metaphorically focused than what reboots usually give us.
What Disney has in store for Star Wars isn’t (probably) a strict reboot, in that it will presumably maintain canonical continuity with the first two trilogies and also not exclusively star J.Crew models. But as with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,5 a vague reboot-ish shadow seems doomed to hang over the whole affair, even if it opens with the last chord of the song they replaced “Yub Nub” with.
And that’s why I’m leery of the “just give it to Joss” CW here. Your modern geek-mob director is really, really good at making fans happy. But he’s so good at making fans happy because he’s so fluent with the conventions of a given genre and so penetratingly conscious of its cultural place. In a reboot situation, he knows exactly how the fans feel about every aspect of the franchise and a big part of his job is to treat it with appropriate respect. He is deeply self-conscious, usually as a fundamental matter of style (the Whedon “playing brilliantly with horror/sci-fi/Westerns/spy-thriller forms” approach) and if not, then as a way to freshen up tired material (the Jon Favreau “I’m sending up conventions of the superhero movie because it’s more fun that way” approach). Again, this often works really well within the context of what these directors are trying to do. But the necessary condition of Star Wars is that it can’t know it’s Star Wars. The temptation to tell it will be extreme. But if you do that, then you wreck it in ways that not even George Lucas managed to do.6
And OK, I think I see why I wanted to open this with the story of my oldest memory — because you can still find genuine amazement rattling around in the hybridized mind of pop culture. But the components can’t be too much on the surface. They have to be deep and barely conscious, like a memory you aren’t even sure is real.