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NewCityNet The Empire's New Clothes

An assault on the wallet, not the mind

By Ray Pride

MAY 24, 1999:  What if it had been good?

A Ukrainian sculptor told me about how he had found his life's work. The visionary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky showed early versions of his films in Kiev, to friends that included the sculptor's father. At 14, he had covered the family's kitchen with a wall-swallowing mural based on "Abbey Road." His father was proud, and asked Tarkovsky to go with the boy and give him an opinion. Tarkovsky looked at the wall; the boy; the wall; the boy. He fixed him with a stare. "I can understand that level of taste," he said, and walked out of the room. (The boy, shocked, stopped painting for good, studied and practiced architecture and eventually discovered sculpture.)

When "Star Wars" was reissued, I wrote a couple of polemics about the dumbing-down of American movies after the great success of Lucas' trilogy, but I never got as savage as that. While the movies weren't for me, I could understand the buttons pushed, the movies harvested, the dreams reflected. But "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is another story, or at least a few strands of plot that a competent storyteller would toss off in ten minutes or so before moving on to a compelling tale.

"Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is the product placement of all time, the Unholy Grail, the altar upon which billions of dollars of cash will be placed in the next few weeks, and its surge of activity in the economy, coursing from fan-hand to Hasbro or Galoob bank, from T-shirt sweatshop to Lucasfilm coffers, may be more instrumental in lubricating the economy than any amount of e-commerce day-trading in Internet stock ever could. The Force is money. The movie is crap, unless you're about 5 years old and enjoy the fragrant wit of lines like, "Aw, Jar Jar Binks, you in deep doo-doo now!"

Let's cut to the pod-race: "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is platinum-hearted, product-pandering childsploitation of a low and monotonous order. One could criticize "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" for the obvious reason, there for all with eyes to see - that it's a feature-length, "Toy Story"-style animated cartoon with humans dropped in (for a modest amount of adult identification), poorly acted, lurchingly paced, and without a single memorable line of dialogue. But that misses the point. The movie doesn't matter. The jam-packed style of the film serves only to motor a merchandising blowout that has already out-grossed many small countries and most religions.

But who needs to start a religion when you've got a billion-and-a-half dollars in merchandising revenue banked before a single ticket was sold? If we cannot find faith, we can at least download directions to the mall, and find Star Wars products to fill the emptiness in our lives and basements. In a new biography of the late French film director François Truffaut, his once-friend and fellow director Jean-Luc Godard snipes at him with a put-down along the lines of, "Ah, François. Businessman in the morning, poet in the afternoon." On the evidence of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," the one-time director of "THX-1138" and "American Graffiti" no longer has poetry on his mind, only the merch.

The Chicago media screening for "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" was the most dispiriting I've attended since the one for "Exorcist II: The Heretic" more than twenty years ago, when society dowagers were screaming in the publicist's face - "How dare you! Shame!" - afterwards. Many of the 500 or so in the preview audience had shit-eating grins, ready to give Lucas the benefit of the doubt, but the room quickly grew quiet, not out of reverence or even disappointment but out of a kind of communal shock. The next day, tickets would go on sale. Some fans would buy a dozen tickets, one each to a dozen different showings, sight unseen. After seeing the toy store of inert storytelling that is "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace." I wonder if some shows in the third or fourth week of release will have empty seats. Seats that were paid for in advance, but left empty by adult viewers who will feel that twice or three times at most are enough times to see a movie that's seldom more than "Teletubbies" with light sabers.

"Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" almost makes "Star Wars" look as complex and adult as "The Godfather Part II." I wonder how many people who bought dozens of the millions of action figures out there, intending to keep them in their cartons "as investments," realize that everyone else is doing the same thing; therefore, they're worth zip. Less than what they paid for them. Will they feel betrayed by Lucas after failing to figure out the pretentious, new-agey mumbo jumbo that surrounds clinkers such as Anakin Skywalker being presented as a virgin birth, a Christ-like figure as a child?

What if it had been good? No chance. That happened somewhere else, in some galaxy, far, far away.


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