THX 1138

I saw several screenings the past few days, so expect assorted updates this week…

Last week, I discovered a wonderful opportunity. Since I don’t own a television, I get a lot of my news from US public radio (and its incorporation of CBC and BBC programs) and, of course, the Internet. And for a while now, my local Pacifica radio station in Los Angeles has offered a Film Club to subscribers, which I finally took advantage of and can highly recommend. For a $150 annual membership, KPFK in Los Angeles offers tickets to over 80 movies a year, predominantly those playing at art and independent theatres. In my case, this is an ideal arrangement that allows me to support the oldest public radio network in the US and save money on film screenings at the same time. (After all, we modest, unpaid bloggers have to save money somehow.) At least one other radio station in L.A. offers a similar program so I’m sure there are plenty of other stations around the country that do as well. Check them out.

The first film I was offered was the director’s cut of THX 1138 (1971), George Lucas’ latest exercize in digital reconstruction. It was a private screening held at the posh Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood and the Lucasfilm rep informed us that it was only the film’s second commercial screening; it opens in a few theatres nationwide on September 10 and comes out as a special edition DVD a week or so later.

For those who remember the original film, however, the new version is just as cold and clinical as ever, despite the usual litany of digital crowd scenes, bustling cityscapes, and animated creatures. (After seven years of adding these things to his films, one would think Lucas would simply grow tired of it.) The filmmaker was one of the first film school poster boys, where his aggressive student work (inspired by such films as Arthur Lipsett’s 21-87 for the National Film Board of Canada) earned accolades for its rhythmic editing and technical savvy. Lucas claimed he despised narrative so much that he always aspired to be a documentary or experimental filmmaker, but after befriending Francis Coppola, who had recently won an Academy Award for writing Patton (1970), they convinced Warner Brothers to finance a feature version of Lucas’ most acclaimed student film.

Other than identifying traits that worked to his disadvantage in 1971 that ironically made him a multi-millionaire years later (visual and aural flair, cardboard characters, populist fears and imagination), the real historical interest of THX 1138 lies in its existence as a major studio film. A horrendously-paced portrait of an automaton escaping a dystopian complex peopled with character actors speaking gibberish in images framed in the most self-consciously extreme manner, the film is stylistically avant-garde even by today’s standards. To see it is to appreciate the opportunities the collapsing studio system provided to younger talent and independent producers of the ’60s and ’70s; Lucas was 26 years old.

But as unconventional as it looks and sounds (its striking aural ambience was created by the later-renowned Walter Murch), the film is unfortunately neither the political tract nor inspiring fable it aspires to be. The social problems presented in the film seem randomly drawn from basic hot-button concerns of the day (drug use, police brutality, over-consumption, government surveillance, conformity) and never appear to stem from any genuine political perspective, and the only truly rousing moment of the film occurs in its last few seconds with the aid of Bach’s magisterial St. Matthew’s Passion soaring on the soundtrack. As Lucas would continue to suggest in his future films, escape from one’s social constraints provides the protagonist’s ultimate salvation, not commited activism. (It’s no coincidence that Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch eventually became a sort of San Simeon of the ’80s.)

The film also provides an interesting example of film marketing. At my screening, the new, proudly minimalist poster was displayed alongside Lucasfilm’s trademark merchandising, from THX 1138 magnetic earrings to fake tattoos–not exactly kids’ stuff, but I know few self-respecting adults who would wear them beyond a comics convention, either. Ah well, at least the mogul knows his audience.