Writings and Letters

A blog oeuvre… a "bloeuvre"

Category: non-fiction

Star Wars Episode VII: The Power of Legacy

Like most people I know, and strangers all around the world, I recently saw Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Now, this isn’t going to be some rant about the “plot” or “character development” (or any other screenwriting parlance) of the film. Fans of the series have pretty much consumed, contemplated, and ossified their opinions of the movie, so a lot of good it would do to throw out yet another opinion on the topic. Frankly, I’m much less interested in whether certain decisions made by the storytellers were the “right” or “wrong” ones, and much more intrigued as to why they wrote the film they did.

Of course, the cynic will say: “Money.” And that is certainly true. Holy hell have you seen what they’ve been peddling in the past week alone? All the corporate tie-ins and multi-media marketing of this film. Man… you have to give it up to Disney. When they want to whore out a product, there is no better pimp in town. Some are already forecasting the movie will gross about $3 BILLION dollars in it’s theatrical run alone. Seeing as it is already a third of the way there in the first two weeks… that doesn’t sound too far-fetched. And to think, Disney only paid $4 Billion for the franchise to begin with. Now that’s some amortization, folks!

And this is where the crisis begins, you see. Because one can obviously begin to understand the market aspects already in play forming the constriction within which the film must live. I like to visualize a stressed-out Mickey Mouse standing over bar graph projections and Excel reports spread out all over his desk. He’s only managed to sleep for a handful of hours in the past three weeks, his eyes are bloodshot and his diet consists of a jar of pickles, cigarettes, and milk. He’s screaming at JJ Abrams in that folky wholesome voice about how much money they’ve dumped on the series and how much of a success Episode VII needs to be. “Big bucks,” Mickey says. “We need to bring in the big bucks, huh huh. So don’t fuck it up!”

So yes, in a way, the realization of capital was able to “force” the storytellers to “awaken” the kind of film they created (no more intentional Star Wars puns, I promise). But I don’t see that as the only factor. Indeed, I’m sure there were many factors in what led to the final product being what it was, but the one I think contributed most impact was the idea of what Star Wars is. To put it another way, the legacy (not just financial) of the beloved series is so immense that it renders any and all sequels (here I mean chronologically following the first trilogy) unable to escape its impact on the minds of those who have come across it–especially those who encountered and still remember the true** originals.

For many Star Wars fans, there is an idea of Star Wars. It represents many things: a movie series, a mythology, a piece of nostalgia, an exemplar of Science-Fantasy, et al.: containing some of pop culture’s more memorable characters or lines, and harboring some of the soundtracks to fans’ childhoods. Even those who are not fans will recognize or concede a few of the above points–certainly the pop culture aspects of the films. With such an influence on these peoples’ lives, and indeed many lives who are not even fans or want to have any part of the series, it is hard to build upon such a consecrated, well-known, yet variegated thing with much success. In other words, so many people have an idea of what Star Wars is that it becomes impossible to construct a version of the franchise that is satisfactory. In addition to this, one must contemplate Star Wars completely outside its universe (as that is how people consume entertainment) and understand the added pressure (and knowledge) of the failures that were Episodes I – III (not financially of course, or even critically necessarily, but if you ask fans of the true** originals… yeah, it was mostly a total let down). Not only does the next movie have to live up to these undefined expectations of the faceless masses of fans, but also pick up the torch that was perceived to have been dropped (by the creator himself!) and keep the flame burning. (Then again, one might ask: “Why even continue the story? The original trilogy is all you need. Why not come up with something new? Something that might be just as good, but–you know–different.” Which is a valid point, one that is–SHUT-UP IT’S STAR WARS AND NOTHING CAN POSSIBLY REPLACE IT GAHWAHGAHGWHAGWHGAWHG!#!##!$!@!!)

So, in the face of such daunting odds, it appears the storytellers did what storytellers do when they want the audience to walk away satisfied: they give the audience what they already know it likes. And that’s what Force is: a soft reboot of sorts.

