Rewatching Star Wars

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I recently rewatched Star Wars (the original movie, later — wrongly — called Episode IV: A New Hope). I’ve seen SW many, many times, but I hadn’t watched it again since the 2004 DVD release of the special edition. I really wanted to rewatch the original theatrical release, but I don’t have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition or the 2006 GOUT DVD. So, I had to suffer through the special edition hijinks while trying to recapture the original feeling of watching the movie new in 1977.

Here are some thoughts following the viewing. Most of this is all bleedingly obvious and some of it has been remarked upon by others, but I’ll put it here for what little help it might give to someone new to all this.

— The Special Edition cartoonizes the movie. It was certainly a far-out film way back then, with the cantina scene and beep-booping droids, but it had a reality, a solidity to it that is robbed by the SE additions.

See, part of the unique tone of SW in its original release was that here was a science-fiction movie shot with a documentarian’s sensibilities. The movie has a nuts-and-bolts materiality to it that we hadn’t seen in space fantasy movies before (sure, in hard sci-fi like 2001 and Silent Running, but not space opera). Lucas began his career with documentary shorts, and American Graffiti took that sensibility into a fictional recreation of his hot-rodding youth. His use of this style in SW is still, IMHO, underappreciated for its unique affect. It wasn’t just the detailed starship miniatures and grimy droids; it was also his camera’s eye: a documentarian’s eye.

The original release is real. The Special Edition is hyper-real. This ruins the effect.

— The movie was so damn exotic the first time around, with that sense of wonder that is special to fables of visits to far lands. It really puts us on Tatooine and shows us things we’ve never seen before. It seems so mundane now, but the first shot of the Jawa Sandcrawler is such a perfect, thrilling glimpse at a strange, rolling castle on a distance planet, reminding us viscerally that we’re someplace else. This effect is achieved because it is treated so mundanely. Again, it’s like a documentary.

— SW is very much the product of America’s first generation of film students. I don’t think it could have been conceived, much less made, by anyone who hadn’t grown up studying film the way Lucas and Spielberg did, with help from USC’s new film school.

The movie is a melange of tropes and film techniques from different genres thrown together under the umbrella of a space-fantasy setting. The A and B plots illustrate this:

The A plot — Luke Skywalker’s saga — is The Sword in the Stone. It’s a King Arthur tale of a noble boy raised by peasants who discovers his knightly, mystical destiny, mentored by a wizard. It’s his journey to inherit his father’s title, that of Jedi Knight.

The B plot — Han and Leia’s meeting — is Casablanca by way of screwball comedy. It’s the tale of a scoundrel with a heart of gold (like Bogart) who must realize that there really is something — someone — worth fighting for. But all this is disguised by the screwball comedy dialogue. Underneath the facade of Grant/Hepburn, Solo and Leia are much more Bogey/Bacall (as is made much clearer in Empire). Even if we never got Empire to elaborate on all this for us, it’s quite clear in the movie itself. All the fan speculation about a love triangle between Luke-Leia-Han missed that there were two stories here, and Luke’s could never really be part of the romance story. While there is an element of Robin Hood rescuing Maid Marion from the Sith of Nottingham, it’s there as part of Luke’s journey to knighthood. Knights in shining armor rescue princesses and maidens, but that’s just a McGuffin for action; actual romance would get in the way and make it all a different story.

There’s a C plot of sorts, too, which is C3PO and R2D2’s comedic road trip, a nod to Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello by way of Kurosawa’s peasants in The Hidden Fortress.

All these plots are all presented without meta or ironic sensibility — they’re earnest homages. It’s all played straight. There’s not even a wink to the audience to let them know that the filmmaker knows that it’s pastiche. This is part of the movie’s charm.

— The Force is a hodgepodge of 1970s California spirituality. Part Castaneda, part Esalen (with its Joseph Campbell connection), part EST, and part Alan-Watts zen. (It all feels rather zen and Japanese in Star Wars, but becomes more Taoist with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.) And, of course, California surfer philosophy: go with the flow, trust your feelings. Although the Jedi have a samurai aesthetic (Obi-Wan’s name, his robes, Kendo-style lightsaber duels), they are more Camelot than Kyoto.

— I also want to throw in some thoughts on The Empire Strikes Back, and how it deepens the first film’s plots by changing their register.

Luke’s A plot becomes a kung-fu movie initiation that then deepens into a Gothic/Oedipal drama, with the weight of a dark family heritage now bearing down upon Luke. It still continues the Arthurian tale begun in the first film, but reverses a key element of the saga. In the original tales, the king’s son — Mordred — is the bad seed who destroys Camelot. Now, in Empire, the father — Vader — is the dark one who already destroyed Camelot (the Old Republic) and it’s his son who must restore the Waste Land galaxy. By Return of the Jedi, Luke becomes a Perceval/Galahad, whose grail quest must heal the wounded dark king/father.

Leia and Han’s B plot moves from screwball comedy back to Casablanca. This time, however, Rick/Han is caught by the Nazis/Empire, because his friend Louis/Lando changed sides too late.

Continuity is King — the King is Dead! All Hail the King!

