Or, Why Star Wars is not a diversion of fools

(For those persevering several of you read this blog regularly and wonder how a title like that refers to Star Wars … well, this post is a response to Wood’s post, “You May Find my Lack of Faith Disturbing”) You should go read that post first, and while you’re there, read through some of the Bite-sized Serial fiction. It’s quite good.

Let me begin by saying that I support people either liking or disliking Star Wars. I like it. My wife, not so much. I know numerous people in various areas of the spectrum. It’s perfectly valid for myself or anyone else to try to convince someone of why the movie is a masterpiece (it really isn’t) or a utter waste of celluloid (not that, either), and it’s even moderately acceptable to state an opinion with no reason whatsoever – it is just a movie, and not everyone needs bring mental resources to bear on its issues.

I do feel that it is necessary to reply, however, when someone acerbically disparages a work of cultural significance (Star Wars and The Da Vinci Code seem to prominent examples, not only of Wood’s ire, but in general) primarily because it has achieved significance and yet doesn’t meet the criteria they’ve set for greatness. This, by itself, is only annoying or shrill, but when the work they’re attacking isn’t the actual story, but some phantom/straw man version of the story created in their perception by the acclaim of the general public, it’s mildly ridiculous. When these discreditors display the same level of arrogance they decry in the supposedly-self-proclaimed-cleverest-of-writers by presenting themselves as arbiters of cultural excellence, and yet they bear only the death-ray of vitriol aimed at a Macy’s Parade Balloon of the object of their hatred, I feel a desire to reply.

Allow me to go through Wood’s points as he presents them.

He speaks of watching Star Wars again recently, after having not seen it since his undergrad years:

And suddenly, I felt cheated … [S]omeone had taken those films I remembered seeing and replaced them with… crap. Total, unmitigated crap … The experience is scientifically documented, of course. The Ministry of Defence call it the Ulysses 31 effect, or they would do if they’d actually done a study and I wasn’t making it up.

While funny in a way characteristic of Wood, this is also partially correct. The experience is documented, and it does have a name. It’s called “a change in context”. I like vinegar. It’s great on fish and chips. It’s awful on vanilla ice cream (he says from personal experience). Or perhaps more appropriately, when I had my first job making $5 an hour, that was excellent money. It more than covered my needs. Now, I couldn’t think of taking a job that paid less than $20 an hour, not because the old job is suddenly terribly, but because I am in a different context. I have larger bills and different concerns. So it should be no great mystery why a movie might appeal to you at one point in your life and not another. Not only are you a different person, with perhaps different interests, different levels of subtlety, but the landscape of movies is completely different. You’ve seen many movies since then which have changed the bar in many ways, and your expectations of the requirements for an excellent movie experience are severely changed.

The Structure.
Every stupid three-act action movie blockbuster (and for which film was the term coined?) ever made since about 1980 uses the structure set by Star Wars. It’s tried and tested, and it’s manipulative and lame. It’s supposed to facilitate storytelling, but you know what? It’s a straitjacket.

Firstly, it’s hardly fair to fault Star Wars for the movies that follow it. The 3-Act storyline is clearly crib-notes guide to story structure; it’s prevalent because it’s effective (the opposite of lame). That it’s manipulative is proof of its efficacy. Certainly it is a straight-jacket for telling complex, subtle, and unusual stories fraught with character development, but when did Star Wars ever claim to be any of those things. Star Wars is not about The Structure.

The Dialogue.
Only Harrison Ford and Peter Cushing make the dialogue in the Star Wars Trilogy sound even the slightest bit convincing. Harrison Ford managed it because at the time he was a talented young actor who wasn’t prepared to screw up any film he was in, not having reached the point where he could just be Harrison-Ford-the-Movie-Star. Peter Cushing did it because he’d had a long, long experience of being the best thing in trashy movies with appalling dialogue. Legendarily, Harrison Ford is supposed to have said to George Lucas, “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t speak it.” It’s telling that the best line in the trilogy, the single nearest point the three films get to a half-genuine emotional moment, namely Han Solo’s “I know,” at the end of the second film, is actually an ad-lib.

It’s very difficult to argue against this. Especially since it’s true. Well, all except the best line part – the best line in the trilogy is in the first film, again Han Solo’s: “Now don’t get cocky!” and again it was an ad lib. But Star Wars is not about The Dialogue. In fact, I’ll raise you. Star Wars is scarcely about the characters though there are several (Han Solo, and, well… mostly him) that we love to love.

