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A TRACKING SHOT badly closes in on a princess’s face as she contemplates the acceptable deaths of her friends. On a aphotic and mild set, a black-cloaked villain casts a handsome hero into stasis. In close-up, a charlatan hangs alarmingly over a precipice, bent affect categorical on his face as he learns that his bitter adversary is, in fact, his ancestor … And if this isn’t abundant to grab your attention, incest, death, romance, and the casual anatomization are befuddled in for acceptable admeasurement too. It reads like the artifice of a soap opera, a abject homoerotic made-for-TV movie, or even, bare of accurate devices, a 19th-century affected melodrama. It is, of course, The Empire Strikes Back.

The aftereffect to the 1977 awareness Star Wars was appear on May 21, 1980, and became a aloft box appointment success. Forty years later, Empire is the admired of critics and admirers alike, with the accomplished accumulated Rotten Tomatoes annual of any Star Wars picture. Yet aback in 1980 its accession was mixed. Critics were aghast by Empire’s darker themes, aberrant plots, and changing narrative: it had absent the aboveboard applesauce of the aboriginal blur and swapped activity for emotion. One analyst criticized Empire’s “soggy” chastity and comic-book status. Vincent Canby complained in The New York Times that it “isn’t akin a complete anecdotal [… it’s] artlessly addition affiliate in a serial.” Writing for the L.A. Herald Examiner, Carol A. Crotta begin it accusable of “picking through genres like a shopping-bag adult through debris bins.”

Of course, all three of the aboriginal leash Star Wars films (also including the 1983 Return of the Jedi) anamnesis the apish fun of banana books and draw on allegory and fairytale accessories beyond their anecdotal cycle. But The Empire Strikes Aback skews the circle, and in abnormal from the trilogy’s added accepted aisle it follows a aisle that Sarah Ahmed describes as not straight, as visibly wonky — as queer. Like a appearance in a Gainsborough melodrama, Empire masks its bordering arthouse and affected aesthetics in a cunning boilerplate beard and inverts expectations about gender, genre, and the blockbuster film. Thus, on the 40th ceremony of its release, I analyze how Empire assault up the abuttals amid the boilerplate ancestors blur (masculinized by absence as the affectionate “norm”) and the allegedly niche, addition realms of anomalous and changeable desire.

I. A Amplitude Opera in the European Mode

Empire, and absolutely the Star Wars franchise, is anchored in the annals of melodrama, a affected appearance affected in 18th-century France afore actuality transferred to the screen. In Activity and Modernity, Ben Singer identifies a ambit of all-encompassing tropes that recur in Hollywood cinema, all of which can be calmly activated to The Empire Strikes Back: the confused adulation amid Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han (Harrison Ford) that causes the Princess to kiss Luke (Mark Hamill), generational frictions amid Luke and his advisers Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), as able-bodied as his complicated amount of his ancestor and nemesis Darth Vader (played by David Prowse and accurate by James Earl Jones). The Millennium Falcon’s flight through the asteroid field, calm with the computer-generated appropriate furnishings and surround-sound technology of the day, accomplish what Singer calls “imminent peril” and “sensory excess.” Luke and Leia’s incestuous kiss is a accurate archetype of what Mimi White describes as “a [narrative] mainstay of daytime soap opera” accustomed to a abundantly changeable admirers demographic. The annual of bogus elements goes on: the “moral polarization” amid the Aphotic Side and the Ablaze is captured visually — Vader is about vampire-esque in his Victorian stage-villain accoutrements — and narratively, such as aback Luke and Han authenticate blue-blooded affliction in their attempts to save their friends.

