Thursday, December 21, 2017

Never Trust an Action Hero: Star Wars' Lost Politics

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has hit the cineplex and begun raking in the customary astronomical profits. But the film has some angry detractors among hard-core Star Wars fans (a minority, I think, but a loud one) who complain bitterly that The Last Jedi is unfaithful to the Star Wars tradition. I'm not going to talk about the new movie here, and I'm going to do my best to delete discussion of it in comments (no spoilers!) for at least the next week. But I'd like to talk about the old Star Wars movies, the originals and the prequels, and the ambiguity that George Lucas tried, but failed, to give them.

The original 1977 Star Wars movie, the one now retroactively called "A New Hope," is filled with references to earlier film classics and it ends with a big one. The final sequence, in which Princess Leia hands out medals in a big military assembly, is a very clear reference to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, the most visually-powerful Nazi propaganda film of all time. This is widely known, but poorly explained. Everyone agrees that this is a Triumph of the Will homage; very few people can persuasively explain why.

I think the best explanation is that this was George Lucas's failed attempt to add some moral complexity. After spending the whole movie very obviously associating the Empire with the Nazis (calling them "Stormtroopers" is not subtle), Lucas turns at the end and codes the Rebels as Nazis too. Whoa! Maybe I need to rethink things! Now, that move certainly does not work as intended, and basically never has. An audience of eight-year-olds is never going to catch the Leni Riefenstahl reference. Most people watching a summer popcorn movie aren't. And even if you do notice it, it doesn't work. The movie that comes before that scene is too joyful, too seductive, and too simple-hearted for that sudden moral twist to work. By the time you get to the end of the original Star Wars, everyone wants the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad, period. No arty little film-school reference, coming from left field with no preparation, is going to derail the audience at that point. No way.

Lucas seemed to give up trying to cast doubt on his good guys' politics through the next two sequels. But he went back at it hard during the prequel trilogy, which is filled with moments where the heroes mess up catastrophically. The prequel trilogy is three movies about people losing their democracy. They start with a Republic and blow it. And, over and over, it's the good guys, the Jedi and their allies, actively blowing it. There's no moral equivalence; Palpatine and his flunkies are clearly evil. But time and again we have scenes that are pretty clearly meant to inspire moral confusion. Yoda introduces the Stormtroopers for the first time. Jar Jar, who is an idiot but a good-hearted idiot, votes Palpatine into power. These are meant to be moments where the audience steps back and says, "Whoa! The good guys did what now?" Those emotional beats don't land, any more than the Triumph of the Will reference landed in the original movie. Audience members don't respond the way Lucas seems to be asking them to. Maybe it's that the prequels are actually more ambitious, morally and artistically, than Lucas could execute. (To say they're ambitious is not to say they're good: many bad movies are the burning wrecks of ambitions that were beyond their makers' skill.) Maybe Lucas would have been able to pull it off earlier, but had lost a step. Or maybe this would have always been beyond his grasp as a story-teller, because getting across moral complexity has never been his thing. He certainly didn't pull it off. But equally certainly, he tried.

The message that George Lucas has repeatedly tried and failed to get across in his Star Wars movies can be boiled down to: never trust an action hero. If you are looking for rational democratic governance, a bunch of impulsive, shoot-from the hip adventurers are really not your guys. They're just not wired that way. And this is a fair point. The Jedi are not the same as the Empire or the Sith or, God forbid, the Nazis, but you can see why the Sith view the Jedi as such a valuable recruiting pool. The prequels very deliberately shows the good guys' action-hero impulses being played, repeatedly, by Palpatine's manipulations. But they're vulnerable to those manipulations because their heroic instincts are naturally a little un-democratic. That's not my spin. That's the plot of Episodes II and III.

Action-adventure stories like Star Wars naturally have a little bit of authoritarian bias built into their DNA, whatever their superficial politics. Or, to put it another way, these stories have a natural authoritarian lean that a storyteller has to work around. Remember, a lot of these basic stories come from monarchical societies. Celebrating a class of armed overlords is the natural groove path.

Part of this is that adventure stories mostly solve problems through violence. The good guys are never going to spend a Star Wars movie registering voters or hammering out a legislative compromise. Their basic approaches to problem-solving are 1) shoot it, 2) blow it up, and 3) cut it in half with a sword. And people enjoy that more than a story about committee work. (Our girl Senator Amidala gets fed up with the whole being-a-Senator thing and flies off to kick some ass, leaving the trusty and reliable Jar Jar with her vote. How's that work out?) Now, democracies do sometimes have to use military force, and most good adventure stories pay at least lip service to democracy and freedom. "Beating People Up for Freedom" is the unofficial Jedi motto. But that adventure story structure also lends itself easily, even naturally, to politics that glorify violence and believe in imposing control from above by force.

But more importantly, good adventure stories focus on a small group of individuals, and on things that a few individuals can do in a story. Star Wars makes a lot of World War II references, but it's not really set up for D-Day; a vast battle where every individual only makes a small contribution isn't really how these movies work. It's always going to be about a few central characters taking decisive action. And that makes for good storytelling. But if you don't watch it, that can quickly devolve into a narrative where a few Special Shiny Important People make all the decisions for everyone else. In fact, it's hard to raise the stakes of the story without doing that. Things go Game of Thrones so fast you might not notice.

Look: at the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a promising young pilot who manages to score a decisive hit in a key battle. By the end of Return of the Jedi, the question of whether anybody in the galaxy ever gets to vote hinges on how Luke Skywalker happens to work out his feelings. The superficial question "Should the galaxy be ruled by one man's decisions, or by the people themselves?" stealthily changes to "Which one man should make decisions for the rest of the galaxy?" Sure, the happy ending is foreordained, so we don't really worry that people are going to stay under the Empire's thumb. But we're spent the last few hundred years in the real world working to reach a point where a couple of super-elite individuals get to decide everyone else's destiny. Maybe we shouldn't be leaving these decisions up to a Skywalker. And in fact, the three prequel movies are about the folly of letting a Skywalker make these political decisions. Anakin Skywalker working out his feelings is the original problem.

But don't take it from me. Take it from Yoda, who more than once during the prequels makes it very clear how badly he and his associates have failed. The never-trust-an-action-hero idea is not mine; it really does belong to George Lucas. He's just never managed to sell it.

 cross-posted from Dagblog (all comments welcome there, not here)