SOLUTION: HUM 107 City Colleges of Chicago Star Wars a Myth for Our Time Article Review

Jonathan Rosenbaum
Excessive Use of the Force
Posted ​June​ ​19​, ​2018
This review in the January 31, 1997 issue of the ​Chicago Reader
provoked a fire-storm of angry letters. I was attending the Rotterdam
International Film Festival while many of these were arriving, and I can
recall having to write a reply to some of them from there. The main
point of disputation was whether or not Lucas had in fact appended
the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” to ​Star Wars w
​ hen it first
premiered in 1977; I knew he hadn’t, because I vividly remember
attending a first-day showing in Los Angeles (and subsequently writing
about it for ​Sight and Sound ​in an essay, “The Solitary Pleasures of
Star Wars​,’” that was reprinted in my 1997 collection M
​ ovies as
Politics​). But quite a few of my indignant readers were convinced that
George Lucas in his wisdom had already foreseen that the film would
be so successful that it would launch three prequels and were eager
to set me straight. The ​Reader’s​ facts checkers eventually confirmed
my claim by phoning Fox, and I was left musing about the chilling
ease with which the S
​ tar Wars​ industry had seemingly managed to
rewrite its own history, at least in the minds of many viewers who,
having bonded with their parents and/or siblings over the blissful
spectacle of mass annihilation at a later date, either weren’t there to
see the premiere in 1977 or else were somehow persuaded
afterwards to re-imagine what they saw. — J.R.
Star Wars: Special Edition
Rating — Worthless
Directed and written by George Lucas
With Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec
Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David
Prowse, Eddie Byrne, and the voice of James Earl Jones.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Semantically as well as historically, there’s an important distinction to
be made between light and lite entertainment, and the release of ​Star
Wars​​20 years ago marked a watershed in defining where it lies. From
the 1930s comedies of Ernst Lubitsch to the best 50s MGM musicals
to Howard Hawks’s 1959 ​Rio Bravo​​, light entertainment at its best
was a pleasurable way of spending time with a pleasant group of
people. Some of this carried over into 50s sitcoms such as ​I Love
Lucy​​ and ​The Honeymooners​​ and ​The Jack Benny Show​​, in which
the main attraction was the glitter of attractive personalities.
Star Wars​​ launched its own set of enduring pop personalities, only
some of them belonging to people. But the prospect of spending
quality time with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), C3PO, Han Solo
(Harrison Ford), R2-D2, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca, or
even Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is at best incidental to
the pleasures the movie has to offer. None of these characters has
any depth, and they’re all treated like the fanciful props and
settings—as pulp staples that keep the action going. In this respect,
Star Wars​​ stands a universe apart from such SF touchstones as
Forbidden Planet​​ (1956) and ​2001: A Space Odyssey​​ (1968), to
which it’s highly indebted for many details. ​Star Wars​​ is grounded in
the short-term rewards of TV watching, where every moment tends to
be equal in emotional importance to every other and where the only
serious continuity is in a consistency of mild diversion rather than in a
persistence of personality. This form of entertainment can only be
called lite—constructed out of ersatz familiar materials meant to be
admired for their momentary cuteness or for details of their design.
Like the differences between Georg Lukacs (a Hungarian Marxist
literary historian) and George Lucas, the differences between light and
lite consist to a large degree of different assumptions about history
and audience, truth and illusion, war and peace, human and
nonhuman. For the past 20 years we’ve been living more in a world
foreseen by Lucas than in one hoped for by Lukacs, and Reagan’s
Star Wars program is only one of the more obvious artifacts of this
development. (The fact that last year’s ​Special Effects​​, a 40-minute
Omnimax commercial for the rerelease of the​ Star Wars​​ trilogy, and a
few more-recent fantasy blockbusters received major funding from the
National Science Foundation is surely another—and I wouldn’t be
surprised to hear Clinton say that it’s the duty of every American to
see ​Star Wars​​.) Even more pertinent is the gulf war, a media event
that I seriously doubt would have been sold or experienced in quite
the same fashion without the example of ​Star Wars​​—and not only
because it’s impossible to hear James Earl Jones say “this is CNN”
without thinking of Darth Vader.
