Peter Bogdanovich: “Isn’t it too bad she (Greta Garbo) only made two good pictures out of forty?”
Orson Welles: “Well, you only need one.”
I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 – in fact I moved in the day of the presidential election, which reiterated what the most of my year had essayed. It was a tough but hopeful move, and one of the nice things I had to look forward to was that my friendship with Jeremy Smith and my writing meant that I could do something I had wanted to do since they started appearing on Ain’t It Cool News: I was going to be a part of their Jedi Council. Okay, admittedly, it was silly and a bunch of geeks bickering over what had already been a wounded franchise, but I am a nerd and even if my first go-around was an off night (Drew McWeeny couldn’t make it), what did come of it was great. I not only got to meet some of the people who would become some of my closest friends, I also got a ticket for a screening of The Empire Strikes Back at the Arclight with director Irvin Kershner in attendance.
Watching the film again on the big screen brought back many memories. My parents say that the first movie I saw in the theater was Star Wars, but I have no real memory of that. Instead, what I remember was seeing Empire. I think we came in during a scene where they’re getting the troops together on Hoth, but that can’t be because that comes after the scene with the Wampa, and I know that I spent much of pre-school hanging upside down (but still using one hand to support myself) and trying to use the force. I was four then, and the color scheme of the film’s epic final confrontation, and the power of that whole last stretch of the film was imprinted on me. Something reinforced when I watched the film again almost ten years later when I wanted to buy a laserdisc player, and my friend Chris showed me the film in widescreen. Or when I worked a shit job just so I could afford the $250 laserdisc box set of the trilogy (all in CAV, with sparse commentary tracks!). But – at the Arclight – it was the special edition cut of the film (unfortunately), the one that my friends and I went to see repeatedly. When that version came out in 1997 I was working at a video store and going to college, and my best friend and I went to the Eastgate theater to see the first show. He wanted to live it, so he spent the night outside the theater with a number of other die-hards. The special edition – fixes and slapdash “new” stuff – still worked like gangbusters. And watching it in 2004, I noted what has come to be my trigger with the movie, as I always fall into the film at the same point. It’s the push-in on Carrie Fisher as the shield doors are closed.
It’s film-making 101 right there: we know that Princess Leia is concerned that both Luke Skywalker, and now Han Solo are locked outside the base in the deadly freezing temperatures of the planet. We are told that they both have a very low probability for survival. Leia doesn’t break, because she’s in a leadership position (even though everyone is being sensitive around her) but the push-in lets us know cinematically that she is feeling that door closing. And here Kershner shows what he brought to the table, because this (mixed with the great blues and whites of this section of the film) doesn’t seem to come from Lucas. There are elegiac moments in the first Star Wars movie, but Kershner’s work deepens the characters, and gives a greater sense of visual poetry to the universe. The audience at the Arclight was into the film, and then they brought out Kershner to a standing ovation.
Watching the Q&A was weird, because you want all great directors to be great storytellers, and Kershner at first didn’t come across as a great speaker, but he eventually came to life. He covered the usual bases (“who wrote it?,” etc.) but the longer he spoke, the more it crystallized in my mind: Irvin Kershner is Yoda. Not only does Kershner’s voice resemble the Jedi master, but Luke Skywalker was always a George Lucas surrogate, and Irvin Kershner was one of Lucas’s teachers at USC. Yoda spends much of Empire schooling Luke, just as – for many fans – Empire takes the ideas and characters from Star Wars and takes them to the next level. Such might explain why they never captured the Yoda of Empire again.
In fan circles, there’s always been a question of who to credit for the success of the film. There are those who give a lot of love to Leigh Brackett (who all involved now says got a tribute credit for her work, which was mostly discarded), while there are a number of Lawrence Kasdan partisans, and others who give it up to George Lucas’s bank-betting production (less so now that Lucas has returned to directing). Regardless, it’s easy to wonder how much Irvin Kershner had to do with the success of the film. On the positive, when you take out Kershner and put in someone else you get Return of the Jedi, which was written by Kasdan, and had Lucas – some say micromanaging – on the set . But then there’s also Kershner’s post-Empire track record, which includes Never Say Never Again (which I recently revisited and enjoyed, though at the time Disco’d out, video game playing Connery Bond was a huge disappointment), and the wrongheaded Robocop 2. And now there’s the J.W. Rinzler making of book, which goes into greater detail on the making of that film. But all evidence is that Kershner was no Tobe Hooper, no Christian Nyby.
But for those Star Wars fans who go digging, Kershner’s body of work offers few answers to how he did it. Perhaps best known of his earlier films is the John Carpenter-penned The Eyes of Laura Mars, which Pauline Kael flipped for but never made a great impression on me. I was fond of A Fine Madness, which is a fascinating pop-art late 60’s movie that tried to help Sean Connery shake the bonds of Bond, but is very modest in the scheme of things. S*P*Y*S reunited Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland post-M*A*S*H to little greater ends. And the intersection between Auteurism and fanboyism has never led to DVD releases for The Flim-Flam Man, or The Luck of Ginger Coffee. If nothing else, perhaps Kershner’s passing will drum up some interest in the rest of his body of work, even if thirty years post-Empire has done little toward that. But Kershner – and his role in creating what is one of the great and defining works of cinema fantasy – has earned his place in the canon, because regardless of how it came out, he created a masterpiece, and his fingerprints are undeniable. As Orson Welles said, you only need one.