Final Reflections on Star Wars — Entertainment.

I wrote one post about Star Wars, and then another. This is the last on. This is not my typical content. This is certainly catharsis.

In the previous post I glanced at the mythic elements that Star Wars aspired to at the outset (even if schlocky) before its slide into comic book-ism. I here basically concede that the mythic elements that were married, in the original Star Wars, to the Flash Gordon serialized storytelling format grew weak, and that the entertainment features are what are really central and enduring. Character drama may be the real heart of Star Wars. Unfortunately, the setting for these character dramas seems not to be an endless fountain of creativity, but an endless cage of self-reference and visual repetition. The Mandalorian shows that the franchise can hope to achieve escape velocity from this problem, but I am not holding my breath.

As I mentioned in the first post, were I to be responsible, I’d buy and read the recent biography of George Lucas before writing this (more likely, I’d listen to it on Audible). I’d look at the concept art books or the Ralph McQuarrie art boxed set or the storyboards for the original trilogy. I’d read the books that dealt with how the movies were made — volumes on A New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. I’d find and finally read my copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, or any number of other texts that would give me access to the history of George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and the production dramas and decisions that resulted in so many of these films. (Buy those books! It will cost you the ordinary Amazon price, and I’ll get a few pennies to spend on the coffee needed to keep writing blog posts.)

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More Reflections on Star Wars — Myth?

I wrote a post about Star Wars. This is not my typical content.  I’ll post a few more. I may need some catharsis.

Here is one on the question of the mythic dimensions in Star Wars — or the question of whether, and to what degree, there are mythic strands in it. 

As I mentioned in the first post, were I to be responsible, I’d buy and read the recent biography of George Lucas before writing this (more likely, I’d listen to it on Audible). I’d look at the concept art books or the Ralph McQuarrie art boxed set or the storyboards for the original trilogy. I’d read the books that dealt with how the movies were made — volumes on A New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. I’d find and finally read my copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, or any number of other texts that would give me access to the history of George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and the production dramas and decisions that resulted in so many of these films. (Buy those books! I’ll get a few pennies to spend on the coffee needed to keep writing blog posts.)

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Some Reflections on Star Wars — Is It Entertainment, or a Modern Myth?

“Star Wars is too aware of itself”, a friend of mine once said. Now that the ninth and (presumably) final entry in the Skywalker franchise is out, Disney+ has released its widely-acclaimed The Mandalorian series, and other major Star Wars media are being announced, it seems appropriate to reflect on the cultural place of Star Wars for a moment. (Or maybe you’d prefer to watch a Star Wars fan make fun of people who would take Star Wars seriously.) 

TL;DR: I would not normally write about pop culture here, if it weren’t that I’m writing about Star Wars, and Star Wars is held by many (not all) to aim to provide a myth for the modern era, and to offer a means of re-enchantment. Does it? 

Star Wars as a franchise is still very profitable, but there are not a few who hold that it is feeding off the body of Star Wars as an institution, and who go on, further, to claim that Star Wars as an institution is in peril. These two positions –(1) Star Wars is only a pop-culture entertainment franchise and (2) Star Wars is essentially an institution which expresses mythological themes for the modern age– are incompatible. 

Some hold that the ultimate purpose of Star Wars is to entertain us while providing a reliable return-on-investment to shareholders; it is a comic book set in space, entertaining, and perhaps exhausted, nothing more than a jumbled inventory of familiar characters (it’s Lando! –it’s Chewbacca!), vehicles (look, it’s an X-Wing! –an AT-ST!), paraphernalia (look, blue/green milk! –carbonite freezing!), locations (look, Tatooine!), plot beats (look, Rebel characters dressing up as storm troopers to break into an Imperial base…again!), and overused lines (e.g., “I have a bad feeling about this”). This perspective takes it as essentially a  kitschy self-referential iconography. 

Others claim that its role is to give a pop-culture expression to the perennial issues found in the source material that made the saga interesting in the first place. These would say that if the brand does not identify its soul in the source material that inspired it (I’m not talking about recycling Ralph McQuarrie’s old pre-1977 concept art, but renegade Samurai wandering the landscape, looking for redemption, ethics drawn from Stoicism and Buddhist monasticism and Christian knighthood with a semi-Taoist cosmology), it will just be a bunch of familiar things — and, if that’s all it is, then this means that it is already exhausted. 

It is not entirely clear to me which of these two things Star Wars is, though I incline nowadays to think that it is essentially entertainment that dips into mythological themes — and it does dip into the mythological for at least the first two movies, even if the films on the whole do not qualify as a fully fledged myth. (The Clone Wars TV show has some serious searching of spiritual and ethical themes in many episodes, as I recall, but ethics and spirituality are one step subordinate to myth.) That does not necessarily mean we should regard Star Wars as an institution, even though it has a strong place within popular culture.

Were I to be responsible, I’d buy and read the recent biography of George Lucas before writing this (more likely, I’d listen to it on Audible). I’d look at the concept art books or the Ralph McQuarrie art boxed set or the storyboards for the original trilogy. I’d read the books that dealt with how the movies were made — volumes on A New Hope, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi. I’d find and finally read my copy of How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, or any number of other texts that would give me access to the history of George Lucas, Lucasfilm, and the production dramas and decisions that resulted in so many of these films. (Buy those books! I’ll get a few pennies to spend on the coffee needed to keep writing blog posts.)

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Some Rambling Thoughts on Chinese Shadow Puppet Plays, as Well as a Vonnegut Quote and its Context — Oh, and Simone Weil

The Harvard Ed Portal near me hosts several events, and yesterday’s was “Wu Man and the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band” (there is a YouTube clip of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band here (that family has been doing this for eleven generations!), and an NPR clip of Wu Man here; there is also a disc they were selling at this event titled “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble”, available as a disc and for streaming, YouTube trailer here — more on this disc later, and its accompanying school lesson-plan material, which prompted this post). The event was, in several ways, both eye-opening and beautiful (alien in its tones and stories and some of the conventions of singing; familiar in its musical similarity to Blues and the visual similarity of the puppets to certain Late Antique Anglo-Saxon and Celtic knotwork illuminated manuscript conventions; moving all around).

I loved the show, the performers seemed like wonderful people, and they were very gracious in fielding our questions. I was sad to hear that there were fewer than thirty people left in China who knew this trade — the performers told me that they were 12 when they made their first puppet (out of cow skin, via a rigorous process), and 20 when they could manipulate the flat figures, which each have three poles to move the many parts, with one hand only (to see what I’m talking about, expand this post by clicking “continue reading” below, then look at the image on the header of the expanded post). The younger generations want to leave the villages, want lucrative careers, just want to watch cartoons — though they flock to the performances when they’re held. Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the cultural value of this profession, and supports the mission of these puppeteers (similar to how Irish Gaelic survives in the state-sponsored Gaeltachtaí).

On my way out the door, however, I was dismayed to find that an American product was being pushed at the door that, despite its best intentions, was not only smugly imperialist in its self-assured nihilism but insulting to the richness of the Chinese tradition, and its clear apprehension that value is real, and insulting to the Western European tradition, which has also traditionally recognized that what is worth pursuing is worth pursuing because of its inherent worthiness. Continue reading