When did New Hollywood die, and who killed it? Ask ten different film theorists and you’ll get ten different answers. “It was Jaws in the box office with the knife,” or “It was Star Wars in the multiplex with the lightsaber, ” or “It was Rocky, in the living room, with the candlestick,” or “It was Television in the study with the rope.” I propose a new time, date and murderer: New Hollywood died on November 17, 1978, the day that The Star Wars Holiday Special reached the airwaves. It was Star Wars that killed New Hollywood, but not the way we all expected.
Viewing the Star Wars Holiday Special now isn’t quite so surreal, after we’ve taken Star Wars out of its shrink wrap and lent it to filmmakers who would spin it off and pick it apart, looking through its universe for a detail weird enough to expand for a movie or three. But still, it’s easy to imagine what this must’ve seemed like back in the day: imagine getting a bootleg VHS copy from your friend promising more Star Wars, and when you pop it in, you’re greeted by hours, literally hours, of Wookies “talking” to each other about Life Day, the proudest of Wookie traditions. Imagine your face when you see Jefferson Starship and Bea Arthur in space. It’s no surprise that everyone involved with this film hated it, swore it away. When Harrison Ford is asked about whether he’s seen it, he responds like a grizzled Vietman vet: “I don’t need to see it. I was there, man!” Indeed he was.
The opening credits are unforgettable. After a pre-credits scene (mythological for Star Wars, even now) we’re treated to a lovely vignette style opening, with the heads of the actors suspended in space, overtaken by the stars, in a moment that recalls the beginning of The Night of the Hunter. But Lillian Gish doesn’t speak, it’s an announcer (anonymous, but much too enthusiastic) to proclaim “Harrison Ford as Han Solo! Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia!” as if anyone watching The Star Wars Holiday Special didn’t already know who these people were. The voice goes on and makes a couple terrific jokes, unintentional or no: “With Anthony Daniels as C3PO, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, R2D2 as R2D2” like R2D2 came down from space to play himself. The next bit is the funniest of all: “Introducing Chewbacca’s Family: his wife Malla, his father Itchy, his son Lumpy!” Tell me how all of these characters manage to have names better than Jyn Erso. The voice then introduces Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Diane Carroll, Jefferson Starship, Harvey Korman (in the role of a lifetime, the “whip whip stir” lady) and an animated Star Wars story, which introduced the world to Boba Fett, who would use his jetpack to escape the Holiday Special and land in a real Star Wars film.
Then we fade in on a matte painting (and not a good one) of Chewy’s home planet Kashyyk, and we realize what we’re truly in for. A scene of domestic bliss (or domestic turmoil, it’s hard to really tell) with Itchy, Malla and Lumpy all bickering over when Chewy will get back home for Life Day. The Star Wars wiki, amazingly called “Wookiepedia”, tells me that there are three languages spoken by the Wookies, and that though this film never confirms it, Chewbacca (and likely his family) speak Shyriiwook, the most common dialect. Point being, almost all of the dialogue is spoken in Wookiese. And there are no subtitles. Nearly all of the soundscape is dominated by the guttural shrieking of the Wookies, as they pantomime their actions so that we can understand what they mean. It’s almost a silent film. I wish it were a silent film.
When I describe it, the film sounds so painful, and I haven’t gotten to “Whip whip stir,” or the bizarre love scene between Lumpy and a hologram, or the exasperated, phoned-in and dead-eyed performances from the entire main cast. Yet I find that there’s something terribly endearing about this film. It tickles the same part of my brain reached by The Room and Batman & Robin, films that while I couldn’t possibly call them good, I’d much sooner call it good than bad. It’s a laugh riot, which was both its original intent and somehow the unintended effect. The whole production reads like a dare. “Let’s direct a Star Wars movie where all the main characters are Wookies. Now let’s take out all the subtitles. Now let’s put Bea Arthur and Art Carney in it.” I can assure you if I ever got the chance to direct Star Wars holiday special it would look a lot like this.
