Star Wars and Cultural Exhaustion
Why I actively root for Star Wars’ failure
Many essays about Star Wars (hereafter SW) open with an anecdote about the anticipation and promise of new adventures and then subsequent crushing disappointment once the writer was faced with the grim reality of The Phantom Menace. The rest of the opening of the essay will focus on the writer going through the stages of grief while wrestling with the perceived betrayal by George Lucas. The funereal moan of “Lucas ruined my childhood” has taken on the form and frequency of cliché and thus has been exhausted of significance. However, the phrase’s very banality indicates a deeper and generative meaning that will be productive discursively. SW as a corporate franchise designed to sell products and perpetuate the strength of the brand cannot possibly “ruin” a childhood. This implies more agency than the brand would deserve. Rather, the lamentation of one’s despoiled juvenility is a rhetorical device to indicate the spectator’s absolute displeasure with the release of the “first chapter” in the saga.
Let me be completely forthright you then, reader. George Lucas never ruined my childhood. Nor did he ever ruin my adulthood. I’ve never met George Lucas and I presumably never will. In a less figurative sense, Lucas’s films never disappointed me on the grandiose and hyperbolic scale as countless SW fans because I never had high expectations in the first place. I expected less than nothing from the initial salvo in the prequel trilogy not because I was somehow more savvy than the average fan but rather because at the tender age of 14 or 15, I was a cynical sour adolescent with nothing but disdain for popular culture and especially for soulless brands looking to only capitalize on multiple generations’ nostalgia.
As I’m older now, I can look back with embarrassment for that unkempt, noxious nursling. Though, not total shame, of course, because history vindicated my prejudice for the prequel trilogy.
By the time 1999 came around, I had already made my first sojourns into counterculture and anti-establishment ideology. I had learned of Adbusters, the overpriced glossy magazines ostensibly devoted to the counter-culture but in reality, an exhibition for graphic design. I had also started reading “edgy” literature and “underground” things like Clive Barker and splatterpunk writers (though unaware of the genre’s sobriquet until later). I had grown from overweight know-it-all enamoured of genre into an overweight know-it-all enamoured of hating. I was the epitome of the tryhard neckbeard (I rarely shaved) who uses terms like “sheeple” with a straight face.
For me, 1999 was an important cultural epoch. Naomi Klein’s No Logo was published, Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon was published (though I would not read it until 2002). Douglas Coupland’s Miss Wyoming, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, and more importantly, David Fincher’s Fight Club, Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty were released.
Taken together as a group, Fight Club, The Mummy and American Beauty don’t seem to have any similarities beyond the year of their release date. However, these three films share one important detail personally; they were seminal in the development of my tastes as an adolescent.
American Beauty was for many, their first “art film.” I use this particular phrase in a loose manner. Obviously, Mendes’s film is not an “art film” in the sense that it is either a gallery film, or non-narrative, or an essay film. Rather, it’s a traditional Hollywood indictment of the suburbs that works seamlessly side-by-side with countless other films in the same discourse. Despite the lack of innovation in the narrative, Mendes’s direction and aesthetic choices elevated Alan Ball’s screenplay from a queered reading of Yates’s Revolutionary Road to a chiaroscuro psychosexual opera with a Grand Guignol denouement. As a young spectator, it was a violent and sudden introduction to a world of film outside genre spectacle. At this point, I realized that film could do and say complex things without clunking exposition.
Years later, I realized that American Beauty was facile and trite, its visual metaphors strained, and its denouement sophomoric. I haven’t seen it since the early 2000s and I can’t think of any reason why I would ever want to revisit it. I can only assume that the memory of my initial viewing (rapt attention) will not match the actual quality.
Yet, it was American Beauty (not entirely) that provided me with the critical faculties to reject outright the crass commercialism of Sommers’s The Mummy. Most notable for introducing Rachel Weisz to American audiences, the film is an awful onslaught of poorly conceived setpieces and early CGI. This will be hard to believe, but at 15, I realized that the film was not a “loving tribute” to the 1930s Universal Monsters, but an empty soulless attempt to capitalize on the pre-established brand power of the intellectual property.