This leads to what most critics of the film have been labeling as a “rip-off” or “plagiarism” or “pile of shit.” It is this “mirroring” effect going on that displeases them most. (Thought: I wonder if Richard Rorty can be applied to this idea of “mirroring” in anyway… any philosophers care to opine? Email me at: writingsandletters@gmail.com) It leaves fans of this ilk feeling as though they have encountered yet another fraud in the series. Something purporting to be Star Wars, only to not deliver the goods.

But I cannot fault JJ and Crew for the decision. They were charged with creating a new film that would reinvigorate the franchise, bring people back to the fold. What is the easiest, safest way to do this? Give the fans what they want. What do they want? All the crap they already know. In many respects, its the sin all sequels take on. You not only find this in movies, but in music, television shows, video games, etc. etc. And JJ did a good job when considering all this, I think. It’s a fun movie. It’s hard to deny that. There is genuine enjoyment to be extracted from this film. Moments in which you lose yourself in the movie and think: “This is Star Wars!” But those moments are also deeply saturated in pablum, in which the movie caters to fanboy expectations (and Disney’s bottom line) instead of achieving enough creative authority.

This is what left me feeling a little ambivalent when I left the theater. I enjoyed most of what I experienced in there, but partly because I had already experienced it before–some time ago when I was a younger lad. And that was the problem for me: déjà vu. I suppose I was just looking for something a little… well… different. But it doesn’t look like people want that. It appears the central idea of Star Wars focuses solely on a certain fetishism of the franchise. It appears to have more to do with light sabers, blasters, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, Luke, Han and Leia, clinging to that nostalgia of what was Star Wars. And this fetishism of the Legacy of Star Wars will not allow the series to expand beyond the boundaries that it knows so well. It can only fall back in on itself, collapsing, creating an inward vortex in which nothing can escape.  

But in the end… who cares? It’s just a movie. Let’s dance!

** By this I mean the original trilogy that was not altered by Lucas in the late-90s, in which he performed his own “Great Purge” and rid the world of the Star Wars trilogy as it had been seen in theaters. Replaced with his “true vision” of the films, this new trilogy was complete with added CGI tomfoolery and revisionist history of Star Wars events. (Han shot first!) Anyone who has seen the Episodes IV – VI since say 1997 has encountered a counterfeit. You live a lie, a horrible, terrible lie.

“Ur-uh… the Start of a Writing Project: Ruminations on Historicity and Mission Statement”

Just the other day a video was brought to my attention. It concerned a particular filmmaker (T Patrick), who claimed he filmed Stanley Kubrick some sixteen years ago in 1999 confessing (before his mysterious death) he helped President Nixon, NASA, the United States stage one of the most (I’m told) profound, important, moving moments in human history: the 1969 moon landing. There, in the crudely edited video, a man sat in monochromatic orange, or soft red (I’m not really good with colors) and confessed to the off-camera filmmaker that he, Stanley Kubrick, helped the government stage the moon landing.

Needless to say, I was intrigued by the possibility (though highly unlikely) that the moon landing was, in fact!, a staged film operation to dupe the world into believing the United States had won the Space Race. So I watched the fascinating work:  https://vimeo.com/148297544

Though immediately, as the large text of T Pat’s presumed production company came on screen, I could not shake the feeling I was being had. Perhaps it was the amateurish nature of the 45+ minute documentary that I could already perceive some sort of joke being played on my wits, there was a disturbance in the force–so to speak. Perchance it was the element of truth! about to be imparted to me. So… I pressed on.

Seventeen minutes into the documentary, before getting to the confession, that coveted payoff I was waiting for, the overtones of duplicity were stirring. The word “FRAUD” crept up in the background of my mind. It was visible throughout the video like the unspoken violence witnessed in the aftermath of a crime scene. 1) the very deliberate, at times comical, disjointed “rough” editing style, 2) the insistence of T. Patrick to inject himself into the documentary again and again with his voice-over to tell this overdrawn 48-minute story that easily could have been five 3) the terrible lighting of Kubrick that suggested chicanery, half his face cloaked in the dark (why? for shame? for shame!) 4) in conversation Kubrick had lost his typical low-end New Yorker timbre, 5) even poor lighting aside, Kubrick just did not look like himself.

