The force of nostalgia awakens

January 17, 2016

I BELIEVE that reviewers generally should disclose when they have a vested interest in the thing they're reviewing, so full disclosure: Barring another Jar Jar Binks fiasco, there was about as much chance of me--a geek hurtling toward middle age at light speed--hating J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII--The Force Awakens as there is of the Millennium Falcon successfully navigating an asteroid field.

That is to say, a slim chance (approximately 3,720 to one, if we're being technical about it). Just like so many others, I spent months anticipating The Force Awakens--geeking out over every casting announcement and plot hint, squeeing over the cool new toys, and fervently hoping that the movie would be good.

It is that, I'm pleased to say: a solidly good movie--though (and I say this not to damn it with faint praise) not necessarily a great one. Or rather, it tells a good story--but its real strength is that it does it amid a landscape populated with some great characters, both old and new.

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THERE'S NO doubt that Star Wars director George Lucas is a visionary in ways that have irrevocably changed cinema--from his help in creating, for better and worse, (along with cohort Steven Spielberg) the modern Hollywood blockbuster, to his special effects wizardry, to his foresight, despite his protestations that he's "just a movie guy," in recognizing the potential importance of merchandising in the creation of the modern blockbuster.

But there are some things Lucas has never done very well--as many Star Wars fans are the first to admit. Like writing dialogue. (Harrison Ford once famously told him about the dialogue in Star Wars: A New Hope: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it.") Then there is his perverse inability to leave well enough alone. (Han shot first, thank you very much.)

After the dismal mess of the Lucas-directed Star Wars Episodes I-III, millions of fans greeted the choice of Lost and Star Trek director J.J. Abrams to helm The Force Awakens with cautious optimism--an opportunity to stay faithful to the swashbuckling spirit of Episodes IV-VI while making a Star Wars movie that could tell a new and interesting story to a new audience.

Many reviews of The Force Awakens have seemed to fall into two extremes: the uncritically joyous and the joylessly nit-picking. But it's worth stepping back in the wake of the release of The Force Awakens to consider how the phenomenon of fandom and marketability impacts how we enjoy this latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.

There's something obnoxious, not to mention elitist, in cantankerous Marxists looking down their noses at Star Wars fans and proclaiming that we need to "get a life" and stop wasting so much time and energy on debates about Sith lords and the properties of the Force. It's even more obnoxious to castigate the movies for not being properly "political." Capturing a certain truth about the approach of some on the left to culture in general and Star Wars in particular, the satire site "Worker's Spatula" teased:

Not once in the entire Star Wars trilogy does any character make reference to Marxism-Leninism or dialectical materialism. When Luke's master, Yoba, dies in the first film, while it is true that the Rebel Alliance hold their fists aloft and praise him as a great revolutionary who has become immortalized in their struggle against fascism, no reference to class is to be found in the Rebels' ideology.

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FOR A whole new generation of fans primed with a childhood of light saber battles, Lego Star Wars toys and episodes of The Clone Wars, however, the desire to read a sense of progressive politics into The Force Awakens is not so much about any inherent political aspirations of the film itself, but about our desire to see a better world reflected back to us on the screen.

The casting of Black actor John Boyega as rogue stormtrooper Finn matters--as does the central importance of the character arc of Daisy Ridley's Rey. In fact, the Internet exploded in a flurry of outraged white tears after The Force Awakens trailer premiered last year, with one segment of outraged fans/trolls--led by a Twitter user with the screen name "End Cultural Marxism"--announcing that J.J. Abrams was promoting "white genocide" by casting Boyega as a lead in the film. (Here's a newsflash: Having one Black actor featured as a lead character in a story that includes not only multiple ethnicities but multiple species should hardly be seen as proof positive of a Marxist takeover of Hollywood.)

Aside from the deeply satisfying platter of nostalgia The Force Awakens serves up, the biggest strength of the movie is in the development of its main characters, especially Finn and Rey. With Finn, stormtroopers are now more than faceless clones (with an apparently inexhaustible ability to miss a target with a laser blaster). The bloody handprint that a fallen comrade leaves on FN-2187's visor serves as more than a visual marker of his character later in the scene--it is a shocking reminder that there is flesh and blood below the white armor.

