James Flint on Fri, 30 Jul 1999 21:13:35 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Star Wars and the Second Coming

Written after a recent trip to see The Phantom Menace...

How audacious is it possible for one man to be? As if not happy with
writing, directing and producing the biggest independent film production
of all time, George Lucas deigns to offer us, on the eve of the two
thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the story of the second
coming. Yes, this is another article about Star Wars, and yes I knew
before I went to see the film that it was an attempt by the "master of
myth" to "rewrite history", but I didn't know before I got to the
outrageous scene in which Anakin's mother explains that her son is the
result of a virgin birth quite what we were in for.

Suddenly the mud and stone igloos of Tatooine take on another aspect: this
huddle of desert buildings is Bethlehem, California-style, complete with
three kings (played by Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan
Kenobi) and Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala/Padme)) arriving in their
spaceship bearing gifts: a power pack, which will help Anakin win the Ben
Hur chariot race-style pod race as Jabba the Hut (Tiberius/Herod) looks
on, a Droid, R2 D2, about whom we know a great deal already, and... well,
the third gift, the gold, is presumably a light sabre, no doubt to be
given to Anakin by Obi-Wan in Episode 2. 

	Once we get over the Hollywood racisms thinly disguised as classic
stereotypes from the history of literature (junk-dealer Watto as Shylock,
Jar-Jar Binks as a young Uncle Tom, plus assorted Chinese and Iraqi types
in the role of the evil trade-blockaders) we begin to see that the moral
world of Star Wars isn't simply about straightforward xenophobia. On the
contrary, the story is advocating that we (the sympathic viewers, placed
in subject position of the trusty band of friends) ally ourselves with the
'good' Asians, signified by the elaborate ceremonial robes of Queen
Amidala. These are robes that literally turn out to be a disguise when the
Queen swops places with a member of her retinue to gain strategic
advantage; underneath she turns out to be just like us, i.e. she's Padmé
Naberrie, a canny American girl, a Jewish New Yorker, tomboyish but sexy
too, someone who has faith in the continued operation of the free market
and the need to struggle unto death against the evil forces of the trade
blockade (at which point we have to wonder if it's any coincidence that
the Gungan underwater city on Naboo is strongly reminiscent of Jamaica,
focus of the recent US contra EU struggle over bananas?). 

	Although Anakin is a slave boy in the manner of the oppressed Jews
of Biblical times and one with a talent for mechanics to rival the
boy-Christ's talent for carpentry, he is also troped as the chosen one
after the fashion of Tibetan Buddhism. Yoda's similarity to the Dalai Lama
becomes more explicit in The Phantom Menace than in any of the later
episodes, and indeed Qui-Gon Jinn presents him to the Jedi council as his
candidated for the chosen one. While, for all its faults, the Matrix had
the decency to make fun of 'chosen one' notions, Lucas takes it all 100%
seriously, as befits an auteur who has set himself the task of sculpting a
myth fit to carry not only the first generation of Star Wars viewers but
also their children into the next Millennium. The blessed of
Tatooine/California, he seems to be saying, must ally with appropriate
mystical elements of the East, i.e. Tibet, and forge in the crucible of
conflict a third way, a blend of individualism and holistic thinking ('You
and they are in a symbiotic relationship', intones McGregor in his
faux-Sean Connery tones (the bastard son of an attempt to sound like a
youthful John Gielgud, we have to presume), 'whatever happens to them
effects you.'), of Christianity and Taoism, of technology and mysticism.

	It's perhaps no mistake that this all sounds rather familiar. It
strikes us that we've heard it before, under the banner of arch con-man
and false prophet L.Ron Hubbard, the one that reads 'Scientology'? We
should not be surprised that there's a accordance between the two - after
all, Taoism has long been the preferred religion among those stars so
divorced from the rest of us by success and spin (De Niro, Richard Gere,
Cindy Crawford etc.  etc.); for the even more whacked out among
Scientology is the doctrine of choice (John Travolta and the holy trinity
of Cruise, Kidman and Kubrick).  It only took the Jewish Scorcese to throw
a materialist New Testament (The Last Temptation of Christ) and a little
bit of Tibeten revisionism (Kundun)  into the mix, for Star Wars Episode 1
to emerge fully formed from the oven. Thus Lucas dishes up a rewriting of
the history of religion in the form of a historical pastiche of
Hollywood's previous rewritings of the history of religion. We have the
chariot race from Ben Hur, the battlescene from Sparticus and, as a last,
deft touch, the huge babylonian sets from Griffiths' Intolerance
computer-rendered back into reality in the Menace's final celebratory
scenes. He even taps the energy of parallel modern mythologies like Star
Trek by exploiting the uncanny facial similarities that Ewan McGregor has
to William Shatner (albeit more in his T.J.Hooker phase than his Star Trek
one). Shatner must be furious in being co-opted like this; he, at least,
has seen through his own myth and has battled alcholism to produce a new
book (Get a Life) and film (Free Enterprise)  both of which warn obsessive
Trekkies to stop using the philosophical and moral kluge that is Gene
Roddenbury's creation and to start to operate instead in the vastly more
complex 'real' world that they live in. 

