Dissonant Notes

Friday, May 9, 2014

Flogging a Dead Force: The Terrible, Joyless Supercult of ‘Star Wars’



When I was young I loved the Star Wars trilogy. I watched the films, I bought the toys, and I froze that Han Solo action figure more times than I care to remember. I would bring my toys over to friends’ houses so we could combine our collections and enact scenes in a more accurate manner. It was all terribly innocent and fun. By the time I was thirteen I probably hadn’t thought of Star Wars for a while. Other things were soon to preoccupy me, things like hormones, orgasms, leaving school, drinking alcohol, finding a job, moving out of my parents house, and various other aspects of growing up. I was 23 years old when The Phantom Menace came out, and I remember being excited. Really excited. Upon leaving the theatre I had a thought that I could barely admit to myself, that thought being “What a load of shit that film was”. Despite my crushing disappointment, I went to see both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, mindlessly handing over my money knowing full well that I would be both disappointed and angry. Here were three of the worst films ever created, and I and thousands like me had made them unbelievably profitable out of some pathetic loyalty to a tarnished brand. At this point I thought Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon was finished. Who could maintain their excitement after being insulted three times over and being charged for the privilege? It turns out that a lot of people could. As the years have gone by the supercult of Star Wars has only grown, and in 2015 there is to be a seventh movie. How did we get here? Why are we still celebrating what should have been a passing cultural moment for a particular generation? The reasons are all ugly, and it’s apparent that many people my age and younger need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and see just what kind of easily pleased, overgrown children they have become . To discover where things started to go wrong, let’s go back to a time when Star Wars was just a successful movie trilogy, and not a smothering cultural albatross.


At the start of 1994, it was still possible to have a conversation about Star Wars without feeling self-consciously hyper-aware of its relevance. That is if you felt like having a conversation about Star Wars at all. It retained a certain cult following among comic book and sci-fi fans but, other than that, it was a pleasant memory, albeit one rarely revisited. Then Kevin Smith happened. Smith’s low-budget debut Clerks made Star Wars culturally relevant again in America by making it the property of dude-bro, apathetic, ironic stoners. The idea of people discussing the morals of killing Death Star contractors seemed to strike many people as hilarious and soon everyone wanted in on the action . Suddenly dude-bros everywhere were declaring that Star Wars was awesome. Something began to creep into pop culture. Discussing Star Wars took on a self-conscious tone, as people took pleasure in over-inflating its importance while denying that any such over-inflating was happening. Star Wars was awesome, dude. Smith struck gold by capturing the first instances of another cultural phenomenon: the rise of the nerd! This nerd wasn’t an ex-member of their high school chess club, though, and they didn’t know how to build a computer. They merely liked comic books, sci-fi/fantasy and, by extension, Star Wars. It wasn’t nerdy in a way that required brainpower. Quite the opposite, in fact. This was everydude geekdom, the revenge of the stoner who listened to metal and watched horror movies. Slayer were awesome, The Evil Dead was awesome, and so was The Empire Strikes Back. Soon enough the Star Wars revival began to gain more tread and it wasn’t long before this revival was turned into profit. In doing so it turned a pleasant childhood memory into a steroid-pumped corporate licence to print money. 


It would be a mistake to lay all the blame on Kevin Smith. Smith himself was a product of a particular time and place, and his movies merely greased the wheels. The nineties saw the emergence of the ironic persona, that hyper-aware personality trait adopted by millions of American teenagers. The ironic persona reveled in trash culture, gaudy sunglasses, and anti-hipness. The anti-hipness is an important and often forgotten element of nineties culture. The ironic persona preferred looking like an uncool goofball than somebody who, like, cared, man! The forces of ironic uncool and dude-bro nerdiness first synthesised in the nineties, and Star Wars was the main benefactor. Which is not to say that Star Wars was trash, but it was a childhood artifact filled with monsters and quotable lines. It was uncool/cool. The fact that both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were well-made movies that many children had deeply loved sealed the deal and gave the whole thing an air of respectability. Whereas something like Tron didn’t truly stand the test of time (its eventual sequel was one of the many nadirs for this narcissistic, childhood-obsessed generation), the first two Star Wars movies were perfectly executed, exciting, and memorable. (Return of the Jedi in comparison barely survives the glow of childhood memories and its leaden acting and lazy plot are the first signs of rot in the franchise). 



