Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars and Me

There is no Star Wars and me really. Coming from a large rural family which viewed VCRs as an instrument of the devil, being inside and warm as sinful, and growing up before multi-channel TV, opportunities to see the films were very limited (in other childhood woe, we queued to see ET for hours until my dad got bored and made us go home, so I didn't see that until I was in my 20s). A few of my friends had Star Wars toys but I was always a reader and with six kids in the house, our toys tended to be more generic anyway. I did become a devotee of Star Trek however: being primarily a decades-old TV series it was cheap to air and easier to schedule. I gather that Trek is somehow seen as less cool than Star Wars but that's OK: as well as being enjoyably camp in some ways it introduced me to concepts such as human rights, discussion about intervention, just wars and all sorts of philosophical discussions. Given the time in which it was made and the space afforded by multiple series in episodic form on TV rather than cinema, it was always going to have the political edge over a few films which had to compete for the movie-goers' buck. Perhaps that's why the Trek films were less successful: they tried to recreate the intelligence and depth of the series rather than adapting to the demands of the blockbuster. I tend to see Star Trek as mainstream America painfully wrestling with its imperial conscience in a time of simultaneous paranoia and optimism: you can see these upstanding semi-military types coming to terms with the hippy movement for example, or moving from a pro-Vietnam War (A Private Little War) stance to an anti-War one (The Omega Glory), and its construction of the Federation Utopia is very revealing. Perhaps that's why I've written about Trek and Doctor Who rather than Star Wars.

A Private Little War: Kirk agrees to supply weapons to maintain the balance of power
The Omega Glory: a civilisation ruined by ceaseless pursuit of ideological battles

By contrast, I always saw Star Wars as a product of late-1970s American wounded imperialism. The first film appeared in 1977- not long after the deep wound of losing the Vietnam War and only a year after the Bicentennial Independence celebrations, it seems to this partially-informed commentator that it was an attempt to recreate the feeling that the American people were the freedom-loving rebels rather than the Evil Empire (to nick Reagan's later appropriation of the movies' terminology): apart from Vietnam and the middle East as usual, the US spent the 70s and 80s aiding the torture and murder of thousands in military dictatorships across South America. Like Jaws which came out not long before, the movies tried to imply that decent American values were being threatened by implacable evil, but I imagine that any Vietcong seeing Star Wars would have cheered on the Rebel Alliance. Mind you, perhaps Lucas was quietly critiquing US foreign policy: after all, it was 'a long long time ago' that the Americans were the freedom fighters against the evil British Empire. There is another interpretation available which might chime with our times more easily: Luke as the naive young man from a desert plant looking for any kind of adventure, when along comes a robed gent and a good line in mystical patter about destiny who recruits him to their band of religiously-inspired terrorists…

The first Star Wars movie I saw was The Phantom Menace, having been dragged along from Bangor to Rhyl one very rainy day (one of the worst places on earth) by obsessive fans desperate to see the latest instalment in their beloved series. Despite being adults, some of them appeared to still own various bits of plastic tat that they'd carted around since their toddler years and were transported back to their childhoods by the prospect of seeing an actual new instalment. Perhaps this infantilisation explains why we went to McDonald's on the way to stuff our faces with baby food.

Snobbery aside, it was one of the worst cinematic experiences of my life. Lacking any emotional investment in its universe, I saw a nonsensical plot, objectionable characters and facile attitudes, all rendered on a computer to look no more sophisticated than the PC game I was then playing obsessively, Civilization II. It was so awful that I couldn't even bring myself to tease my heartbroken friends. We emerged from the fleapit cinema into the cold and damp, and just stood there in silence until someone stammered out a few disappointed words. They weren't even angry, just shocked by the lazy, cynical, greedy appropriation of a world they thought belonged to them as much as to George Lucas.

After that, I didn't make any effort to watch the originals, despite everyone telling me they're 'so much better except for the one with the Ewoks'. I've caught large chunks of them while idly flicking through the multi-channel hell, and I think I've watched all of the middle one now, but my main exposure is through catching the Family Guy parodies, which at least give me an insight into the devotion people have for the originals. That doesn't seem to have changed. My boss went to a midnight screening last night, and another friend saw it at 9 a.m. this morning. the phenomenon is fascinating and demonstrates some of the arguments cultural studies and reception studies thinkers have been having for decades. I can imagine Adorno and the Frankfurt School dismissing Star Wars and most Hollywood products as machine-generated propaganda, social and cultural disinformation pumped into the cortexes of passive victims. However, my friends are happy to dismiss the elements of the films they don't like: 'that's just George Lucas, ignore those bits' they say, and no doubt they'll discount the Disney influence in the new ones, demonstrating Barthes's point about the Death of the Author. With a text this widescreen and an audience so huge and intelligent, the author's intentions and concerns are set aside in favour of the individual audience member's interpretations and the emotional personal contexts they bring to the experience. In that sense, it doesn't really matter whether the films are any good in cinematic terms, because they serve a whole range of uses beyond that.

Which is all a complicated way of saying that I should stop being such a snob and wish my Star Wars-loving friends a good weekend in the endless queues.

1 comment:

Phil said...

I can't get over the fact that George Lucas was clever enough to think of the twist in Return of the Jedi, and stupid enough to ruin it with those awful prequels. A 'flashback' film showing how Anakin became Darth Vader might have been doable (although not three of the blighters) - but that's not what those films are; Lucas really does want people to see them starting with number 1.

As you apparently did. Commiserations - I think Phantom Menace is the single worst film I've ever seen. I was actually old enough for Star Wars, but I avoided seeing it - I just thought it sounded stupid, childish and very American, and couldn't understand why it was being celebrated so much. Still don't, really, particularly when you compare it with more grown-up examples of sf and fantasy - Star Trek, Doctor Who, the complete works of Joss Whedon. Those programmes use a fantasy setting to tell stories about people, with a certain amount of moral depth and political awareness. Star Wars was just white hats and black hats.

That said, when Return of the Jedi came out I cracked - under heavy pressure from my then girlfriend - and went to see it, on the understanding that it'd be good clean uncomplicated undemanding fun. Cue the Luke/Leia/Han love triangle and Han's "I know" - not to mention Darth Vader's big reveal. Lucas actually pitched that film above my level, or at least above the level I'd lowered my expectations to. He didn't do that again - even for TPM, by which point my expectations were very low indeed.