Though I was unable to articulate this thought at the time, I understood the film to be a “quotation” to a “source” that not many people had seen. The quotation itself was not specific enough to make any meaningful connection, nor was the cited source coherent enough to be consequential. The 1999 film shared little with the aesthetics, tone, pace, or structure of the nebulously defined films of the past. It was instead a vague gesture towards not a film, but a shared iconic image of a mummy (Boris Karloff). Though, the mummy in the 1999 film purposefully looked nothing like Karloff’s visually arresting mummy. Thus, Sommers’s The Mummy is a classic example of the postmodern, the reference without a source, an unearned attempt to capitalize on an emotional attachment.
While The Mummy was emotionally bankrupt and inert, David Fincher’s Fight Club was electrifying. Countless words have been written about Tyler Durden, the plight of American masculinity, the reaction to over-consumption and product placement, Project Mayhem’s plan to destroy corporate culture, and the visually striking aesthetic of the film. Suffice it to say that every beat, every heavy handed provocation from the film provided me with the energy and the outrage to vehemently reject the pablum of The Mummy and then The Phantom Menace.
There’s something hilariously ironic about a generation of kids who take Fight Club as some sort of instructive, a manual for a way of life. Considering the anti-corporate film was produced and released by 20th Century Fox, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s massive 21st Century Fox, worth countless billions. However, this irony is academic. Most germane to my edification, Fight Club preaches a rejection of the corporate culture and of the mainstream.
I provide all this information as background for my intellectual and cultural relationship to SW. I want to stress in a wholly obvious way that I do not enjoy a conventional relationship with the franchise by providing intellectual context for my 1999 ambivalence for SW. In other words, I am not like other SW fans. With these three aforementioned films (and other cultural objects) and intellectual development, I was primed to wholly reject the tripe that Lucas would peddle upon an unsuspecting audience.
There’s no need to get into the specifics of why The Phantom Menace is such an awful film (hint: see above for one example). That’s the purview of other articles and other writers who are interested in the renovation of the franchise. The countless criticisms from SW fans are not dismissals or rejections of the brand, but rather an attempt at salvaging the intellectual property, at steering SW towards the same level of quality as the original trilogy. In other words, SW fans criticize the prequel trilogy like a parent scolding a disobedient child; with enough discipline and tough love, the saga can continue to explore new worlds and new adventures without detritus like Jar Jar Binks.
Therein lies the essential difference between the SW fans and myself. I do not criticize SW because I love it. Instead, I criticize SW because I now actively root for its failure.
Though I used to love it. I used to imagine myself a young Luke Skywalker, holding two empty toilet paper rolls to my face to simulate the binoculars in The Empire Strikes Back. Pretending I was a Jedi, I used to wield long branches disregarded by trees, but loved by me. I had memorized most of the dialogue. I was a huge fan because I was a child, and SW is for children.
And then 1997 reared its portentous head. How naive we were in 1997 when Lucas’s digital “improvements” were accepted not warmly, but neither with hostility. The audience’s reception of the digital tweaks and added scenes could be characterized as cautious. Though, the use of audience here implies the general audience, not the raucous, vocal fanbase. For these discrete disparate individuals, the Special Edition release of the trilogy was marred by the Han Shoots First fiasco (I will not bore you with the exact circumstances).
In 1997, I cared deeply about Han having first shot. It was important in establishing his character as an amoral and ruthless scoundrel, who would then redeem himself by later joining Luke in the final battle with the Death Star. It made sense in terms of basic storytelling. However, changing this detail, I can happily admit now, did not irrevocably alter Han’s arc. He still tells Luke that he’s looking out for himself before the final battle. He still redeems himself by distracting Vader’s TIE-Fighter.
The alteration of Han’s shooting of Greedo was not accepted by the SW fanbase, and to this day, it is a contentious subject amongst fans. I would like to suggest now that the reception of the Han Shoots First incident in fandom is a synecdoche.The whole non-controversy represents almost everything that I despise about SW fandom. And in another sense, represents almost everything I loathe about nerd culture as a whole. It’s the tendency to get utterly bogged down in the details, in the minor trivialities of the object, rather than the whole picture. It’s the sense of entitlement that pervades every single fan’s rejection of Lucas’s revisionism.