As the influence of American ‘alternative’ culture seeped into Britain, Star Wars conversations on both sides of the Atlantic shared the same self-conscious air. In place of innocent enjoyment, there were bug-eyed, mannered declarations of love. All of a sudden Star Wars became unbearably meaningful as everybody forgot that, for many years, the trilogy was barely discussed. Overnight, it was as if Star Wars had always held sway over the hearts of everyone, all the time, and people could barely contain themselves. The franchise made the all important leap from merely being a loved cultural artifact to being an untouchable, sublimated product. When discussing Star Wars, people were not merely discussing the movie, they were saying something about themselves. Communication existed beyond words. Star Wars enabled people to consume their own gestures, to feel a glow simply by invoking its holy name. In one glorious instant, childhood, product, and persona merged triumphantly into a fetishised singularity. Thus was born the unthinking, commodity-hungry ├╝ber-nerd.

Before the disastrous prequels, each of the original movies was revamped as a ‘Special Edition’ and re-released into theatres. The results were awful. Instead of merely touching up the colour and sound, original producer and owner of the franchise George Lucas made huge changes which included new scenes with additional dialogue. The additions added nothing and were generally looked upon as pointless and even harmful. Despite this faux pas, nothing could quell the excitement for The Phantom Menace which came out in 1999. The movie exceeded all expectations in terms of how dreadful it was. Completely lacking in memorable action or dialogue, it was dull, flat, and worthless. The follow-ups were no better, and some of the dialogue was excruciating (“ Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo; so long ago when there was nothing but our love.”). Would it surprise you to learn then that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are all sitting comfortably in the top 100 highest grossing movies of all time? Sorry to get all Kanye West here, but OF ALL TIME!!! How could this happen that these terrible movies are amongst the most successful ever made? The reason is simple: when it comes to Star Wars, it simply does not matter if the product is good or bad. All that matters is that it has the name Star Wars attached. The unthinking devotion of the Star Wars fan means that considerations such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are unimportant. All that matters is that new Star Wars product is available.


The Star Wars revival also helped usher in the great cultural regression back to childish pleasures, under the suddenly acceptable guise of nerdiness. Before the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, before the endless onslaught of comic book/superhero adaptations, before Harry Potter, there was Star Wars. The reemergence of Star Wars fandom that occurred in the late nineties allowed for the creation of a great monolith of taste. This monolith demanded familiarity and an absence of psychological depth. Since 2000 there have been seven X-Men movies and since 2002 there have been five Spider-Man movies. We have Transformers. We have Iron Man. We also have reboots, that awful word that has its origin in computing, designed to make nerds feel a warm inner glow about watching a variation on the same thing again and again. In case anybody thinks I’m exaggerating, assuming things like Star Trek and Batman have always been loved, the difference in terms of monetary reward between now and then is staggering. The two recent Star Trek reboots are the most financially successful Star Trek movies ever made by some margin, and The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises have made more money than every other Batman movie combined. The Superman reboot seems to be the only franchise which has not outstripped its predecessors, but both movies still scored huge at the box office. The Spider-Man franchise has already had time for a reboot. Nobody seems to mind.

So, now we have a huge block of people who will pay money to see anything comic book/childhood-related. Throw in the amount of adults enjoying Young Adult novels and movies, and it appears this grand fetishisation of childhood paraphernalia is now the defining cultural phenomenon of the new millennium. All of these movies seem to share a humourless, po-faced seriousness, with characters wrestling with their ‘destiny’. Psychological depth is provided by the most superficial of moral dilemmas. What must a character do to fulfill their destiny? Does doing good also involve hurting people? Spaceships with moral dilemmas. Superheroes with moral dilemmas. As British writer and TV presenter Charlie Brooker explained:

“Calling Batman ‘the Dark Knight’ is like calling Papa Smurf ‘the Blue Patriarch’: you're not fooling anyone. It's a children's story about a billionaire who dresses up as a bat to punch criminals on the nose.”

What is apparent is that these self-proclaimed nerds are the least discerning movie fans in the history of cinema. Even Rocky fans got bored by the third installment. The connecting of the word “nerd” with comic books, and superheroes, and even books like Harry Potter, gives a false indication of intellect. This is unfortunate given that these movies are completely free from intellectual content. They are big-budget children’s stories appealing to, at this point, generations of people who see no need to develop emotionally and who demand familiarity and predictability at every turn.


