Long Cultural Shadows…

As I write this, J.J. Abrams’s film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has just been released. Unless you’ve been completely cut off from the world, you already know the massive publicity, debate, and criticism surrounding this film. Much of this dialogue around the film has to do with expectations. I’m using this blog post to make two points about these expectations. The first is rooted in what Star Wars as a film and pop culture phenomenon “meant” originally, and why I feel the current dialogue has shifted so far from that original center. The second point has to do with the long cultural shadow the original film was born under. This shadow’s effects were compounded by the viewing culture fans of Star Wars (1977) grew up in. Understanding both of these points helps to re-center the current dialogue of criticism around the current iteration, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).

To begin, the current blockbuster film business model Hollywood depends on – for better or for worse – is thanks to two characters: Jaws and Luke Skywalker. Before the shark and the farm boy there were certainly popular protagonists adorning the theater marquee (the Marx Bros., John Wayne, James Bond, The Beatles, etc.) but each lacked the sort of universal narrative spectacle to go along with their respective stars. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) created movie theater events at a time when movie theaters still played an important role in our media consumption habits. Both films also released after an early ‘70s socio-political climate of presidential crimes, equal rights battles, and a lost war in Vietnam; audiences needed a distraction and an escape. Jaws provided an easily identifiable fear (natural threat) set in a common situation (summer vacation). Star Wars provided a vicarious feeling of being unknowingly special with an epic purpose and destiny, wrapped up in an adventure plot populated by recognizable good and evil.

Time Magazine’s coverage of Jaws from June 23, 1975

The cast of Star Wars on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine from August 25, 1977

Also, Star Wars – while being escapist, adventurous fantasy that captured the audience’s imagination – was also a very well produced, designed, and edited feature film. Its significance to the history of cinema rests in this dual accomplishment. In many ways, the ensuing forty years of Hollywood film is indebted to its accomplishment and has attempted to replicate it endlessly. Part of the film’s ability to capture the audience’s imagination was due to director George Lucas’s smart business decision to license it for merchandising. In particular, toys helped to cement his younger audience’s love for the film by re-affirming it through countless hours of imaginative play around the characters he created.

The original three films (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) ended in 1983, and at that time, there really wasn’t another film franchise quite as successful and as broadly embraced as Star Wars. Yes, audiences enjoyed Superman (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Terminator (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and Die Hard (1988), but the size of the audience, the overall quality of the films included in each relative franchise, and the aforementioned merchandising, set Star Wars apart. It was not until the twenty-first century when a new generation grew up on Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Marvel Cinematic Universe that we saw a film series rival what Star Wars (1977) had accomplished and a generation of fans experienced. So, to summarize, Star Wars kicked off our current Hollywood film business model, it was widely embraced due to its technical wizardry, simplistic, adventure narrative featuring a relatable and loved protagonist (Luke Skywalker), and part of this embracement was due to licensed merchandise (toys) bought by younger fans. It was a mass-embraced film that slotted into Americans’ lives as much as a popular TV show or sports team would. When a film becomes so embraced, so popular, in a way, it is “owned” by the audience. So as much as Star Wars (1977) is a valid, award-winning piece of cinema that is culturally significant, its subsequent acceptance from a broad, mass audience, forces it to deal with audience expectations more than other films due to their partial “ownership” of it.

Line for Star Wars (1977)

Since Star Wars helped to popularize the idea of sequels (even more so than The Godfather (1972)) and trilogies of adventure films, the idea that at some point in the future, more Star Wars films being made didn’t seem impossible. At the same time, within the narrative of the original trilogy, audiences followed Luke’s journey from ignorant but eager farm boy in the first film to novice Jedi knight in the third film. We never truly saw a completed story arc for Luke in regard to him as a Jedi. We certainly did as a person – he starts not knowing who he truly is and ends by using his love for his father to save his father which in turn, saves him. As a Jedi in an adventure film, Luke does not directly save himself from the Emperor – he is still too inexperienced. So, if additional Star Wars movies were ever going to be produced, we have expectations for the film including: (1) a broad audience who felt Star Wars was at least different from other films, if not special, (2) a protagonist whose arc as a Jedi never seemed quite completed, thus building an eagerness on the part of the audience to see a masterful Jedi Luke Skywalker, and (3) a character (Luke) whose likeability acted as a foundation for the massive success of the film and subsequent industry that his role in any future stories would be treated as significant and handled with care.

By the late 1990s, director George Lucas did decide to return to his Star Wars universe and produce new movies. At the time, the news was exciting but filled with questions. Would it continue the original trilogy story? Had he waited too long and the moment had passed? Other prominent filmmakers from the ‘70s (Terrence Malick & Stanley Kubrick) were also directing new films (The Thin Red Line & Eyes Wide Shut) so maybe it would be a return to greatness. Would it be a prequel? Maybe a new story set around different characters? Lucas chose a prequel series: one technologically ambitious but ultimately emotionally and narratively barren. Its tone didn’t “feel” like the Star Wars – that wonderful balance between escapist, light adventure with likeable characters anyone could embrace, and professional cinematic craftsmanship. Soon Lucas would be professionally “lapped” by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

Unfortunately for George Lucas, his miscalculation (or rust from having not made a film in a long time) with his new Star Wars films didn’t occur in the old media ecosystem he had been used to. Gone were the days when the greatest threat were leaks spread by word-of-mouth and small-scale fan periodicals. Now he had to contend with the vitriol of a still-developing Internet, where misguided intentions, amateurism, and rage sat equally beside expert opinion and balanced perspectives. A type of toxic fandom was allowed greater visibility and voice it was never previously allowed to enjoy.

