President Obama to skip Kennedy Center Honors performance

6 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Flash Gordon is 35 years old and it’s STILL better than Star Wars.

President Obama’s address to the nation on Sunday night will force him to miss the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors performance celebrating the achievement of five artists.

Shakespeare stole from classic texts like a kleptomaniac, carrying their complex plots, star-crossed lovers and antique events back to his Globe Theatre.It may well be one of Hollywood’s biggest success stories, but when the original “Star Wars” film was released in 1977 many people, including creator George Lucas, believed it would be a flop. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted what a smash hit and what a cultural phenomenon it was going to become,” said Jonathan Kuntz, professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television.Before the first-ever “Star Wars” premiered on screens across America, Los Angeles Times writer Paul Rosenfield sat down with the creator of a galaxy far, far away.

The second installment (or the fifth) in the Star Wars saga created by the numerically confused George Lucas, it has since been hailed as THE GREATEST FILM EVER RELEASED. Twentieth Century Fox, the film’s distributor, hesitated over the film’s $8 million budget and wasn’t convinced a science fiction movie would fill theaters. Then 33, George Lucas was just a few days shy from the release of his “space opera,” prophetically claiming that “Star Wars” was the movie he thinks “Disney would have made when Walt Disney was alive.” Who knew decades later the droids and the mouse would reside in the same castle. I am talking about a film so epic, so fantastic, so wondrous, so amazing and so out-there that most people just didn’t get it, preferring to plonk themselves in front of safe Skywalker and his new green pal Yoda instead. To those who like their SF grounded in science, Star Wars is reprehensible “skiffy” in the pejorative sense, a flight of fantasy cloaked in science-fiction’s clothes.

Given the budget constraints, Lucas agreed to a lower salary in exchange for full merchandising rights to the movie and any sequels — a deal that would prove brilliant and make him very, very rich. Released on December 5, 1980, Flash Gordon was the anti-Star Wars, all lurid reds and yellows combined with scenery-chewing so sustained its cast had to undergo daily check-ups for overbites by the on-set dentist.

Prior to the film’s release, Lucas organized a private showing to a group of film director friends and most, including Brian De Palma, gave it a thumbs down. George Lucas mashed together the “Star Wars” saga from borrowed scraps of the past, building his world with ideas, characters, images and music born a long time ago and cinemas far, far away. Still, Lucas was so convinced the movie would flop that on May 25, the day it was released, he went on holiday to Hawaii instead of attending the premiere. Even a cursory peek at the posters for Flash Gordon and the first Star Wars movie reveals that the latter has similarities with the former (I’ll delve into the comparable characters below).

As “The Force Awakens” nears its Dec. 18 release, “Star Wars” scholars call those borrowed cornerstones a vital link to the franchise’s cross-generational appeal and staying power. While that number is below earnings by the “James Bond” or “Harry Potter” movies, the upcoming release of the seventh instalment — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — as well as two planned sequels will likely make it “the undisputed champion of the box office as far as franchises go,” said Jeff Bock, of the box office tracker Exhibitor Relations. But authors such as Smith, Leigh Brackett and Hal Clement, writing serialised fiction for Amazing Stories and other magazines, in large part created the iconography of sci-fi. Call it homage if you like, imitation if you must, but don’t confuse it with coincidence, said Bryan Young, editor in chief of bigshinyrobot.com and co-host of the weekly “Star Wars” podcast “Full of Sith.” “Good artists borrow and great artists steal,” he said.

The secret to the success of “Star Wars,” studied and analyzed in universities the world over, rests primarily with its multigenerational appeal, Kurtz said. “Audiences of all ages could identify with the characters,” he said. “Even little kids three or four years old got the basic structure of the story and enjoyed being sucked into that kind of adventure.” The space saga, inspired by the Flash Gordon movie serials of the 1930s, tells a classic story of good versus evil in a “galaxy far, far away,” and mixes in visual effects, a romantic plot and battle scenes. “‘Star Wars’ is a non-stop action movie with goofy characters and humor and portrays so many alien worlds,” he added. “It opens the door on a fascinating new universe.” In his interviews with Lucas’ filmmaking collaborators, he found that any parallel to another film was never just a coincidence. “They said the only way you could communicate with George was talking through films. When he was foiled in that pursuit, he went off and made Star Wars, but not without borrowing some of the best bits from his favourite show, including the opening crawl and the ‘wipes’ between scenes. Everything was a film reference, and he was an encyclopedia of those film references.” He noted that each “Force Awakens” trailer contains numerous carefully shaped visual callbacks to the original trilogy.