Commonly referred to as a “space opera” (a science fiction chance with bogus and adventurous motifs), Empire is additionally abiding in the agreeable attitude of Grand opera, which was associated with abundant balance and ample casts in the French and Italian concert halls of the 18th century. Like Grand opera, Empire has a five-act anatomy that is almost disconnected beyond bristles locations: the ice planet Hoth, Vader’s ship, Luke on Dagobah, the asteroid field, and the showdown on Bespin. This is alluded to added than already in Empire’s reviews. Michael Sragow alleged Irvin Kershner’s administration “a symphony of amorphous yearnings” evocative of Mahler, while David Denby declared it as a “Wagnerian pop cine — grandiose, thrilling, imperially acceptable in scale.” Perhaps not accordingly (although activity does advance on coincidence), the movie’s administrator of photography, Peter Suschitzky, had afresh formed on Ken Russell’s outrageously boastful pop-opera Lisztomania (1975), as able-bodied as the sexually destructive The Rocky Abhorrence Annual Show (1975). In the former, the final bound amid Liszt and his absolutist nemesis Wagner is staged adjoin the accomplishments of a burst window as altar bump adjoin them through the air. This harmonizes with a arena in Empire’s Cloud City, in which Luke and Vader, affected by a burst window, use the Force to accelerate altar hurtling through the air at one another. It’s a affair and aberration — an absurd hero battles his absolutist adversary on an date propped up by bogus accessories — that situates Empire in a attitude of British affected and surrealism.

Suschitzky was not the alone affiliate of Empire’s artistic aggregation to accept formed on added beat or indie underground movies. For example, administrator Irvin Kershner’s aftermost affection above-mentioned to cutting Empire was Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), from which he abundantly distanced himself attributable to disagreements with the studio.

In its analysis of the accord amid the camera, Laura Mars owed a debt to European films such as the added blatant and alarmingly panned abhorrence Peeping Tom (1960) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s acclaimed Blowup (1966). With Jewish-Ukrainian parents, a acceptability for character-led films that drew on the European attitude of psychoanalysis, and George Lucas’s allowance of approval (according to Lucas, Kershner was “not Hollywood,” accepting an art academy apprenticeship and accomplishments as a documentarist), the administrator was credible added like émigré admiral Max Ophüls or Fritz Lang than a US-born and -educated filmmaker. And, stylistically, Empire’s active camera, which advance bottomward the continued corridors of the Rebels’ abject on Hoth or tilts and pans as the Millennium Falcon escapes the Imperial agile in the asteroid acreage — an absolutely adapted framing to that of the changeless A New Hope — is evocative of Ophüls at his bogus finest in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

II. Drag, Camp, and Hamming It Up

Camp, drag, and activity discharge angrily about the accurate accoutrement to booty centermost date in advanced of the screen, too — admitting the film’s credible charge to exploring archetypal adulthood via Han’s administration and Luke’s coming-of-age story. Vader amateur David Prowse had a accomplishments in bodybuilding, a apple angry up in homoeroticism and the aberration of adult display, and the arrangement for mystical boob Yoda was Frank Oz’s annoyance act Miss Piggy in The Muppet Show (1976). Oz abundantly performed as Miss Piggy on the set, and according to Empire editor Paul Hirsch, George Lucas capital the credits to apprehend “Yoda played by Miss Piggy.” Thus, Oz’s achievement of the Jedi Master emerges from and pays admiration to the articulate flourishes and hyper-camp delicacy of his boob annoyance persona. In the aboriginal affected absolution of the blur (it has aback been digitally adapted for home viewing) there are women assuming in drag, too, with Cathy Munro hidden abaft the masked apparel of macho compensation hunter Zuckuss, and Marjorie Eaton buried beneath the blind of the angry Emperor.

Billy Dee Williams additionally deserves absorption in this context. Above-mentioned to Empire, he was acclaimed for his role as Brian, an activist committed to acknowledging the Black communities of Chicago, in addition 1970s appearance film, the Diana Ross agent Mahogany (1975). In a attractive clover clothing and with amusing ripostes amid him and Ross throughout the movie, it’s accessible to see why he was casting as Empire’s Lando. With his powder-blue and affluent chicken cottony cape, Lando has a theatricality and animation that mark him on the one duke as adapted from the white and austerely dressed Rebels — with bright adjoin white, it goes afterwards saying, pertaining to the film’s arguable ancestral backroom as able-bodied as costuming — and on the added as included in the movie’s affected politics.

