A contribution to Edward Copeland’s Star Wars blogathon.
To write a meaningful review of The Star Wars Holiday Special—that is, to go beyond detailing the misery induced by its atrocious mise-en-scene and bizarre musical set pieces—seems about as easy a task as explaining the themes of Eraserhead to a preschooler using only one-syllable words.
Merely imparting the experience of watching it is a daunting task; words tend to fail in expressing an experience that is at once so entertaining and agonizing. If ever a television program defined “so bad, it’s good,” this is it, as if the initial pain of having one’s brain cells killed off is followed the euphoria that accompanies their absence. Were I somehow able to tap into my subconscious and conjure up my soul’s undiluted feelings on this matter, the resulting verbal tangent would probably be comprised of gnarly groans and the occasional squawking noise.
Chances are, if you’ve heard of the special, or if you’re even reading this now, you know the general plot, but here are a few points for the uninitiated. With Star Wars taking a long time ago, yada yada, there was no Christmas—instead, we have the Wookie holiday “Life Day.” What exactly this celebration commemorates, I could not tell you, but it seems to involve walking in out space without any sort of breathing apparatus, in what appear to be red Ku Klux Klan uniforms. Han Solo is rushing to get Chewie back home on Kashyyyk in time, where his wife Mala (who wears lipstick—creepy), father Itchy (just plain creepy), and son Lumpy (who sounds as if he’s swallowed a kazoo) await his return. Distilled to its relevant scenes, this plot would warrant about eleven, maybe twelve minutes of screen time, so it is no surprise that this much-hyped (and, at the time, widely seen) special is bloated to an absurd 90 minutes thanks to numerous guest star appearances, a padded subplot involving Stormtroopers on Kashyyyk, pointless dramatic cul-de-sacs involving famous Star Wars characters, and some of the most nonsensical scenes of intended humor ever known to man. Drug use is highly recommended.
By all traditional standards, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is bad. It’s wretchedly, unwatchably, mind-numbingly bad (or, as Ed Gonzalez put it, “It certainly was special”). One needn’t more than a moment to understand why George Lucas would like to personally hunt down every bootlegged copy of the special and smash it with a sledgehammer. That it even goes so far as to include recognized elements of the Star Wars canon (the result of an initially-approving Lucas having penned the original script before no less than five rewrites resulting in the final version) as well as the original actors from A New Hope resuming their character’s parts, makes it all the more offensive to those who hold sacred all things long, long ago and far, far away (and yes, it even features the Wilhelm scream). Truly, this should be required viewing for everyone who’s ever sent Lucas a death threat for creating Jar-Jar Binks, if only for the sake of perspective.
Nonetheless, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” is so astounding in its lack of anything that could be considered reasonably watchable that it achieves something of an unintended, surrealist nightmare vision. Responses I’ve heard to the special—most of them made within the first five to ten minutes—include the following: “My mind is bleeding.” “There is no God.” “I just had a stroke.” “Correction: There is a God, and he hates me.” Yet, by the time all is said and done with, everyone for whom I’ve screened the special has found it to be surprisingly enjoyable, even if it requires a complete realignment of what we consider to be “good” and “bad.” Certain moments achieve the hallucinatory tunnel-vision that defines such films as Apocalypse Now, Come and See, and Manos: The Hands of Fate (here, I think I officially began palpitating at the moment Bea Arthur began singing to a giant rat in the Cantina).
With apologies to the pre-2007 released of Killer of Sheep, this may be the most famous film ever to have been available only in bootleg form, and it is this cult-like status that it has reached amongst Star Wars fans that leads me to believe my genuinely liking it isn’t such a minority status after all. Suicidal thoughts during and immediately after one’s initial viewing are understandable, but few images in the cinema have ever been more uproarious than Harvey Corman’s bit as a four-armed, extra-terrestrial Julia Child rip-off (Stir, whip! Stir, whip! Whip, whip, stir!). Things only get weirder when Itchy partakes in what can only be described as PG-rated Wookie porn (starring Oscar-nominee Diahann Carroll, no less), or when the lead singer of Jefferson Starship sings into a lightsaber microphone-cum-dildo, or when a wide-eyed Carrie Fisher sings specially written lyrics to a slightly reworked version of the Star Wars theme. The actress claims to have no memory of working on the special whatsoever; one look at her eyes—which remain unusually dilated even in the midst of the beaming stage lights—explains why.
My twisted adoration for this thing rests on the belief that the best of cinematic experiences absorb the mind and body in a way that temporarily dissolve us from our perceived realities, allowing us to perceive the world in ways anew after they’ve concluded. The pitfall here is that this description also fits some of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in a theater (although Bad Boys II doesn’t so much absorb the mind as it does assault it like a roller coaster gone awry). Yet, somehow, the The Star Wars Holiday Special miraculously straddles the line between the two, its countless sins too innocent to offend, and its unwavering bottom-of-the-barrel aesthetic something of a wonder to behold. Unsurprisingly, the animated sequence—the only portion of the special’s production that Lucas had a direct hand in, famous for featuring the first appearance of Boba Fett in the Star Wars universe (riding what looks like Gertie the Dinsoaur)—is the only sequence with any deliberate sense of style to it, and thus feels strangely out of place. That some fans are unable to bring themselves to enjoy, or even watch, this oh-so-bizarre 90 minutes is understandable, but if you think you’re up to the challenge, I urge you to experience it, if only for experience’s sake. It is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.
House contributor Robert Humanick’s writings have appeared in Slant Magazine and on his blog The Projection Booth. He also works sporadically with fellow Slant critic Paul Schrodt at The Stranger Song.