Twenty years ago ​Star Wars​​ postulated itself as both the beginning of
something (a new way of marketing toys) and the end of something
(an older way of moviemaking, commemorated by a heap of favorite
bits plundered from movies ranging from ​King Kong ​to ​Triumph of
the Will​​)—an ingenious form of doublethink echoed in the very
premise of a fantasy of the future beginning with “A long time ago in a
galaxy far, far away…” Today it relaunches itself as a “special edition”
in the middle of a nightmarish continuum, with a trailer for both of the
retooled sequels, an entire ad (rather than a mere logo) for the
technology of THX sound, and, after “A long time ago in a galaxy far,
far away,” the suggestive and ominous title: “Episode IV: A New
Hope,” heralding three future prequels.
Consider the prospect: twenty more years of ​Star Wars​​ movies, toys,
comic books, weapons programs, video games, trailers, promos—and
tons of New Age jive to link it all up with Homer, the Old Testament,
Virgil, the Koran, Arthurian legend, Joseph Campbell, and even Walt
Disney. What was once at best an OK diversion for ten-year-old boys
has become a cornerstone of Western civilization. “There was
something that happened to many people in their late teens and early
20s when they first saw it,” muses ​Star Wars: Special Edition
producer Rick McCallum in the press book. “It was a turning point
where you actually realized that almost anything was possible and
realistic at the same time.” Even, one might add, a new form of mass
annihilation experienced as a spectacle.
I won’t bother you with the plot in any detail, since you’ve been living
with it for years even if you’ve never seen the movie. Suffice it to say
that an earnest farm youth on a remote planet, son of a vanquished
Jedi warrior, meets another former Jedi who trains him in the mystical
ways of the Force; finds his aunt and uncle burned to cinders by
minions of the evil Empire (in homage to ​The Searchers​​), which
occasions about 15 seconds of tragic reflection; hires a hardened
mercenary with an exotic, nonhuman servant to pilot him and his guru
and accompanying robots to save a princess captured by the Empire;
then blasts the Empire’s Death Star to sparkling, bubbling, and
extremely satisfying smithereens. Along the way, the guru is killed by
the Empire’s Darth Vader, one of his former pupils, which occasions
about 20 seconds of tragic reflection—not counting a few inspirational
posthumous voice-overs such as “Luke, trust your feelings” and
“Remember, the Force will be with you, always.” I’ll say. With two
refurbished sequels and three yet-to-be-made prequels, that’s an
eternity of Force to contend with.
It can be, and has been, argued that all this is a glorious triumph of
technology —which was also said of the gulf war. Of course plenty of
Americans lost or risked losing family members in that war, and I
certainly don’t mean to suggest that any of them experienced that
event as light or lite entertainment. But for those of us who
experienced the annihilation of Iraqi innocents and the partial
destruction of Baghdad as bloodless zaps and light shows, it was a
new kind of impersonal warfare, for some even a kind of masurbatory
fantasy that ​Star Wars ​provided the blueprint for. Interestingly
enough, ​Star Wars​​ used blueprints of earlier styles of aerial
bombardment, which it made even more abstract, even less
connected with human suffering. The climactic Death Star attack was
modeled directly on a compilation of air-battle clips from more than 50
war films. The nub of Lucas’s postmodernism was to retain the kinetic
pleasure of those clips and remove everything that might suggest
human devastation or historical nuance, turning it all into a giddy
fireworks display. The applause that still often greets the orgasmic
explosion of the Death Star is therefore made to seem as healthy and
innocent as the simple appreciation of a lighted Christmas tree. And
when Reagan named his weapons program after Lucas’s light show
he was telling us what mass annihilation might look like in the
future—not to those experiencing it of course, but to those getting a
rise from the spectacle on TV.
“But you’ll have to admit,” I can hear some ​Star Wars ​fans insisting,
“it’s beautifully put together.” In 1944 George Orwell wrote, “The first
thing we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a
good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable
from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be
pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp. In the same way it
should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and
it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say
that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact
that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.”
Now let me be fair. ​Star Wars​​ may be a wall, but it doesn’t surround a
concentration camp. It surrounds a kind of moviemaking and a kind of
humanity that it has been supplanting and making irrelevant (and
milking) for the past 20 years. The success of this movie convinced
studio heads that movies should be made to sell merchandise (the
major point of Mel Brooks’s underrated lampoon ​Spaceballs​​), that
antisocial ten-year-old boys are the viewers to target, and that anyone
who thinks otherwise about movies can take a hike. If every existing
print of ​Star Wars​​ were burned to a crisp, just like Luke’s aunt and
uncle, I doubt that the world would be a much better place, because
the changes it has helped to usher in are already part of the modern
world. But I don’t think I’d shed any tears.

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