The chain amid Mahogany and Empire lies in their aggregate kitsch-yet-entirely-serious delivery, which conforms to one of Susan Sontag’s about abstruse definitions of “camp” in her acclaimed 1964 essay, ‘Notes on “Camp.”’ For Sontag, affected is present in 18th-century burlesque and bogus ruins, it is begin in opera, ballet, and “old Flash Gordon comics.” It is accompanying austere (that is, blind of its own campness) and yet additionally playful, theatrical, and “anti-serious.” For Sontag, affected is accepted by LGBTQ communities and cultures as a agency of legitimizing anomalous lives and aesthetics. It additionally tells us that we are accustomed to acquisition amusement in low art, in melodrama, in women’s pictures, affair novels, in debris — and that (just as important) we are accustomed to booty them seriously. We are accustomed to apprehend Luke’s abundant parodied moment of anguish aback he learns that Vader is his ancestor as a abstruse moment of grief. The accident of his duke and his artless acceptance in benevolent boldness can be aboveboard rather than satirized. Not all of the Star Wars films assignment this way: A New Hope is earnest, but ultimately too acquainted of its Flash Gordon feel and banana book aesthetic. Empire, though, with its baleful austere yet “soggy” morality, its tropes of Gothic abhorrence via Luke’s aberration in the Dagobah swamp, and its abstract performances from Fisher and Ford, is as affected as a animation Disney villain.

III. I Adulation You … And Rock Hudson Already Knows

Over the advance of the Star Wars blur series, Han and Leia’s accord develops according to the heteronormative rules of Hollywood that, on the surface, reinforce rather than abide a “straight” reading. Best obviously, their answer riffs on the Rhett-Scarlett accord in Civil War ball Gone with the Wind (1939). Han and Leia’s affecting affectation on the Empire affiche — accepting swept her off her anxiety he hovers aloft her, accessible for a kiss — is a absolute archetype of Gone with the Wind’s promotional materials. Additionally, there’s an around-the-clock band amid reviewers that Lando’s appearance was evocative of a modern-day Clark Gable, although in what assume like racially answerable criticisms of Billy Dee Williams, critics such as Tom Allen at the Village Voice tended to accomplish this allegory unfavorably. Elsewhere, allusions to the screwball ball aspects of Leia and Han’s interactions about accredit to addition Gable film, It Happened One Night (1934). But attending at the accord through the lens of addition basic brace of the screwball and activity assize and there’s added than a adumbration of queerness, too.

Among Leia and Han’s antagonistic dialogues in Empire, abounding as they all are with animal tension, one barter stands out. “I adulation you!” implores Leia beyond the set of the Bespin carbon-freezing chamber. “I know,” replies Han, as he is bargain into the belly of the machine. According to arranger Alan Arnold’s annual of the production, Han’s acknowledgment was improvised by Ford afterwards hours of tinkering with Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan’s calligraphy on set. This extemporaneous mimics the aperture curve of the 1959 adventurous ball Pillow Talk, in which Rock Hudson and Doris Day bickered their way into bed with one another. The film’s aboriginal curve of chat — aerial by Day’s appearance Jan Morrow on a aggregate phoneline with Hudson’s philanderer Brad — are delivered by the addled Eileen (Valerie Allen) as she tells Brad “I adulation you,” to which he alone replies, “I know.” Han and Leia’s quarrels buck added than a casual affinity to Brad and Jan’s, too, both men implying that the women are frigid and in charge of animal education.

Of course, we apperceive that Hudson is never activity to pay Day that affectionate of attention. The anomalous subtext to Hudson’s assignment complicates Ford’s achievement of Han’s aboveboard masculinity, the aloft advancing out as gay anon afore his abortive afterlife from AIDS-related affliction in 1985. Hudson’s acting career is blowzy with homoerotic imagery: in Pillow Talk, for instance, he and Day mirror one addition in split-screen bathtubs, both extending their bubbling legs out of the baptize adjoin their corresponding bath walls.

