Friday, June 01, 2007

Fear and Loathing on Naboo, Part Five

"I don't hate it," Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; "I don't hate it," he said. I don't hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don't. I don't! I don't hate it! I don't hate it!
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom

But we wouldn't be sitting here today if Star Wars wasn't, somehow, above these kind of trivialities. There is a certain amount of futility in explicating the Star Wars films as anything other than what they are - an essentially acritical phenomenon. Certainly, there is no doubt that the modern movie industry lives on another planet entirely from the critical establishment (such as there is), but no other film or franchise in history has ever been so blissfully indifferent to the outrageous fortunes of critical appraisal as Star Wars.

Just a few paragraphs ago in this series I wrote:
Art and nostalgia are warring impulses, and if you are to allow Star Wars to retain even its limited dignity as a work of art, you must suppress the tendency towards nostalgic inertia.

The problem is that this isn't strictly true, it's actually blatantly false, and I knew it as I wrote it. The true appeal of these movies, for those who hold them dear, surpasses the critical faculty almost entirely. There are people who can rationally dissect the films in their proper context, who can give them their proper due as well-crafted pieces of cinematic cotton-candy while acknowledging the obvious fact that in terms of most of the common measures we use for any other kind of cinematic art - writing, acting and directing - they are uniquely abysmal examples of the form. And yet, many of these same people, as soon as those ten magic words ("A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .", in case you forgot.) appear on the screen in that nauseating green font, lose their ability to form credible aesthetic judgments and become, for the duration of the feature, ten years old again. I know this because for all intents and purposes I'm one of them.

Because of the alien nature of the films, everything onscreen is pregnant with revelation. There are few movies which seem to imply so much with so little actually on display - every passing extra, every alien in split-second cameo carries their own imaginary backstory, worlds of fantastic make-believe that can easily find refuge in the mind of an over-imaginative child. Why else have they always manufactured toys for even the most obscure characters? Darth Vader and Yoda may be the icons but even Ponda Baba and Dengar have captured the imagination of millions by virtue of their mystery. (Why do we even know these characters names? Do we know the names of every Klingon on display in Star Trek 3? Someone might, but those Klingons hardly have their own action figures available for sale in every Target and Wal-Mart.)

It's not, as some have posited, merely a generational phenomenon. Certainly, the people most devoted to Star Wars are those who grew up with the original trilogy, who formed a life-long attachment to the series from its inception. But there are a lot of people who love Star Wars who don't fit into the neat "generation x" category - I've met Star Wars fans old enough to be my parents (and yes, my parents are Star Wars fans, too, albeit hardly rabid). And of course, most children in their turn become, to some degree, Star Wars fans as well. However many who grew up with the prequels will cling to them as their thirty-something forebears continue to cling to the original trilogy remains to be seen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a comparable ratio.

There is nothing more infuriating than to have someone else's nostalgia foisted upon you. People who don't "get" Star Wars just see a series of increasingly bad movies which have attracted an inexplicable devotion. If you're not already under quarantine, every new outbreak of Star Wars fever must be akin to an outbreak of a gruesome infectious disease. It's easy to ignore Spider-Man or The Lord of the Rings if those types of movies aren't your cup of tea - but the fervor with which Star Wars is embraced cannot be compared to anything else, and for anyone stuck on the outside looking in, the devotion must seem deeply disturbing.

I would understand if you dismissed the first parts of this essay as meaningless, masturbatory rationalization - essentially useless ratiocination for the express purpose of legitimizing an illicit desire, like a smack addict waxing poetic on the imaginary health benefits of heroin addiction. In a lot of ways, that's exactly what it was.

I wish I could let go of Star Wars, but it clings to the undercarriage of my brain like dog shit on the bottom of a boot. It's hardly obsession, but it's impossible to push it away, to banish it from my already infrequent dreams, to excise these reams of trivial crap from my consciousness. Like a virus, it's in there, and as much as I may wish I could jettison this useless, counterproductive ballast it simply can't be extricated. It's hardwired.

It's impossible to separate the films from their status as cult objects. They demand blind obeisance to work their magic, or their spell is broken. There is no way to rationally examine the films and not see them fall to pieces in the process - everything that is truly enjoyable about them surpasses the process of deductive reasoning. Somehow, Lucas figured out how to craft something that would plug itself directly into our collective unconsciousness without any kind of intermediary, creating an instant nostalgia in a certain kind of moviegoer.

Nostalgia used to be a bittersweet emotion, but somehow it has became identified with a more immediate, cozy sensation. To remain suspended in an artificial womb composed of the pop culture of one's youth would have been inconceivable to earlier generations, who not only regarded the onset of maturity as a necessary rite of passage but who also regarded the passage of time as an immalleable phenomenon which, once left, could never be truly regained. But we don't take either of these things for granted anymore. Consumer pop culture requires that people remain insensate to the passage of time by refusing to cultivate any kind of impulse-control behavior. The evolution from immaturity to adulthood is no longer necessarily a process wherein the virtues of delayed gratification and prudence are inculcated. Now many see adulthood merely as a time where they have earned the right to achieve the perpetual instant gratification that their parents may (or may not) have denied them as children - an "earned" immaturity. Those who don't fully participate in the trials and tribulations of consumerist society are alienated from the mainstream.

As such, it's hard not to see how Star Wars, with its appeal to the irresistible subliminal language of nostalgia, is so incredibly and enduringly popular. It is that rarest of artifacts, a surpassingly ephemeral object which has achieved lasting permanence. In many ways, the malleability of Star Wars' translucent ideology is vital to its appeal. Anyone can look on the forbidding visage of Darth Vader and come to their own perfectly valid conclusions about what it all means, or doesn't mean (for an example, see the first sections of this article). It's important not by virtue of what it says, because it doesn't really say anything, but by who's listening: everyone.

The ideal - as represented by the onrush of fantasy and science-fiction adventure movies in the past decade - would be a world where an audience could be trained to feel nostalgia for movies that haven't even been made yet. To a limited degree, this is exactly what the people who made The Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man were banking on. In a much more concrete way, however, this is exactly how the prequel trilogy became so insanely popular: the familiar horn vanguard of John Williams' epic score acts like a dinner bell for an appropriately trained audience of Pavlovian hounds. Those of us who hear the call know better (or at least some of us do), but we just can't help ourselves.

I'm not going to get over Star Wars anytime soon. This is one aspect of pop culture for which (in the interests of sanity and against the creeping impulses of self-loathing) I have given myself a dispensation, the right to uncritically enjoy the films in the guilt-free context of pure infantile nostalgia. I know it's wrong, and I know I'm wallowing in my own baser instincts, but that's OK. In other words, I damn well know better.
I don't hate it! I don't hate it!

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