Every saga has a beginning

>> Monday, April 06, 2009

Last week, over at Slate, Emily Bazelon confessed that she's shown her two small boys the Star Wars movies and marvels, "Long after the actual memory of the film faded, [her sons] talked and played in George Lucas' world.... How does the Lucas-world accomplish this mind control?"

It was an odd piece for me to read: I first saw Star Wars in a theatre in 1977 when I was five (a year younger than Ms. Bazelon's older son was when he first saw Star Wars), and now here I am nearing forty and I'm still talking and playing in George Lucas' world. Ms. Bazelon's tone--well, it's clear she doesn't grok it, that she almost sees something a little shameful in her children having been exposed to this particular mental virus. "Perhaps an almost-3-year-old's single viewing of a 1977 fantasy film barely qualifies," she writes, "But it's become our family's classic tale of second-child sin—committed, regretted, and, we hope, recovered from."

No, no, no. Recovered from, it shall not be, as Yoda might say. Even if neither boy grows up to be a geek, they've been exposed to a cultural vocabulary that will follow them for the rest of their lives: Star Wars is one of the rare things that jocks and nerds can cross the lines and bond over. (Although, frankly, the fact that the Bazelon children seem to be comfortable discussing the culinary preferences of dianoga suggests that some degree of geekery is the cards for one or both of them. I hope they don't have to sneak the Asimovs and Clarkes from the library under their jackets when they're coming home from junior high, like some kind of nerdporn.)

How does Lucas exert this control? Part of the answer, actually, is he doesn't: the Star Wars universe is vastly bigger than Lucas and left his control years before he began work on The Phantom Menace in the 1990s and despite Lucas' efforts to regain the wheel of his own franchise (the more you tighten your grip, George, the more spinoffs will slip through your fingers). It's not just the comics and the various animated shows and the novels and RPGs and computer games and the rest of it--there's something about Lucas' setting that I think invites the audience to come up with their own stories in that place in a way that other settings can't quite match; there's something intimidating and archaic in Tolkien and even Star Trek can be off-putting in the way in which would-be fan participants have to don the uniform to join in. Okay, so David Brin thinks the Star Wars 'verse is elitist--is there anybody who actually agrees with him on that score?1

Part of the appeal, too, is that there are primal elements in the Star Wars mythology. I sort of want to tread carefully, here, because there's a lot of bullshit that's been sown in this field: when Joseph Campbell latched onto Lucas' movies as a way to illustrate his pop-culture take on cultural anthropology, Lucas latched right back on the opportunity to legitimize his space-opera jidaigeki2 as something heavy and transformative, a movie about profound human truths and not just one about laser swords.3 Lucas' claims that he was heavily influenced by Campbell are suspect,4 but I also think it's obvious that Lucas incorporates a lot of very fundamental, mythic elements like the questing hero and the wise old man, not to mention the kinds of things that appeal to dreamers, and especially boys, on a visceral level: robots, explosions, spaceships, alien vistas, the best dog in the universe (it's like he's half dog, half monkey, and all awesome!). George Lucas almost certainly didn't understand what he was hitting upon when he transplanted Kurosawa to deep space and added cowboys and World War II airplanes, but his instincts served him well.

Ms. Bazelon frets that two hours of "stupid indulgence" have warped her children. Yes, for sure, but not in a bad way. I can understand a parent's concern that she's somehow damaged her children, especially when the children seems to be obsessing over a fantasy story, but these fantasies--these "insubstantial paegeants," as it were-are, as the old line continues, the stuff dreams are made on. Her boys, to paraphrase a wizard, have taken their first steps into a larger world.

1Star Wars has its flaws, some of them profound, many of them cheekily pointed out by Andrey Summers if you actually need a summary. (You didn't actually need a summary, did you?) But I'm not sure if Mr. Brin was being a curmudgeon or merely obtuse when he sat down to pen a critique of Star Wars that manages to neglect almost all of the movies' legitimate weaknesses in favor of setting fire to a platoon of strawmen. Some of Brin's arguments certainly have merit--e.g. Darth Vader's facile redemption for years of murder, torture and planetcide by throwing an old man off a bridge for trying to kill Vader's son is absurd--but then his central thesis, that Star Wars is part of an elitist Romantic tradition (as opposed to the egalitarian tradition of projects like Star Trek) that celebrates authoritarianism, is off the rails.

Trek, after all, presents the heroes as members of a kind of benign fascist regime--Starfleet and its uniformed military representatives appear to have a hand in everything from basic scientific research to making sure grain shipments show up at various Starfleet starbases and colonies, with the rare private individuals (e.g. Harry Mudd) being presented as obstacles to Starfleet's ongoing efforts to make sure the starships arrive on time. That isn't to say that the Trek universe is inherently awful--like the Star Wars 'verse, it's sometimes naively optimistic, and the hopeful future it presents is as aspirational as Wars' fairytale past. But Brin's question--"Anyway, when it comes to portraying human destiny, where would you rather live, assuming you'll be a normal citizen and no demigod? In Roddenberry's Federation? Or Lucas' Empire?"--is idiotic. Either. Neither. Both. Is a unitard obligatory, or can I wear one of those comfy-looking desert robes Owen Lars used to sport 'round the Tatooine homestead?

I mean, there's some irony in the fact that Lucas' "authoritarian" universe is the only one of the two that commonly shows ordinary citizens engaging in free enterprise as something other than a problem to be overcome; ordinary citizens in Trek tend to be people who don't want to relocate when their sun's about to explode, or have been tricked into worshipping as a god something/somebody that isn't a god, or are in the midst of some strife that must be ended by the cooler and wiser captain of the Enterprise/Enterprise/Defiant/Voyager/Enterprise.

No, the bottom line is that Brin's piece for Salon said a lot more about what's wrong with David Brin than it did about what's wrong with Star Wars (plenty, for the record).

2Michael Kaminski has pointed out that this film genre, which heavily influenced Lucas, also probably provided the name for Lucas' sect of warrior-monk-wizards.

3Yes, I know they're really called "lightsabers"; whose blog do you think you're reading?

4Kaminski, linked to in FN3 above, has a solid analysis of the Lucas/Campbell relationship if you're interested, though I think he gives it a little more credence than I do, suggesting that Lucas could have read Campbell's work while writing Star Wars (without being able to provide any corroborated evidence Lucas actually did so).


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