After about 20 minutes, I had enough. This could not be true, right? So I did a little further digging. I found a second video that claimed to be a “raw” version (even though there are edits) of the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rR4pf6pp1kQ  This time without the sophomoric editing and heavy splash of Orange Crush, the argument grew slightly more compelling. Partly one must wonder why not release the first five minutes or so of this footage and call it a day. That certainly would capture the imagination of all those who watched it: though it would still have to answer for the fact that (gaudy aesthetics cleansed) the Kubrick in this interview still did not look, or sound (essentially “act”) like Stanley Kubrick, and even more there was a type of playacting, a sense of improvisation afoot. T Pat would egg Kubrick on with a question that would lead Kubrick to answer exactly what (one must assume) T Pat and the rest of the audience wanted to know.

Still unsatisfied, still dubious, I marched forth through time.

After perhaps a minute longer, I found yet a third video concerning this confession. It was titled (most aptly): Beware of the FAKE Stanley Kubrick confession” and consisted of about 18 minutes of my now favorite filmmaker (T Pat) instructing Kubrick–actually his name is Tom–on how to best tell the story of the faked moon landing.

So problem solved, it was all a lie. But it got me thinking.

I cannot recall the moon landing. I was not there along with the millions of upon millions of other human beings, sitting/standing in front of their television sets around the world all those years ago watching the moment happen. Even more, some of those people who were there might not even remember, they might lean back hard on the footage they have seen time and time again, letting that become their memory, their historical consciousness, their truth when in fact they never saw the event, only read about it in the newspaper the next day and then later seen the footage retroactively reconnected the two and thought: I was there, I knew what it was like. So when the moment this video came along, I could not rely on my own personal memory to say: “No. This is bullshit.” before even watching it. I had to do some research. I had to stretch back into the past and dig up some bones on the Internet that might help paint a more accurate picture of what was happening. [Of course, the part that is so fun to me about this Kubrick “confession” is the idea that no one, presumably besides the astronauts that were there, can be absolutely certain there was a moon landing. Similarly, no one can know for certain that this interview was inauthentic other than those involved. Such a wide gap between the primary and secondary memories is what in part allows such “theories” to arise and threaten the authenticity of the historical narrative… and that’s fun to me.]

So what was happening? Setting aside the fact I believe (like many hoaxes) this was created in jest. How else does one explain the overall incoherence of the editing, or the obvious self-aggrandizement of the filmmaker, the humorous likeness to Kubrick’s own idiomatic lashings when the actor does not execute his vision of the scene or dialog (seeing the un-edited version where poor ole Tom is chided for not understanding what he is saying reminded me of the real Kubrick verbally working Shelley Duvall like a punching bag on The Shining), how to explain the ease with which one can refute the evidence with its own extended rawness in the matter of an hour or less? How indeed. What I am more interested in is what this fake-documentary (“fokumentary”) means to memory, then therefore historical consciousness, and ultimately historicity. How this fokumentary was able to use film to alter (for however briefly) a consciousness of the public (however few) and open a niche for an alt-narrative to fester in the historical understanding of that thing in the past we call “the moon landing.”

I immediately thought of Stalin–because that’s appropriate. I thought of how he manipulated photographs and literally eliminated political adversaries (or more accurately perceived adversaries) from the picture. In other words, when Uncle Joe was tired of the Old Bolshevik comrades, not only did he have them liquidated, but he also purged their very existence from photographs, as well as included himself in a few. Then I thought of the Egyptians–because whatever. How Hatshepsut claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne. She created images of herself with more masculine features including the manly pharaoh regalia of a false beard, and insisted the gods intended on her to be ruler. This was all evident in the art and writings that were created during her reign. A great deal of which was almost destroyed by her stepson, Thutmose III. He tried to destroy or alter all the iconography and written word about his former stepmother-turned-regnant-turned-pharaoh after she died (of cancer it is believed).  

