The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment
Pyr Books main man Lou Anders points me in the direction of a call and response discussion on the topic of science fiction and “entertainment,” as in, is written science fiction entertaining enough to capture the unwashed masses who watch it on TV and in the movies but don’t bother to read the stuff. The first document in this discussion is an essay in Asimov’s in which writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch says that the problem with written SF is that it isn’t influenced enough by Star Wars, which to her mind is an exempar of good old-fashioned entertainment, and poses it in opposition to much of written SF, which is “jargon-filled limited-access novels that fill the shelves.. dystopian novels that present a world uglier than our own, [and] protagonists who really don’t care about their fellow man/alien/whatever.”
This earns a whack from Ian McDonald, who both denies that the rest of SF ever abandoned entertainment (“It’s a basic and primary as good grammar and syntax. It’s not an end point. It’s a beginning point”), and also decries the idea that entertainment is all there is, or that Star Wars is its apex (“Let me say, if that’s the highest I can aspire to if everything I have ever hoped for or dreamed of attaining, how I dared to touch hearts and minds, is measured against that; then the only morally consistent action I can take is for me to give up writing.”) And then Lou comments on what Ian has to say here.
For the moment I’m not going to go into the issue of whether written SF needs to save itself via being more entertaining, partly because I’ve discussed it before and partly because at the moment it’s not an interesting subject for me. Suffice to say that I write books that are meant to be both entertaining and smart, because that’s what I like to read. What I’m going to go into is the fact that much of the debate between Ms. Rusch and Mr. McDonald is irrelevant, because it starts from an erroneous premise. That erroneous premise is that the Star Wars films are entertainment.
Star Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot.
There is nothing in the least bit “popular” about the Star Wars films. This is true of all of them, but especially of Episodes I, II and III: They are the selfish, ungenerous, onanistic output of a man who has no desire to include others in the internal grammar of his fictional world. They are the ultimate in auteur theory, but this creator has contempt for the people who view his work — or if not contempt, at the very least a supreme lack of concern as to whether anyone else “gets” his vision. The word “entertainer” has as an assumption that the creator/actor is reaching out to his or audience to engage them. George Lucas doesn’t bother with this. He won’t keep you out of his universe; he just doesn’t care that you’re in it. To call the Star Wars films “entertainment” is to fundamentally misapprehend the meaning of the word.
Which is not to say that the films can’t be entertaining: They can be. George Lucas is an appalling storyteller in himself, but at the very least he has common tastes, or had when he first banged together the original Star Wars film. The original Star Wars is a hydra-headed pastiche of (as I wrote in my Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies) 30s adventure serials, 40s war films, 50s Kurosawa films and 60s Eastern mysticism, all jammed into the cinematic crock-pot and simmered in a watery broth made from the marrow of Campbell’s thousand-headed hero. With the exception of Kurosawa, all of this was stuff was in the common culture, and Lucas did a decent enough job spooning out the stew. Star Wars also benefitted from the fact that it emerged at the end of a nearly decade-long string of heavy, dystopic SF-themed films, beginning with Planet of the Apes and gliding down toward Logan’s Run. After a decade of this (and combined with the film’s brain-jammingly brilliant special effects), Star Wars felt like a breath of fresh air.
But even at the outset, Lucas was about something else other than entertaining people. As he noted in a biography of Joseph Campbell:
“I came to the conclusion after American Graffiti that what’s valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is…around the period of this realization…it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…”
What’s interesting about mythology is that it’s the residue of a teleological system that’s dead; it’s what you get after everyone who believed in something has croaked and nothing is left but stories. Building a mythology is necrophilic storytelling; one that implicitly kills off an entire culture and plays with its corpse (or corpus, as the case may be). It’s one better than being a God, really. Gods have to deal with the universes they create; mythmakers merely have to say what happened. When Lucas started Star Wars with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” he was implicitly serving notice to the audience that they weren’t participants, they were at best witnesses to events that had already happened, through participants who were long dead.
Why does this matter? It matters because Lucas’ intent was to build an overarching mythological structure, not necessarily to make a bunch of movies. If you listen to Lucas blather on in his laconic fashion on the Star Wars DVD commentaries, you’ll hear him say about how he wanted everything to make sense in the long view — that all his films served the mythology. This is fine, but it reinforces the point that the films themselves — not to mention the scripts and the acting — are secondary to Lucas’ true goal of myth building. Myths can be entertaining — indeed, they survive because they can entertain, even if they don’t brook participation. These films could work as entertainment. But fundamentally they don’t, because Lucas doesn’t seem to care if the films work as entertainment, as long as they sufficiently conform to his created mythology.
This is especially evident in the prequel trilogy, which is designed for the specific purpose of consecrating the mythology of the Skywalker family; in essence, putting flesh on the bones of the myth, so that the flesh could then turn to dust and the bones could be chopped up for reliquaries. Because they’re not designed as entertainment, it’s not surprising they’re not really all that entertaining; strip out the yeoman work of Industrial Light and Magic and what you have left is a grim Calvinistic stomp toward the creation of Darth Vader. Lucas was so intent to get there that he didn’t bother to slow down to write a decent script or to give his cast (riddled though it was with acclaimed actors) an opportunity to do more than solemnly intone its lines. Lucas simply couldn’t be bothered to do more; entertainment gave way to scriptual sufficiency.
