Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Last Jedi: Tertiary Thoughts

People who don’t like Star Wars seem to have mostly liked the Last Jedi; it is Star Wars fans who seem to have had misgivings about it.

This is doubtless why the vibe on the opening night was so negative. The five hundred people who had sat through the Force Awakens/Last Jedi double bill were, by definition, the five hundred biggest Star Wars geeks in Bristol.

The five hundred biggest Star Wars geeks who could afford to go to bed at 4AM on a school night, at any rate.

The media still talks as if Star Wars fans are some obscure cult, like collectors of 78rpm vinyl or Juliet Bravo enthusiasts. But even in 1977, when Star Wars was new and strange, it was also the most popular film of all time. Not a movie, more of an industry, said Barry Norman, before it had even opened in the UK. In the ensuing 40 years it has only grown bigger. It is strange to look at Star Wars Lego and Star Wars computer games and Star Wars Lego computer games and realize that millions of kids who have never seen a Star Wars movie know the identity of Luke Skywalker's father.

There is a show on Radio 4 in which guests are challenged to try things they have never tried before. So the notoriously well-dressed journalist is asked to buy a pair of jeans; the serious food writer is asked to go to McDonalds; someone who claims never to have eaten cheese is presented with a vast tasting palette of the stuff. The title of the show is I’ve Never Seen Star Wars.

We are all Star Wars fans now. 


Richard Dawkins famously said that if atheism is a religion, then not playing chess is a hobby. Garrison Keeler, almost as famously, said that in Minnesota, even the atheists are Lutherans: it is the Lutheran God they didn't believe in. 

Everyone has seen Star Wars. Nearly everyone likes Star Wars. But if you are reading this you are part of a tiny minority who have seen all the films an average of 16 times each; and have spent time thinking about them — as history, as mythology, as drama, as the possible subject matter for role-playing games.

It may be hard for you and I to believe, but the overwhelming majority of people who saw the Last Jedi didn’t have any strong feelings about it either way. They honestly haven’t given it a second thought since they left the cinema. They are, however, enormously looking forward to the Black Panther. Trust me, if you think the Phantom Menace retrospectively ruined your childhood, or even if you take the contrarian view that A New Hope is boring and dated and the sequels are where it's at, then you care infinitely more about these movies than nearly anyone else in the world.

Any schism between people who hated The Last Jedi and people who quite liked it is a schism within that tiny minority. It is not an argument between people who like Star Wars and people who do not. It is an argument between Star Wars geeks who like Star Wars and Star Wars geeks who don't. People who are geeky about liking Star Wars and people who are just as geeky about not liking it. There are, in fact, a fair number of people in the world whose hobby is telling other people to stop playing chess.

In this corner a group saying it is just so great that this film annoyed Star Wars fans because we fucking hate Star Wars fans, us, and want to see them getting annoyed. And in that corner a group saying we, the fans have ownership over this material; we, the fans get to decide how this material is used; and no-one else has any say.

And in the middle, an overwhelming majority whose review of the Last Jedi is the same as my mother’s review of A New Hope when she took me to see it at Barnet Odeon in 1978. “Yes, that was an enjoyable film. Now can I please forget about it?”

Is it possible to find balance between the two sides?

Who is Star Wars for?




We are all Star Wars fans now.

The Last Jedi cost literally $200,000,000 to make. It is on show in every multiplex cinema in the world. It is the literal definition of mainstream. It’s target audience is everybody.

But "everybody" isn’t invested in Star Wars in the way that you and I are. Everybody will not feel that their whole day is ruined if someone uses the Force in a way that no-one has ever used the Force before. Everyone doesn’t care if the film’s very existence does spoil Return of the Jedi. Everyone doesn't think very hard at all about what the film means. Everyone is probably not even giving the film their full attention while they actually watching it. 

When I am in a cynical mood, I say: “Oh: I suppose that means that everybody but me just gazes zombie-like at the big coloured lights and listens to the loud bangs?”

When I am being less cynical, I say that if you watch the movie for the landscape and the battles and the shape of the story without engaging with it at a cerebral level you are watching it in exactly the way it is supposed to be watched.

I once speculated that Star Wars could best be understood as a succession of images held weakly in place by a plot — that the emotional power of the first movie comes from seeing a little spaceship and a big spaceship and a scary man in a black cloak and a golden robot and a squeaky little robot even if you aren't quite sure exactly what a "consular ship" is. George Lucas considered dubbing the film into Japanese, or into some entirely made up language, to force audiences to attend to the imagery. Mark Hamill told Leslie Judd that the story of Star Wars is “only so much non sense to hang a great visual spectacle onto.” 