The power of seeing Finn refuse to take part in a war crime in order to claim his humanity--transforming himself from faceless number FN-2187 into a real, conflicted human person with a name of his own--matters. And it will resonate with many that it is a Black man doing so--precisely because we live in a society in which the humanity of Black people and their very right to exist is constantly under attack at the hands of the state.

Likewise, Kylo Ren has the potential to be what Episodes I-III's Anakin Skywalker should have been--a deeply disturbed villain whose internal conflict we can see and relate to (rather than the sulking, obnoxious teenager we were treated to in Hayden Christensen's Anakin or the fully formed menace of Darth Vader).

Even more important for The Force Awakens is Daisy Ridley's character Rey--the culmination of the promise that Lucas tantalized millions of us with in the character of Princess Leia: the awesome female Jedi.

The Force Awakens sets up the scrappy scavenger as the "new new hope." Rey goes a long way toward scrubbing away the bad taste that still lingers as a result of Princess Leia's gold bikini (though Rey's exclusion from much of the first wave of Force Awakens toys remains maddening and perplexing. At least it appears as though the next wave of toys to roll out will feature her more prominently.)

The centrality of Rey also raises questions that I hope the franchise will answer in the future: Like why, if Leia was also strong in the Force, she couldn't also have been trained as a Jedi. Maybe the now-General Organa was just too busy holding the Rebellion together? (One can only hope it wasn't because she got hitched to Han. Though Han, of course, did thoughtfully build Leia a kitchen on the Millennium Falcon as a wedding gift.)

Sadly, the fact that one of the major debates on social media following the release of The Force Awakens has been about whether or not Carrie Fisher has "aged well" and how much weight she has gained in the past four decades illustrates just why we need more characters like Rey--strong, capable, smart female leads. (As the always sublimely hilarious Fisher responded on Twitter: "Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings. My body hasn't aged as well as I have. Blow us," and "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments, they're the temporary happy byproducts of time and/or DNA. Don't hold your breath for either.")

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MARXISTS WHO sometimes would prefer that the cultural products we love not be subjected to the harsh light of scrutiny are fond of quoting Trotsky that "a work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art." By that law, I would say that the Force Awakens succeeds.

Among what works: Abrams broke my heart in the best way possible with the Han Solo/Kylo Ren showdown. And the deliberate echoes of the Han/Leia romance in the Finn/Rey pairing--including some tongue-in-cheek words of wisdom from Han Solo to Finn--not only works well, but has the added benefit of annoying the Internet racists who would rather see Rey date a wookie than a Black man. (One can only wonder what the reaction will be if the longshot fan theory that pilot Poe Dameron is gay turns out to be correct.).

The film isn't without its faults, however. With The Force Awakens, the replaying of significant story lines lifted seemingly straight from Star Wars: A New Hope in some cases heightens the story (mysterious parentage! inter-generational conflict and daddy issues!), but in other instances allows the thinness of the plot to show through--leaving some portions of the film a little threadbare, like that well-worn set of vintage Star Wars sheets some of us still have on our beds.

The use of the Starkiller Base as a kind of Death Star 2.0 never quite gels. Unlike with the Death Star in A New Hope, we aren't given the same sense of existential dread from the threat of the Starkiller Base, even as our heroes were supposedly seconds away from death caused by it.

Likewise, the character of Maz Kanata as the "new" Yoda seems lacking to me. Though she is at least one small CGI step toward erasing the putrid memory of the Jar Jar Binks character, her transparent operation as The Force Awakens' Yoda figure (they might as well have hung a sign around her neck reading "tiny mystical sage/comic relief here") fails to add much to the movie. And Domhnall Gleeson's spitting General Hux pales in comparison to the effortlessly chilly gravitas of Peter Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin.

It's important to be admit to admit these flaws not because we should want to dismantle the things we love, but because there's a problem with pretending that judging a work of art by the law of art means not judging it at all.

And of course, Trotsky didn't stop by saying art should be judged by its own laws. He added that "Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why."

And here is where I think Marxists have something important to add to an understanding of The Force Awakens--a film that is, perhaps more than anything else, a heaping bowl of nostalgia being spoon-fed to both an old and new audience.

