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The Archaeology of Star Wars
Posted on January 2, 2011 | Back to Literature
REVIEWED: The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film by J.W. Rinzler and The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back by J.W. Rinzler
Here be spoilers.
It doesn't seem like thirty years is very long, and in the greater scheme of time, it is barely a hashmark on the cosmic calendar. But a different sense of time seems to apply to pop culture, which by definition is one of humankind's more transitory constructions. Whether it's a book, a song, movie or television show, pop culture has a tendency to age quickly and, for those who follow such things, become the focus for sentimentality almost immediately. Into this strange void in time and space falls the relatively new phenomenon of "science fiction archeology."
Okay, that's a term I totally invented so don't go to your local community college looking to major in this field, you geeks. Let me explain... To me, "science fiction archaeology" is something beyond the fanboy obsession with acquiring irrelevant and moldy movie props often at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars -- you know, like almost anything you might find on icollector.com. It now involves an element of tourism, and yes, finding artifacts left behind by production companies decades ago because the prop handlers had no conception that some discarded proctor rubber would mean anything to anyone ever. I first became familiar with the idea of "science fiction archeology" about fifteen years ago when I read an article in a fan magazine about the props and movie locations left behind in the Tunisian desert after the filming of Star Wars Episode IV. It turned out that remnants from the Lars farm, Ben Kenobi's house and even those curious dinosaur-like bones C3PO wandered passed were all still lying there in the hot desert sun... and some adventuring uber-fan had the wherewithal to photograph, document and write about them. This fascination with aging artifacts from a galaxy far, far away eventually culminated into a thriving tourist industry for Tunisia, a country few Americans could even locate on a map.
Into this atmosphere comes what may be the end-all-be-all archaeological (or at least archival) look at the first of these films: The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind the Original Film and The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Both books were written by J.W. Rinzler, the executive editor of Lucasfilm Productions. The latter title was just released this past October, and like its predecessor, has the fingerprints of George Lucas all over it. Lucas in a smart man in many, many respects. But when it comes to marketing, he may actually be some kind of crazy genius. He's certainly not oblivious to the fanaticism that surrounds his creation or how it can make true believers spend weeks traveling around the Tunisian wastelands just so they can take a photo of a hole in the ground where Mark Hamill once stood and stared into the sunset. He knew that thousands would pore over the pages of these books (as I did) in rapt awe of the anecdotes and never-before-seen photos of sets, costumes, effects and actors. And he knew that, while we did so, a strange aching dreaminess would sweep through us. In fact, I doubt if these books would have had quite the same appeal had they been released in 1980 when, by pop culture standards, Episode IV and V would have been young. Lucas understands that the passage of time, and with it the increase in sentimentality, gives even old Star Wars a new lease on life.
Considering the amount of detail in both books, one might be tempted to refer to them as dissertations on the first two Star Wars films. But they are neither dry nor ponderous as you might expect from dissertations, nor are they solely about about how a costume was created or a makeup effect applied -- the usual things that are written about science fiction. In fact, and much to my surprise, some of Rinzler's most intriguing parts are about doing business in 1970s Hollywood, where Lucas was often seen as an impetuous upstart by the establishment. Science fiction films that preceded Episode IV were typically slow-paced with heavy, cynical themes that often made them painful to watch. Lucas's concept, of creating a space opera that was heavily derivative of classical mythology, was expected to result in a "little summer movie." Pondering just how wrong the Hollywood execs were and how much they underestimated the human need for heroes and the vanquishing of evil is one of the most satisfying aspects of the books. And if you get tired of reading these 300+ page tomes, just wander through the voluminous photos, some so clear and sharp that you'd swear they had been taken yesterday. You will find your mind wandering, and maybe you will come away wondering what other bits of Star Wars legend are still lying undiscovered in some distant jungle, on an ice floe or in a dusty warehouse.