Friday, August 16, 2019

Just Another Star Wars Essay

here comes a special boy

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So in this essay I’m going to talk briefly about two parts of Star Wars I haven’t yet mentioned.
The first thing I’m going to do is give you two brief synopses of different pieces of Star Wars ancillary media. You might recognize the stories, you might not, but both Star Wars - albeit separated on release by under a decade. 
The first story is a war story. It’s about a squad who begin to suspect that their new C.O. is intentionally crafting strategy to deliver the highest possible casualty rate. Turns out after further investigation that he isn’t just purposefully ordering the men to their deaths in impossible engagements, but he’s doing so because he’s a bigot who thinks the troops, being of a different extraction, deserve to die, and die bloody. 
The squad had already been having doubts about not just the engagement, but the war. Force-fed a steady diet of nationalistic propaganda since the moment of birth, they’ve had to overcome years of hard conditioning to get to the point where they could see not just that the war was starting to drive good men bad, but that the way they were being driven mad also implied, 
unavoidably, that the war itself was a pointless shell game.
Ultimately the squad makes the decision to frag their C.O. He’s a lot stronger and he’s not going to go down without a fight. People die very bad deaths in times of war.
The second story is a crime story. It’s about a kid who grows up in the absolute worst place in the universe, doing not so great, still probably not completely irredeemable things to survive. But he wants out. Problem is the only, and I mean - the only - bus out of town has an army logo on the side. You want to leave this post industrial wasteland? You gotta see the world, kill some people. 
Fast forward a couple years. The kid, he’s really not that bright but after a couple years he figures out two things: they’re never gonna let a grunt like him fly a plane, and absolutely everything they’re doing is not only pointless but actively evil. You kind of wish the two things didn’t weigh equally in his head, but some people are just like that. He does the right thing . . . eventually. He figures out that its easier to live with yourself as (sort of) honest outlaw than as mindless pawn in the imperial war machine. 
He runs into the girl he left to try and save, in far different circumstances. There’s a heist that entails stealing from a mine being operated by slave labor. None of the characters mount serious resistance to the idea that they’re going to fight their way out and facilitate a massive slave rebellion in the process. No one gets away clean at the end of the heist but the kid lives another day. 
Alright, did you recognize the plots? The first was from 2011, a four episode arc in the fourth season of The Clone Wars, and the second from 2018 - Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Neither are the first objects to pop into anyone’s head when the they think “Star Wars.” The cartoon is well-loved by those who remember it but also ran on cable on a kids network, circumstances such that even many Star Wars fans only rediscovered the show in hindsight. I’ve recommended it to people who swear up and down that they can’t stand Star Wars, only to see it become the exception. I think it’s probably the single best incarnation of Star Wars, even if it’s few peoples’ favorites, in the same way that you can make a very credible argument that Deep Space Nine is the best Trek, despite it holding few cultural recognizable iconic sequences or characters. It’s the one that takes the formula further than its ever been in a way that allows it to scale new and different heights. 
Also possibly overpraised by wonkish superfans who remain eternally grateful that such a wonderful thing was ever made in the first place. 
The Clone Wars arc in question, beginning with the episode “Darkness on Umbara” and ending with “Carnage of Krell,” is all about how the clone soldiers introduced in Episode II start  to realize just how pointless their engagement has been. It’s a realization that never completely arrives. In no time at all the war would be over: with Order 66 the clone soldiers were turned into brainwashed assassins against their former friends and leaders. Although the cartoons are very chary about describing precisely what happened to the clones at the conclusion of the Clone War, the heavy implication from the events of Rebels is that most of them mustered out after the war rather than continue to serve the Empire. Some of them were probably unable to live with themselves as a result of the war and Order 66.  
Solo suffered greatly from a number of things that had little to do with the actual movie itself. For some reason they moved it to the Spring, just a few months after The Last Jedi. People thought it was being rushed out, and in truth it kind of was - but the finished product actually bore few scars of its tempestuous birth. It’s fairly normal for Star Wars movies to have rough nativities and still end up completely watchable. It’s a good movie that got marketed like the company itself wasn’t that fond. 
