Pop Culture
Pop Culture: Articles for the Scripps Howard News Service & "Seen, Heard, Said"

Why the top-365-songs list isn't a stupid idea

Actors sink their teeth into vampire roles

Gregory Corso: My encounter with a Beat legend

Golden Globes: Sleazy and proud of it

In the offing, Clinton continent looms

"NYPD Blue" opener: The misery continues

 New movie genre: Reclusive authors anonymous

"West Wing," "Ally," et al.: Words, words, words

When TV shows outstay their welcome

Film critics dig their own graves with "Angels" review

Great Robert Altman films you never
heard of

Famous folk, next week in the arts, show business briefs

"Time regained": Proust in the multiplex

Glitterati is dead, long live Popfocus

Carl Barks: The man who put the ducks in Duckburg

"Almost Famous": Lester Bangs rises from the dead

Liz Hurley wins in war of words with Jane mag

Douglas poses with Zeta-Jones, and baby-makes three

Weddings that aren't: Douglas, Zeta-Jones, Madonna, Ritchie

The Emmy War: A half-century of coast-to-coast feuding

Jennifer Love Hewitt plays the Iglesias odds

It's raining books by and about Trumps

What's in a mane? Blond woman in the news

Liz Hurley denies dissing ex-beau

Rock Hall of Infamy: Anti-heroes from Elvis to Eminem

Barbra tix bankrupt fans

Laurels for Kathie Lee to rest on

Hillary "In bed" with De Niro, Cruise, Kidman

How "Sopranos," "West Wing" will divvy up awards

This just in: Donald Trump is not a dope

Walter Matthau: A rumpled old dog in the heart of the city

Sampras to take a stroke at wedding bells

Who wants to host "Monday Night Football"?

Queen rewards Tina Brown for demoralizing American readers

How the Korean War cane to TV land 20 years late

Ivanka Trump: From catwalk to commencement line

Lester Bangs: The troublesome punk who wouldn't die

Rags clash over Ted Turner "romance"

With straight face, Trump deems Marla's move "tacky"

"Friends" re-up for another season of top ratings, top money

Madonna in denial, and rightly so

"Suburbia": The continental subdivide

Howard Stern, Sly Stallone in bizarre, apocryphal triangle

Easter video viewing: "Spartacus" to "Harvey"

Billy’s in the news: Bob, Joel in love but not with other

"Charles's Angels" movie: Dispiriting news for old-time fans

Innovative career move for 'NYPD Blue' co-star

Top model: Why I gave oldish rocker husband the heave-ho

Unpleasantville: The awful truth about old-time TV families

Tina Brown held captive in desert by demanding children

Anybody's Oscar: Unusually suspenseful awards show looms

Oscar telecast: Looking for a few good hosts

"Lambs," "Beauty": Oscar's love affair with unacceptable behavior

Brad Pitt, Oscar to be in same room at same time

Letterman bites guest-host bullet: Andrew "Dice" Clay, call your agent

Seinfeld eyes East Hampton manse: Where's the welcome wagon?

"Mod Squad" Immortal dishes couple du jour

Brad Pitt's second thoughts about Oscar

Mike McCurry praises "West Wing": It's not entirely demeaning,,,"

Memo to "Hannibal" producers: Get Najimy while the getting's good

Don't Invite Gwyneth and Oscar to the same party

True or false: Douglas, Zeta-Jones don't even know each other

Ex-Clinton honcho linked to ex-"Cheers" costar

Third party cited in Trump-Knauss breakup

 Gossip queen goes to bat for Talk mag

20th century's No. 1 hit: "Satisfaction" hits the spot

Statement: Spice girl's marital problems insoluble

Charlie Brown, Pogo and me

From Howdy to Charlie Brown, we hate to say goodbye

The Beatle George: While his guitar gently weeps

Jodie Foster's people in mild tiff with CBS

A Peanuts trivia Q&A

Publicist: Boyle still joined at hip

There's video in your future and future in your video

"The future is now": Hit rewind

Whitney Houston presides over confluence of talent

Jim Carrey's flack earns A "D," Cher's A "B-minus"

