I remember seeing the first Star Wars film soon after its release. It was a daytime screening, and the mid city cinema was packed. I loved the science fiction of Wells and Olaf Stapledon, Asimov and Phillip K. Dick, and was interested to see what the fuss was about with this new scifi movie. But as I sat in the dark the thought soon dawned, hang on, this is… matinee Flash Gordon. It seemed childish and formulaic - the brash and handsome hero, the callow unready young man and the wise elder, the slick-tongued princess in white, and the arch villain in not just a black hat, but full black armour and a full-face black helmet too, with the doom voice of a stern uncle. The big battle eventually came to its predictable climax, and the coda with the Roman-style Triumph seemed absurd icing on a silly confection. I expected everyone in the cinema to yawn and stretch and wander out… but to my surprise, they applauded. And I thought, “Oh, shit.”
To me, the release of Star Wars – later renamed A New Hope in the eternally expanding universe of Star Wars chapters – represents the defining point when mainstream cinema began to decline. (My remarks here are confined to the mainstream, as of course all kinds of wonderful and exotic species flourish in the indy shadows.) Up until the release of Star Wars in 1977, mainstream and near-mainstream and “foreign” cinema of the late 60s and early-mid 70s had been full of interesting work, from Day For Night and The Last Metro, to Fellini Satyricon and Roma, Pasolini’s Decameron, The Go-Between, If, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Cool Hand Luke, The Three Days of the Condor and Dog Day Afternoon, to 2001, A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, to Network and Apocalypse Now, and the beautifully-crafted light fare, The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There was no such thing as a movie “franchise”; films didn’t come in numbered multiples and boxed sets with collectable figurines. (Yes there had already been The Godfather 2, and Jaws (1975) would go on to spawn a brood, but both of these were authentic movies, first and foremost.)
I didn’t know it then, but Star Wars heralded a new brand of cinema, a mass marketed, franchised product that was a rocket engine of commerce. Of course film had always been about making money – money is the pumping blood of film – but artists had found a way to balance their art with the financial demands of studios and producers.
Another thing changed around that time – film writing. Theory and “structural screenwriting” had already made its presence felt, and story was already being broken down into acts and beats, and producers already spoke knowingly of “character arcs”. Those had always been there of course… you can break down almost any film or indeed any story into three acts… but now screenwriters were starting to write with these actively in mind, instead of letting the story tell itself, and in the end naturally resolve into them. Books and courses on screenwriting were proliferating, and while there is a part to any art form that can be taught, just as there is part that can’t, the view seemed to grow, almost a kind of relief it felt in some quarters, that screenwriting didn’t require an artist. It was architectural, it was scientific. It could all be planned and plotted out on charts and such, end in the car chase and the kiss, and the job was done.
This seemed to reach a new level with the rebirth of animation, firstly through The Little Mermaid and then Toy Story (which to me are good films), to a plethora of animations from the big studios that now lay siege to the cineplexes every summer, and soon all year round. Kids entertainment has become the Colorado Lode of the studios, and while some of the better ones do deviate, most stick to an almost DNA-like patterning of story. And sometimes it feels the film is more a means to the merch.
But far worse was to come.
The seemingly endless rise of the Christopher Vogler-Joseph Campbell storytelling paradigm from the 80s-90s is another reason so much contemporary cinema is so bad, dull and infantile. The so-called "hero's journey" – exemplified par excellence in Star Wars but now evidenced in so much cineplex fare - means every film has a "hero" or "heroine", or someone funkily “outsiderish” but "relatable" and "likeable", and their "journey" (ugh) to their “goal” is the film. Any deviation from this model is heresy, or indy fringe. Yes, most films are about people interesting in one way or another, but must films really all yield up our human complexity and inner life to the three act "journey" (ugh) of goals, objectives and ends? Most of us in real life barely muddle through our beginnings and middles, much less seek some "goal" end. And when something definable and goal-like appears on our horizon, often we barely recognise it at first, and our path towards it is more often likely to be a meander of potholed accident.
Mainstream cinema is now so goal-orientated in its plotting and paint-by-numbers in its characterisation that it might as well have been created by those who ultimately sell it, the marketeers. And with the architectural-scientific model, we now dwell in a world not only inhabited by legions of Star Wars pictures and the like, but even greater horrors, the Marvel and DC “franchises”. These could readily be created by AI, and who knows, the worst nightmares of Orwell and Roald Dahl with machine manufacture of story and song could well come true… indeed, it often feels they already have.
It’s a truism to say that in the last decade or two, television has used the long form to great discursive use and explore the real and telling crannies of our human experience, and create compelling adult drama, while mainstream cinema plangently clangs on with the major chords to the point we can see the beat points of the screenplay as the actors are saying (usually yelling) their lines. But why must film, the great art form of the last century, now be confined to nonsense created for adolescent boys of all ages, and the small screen do the good stuff? In the process we lose sitting in a cinema with strangers, and the shared experience of finding what we have in common (for instance, the jokes we might laugh at, or things we are moved by), and what we don’t – such as my surprise at the end of Star Wars.
Having two children more than ten years apart, I ended up seeing pretty well all the Star Wars chapters at least once, and at least one spin-off. My initial impression never changed – except that the second lot, the prequels, were particularly dreadful, despite a creepy Chancellor with Hitlerian overtones, and some Shakespearean-attempted dilemma making.
From my POV, mainstream film can only be saved if we remember screenwriting is an art, and writers write the stories they want to tell for a mass audience, as truthfully and devotedly and well as they can. The textbooks may be useful when a draft is down and has its inevitable problems to solve… but from the outset screenwriters need to think of themselves as more like novelists and playwrights – only writing in a different medium – and let the art, not the science, not the books, not the architecture, not the theory – create the story. It’s time writers for the screen forgot everything they’ve been taught, and remembered they’re writers, and their job is simply to write.