Woody Harrelson was in it! Doing exactly the same thing he does in every other movie in which he appears, and yet doing it better as the years go by? I don’t get it. That movie has a perfect cast from top to bottom.
Why and how are these two very disparate branches of Star Wars related? 
The most important aspect of a Star Wars story is that the premise has to be played precisely straight. Whatever else is going on onscreen, there’s never a moment where the stakes of the world don’t make complete sense within that world. What do I mean by that? 
Things in Star Wars get to make sense on their own terms or not at all. There are no dangling thematic threads for the viewer to parse - no point where any of the performers wink to the viewers, as if to say, boy, this is sure some crazy stuff, folks! Or even, see, this is a metaphor, that’s why it’s a glowing green orb! If you can’t understand why that’s significant you haven’t seen enough of the sci-fi that preceded Star Wars. It was a genre known for its fondness for broad allegory. One of Lucas’ great insights was recognizing if you built a world that looked and smelled more like 70s downers like Silent Running and Lucas’ own THX-1138, and less like a broadcast studio, it might carry more dramatic heft as a vehicle for adventure. (One oft-unsung precedent: 1974’s Dark Star, also one of my mom’s favorite movies.) 
OK, now here I’m going to go off on a tangent and you’re going to trust me that it’s going to meet back up in the end - thanks for being understanding - 
Harry Potter’s saga will never satisfy, completely, because it’s premised on only a partial understanding of the world. The part where the old order gets lovingly restored despite having been directly implicated in the promulgation of fascism . . . hard not to see how that world works, or at least, how it works only fitfully and at great ongoing cost to everyone involved. Sure, people do that, and it just punts the problem another generation into the future. Like always. Everyone fights for everything to go right back to the way it was, even if the way it was wasn’t that great, and was premised on just not talking about anything, and that’s why the emotional stakes are so uneven. 
If that seems obvious, like something that shouldn’t even bear to be repeated - sure, of course Harry Potter is about fighting to regain something lost, that’s the point, it’s about kids struggling against absent and ineffectual authority figures. But isn’t it also kind of about how deeply implicated the structure of their society is in all their problems?  
Why is any of this important? It relates back to a phenomenon of the last decade or so, wherein Harry Potter became lingua Franca for a certain segment of the population, in terms of political memes and metaphors. In order to find the stress points in a story you have to look at how people actually use that story, live with it, turn it into something of value in their lives. People latch onto Harry Potter because the stakes make sense, sure, and they love the characters - but the world doesn’t make sense, and trying to graft pieces of an only partially coherent universe onto our own for the purposes of allegory really only highlights the shortcomings of said fiction while misleading those who partake. 
By contrast, Star Wars, despite being just as culturally ubiquitous, has passed its point of saturation in terms of the language. People pick random images - Darth Vader is eternally popular, certainly - but people don’t embrace the characters from Star Wars as figures of political rebellion in the same way that, say, Dumbledore’s Army continues to inspire plenty of folks with Harry Potter-centric social media profiles. 
I’ve spent years wondering over the discrepancy. The nearest I have come to understand is that Star Wars, and something eradicable in its heart put there with care by Lucas himself, isn’t actually a metaphor for anything. Star Wars is filled with metaphors, yes, just as all stories are filled with metaphors, and images, and dialogue and theme. But the world itself isn’t a metaphor for anything, it just exists, on its own terms. Like our own, you might even say. 
Harry Potter, as a quote-unquote saga, is about a lot of things too, but the terrific imagination at the heart of those books is jumbled in with an understanding of the universe centered around the essential propriety of the British class system as a way of social organization. Despite seven books detailing institutional decay in every strata of that world, the people in it seem to think there’s nothing wrong that can’t be fixed with some elbow grease and sparkle. Stiff upper lip, since the series itself certainly has no qualms in regards to smuggling chipper Tory stereotypes of English rural and suburban life. For the tourists, you understand. 
