Forward, to the Past! – Episode I: Back to the Future
The first part of a new Shabgraff trilogy of posts about Star Wars. Yes, yes, I’m as surprised and upset as you are. Contains spoilers for The Force Awakens.
There is a spectre haunting my local Odeon. Actually, I think a better word to describe The Force Awakens is one I’ve just invented (by serendipitous typo): ‘structre’. The Force Awakens is a structre. The spectre of a dead structure. In this case, a phantom narrative.
The new film mirrors the original movie (which I will rudely insist upon referring to as Star Wars rather than ‘A New Hope’ or ‘Episode IV’) very closely, in structure. The First Order’s attack on Jakku mirrors the Star Destroyer attacking Leia’s ship; Finn and Poe’s escape to a crash landing on a sand planet mirrors Threepio and Artoo’s escape to Tatooine. When Han is killed by Ren as Rey watches, it’s impossible not to be reminded of Luke watching Darth Vader kill Ben Kenobi. A young budding hero (and, presumably, Jedi to be) watches powerless as her newly-found but instantly-beloved older mentor is struck down, by lightsabre, by an evil dude in black. Etc. This is all far more specific than what such movies usually do. And this is without moving from a consideration of form to one of content. In those terms, the new movie is equally slavish. There is an alien cantina, etc. This has all been adequately covered elsewhere, so I won’t reiterate.
Now, of course, the thing is… it’s really impossible to complain about this unless you also complain about Star Wars itself, which itself is an exercise in consciously and deliberately crafting a structre. The fact is that the least likely people to want to complain about the structral nature of the new film are fans of the original, i.e. the people least likely to complain about the structral nature of the first film. Hollywood knows from the experience of the prequels that it is divergence from the pattern of the original trilogy that brings down the wrath of fans, not slavishness… and the first film has long been forgiven for being a structre, not least by its fans… which is only to say that it has been forgiven for having certain somatic effects for a specific reason. All too understandable given how much people have enjoyed the somatic effects in question. Force Awakens thus had the luxury of having a safe form of storytelling mapped out for it, long in advance of even the first script meeting, which would insulate it from all fan ire and also from general disappointment.
Now, it’s true that most big Hollywood movies follow formulaic structural rules, as they do formulaic content rules. Undeniably, this is a matter of political economy. Films represent a massive investment of money. They must work according to established rules because the risk everyone involved is taking is so great that experimentation appears as utter folly. Of course, Hollywood frequently fails to get it right and often produces turkeys not just in spite of their own cautious rules but even because of them. The undeniable role of political economy must be bedded in a context of ideological assumptions on the part of the corporate staff producing films, and in the wider ideological climate of society… and also, I’d argue, in a context of how texts themselves interact with each other (as long as we remember that, when we talk like that, we’re really talking about the activity of the people creating and consuming the texts).
There is no doubt that the notion ‘I must go and see the new Star Wars film because I’ll probably enjoy it’ as every bit as much ideology as the notion ‘I will vote Conservative because they’re the party I most trust with the economy’. It is in the nature of consumerism to strip away our awareness of the ideological status of consumer ideas, but consumer ideas remain no less ideological for that. (This is, of course, the flipside of the way party politics strips away our awareness of it as a game of aesthetics through the very manipulation of aesthetics.) There are ideological assumptions implicit in ‘trusting’ a Star Wars film (or a Bond film, or whatever) to be a certain kind of thing, to offer a certain kind of satisfaction. To trust, assume, expect, or even hope for such specific forms of satisfaction, and to not do so in the case of other films which one then chooses not to see, or judges differently, relies upon a complex string of ideological suppositions which ultimately have their root in the praxis of consumer capitalism. I’m not going to go into this in minute detail, but I am going to return to the notion of the structre, and its partial role in this – a role highlighted and of particular interest because of the specific film we’re talking about. It may be true of many films, and certainly of many franchises, that it’s ‘structres all the way down’… but this seems especially true of Star Wars, since the primal appeal of the series lies in the appeal to nostalgia.
