TMISR… Part Four: Star Wars

by zunguzungu

A New Hope, via the netflix

It’s too easy to make fun of George Lucas, especially after the supremely awful “prequel” sequels. And what a pompous ass-basket that man manages to come off as sometimes. But the funny thing about the old Star Wars movies is how good they were when they were good despite also plumbing the depths of badness. I don’t imagine this happens very often; it’s hard to be both that good and that bad at the same time. I don’t really have a grand unified field theory for why this is, but I do have an idea I want to try out: that Star Wars is good at being bad because it thinks bad is, for an interesting reason, good.

To wit: Star Wars is totally cheesy, and Lucas always knew it was. It isn’t science fiction, and it definitely isn’t “speculative fiction,” sci-fi’s attempt to put on a tuxedo and play with the big kids. It’s space opera. In this sense, it’s easy to rag on him as a hack because, well, he is a hack. He wasn’t trying to make science fiction into high literature, since — all his Joseph Campbell-ism aside — he was actually trying to reproduce a version of the radio sci-fi he remembered listening to on the radio when he was a kid, a genre whose badness nicely lined up with the needs of its then-young audience. In this very particular sense, then, being “bad” wouldn’t be about failing to measure up to a particular standard of quality, but of approximating an experience which was good despite or even because of being “bad.” The whole point of transforming science fiction into space opera, in other words, is to turn back into a child (thus, Lucas becomes Luke?) who does not, cannot, observe the difference.

We therefore have a movie that celebrates exactly the kind of regression to youth that a youth culture obsessed with nostalgia toys requires. The fact that this might lend legitimacy to the way our consumer culture prostrates its values to the desires of its most purchasing of populations — children and those who buy for them — is of course worth noting (and Star Wars is still the classic example of film merchandising), but I’m more interesting in what it says about the movies themselves. After all, if Lucas is a hack who revels in being a hack, then the fact that he is an adult who doesn’t outgrow his toys but wants better and better ones is hardly something we can hold against him, right? It’s interesting to note, for example, that Lucas was himself much more interested in the whiz-bang of his movies than in stuff like character or dialogue. Putting the second movie in the hands of people that were (one of the writers of To Have and Have Not, for example, provides the Bogie and Bacall banter we all love so much) might make this less obvious, and Lucas’ own choice to hang out with the tech people at Skywalker ranch while leaving the actual directing in the hands of Irvin Kershner gives us a sense of his priorities. After writing and directing the first movie (and acquiring, as he has proudly noted, full control) he chose to hand off the actual duties of writing and directing to people much better at it than himself. He was simply more interested in toys.

This gets more interesting, I think, if we start to think about the kinds of ideologies that science fiction so often comes with. “Real” sci-fi comes out of a particular lineage within Western thinking, the idea that all our problems will be solved by grown ups with technology and knowledge. That’s one of the options we’re currently addressing, by the way, with respect to the current financial shit-fucking that’s happening out there: wait for the experts to figure it out. But this line of thinking dovetails with another, a desire to keep from having to become adults ourselves, a humility that looks a lot like trying to avoid the weighty responsibilities of adulthood if you squint at it a little. Why try to figure it out when we can just trust the adults to save us?

This is why Star Wars turns to childishness, I think, or why it makes a generational conflict into its narrative heart. Darth Vader thematizes a certain kind of fearful adult, the adult who has given up something precious in order to become socialized into a technological society, the gear who has accepted being part of a larger machine. And in adapting himself to the machine, Vader has become a machine. Thus, the drama of the Star Wars series is that Vader now wants to socialize his son, and that he doesn’t do it by lying or force: he holds it out as a temptation, because that’s what it is. And the fact that Luke has to become a cyborg just to survive is the perfect metaphor for the ambivalence which we share with him: after all, don’t we want both to be a part of society and to be apart from it, both to join the machine and to be distinctly human? “Sci-fi” is a language a name for that ambivalence, a discourse which is a balanced emulsion between a longing for a “pre-modern” and irrational anti-adulthood of childhood fantasy and the desire for scientific order and the harmony of everything in its right place. And for George Lucas, what better way to attack the problem of a post-Watergate America defined by adults who turned out to be criminal assholes than turning the tide towards childishness? He could reject the imperative to be a contributing adult member of society by transforming a technocratic discourse of “those who know better” into a platform for dreams, using space opera to turn science into a toy…