You can’t fault the first few seconds of Star Wars, especially when its opening crawl gives way to a giant Star Destroyer catching up to Princess Leia’s consular ship. Stumbling upon secret plans for a military Grand Base, Kinnision is thrust into numerous adventures that climax when he destroys the base by using his Lensman abilities. And yet Flash Gordon tops it with its own legendary opening, a voice-over chat between two villains who look like they’re playing an Atari video game where the goal is to destroy planet Earth. But just as Obi Wan neglects to mention to Luke that his father’s blade was the very same that butchered dozens of Padawan children, George Lucas doesn’t namecheck the dozens of laser sword precedents in popular sci-fi novels. In the works was a Time magazine cover story, an incalculable profit and prestige boost for any film. (Remember “Love Story”?) Lucas would have been the first of the new tribe of directors to be so singled out.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell was a cult classic that had been doing the rounds among Hollywood’s creative cliques for some years when George Lucas adopted the archetypal patterns of the “monomyth” as the framework for Luke Skywalker’s mythic adventure. The fabled “Star Wars” opening screen, introducing moviegoers to the plot with text scrolling outward into the stars, explicitly parallels the crawling prelude of “Flash Gordon,” a 1936 serial with Alex Raymond’s comic-strip hero battling an evil space emperor. It was a scene and camera angle created nine years before in Stanley Kubrick’s revolutionary “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The victory celebration by the heroes that concludes the film was explicitly based on “Triumph of the Will,” a striking documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg by Adolf Hitler protégée Leni Riefenstahl. Although Lucas despised the service to which she lent her talent, he hailed her modernity and acknowledged his indebtedness. “Our language works by building on what has come before. The language of cinema works the same way, and I think ‘Star Wars’ does it better than anyone else.” Young’s essays connect the dots of film history, tracing World War II aerial dogfight news footage, samurai classics and John Wayne westerns to their crisscross landings on the desert planet Tatooine. “ ‘Star Wars’ isn’t pure science fiction, and that’s perhaps why it’s so great,” said Cole Horton, a lifelong fan and 20th-century historian.

Co-author of the DK illustrated reference book “ ‘Star Wars’: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know,” he finds a key to the saga’s ongoing success in Lucas’ choice of “visuals which are familiar and yet unique.” “I can’t imagine the attack on the Death Star being as powerful as it is today if it wasn’t influenced by films like ‘The Dam Busters’ or ‘The Bridges at Toko-Ri,’ ” which had been made 20 years before Lucas’ film. In truth, the dialogue in Flash Gordon is just as monumentally bad, but the actors utter it with their tongues so far up their cheeks they need breathing apparatus to function. What Sam J Jones (who fought off competition from Kurt Russell and Arnold Schwarzenegger to land the role of Flash) might lack in acting ability, he more than makes up for with his lack of whining: there’s no moaning about going to Tosche station to pick up some power converters for him. While Skywalker comes off as a tiring teenager who thinks the world revolves around his lightsaber, Flash is a true hero, taking time out from quarterback duties at the New York Jets (not a tough gig, admittedly) to save the world. While Princess Leia shrugs at the destruction of her home planet and hooks up with the first dirty little smuggler she lays eyes on, Princess Aura actually cares about the people of Mongo, leaving a trail of men in her wake as she does so.

The lightsaber “seems to hit on every iconic sword-wielder ever,” Horton said. “It’s part ‘Robin Hood’ from the 1938 film, it’s part samurai Kurosawa. There are other sword movies, but even kids today want to be playing with lightsabers!” When Luke discovers his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru killed by Stormtroopers and their solitary farm burning, the tragedy and his reactions are borrowed shot for shot from John Ford’s 1956 classic “The Searchers.” Luke’s quest to fight back as a Jedi warrior parallels the western hero’s campaign of revenge. Like all the nastiest villains, he doesn’t give a crap about anybody but himself – even his own daughter isn’t off limits for a spot of state torture.

Lucas borrowed a scene from Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” when Han aimed his hidden pistol at Greedo as they sat in the cantina, shooting his rival from under the table. We’re off to the sun.” Luke Skywalker, the Lucas-like hero in “Star Wars,” left more than his uncle’s moisture farm on the arid planet of Tatooine. At least that’s how it played out before Lucas recut the “Han Shot First” scene for later editions, making Harrison Ford’s character less deceitful.

