(Warning: There there is an outside chance that reading this post will throw some very cold water on the fire of your love for the Star Wars films. If this is unacceptable to you, skip it. – SD)
This week my dazzling bride was teaching Sunday school and I was assisting. One of the boys, age 8, said, “Today I’m going to watch Star Wars!”
“Which one?” I asked.
“One,” he responded, minimalistically.
“With the little guy.”
“And the metacholorians.”
“Better ask your dad to explain it. Fun stuff. And the trade embargo. Very exciting.”
Two thoughts came to mind. One is, I may be a little too facetious for the first- and second-graders class. But that will be for another post.
The other is that I am still mourning my lost love for Star Wars. Even though its been exactly eleven years since the first of the last three films began to undermine my enjoyment of the first three films, it still irritates me that the sterile, fun-free, computer-generated episodes have the effect of diminishing movies that were a kind of cultural laser cannon cutting through the nihilistic gloom of 70s cinema.
How did this happen? Well, it feels as if your grandpa dragged all your childhood toys out of a closet and pounded the daylights out of them for six hours. You can revive your enjoyable memories, but you’ll never look at them or grandpa the same way.
Grandpa is, of course, George Lucas. He took all your old imaginary friends and pounded every last sign of life out of them. He made them silly and boring. He bogged them down in trade disputes, embargoes and – heaven help us – politics. Worst of all, he infected all three films with something the first three were refreshingly absent: cynicism. Yuck. For that I can go back and watch old Billy Wilder films. His cynicism was at least entertaining. None of my kids at any age have had the least notion of what these movies are about. Heroism? Valor? Good versus evil? Outnumbered democratic republicans versus the evil empire?
Uh, no. It’s about the whiniest, moodiest teenage Jedi punk you ever laid eyes on.
Sorry kids, in this movie the good guys stand around, clueless and feckless, muttering dark suspicions while the empire rises under their noses. Fun for the whole family!
When Episode One came out, I told my friends that I thought Lucas had failed in deciding who the films should be about. He chose Annakin Skywalker, committing himself to a downward, suspense-free story arc in which the main character sinks ever deeper into himself and the dark side. It was bound to be a complete bummer, and as it turned out, it was. In my view, the story in these episodes should have been about Obi-wan Kenobi.
Here’s why. In episodes 4 – 6, it was Obi-wan that represented the heroic era of the Jedi upholding justice and goodness in the last days of the Republic. I would have shown the Republic in its glory, with Obi-wan as it’s central hero. Heroism, after all, is at the core of the old movies. Lucas, now a rather cynical used-to-be, has given us instead a darkly political-economic (instead of moral) view of the Republic as the late Weimar (with passing suggested equivalence with US), a rotting corpse of a state ready to be displaced by energized fascists. Again, yuck. (In other words, Lucas has shown us what Star Wars would have been like if he had been in the same gloomy mood as the rest of Hollywood in the late 70s.)
Showing the glory days of the Republic would have illustrated what it was that the Rebels were later fighting for so valiantly. It would have made sense. And it would have been fun, just maybe. In my story, the Skywalker story would have been secondary, and probably confined to the third and perhaps the second episode. Sure, show the rise of the Empire, but for crying out loud, have something decent to contrast it with! Lucas gave us a completely lame Republic that left us wondering what the rebels would have even been fighting for 20 years later. Sadly, I’m afraid it is Lucas himself who could no longer pretend to believe there is anything worth fighting for, so, in a sense, if there is such a faith in the old movies, he has now renounced it.
By contrast, consider the theme in the vastly superior Lord of the Rings tilogy:
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.
– From The Two Towers
LOTR managed to portray evil in three dimensions, while rejecting both naivete and cynicism. Star Wars, all six films, suffer so much in comparison to this masterpiece of mythic – truly mythic – storytelling, that it is hard for me to ever see the old movies the way I did as a teenager when they were new.
In fact, the supposed mythic underpinnings of the first three films are quite open to question. This salon.com article from 2002 blows some big holes in the SW mythical mythmaking.
Lucas has made many statements such as this one in an interview in the April 26, 1999 issue of Time:
“With ‘Star Wars’ I consciously set about to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs,” Lucas says. “I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today.”
The Salon piece by Steven Hart points out that Lucas’ “inspiration” for SW was largely pulp sci-fi (and more respected works), not the mythic themes of the ancient epic story-tellers. But grasping the weight that could be lent his films by making such claims, Lucas, sometime after the first film was out, began citing, not old sci-fi pulp mags and paperbacks, but revered samurai films and the writings of Joseph Campbell (who himself deserves to be taken down a few credibility notches). These claims have only grown more pompous and inflated over the years. And his attempt to “deal with issues that exist today,” accounts for most of my complaints about the last three episodes. If I wanted him to do that, I’d suggest he get a cable news show. I prefer he tell a good story and have some fun doing it. I personally don’t need an intellectual or high-culture justification for enjoying a movie. Especially a fake one.
In spite of all this, I can actually still find enjoyment, even if diminished, in the first three films. But I have to try to forget all the silly claims of seriousness and purported involuntary submission of my subconscious mind to George Lucas’ all-powerful myth-making skills. I have to try and watch them as I did when I was was a thirteen-year-old boy watching Star Wars for the first time at the movie theater in Seaside, Oregon in the summer of 1977. I had been nurtured on Ray Harryhausen, Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling, but rarely had experienced their kind of story telling on the big screen. Star Wars exploded before our eyes with magic, imagination, heroism and fun.
That’s why we loved it, George.