	Key to the religion of Star Wars is the Force, and in The Phantom
Menace this mysterious phenomenon is for the first time given some kind of
explanatory basis, if only one founded in pseudo-science. We are told that
it is something to do with the operations of the Midichlorians,
"microscopic creatures that live in all cells", without which life would
not be possible. A clear correlate for mitochondria, the organelles
responsible for energy production in organic cells, the Force is thus
conceived as some kind of bio-consciousness of the electromagnetic and
gravitational forces of the physical world. This forgrounding of the idea
that multicellular life is symbiotic with or rather parasitic upon a
bacterial substratum is the most attractive and laudable idea in Star
Wars;  unfortunately Lucas feels it necessary to take the next step and
load God-like qualities into that bacterial arena - the Midichlorians are
conscious of unwanted perturbations in the force (they like a quiet life) 
to the extent that they are prepared to assemble appropriate chromosomes
in the belly of a woman to produce an intervention in the multicellular
world in the form of a leader who will put things to rights.

	At this stage I'd like to make my own audacious claim: that there
are two basic kinds of narrative, or narrative ontologies, if you will.
The first tells stories that are based on the assumption that someone or
something somewhere is fundamentally in control, even though its ways are
mysterious.  The second tells stories that are based on the assumption
that, while pockets of control may exist or even be created, there is no
greater power, knowledge or operation that one may have recourse to. In
the first category I'd place Star Wars, in the second (to be glib),
Shakespeare. Actually, there's a third category too - that of stories that
deal with the crisis of passing from the first category to the second

	Okay, that was a bit of fun. But it was a diversion with serious
intent.  Because a corollary of the first kind of story is that individual
action must be able to make some kind of a difference in the big scheme of
things.  And this is very important, because it designates that the world
of Star Wars (and of fantasy in general - Star Wars is after all a genre
piece)  takes place in a world of what is effectively hand-to-hand combat.
It is simply not sexy to show the reality of modern warfare, which is that
human beings form thinking elements in vast mechanised offensive forces
that are remotely controlled by computer-aided strategy bureaucrats
bunkered down way behind the lines (either that, of course, or they form
the socius over which such a machine is trampling, or (category 3) they a
bunch of more or less doomed freedom fighters/terrorists (delete according
to which side you're on)). This kind of war machine is shown in Star Wars
but only ever as evil (as in the extraordinary scene in which fighting
droids are being unloaded from a troop carrier like bowling skittles); on
the other hand Lucas promotes the myth of the chosen one, of the
sword-fighter, of the one who feels the Force to persuade us that one
dedicated person can make a difference. As Mao Tse-Tung is reputed to have
told his small band of co-conspirators: "Never doubt that a small group of
people dedicated to their cause can change the world - that's the only
thing that ever has." 

	This Mao/Lucas congruence leads us conveniently to the question
that must be asked of the Star Wars myth of leadership: is it really
offering us an alternative to the evil bureaucracy it professes to
despise? Or is in fact the myth of leadership a prerequisite for the
bureaucracy's very existence, something the masses need to sign up to in
order for them to accept and accept again the dictates of bureaucratic
rule. Because who is Anakin/Christ/Lama but another feudal lord, another
manipulator who uses the techniques we now call spin to proclaim his right
to rule as Jedi Knight, Sun King, Star God when the fact of the matter is
he's just another annoying Californian teenager with a mother fixation, an
elevated sense of self and a truncated moral sense that allows him to
exploit tendencies in other peoples' emotions without worrying himself
with the pain he might be causing them? Sound familiar? Slobodan
Milosevic, William Clinton, you can put your hands down now, thankyou. And
be quiet at the back. 