To quote Fredric Jameson (who’s about to do a lot of heavy lifting for me in one brisk paragraph):
…supposing I suggested that Star Wars is also a nostalgia film. What could that mean? I presume we can agree that this is not a historical film about our own intergalactic past. Let me put it somewhat differently: one of the most important cultural experiences of the generations that grew up from the ‘30s to the ’50s was the Saturday afternoon serial of the Buck Rogers type – alien villains, true American heroes, heroines in distress, the death ray or the doomsday box, and the cliffhanger at the end whose miraculous resolution was to be witnessed next Saturday afternoon. Star Wars reinvents this experience in the form of a pastiche: that is, there is no longer any point to a parody of such serials since they are long extinct. Star Wars, far from being a pointless satire of such now dead forms, satisfies a deep (might I even say repressed?) longing to experience them again: it is a complex object in which on some first level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deeper and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old aesthetic artifacts through once again. This film is thus metonymically a historical or nostalgia film: unlike American Graffiti, it does not reinvent a picture of the past in its lived totality; rather, by reinventing the feel and shape of characteristic art objects of an older period (the serials), it seeks to reawaken a sense of the past associated with those objects. Raiders of the Lost Ark, meanwhile, occupies an intermediary position here: on some level it is about the ’30s and’40s, but in reality it too conveys that period metonymically through its own characteristic adventure stories (which are no longer ours).
Jameson embeds these observations in a wider context of trying to find ways in which postmodernity negotiates the notion of the subjective self – or, I think, the somewhat incoherent idea of the subjective notion of the subjective self – in a world of exhausted modernism, in which 19th and early-20th ideas of the subject now seem not only inadequate by even tyrannical. Pastiche and ‘blank parody’ (i.e parody without satirical intent) are among his suggestions, as routes to nostalgic satisfactions. Now, I’m not tremendously concerned about whether or not Jameson’s diagnosis is ‘true’ as such. But it does offer a powerful way of placing such massively high-profile and culturally-freighted exercises in nostalgic pastiche. And I confess I like my idea of the ‘structre’ as an impertinent adjunct, not only because I arrived at it via a very self-conscious language-game-within-a-language-game, and because it has a pleasing tang of the gothic, but also because it seems a useful way of disambiguating ‘nostalgia’ as Jameson uses it from any actual reverence or longing for the past. As I seem to recall Jameson himself saying elsewhere (though I can’t find it) this isn’t how nostalgia really works. Moreover, it is perfectly possible to be nostalgic about things from the past, or areas of the past (so to speak), that we ourselves did not experience. The original Star Trek movies ask us to be nostalgic about the good old days of the original five year mission of the Starship Enterprise, which audiences would only have experienced via TV, and which this kid hadn’t experienced at all when he first saw Wrath of Khan. (Indeed, the films I watched in my childhood constantly made these kinds of demands of me, from Back to the Future asking me to give a fuck about the lost innocence of 50s America, to Raiders of the Lost Ark doing what Fred Jameson just said about it.)
It’s also perfectly possible for us to feel and enjoy nostalgia regarding experiences we wouldn’t have liked. I’ve spent a lot of my life being told that I should feel dewy-eyed about the Second World War, for instance. Indeed, it seems to me that this is basically inherent in all adventure stories, in which we are asked to vicariously enjoy a tale of events in the past which involve the suffering of others. In terms of Star Wars, the big one is Alderaan, the planet which Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin destroy with the Death Star. Even Traken is mourned more extensively than Alderaan, and yet, as with Traken, the destruction of a planet is the symbol of an ultimate evil, put into the story to make us understand the scale of the evil at work, and is thus a depiction of genocide which is meant to thrill us. The sanitised spectacle of genocide in Star Wars is thus a part of the technique of pastiche and nostagia… and I like the idea of describing this as a ‘structre’ because it imports an undertone of horror, of hauntings by the dead of Alderaan.
It’s very important, in this respect, that Force Awakens incorporates a giganticised neo-Death Star (this time escalatingly and in-jokingly called the Star Killer) which does what the original does to Alderaan all over again, this time to about five planets at once. One of the conscientious ways Force Awakens tries to replay aspects of the original story but with an added ethical awareness (see later episodes of this series) is to show us inhabitants of these victimised planets experiencing confusion and terror moments before their deaths. This is something Star Wars never does with Alderaan, consigning any subjectivity on the part of these murder victims to a throwaway line from Ben Kenobi. Alderaan haunts Force Awakens in structral form, i.e. as a necrotic but attendant part of its structure, as a recycled and inflated plot beat, as gothic history-repeating, as muted ethical reproach, etc. There is something a little too glib about the word ‘pastiche’ by itself.