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Fans of created universes (*Star Wars*, *Star Trek*, the World of Darkness, *Forgotten Realms*, etc., etc.) love continuity, those thousands of details and “historical” events that convince readers/watchers/players that the world has internal *consistency*, a hallmark for being “real.”

But for creators, continuity can become a shackle. Certainly, it initially provides for the type of limits — the enclosed box — that can spur creative solutions. Alan Moore, for instance, is renowned for his ability to reinvent characters without rewriting old continuity, such as he did with *Swamp Thing*: he peels back layers of realization, showing that the new version was always there, waiting for its cue. Geoff Johns did the same when he brought back Hal Jordan in *Green Lantern*, brilliantly re-envisioning the sad Parallax affair in such a way that it opened up whole new vistas of metaphysics for the title. But still… continuity that gets too tight, too specific, can restrict creativity, especially if the editorial department isn’t willing to let creatives do the sort of radical Moore-ian or Johns-ian twists that can reinvigorate tired, stale old storylines.

All that preamble is to say: Let’s talk about *Star Wars: the Force Awakens*. The new owners have thrown out years of continuity-based stories that appeared in comics, novels, and video games. Why? Because the new filmmakers didn’t want to tell those stories. They had their own. And, especially in the case of Star Wars, the movies are the central core, with all other media subservient to its imperial dictates.

The sort of continuity “reboot” has happened many times in comics, with the DC’s ’80s *Crisis on Infinite Earths* perhaps being the first full-scale universe reboot (rather than individual title reboot). Later, we saw Marvel introduce separate universes (the New Universe, and then the Ultimates) rather than break up their core continuity. But now *Battleworlds* and *Secret Wars II* have torn all that up, just as DC’s the New 52 and then *Convergence* rewrote the DC universe (again).

I’ve had some experience with this, when we ended the “classic” World of Darkness in the mid-‘00s and introduced newly visioned takes on modern-day vampires, werewolves, and wizards. We learned the same lesson I know the comics guys learned (despite their continuing to bust up their worlds): Every crack in continuity splits the fanbase. Some people stay with the original, even if it means no longer buying new products, and some buy into the new stuff. (This same splitting happens with new RPG editions, even if the continuity change is merely an advance of the “metaplot”.)

All the benefits of continuity — a shared, sprawling universe in which all stories are facets of the universe’s single story, growing the fanbase with each new spinoff — are belied by the raw fact of continuity’s lifecycle: Creators will one day have to tear it all down, and with it might go the fanbase that ensured its success.

Fans come to love certain characters, places, plots. When they’re taken away, it leaves an empty place, a void. Of course they get angry, now that they have to confront death, a reminder of their own mortality. All things must pass. *It’s not fair — I read to escape such hard realities*!

So, fans: Use these lessons, these little deaths, as esoteric gifts, invitations to rehearse your own eventual ultimate letting go. Things come, things go, and then come again.

You’ll fall in love again. Some day there will be a new property (who knows? it might be the reboot of the old property!) that will grab you and suck you in, soaking you in all sorts of spinoff tales: movies, books, comics, games.

And then, it too will pass. And another will rise to take its place. Continuity is fleeting. Creativity is forever, universes without end.

Werewolves, Dragons, and Kaiju — Oh, My!

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It looks like I’ll be sitting on a panel at Monsterama this Sunday (3pm) at the Marriott Perimeter Center. Here’s the description:

RPG Monsters – Learn how adding vampires, werewolves, dragons, and even kaiju can serve RPG gameplay. Darin Bush (mod), Bill Bridges, Bruce Sheffer.

See you there?

Go Set a Rorschach

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A recent twitter thread examining the public reception about Rorschach vs. author intent got me thinking about Watchmen again. When the movie came out, I went to a local comic book club meeting about the classic graphic novel. I was the oldest there; everybody else was roughly college age. It struck me that the whole giant subtext (or is it surface text?) about the Bomb was largely lost on them. That is, the pirate comic – Tales of the Black Freighter – as a metaphor for the fear of nuclear annihilation that was so prevalent during the Cold War, especially during Alan Moore’s childhood (the “duck and cover” years, even in Britain). It’s not about nuclear annihilation itself but about what the fear of it does to us. We (the poor shipwreck survivor, that is) will do terrible things to avert the object of our fear, even if it means enacting the very horrors we think the object of our fear threatens to deliver upon us.

Watchmen is a multi-level work, of course, but I think understanding the Bomb and its omnipresence during the Cold War is the master key to really unlocking the work, and not just because Doctor Manhattan is a walking representative of the nuclear program. While superheroes predate the Bomb, they really take off as a genre in the early-60s, when the Cold War is at full rev. The so-called Silver Age is actually the Post-Bomb Age, as attested to by all the heroes who gain their powers from the wayward atom. Moore clearly sees superheroes as being complicit in the whole Cold War scam. If they’re not always crewmembers of the Black Freighter, they’re at least patsies for the establishment’s war engine.

There’s a lot to be said here, and I don’t have time to fully work this all out. But:

* Ozymandias’ alien arrives in the form of a bomb, one turned on the American people.