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IN ONE of the most famous literary mediations on nostalgia, French author Marcel Proust describes being transported into memory through the act of eating a cookie--and his subsequent attempts to recapture that exact moment of transcendent feeling. I'd wager the feeling Proust had while eating his cookie is a familiar one to many Star Wars fans sitting in the theater and viewing The Force Awakens. ("I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?")

I'm only kidding a little bit. My first glimpse of Han Solo saying "We're home" to Chewie in The Force Awakens trailer last year brought a tear to my eye--talk about all-powerful joy! That tear was real, involuntary--but it was also the byproduct of a calculated corporate machine with billions of dollars at stake trying to sell me a memory of my experience as a Star Wars fan as much as it was the result of a work of art.

While Proust's nostalgia came from the simple sense memory of eating, my nostalgia as a Star Wars fan comes from consumption of a different kind: a purchased experience of pop culture that is further invested with economic interest at every level. (One can imagine the marketing and toy people in the background during the production process--"Can we get another cute droid in the movie so we can make another really cool toy?" "How about a special new light saber for Kylo Ren?")

Nostalgia itself--that pleasurable sinking into memory--is a kind of commodity, and probably no company on earth is better at selling it than Disney, the current owner of the Star Wars franchise.

J.J. Abrams claimed recently that all of the callbacks in the plot of The Force Awakens are deliberate. They aren't "rip-offs," he said, but an example of "embracing the history that we know to tell a story that is new--to go backwards to go forwards." To an extent, he has a point--there is a way in which the repetition of themes, characters and plot elements from the older franchise are helpful and even necessary to set up the continuation of the saga in the forthcoming Episodes VIII and IX.

But on another level, this retreading of ground made me hyperaware of the way The Force Awakens is a conscious attempt to sell me something beyond a discrete work of art known as a "movie." The Force Awakens, for millions of moviegoers, isn't just about what happens to a set of characters on a screen, it is inextricably bound up with what you might call the "Star Wars Experience™".

I have some small amount of sympathy for George Lucas, who recently said in an interview with Charlie Rose that his selling Star Wars to Disney to make the "retro movie" Force Awakens felt as if he sold his "kids" to "the white slavers that take these things, and..." (he trailed off).

Lucas' poor word choice notwithstanding, there is something infinitely calculated about every aspect of not only The Force Awakens, but everything to do with Star Wars--meant to generate revenue from an audience based in large part on capitalizing on our experience of memory and nostalgia. Admitting this doesn't have to negate enjoyment of the film, but we should try to understand it.

What Lucas described is a kind of gilded cage--a constraining of the possibilities of artistic vision--that he himself had a hand in creating in modern Hollywood. Disney and Abrams today are merely continuing what Lucas (along with Spielberg and others) have made a central feature of American blockbuster moviemaking, from American Graffiti (which he wrote and directed) to Raiders of the Lost Ark (which he wrote and Spielberg directed)--a recycling and reselling of the past in palatable form, from the music and car culture of the 1950s in the case of American Graffiti, to 1940s movie adventure serials in the case of Raiders and Star Wars.

In some sense, the generational conflict on the screen is no less intense than the one playing out in the audience. The rehashing of the familiar is in part designed as a payoff for those of us who worked to shield our kids from spoilers about Luke and Leia's parentage until they were old enough to watch The Empire Strikes Back in its proper form.

We've inculcated in them a love of a franchise that they haven't (until now) had the opportunity to see on the big screen--and nurtured them with light sabers, lovingly crafted Lego Death Stars and trips to Star Wars Awakens at Walt Disney World. We are the ones now with the disposable income that allows us to fill our homes with (only semi-ironically) purchased R2D2 humidifiers, adult-size Princess Leia onesies (complete with faux buns!) and Darth Vader toasters ("The empire strikes back with deliciously toasted bread, waffles and English muffins").

But of course, for all of our completely justified and fierce devotion to them, our things--even the most thrilling artistic cultural products--can't love us back they way we love them.

"I love you," we say to Star Wars. "I know," it replies.

[Reprinted from US Socialist Worker.]

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