Lucas saw Han essentially akin to Humphrey Bogart’s cynical yet honorable wiseguy loner in “Casablanca,” a parallel visible in Ford’s performance. There is no such confusion with Klytus, who, if anything, is even meaner than Ming the Merciless, and gets the gruesome, eye-popping demise he deserves.

Upcoming are Marvel comic books, inflatable laser swords, miniature ape-like Wookiees, T-shirts, a gilded C-3PO (the movie’s homage to the Tin Man), computer games, posters, a mock-up Imperial Death Star spaceship, and Obi-Wan, perhaps the first-ever senior-citizen doll. Okay, so Prince Barin got his costume for a Robin Hood-themed wedding, but at least he didn’t borrow it from a dishevelled snooker player à la Han Solo. And not a heavy intellectual trip like ‘2001.’ Think of this as ‘The Sting’ in outer space.” Lucas had been urged after “Graffiti” to tackle something deep. Instead he went for what he wanted: pure entertainment. “ ‘THX’ was my 20-year-old consciousness; I used my head as a filmmaker. ‘Graffiti’ was me at 16 using my heart. The Lone Ranger and Long John Silver. ‘Star Wars’ is hopefully a feeble attempt to make up for that lack, without goriness or violence. “It’s a hard genre to pull off.

The studio said $7.5, and we said, ‘We’ll do it.’ Gary Kurtz [Lucas’ producing-partner] and I figured somehow we’d get the extra money.” As budgets go, this one went eventually to $9.5 million. A bargain among this summer’s releases. “We’re the rock-bottom,” claims Lucas. “ ‘The Deep’ is $14 million. ‘A Bridge Too Far’ is $22 million. And Francis [Coppola], who finally did ‘Apocalypse Now’ [of which Lucas is part owner], will come in at $25 million. “How do you do a synopsis of this movie for a board of directors? Imagine saying, ‘There is a Wookiee named Chewbacca and …’ The company was going through a bad period anyway. [Fox Chairman] Dennis Stanfill decided to go with it, and then fortunately didn’t ask a lot of questions. “For four years George and I have been talking — though he and I together don’t make one-half an extrovert — and only a week before release did I see the film.

All I can say is that the man got a performance out of a robot.” Somehow. “There is no magic in moviemaking,” says the director who masterminded 363 special effects. He’s admittedly now weary. “What’s there has to be there.” Unlike many of the film generation of whom he is the current wunderkind, Lucas isn’t over-zealous about moviemaking. “I consider this my professional movie debut,” Lucas says, without pomp. “Star Wars” took 18 months of shooting in Tunisia, England, Guatemala and Death Valley, among other sites. “What it means is you have to act like a corporation president. “In the old days, if the horses weren’t there, you’d call Jack Warner and yell, ‘Why the hell aren’t the horses here?’ Now you do your own yelling and hiring and firing. You go around disgusted and give up being a free person — that’s what directing a major movie is like.” Steve Spielberg, Lucas’ friend and director of “Jaws,” remarked recently, “Oh, he complains. Like we all do.” Painter (his oils are reminiscent of Keane, yet original), furniture builder, owner of a sci-fi shop in New York, Lucas is as adept with cars as with cameras. “I don’t know if even he knows where his talent comes from,” Verna Fields says. And foreign films — never.” “I wanted to go to art school, but my father would only send me to a real university.” Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, for whom Lucas built a race car, steered him to USC. “I was interested in photography, so the only thing to major in was cinema.

Among the film students hired there by Verna Fields were Lucas and his future wife. “George was almost fired,” Fields recalls. “He kept falling asleep at the Moviola. But, yes, the talent was recognized very early.” Lucas began his association with Coppola on the ill-fated “Rain People.” With some backing from Warners, the teaming led to the San Francisco-based American Zoetrope, an ambitious film factory. Later, Coppola used his bankability to help get “Graffiti” made. “The way I make movies I learned from Francis,” Lucas says. “I was his right hand for 10 years. You need that in this business.” Still headquartered at Zoetrope, the men are part of a tribe of Marin County filmmakers that includes John Korty, Philip Kaufman and Michael Ritchie.

And I’ll executive-produce to make a living.” Lucas seems to mean it. “If there’s a recurrent theme in my work it’s about taking responsibility.

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