The books and the movies can’t actually get at the heart of what’s wrong with their universe because their universe was constructed by someone who ultimately didn’t see anything wrong with having most of the characters completely gaslight the reader in regards to the system of chattel slavery which make possible the wizarding world.  
There’s no point in Star Wars where any character with whom the audience is supposed to harbor even a twinge of sympathy is ever seen reflecting on the whys and wherefore of slavery. It’s actually a huge theme in all the movies, but I promise you that you didn’t see it as a kid. What else are Empires for, after all, other than to coerce vast populations into doing your bidding free of charge? 
That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. That’s what empires do and are for, and what they have been for and have done since the beginning of time. Empires are massive resource sinks which exhaust entire populations and environments for the purpose of simply being able to conquer more populations and environments. Fascism propagates itself by convincing new generations that there is nobility or higher purpose in this activity. 
You know the part in Star Wars, the first one, where Grand Moff Tarkin destroys Alderaan? Of course you do, it’s a great scene. A scene that just happens to show, onscreen, the commission of a planetary-scale genocide. The stakes aren’t metaphors, the stakes are as real for the characters because they’re the same stakes as in our own world: war, annexation, embargo, genocide. No shiny mystical MacGuffins or manufactured quests, just the raw exercise of military power over civilian populations. It’s all right there. 
Perhaps now you see why most people don’t go to Star Wars for that kind of inspiration. It’s not a story filled with comforting allegories about our world. It’s a story filled with the precise same kind of horrors that we see on the news every day. Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine aren’t metaphors for fascists, they are actually textbook definitions of fascists completely on the terms of their own world. 
It’s not quite so fun, maybe, to compare apples to apples? 
Which is why it doesn’t happen. Because it’s an insult to real tragedies to compare them to fiction. It’s tempting, perhaps, to use Harry Potter as a metaphor for real world shit, not because it’s accurate but because it’s inaccurate in a way that flatters our biases regarding the normative state of our world. 
But there is no normal in Star Wars to go back to. There’s just a time before the fascists, which in hindsight was filled with all the problems that enabled the fascists. And even if the fascists may be temporarily vanquished, the particular appeal lingers in shadows to spark a new flame. No matter how far back you go in the past, even thousands of years, there’s always more fascists waiting, ready to turn their personal demons into engines of atrocity screaming across alien skies. 
And there’s no way to tell that story any other way than, as many people have so helpfully pointed out for decades, a simple story of good and evil. Only, maybe not so simple. 
There’s an ingratiating nature to stories like Harry Potter. Things go back to square one at the end. But Star Wars never goes back to square one - there is no square one, your parents have been burnt to a crisp by the “peacekeeping” forces stationed across your planet, or blown up, or corrupted. There’s no choice in these stories: you either see the difference between wrong and right, in coercion as a means of social organization vs freedom, or you don’t. Trying to go back and rebuild the exact same kind of nuclear family units that will interface with the Procrustean and inherently conservative nature of magic education, in Harry’s case - it seems foolish, when the whole point is that you have to burn it all down to build it back up.  
There’s never a moment of restoration in Star Wars. Everyone already acknowledges that the world has changed in such a way that restoration of the mere status quo can never be effectuated. It’s only ever a bad thing to try to get back to the beginning, and the only results are pain and metastasizing cruelty. That’s a goal only a Sith would embrace, and exactly how Palpatine tempts Anakin In Episode III. How he tries to tempt Ezra at the end of Rebels. 
The satisfaction of a happy ending will forever elude Star Wars. That’s an unexpected gift from the Disney acquisition: the fact that the movies will continue, forever and indefinitely, is the best possible reflection of the core thema. Because of course it never ends. There’s no moment where everyone joins hands to sing “Yub Nub” and celebrate the death of the Emperor and the end of all problems ever, because the fact that we have an Empire in the first place is a symptom of a much larger problem. The appeal of authoritarian ideology is evergreen. 
