IT'S HARD to escape the feeling of facing backwards these days. Seeing "Star Wars" and "Annie Hall" recently, one right after the ohter like a double feature, left me with the oddest sensation of chronological vertigo. George Lucas' elaborate, frolicsome space opera and Woody Allen's smart new comedy have next to nothing in common in look or content. But at some primal level of motivation, both filmmakers seem to have been fixated on earlier selvesand earlier times.
Why should this be so? Maybe be cuase sometimes it's easier to look over one's shoulder than straight ahead. In any case, it seems to me the answer to this question has much to do with why we find these two movies so intensely enjoyable, apart from the obvious skills involved in their making.
"Star Wars" is, ostensibly, futuristic sci-fi. But that this is only a front the picture itself makes instantly clear. Once the tittle flashes on screen, there follows the legend, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." Lucas isn't kidding about the "long time ago." He isn't just setting us up for the "modern fairy tale" he's told us he wanted to create.He's also cueing us in to his mythic sources. The movie's unspecified future is Lucas' springboard onto a wholesale ransacking of the movie past, which is the real subject of the film, from "The Thief of Bagdad" and "Dawn Patrol" right on up to "2001."
The latter isn't only the precursor of the spectacular interstellar effects in "Star Wars - it's already a part of the cinematic heritage lucas so gaily plunders and pays tribute to. What "That's Entertainment!" did for the movie musical, "Star Wars" does for a whole brigade of genres, "from jungle, western and period classics to horror, fantasy and space flicks. "Star War" is a Tapestry of cinematic allusions, both to particular scenes or characters and to the ubiqutious cliches of action pictures, which Lucas adriotly recycles into his own, freshly invented narrative. Watching "Star Wars," is like recalling and savoring the "good parts" from every Hollywood saga of derring-do we ever saw in more credulous decades gone by.
Lucas has said his direct inspiration was "Flash Gordon," and the prefatory scroll that introduces his firsts scene comes right out of those gloriously cornball serials. From there we're hurled right into a chase sequence, and we meet an instantly familiar-looking pair of robots - See Threepio could be Jack Haley's Tin Woodman from "The Wizard of Oz" updated to the space age, and Artoo-Beetoo, his adorable "droid" (for android") sidekick, ahs all the traits of a cybernetic Toto.
So the movie proceeds, from sword fights that evoke "Prince Valiant" to satellite garbage pits that are very like Tarzan's gator-infested swamps to spaceship gun turrets that are the spitting image of those World War II B-29s we rode through dozens of Army Air Corps epics.
The fun lies in the fact that Lucas takes all the wonders and yarn-spinning seriously, and so do we, for the duration of the picture. By casting "Star Wars" in the science-fiction mold (it's got nothing to do with science," he's he said, he's allowed us to indulge our sweet-tooth for adolescent adventure without trying to foist a futile imitation on us. He's made an end-run around the "sophistication" of contemporary film-making, and given us a cake we can have and eat at the same time - romantic flummery with technological improvements.
"2001" was an epochal film, a meditation on the implications of the space age. I don't think "Star Wars" is a great motion picture in the same sense, but it's a whale of an entertaining one, and very likely a trend-setter.
Last month, Woody Allen had a story in The New Yorker called "The Kugelmass Episode," in which bored middle-aged husband has an adulterous fling with Flaubert's Emma Bovary by way of a magical, literary time machine. The time machine of "Annie Hall" is simply the old flashback device. The past Allen exhumes, though, isn't our common movie legacy, but his own real-life loves and career, working backward from his breakup with Annie (Diane Keaton) to his Brooklyn boyhood and up through school, college, show-biz and two failed marriages.
This makes for a much more localized appeal the "Star Wars," since so much of Allen's humor relation to his own. New York, Jewish, self-deprecating mulleu. "I would never want to belong to any club, that would have someone like me me as a member," he tells us at the beginning, repeating a Catskill-circuit, gag that sets the tone of the movie.
The point of interest here, though is that both Lucas and Allen should go the nostalgia route in such divergent, personalised ways. All the more striking a coincidence in view of earlier features of both which were futurist in outlook as well as style - Lucas' THX: 1138" and Allen's "Sleeper." Both of these movies may have used the future as a means of commenting on present hangups, but both also sought to extrapolate from today's ills to tomorrow's madness.
I think the change we're seeing is a reflection of the contrast between radically different eras. In the rebellious, apocalyptic '60s (spilling over into the early '70s, perhaps) everyone, artists included, tried to cut loose from the past - and the future. In the shadow of the Bomb, the assassinations, Vietnam, everything had to be immediate. Instant gratification, instant escape and instant solutions - not for nothing were the '60s known as the Now Decade. Only the present counted, for who knew how long it would last?
The '70s are witnessing the emergence of a opposite syndrome. We'll do anything to escape facing our present, our dull, intractable present, with it suffocating "nesmaicy" and the grinding frustration of " owly workening crisea. So we turn to the past, or the future, which fromy the other side of the same coin, for warming comfort - we're even getting nostalgic about the '60s, as Ellen Goodman pointed out in her recent review of "Loose Change."
The peril of the Bomb dominated the consciousness of the 60's in open manifestations of hysteria. In the '70s, however, we've buried the whole topic so deep in our psyches that, although the stockpiles from fearsomely bigger every day, no one talks or even thinks about it any more. Only the techocrats and the diplomats, speaking in a jargon so removed from popular understanding as to insure our continued ignorance. We've become so profoundly, chronically frightened that we can't handle it on a conscious level - we don't want to know about it.
"Star Wars" and "Annie Hall" are our anodynes, as medieval romances once were for an oppressively industrialized 19th-century bourgeoisie. Well, if we must have escape, atleast we've got some good, honest, unremittingly delightful escape. Without it, the world might well end with both a bang and whimper.