The crux of the rebuff to the alteration is not that it negatively affects Han’s story arc, but that, now, with the modification, the object does not match the memory of the original experience. The film no longer correlates to the person’s memories as an 8 year old. The amended scenes represent the object’s betrayal of the subject’s memories and thus sense of self. And what is, after all, SW but an exercise in ruthless nostalgia?
The first SW filmed released in 1977 is nothing but an calculated paean to serials from the 1930s, such as Flash Gordon. The structure of the film is episodic, but also intensely shaped by Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. Again, I’m not interested in walking the same discursive paths as other essays on SW. I’m not interested in charting the precedents or the influences. There are other (countless) essays doing the same work. Suffice it to say that SW is predicated on a logic of nostalgia, a melancholic yearning for an imagined past.
In this way, the modification of the film crosses the subject’s memory, and betrays his experience. Altered SW then rejects the subject’s desire for the reproduction of his memory. This is intolerable for the subject.
According to Lacan, the subject can only understand his reality through the symbolic order. The various discourses that comprise the symbolic order work concurrently and repetitively to produce the subject’s identity. There is no subject outside discourse or ideology. Thus, the subject clings to ideology and tenaciously repeats the symptoms of their subjectivity (Alcorn 2002). Libidinal pleasures are repeated to sustain a repetition of the past. The pleasure in this repetition of the past comes from an avoidance of a sense of lack. The lack is understood in relation to desire. For Lacan, desire was distinct from need. Demand for an object is rooted in need; desire for an object is rooted in its absence. There is, of course, no object. Because once he gets the object, the subject has no idea what to do with the object. “Desire thus does not seek satisfaction; rather it pursues its own continuation and furtherance — it merely seeks to go on desiring” (Fink 51).
The hardcore SW fans desire an experience that can never be reproduced because it is literally impossible to reproduce the experience of seeing a film for the first time. Lacan would suggest that SW fans don’t even want their 8 year old memories reproduced perfectly because their desire would then be satisfied.Thus, the fanbase derives pleasure from the memory’s betrayal. I’m not suggesting that fans want their favourite cultural objects to be disappointing, because that would imply this desire acts on the conscious level. What I am suggesting is that there is truth to the cultural trope of the angry nerd, forever unsatisfied with their favourite brands.
At this point, I will happily confess that my hope for the failure of SW comes from a desire to see nerds rage, to see them frothing at the mouth as the franchise “ruins their childhood” once again. Though, I’d like to expand my motives to include a more theoretical base.
In his book, Retromania, Simon Reynolds carefully diagnoses Western culture’s current obsession with retro. He argues that nostalgia is the dominant cultural mode (which is a clear but implicit nod to theorist Fredric Jameson). He writes of nostalgia that “this… has become a dominant force in our culture, to the point where it feels like we’ve reached some kind of tipping point” (xiv). Nostalgia is, of course, dangerous, as it engages in a type of reductionism that flattens the past into something unrecognisable from reality.
In the 1980s, there existed a strong nostalgia for the allegedly simpler times of the 1950s. The result of such nostalgia is an aesthetic production that gave us films such as Back to the Future and Stand By Me. These films yearned for stable, easy to identify family dynamics and more prosperous economic times in reaction to Jimmy Carter’s presidency and subsequent economic downturn in the 1970s. But these movies, while entertaining, were not particularly faithful to the reality of the 1950s. As Jameson writes in his famous “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” these films,
set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era: and one tends to feel that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire—not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana, but also the first naive innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock-and-roll and youth gangs… (67)
In his 1984 State of the Union address, Reagan quoted the famous final line of Back to the Future, “where we’re going, there are no roads” bringing together the neoconservative policies (1950s-era social policies) with the economic reforms of neoliberalism (free market capitalism, free from the nanny state of the previous decades). Thus, the nostalgia mode has a direct ideological purpose: to remake the current decade in the shape of a Utopian past that never existed.
For Marx, Jameson, and other theorists, the material conditions of production can never be divorced from the cultural objects. In “Postmodernism,” Jameson writes that:
aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation
Postmodernism is then not a set of aesthetic signifiers (as is generally understood by the general public) but rather a logic that pervades all aspects of cultural production, one predicated on depthlessness (Jameson’s coinage), nostalgia, and the rapacity of capitalism. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes,
when Jameson first advanced his thesis about postmodernism, there were still, in name at least, political alternatives to capitalism. What we are dealing with now, however, is a deeper, far more pervasive, sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility (7).