I think a lot about the earliest screenings of Star Wars, by Lucas for his friends and colleagues in the cinema world of the mid-70s - that is, some of the best minds who’ve ever worked in film. And they all thought the early drafts of Star Wars were a mess, and that Lucas was going to have to pull a salvage job out of his ass on whatever weird thing he was going to end up putting out for the delectation of the midnight movie crowd and no one else.
In those early drafts, before the effects were completed or the editing was smooth - before it was apparent just how much work and care was going into making the world of the movie immersive in a way that filmic sci-fi simply hadn’t been before, or rare enough that you can count the precise precedents on two hands - the political subtext must have been really loud. All that stuff is right there on the surface of the text, and to be fair it did catch the eye of a few contemporary critics. But the immersive nature of the story papered it over for most audiences - I mean, the Rebel pilots wore orange jumpsuits just like the Cosmonauts did. They weren’t hiding it at all. That soon became harder to see. We wanted to root for the Rebel Alliance. 
Because, when you put it like that? It’s the most marvelous magic trick since Stan Lee figured out that people would pay a lot of money for cross-promotions: George Lucas made a dead-on Vietnam allegory with the American military-industrial complex front and center as the unambiguous villains, put it out in 1977 and then magically became a billionaire. 
How’d he do that? I promise you, deep down, he had no clue, nor anyone else who worked intimately on the production of the first film.          
But somehow he did it so well that the storytelling engine he constructed and sold to Disney is, at its ineradicable heart and clearly on the bold face of the text, an argument for rebellion against empire. And sure, when things got really big (and possibly when cocaine was involved? I don’t know but I’ve always assumed), Joseph Campbell and the Hero of a Thousand Faces got trotted out, and people started investing a lot in the Jedi code - even before the Prequels, mind you, which is one reason the ineffectual Order of the Prequels rubbed so many people wrong. 
The name also got stuck to one of Reagan’s boondoggle defense programs from the 1980s. In regards the question of Star Wars’ waning prominence in the decade, its important to remember there were a couple years where Star Wars was synonymous on headlines with “Reagan-era defense program.” That couldn’t have been good for its anti-imperialist cred.
To return to a question from a few pages back: why and how are these two very disparate branches of Star Wars - Joseph Campbell and Ronald Reagan - related?
The trick of Star Wars is not that it isn’t a metaphor or an allegory, it’s that all the metaphors and allegory are so obvious that people who have lived with the movies as parts of their lives for years and decades can completely overlook the metaphors . . . especially, that is, if they don’t understand the recent history of their own country. It’s not a metaphor at all, it’s just the world we live in, the stress points are in the exact same places, and we don’t recognize it or mark the significance because we’re fish who can’t see the water in which we swim.
I mean, otherwise, once you see it, oh yeah, huh, that makes sense, and then you’re off the races. But Lucas did such a good job at constructing a metaphor for the ability of a rapacious military-industrial complex to change the nature of a society that it turned into a great way to sell toys, which is just the kind of irony you get around to when regular irony ain’t cuttin it anymore and you just need the straight-up Greek hubris bullshit.      
I think what I’m saying, for the benefit of any literature students in the audience who might want a clearer example to cut and paste for their papers, is that metaphor and allegory in Star Wars are complicated.
It is interesting to me, as someone who has paid a lot of attention in the last few years to the specific ways in which stories buckle and warp under the pressures of adaptation and mass popularity, how much of George Lucas’ vision of Star Wars has remained intact through expansion and franchise development. The kernel of premise and plot that sits in at the heart of the franchise is so well developed, and so indelible in the hearts and minds of moviegoers, that its first fledging expressions outside the creators’ immediate purview have proven only the most loving and reverent of impressions. The earliest post-Lucas spin-offs have not betrayed the spirit of the films themselves, merely at times the limitations of the imaginations of the filmmakers involved.    
Star Wars has scaled remarkably well, one might even say, were one given to make pronouncements of the kind. 
