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Analyzing genre in Star Wars

In Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema, film studies professor Todd Berliner explains how Hollywood delivers aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences. Along the way, Professor Berliner offers numerous aesthetic analyses of both routine Hollywood movies and exceptional ones. His analyses, one of which we excerpt here, illustrate how to study a film’s aesthetic properties. In honor of the 40th anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars (1977), we are posting the following excerpt from Chapter 10, “The Hollywood Genre System.”

Inaugurating the most financially successful franchise in the history of entertainment, the original Star Wars (1977) has become one of the most widely and intensely loved movies of all time. Film scholars, however, lambasted Star Wars for its simplicity. Peter Lev calls it one of the “simple, optimistic genre films in the late 1970s.” David Cook says it privileges “a juvenile mythos.” Jonathan Rosenbaum calls the movie mostly “fireworks and pinball machines,” a deliberately silly film that offers only “narcissistic pleasures.” In his book on Star Wars, Will Brooker summarizes the scorn that scholars show toward the film: “Cinema scholarship seems embarrassed by Star Wars — embarrassed that a movie series so popular, successful and influential is also, apparently, so childishly simple.”

How do we explain the discrepancy between scholars’ opinion of the film and its popular success? What pleasure do mass audiences get from Star Wars that scholars do not? What aesthetic weaknesses do scholars find in the film that mass audiences don’t? I hope to demonstrate that we can attribute much of the discrepancy between Star Wars’s popular and scholarly reception to the two audiences’ differing levels of genre expertise. Hollywood’s genre system makes routine filmgoers into experts, but filmgoers do not share the same level of genre expertise, and more expert filmgoers require greater novelty and complexity to feel an exhilarated aesthetic response.

For an average spectator, Star Wars exhibits more challenging and diverse genre properties than most scholars recognize…A simple list of genres that figure fairly prominently in the film would include fairy tales, adventure films, and swashbucklers (swinging on ropes, rescuing a princess, Leia’s wardrobe, light saber fights); the Western (a cantina scene, desert landscapes, shots of a burning homestead, bounty hunters); the 1930s science fiction serial Flash Gordon (ray guns and explosions, an episode format, an opening text that explains previous events); fantasy comics and novels, such as John Carter of Mars, Buck Rogers, and The Lord of the Rings (alien creatures, monsters, a hero on a quest, a world in peril, battles and adventures in far-off lands); samurai movies (obsolete warriors, light sabers); a comic duo, such as Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, that pairs a neurotic skinny straight-man with a fat clown (C3PO and R2D2); the philosophical fantasy film, such as Lost Horizon (1937) (the Force, spiritual training); horror (Darth Vader, Hammer horror-film actor Peter Cushing); gangster (Han’s debt to Jabba the Hutt); Nazi documentaries and World War II films (soldiers in formation, air battles, a prison escape, rebels planning an invasion in a war room, the uniforms of Grand Moff Tarkin and other officers in the Galactic Empire); the foreign film (subtitled dialogue); the historical epic, such as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (nation building, spectacular settings, a small band of rebels fighting a mighty empire); and, of course, science fiction film and television, such as Forbidden Planet (1956) and Lost in Space (robots, interstellar travel), Star Trek (photon torpedoes, light-speed space travel, tractor beams, outer space cultures), and Planet of the Apes (Chewbacca).

The film finds fortuitous linkages between diverse genre topoi. The figures of C3PO and R2D2 blend the tin man from The Wizard of Oz, the comic duo of Abbot and Costello, and the space robot of Forbidden Planet in a way that feels unified and inevitable. The figure of Han Solo makes the Western’s quick drawing gun-for-hire — decked out in a vest, boots, and a gun by his side — seem a lot like both the captain of a pirate ship in an Errol Flynn adventure and, when matched against Princess Leia, one half of a screwball comedy pair. The light saber makes something like a samurai’s sword a natural supplement to a Star Trek phaser. The imagery in an early scene with Princess Leia and Darth Vader (figures 10.1 and 10.2) combines a science fiction setting with elements from fairytale (Leia’s flowing white gown), horror (Vader’s bug-like metallic mask), and the WWII prison movie (handcuffed Leia led by Storm Troopers and the Nazi-like garb of a solider standing beside Vader). “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is apropos because Lucas’s futuristic science fiction film feels like the past.

Figure 10.1. Still image from Star Wars (1977), pg 197 of Hollywood Aesthetic by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.
Figure 10.2. Still image from Star Wars (1977), pg 197 of Hollywood Aesthetic by Todd Berliner. Used with permission.

I propose that many film scholars find Star Wars simplistic and unoriginal because they have too much experience with the film’s multifarious genre conventions — conventions that viewers with extensive knowledge of film genres can identify too easily. True film experts have seen it all before, which explains why scholars often celebrate the more self-conscious genre films of the same period, such as The Long Goodbye and All that Jazz (1979). Ironic and disdainful of Hollywood formula, such films reflect an expert’s weariness with mainstream American cinema.

Star Wars reflects no such weariness, irony, or disdain. Although it relies heavily on conventions that film experts have seen many times, average spectators would not so easily identify its genre properties. Rosenbaum’s blistering review of the film is largely a complaint about cinematic poaching from Triumph of the Will (1935), Flash Gordon (1936), The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), This Island Earth (1955), The Searchers (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Samurai movies, and other films so familiar to Rosenbaum that, to his mind, the plot could have been regurgitated by “any well-behaved computer fed with the right amount of pulp.” Robin Wood calls the pleasures of Star Wars “mindless and automatic.” … He says that spectators find reassurance in “the extreme familiarity of plot, characterization, situation, and character relations.”

Such conventions may be extremely familiar to Wood and Rosenbaum, but I suspect that their scorn for Star Wars results in part from the fact that they have chunked so much film knowledge that they can identify the film’s genre properties too easily. Wood thinks he is criticizing Star Wars fans for taking pleasure in an “undemanding,” “reassuring,” “childish” fantasy, but really he might only be condemning their limited cinema expertise. For spectators who have only moderate familiarity with Hollywood genre conventions, Star Wars requires cognitive work. Wood would no doubt describe most Hollywood movies as “mindless and automatic” because they are for him. However, Wood’s critique cannot explain the enduring and exhilarated passion that we see in generations of Star Wars fans, whose engagement with the film does not by any means look “mindless and automatic”; Star Wars fans are engrossed and elated. For an average viewer, the film finds the optimal area between unity and complexity, familiarity and novelty, easy recognition and cognitive challenge.

Featured image:Figure 10.1. Still image from Star Wars (1977), pg 197 of Hollywood Aesthetic by Todd Berliner. Used with permission. 

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