A particularly off-putting aspect of this now ubiquitous nerd culture is the overwhelming misogyny. Women in comic books and sci-fi/fantasy are generally presented as hyper-attractive, perfectly constructed goddesses whose breasts can barely be contained. The moment a woman actually chooses to dress like that in real life, however, is the moment when she will be cast out of the nerd club. Memes, internet comments, websites, and even comic book artists mock attractive women who dare define themselves as nerds. No, only men know what nerd women look like. These pathetic, insecure men feel threatened by the involvement of women, especially attractive ones who *gasp* may dress in ways that enhance their attractiveness. The nerd credentials of men are never called into question, only those of women. Then there is the outcry whenever a non-white cast member is included in a fantasy/young adult/sci-fi movie. Accusations are made of PC pandering, of being ahistorical, or of altering the comic-book canon. Just ask Idris Elba about when he was cast in Thor. I mean, obviously it’s quite alright for everybody in a Nordic-based movie to speak English, but if you include a black guy, that’s just wrong. Time and again the inclusion of a non-white cast member creates controversy, and nastiness ensues. Outside of the Tea Party, it’s hard to think of another group of people who indulge in misogyny and racism so freely as comic book/fantasy nerds.


There is a general feeling that has existed in pop culture these past few years, that feeling being that the nerds have won. What has this victory given us? A stunted emotional outlook. A demand for familiarity (11 of the 12 highest-grossing movies of the 2010’s are sequels, Young Adult adaptations, comic book adaptations, or reboots). A demand for predictability. Very public displays of racism and misogyny. The budgets and profit margins of these films are astronomical but, outside of perhaps the Nolan Batman movies, it is a fact that none of these creations will survive the most basic of critical scrutiny from upcoming generations, and future landfills overflowing with unwanted DVDs will testify to their general worth. So you can add accelerated environmental destruction to the list of nerdish victory spoils (the only thing they like recycling is ideas and plot lines). With all this in mind, what can we expect from the next Star Wars movie helmed by J. J. Abrams? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. It will not be great in any objective sense. At best it will be a functionally pleasant way to waste two hours. In reality, though, it will make money no matter what. It will fulfill its purpose and, in doing so, it will inspire endless internet chit-chat and another round of overused references as people old enough to know better bring themselves to one more dry, joyless Star Wars-derived orgasm. There will be countless empty, redundant gestures of approval, along with impotent anger and bickering over horrifyingly inconsequential aspects of the movie that will help to reinforce some misguided idea of nerdiness. It will be hideous.


If you are in your mid 20s or older, I have news for you: your childhood is well and truly over. It’s actually been over for a while, but I wanted to give as much leeway as possible. Time to grow up. (Honestly, if you went to see that Tron sequel you should be fucking ashamed of yourself). Let other people be young now. You squeezed every last piece of joy out of your pre-adult years but still you want more. You want more representations from your childhood reproduced over and over and over again, in ever more expensive and charmless tributes to a collective unwillingness to grow. The last good thing from the Star Wars franchise came out in 1980. That was 34 years ago. Time to move on. Time for new ideas. We are rats pushing buttons looking for that same reward time and again, but we are being handed dust and shit. At this point Star Wars is a smothering, over-familiar cultural high-five that exists on some barren field of existence where cerebral activity is banished. It needs to die. It won’t, though. It will thrive and bring profit which is the only thing that really matters. The Hollywood studios found a way to turn the public into an unlimited cash machine and they are in no mood to change course. The magic that many felt upon watching Star Wars for the first time has been transformed into a repulsive monster that will not give up. What childhood representations will coming generations want to see on the big screen? The same as the Star Wars generation (those born between around 1965 and 1990), whose narcissistic refusal to grow up has condemned future generations to watch the exact same images revamped and only slightly rewritten. No new images have been allowed to come into existence. French philosopher Camus famously said “A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”. For those of us immersed in Western culture, that work is complete. Those images are the comic book superhero, the wizard, and the spaceship. Safe from the whims of taste, we can watch another Star Wars movie, switch off our minds and merely exist and consume. I can’t help but think that our childhood selves hoped for a somewhat better future than this.