The plot of Star Wars is a little long a song lyric. Not a song by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, just a pop song. We understand them perfectly well. They go:

La-la-la 
the sort of thing that people say in love songs 
la-la-la 
the kind of thing a young lad might say to a girl at a party
La-la-la
The kind of thing which people say in songs like this
La-la-la
Sex

The person who asks exactly where the strings of one's heart are located, and what exactly it would feel like if one of them went "zing" has clearly not quite got the idea of songs yet.

We are all Star Wars fans now.

I am a big fan of The Godfather Part II, although I always get lost during the Cuban sequences. Most people agree with me that it is a fine movie. Some people say that it is one of only two sequels which is actually superior to the original. (I forget the name of the other example.) 

But The Godfather Part II doesn’t stand alone. Al Pacino Robert De Niro is not merely portraying Vito Corleone; he is quite specifically portraying Marlon Brando portraying Vito Corleone. It is a fabulous performance precisely because we can so easily believe that Pacino De Niro is the young Brando. You wouldn’t think me a pathetic gangster geek if I said that you really won’t get very much out of The Godfather Part II unless you have seen The Godfather. The Godfather is one of the things which the Godfather Part II is about. The main thing, even. 

Yes, Mr Exception, I know you saw Part II before you saw Part I and enjoyed it very much. Please say so in the comments below: I am sure we will all find it fascinating. 

People sometimes propose the experiment of finding someone, maybe a child, who really has never seen Star Wars and showing them Episodes I - VI, in that order, in George Lucas’s preferred, redacted form. Would they understand them? Would they even be watching the same movies which we love so much? Would Darth Vader's dramatic entrance in Episode IV be even more dramatic if you immediately thought “It’s Anakin! And the lady in the white dress must be the girl baby all grown up! And he doesn’t even know!” Would it be more fun to see Old Ben drive the Sand People away if your immediate thought was "Golly gosh! Ewan McGregor has sure let himself go!” And would the climax of Empire Strikes Back be even more climactic if all the way through it you were thinking "Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know! Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know. Is he going to tell him? Is he going to tell him?"

Once we have done that experiment, we could try to imagine what it would be like to watch The Last Jedi without having seen the Force Awakens; nay, without even having seen A New Hope. 

“The old guy has gone into some sort of space ship. Is it the ship the younger woman came in? I suppose the thing that looks like a dustbin is a robot of some kind, a much more primitive version of the one we saw the guy in that little red and white space ship talking to earlier? The way he’s touching it, I suppose he must think of it as a friend. Maybe he used to own it? It is showing a very old film of a girl. Who is she? Sounds like she’s in some kind of trouble. I suppose the robot is reminding him of some time long ago when he helped a person in trouble. Maybe it’s a reference to some previous film.”

It is possible to watch a film like that. It can be quite fun. I have occasionally enjoyed watching a detached episode of a soap opera, where all the characters present themselves as “that-kid-who-has-to-admit-to-his-dad-he’s-done-a-bad-thing-I-have-no-idea-what” and “that-woman-who-is-meeting-someone-she-shouldn’t-be-meeting-I-have-no-idea-who”. Back when I only read Marvel Comics (on religious grounds) I used to positively enjoy it when someone else’s DC title fell into my hands. The Teen Titans felt so much more superheroey than the X-Men because I hadn’t got the faintest idea who any of them were. Because I didn't know the backstory I could actually attend to the surfaces. It used to be quite normal for films to be playing on endless loops and for audiences to catch the second half, of one and the first half of the other. You'd get to see some car chases and some kissing; you could tell if it was a police movie or a romance. Only some kind of weird movie geek actually care about the plot. 

But these are accidental pleasures. When we saw Star Wars for the first time there was indeed a kind of joy in hearing people talk about the Clone Wars and the Jedi Knights and having no idea what they were. But George Lucas intended us to have no idea; very probably he had no idea himself. Rian Johnson knows perfectly well what Artoo Deetoo is and why the hologram is important. He expects us to know as well. If Mr Exception goes to see the movie and enjoys the confusion of not knowing, then he is finding something in the film which the director didn’t put there.

But it's a silly question. there is no way of carrying out the experiment. Everyone knows who Luke Skywalker and Artoo Detoo and Princess Leia are. We are all Star Wars fans now. 



Who is Star Wars for?