In all three instances, mediums through which we recall the past (tools on which we are so dependent, especially when we ourselves cannot recall, or recall accurately) were manipulated in and effort to force the narrative in an alternative direction: a “revisionist” approach to history in all three cases. And that is really where the similarities between these three disparate characters begin and end (unless you want to say both Stalin and Hatshepsut both worked in government–be my guest).  But it brings to mind this notion of historical fragility.

I recently read a novel by the late, great EL Doctorow: Ragtime. I highly recommend it. I had been thinking about the fragility of history, how difficult it becomes at times to be able to separate fact and fiction, and then I came across the very first few pages of Doctorow’s work in which a fictitious New York family has their summer day interrupted by none other than Harry Houdini as he crashes his car in front of their house. The beauty and genius of this simple moment when the historically real (Houdini) crashes into the world of the fictive (Doctorow’s imagination). From there onward the book is an amalgam of these two seemingly contra styles of narrative playing together on the same page. There were moments when reading I had to stop and think: “Is this a real person?” Some were. Some not. “Did this really happen?” Some did, others no. It was this great expression of the duality in our doxa.

What’s more is what can be said about the novel when considering its depiction of the past (the novel being set in pre-World War 1 New York) through the contemporary understanding when it was being written. When Doctorow wrote Ragtime (presumably between 1971 and 1975), he was diving back into the past to write about this “Progressive Era” United States. But because he was writing about the past from the present, he could not help but inject his time with that of Ragtime‘s. In trying to write a story concerning the past, he had to leave his present finger prints all over it, tainting its authenticity along the way. Using facts until they no longer served his purpose and allowing fiction to carry on forth. He had to cut corners, fill in the gaps, elongate and contract in order to tell the story. In part because he is a novelist and Ragtime is a novel. But also because he could not recall the early 20th century, but (more importantly) no one can. [Fredic Jameson explores this at more depth in his exhaustive book: Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Don’t let the title scare you away, the prose will do that just fine.]

It is difficult to understand the past when the ground on which one stands is so loose and ever-shifting, and so goddamned expansive! To put it another way: If you throw a hula-hoop into the ocean, everything inside the hoop is HISTORY and everything outside it is PAST. There is a great deal of the past that is not being accounted for, and therefore the fragility begins to play. Furthermore, even when we start to dip into the past we begin to taint it with our contemporary state. The further we become detached from a person, moment, event, and/or the further the gap between actual and collective memory becomes, the more we begin to place ourselves into that past and erect a narrative called history.  So in this sense, we cannot help but create “story” in our understanding of the past.

This is not to suggest that all history is lies (like the fokumentary) or historians liars (like our friend T Pat), but it tends to point in a direction that capital-T “Truth” is very hard to come by and the lines between reality and fable can become quite roily. It is better to understand history as the best attempts by humans to connect with the specters and try to make the most sense out of them, and that’s not easy. But it’s important work goddamnit! We need that connection to the past. We need to have an understanding (however partial and imperfect) of our origins and hope that will provide in us a sense of closure and comfort for our mortal selves. We know there was a person, or a place, a moment, an event that occurred out in the distance, we know “it happened” by virtue that we are here now. But to reach back into a cognitive void and pull forth an understanding of it requires story.

And I like that idea. It’s fun for me. It’s fun to think about, write about, discuss.

So, I imagine, in a very strange, circuitous way this becomes a bit of a mission statement as well. Here at “Writings and Letters” there will be, with any bit of luck, a “pious yet playful” approach to the real and unreal. There will be fiction, non-fiction, stories from the present, the past, some maybe even the future! and political or philosophical musings (why not?), then right back to talking about slaying dragons, and a review of an obscure General Public album (just kidding, it’d totally be on All the Rage), and… others…

A panoply of pastiche.

Join me, won’t you?