Geraldo: bye-bye, doghouse

Michael Douglas does nothing much, reporters go wild

Ricky Martin on Menudo: Look back in anger

How to outsmart Halloween crowds at the video store

Tom Cruise puts himself in harm's way, only not really

1800-1900: Steaming towards revolution

1700-1800: Liberty, equality and bloodshed

1600-1700: The earth moves; North America is settled

Trump mulls travel plans, from altar to White House

"Faces of Impressionism" Time machine made of canvas, paint

Major quakes aren't personal unless they happen to you

Brad Pitt gracious about character assassination

Director insists Harrison Ford is not a brainless hulk

Costner, Willis, Douglas. Branagh, Sting_ in that order

Streisand: Color her ready to plug her new album

Julia and Benjamin's rings devoid of significance, flack says

Literary mud wrestling, featuring Geri and The Spice Girls

Urgent news: Ford to replace Gibson on "GMA" eventually

She married a monster from outer space

Never mind Godzilla VS. Mothra, Here's Trump VS. Cronkite

Spurned by Pitt, Redford pays court to Damon

Celebrity coyness is bustin' out all over

"Detroit Rock City": Kiss of death

Talk is cheap? Not with Tina Brown at the helm

The Beats: Remembered, Lionized and Unread

Real estate beat, starring Woody Allen and Donald Trump

Mood Music, or how we learned to stop worrying

Sex in the cinema: From "Last Tango" to "Eyes Wide Shut"

Two easy steps to looking exactly like Ricky Martin

Close encounters of the Muppet kind

Upcoming Brad Pitt movie not garbage, insiders say

Kathie Lee's eyewear excites Islanders' ire

Back to the future, continued

"Wild Wild West": Buck Rogers in the 19th century

Sculptures by Roy Lichtenstein: Fun, Fun, Fun

An expert's verdict:" Austin Powers" is pretty neat

Click here for pointless celebrity gossip

P. Dempsey Tabler of the jungle: The many faces of Tarzan

Kirk Douglas' Ex tells all about Errol Flynn fling

New twist in TV programming: Ax profitable shows

Private jet fees spell the end for another celebrity union

Killer serials: "Flash," "Buck" and a boy named George Lucas

Top nonfiction books: A message from two old men

Celebrity Dream dreams: Monica, Donald, Barbara, Georgette

Two divas, publicist form bizarre show-biz triangle

Johnny Cash tribute: Ring of fire, ring of friends

Streisand employee really upset about rumors

Grande Dame Eyes MGM Grand Gig

Secretive celebs? Not by a long shot

NBC honcho bristles at notion that Brokaw is not a saint

Barbara Walters not keen on daily dose of Monica

"Seen, Heard, Said"

David Letterman, Donald Trump, Eddie Murphy, Elton John

Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Prince Charles, Maj, Ronald Ferguson, Fergie, Miranda Richardson, Brad Pitt, Juliette Lewis, Axl Rose, Stephanie Seymour

April 30, 1999


By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service

"Star Wars" is about the mystic Force that moves history.

"Star Wars" is about humanity's destiny in the stars.

"Star Wars" is simply a rip-snortin' high-tech space opera.

Or maybe "Star Wars" is a new mythology for our culture, providing us with updated archetypes of good and evil.

All the above are, of course, true. But first and foremost, "Star Wars" is about a boy in 1950s America sitting wide-eyed in front of his dinky little black-and-white TV set thinking, "Boy, is this ever great!"

The boy is future filmmaker George Lucas, and what he's watching on that flickering tube are shopworn old prints of shopworn old entertainment fodder, "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers," sci-fi serials produced in the 1930s for weekly consumption by theatergoing Americans.

If you obtain a videotape copy of "Flash Gordon" today - and such tapes are easy to come by largely because the whole world knows Flash inspired Lucas to create his beloved "Star Wars" pictures - the impression it gives you is likely to be different than the impression it gave him back in that long-ago living room.

What young Lucas probably saw were fantastic, fast-moving scenarios involving streaking spaceships, otherworldly terrain, vast underground cities, stratospheric battles, pulsating energy transmitters, imposing humanoid villains, heroic saviors, gripping suspense.

What you will probably see are toy space ships on wires, wooden characters, stilted acting, threadbare sets and comic-opera costumes complete with capes and hoods.

Take the second serial, "Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars." The plot has Flash (Larry "Buster" Crabbe), his professor friend and his lady love whizzing back to Earth from the Planet Mongo, only to turn around again and head back to Mongo when it becomes clear the evil Ming the Merciless is focusing a deadly "nitron lamp" beam on our planet, wreaking catastrophe represented by a montage of film clips of hurricanes, earthquakes and the like.