The Performances.

There’s no sense in even digging in to this one. If the dialogue and characters aren’t important, how could the performances be any more so. During the special features, the actors joke that George’s direction was more, and faster. He didn’t care. Because that’s not Star Wars.

The Ewoks.
That is all.

Please, do go on. What about the Ewoks? Isn’t appealing to the standard fanboy dislike just the sort of thing this essay is railing against? Is it so surprising that a movie would create characters that are designed to appeal to its intended audience (which, I note, is children, not post-adolescent pre-adults)?

C-3PO.
How come he’s supposed to be endearing and yet Jar-Jar Binks is annoying? C-3PO makes me want to take a blowtorch to his camp English stereotype arse and turn him into an ornamental flower pot.

Well, in the original trilogy, he is annoying and endearing. That stereotype. In the New Testament of Star Wars, he’s more just annoying, much like Jar Jar. I can’t say that it’s ever occurred to me that he should be considered an English stereotype. He’s the bumbling servant stereotype, much like the Japanese character on which he’s based (or so I am told. I have not delved into Japanese film solely for the reason of investigating Star Wars origins.) In any case, it’s a good thing that the characters don’t matter.

The Jedi.
The Jedi religion is a pile of contradictory crap … Luke, Yoda and Obi-Wan are supposed to be these paragons of virtue, right? And yet you’ve got this religion of Zen non-aggression which supports extreme violence and blowing things up and killing thousands of people and stuff (”use the Force, Luke!”) …

Firstly, who convinced you that the Jedi were peace-loving? Was it Yoda’s line, “Wars do not make one great?” That one bit? Please cross-reference the Zen/Shinto-istic culture of Samurai, on whom the Jedi are based. It is a culture of arête, honor, and personal perfection, not peace and love. Not even good versus evil. Oh, and they are frequently depicted carrying weapons very similar to lightsabers somehow….

Please, too, look at the larger development of religion and war in China, in the context of Taoism and Buddhism. Even the concepts of what makes up religion is radically different from Western Monotheism, yet surprisingly similar to the admittedly shallow Jedi way.

And don’t get me started on the drooling, slack-jawed, supposedly “post-ironic” morons who wrote “Jedi” under “religion” on their census forms. Just don’t.

I won’t. It’s ridiculous. Yet humorous. I know some of those people, though, and they are not slack-jawed or post-ironic, though they do have a misplaced sense of authenticity. I can’t speak to their drooling habits.

The Approach to Good and Evil.
Actually, this is a serious point, and the heart of what gets me about
Star Wars. In Star Wars, The Good Guys are good, because they just are. The Bad Guys are bad, just because they are. And they laugh evilly.

The Bad Guys are mostly British, too (another pernicious Hollywood tradition. Don’t know who started that one, but it really pisses me off. I bet it was Star Wars, though).

OK. Let’s try that again: why are the Rebel Alliance, our favourite bunch of Small Government Good Ole Boys goodies? Because they say so. They shoot and kill and blow things up just as much as the bad guys do, only it’s OK, because they’re the Good Guys. Because they say so. And the Princess wears white. So they must be.

And the Bad Guys are Bad, because they’ve “given themselves over to the Dark Side”. Yeah! We’re Evil, because we’ve given ourselves over to anger and hate and the Dark Side of the Force. So we’re Evil. Also, our minions have masks that faintly resemble skulls. Moo-hoo-ha-ha-ha.

Baddies blow planets up. And goodies… also blow planets up, only they’re artificial planets full of soldiers and stuff. So obviously that’s OK.

It is a serious point, and I can understand why it gets you going. So let’s be straight-forward and serious. Why are the good guys good? Because they’re anti-establishment, pro-freedom, anti-slavery, pro-diversity underdogs. If you don’t agree, then get out of the seventies. Once the movies got out of the seventies, you’ll see that they, too, lost such a black-and-white division between good and evil, Light and Dark. The struggles in the story became a personal battle filled with greys.

You’ll see that nowhere in there, and nowhere in any of the stories that I can recall, are people more or less evil because they kill. They are, however, more or less evil because of why they kill. What is the difference between blowing up Alderaan and blowing up the Death Star? Alderaan didn’t strike first for one, nor were they roaming around planning on blowing up other things. I think you can agree that there is a distinct difference between the robber who shoots a hostage, and the hostage who then shoots that robber. If not, perhaps we need to discuss good and evil at greater depth.