Also, paradoxically, the notion of the ‘structre’ helps to remove a sense of time or history from the description. This isn’t something I’d normally be in favour of… but in this case it’s useful because when it comes to Star Wars we’re talking about nostalgia, evoked via pastiche of past styles, but with a delivery system which takes the form of the aesthetics of the future. And yet we are supposed to be watching a myth or legend. This is diegetically the case. There is something temporally frozen and unplaced and atemporal about Star Wars, an effect created by a seemingly conscious decision to strand its narrative within mutually contradictory and incoherent assertions about the narrative’s placement within historical time. It seems to me that the whole aesthetic principle underpinning Star Wars, that of the ‘used future’, itself expresses this same constitutive contradiction, as does the opening legend: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’
The prequels are interesting in this respect for two reasons. Firstly, they are not structres – at least not structres of Star Wars – because they attempt to trade on, pastiche, and evoke nostalgia for the original movies only in certain superficial aesthetic respects. They utilise iconography – the opening crawl, Yoda, etc – but in a way that is so aesthetically recontextualised that they start to look like they’re putting the satire back into the parodic form. Secondly, and relatedly, they work by using the same formal method of pastiche and nostalgia not only in their relation to the original films but also in their relation to wider SF (from which the original films seem weirdly self-isolated, despite traceable influences). The prequels use a visual language based on the comic books, SF novel art, etc, of SF’s ‘golden age’. This also fits with their far more socially based investigation of a galaxy full of politics, parliaments, trade deals, bustling cities, etc… stuff mostly consigned to implied backdrop in the original films. Thirdly, and once again relatedly, they are openly and lucidly politically nostalgic for the era when the original movies were made. The original films have political nostalgia only insofar as nostalgia of any kind is inherently political. The prequels are politically nostalgic for the era when the series was conceived and born: the 60s and 70s, i.e. the heyday of social democratic liberalism that was eventually rolled-back (starting – not coincidentally – around the time the first film was released) by the rise of neoliberalism. The original films are far from unaffected by the politics of their own times, but nostalgia for lost politics is distinct from engagement with current politics. In some ways, it’s more powerful – certainly in times when class struggle is at a low level, as when the prequels came out. If Star Wars is affected in several key ways by the politics of its time, then it is implicit and tacit. The prequels are vocally and openly nostalgic – mourning, yearning – for political aspects of the same era, and the years leading up to it, which they perceive as worthy and lost… something that makes them uncomfortable viewing in the late 90s and early 2000s (the pre-crash days of the utter triumph of neoliberalism). The third film seems to represent Lucas becoming fully conscious of this charged political nostalgia for the social democratic when he overtly links the fall of the Galactic Republic to the rise of the Bush administration. This may be fatuous, two-faced, and ahistorical from my point of view, but it’s clearly representative of certain powerful strains of disgruntled liberal politics at the time. (It’s just a shame the films are, by and large, shit. And also, I wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that I see them as particularly progressive, what with their thoughtless and egregious use of racial stereotypes, their explicit linking of bourgeois democracy and open markets, etc, etc.) If they are structres, the structures doing the haunting are those structures of liberal thought which came to identify themselves with, say, protest against the war in Vietnam. This is the hidden inner reason (beyond just not being particularly good) that the prequel films raise such fan ire… they are engaged in a wider, more politically-engaged project of nostalgia and pastiche. It’s not that they’re doing it particularly intelligently, honestly, or well (they’re not) but that they’re doing it at all rather than concentrating on doing what Force Awakens cannily spends more of its time doing: constructing a relationship towards Star Wars similar to Star Wars’ own relationship to Buck Rogers, etc. And where they do parody the original films, the parody is not blank enough and thus fans start to suspect that, on some level, they’re being laughed at.
As noted, Force Awakens goes to great lengths to avoid its parody not being sufficiently blank. It goes to great pains to make sure that it positions its pastiche of the original films directly in a straight-faced and nostalgic relationship to them (hardly a skill to which Hollywood lacks access, given its obsession with affectionate reboots). We need more than pure political economy to understand this fastidiousness, given that the prequels made several truckloads of profit.