1999 – Beginning to focus on the wrong elements…

We have lost perspective; fandom out of proportion

The simply misguided – those who thought Star Wars “meant” only lightsabers, or that Back to the Future is a good film because it was “sci-fi” and not because it is about dysfunctional families struggling in the 1980s to recapture the afterglow of the booming post-war ‘50s – didn’t really cause too much harm. But it is the rage filled, toxic fandom who existed in a sort of arrested development, while also missing key themes from Star Wars (1977), and “voting” more than others through their disposable income on related merchandise, who have twisted the idea of who fans of Star Wars were originally. Not that Lucas is completely innocent in this calculation – for he was the one that kept signing licensing deals that satiated this vocal minority who needed more Princess Leia beach towels, Darth Vader candy dispensers, and Jar Jar Binks plush toys. The result is that the original broadly embraced, pleasing, cultural phenomena begun by Star Wars (1977) based on an accessible story line and hero, has now been misattributed as some sort of niche, toxic fan-boy product that willfully never desires to do anything new, reveling in its cynical nostalgia-based cash grabs.

This is where I switch to my second point regarding a “long cultural shadow” that allows me a context for this simple film and its extraordinary success and the internet-based, toxic fan culture. That shadow is the same one I deal with in my scholarly work; what is now referred to as, thanks to news anchor Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (GG). The Greatest Generation is Baby Boomer Brokaw’s label for his parents’ generation who fought in World War II and according to historian Stephen E. Ambrose, continued to build up our country during the immediate post-war years (see my book for more on this combination of romanticism, mythology, and vicarious hero worship on the parts of President Reagan, Ambrose, Brokaw, and director Steven Spielberg across media, 1984-2010).

One of Brokaw’s sequels to his successful The Greatest Generation book

The long cultural shadow of post-war prosperity

George Walton Lucas Jr. (born in 1944) is technically not a Baby Boomer (1946-1964). His father George Walton Lucas Sr. (1913-1991) also was slightly older than the GG and did not fight in the war (though he did volunteer and was turned down due to his slender build and marital status). While not fitting the common demographics for the GG and its Boomer children, Lucases Sr. and Jr. nonetheless fit the profile perfectly; a hard-working father whose sense of fiscal duty was hardened by the Great Depression, and the son whose relative privilege allowed him to creatively dream about what he saw and heard through his television. Also, George Lucas Jr. recalled that as a child he had loved World War II, calling it a nearly ubiquitous “big deal…on all the coffee tables in the form of books, and on TV with things like ‘Victory at Sea’. I was inundated with these war things” (Pollock, 1999, 19).

Whereas Lucas’s peer and colleague, Steven Spielberg, did have a WWII veteran father and an almost obsessive lifetime interest in the culture of the war generation. Lucas nonetheless matched Spielberg in his zeal for WWII with his own love for old adventure film serials re-played on television. Through both filmmakers’ work, we see a childlike delight in the action and adventure tales (Spielberg, war; Lucas, Flash Gordon) from their televisual youth. As such, this is a major component for my second point about the long cultural shadow. Young fans growing up on Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of Third Kind (1977), Star Wars (1977), Indiana Jones (1981), and E.T. (1982) were indoctrinated in a cinematic aesthetic of heroes and wonder, a engaging and inspiring style most closely akin to Walt Disney’s (1901-1966) best work at its purest. For these late ‘70s, early ‘80s fans, then, the foundation for their love is not only because it is “from their formative years” of childhood, but that this foundation is built purposefully from a sense of magical, childlike wonder. This combination of actual childhood and deliberate magical wonder is potent to say the least.

The next point has to do with the media technology available during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It regards our technical ability to re-play our televisual pasts. While certainly not the first critic or scholar to articulate this thought, I was nonetheless inspired by a recent comment by film critic Amy Nicholson on her podcast Unspooled. Speaking with co-host Paul Scheer about Star Wars (1977) and lamenting our inability to just let it die, Nicholson half-jokingly blamed the VCR for the start of our nostalgic rewind culture. There is some truth to this: it would be powerful enough to have such a whimsical, magical cinematic experience from childhood retained in your memory. But to be able to – if not exactly re-create or re-live that moment – but to re-visit and re-affirm the original feeling via VCR augments the magic of the original creation.