The colors actually are important, but not as you described. Both sides wear white and black. That’s important, and as I recall, intentional. It’s meant to induce some of that subtlety you crave. But the Rebellion also wears color (and not just blood-red) because they are diverse. (Whether or not diversity is intrinsically good is debatable, but not part of this argument. Star Wars says it is.)

I think the joke of Star Wars is so cruel because for all the gimmicks—intergalactic distances, light-speeds, laser guns—there really isn’t any difference between here and then, them and us, ancestor and progeny, good guys and evil. The film is… a most sombre and cynical exercise in Necessity; a guided tour of the Kingdom of Necessity. This is how things will be, a simple extrapolation for the way things are; at both ends, an unexorcised curse.

Now how can that quote be included and supported in the same essay that decries the simplicity of Star Wars and it’s Black/White Good/Evil themes. What better description would you use for the more enlightened works of English literature that explore such themes than “a most sombre … exercise in Necessity”?

What Star Wars IS

So, now that I’ve gone about saying that this essay was all wrong – a gun pointed at an illusion, I have to support it by saying what Star Wars is about. The beauty of Star Wars – what made it so grand and so popular and enduring – is not the acting or writing or storytelling, for all of the reasons Wood listed above. It’s a setting. It’s the (then) amazing special effects that drew you into a completely different world, lush with detail and a ‘reality’ that allowed you suspend disbelief. Once the movie was over, you expected that things were continuing to go on behind the screen – Tatooine was still dry and hot and barren and home to hives of scum and villainy, droids were complaining about their lots in life, and everyone was trying to eke out a living in a world full of run-down equipment and old-but-serviceable ships.

That’s why the toys sold, and continued to sell even when the buyers were no longer kids. They were a portal into that world. That’s why the Expanded Universe blew up around those silly, sappy, trilogy of movies. And that’s why people keep going back to that same trilogy, even after they have the realization that the dialogue, the acting, the storytelling, and all that nonsense are bad. In watching those movies, that world, that most-realistic of non-realities, comes back to life for a short time. In that way (and only in that way), Star Wars is much like Middle Earth.

Of course, once you lose that, it’s gone. Improvements in special effects and the enormous effects of Star Wars have meant that we’ve been bombarded with thousands of disbelief-suspending realities since then, and there are now far too many of them for any one of them to have a chance to take roots.

A few choice tidbits in parting:

No, I’m beating on the Star Wars movies for not being convincing, and for being emotionally untrue, for being a pernicious influence on our culture… and for being genuinely, objectively bad films.

‘Objectively’ implies some scale by which it can be measured. Please suggest how you would measure films? Subjectively, they can be awful films, if you’d like. But to make claims of objective quality without proof or scale is exactly the kind of arrogance you’re accusing the films of. Can you disagree?

That it has been an influence on our culture is undeniable, but aren’t you exaggerating it’s lack of emotional gravitas (particularly in the light of its space opera genre) because of the poor imitations and copycats that followed? If you want to attack the poor development of film, do that. But don’t blame Star Wars because other people made bad versions of it.

Its influence is pernicious, pervasive, going beyond simple science fiction movies and into the whole structure of the popular arts. It’s everywhere, and you are not allowed not to like it.

I’m not sure who your friends are, but you’re certainly allowed not to like it as far as I’m concerned. Hell, I cringe each time I hear Barbra Streisand open her mouth, which puts me out of the majority, but I’m not about to tell you that you’re a fool if you do like her. Nor would I say that the genre which has grown up in her wake has been some kind of hideous influence on mankind.

If anything, Wood, as a writer you should see the morass left by Star Wars as a vacancy that you can fill with works of other influences.

But I’m right. And you know it.

Wait… hold on.

When you get older, your tastes change…

Okay, I know I got these quotes out of order, but I thought I should let the essay answer itself. It’s more ironic that way. Unless, of course, you don’t plan on getting any older, or you’ve finally managed to reach that point at which your opinions have reached the pinnacle of truth and cannot progress. One could suspect, though, that given another 10 years, you may have developed an even more salted and subtle opinion on Star Wars. I look forward to reading it.

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