I think we can refer back to that incoherent frozenness, that temporal fixity and scrambledness, that we spoke about earlier. This is now an innate feature of the Star Wars franchise, what with the original film being retroactively turned into ‘Episode IV’, and the fourth film being advertised as ‘Episode I’. The latest instalment is the first with a number that matches its order in production. It is the first which seems to be being made ‘now’, so to speak. This fact is coincidental but freighted with larger resonance. ‘Now’ is, by definition, that point in time after which Star Wars has become a massive, culturally-dominant narrative, inflected in new ways by the fact that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford are all ‘old’. ‘Now’ is, by definition, the point in time when, owing to changes in standard film-making techniques and ‘advances‘ in special effects, it has become impossible to make a Star Wars film that is aesthetically coherent with the others without some form of consciously artificial departure from normal move-making practice…. a fact exacerbated by the existence of the prequels, which so admirably and catastrophically refused to be aesthetically consistent even as Lucas issued promises to worried fans that actors in the last movie would be given 70s hairdos. (The odd thing about the continuity-centred aesthetics of the prequels, especially the last one, is really how arbitrary, half-hearted, and stumblebum the attempts at ‘joining-up’ are. It suggests that Lucas is simultaneously rejecting a foolish consistency in favour of auteurish iconoclasm – the pose he likes to strike nowadays – while also fretting over trying to achieve seamlessness!) ‘Now’ is also a cultural moment when greater demands for diversity are being made. But, interacting with all this, there is the indisputable fact that it will have to be the first Star Wars film not only made ‘now’ but also set ‘now’ (so to speak). It has to be set in the world and time when people think of Luke Skywalker, the Force, etc, as things from long ago. It has to be set in a world and time when Harrison Ford is a grumpy old man with grey hair. This ‘real world’ context is so inescapable because it exactly mirrors the situation which has to pertain within the film’s narrative. It absolutely has to. We have a real instance of material determinism here. The new film has to be set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, for the simple reason that the gap of time in the real world is of a similar length and has etched itself onto the faces of the lead actors… actors who play characters that the entire series, from ‘Episode IV’ onwards, is unquestionably centred upon. It has narrative elements directly imposed upon it by real world concerns in a way that didn’t trouble the prequels. The prequels were set ‘then’. The fictional world in Force Awakens absolutely has to be ‘now’. This is why the trailer has to feature the old, grey Ford saying “it’s all true” to the newbs and youngsters.
What this all boils down to is that the film is conscious of the fact that it is a structre, and that it cannot escape being one, that this is what it exists to be. It is perfectly conscious of the fact that it is doomed to be, in some sense, a reiteration of Star Wars but telescoped forward in time. The interesting thing is that the film tries, in various ways, to escape or address this… but I’ll get to that.
January 7, 2016 @ 11:02 am
I just read (on Wikipedia) that George Osborne, in a deal to promote UK industry and culture by having most of The Force Awakens filmed in Britain, put up £25 million towards the film’s budget, from the UK Exchequer. £25 million out of just over £200 million. In other words, the UK funded an eighth of The Force Awakens! Imagine ‘we’ started getting a share of the profits over a certain international gross level (say, £2 billion…)
January 7, 2016 @ 11:22 am
As someone who is slightly more of a fan of the prequels than most – for much of the same reasons articulated in this piece – I wasn’t remotely surprised that The Force Awakens was embraced precisely for not being challenging (although do I look forward to seeing what you say about this.)
The essential political despair enshrined in the prequels is exactly what people didn’t want at the time, the structural cleverness overtook the “fun” and the deliberate artificiality was seized upon as being proof of Lucas’ failures as a writer and director. That doesn’t excuse the general terribleness of the films overall (although I do think that most of Revenge is a lot better than most of Return) and I certainly think that the films fall on the wrong side of the stereotypes/tropes line far too often. I do think that Lucas deserves respect for trying to do something a bit different though – whereas The Force Awakens prefers to resort to comfort food a bit too much.
January 7, 2016 @ 4:18 pm
I just can’t really get down with this view. Lots of people try to do something new. When the result is nearly unwatchable garbage, in spite of massive amounts of money, excellent actors, state of the art special effects, and so forth, it’s completely fair to dismiss it. Of course, I’d also strongly disagree that Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi. Not that Return of the Jedi is a particularly great film, but Revenge of the Sith legitimately isn’t actually noticeably better than the two films that preceded it.
January 7, 2016 @ 6:44 pm
The prequels are terrible films that could probably have tons of interesting essays be written about them. The sequel (and I’m guessing the rest of the trilogy too) is a good film that has very little for essays to pick apart and unravel.
I love what Jack’s written here, though. This is probably the most interesting stuff anyone has or will write about The Force Awakens.
