Uncollecting: AMERICAN FILM and DUNE Magazines

Phil doubles up for an entry which examines movie periodicals from the pre- and post-STAR WARS years.

Magazines. They're what we used before the Internet. All our movie news, all our gossip, all our porn happened on the printed page - sometimes glossy, more often cheap newsprint. Old magazines are a blast; they're little time machines, taking you back to a specific point, letting you see how tastes have changed in things like film, clothing, and female body hair. And the great thing about them is that as they yellow and age, what's of interest inside the magazine ferments and changes: the content loses its context as references become more obscure, while the ads, for things like whiskey or Betamax players or blow-up sex dolls, become frame-worthy.

The movie magazines I collected as a kid came in many flavors, from the uncritical joy of Famous Monsters, to Cinefantastique's harsher, spoiler-filled dissections of genre offerings, to outright fan fiction (does anyone remember the mag called Star Invaders? They did an entire issue about Eddie Murphy joining the Ghostbusters). As a teen, I of course ate this all up, running down to Krauszer's each week to see what was on the shelves, hoping to learn as much as I could about both new and classic films. As a result, today I could give away nothing but magazines in this column and it would run for decades. So while you'll see old toys and VHS tapes and Klingon dictionaries and other random shit coming down the pike, more than anything, we will be uncollecting a LOT of magazines. (I will probably start moving whole stacks on here at some point, and the connections will grow increasingly flimsy. "Here are twenty magazines that all contain people wearing slacks. Who remembers Garanimals?")

Though I'm late to the conversation, this installment was inspired by the recent release of the Star Wars films on Blu-ray. It's late because as my Facebook and Twitter feeds became clogged with people plowing through the films again (to their delight or anguish or apathy), I became sort of exhausted by it all and shelved the installment for a while. Because, ultimately, what's left to say about Star Wars? I mean, 34 years of Star Wars talk means the property is pretty much covered! And let's be clear: I haven't seen the original trilogy since 1997. If anyone's going to come along and blow your mind with some new take on Star Wars, it's not gonna be me.

So instead I thought it might be fun to come at you with an OLD take on Star Wars: specifically, one of the last pieces on Star Wars to be written in a pre-Star Wars world, published in the April 1977 issue of American Film.

The magazine's cover story presents the movie as a scrappy, dicey-looking vanity project undertaken by a 32 year-old filmmaker who embarked on the film after making one of the most successful motion pictures of all time (as of April 1977, at any rate). The film was American Graffiti, and the magazine considers it a classic of the decade, placing Lucas next to Coppola and Spielberg and the rest of the "film school generation." So it's with no small amount of cynical skepticism that the mag drolly reports that "George Lucas has used the success of American Graffiti to make an $8 million animated comic strip called Star Wars."

The article touches upon some of the things we've all heard: Lucas' unsuccessful bid to license Flash Gordon, the beginnings of his control-freak mythology ("I have to do it all myself"), the groundbreaking effects (Lucas promises a space battle "as exciting as the car chase in The French Connection"). The article is mostly even-handed, but things being what they were in the first half of 1977, there's this subtle yet persistent sense of eye-rolling at the notion of this "whiz-kid" director flushing all his cred down the toilet with kiddie matinee garbage. But Lucas, with absolutely no awareness of what he's about to set in motion, speaks plainly and earnestly:

He says the film is aimed at the 14 and under crowd, much to 20th Century Fox's consternation. He genuinely comes across as a guy fighting an uphill battle, and neither he nor the journalist have any idea how it's going to play out. That's the fun of reading it today; this uncertain nature shared by both journalist and subject at the time, over a film that has loomed over the movie landscape for over three decades. On that note, here's my favorite little nugget:

I won't review the whole magazine here, but there's lots more to chew on: article on the state of science fiction in the 70s which covers Zardoz and The Man Who Fell To Earth, a film festival report from Roger Ebert, a column by Larry McMurtry, and a 15 page interview with Gore Vidal.

In those last days before the home video boom, magazines became a way to love the movies you loved all over again. In the late 70s and early 80s, the Famous Monsters approach morphed into a phase of magazines that felt more like advertisements - sure, Fangoria and Starlog had reviews, but their primary function was that of hype machine, with set visits, color photos, and covers which folded out into posters you could hang on your wall to make sure you never got laid. I don't know how much of this you can really pin on Lucas, but in the years after Star Wars exploded, a new kind of movie magazine was soon in full effect: the official movie tie-in! I didn't have Star Trek II on VHS, but you bet your ass I memorized the Wrath of Khan Official Souvenir Magazine, article for article. This next one? Not so much:

This 64-page opus covered every aspect of the creation of the exciting new sci-fi blockbuster from acclaimed director David Lynch! It featured interviews with actors and crew, and character breakdowns.

There's also a detailed, labored synopsis, typed out by some poor copywriter trying gamely to explain the film's plot. It includes such sentences as "A storm cloud breaks over the desert, symbolizing the great political change." Strap in, kids! I'm not the Dune expert, so I'm being dismissive as hell here, but seeing the 80s marketing machine try to feed this impenetrable film to 13 year-olds as the next Star Wars is always going to give me a chuckle.

Sidebar: Dino De Laurentiis has his share of legitimate classics under his belt, but some of his misfires are really compelling to me. He had this awesome scattergun approach to producing movies that I can't help but admire. He'd back film after film until something hit. He wanted to find the next Star Wars so badly, but having no idea how or why Star Wars was the phenomenon it was, he'd swing blindly until he got it. He ended up snaring those elusive Flash Gordon rights, and when that didn't pan out he went in the opposite direction with Dune. And while that didn't work either, it did lead to a continued working relationship with David Lynch.

I think this might mean we have George Lucas to thank for Blue Velvet.

So, yeah. Magazines. Do you want these two? Link this article on Twitter and include an #uncollecting hashtag, and we'll select a winner at random. (US only, unless you want to pay postage.) Congrats to @washington23, winner of the Six Million Dollar Man action figure! And let me know in the comments what kind of crap I should be digging up for you next.