But what's this? The brave trio, on the point of entering Menge's gravity well, find themselves hurtling instead to Mars, apparently right next door.

Ming has traveled to Mars and gone into cahoots with Azura, Queen of Magic, for the purpose of wiping out Earth. In no time the evil pair and their minions have detained Flash and company, who then escape and hie themselves to the Martian desert, where they fall in with the pathetic Clay People - Martian humanoids whose bodies have been turned into soil, thanks to the evil Azura.

Every few minutes, we are treated to a view of a table-top set featuring papier-mâché mountains and crags and valleys, where a couple of spaceship models evidently about five inches long sway around on wires and squirt smoke from their little tall assemblies. Then we cut to interior shots of the vessels, with Flash and the others grimacing through portholes at approaching enemy craft.

We are also given occasional exposure to the Martian outdoors, obviously shot in some bare stretch of acreage a mile or so from the Hollywood sound stage, with the hulking San Gabriel Mountains on the horizon.

It’s all pretty silly. On the other hand, when you insert your "Buck Rogers" videotape into the VCR, what you'll see isn’t quite as laughable.

True, the actors are still wooden (the hero is played, again, by Crabbe), and the plot is another flimsy cobweb of near-escapes, paranoid confrontations, evil overlords and square-jawed derring-do, but the sets, cinematography and overall design are actually pretty great.

Buck and his pal and his gal go from chamber to tunnel to temple to city to spaceship amid atmospheric lighting, clambering around and through weird-shaped windows and casements and winding corridors. The costumes are the same ludicrous junk that you saw in "Flash," but the producers lay it on so thick you start to take it seriously.

The problem, still, is the table-top spaceships, which haven't evolved at all since the days of "Flash." ("Buck" was made a couple of years later.)

Now slap this third tape into your VCR.

Here are the starship crew members in their bulbous helmets and utility belts, shouldering their weapons as the evil imperialists blast through the bulkhead, dispose of the opposition and rush to put the good galactic princess in chains. The evil leader is a honking great behemoth dressed in black, speaking in Shakespearean tones through what seems to be a kind of salt cellar fitted onto the front of his helmet, under his biker wraparounds. Cape and hood? He's got 'em.

You won't believe this, but two of the main characters are a couple of piles of nuts and bolts - two robots, one on wheels, the other bipedal but looking as though he could use a nice long soak in a tub of 40-weight. Presently these two are transported to the surface of a nearby planet, which suspiciously resembles California's Death Valley. And so on.

Fortunately for Lucas, nobody got it.

Nobody realized that his spellbinding "Star Wars" movie was actually a twisted, if fond, tribute to the melodramatic sci-fi junk that had intoxicated his little brain back in the '50s.

Or maybe some of them did get it, but it was beside the point. They took Darth Vader seriously as an avatar of evil, not as an over-the-top send-up of the black-mustachioed Ming. And they apparently never stopped to reflect that androids constructed of metal, bolts and wheels made no sense in a civilization capable of intergalactic travel.

A main reason that Lucas' brainchild escaped its intended fate as an elaborate piece of camp is that Lucas was smarter about using models than his "Flash Gordon" predecessors were. Nor does he waste any time about it.

No sooner has the famous "our story so far" crawl begun to fade (a move famously, and almost literally, borrowed from the "Buck Rogers" serials) than a vast interstellar craft sweeps through the theater (or living room) right above our heads. It's covered with little vents and circuits and nodules, and it really does seem huge - the whole underside of the vessel is like a cavern ceiling or the sky. Immediately we realize we're in a big universe with big spacecraft filled with lots of strange creatures.

Of course, the model in question probably was only a few feet across as compared with the several inches of the "Flash" space ships. The trick is in the detail, and in bringing the ship into the shot above the camera so that the audience feels as though the vessel is arriving from the great beyond. Suddenly the fake studio world of "Flash" has vanished in favor of an immense new universe people can actually believe in.

But all of this only holds true when you're talking about people like us - grownup '90s sophisticates. For that boy back in 1950s America, nothing is as exciting as the mysterious, flickering world on the other side of that black-and-white 12-inch TV screen.

Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News Service.

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