Now that the magnum opus of the Star Wars cycle is done, we can see that any entertainment value of the series is either unintentional (Lucas couldn’t suck the pure entertainment value out of his pastiche sources), achieved through special effects, or is the work of hired guns, notably Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett (those two wrote The Empire Strikes Back, the only movie in the series that has a script that evidences much in the way of wit, much less dialogue that ranks above serviceable. Kasdan and Brackett were clearly attempting to entertain as well as serve the mythology, showing it is possible to do both). It’s clear that Lucas doesn’t much care what people think of the films, and why should he? He got to make the films he wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. His vision, his mythology, his structure is complete, and he doesn’t have to rationalize the means by which the structure was achieved.
Ironically, I don’t blame Lucas for this. He is who he is. Personally, I blame whatever jackass at 20th Century Fox agreed to let Lucas have the rights to the sequels and to the merchandising in exchange for Lucas lowering his fee to direct the first Star Wars. I don’t know if the films of the Star Wars series would be better overall if there were real studio oversight, but I do know that each individual film would at least try to be entertaining. Because film studios don’t actually give a crap about mythology; they give a crap about getting butts into the seats. Perhaps someone could have asked Lucas if maybe he didn’t want to hand the script of Episode I over to someone who could, you know, actually write dialogue, or possibly if he might not be content to produce while someone else handled the chore of putting the actors through their paces, since clearly he found that aspect of filmmaking to be a necessary evil at best. In essence, people who would let Lucas fiddle with his myth-making, smile, then turn to a director and screenwriter and say “now, make this entertaining, or by God, we’ll feed your testicles to Shamu.” Oh, for a time machine.
Now, hold on, you say: If the Star Wars films aren’t meant to be entertainment, how come so many people were entertained? It’s a fair question; after all, there’s not a single film in the series that made less than $200 million at the box office (and those are in 1980 dollars). I’m happy to allow it’s entirely possible to be entertained by Episodes IV, V and VI, due to their novelty and the intervention of hired guns who aimed for entertainment even as Lucas was on his holy quest for mythology. Even then, however, Return of the Jedi was pushing it. I defy you to find any person who was genuinely entertained by Episodes I, II and III. Episode I in particular is an airless, joyless slog; in the theater you could actually hear people’s expectations deflate — a whooshing groan — the moment Jar-Jar showed up. After the first weekend of Episode I, people went to the prequel trilogy films for the same reason so many people go to church on Sunday: It’s habit, they know when to stand and when to sit, and they want to see how the preacher will screw up the sermon this week. You know what I felt when Episode III was done? Relief. I was done with the Star Wars films. I was free. I’m not the only one.
But even accounting for the fact that the IV, V and VI could be entertaining, they were still not meant as entertainment. In the final analysis they were means to an end, and an end that only one person — George Lucas — desired. This is not entertainment, save for Lucas, and it’s wrong to say it is. And it’s why saying we should have more entertainment like Star Wars is folly. Do we really need more entertainment that’s designed only to make one person happy? Look, I write books that I’d want to read, but I don’t pretend I’m not writing for others as well. George Lucas managed to con billions into thinking that he was entertaining them (or alternately, they so desperately needed to believe they were being entertained that they denied they weren’t), but honestly. Once is enough. Fool me once, etc.
Look, here’s a test for you. I want you to go out and find this movie: Battle Beyond the Stars. It’s a piece of crap 1980 B-movie, produced by Roger Corman, that’s clearly cashing in on the Star Wars phenomenon. Hell, it’s even a pastiche of the same things Star Wars is a pastiche of (it even has a planet Akir, named for Akira Kurosawa), and it was made for $2 million, which is nothing money, even back in 1980. Thing is, its screenplay was written by John Sayles (later twice nominated for the Best Screenplay Academy Award), and it’s funny and smart, and the whole movie, rather incredibly, keeps pace. Watch it and then tell me, honestly, that it’s not more entertaining than Star Wars Episodes I, II, III and VI. Unless you’re so distracted by the cheesy special effects and the fact that John Boy Walton is the star that you simply can’t go on, I expect you’ll admit you were more entertained by this little flick than all that Star Wars mythology.
The reason: It wants to entertain you. Corman and Sayles, bless their little hearts, probably didn’t give a crap about mythology, except to the extent that it served to help them entertain you, the viewer. They cared about giving you 90 minutes of fun so they could make their money back, and that would let them do it again. I’m not suggesting that there should be more SF like Battle Beyond the Stars (though I can think of worse things). I am suggesting that if we’re going to talk about the Star Wars series as entertainment, we should note that as entertainment, it gets its ass resolutely kicked by a $2 million piece of crap Roger Corman flick. So let’s not pretend that the Star Wars series is this great piece of entertainment.
Instead, let’s call it what it is: A monument to George Lucas pleasuring himself. Which, you know, is fine. I’m happy for Lucas; it’s nice that he was able to do that for himself. We all like to make ourselves happy. But since he did it all in public, I just wish he’d been a little more entertaining about it.