I was recently invited to give a talk on the technological contributions of Star Wars. This year marks three decades since the premiere of chapter IV, A New Hope, and the event to which I was invited was part of the anniversary celebrations.
I accepted, but immediately regretted it. The followers of the series have scrutinized meticulously, obsessively each frame, each element, each reference of each one of the tapes. What could I say that they didn’t already know? While I was researching in search of some new information, I came across the short that we present here: 21-97, by Arthur Lipsett. An animator and experimental filmmaker, Lisett worked in the early 1960s for the Canadian National Film Board. There he assembled this audiovisual collage, 21-87, which gained him some notoriety. In a certain passage of the film, a conversation between the then cinematographer, Roman Kroitor, and the pioneer of artificial intelligence, Warren McCulloch, is heard off-screen.
At one point in the conversation, Kroitor says:
Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living beings, they discover a kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask that we see before us, and that they call God.
The phrase will be the origin of The Force, that elusive and unfathomable energy that gives power to the Jedi Knights and the Sith.
In the mid-1960s, George Lucas was studying film and was fond of the experiments of the avant-garde filmmakers of the time: Jordan Belson, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Bruce Baillie, Norman Mclaren, Claude Jutra and, among others, Arthur Lisett, whose short, 21-87, would scold the boy. Walter Murch, editor, double Oscar winner, and Lucas collaborator on THX 1138 and American Graffitti, remembers it this way:
When George saw 21-87, something exploded. One of the things he clearly wanted to do at THX was to build a film where images and sounds floated freely…
Like in Lisett’s collage.
They could occasionally be linked in a literal way, but there were long sections where image and sound could go as they pleased, and this could force audiences to try to imagine the connection.
According to Wired magazine, Lucas watched Lisset’s film countless times, intrigued by the freedom of image and sound. This is how he confessed to documentary filmmakers Amelia Does and Dennis Mohr, who made a film about Lipsset:
21-87 had a powerful effect on me. It was very similar to what I wanted to do. I was influenced in an extreme way by that movie.
And perhaps for this reason, in the chapter Star Wars IV, Lucas pays a small tribute to that experimental short. When Han Solo and Chewaca go to save Princess Leia, a prisoner on the Death Star, she finds her locked in cell 2187.