At the very end of the movie, we see Luke Skywalker meditating, floating above a rock, looking into the sunset. It is a double sunset; Ach-Tu is a binary system. After a moment, we see his empty robes fall away: he has vanished.

It is theoretically possible that John Williams thought “I suppose I had better play some sad music at this point. I can’t be bothered to write a new tune, so I will bung in one I’ve used before. It’s not like anyone will notice!” It is possible that he said “This scene needs a bittersweet sound track with an element of triumph and an element of sehnsucht” and just happened to compose a tune that was very similar to the tune he composed the last time he wanted to signify sadness and happiness and triumph and nostalgic longing. And certainly, if you have Never Seen Star Wars you would not sit through that scene thinking “I am baffled! What is this music and why is he playing it now? I feel confused and excluded!” 

But everybody has heard this music before; during the iconic Binary Sunset scene in the first act of A New Hope, when Luke was looking out to the horizon wishing for adventure; and again in the final seconds of Revenge of the Sith, when the infant Luke first arrives on Tatooine. The meaning of the scene depends on our familiarity with the score. The music, far more than the pictures, is saying: “Luke is setting off on a big adventure” and “Luke has come home”. 

In fact, if you could translate what the music and the pictures were saying into words, it would come out much more like “LUKE SKYWALKER!!!!!” or possibly even “THE SUMMER OF NINETEEN SEVENTY BLOODY SEVEN!!!”

The man who has Never Seen Star Wars might look at the scene and say “What just happened? Has Luke been beamed up to the Starship Enterprise? Has someone done a conjuring trick? This crazy science fiction stuff is impossible to understand!” You and I are remembering that moment when Darth Vader struck Ben Kenobi down his cloak fell to the ground in two parts, but Ben's body was not in it. And that moment on Dagobah, when Yoda's body vanished, leaving only his robes behind. We may not even be thinking of those specific scenes: but everybody knows that when good Jedi go to be with the Force, their bodies vanish.

You may think that this is all so obvious that it is hardly worth saying. But it would not be obvious to your Mum, to Mr Exception, or to the man who has Never Seen Star Wars.


Who is Star Wars for? I do not have an answer. I am minded to accept the theory that I have spoiled the Last Jedi for myself by over-thinking it. There is a strong case for saying that when I ask myself whether Luke's grounds for rejecting the Jedi order are fair I am making a category mistake. It isn't exactly that I am the only person who is listening. Everybody is listening. But everybody else hears  Luke's speech as a song lyric. 

La-la-la, mystical nonsense,
la-la-la, the kind of thing old mentors say in this kind of movie,
la-la gub-gub hey nonny no. 


Everyone may even think that the Ach-Tu sequences are just the boring bits they always put in between fight scenes so you have a chance to go to the toilet and get some more pop corn.

And yet the film seems to demand a fairly high level of engagement. It seems to think that we can identify musical themes and recurrent motifs. It seems to be about Star Wars in just the same way that the Godfather Part II seems to be about the Godfather. The film's entire punch comes from the fact that this is not just some guy saying that it is time for the Jedi to end (and then sacrificing his life to keep them going) this is Luke Skywalker. The kid who wanted to pick up the power converters at Toshe station; the kid who flew down the trench; the hero with a thousand faces who tried to save his father and found he already had. Luke Skywalker.

**********L*U*K*E  B*L*O*O*D*Y S*K*Y*W*A*L*K*E*R **********

Only Star Wars can possibly be expected care about this stuff.. But we are all Star Wars fans now.

For whom is Star Wars?


6 comments:

JWH said...

"People sometimes propose the experiment of finding someone, maybe a child, who really has never seen Star Wars and showing them Episodes I - VI, in that order, in George Lucas’s preferred, redacted form. Would they understand them? Would they even be watching the same movies which we love so much? Would Darth Vader's big entrance in Episode IV be even more dramatic if you immediately thought “It’s Anakin! And the lady in the white dress must be the girl baby all grown up! And he doesn’t even know!” Would it be more fun to see Old Ben drive the Sand People away if your immediate thought was "Golly gosh! Ewan McGregor has sure let himself go!” And would the climax of Empire Strikes Back be even more climactic if all the way through it you were thinking "Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know! Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know. Is he going to tell him? Is he going to tell him?""

I have actually done this with my second child and this is what we found...

He struggled with the Phantom Menace. He found it long and confusing. He did like the Anakin scenes however and followed that bit of the story quite closely.