VHS tape from 1982

The eventual growth of nostalgia culture beginning in the 1970s and in a sense “coming of age” in the 1990s, was helped immensely when the Internet was robust enough to offer still and motion images quickly and eventually, in real time. Now, not just the film itself could be replayed on VCRs, but also the significant and ephemera of licensed associated products and their catalogs and commercials could be recalled by Internet users whenever needed. All of this internet-based recall allows for the magic of Lucas to sort of perpetually exist – not quite “now” or in the zeitgeist, but also neither dead nor anchored to 1977, 1981, or 1983. Also, of course, it allowed fans to build communities online allowing for certain cultures to persist, sometimes thrive, but most importantly, to legitimate their individual nostalgic itch. Let me summarize my second point here. Lucas, as a post-WWII child reared on television, successfully replicated the idyllic child-like wonder of his own youth into his work. This potent style, when consumed during audience’s youth, combine to form a powerful imprint on the viewer. This viewer, first through VCR’s and eventually the Internet, technologically never had to forget this powerful imprint, its aesthetic always just a click away for resurrection. The sum result of all of this was a long cultural shadow that falls over Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and his audience’s subsequent consumption of it.

At this point, I’d like to outline my two points so that I may set up my conclusion.

Point 1:

Star Wars (1977) was a broadly embraced, pleasing, cultural phenomena with an accessible story line and likeable protagonist (Luke Skywalker). The mass embracement of the film led to a feeling of ownership over the film on the part of audiences. The incomplete narrative regarding Luke as a masterful Jedi built an eagerness on the part of the audience to see this story element treated with significance and care in the event of any new films being produced. In the ensuing years, the breadth of the original film’s audience has now been misattributed as some sort of niche, toxic fan-boy product thanks in large part to an Internet fan culture and a licensed product industry that caters to them.

Point 2:

Lucas, as a ‘50s child inspired by television, successfully replicated in his films the idyllic child-like wonder of his own post-WWII prosperous youth. This aesthetic, when consumed during his audience’s youth, combine to form a powerful imprint on the viewer. These viewers, first through VCR’s and eventually the Internet, technologically never had to leave these powerful creations, their aesthetic always just a click away.

The other outcome from social media-based Internet culture is an ossification of the belief perpetuated in part by talk radio and cable news channels that the U.S. is, and can only be divided by the most extreme of beliefs (e.g. Red state / Blue state). No space is allowed for nuance or multiplicities. In the case of Star Wars, we are now left with an incorrect expectation of the film / franchise / brand as either “pure cinematic art” or “toxic reductive fan service”. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post, Star Wars (1977) great achievement was twofold: that it was a massively embraced, accessible film that was also masterfully crafted by cinema professionals. As such, Star Wars (1977) was never just “pure cinematic art” nor cynical fan service for a toxic minority. Its achievement is greater than either.

The more rational expectation is moored in my two points outlined above. It is a film that captured a generation’s imagination because it was born from Lucas’s imagination that itself was fueled by the post-war prosperity of his idyllic childhood in the ‘50s. Star Wars (1977) viewers consumed, accepted the adventure storyline Lucas and editors crafted, and with new films, expected more wonder, more fantasy, more adventure, and more heroes. It was escapist fare coming on the heels of Watergate and Vietnam. Audiences wanted to see the original protagonist (Luke Skywalker) complete his narrative Jedi arc, to become what the character Obi-Wan seemed to represent in the original film. Director Rian Johnson, beginning from the best of intentions – art, first and foremost – misinterpreted the original film’s history, success, and narrative relationship to fans and his own responsibility to it as a sequel director.

Even if Johnson’s intentions were correct (which I feel they were), his resulting interpretation is almost nihilistic, particularly troubling when the film arrived so soon after the controversial election of President Trump. Could Star Wars (1977) have been a grittier “mirror” reflecting the nation’s woes after Nixon, gas shortages, and the Fall of Saigon the way the best art does? Of course, but people also need belief along with the harsh realities of our existence. They need to feel inspired even if sometimes it is through a cartoonish narrative about farm boys, mysterious forces, destinies, and black-clad villains. For all of its craftsmanship and technical achievements, Star Wars (1977) was always just a heroic serial where after a few cliffhangers, the hero will end up on top. Is that good art? Probably not. Is it Star Wars (1977)? Yes. That is why rational fans were so disappointed with Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s chosen narrative.

“I’m Luke Skywalker – I’m here to rescue you.”

The most interesting message from Johnson’s trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi was “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to”. When this message is directed at misguided, toxic fanboys, or the always pre-nostalgic, cynical entertainment corporations who just won’t produce a non-IP idea, it is a wonderful message Johnson has crafted. The problem is that Johnson chose to include the heroic ideal (Luke Skywalker) and the original audiences who embraced him, in his nostalgia-killing cross-hairs. Star Wars (1977) was never high art, nor was it low art. It was both – that was why it was so thoroughly embraced, and so thoroughly successful. Luke deserves better treatment than to just be collateral damage in an artist’s misguided, ahistorical attempt to create one new thing, by blowing up everything.

Works Cited

Nicholson, A. & Scheer, P. (2019, December 18). “Star Wars”. Unspooled [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.earwolf.com/episode/star-wars/

Pollock, D. (1999). Skywalking: The life and films of George Lucas. New York: Da Capo Press.

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