	To be fair to Lucas, Star Wars was never going to be anything
other than this, because it is, ultimately, just the most complex puppet
show that's ever been constructed. Out of a total of 2000 shots that make
up the film, only 200 have not been enhanced using animatronics or digital
effects. This makes Lucas's reliance on caricature somewhat more
understandable, if not more laudable - Star Wars as millennial Punch and
Judy show (Watto is no longer simply Shylock but also Mr. Punch - and I'm
not even going to start on the characterisation of the comedy-Jamaican
proto-Rasta figure of Jar-Jar Binks, presumably based on some street kid
who'd wormed his way onto the private beach of the gated community where
Lucas spent his last Caribbean holiday and who threw cartwheels for the
rich foreigners to prevent being beaten and thrown out by their guards).
As puppeteer Lucas displays spell-binding technique, drawing on and
extending tricks developed by Disney to distract kids with foreground
battlefield japes and tomfoolery while in the background, for the moms and
dads, a truly vicious and violent firefight develops. What makes this such
a grand event in the history of the puppet theatre is that the
puppeteering continues off-screen in a hundred million bedrooms and shop
windows courtesy of the merchandising tie-ins: dolls and X-wing fighters
and video games and themed chocolate bars, which prompts the worrying
thought that that in unguarded moments, late at night when he can't sleep,
when the window has blown open in the damp Pacific wind and the sheets are
pulled tight up around his chin, Lucas dreams of post-apocalyptic futures
in which a decimated and irradiated sub-humanity gathers in caves and on
hillsides to reconstruct the myths of the race's downfall Riddley
Walker-like* using only the tools at hand: Luke and Lea dolls, a life-size
Darth Vader helmet vibrating telephone, a Tie-fighter with one melted
wing, a broken R2 whose battery acids have melted through its casing. The
idea that two hundred years hence we might all be worshipping at shrines
topped off with miniature Ewan McGregors is an edifying thought. 

	And yet, a future along the lines of Return to the Planet of the
Apes may not be all that Lucas has in store for us. We should not forget
that Tatooine has not one sun but two, and star gods born into bipolar
solar systems may face a different fate that those born into simple
systems like our own. For we already know that Anakin becomes, not a
saviour, but a destroyer. The happy-go-lucky California boy with a
penchant for pod-racing will cross over to the dark side, become
Milosevic/Darth Vader, manipulator, destroyer, the man who will perhaps
kill his own mother when, as he promised her on his departure with Qui-Gon
Jinn, they do eventually meet again. If I remember my Revelations
correctly, second time around it's the anti-Christ that's born of woman
(which begs the terrifying question:  as the series' most significant
machine, does this mean that R2D2 incarnates the second coming? Stranger
things have happened). Perhaps Lucas will yet prove to defy our
expectations and confound our stereotypes;  perhaps his six-episode
monster will not prove to be a Wagnerian epic of will but a morality play
which shows us that leaders designated as chosen ones can only bring war,
death, destruction, and that it is Anakin's dippy son, Luke, played by the
equally dippy Mark Hamill, who will carve chip out the space of a truly
moral world: Luke, the boy whose foster parents are brutally murdered as
part of the randomness of war, Luke the boy who overcomes in the end not
by dint of his bloodline or his mitochondria but simply because he tries
to understand even though he knows in the end that he can't and that the
world is larger than he is himself. Despite all its binary overcoding and
black and white semiotics, will the moral system of Star Wars prove in the
end to be not that of good versus evil but rather that of good constantly
becoming into evil and vice versa, and this a continual operation in a
complex universe in which the respect of difference is the highest ideal
and the exploitation of others the greatest depth to which you can sink,
whichever side you happen to be on? Perhaps we will discover that this it
is this message, the saving grace of the American ideal, that George Lucas
wants to pass on to us and our kids - for, as we should always remember,
Star Wars is really for kids. 

* Riddley Walker is a novel by Russell Hoban in which the secret of
gunpowder is rediscovered in a post-apocalyptic Britain thanks to an
alchemical information dissemination system based on a travelling Punch and
Judy show.

ENDS JBF 20/07/99

                  eat local, act global

Blah: +44 (0) 171 837 7479
Blither: +44 (0) 793 137 2461
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Blather: flint@bigfoot.com
Blurb: www.bigfoot.com/~flint

The brain is a gland, not a computer - Bruce Sterling

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