Monday, May 28, 2007

Star Wars and Pretension

Yes, the thirtieth anniversary of Star Wars is a big deal. Before I knew Aristotle, Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein, I knew Yoda. Before I knew Athanasius, John Calvin, or David Bosch, I knew Obi Wan Kenobi. For better or worse, the movies helped define me. I understand the heroic partly thanks to Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo. Yes, I am a geek.

As pretentious as that last paragraph, I was overwhelmed tonight by the History Channel’s special, Star Wars Revealed. They trudged out religious scholars, classicists, film critics, journalists, and the rest. Everyone spoke such grandiose and intellectual cheese that I needed a good reality check.

The story of Luke Skywalker and the redemption of Darth Vader is more based on westerns, war movies, and pulp science fiction than heroic myths and biblical motifs. If the movies connect on larger themes found in classical literature, that only acknowledges that our culture is saturated with those themes. George Lucas, when he is at his best, is simply a good story-teller. When he is at his worst, Howard the Duck.

He also grabs and borrows from everywhere. Tatooine, The desert homeworld of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, bares a striking resemblance to the planet Dune in the books by Frank Herbert. Coruscant, the political center of the Star Wars universe, is cribbed from Trantor, a planet in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy.

Unfortunately, Joseph Campbell came along and claimed that Star Wars fit his broad generalizations of the world’s mythologies. Although interesting, many of the connections seemed forced. Steven Hart does a pretty good job deflating much of the myth of Campbell’s analysis. At one point, Hart writes,
If this is the level of analysis at work, then why should this myth-mongering stop with Lucas? The original "Rocky," released the year before "Star Wars," follows Campbell's mythic template much more closely than "Star Wars": just imagine Burgess Meredith as the wise old sage, Burt Young as the guardian of the threshold and Carl Weathers as Darth Vader. (Pop quiz: Where do the pet turtles fit in?) Campbell's approach can give any adventure story, from "Bulldog Drummond" to "The Perils of Pauline," a place in the pantheon. In fact, his acolytes are hard at work doing just that with such movies as “The Matrix” and “The Wizard of Oz.” It adds up to little more than a party game for drunken grad students, or a smoke screen for filmmakers covering their tracks.
Star Wars helped define my generation, but it isn’t profound. It’s a Rorschach test on celluloid. For many, Darth Vader and his Storm Troopers stand in for Hitler and his Storm Troopers. One black film critic from the History Channel special noted that Darth Vader reminded him of pimps from inner-city Detroit. As viewers in Prague saw Star Wars for the first time in 1991, there was no doubt that the evil Empire was the Soviet Union. The Emperor Palpatine is George W. Bush, Clifton Kirkpatrick or Dean Wormer depending on your perspective.

Unfortunately, as George Lucas added the prequels and modified the originals, he has actually muddied the waters. The Force which was never very coherent, now makes little sense. “Trust your feelings,” we are told, yet a Jedi must set aside his emotions. The midi-chlorians turns the Jedi from a order of space Jesuit/Ninjas, who have received the proper training and discipline, to a group of supermen with the right blood.

Still, I love the movies. I enjoy sharing them with my son. Perhaps, the best advice is Han Solo’s to Luke Skywalker as the Millenium Falcon makes its escape from the Death Star, “Don’t get cocky, kid.”

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