Elen sila lumenn omentielvo!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Lucas Itch

I love me some John Scalzi, but that creates problems for me because as much as I loves me some John Scalzi, I loves me some George Lucas way more. And John Scalzi most certainly does not love him some George Lucas much at all. Today Scalzi responds to someone who is responding to a four-year-old post of his, which leads me to look at that four-year old post itself. And now I really wish I hadn't. Because...well...it's crap. Crap of the "My opinion of [Item X] is fact" crap. And I think, largely, that Scalzi wrote the original post because he thought of a new way to speak negatively about Star Wars, which is a pastime he rarely fails to engage in when the opportunity presents itself.

How else to take this statement:

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.

He goes on to describe the entirety of Lucas's output in Star Wars in lots of negative ways, including maintaining his "masturbation" imagery by use of the adjective "Onanistic". OK then.

Here's the thing, though -- Scalzi seems to make some odd assumptions regarding the concept of "entertainment". Take this, for example:

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 near-austistic 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 world.

There are an awful lot of assertions here, with no evidence or citations to back them up. No working definition, for example, of what we're even talking about with respect to "entertainment" is forthcoming. But on what possible basis can George Lucas be said to not be "reaching out to his audience to engage them"? You can argue all you want that he's not successful in his efforts, but that's not remotely the same thing as saying he doesn't try at all.

Or take that word "popular", in Scalzi's first sentence above. Again, no definition is given, so I have no idea what Lucas could have included in a Star Wars film that would satisfy Scalzi's desires here, but...well, as far as I can see, this is still false. Sure, Jar Jar Binks was a deeply unpopular character, but is that because Lucas openly decided to include something unpopular, or was he trying to include something that he hoped would be popular? Given that the "goofy sidekick" has been a standard element in storytelling since, well, forever, I think the latter is more likely. Ditto in Attack of the Clones, when Lucas tried to include another trope that has been deeply popular throughout the years, the youthful romance. Again, you can argue that Lucas failed -- but failure is not synonymous with not making the attempt in the first place. (Again, I'm assuming Scalzi's meaning here, because he doesn't clarify matters at all.)

Then there is this:

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.

I'm sorry, but this is deeply, deeply silly. It just is.

Storytelling is, by its very nature, not participatory. At all. I have never, not once, been a "participant" in any movie I've ever seen. I wasn't a "participant" when I saw Casablanca. I wasn't a "participant" when I saw Titanic. I wasn't a "participant" when I saw The Lord of the Rings. I wasn't a "participant" when I saw 3:10 to Yuma. I wasn't a "participant" when I saw...you get the idea. And this isn't just true of movies: how would I "participate" when reading The Pit and the Pendulum? How would I "participate" in Rendezvous with Rama? How would I "participate" in The Once and Future King? or Maus? or Pride and Prejudice? or Old Man's War? Was I supposed to think of myself as a "participant" in any of these?

To my knowledge, there's only one form of storytelling right now in which you can participate, and that is the video game. (Which is why I think that games are a pretty exciting development in artistic terms.) Yes, there are arts and entertainments in which you can participate. You can act in a play, for instance. Sing in a choir. But there is nothing about The Bourne Identity that is more "participatory" than any Star Wars movie. The notion makes zero sense.

And besides, the disdain Scalzi is showing here for the "Once upon a time" storytelling trope here is pretty troubling. Was Walt Disney not an entertainer, then? How many of his movies start off with "Once upon a time" and follow Campbellian storytelling tropes that have been around for thousands of years? For many years, Westerns were one of the most popular film genres. And yet, every single Western ever made, by definition, was about characters long dead doing events that were over years and years before. So, come to that, is every historically-set movie ever made.

And besides that, why can't there be multiple reasons to do something? Can't George Lucas want to spin a story from mythological cloth and entertain at the same time? I'd bet that if you were to ask George Lucas if he wanted to entertain with his Star Wars movies, he'd likely consider it silly that anyone ever assumed otherwise. I've read the interviews and heard the commentaries, and I've heard nothing that rules out the notion that Lucas wanted to make films that would entertain people. But Scalzi's entire argument assumes that the films do not entertain. Or, in other words: Scalzi's entire argument assumes Scalzi's own opinion of the films as fact.

Unfair? I don't think so. There's this:

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.

That line there -- "I defy you to find anyone entertained by the Prequels" -- now reminds me that I have read this post before, and responded to it. But I must have skimmed it before, because so much of this is silly, condescending, or both. Now I know that Scalzi's not suggesting that all churchgoers go to church out of just "habit", but I wonder what percentage of churchgoers he thinks do. Still, the whole exercise reeks of some kind of desperate reaching: "Since I've already established that Star Wars isn't entertainment, I must come up with some other reason why people keep seeing the damn things. And that means that I must argue that millions of people are doing something for some other reason completely."

That last bit -- "I was so relieved after the last one came out! I was free!" -- is just stupid. Scalzi could have been "free" of Star Wars any time he wanted to be. I decided that I was "free" of The Matrix after the first one; I never bothered watching the next two. I've stopped watching many a teevee series after I decided that I didn't like it anymore. Good example: ER. I loved that show for years, but then it lost me, so I stopped watching it. It went on another five seasons after that. Did I feel "free" when ER finally went off the air, five years after it stopped entertaining me? No. Because I had, you know, stopped paying attention. The notion that people were going to Star Wars movie after Star Wars movie out of some robotic notion that they had to is just nonsensical.

But I've heard arguments like that before. Another good example is Titanic, a movie that has suffered as vicious a backlash since it was beloved in its initial release as I've ever seen. Now it's not uncommon to hear people say that the movie wasn't popular because lots of people liked it; no, it's because of armies of thirteen-year-old girls who went to the movie over and over again to drool over Leonardo DiCaprio.

Maybe I'm being unfair to Scalzi, either by misreading or misrepresenting. But I don't think so. His whole argument hinges on assumptions as to George Lucas's intentions and a definition of "entertainment" that I don't find well-taken. Ultimately it boils down to saying "Star Wars isn't entertainment because I didn't find it entertaining."


Dave said...

Lots of strange comments about the hero's journey here: suggest a look at Kal Bashir's version at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

SamuraiFrog said...

Scalzi's article calling Star Wars masturbatory is like the pot telling the kettle it has hairy palms.

It's a piece that reeks of everything I hate about Star Wars criticism; that wounded sense of "Oh no, I grew up before Episode I came out, so George Lucas set out to physically hurt me!" There are a lot of Star Wars "fans" out there who just couldn't adjust, and then they write screeds like that one, in which one can't just say they don't like Star Wars, but have to offer a dissertation on why George Lucas hates the audience and it is therefore WRONG to like Star Wars.

Spare me. It's years later, get over it and just be honest about why you don't like something.