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Thoughts on Star Wars and Rogue One

  1. The original 1977 Star Wars was an escape from grown-up ideas about the guilt of America in Vietnam by casting America as an evil empire, and film makers, creative people, and young people as rebels.  It was able to do this  without thinking too hard by putting it all in fantasy land where you don’t need to think about what the difference is, other than that the bad guys blow up planets and hide their faces.
  2. This was justified  by pinning it to the Monomyth idea of reactionary anti-semite Joseph Campbell.  (Actually it was justified by the fact that it made a lot of money, but Campbell  was the justification to give to smart, bookish people.)  Fascist ideologues love myth and ancient stories, because you do’t need to think about your own moral culpability or grown-up relationships.  In fact they view self-doubt, non-violence, and rational thought as signs of weakness and decadence.  Also myths extoll violence.   (Fun obscure fact: Campbell was a student of German Indologist Heinrich Zimmer.)
  3. Star Wars because of its nostalgia has an odd relationship to science fiction.  It takes the imagery of science fiction but makes it all look old and beat up.   Even though a lot of classic sf is about extolling rationality and thinking hard about the moral choices technology will cause us to make, the ideology of Star Wars looks to the past and irrationality (The Force!).  It repurposes science fiction images into a world view that is pro-past and anti-thought. That’s why there are spaceships but how they work doesn’t make sense, and why there are ancient religious leaders running around telling Luke not to use his mind.
  4. In both original Star Wars and Rogue One the interesting characters are monsters and robots.  And I guess spaceships.  The franchise made a lot of money selling these as toys, because the characters originally WERE toys.  The whole vibe is of a pre-pubescent boy playing with dolls — i.e. action figures. Now this thing blows up!  Now that thing blows up! Now these guys are sneaking around this way but then they turn around and sneak this way.  This subtext became text in the Lego Movie, where you actually see the kid is just playing with toys cause his Dad is ignoring him.  All the sexual relationships are chaste and smirky — like a ten year old boy’s view of sex and adult relatinships.
  5. In the latest Star Wars — Rogue One — it starts with iconography of the Iraq war, where the USA is the Empire, i.e. the bad guy.  Then it becomes the US campaign against Japan in the Pacific where the US are the rebels and the Empire are different bad guys.
  6. Whole thing is way reactionary because it encourages the ruling class of a military power to view itself as noble children.
  7. Whole thing eats its tail because now the children who grew up watching the original Star Wars have nostalgia for Star Wars. Like nostalgia squared.  That’s why the new one ends on disconcerting image of recently deceased talented screenwriter Carrie Fisher brought back as creepy CG simulacrum as she looked in 1977.
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8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Star Wars and Rogue One

    • It can be fun to tell stories about how we (and our friends) are heroes and we fight monsters, and learn from wise old men. But telling and listening to such stories carries a cost. En garde!

  1. I think there should be some appreciation of the medium – the audience likes/craves action adventure, even if academics try and train all their pupils out of thinking along those lines.

      • Please feel free to share lists of favorite non action movies… maybe you could consider a whole post sometime. Maybe fav blogs, different books, poetry, historical and contemporary figures and events of interest, music , hobbies, games… etc. A “best of” collection of things you have discovered throughout your life.
        Hopefully you are aware of slatestarcodex.com, he is a psychiatrist who did his undergrad studues in philosophy. The blog is brilliant and becoming quite popular and his writing can sometimes seem a bit similar to yours, i really want to make sure you are aware of eachother

  2. I’m a big fan of the old “Star Wars” movies, but I confess that I don’t see the Vietnam-America subtext. I don’t know anything about the backstory of the movie’s production, so maybe that’s where you found the connection. I haven’t seen the new “Star Wars” movies, so I don’t know anything about their allusions to Iraq.

    I do have a couple of quibbles with your analysis.

    My first quibble has to do with the nature of art. Consider a blueprint for a house as an analogy. The blueprint doesn’t show every detail of the house’s construction because that would make it too complex to use. It only includes details that are needed to build the house correctly. Similarly, life is complicated, ambiguous, and confusing. Real relationships, events, and conversations often don’t make much sense.

    We can extract valuable lessons from life, but we have to do a lot of sifting and organizing first. Art often does that for us. It illustrates particular kinds of situations in ways that show what’s most important about them. It omits details that aren’t relevant to what it wants to communicate.

    Myth is a romantic form of art. Its purpose is to communicate moral ideals (whether correct or not) and inspire us to live by them. It therefore omits a lot of details that aren’t relevant to its purpose. If it included too many such details, myth would lose its effectiveness. (Myth in the Torah sometimes is more complex when its purpose is to provoke thought instead of to inspire good behavior.)

    Our moral character is shaped most powerfully not by abstract principles but by examples of the kind found in myth: “I want to be like that person. I want to be brave. I want to be wise. I want to be kind and loving.” As Prof. Blanshard wrote in The Uses of a Liberal Education:

    “Do you want to know the quality, the direction, the force of a young man’s or woman’s mind? Then look to its admirations. To admire calls for a capacity to go beyond oneself in sympathy and imagination … Admirations are important, for one thing, because they are a means of self-discovery. Genuinely to admire a hero, as Carlyle pointed out, is to have something of that hero in oneself.”

    To admire a hero is also to strengthen the part of oneself that resonates with the hero’s virtues. In a small way, we *become* the heroes we admire, and thereby we become better people, ourselves.

    So myth’s lack of realism is a feature, not a bug. There’s good and there’s evil, and “Star Wars” makes us feel an affinity for the good. Nobody wants to be Grand Moff Tarkin. We’d rather be Han, Leia, or if we must, Luke. Luke is the most realistic character in the saga because he starts out as a shallow, clueless twit, but even he works as myth because he matures into a mensch: an audience member might feel that “If even a twit like Luke can become a better person, then I can do it.”

    My second quibble is more minor: Just because something existed in the past doesn’t mean it belongs only to the past. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Burning witches is well left behind, but honor, loyalty, chivalry, and reverence are still virtues today. Mysticism can be ir-rational or it can be a-rational. Some of the most important aspects of life can’t be put into words.

    IMHO, there is such a thing as a (relatively) good ruling class. Our problem is that we don’t have one.

  3. I’ve got no problem with stylization but it’s instructive if what gets left out is compromise and self-criticism, and what gets left in is violence and self-righteousness.

    • That’s part of who we are, too. In normal life, it’s better to watch it than to do it. In grad school, I once swore off all violent movies (etc.) but within a couple of weeks I found myself noticeably more irritable. Catharsis is a helpful purgative for the soul.

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