Decalist #1: The Empire Strikes Back

“It was something quite different from ordinary life and even ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.'” -C. S. Lewis

When I was barely old enough to remember, my parent’s took us to my dad’s cousin Donna’s house one Sunday night. The adults played cards in the kitchen, and my brother Ted, Donna’s son, and I were given a big bowl of popcorn and placated with the evening movie. How can I explain it’s effect? That forever in my psyche there is this peaceful place? Not the house, not even the people, but the night: the slate grey starship hanging in space, the ethereal music, the adventure into something that meant as much as a real world experience. Somewhere deep inside I connected with a story in a way Lewis attempts to describe, although that feeling, the Joy he outlines in the imagination and story, is impossible even for the master of metaphor to fully articulate.

The iconic "Gone With the Wind" one-sheet

The Empire Strikes Back was released almost exactly two months after I was born.  I knew it as a child, my brother had the action figures. I still remember the way they smelled and my mother standing them on their heads on top of her flour canister.  When I entered my incredibly awkward, acned, clothes don’t fit me, long stringy haired adolescence, I rediscovered The Empire Strikes Back taped off TV on VHS.  Then I memorized it and read my brother’s faded copy of the novel edition of Return of the Jedi.  I cannot be sure what exactly connected so deeply with me, but there are several important areas which were directly influenced by my middle school space flight of fancy to a galaxy far away.

Aesthetic:

Concept work by McQuarrie for ESB

“It was the mood of a scene that mattered to me; and in tasting that mood my skin and nose were as busy as my eyes” Lewis said of his perceptions and imaginations.  The Star Wars aesthetic was mechanical and natural.  It was full of the kinds of intricacies that have always fascinated me.  There were details on the ships, rooms and spaces rife for exploration.  There were infinite worlds and beings and possibilities.  The colors of ESB are cool, blues and greens and whites, set against gunmetal greys and blacks.  The flashes of red or maroon are intense and hot.  The film is not as dry as A  New Hope, nor as lively green as Return of the Jedi.  The lines and depths and graphic, put together by a vast and varied team (of special note is Ralph McQarrie, the initial concept artist for the trilogy), were the hallmarks of a generation. Art from what seems beyond time.

Narrative:

The films director, Irvin Kershner, said “Like the second part of a symphony or the second act of a play…the problems are explored” in The Empire Strikes Back.  It’s one of the most famous sequels in cinema history.  George Lucas is responsible for the story, but as present films indicate, his collaborators make a great difference in how that story is rendered.  ESB‘s writers, director, and actors took what was established in the first film, and put the characters through the gamut, solidifying, expanding, exploring, and amending them all in turn.  Han Solo is outlined in A New Hope, he becomes a more personal and genuine character in ESB.  As a teenager, I freely admit the romance was vital to my enjoyment. (Always PG, by the way. Star Wars is old fashioned, like the classic stories of myth, old Hollywood, and Saturday serials. It’s the teenage weirdos who have corrupted it.  Stop living in basements.  I don’t care if your an adolescent boy with hormones. Get a life. You’re embarrassing my favorite movie.)  But here I found the

"You want me to stay because of the way you feel about me." Han seeks the truth.

truest form of the characters I loved.  Princess Leia is never more herself than when confronts Han in the snowy corridor and tells him she’d rather kiss a wookie (Instead she kissed her brother. Wrong both times.)  Kersh’s directing is understated, but if you listen to his commentary on the film, it’s evident his choices make the narrative work better than it would have otherwise.  Yoda could have been a joke (Jar Jar?) but Kersh helped make him real.  The director understood what was crucial in every moment, and that’s why the film remains more than mere blockbuster fluff.  Another key element is the script.  Lawrence Kasdan’s (Raider’s of the Lost Ark, The Big Chill, Body Heat, The Bodyguard) contribution lies in his understanding of character.  Leigh Brackett’s (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye) in her sparkling dialog and action writing.  Howard Hawks said of Brackett that she “wrote like a man,” and the Hawksian nature of Star Wars (group of men fighting, joining in camaraderie, with one sarcastic woman who is “one of the boys”) shines through with classic Hollywood style in ESB, largely because of her touches. I learned wit from joke books and old movies.  ESB was language I understood.