What prevents us from enjoying The Star Wars Holiday Special (besides the unbearable soundscape anyway) is an underlying desire for the popular cultural mythology to be serious and dark and thought-provoking, which Star Wars never really has been. Even the original film, though gritty in its texture, is filled with jokes and wacky characters and blue milk. Even in our dark second and third chapters of our dark family-drama trilogies, there are Porgs, Ewoks, and disassembled C3P0s for us to enjoy. The family drama of the original trilogy (and perhaps the new trilogy) is certainly emotional, but it’s universal and unspecific enough to connect with everyone, no matter their situation in life. We took away from The Star Wars Holiday Special that these films really should remain in a galaxy far, far away, a galaxy as far away from Art Carney as possible. Star Wars falls apart upon contact with the real world. We can still have celebrity cameos, of course, but they have to have actual roles. Star Wars is mythology, and it should be kept that way. No Art Carney, no trade negotiations, no clumsy George Bush analogies. Star Wars is universal and timeless.
If we stretch, we could consider The Star Wars Holiday Special the precursor to the modern Star Wars Cinematic Universe. Would Ron Howard have a Han Solo film if it weren’t for Han Solo’s efforts to get Chewy back home for Life Day? Would Rian Johnson have a trilogy all to himself if it weren’t for the valiant effort of Jefferson Starship? Would we have Porgs without the precedent set by Chewy’s son Lumpy? Would we have Kathleen Kennedy’s Star Wars universe if it weren’t for whoever’s Star Wars Holiday Special? Would we have the countless novelizations, video games, Lego tie-ins, without this trailblazing piece of worldbuilding? Before The Star Wars Holiday Special, Star Wars was a sci-fi film by George Lucas, but after it, Star Wars was a phenomenon bigger than any one filmmaker or any one universe. Star Wars was a grimy science-fiction film from the mind of George Lucas. The Star Wars Holiday Special could’ve been directed by anyone. Star Wars was a creation from New Hollywood, but The Star Wars Holiday Special was a creation of the new cinema of commercialism. The gap between these two films is immense, despite just one year separating them. The same cinematic landscape could give us Star Wars and Sorcerer, but the same cinematic landscape could not have possibly given us The Holiday Special.
Star Wars resists an auteur’s touch. It’s reliant on sets and props, and it creates a common language built upon these tactile things. It’s an amalgamation of archetypes from every story ever, from Kurosawa to Flash Gordon; it’s a story bigger than its storyteller. We let George Lucas have his auteur vision in 1999, and look how it turned out. The prequels, though they have their defenders, are largely remembered as a messy failure, helmed by a filmmaker with aims so bold and contradictory—make a dense political thriller, a fallen-hero story along the lines of Shakespeare and Orson Welles, and a fun adventure film for children all in one—that it couldn’t possibly have worked, despite Lucas’ considerable filmmaking talent exemplified by THX1388 and American Graffiti (and also, well, Star Wars). The American Monomyth can’t have just one storyteller or just one film and certainly not just one vision.
The ultimate irony is that George Lucas got his wish only by giving up his prized series. Rogue One is our dark political thriller (more legible than that business with the Trade Federation and the separatists), Episodes 7, 8, and 9 will likely be his fallen-hero story (though we haven’t found out exactly who’s falling yet) and Solo is Lucas’ comedy romp, though it could’ve been much funnier if Lord and Miller weren’t given the boot. What’s so bad about the cinema of commercialism anyway? It’s not as if the 80s were unkind to the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, Friedkin, Michael Mann, or even Lucas. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the signpost that said there was no going back to the way things were. Hollywood had fully committed to the cinema of commercialism, and shifted the age of their target audience down about ten or fifteen years. If there’s room in this canon for a Han Solo movie and a Lego video game, there’s room in this canon for The Star Wars Holiday Special. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.
Happy Life Day.