* Rorschach, the one who resists the New World Order, is vaporized, just like as if he’d been at ground zero for the Bomb. The message is that only those who embrace the logic of nuclear superiority will survive.

In the end, none of us are free. We’re enslaved to the logic of the Bomb, the atomic clockwork. The less human Doctor Manhattan becomes, the less free he is, seeing all of time – and all our choices — as already having happened.

Watchmen is justly lauded for its formal complexity, but I suspect that one of the reasons its rings a bell with the literary establishment is this pessimistic outcome, so contrary to the usual message of heroism and derring-do that superheroes are supposed to deliver. Nihilism and exhausted outcomes are considered “realism” to modernist stories. This is, I suspect, another unexamined legacy of the Bomb.

Sing, O Muse, of the Rage of the Superhero  

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(Below are some rough-hewn, unpolished thoughts on the state of myth in comics. They could also apply to other forms of pop culture, such as movies and music, which all suffer from the same affliction: the death of vision, or more precisely, the visionary.

This is just a draft, to get some initial thoughts down. To be revised later, as time and interest allows. But here it is, in case anybody is interested in this sort of thing.)

The ’80s revolution in comics — you know, “POW! BIFF! WHAM! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” — marked the point at which the kids who grew up reading them and were now writing them began tailoring their work to match their now adult concerns. Alan Moore led the way, along with Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and others. It was an exciting, revelatory time for comics.

But in the long run, while one could argue that mainstream comics improved greatly, they also lost something valuable. Something they can’t really get back: their subversiveness.

Before the ’80s, comics were for kids. Everybody knew that. Sure, Marvel was changing things up, aiming their comics at college kids — sort of. They still had to have that bombastic, senses-shattering style that screamed out that these rags were just good fun for the kids, with some winks toward the budding adults. Nothing to worry about. These weren’t underground comix, after all.

Hidden behind the bombast, though, were some startling ideas: Captain America’s nemesis was — gasp! — Richard Nixon? A wizard’s tower in Cleveland, the “City of Lights and Magic”, was made of credit cards? The source of an alien’s superpower was “cosmic awareness,” which seemed an awful lot like that trip talked about by infamous Mr. Leary?

These ideas had frisson precisely because they came hidden between the lines of a superhero funny book. Between the cataclysmic punches and soap-opera melodrama, truly weird ideas were fermenting, brought to us by a generation of writers who had been awakened by the fervent concerns of the ’60s and who just had to invest some of these issues into their work. Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Don MacGregor, among others — visionaries, all. But they had a barrier they couldn’t just break — the “comics are for kids” rule. They had to subvert it from within. Over at DC, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were being even more obvious, by turning Green Arrow’s ward into a heroin junky and raising a cop’s consciousness — Green Lantern, that is — with a road trip through troubled America.

Today, these sorts of topical ideas in comics appear where Stan the Man had always told us to stand: front and center. They aren’t subtext anymore; they’re the primary text of the comic. While this is often a great virtue, allowing comics to forthrightly tackle adult issues, it also means that superhero comics no longer have that subversive subtext or sense of shock when a startling idea bursts from beneath the four-color surface.

Much of this effect depended on style: the heightened action and overwrought dialogue, as if it were perfectly natural for people to go around emoting like wooden Shakespearean actors or tragic Homeric figures and treating every event like an existential crisis worthy of exclamatory oratory. In the “new comics realism,” this sort of Master Thespian behavior is, well, simply not done. It is an artifact of the artifice that Marvel adopted — led in this endeavor by Stan Lee —precisely to raise their kiddie dramas to heightened levels of intensity.

It is just this “mighty Marvel style,” in its faux Biblicality, that allowed for topical social concerns and alternative ideas to be invested into kids’ comics. It was a necessary factor for the sense of subversion so lovingly fostered by the ’70s writers, for investing the comics with an aura of importance. Style allowed for substance.

It is this heightened or elevated style that I miss in modern superhero comics. Writers like Bendis, Hickman, Millar, etc., are doing great jobs with their work. While it is somewhat ridiculous to call it “realist,” considering the content, in dialogue and characterization that’s what it is. It is more modeled on believable movie adaptations than on myth. It is part of the early-21st Century zeitgeist that demands pop culture be grounded in the real, as if we were watching through webcams or security camera footage. While this is certainly an evolution of the Marvel innovation to set stories in our world, in New York rather than fairy-tale Metropolis or dark-fable Gotham, it’s an evolution that has no revolution about it. It’s become boring.

I’m not trying to put the ’70s comics on a pedestal. Frankly, some of it doesn’t read so great these days. They’re kind of silly. Most modern comics are vastly superior in characterization, sense of setting, story structure, etc., etc. But most of them are missing that spark, that thrill power*, that sound of distant trumpets that heralds the arrival of myth to the stage.

We can’t go back, aping the style of ’70s-era Marvel. It’s time for a new evolution, a new language for superhero comics that evokes myth for modern audiences. A visionary style that eschews the new realism and reaches for the ineffable.

Who will lead the way?

* A term applied to the style adopted by the British 2000 AD comics magazine to give readers a sense of being in the club — what Stan Lee would call the cognoscenti.