Saturday, 27 January 2018
Star Wars – You Are What You Eat
In spite of what the critics have been saying, I enjoyed the new Star Wars. Quite a few commentators panned it for being "meaningless", but without the eye of love and nostalgia, the level of meaning they expected was never an intended or actual part of the original franchise.
This made me think about the reverence in which we hold A New Hope and Empire. I first experienced these films when I was about six, and thought they were the most fantastic, unbelievably earth-shaking things I had ever seen. But then, I was six, and the list of things to which I attached the same value also included a random naked woman in some manga, my neighbour's dog, and the dead lizard behind my cupboard. In later life, I discovered that having seen these films made me a member of some kind of culture club which seemed mainly concerned with casting those who had not into social outer darkness. This was in my teens - that era of insane crushes, obsessions, and psychological cruelty. We would watch these films over and over again, reassuring ourselves and each other that they were the apogee of human creation. This reassurance became shriller and more urgent, of course, as repeated viewings exposed the real, significant, and manifold flaws of both films. They drag. They're heavily derivative. The acting is, in places, ridiculously bad.
A fair bit of my time in particular was spent desperately trying to ignore what thematic messaging there was. The franchise as a whole has a starkly conservative and practically mindless world view. The magical 'Force', a kind of re-chewed and regurgitated compound of poorly understood Zen mysticism and Protestantism is actually kind of toxic. It's deism. Or animism. Or maybe panpsychism, or spiritualism - it's really too vague and changeable to be clear about exactly what it is, but in any event it is clearly the element of the divine. So, this story element panegyrises adherence to ancient religion. We have The Empire, and The Rebel Alliance, with The Empire being evil apparently because it's an empire and for no other discernable reason. And the rebellion is in support of a dying or dead republic. Hmmm... a republic struggling to overthrow an empire - sounds strangely familiar. It's almost as if some Americans were re-imagining their own revolution, interleaving it with the history of Rome and painting it all over with a thin veneer of science fiction. With magic. And god. So the idea is that it's important to be a republic and, if we look at the way the two forces are represented, the more uniform, organised, and well equipped you are, the more evil. And then there's the basically moronic binary imagining of morality represented by the dark side and the force. The dark side is all negative emotions, which must be defeated - repressed, basically - whereas the not dark side is all about floating rocks and pashing your sister. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but the silliness of the binarism is still real.
For me, the message is one of subservience to god and a near libertarian conception of how the world should be run. This is totally unacceptable to me on both counts, and yet I spent quite a lot of mental energy on convincing myself that it wasn't so, and that these two films were the best sci fi films ever made, despite the fact that they're not really sci fi, and nor are they really good enough to justify such an assessment. It's rather like my first girlfriend. She was a nice girl, I assume (I never really knew her that well), but she certainly wasn't the paragon of all girlhood I furiously persuaded myself that she was. If I'm completely honest, she's not the one I wanted, but rather just the one I happened to get. And because she was my first, she blew my head back by relative power alone, and I spent the rest of my time with her trying to convince myself she was the best female ever begotten. Until, that is, I grew up a little and was able to see her clearly.
And it's the same thing with Star Wars. When I look at it clearly, A New Hope is a very good film. It's got so much to like, it's still enjoyable decades later, and it was clearly made with real love and care. But what it's not is a film objectively worthy of the reverence in which it's held. And it's this clear-sightedness which I think is most important. We're not just made up of what we consume, but also of the way in which we consume it. The way we respond to and absorb things like films also ripples out into the way we process the rest of our lives. The way we convince ourselves that Star Wars is the kind of masterpiece it's clearly not is exactly the same way we convince ourselves we like our jobs, can live with our partners, like our foolish and mendacious selves, and have some hope of finding meaning in our lives. We can find jobs we like, partners we love, meaning, and all the rest, but not without shedding the kind of thinking that has us desperately trying to convince ourselves that Star Wars is more than it is. Because it's this exact same thinking which, if we don't consciously attack it, we use to negotiate ourselves into accepting our own mediocrity.