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Which phantom empire do you support?

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 21, 1998:  Did I tell you about my hate mail?

Since 1997's reissue of "Star Wars," of which I wrote an unfavorable review, I have gotten too hundreds many e-mails taking issue with my intelligence, discretion, and in a few notable cases, my right to live. (Death threats from children, even poorly spelled and from other continents, are scary.)

A recent non-fan allows, in characteristic form: "I've been a fan of 'Star Wars' as long as I can remember. I've collected and received toys, comics, books, magazines, movies, posters, clothes, replica props and many other 'Star Wars' items since before I could walk... Pride was way out of line in the remarks made to Mr. Lucas and the most well-known and best movies in the world.... If 'Star Wars' really was such a terrible movie with such a poor creator then why do people all over the world love it so much? Are we all just complete idiots and don't realize how terrible it really is?"

Most of my piece dealt with the fiscal changes wrought upon American filmmaking by the great success of Lucas' sleek space oater, but the passage that seems to peeve Lucasfilm defenders was my umbrage at the notable bunch I saw the reissue amidst. While I referred to the particular louts who were more assaultive than the surround sound, my rhetorical distemper seems to have been taken as a general dismissal of anyone who might find lasting value in Lucas' venture capital projects.

I try to be an enthusiastic advocate of films that amuse, edify or astonish me, and pass over those things that might interest others but leave me nodding. (I don't lose sleep over the fact, for instance, that ninety-nine percent of "Star Wars" fans will never see a film by groundbreaking filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Manoel de Oliveira or Alan Clarke.) Criticism should be the informed opinion of a single sensibility, and I respect the value that others find in the most unlikely places, such as my correspondent who allows, "Personally I think that George Lucas created the greatest story of all time and that he is beyond this sort of degredation[sic] . Constructive critisism [sic] is one thing but to totally regard Star Wars as garbage is going way to [sic] far."

I'm shocked at the adamant character of most of the mail: it's as if the Lucas work was some kind of holy writ worthy of jihad. Reporting in the New York Times on the recent debut of the trailer for the next installment, Bernard Weinraub wrote about trembling masses, davening in fervent anticipation of the two-minutes-and-ten-seconds about to unfold. That kind of pseudoreligiosity frightens me, particularly after watching the videogame-style collage of the trailer. I come from a fervently religious background, and saw few movies until I was at college. I was surrounded by all manner of manifestations of religious faith. But at least the fervent goings-on at Pentecostal bush arbor revival meetings that I witnessed as a child were performed by those struck mad by faith in a higher consciousness, rather than unlimited edition collectibles.

But that is my own fear, and no judgment on those who might find some aesthetic or spiritual value in these movies. Yet in my own view of the world, I fear that we are not given worthwhile lives in our culture if such megadecamillion-dollar, myth-mulching gobbledygook creates such anticipation as if for the second coming of Christ, all without the devotion, hard work, study. I would love - indeed, hope - to be proven roundly, soundly wrong about the latest installment. I await that astonishment.

It's heartening that at least a few documents exist out there that reflect the oft-missed potential for cinema, all of which, in their own way, remind us, "Boy should not live on cheese sandwich alone." Here are three adversarial gems that I've enjoyed three in the last couple weeks. Manoel de Oliveira's "Angelica" (Dis Voir, $20) is a 1953 film script the prolific, now-nonagenarian director was not allowed to shoot under the Portuguese dictatorship, a philosophical dialogue between a photographer and a mysterious young woman. "Jean-Luc Godard Interviews"(David Sterritt, editor; U. Press of Mississippi, $18) collects some of the best conversations with the restlessly innovative French master from the past thirty years or so, and Godard's reflections on everything from the seductiveness of movies to the search for truth and beauty in the larger world, are amusing and edifying to read. Then there's the oral history "Alan Clarke," edited by Richard Kelly (Faber, $21). The fiercely independent, politically aware Clarke, who died suddenly in 1990, was one of a valuable generation of BBC-trained directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Clarke left a little-seen legacy of brilliantly acted films that continue to influence other filmmakers and young actors today. (Some of the first explosive work by the likes of Gary Oldman and Tim Roth was done under Clarke's generous hand.) These are books that spark curiosity about the art of other cultures, and the hope for fresh ways of looking at the world. I want more of these.

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