He sort of liked the next two. Luckily for him, the awful, awful, dialogue didn't grate so much with six-year olds. He was quite affected by the overall story of the boy - very like him in many ways - who goes really bad. He liked Attack of the Clones, but did find it quite long. He found the revealed Emperor quite scary and thought the final fight scene terrifying. And awful.

He thought the Empire Strikes Back was okay in bits, but sometimes a bit long and slow.

He liked Return of the Jedi and thinks it is quite similar to Star Wars.

He really liked the Force Awakens and thinks it is very similar to Star Wars.

He liked the Last Jedi and thought it was quite like Return of the Jedi.

But Star Wars is his favourite, because there wasn't too much he didn't understand and the pace is always pretty fast.

Gavin Burrows said...

Were I to point out you'd mixed up Pacino and de Niro, would I win a no prize?

(Yes, I'm just being pernickety about a very good piece!)

Aussiesmurf said...

For whom is Star Wars?

But prior to that : What is Star Wars?

Is it the 1977 movie?

Is it the 1977-83 trilogy?

Is it the six 'Lucas' films?

Is it the Dark Horse comic series?

Is it the 'extended universe' made up primarily of novels?

Is it the sheer cultural weight of the films, novels, comics, Read n' Play books, toothbrushes, EVERYTHING?

What does it mean to say "I'm a Star Wars fan"?

In my opinion, 'Star Wars' as a concept has become massively fragmented, in that the self-description of oneself as a 'Star Wars fan' is so generalist (as set out in your piece) that it is almost meaningless.

I remember Ozzy Osbourne talking about how being a 'rock fan' was meaningless, since you seemed to always get immediately asked whether you liked speed metal, thrash metal, black metal, progressive metal, hardcore, grindcore, doom metal etc etc.

Who is Star Wars for?

If you asked Disney, they want (1) casual fans who watch the movies maybe once in the cinema and maybe once on a streaming service (2) the hardcore fans who will watch the movies dozens of times, buy the merchandise for themselves and their children, and argue endlessly about whether a new movie makes them feel exactly the same as they did 20-40 years ago (spoiler : it won't.)

It is surprising when pundits are shocked that approval from the dabblers is not connected to approval from the hardcore base.

A wise man once said that the plot of all fiction is 'things are not as they seem'. Star Wars movies have been commenting on Star Wars movies ever since Luke realised that his trusted mentor had lied his ass off about the identity of Luke's father. Your mentor was using you / manipulating you. Things are not as they seem.

Rian Johnson took various threads from The Force Awakens and zigged when many 'fans' expected him to zag. Is unpredictability good? Not necessarily. Many classic stories are completely predictable. But all the analysts from two years ago didn't like being misdirected. "This isn't Star Wars, because the Star Wars in my head was different."

The Star Wars in our heads never accords exactly with what we are later told. I remember when the whole Extended Universe was the Han Solo novels, Splinter of the Mind's Eye and those Ewok movies. But the space opera that my imagination inserted into the gaps in the story was magnificent.

THAT Star Wars was definitely for me.

Sorry, I've rambled. But I've burned through your entire archives over the last couple of weeks and been fascinated. Thank you.

Mike Taylor said...

George Lucas considered dubbing the film into Japanese, or into some entirely made up language, to force audiences to attend to the imagery.

That would be a fascinating exercise. It's certainly true that a great deal of my Star Wars fixation comes from the visuals: scene after scene looks absolutely iconic. That said ...

Mark Hamill told Leslie Judd that the story of Star Wars is “only so much non sense to hang a great visual spectacle onto.”

I can't get on board with that. Weird as it feels to be contradicting Hammill, I think the original movies has a startling inevitability of narrative, with the plot fitting together perfectly.

Some people say that it is one of only two sequels which is actually superior to the original. (I forget the name of the other example.)

It's Terminator 2.

It used to be quite normal for films to be playing on endless loops and for audiences to catch the second half, of one and the first half of the other.

(I assume you mean staying for the first half of the same film, not a different one?)

FInally, JWH writes:

I have actually done this with my second child and this is what we found...

I am impressed at your dedication, JWH!

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's Terminator 2.

And not, say, some space fantasy which came out in 1980? (Or was That The Joke ::)

(I assume you mean staying for the first half of the same film, not a different one?)

In Olden Times, cinemas tended to show double features on "continuous performance", so if you time it wrong, you came in half way through the B movie and had to leave before the end of the A feature. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's relationship seems to be entirely based on seeing parts of movies. (Sherlock Holmes seems to have that approach to opera as well -- if we set out now, we'll arrive in time for most of the second act.)

Mike Taylor said...

That was indeed the joke.