Lucasing the Joint – HERBIE (1965)

Like LOOK AT LIFE, Lucas’s next film, HERBIE, was made for a student film class. Compared with LOOK AT LIFE, HERBIE is much less ambitious. The film is short, only three minutes long including the credits. There are no actors (a trait Lucas might not have realized appealed to him, given his future comments about his distaste for the profession), few concrete images and not even any spoken dialogue, save for a line about improvisation, presumably spoken by the titular Herbie Hancock, that introduces the film.

As Hancock’s jazz piano jams in the background (one suspects Lucas likely didn’t have the rights to this music), the film shows the audience a series of blurry and bizarre images reminiscent of UFO sightings. Even well over halfway into the movie, we’re not quite sure what the lights we’re seeing represent. Is this a shiny black piano being tickled under stage lights? Is there anything real here at all, or is it pure cinematic trickery? It isn’t until the end of the film that we start to comprehend what we’re seeing. A door handle. A window. And then, as the images focus, a 1960s intersection, city lights and vehicles. Roll credits.

As a school project, it’s technically competent. The images have a logical progression. The cuts are well-done. The audio blends pleasingly with the visuals. While it’s simple, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t invite repeated viewings or philosophical discussions. It gives us a charming synthesis of lights and music, and finishes. As a film, there’s not much to recommend, though it does foreshadow an obsession with cars and visual effects in his future work. The film reminds me of a modern-day Lexus commercial, which seems like a damning statement, but in reality is a compliment. A student capable of producing an interesting and engaging advertisement is a talented one, and even in its brevity, HERBIE marks Lucas as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Next time, we’ll skip over some minor credits to take a look at FREIHEIT, generally considered Lucas’s first narrative film. See you then!