Tuesday, May 05, 2015


Lines Composed Shortly Before Reviewing The Force Awakens trailer

I quite bring myself to press "play".


Sometimes during this process I have found myself asking "Is Star Wars, in fact, something that you like? Is it not rather something you used to like?" 

And even when you used to like it, did you really like it, or did you just sign up to the "liking Star Wars club" when that was the fashionable club for deeply unfashionable people to belong to? Would it ("cosmically speaking")  matter if the seventh Star Wars film — let alone the trailer for the seventh Star Wars film — failed to fill you with the same kind of joy the first one did? It wouldn't necessarily mean that all the joy had gone out of the world. It would simply mean that joy is now to be found in different places. 

I envy people likeAdam Englebright, I really do. He says that he honestly can't see why I think that the Star Wars movies are fundamentally different beasts from the various comics, books and video-games that have sprung up around them. (And he honestly can't see why New Who is a different thing from Old Who, either.) I honestly can't see how he can't but I honestly wish I couldn't. I mean — just to take one example — Marvel Unlimited has just put 500 (500!) Star Wars comics on line. Pretty much everything from 1977 up to date. 80 hours worth of material that is more or less the same kind of thing as A New Hope. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. And to be young was very heaven. 

Adam feels that anything with the Star Wars label on it -- certainly anything endorsed by George Lucas -- is Star Wars by definition. The Empire Strikes Back and Vader's Quest are both equally telling you about stuff that happened in the Star Wars universe. 

My friend Nick, on the other hand, regularly refers to Episodes I - III as "fan-fic" even though George Lucas actually wrote them. Which is an interesting approach. If the man who thought up the idea of Jedi Knights doesn't get to tell you what Jedi Knights were like, it isn't clear who does. One might, I suppose, say that the Aenied is Iliad fan-fic; that Frasier is Cheers fan-fic; that Star Trek Season 2 is Star Trek Season 1 fan-fic. But I am not sure how far it would get one.

This isn't one of those hair-splitty arguments about canon, although we are going to have to have one of those before too long. It's about the difference between what Adam calls Watsonianism and what he calls Doyle-ism; a very elegant distinction which I shall draw at every opportunity from now on. 

Are the Sherlock Holmes stories made up by a jobbing writer named Doyle who'd rather have been out and about snapping photographs of fairies? Or are they accounts of Sherlock Holme's life written down by his friend Dr Watson? Well, both, obviously: Watson tells the stories; but Watson is a literary device made up by Doyle to make the puzzles more puzzling. (Detective stories are easier to write if they are mediated by an unreliable narrator: the more unreliable the better. Holmes spots things that the reader misses; but Watson misses things the reader spots.) I don't know if there are people who honestly believe that Holmes was a real person. I did once meet someone who honestly thought that The Lord of the Rings was real history (it was too complicated for Tolkien to have thunk up). There are apparently lots of people who don't get that The Da Vinci Code is a story. 

But the Watson/Doyle distinction isn't about that kind of confusion. It's really about what kind of question it's appropriate to ask about books, or what kind of answer would satisfy you. Everyone knows that there is a discrepancy about Watson's war-wound: it's an arm injury in the first story, and a leg injury thereafter. It is obviously and simply true that Doyle simply forgot what he had written in the first story, and didn't bother to go back and check. And this tells us things about Doyle as a writer, if we want it to. He was slapdash, and didn't care much about details. He was a consummate story teller, and altered facts to make the world more exciting and mysterious. He was incline to suppress references to arm wounds because — I don't know — he was burned on the arm by cruel nanny when he was a baby. None of these kinds of answers are of the slightest interest to a Watsonian. The Watsonian needs answers that make sense on the assumption that Holmes and Watson were real people: Watson was never wounded: his injuries were psychosomatic; Watson was never wounded: he's lying about his injuries to make Holmes look good; Watson was was trying his shoelaces when he was shot; the bullet went through his shoulder and into his leg; Watson was, in fact, Moriarty in disguise and Moriarty never quite got his story straight. 

You might, I suppose be a sort of hyper-Watsonian. You might know perfectly well that Doyle wrote the stories, but think that he, Doyle, intended them to be read in a Watsonian way. If the inconsistency about the war wound is on the page, then it's on the page because Doyle put it there, and if he put it there, he did so for a reason — to give us the clue that Watson is delusional, or amnesiac, or an impostor. And some books certainly are presented in that way: the Lord of the Rings doesn't fully make sense without Tolkien's conceit that it's a translation of an ancient "red book" that the Hobbits themselves wrote. At one level, Watsonian criticism is hugely respectful to The Author.  No accidents; no slips of the pen -- everything the author said, the author intended to say. But at another level, they push the author out out of the picture completely. Holmes and Watson get to be real, but only if the story you read (where Watson is a lying impostor) is different from the one which Doyle actually wrote. 