Role Model

I do not oversell my adolescent awkwardness.  My parents sat me down when I was around 15 and told me I needed to “be more of a lady.”  What they meant by this nebulous statement is hard to say, exactly.  But it had something to do with the way I dressed, and sat, and ate food.  I never saw myself as very feminine.  My mom did not own makeup. I interchanged Barbies with G.I. Joes. I’m not sure why this is, other than I saw few feminine role models who did girly things.  My grandmothers spent their time in gardens, not under hair dryers. Princess Leia at once was intelligent, independent, and

The self-rescuing princess

unmistakably feminine.  If I could be a like her, then being a princess was okay.  Leia’s sense of justice, as well as her sense of humor, added to the appeal.  So in my stumbling way, I learned to imitate the character in order to become the person.  Oddly and perhaps providentially, Carrie Fisher began to go public with her diagnosis of manic depression around the same time those tendencies in myself became more evident.  Princess Leia was more than an ideal, although she was that. I wanted her face and her hair (I now like mine better, which was the goal all along).  When I knew how, by her own words, “messed up” Carrie Fisher was, the pressure was off.  No one was perfect, even Princess Leia wasn’t as confident as she let on.  I sometimes wonder if I’m Carrie Fisher’s lost childhood, with a very clear perception of reality and story.  And I sometimes wonder just how real Leia was, given Fisher’s self reported confusions of consciousness.  I think she is as real as any idea or concept.  Leia is not a real human being; Fisher is her own person.  But Leia is a part of her, and of me, and of many other chics who played Death Star in a haymow.  (Ok, perhaps there are only a few of us who did that. Ahem, Candace.)  I modeled my adult persona on a combination of things, both real and fictional, and stemming unconsciously from what I knew and loved, but Princess Leia is a part of that.  Like any good character, she is not the same to me as she would be to someone else, but her purpose in the importance of narrative is, as I have said in the past, to give us a glimpse of who we are, and who we can be.

Myth

The importance of myth is something I’ve talked about in the past (see my post on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), and underpins why Star Wars is both timeless and limitless in appeal.  These characters and stories are based on things we understand intrinsically.  The Empire Strikes Back appeals because it is the place in the story where secrets are revealed, and where evil takes the upper hand.  This gives way, given our knowledge of story and our hope as human beings, to be belief that even from these circumstances, good will triumph and triumph greatly.  I understand that appeal. I want to know just how bad it is, so that I can understand the payoff when we reach the other side.  Princess Leia moves from all white (she wears one outfit in ESB that is not) to earth tones and neutrals in Return of the Jedi. I suggest this is because she has been “brought to earth” by discovering her family, and her relationship with the not-of-her-class Han Solo.  Following that theme, the last images of ESB (which to this day give me what Lewis described as “the queer ache” of something beautiful) are of Luke, Leia, and the droids, staring out of a grey, complicated and intricate spaceship at what might be a white dwarf star.  From their present state, they gaze on the celestial.  While the future is uncertain, hope and brightness (the light side?) fill their (framed, like a film image) view.  We are left with light.  The moment the tide turns is always my favorite.

The image for reflection: a little light in the darkess

So for all it’s myriad of influences, The Empire Strikes Back in turn provides these elements that have shaped me. Were it not for Brackett and Fisher, or Harrison Ford and John Williams for that matter (I could spend an entire post on the music, but I’m already 500 words too long), the film’s appeal would be different, and would not have fit so closely.  But it did.  It resounded deep somewhere inside me. That’s the reason why I still own the action figures, even though merchandising, toy guns and geeks could have easily put me off Star Wars forever.  And on that note, I sign off to prepare for my annual Star Wars party.

May good storytelling be with you.

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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2 Responses to Decalist #1: The Empire Strikes Back

  1. Christopher Matthias says:

    Jen,
    You will always be my favorite Star Wars genius. This is excellent. Have a great party tomorrow!

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