January 7, 2016 @ 11:33 am
I think one of the most interesting things about The Force Awakens is the way it elides giving you a detailed picture of the Galactic celestopolitical situation. In other words, who is ‘winning’ this War/Cold War between the New Republic and The First Order? Is the First Order on the back foot, in other words, is this an act of military/political desperation on their part? Is the Republic? Further, those worlds that the Star Killer destroys… why those worlds? Are they Republic worlds? Rebellious First Order Worlds? Worlds in some Star Trek style DMZ between them? What does the First Order hope to gain by destroying them? Just fear? I would argue that the Empire’s goals in destroying Alderaan are much more clear in the original Star Wars, so its not just a case of a popular/populist/’kids’ film not having the time to explain this. Instead, it seems an easy way to instantly tar the First Order with nihilistic ‘terrorism’ charges. Are we to take the Empire in the original Trilogy with the repressive grandeur of a crumbling USSR, or Roman Empire, whereas we should see The First Order as more of a North Korea stand-in, lashing out impotently, mostly ultimately at its own citizens?
January 8, 2016 @ 2:01 am
They were Republic planets. I think they mentioned it offhandedly before/during the war-room scene.
But what about The Resistance? Why does the Republic need to bankroll an apparently off-the-books military when the First Order seems intent on eradicating settlements, planets and systems?
There’s a lingering hypocrisy at work here. The velvet glove of the benevolent Republic. We see glimmers of a cosmopolitan/metropolitan, racially diverse society obliterated by the Star Killer. And yet the Iron glove of the Resistance, run by one of the most infamous leaders of the previous rebellion, Leia, subtly reinforces to the (Re)public at large the need for military intervention.
Makes me think Luke had the right Idea. Piss off and let these bastards kill each other.
January 7, 2016 @ 9:12 pm
Repetition cannot be simply identical the original as if the first time could happen again. In some ways this is central to neoclassicism as an aesthetic: the use of a formula in such a way as to foreground variations on the handling of the formula (including Hellenistic and Roman writers as neoclassical here). But also there’s also a postmodernist aesthetic of repetition, that I think the film is aware of. For example, the use of bathos in this film in relation to the original. I assume you’ll get to the central example. But I’ll note that immediately after the film has announced that the Star Killer is even bigger and more deadly than the Death Star, Han Solo points out that this makes no difference to the plot.
January 8, 2016 @ 9:13 am
I wonder if the writers would consider keeping major spoilers (character deaths) after the fold? I know i should try harder and all, seeing as world and dog has seen it three times…
January 8, 2016 @ 9:48 am
Jack did. In the first paragraph, in bolded text.
January 9, 2016 @ 12:41 pm
You’re not alone in insisting on referring to the original film as Star Wars, I’ve been doing this for years. Star Wars was the film my six year old self got giddy about in 1977 not “A New Hope”.
The interview with Lucas where he compares Disney to “white slavers'” is worth watching in full. You get the feel of a filmmaker who really had a story he wanted to tell, but was stopped for various commercial reasons. Say what you like about the prequels (and I will admit I’ve never had any urge to watch Revenge of the Sith) at least they tried to be different from the first three films. The latest does sound like an above average, yet still run of the mill, Hollywood blockbuster. But I’ve not seen it yet so am happy to be proved wrong should I ever get round to watching it.
The full interview can be found at the bottom of this post: http://spinoff.comicbookresources.com/2015/12/31/george-lucas-apologizes-for-star-wars-the-force-awakens-comments/
January 12, 2016 @ 12:40 am
This idea that the prequels were different from the originals was planted by Lucas himself. You cannot look at the structure of each film and tell me it was a brash, risky venture.
As usual he is tinkering with his legacy and making passive-aggressive barbs to the press about some omnipotent studio prevented him from doing what he really wanted to do. He’s worth five billion, but in his mind, he’s still a bohemian striking back against the system. (I’ve read old interviews with Rupert Murdoch describing himself in similar terms. He’s still the underdog. It’s not him, it’s the liberal media that’s poisoning everything.) It’s an all-to-common characteristic of the nouveau riche.
It’s a testament to the loyalty of fandom (of any stripe) that he still has even a modicum of credibility at this point. First he took credit for A New Hope. Then he decided he didn’t like being identified with Star Wars. Then he began muttering about how what he really wanted to do was smaller personal films.
We saw what he did with total creative control: he merchandised everything. What did he do with his WWII biopic? He whiffed it, and then blamed audiences for being racists.
And now “white slavers…”
He’ll try to walk it back. Doesn’t want to burn that bridge completely. But I’m an old fanboy who’s turning 31 in February. I’ve been down this road with George many, many times before.