The question will be asked, then, in five, and ten, and twenty years, and every interval subsequent through which Star Wars media continues to be made - does Star Wars continue to do justice to its creator? I’m sure eventually there will come a day, when the reins are loosened sufficiently to allow either laziness, experimentation, or both, when Star Wars becomes something different completely even than the wide range of expressions it inhabited during Lucas’ tenure. We’re going to live to see one or more movies or shows from the Empire’s perspective, eventually, for instance, and that could certainly work better or worse depending on how close to Lucas’ blueprints they adhere. Likewise, eventually there will be heroic Sith. 
(Honestly, since we’re on the subject of Revan - at this point I think the best possible thing that could happen with David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’ Star Wars deal would be something else that’s been discussed in a separate context - The Old Republic. I’ve come to appreciate The Old Republic as its own thing with its own fans, rules, and aesthetic that exists parallel and adjacent to the more mainstream of Star Wars, and Benioff and Weiss can do fairly well when given someone else’s lines to draw within, not so much when given a whole corner of a tapestry to freehand. The characters and themes of the Old Republic era would, if we’re being frank, probably be a decent fit for the duo. Translating Star Wars to the era of 00s AAA gaming - a movement that meant, in practice, slightly more sex, violence, and sadomasochism - made a different Star Wars, in ways that would both flatter Benioff and Weiss’ native prejudices and restrain their worst excesses.) 
When I was casting about for an ostensible subject for the follow-up to Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life, of all the subjects treated therein Star Wars seemed liked the easiest one around which to hang the rubric of an entire book. It seemed both thematically rich and also most likely to retain relevance for future generations in ways that - and I must strenuously apologize to myself - the whys and wherefores of runs of individual comic books from twenty or thirty or forty years ago just will not. 
One of the questions that preoccupied my thoughts in graduate school was why some stories lingered and some stories don’t. And, again, it’s not a question I ever figured out how to productively articulate in graduate school, so that’s to my detriment as a student and a teacher, certainly. But why can I say now, with some confidence, that Star Wars is still going to be familiar to readers of, say, half a century of the future? 
I make that judgment for Tolkien as well, albeit for completely different reasons. And I think the fact that the most popular adaptations of his material have come many decades following his passing speaks well to the deathlessness of those books, warts and all. Middle Earth is a part of our collective imagination for good, in a way that Narnia isn’t, and I’d argue, Hogwarts won’t always be - even though both those estimable sagas have their fans and moments, and The Lord of the Rings is by no means a perfect text. 
In the case of the former, I actually think that Narnia awaits a perfect adaptation. Perhaps the particular eccentricities of that world demand the attention of a dedicated auteur in the way that, for instance, Tolkien’s massive spectacles awaited the ability of Peter Jackson to conceive of how they might be shrunk down to fit in front of a movie camera. And in the case of the latter, Harry Potter is popular enough now, certainly, but so was Twilight a few years ago, and so far has not lingered in the popular imagination. If his story survives, it will be because - and this is no less true for any of these massive sagas - people will follow who will add and subtract and make something new in the process. 
Star Trek was completely and unambiguously the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, stealing liberally from dozens of different things and in collaboration with hundreds of other people over many decades. But Roddenberry’s specific and peculiar vision was also stifling in a way that every single person who has been involved in Trek has fought against, to some degree. Even while recognizing that it is precisely that tension that makes Trek work, between obeisance to Roddenberry’s vision - even the weird and thorny parts - and striking out, ahem, boldly going where, ah, you know the deal on that one.
And it was a productive enough tension to serve as the springboard not just for all of Trek, but for almost every sci-fi franchise to come up in the years and decades since. A number which most certainly includes Star Wars, and especially includes long stretches of The Clone Wars. The parts where the most shining and Trek-like vision of the Galactic Republic comes face to face with the realities of what war actually does to people. Like, you know, forcing a society to confront its deepest hypocrisies head-on. 