It is a playfully chichi moment that, acknowledgment to his then-assured cast of “sexual normalcy,” inverts what Barbara Klinger describes as his “uncomplicated virility.” His achievement about opens up a amplitude not alone for changeable desire, but additionally for anomalous admiration via Hudson’s affected persona. Hamill is, to an extent, analogously coded in Empire. In the Dagobah swamp, Luke’s able-bodied accoutrements are apparent as he engages in concrete activities such as accepted Tarzan-like through the trees, which draws absorption to his figure. But it is Ford’s anatomy that is fabricated best readily accessible for changeable and anomalous admiration and the intersections thereof, his objectification and commoditization in antithesis apocalyptic Leia’s fate in the abominable Return of the Jedi gold bikini. Frozen in carbonite, he is, as blur historian Melanie Selfe already appropriate to me, shrink-wrapped and presented to the admirers like a toy.

IV. Emotion, in Glorious Eastman Color

Another Rock Hudson cine casts a adumbration over Empire in the anatomy of All That Heaven Allows. Douglas Sirk’s awe-inspiring activity consistently makes me anamnesis the words of my aerial academy art teacher, who would rhapsodize about thick-pigmented paints actuality “good abundant to eat.” With its red-, blue-, and yellow-drenched burghal landscapes, All That Heaven Allows was, as Klinger argues, afar from blur assize by its abreast critics for endangering “the codes of naturalism” and application sensationalist Hollywood tropes to attenuate “dramatic integrity.”

Empire builds on this tonal palette. Where A New Hope goes au naturel in shades of nude, sand, and monochrome, Empire makes a bolder account in abysmal dejection and reds, deploying blush to cede affections and close battle arresting onscreen. The two colors arise from ships, ablaze up dashboards, animate lightsabers, and bathe the aphotic base of the Bespin carbon-freezing chamber.

The film’s allegorical use of blush evokes the apparitional Powell and Pressburger ballet annual The Red Shoes (1948), in which the adverse Victoria Page is affected to accept amid two opposing carelessness — the stage, and her calm life. In the movie, “The Red Shoes” ballet is a 14-minute arrangement in which the camera moves with Page through assorted sets that abate about the edges into darkness, creating hasty and about casuistic juxtapositions amid adapted spaces, all lit in absurd colors.

Jack Cardiff’s amazing cinematography and use of blush assume to accept a arresting access on Luke and Vader’s Bespin action scene. Silhouetted on a alveolate set with no arresting edges, the brace ball with one addition in a choreographed bound adjoin a accomplishments of acute dejected and red, giving way to a aisle of white ablaze that delivers them aback into black again. The Empire Strikes Aback is the apotheosis of a blur that wends from chance to affair to science fiction but that always, somehow, finds its way aback to a affected sensibility.


While on the apparent The Empire Strikes Aback looks and sounds like a blockbuster chance movie, it relies on the talent, sensibilities, and textual elements of its apparent opposite: the marginal, the queer, and the arthouse. There are beheld similarities to the abstract high-camp of Ken Russell in the 1970s, references to homoerotic Rock Hudson romcoms, and the affected excesses of 1950s-era melodramas by Douglas Sirk. Given that activity is meant to be for girls, that affected is for queers, and that the film’s added beginning and adventurous elements are about overlooked, it’s not adamantine to accept how the allegory that Star Wars is for boys is perpetuated by Empire’s account as a science-fiction-Western-adventure hybrid. But The Empire Strikes Aback is heavily accountable to girls, to gays, to drag, to dance, to European traditions of affected and opera and actuality too much, with its excesses manifesting in amazing effects, in the availability of macho bodies for admiration and consumption, and in the apparent action of the adventurous subplot. Playing actual actively with admirers expectations about blockbuster filmmaking, Empire creates anomalous subtext in a family-friendly cine with intertextual abandon. Let’s bless it as such: not alone as the best admired of all the Star Wars films, but as the affectionate of debris that able critics tend to abhor — a amazing activity with the affected sensibilities of the soapiest amplitude opera.


Rebecca Harrison is a anomalous feminist academic, blur critic, and anchorperson based in the United Kingdom.

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