The Watsonian approach finds things in the text which are not there: but it excludes things from the text which probably are. Stories do contain metaphors and subtexts and allusions and in jokes and hidden meanings; real life doesn't. After the death of Sherlock Holmes, Watson writes: "I shall ever consider him the best and the wisest man I have ever known." Everybody knows that at the end of Phaedo, Plato wrote that Socrates was "of all those whom we knew in our time the bravest and also the wisest and most just." I suppose that it is just possible that Watson read a little philosophy at medical school, but I don't think that we are supposed to think that he is consciously quoting Plato. I think that Doyle is winking at us. Watson is kind of like Holmes's Plato, the loyal disciple doggedly writing up his master's dialogues, and maybe sometimes putting his own words into his mouth. This kind of thing doesn't work if Watson is a "real" person reporting a story as best he can: it requires an awareness of a Mr Doyle, pulling at his strings. 

The Early George Lucas did intend there to be an intradiegetic level to Star Wars. There is a persistent oral tradition that he had originally wanted there to be a pre-credit sequence in which a mummy Wookie was reading a baby Wookie a bed-time story, called, presumably, Star Wars. The first couple of novels were said to be excerpts from a longer text called "The Adventures of Luke Skywalker" or "The Journal of the Whills." And, of course, the very words "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..." suggest that this story is being told by someone. 

I might have gone over the top when I argued that Star Wars needs to be thought of as a sequence of abstract images and references more than as a story. 

"I think that a lot of the "plot" of Star Wars is transparent glue which is only there to glue one part of the visual and emotional collage to another part of the visual and emotional collage. ....Leia little speech 'They let us go, its the only explanation for the ease of our escape' as a bit of noise which gets us from 'the scene which is a bit like one of those old movie serials' to 'the scene which is a bit like one of those old world war II RAF films' as quickly as possible."

But so much of the film's impact does come from the way in which it quotes other films and stories and genres that a purely in-universe reading strips the flesh off the bones. We adore the Cantina scene because it is so much like a cowboy film: it's whole meaning is "wild west saloon! filled with aliens!" Luke doesn't know what a cowboy, or indeed a film, is. 

Did you see that review of Star Wars by Samuel Delaney from 1977 that came to light on the interwebs. Fascinating stuff, and Doyle-ist to a tee. He seems to agree with me about the plot:

"Star Wars, so far as I can tell, has no story at all: or rather there are so many holes in the one it's got that you could explode a planet in some of them (about a third of the way through, one does) but it all goes so quickly that the rents and tears and creaking places in it blur out." 

I don't think that anyone has ever not noticed that the name of the hero, "Luke" and the name of the director "Lucas" sound pretty similar. But I am kicking myself for having spent the last 40 years missing the fact that director's first name, George comes from the Greek word for "farmer". So "the film is a blatant and self conscious autobiographic wish-fulfillment on the part of its ingenious director."

Well, yes. But this kind of thing takes you out of the movie; and we have said that the whole point of the movie is that it sucks you in. If, when Aunt Beru shouts "Luke! Luke!" and we hear Luke's lietmotif for the first time, we are thinking  "aha, blatant and self-conscious autobiographic wish-fulfillment" then we have stopped watching Star Wars. If that's what we thought the first time we saw it, then we have never seen Star Wars. 

I have said before that in the Year of Waiting for Star Wars, I watched Flash Gordon on English TV, and that Flash Gordon stood up perfectly well, because I believed in Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon believed in Flash Gordon. We forgave the somewhat visible strings on the fairly obviously model spaceships, partly because (I still maintain) they are rather good model spaceships on which the strings are as well hidden as possible; but mostly because our heads were full of spaceships and we positively want to believe in them. No point going to see Flash Gordon not wanting to believe in it and then complaining that you don't. But equally, no point in going to see Star Wars and straining to see strings which aren't there and being impressed that you can't see them. No-one who saw Star Wars and said "great special effects" have ever seen it, either. 

I don't think that everything I don't like is fan fiction. 

I don't think that everything which has got George Lucas's paw print on it is automatically real. 

I think that the prequels, however massively flawed they were, have a special status because they came out of the mind of George Lucas. But that doesn't stop them from being massively flawed.

I was hoping that the Force Awakens was going to tell me what George Lucas imagined happening to Luke and Leia after Return of the Jedi ended; to give me access to his magical note book. It turns out that it's just going to be what some guy thinks happened. And why is some guy's ideas more true than yours. Or, in particular, mine. 

Unless of course the new film is so great that it just sucks me in and it doesn't occur to me to ask any of these questions. 

That's what we're really talking about here, isn't it? The difference between saying "The Empire Strikes Back is a different kind of movie from Star Wars" and saying "If it says Star Wars on the tin, that's what it is" is the difference between criticism and immersion; between being inside and outside of the story. And paradoxically, the big difference between Episode (if you insist) IV and All Of The Others is that I was, on the first couple of viewings totally immersed in it. And when I say I want, or wanted, to up sticks and go and live in the Star Wars universe, I probably only meant that I would like some day to be immersed in something, anything, to that extent, again. 

So the answer, I think, is yes. For at least ninety minutes I really did love Star Wars. And when I am asking for the new movie to take me back to the closing credits I am still hoping that I might love it again. And the reason that I can't yet quite bring myself to push "play" on the trailer is that there is an overwhelming probability that I won't.

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