Which, come to think of it, was also a prominent theme of Deep Space Nine. Roddenberry’s tensions lie at the heart of so much of what has come since.
Trek is going to be around. Paramount hasn’t always done as good by Trek as Disney by Star Wars - so far, there’s many decades to go, for a full comparison. 
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. 
Stories that reflect an incomplete or fractured view of the present often don’t survive because the historical exigencies painted over are too obvious to later generations. It’s not just that our era has the crap, but every era has the crap. It is the most solemn responsibility of every subsequent generation to push the middlebrow ideologically blinkered claptrap of their fathers’ generation into the dustbin of history. Crap that only flatters the misapprehensions of its audience does not usually hold up as well for future generations, who usually know how it all turns out.
So what’s the formula at the heart of Star Wars? George Lucas’ ineradicable heart - at least so far, in 2019? 
Know your enemy and up the rebs. 
That’s it. The Walt Disney Corporation broadcasts a message of profound resistance into the homes of viewers across the world. And for all the Jameson and McLuhan I read in grad school, nothing was ever able to convince me that the messages at the heart of our entertainment aren’t important, or are ever masked completely by the financial aspects of sincere fandom. 
So much of our entertainment is ideologically rotten and complicit, in various ways - I mean, hell, I just wrote another book side by side with this one about all the ways that comic books and superheroes are rotten and complicit. I think Harry Potter’s world is similarly rotten and complicit: such a delightfully whimsical world could resemble anything, but what it does resemble is an anxious pre-Brexit England slowly discovering that the neoliberal compromises of the late twentieth century only exacerbated the conditions that give rise to the kind of homegrown fascist groups that much of the country would simply rather let take over than actually acknowledge. Perhaps a tendentious reading, but I daresay her eminence will yet recover from the imputation of wit.
And it’s not like Star Wars isn’t complicit in a lot. But, and I think this is important, the message scales. The message at the heart of these films, which so far all the money in the world and J. J. Abrams haven’t been able to obscure, is that when the world goes sideways you have to recognize the point when avoiding the fight becomes complicity in empire. And that’s it. If you fail to see the where the fight is, or the point of the fight - well, both The Clone Wars and Solo, for all their respective virtues, understand the fight, and it is my deep sorrow and regret to report to you that the fight in this instance is also right outside your window. 
If the messages in these stories didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter how toxic the gender roles in Twilight are, or that Harry’s indifference to the house elves wasn’t a bald-faced self-own on the part of the author. It wouldn’t matter who sat on the Iron Throne or the command chair of the Enterprise. It certainly wouldn’t matter just who stepped out of the TARDIS, or what gender that person may or may not be. 
For what its worth? I should mention that there is another big story out there that, I think, will both stand the test of time and prove ineradicably radical for the generations who have and will grow up reading them. Another story that really does seem to get where the levers of power and corruption rest, or at least closer than most.
I see a lot of Star Wars tattoos. Rebel insignias are popular - you don’t see as many Imperial symbols, and certainly I’ve seen them both on different elbows of the same person. But it’s been long enough, I don’t usually think to ask someone with Rebel Alliance ink whether or not they’d really be, you know, ready for the fight if suddenly they had to be. 
Contrariwise, I don’t see many Mockingjay pins or insignias in 2019. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Good symbols have a way of sticking around - I still occasionally see Andre the Giant has a posse in the wild, after all. I suspect it might not bode well for the resident authoritarians in our midst if we ever see a popular resurgence of Mockingjays. 
Stories matter, after all. We build our lives around stories, whether we admit it or not. Just part of the rhythm of being alive. It’s important to find an honest rhythm, and inasmuch as the stories have proven themselves capable of carrying a lot of weight and enduring a great deal of abuse while still keeping their composure, Star Wars is an honest saga.


Galaxy of Zeroes

If This Goes On I, IIIIIIVV

The Bad News Bears Go to Dantooine 12, 3, 4, 5
Just Another Star Wars Essay
If This Goes On - Envoi

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