My desire for SW’s failure comes because I’m wholly exhausted with the cultural logic of postmodernism. I’m wholly exhausted with the cultural logic of SW itself, in the sense that the franchise urgently produces fresh waves of seemingly novel products, such as mash-ups, (possibly the most tedious symptom of the democratization of art).
SW produces countless waves of mindless toys, video games, lunchboxes, bathing suits, socks, lamps, puzzles, USB sticks, books, comics, and on and on and on. Normally this type of cultural saturation would lead to a decrease in cultural capital (and thus economic capital) but somehow the brand survives, nay, thrives.
In fact, the brand was recently purchased Disney, and they’ve hired J. J. Abrams to direct the seventh film. I want this film to fail but not in the financial sense (though that would be nice).
I want this film to give the fanbase exactly what it wants. I want the seventh SW film to ruthlessly and methodically duplicate the exact experience of being an 8 year old boy seeing the first SW film in 1977 (or 1997). I want the film to be a faithful reproduction of the best sequences from the 1977 and 1980 films.
In August, it was announced that Abrams and his cinematographer Daniel Mindel were going to film the seventh SW film using Kodak film stock 5219, an attempting at imitating the grain and texture of the film stock used for the original trilogy. For me, this is an omen that the seventh film will shamelessly try and manifest all the best that makes up the original trilogy.
And I want this to happen. Because when it does, and I’m completely convinced it will, not only will fans be alienated from the project but it will ultimately confirm Jameson and Reynolds’s theories on the sterility of cultural production in the era of late capitalism. The new film will have proven to be a boring copy of a copy of a copy and I will be vindicated in my dislike for the franchise. This argument, then, is entirely motivated by self-interest and even intellectual snobbery. I fully admit that I hope for this failure if only to validate my own tastes.
Perhaps, then, if I might indulge in some optimism, the critical failure of a new SW film will instigate a new paradigm of movie making (and even cultural production if we’re being idealistic). Numerous essays have been written charting the inevitable doom of the current release model for mainstream Hollywood. The mid budget film has disappeared only to be replaced by a series of ever larger blockbusters (of which I’ve written here). The risk of investment in these blockbusters will soon outweigh the material benefits if the current paradigm is allowed to continue, numerous pundits (including Steven Spielberg) have argued. I can only hope that SW will represent a tipping point, a puncture in the distribution of the sensible (pace Jacques Rancière). The cultural logic of blockbusters is in dire need not of renovation but complete demolishing. I don’t mean this optimism in the hope of preserving the coffers of the wealthy financial stakeholders, but in the hope of experiencing something new. I’m starved for the new. I’m starved for the exciting, the thought-provoking, the productive, the beautiful, the intelligent, the science fiction (or any other genre) not of my youth, but of my dreams.
Walter Benjamin ends his amazing essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” with a similar call. He argues that fascism is the aestheticizing of politics (eg the Nazi’s extremely excellent grip of graphic design) whereas communism is the politicizing of aesthetics (41). For Benjamin, communism allowed for the proletariat to mobilize through the politicization of art and culture. Art could be transformed for social change by virtue of its technological reproducibility. The rejection of a seventh Star Wars film could inspire and spur writers, filmmakers, and artists to produce their own science fiction that isn’t a ruthless mobilization of nostalgia.
I choose to end this essay on a note of optimism. I’d rather that than wallow in the foreknowledge that the SW will succeed financially and further the mainstream Hollywood business paradigm as well as propagate the cultural logic of the infantilizing nostalgia mode (within genre). Instead, I will sleep soundly, hoping that there is a future generation of filmmakers, currently aged 7, waiting a year to see Star Wars and say, “what is this nonsense?”
Alcorn, Marshall W., Jr. Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the Constructions of Desire. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings. Ed.Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Levin. London: Harvard UP, 2008.
Fink, Bruce. Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. London: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2009. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991. Print.
Reynolds, Simon. Retromania. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. Print.