Today, apparently, is “Star Wars” Day, a modest celebration for an obscure film from the gritty era of 1970s Hollywood cinema. It couldn’t have happened to a scrappier movie, whose studio initially assumed no one wanted a sincere, retro-style space fantasy whose biggest name was the star of dark comedies (like “Kind Hearts and Coronets”) from Britain’s Ealing Studios, and among whose homaged-to relics wereAkira Kurosawa samurai pictures and 1930s “Flash Gordon” serials. But today, it seems, it finally gets the limelight it’s long deserved. Cue lots of “May the fourth be with you!” jokes, which we definitely won’t make.
It’s more or less impossible to offer up anything original to say about this bohemoth. (Other than to remind you, as ever, that there are other films worth your fanaticism. Perhaps next Saturday can be “Satantango” Day?) So here’s a piece of trivia that virtually no one will tell you — and about which almost none of you will care.
George Lucas, as you may know, wasn’t always a populist filmmaker. In fact, when he was starting out, he had no intention of being one. He was an avant-garde head, a techie whose first feature was “THX 1138,” a borderline experimental hardcore sci-fi narrative whose majority is taken up with bleeping, flashing aural-and-visual montage. It was an expansion on his USC student film “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB,” which is basically the same thing only with even less plot. All hail a time when major studios bank-rolled unproven filmmakers wanting to turn theirstudent shorts into largely plot-free, experimentalfeatures.
But you might know all this. This isn’t, though, the part we’re claiming you probably don’t know.
That part is this: Lucas was particularly in thrall to Arthur Lipsett, a Canadian collage filmmaker whose shorts explored, if we can be vague, “modern life,” and the specific ways in which it was rubbish. His frantic, overwhelmingly dense debut, 1961’s “Very Nice, Very Nice,” was justly nominated for an Oscar (though it unjustly lost — you can watch it here). Lipsett’s work became longer and increasingly strange, as he himself became more and more psychologically unhinged. In 1986 at the age of 49, he took his own life.
Among his most famous works is “21-87,” made in 1963. It was Lipsett’s follow-up to “Very Nice, Very Nice,” and it swapped in live-action for still photos and adopted an even bleaker, if still somewhat comically bemused worldview. Lucas was a particular champion of this film, and its frenetic style proved an inspiration on his early work — a style he would abandon for the more classical “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars” films. (In fact, his aethetics, by the prequels, became comically stodgy, with amusingly stiff actors swapping lifeless exposition in front of disproportionately busy digital backdrops.)
By the first “Star Wars,” Lucas felt he needed to repay one of his idols, even if as a mere easter egg. And so, if you look closely, the number on Princess Leia’s jail cell when the Empire has her under lock and key is 21-87 — just like Lipsett’s film.
Ta-da! Tell your friends.
And here’s the short itself, embedded from the National Film Board of Canada. It might not be to all of your likings. But it’s great. It’s better than “Star Wars!” “21-87” Day, anyone?