Sunday, December 20, 2015

on the general imcompetence of Jedi, and a rumination on how Star Wars is a battle of text, subtext and metatext

Looking back on Episodes 1-3 it's hard to escape the impression that for all his sanctimony and the appearance of wisdom Yoda was an imcompetent blowhard. Contrary to the axiom that the Jedi uses the force for defense and never for attack Yoda seemed pretty able and willing to do offensive moves in the prequels.  So if youre not angry or afraid and just kill people, though, that's no the Dark Side.  Well, great, so if it's nothing personal when you take someone's life then Heath Ledger's Joker could totally be a Jedi knight.  No hard feelings, buddy, you have to die for the sake of a good cuase, the Jedi retaining their influence in the Galactic Senate for no clearly defined reason.

Now I enjoyed Episode 7 but there is a question in that backstory there (spoilers ahead).  How exactly did one apprentice manage to take down a nascent Jedi school and the master/teacher managed to fail to do anything to observe warning signs and/or stop it?  Now if we stick to prequel paradigms and propose there's an inversely proportional dynamic between how revered a Jedi knight is and how copetent that Jedi is then, okay, Luke might be second to Yoda in terms of overall fame (or have some other numeric ranking) but the inverse of prestige kicks in and .... Luke fails.

So long as you can run with the idea that the Jedi can never get things together long enough to avoid being massacred then, yay!  The story holds up. 

I enjoyed Episode 7, it's the first time I enjoyed a Star Wars film while I was in the theater watching it since 1983.  But it may be Lucas lowered the bar so very low with the prequel episodes that we're breathing a collective sigh of relief and forgetting that this narrative universe has always been about absurd coincidences and begging questions big enough to fly a Star Destroyer through. 

In this case, the backstory is a big "really?" 

But then what has been brought back to the franchise is something the rpequels lacked.  Let's put it this way, Star Wars in some sense exists as a tension between text, subtext and metatext.  The text was, well, we know the story.  The subsext Lucas said was behind Star Wars (Ep 4) was America as the empire and the Rebellion as Vietnam. Of course we were kind of out of Vietnam by the time Star Wars got released.  Chalk this up to Lucas' attempt at political relevance not lasting long enough to get the film released.  But that's okay, he turned to Joseph Campbell for the monomyth in which Americans imagine that our conception of mythology explains mythology across the world.  Yep.

But there's another mythology in America that basically overrode George Lucas' subtext, a metatext, a kidn of metamythology in which we Americans could see ourselves as relating t the Rebels who defied the Empire of the King of England.  Lucas' attempt at a subtext was overpowered by the cultural influence of what I'm calling the metatext.  He drew on so many pulp influences steeped in American popular imagination that the movies came to be interpretable as within that pulp framework and its attendant mythologies. 

Well, okay, with the prequels Lucas could try again and recast the subtext as the American war on Terror and the Bush administration.  This was supposed to be Anakin's story of temptation and fall.  Well, it was boring, painfully and tediously and insultingly dull for the most part.  The biggest narrative problem was its oucome was a foregone conclusion but Lucas and company failed to generate sympathy for Anakin along the way.

But if Star Wars exists in the ambient space in which text, subtext and metatext are actually in conflict then that's where the suspense can come from.  We had some actua suspense whether Luke would decide to kill his father.  After all, it sure seemed as if Kenobi was sure that if Luke wasn't willing to kill his dad the Emperor has already won.  Yoda doesn't deny the point.  So the Jedi seem to be telling Luke the only way to save the galaxy is being willing to kill Vader even though Yoda had explicitly told Luke in Ep 5 that a Jedi uses the force for defense, never for attack.  Luke, it seems, would have to figure out how to be a better Jedi than the masters who instructed him.  The conflict between a personal ethical code and set of emotional loyalties with what is expected of a role to fulfill isn't just in the Star Wars franchise.  It's also what we see in The Last Airbender series.  The real engine of tension isn't whether Aang is going to defeat the Firelord.  The tension is between how Aang wants to realize that act of defeating evil with how his allies tell him he must do it.  There's a lot more I could say abuot that but I'm saving that for later.

Star Wars is a uniquely American franchise and perhaps the most distinctly American thing about it is its ardent desire to eat its cake and have it, too.  We want a remarkable destiny we can't outrun or escape but we want 100% percent personal agency, too. This was sent up wonderfully in a South Park episode where Toweliee decides that of two things he chooses both and he gets to.  American stories love to traffic in the dichotomy of a choice between two mutually exclusive things but getting to have it both ways.  That convention was so worn down in, say, th Batman franchise that Nolan rocked the boat by having the Joker present Batman with an either-or in which NEITHER o fthe people Batman hoped to save ultimately survived. 

What seems to be back in the Star Wars franchise is paradoxically not the binary ontology of the dark and the light in the abstract but the idea that there's some kind of tension between the two in which active battle remains an element.  Star Wars may never be able to overcome the necessity of eternal dualistic conflict because that's what it needed.  The only way to bring balance to the Frce would be to snuff out the Force itself and if it's an energy field created by all living things (rather than emitted by midichlorians) then only in a lifeless cosmos could there be no Force. 

But it's apparent we're only going to see balance achieved by the never ending struggle between the light and the ark.  There won't and can't be a galaxy suffused only with the light or dark side of the force because there's too much money to be made from making more of these movies, first of all.  Let's not forget this.  Second of all, in terms of the ontology of the Force in this cinematic universe, it would only be within the context of an eternal battle that there would be balance in the Force, a matter that is not necessarily adequately addressed by any of the films.

And maybe not addressing the actual questions inherent in the set-up is another way this franchise is uniquely American. 

POSTSCRIPT

You know ... it seems Yoda said something about how the Dark side of the force isn't stronger but it is quicker and easier.  And it would seem that any time Jedi deign to train people the most promising pupils shift over to the Dark side ... or maybe it's the laziest students?  Still, if you're training to be a knight and you only train on defense rather than offense ... .

But then it seems that the Sith had this habit of mooching off of the padawans of Jedi, sorta like an American multinational that leverages a buy out of local potentially promising firms?  ;)  You know, like the Jedi in training is some local microbrew and the Sith are Budweiser; or the Jedi in training is some small locavore coffee company and the Sith are Starbucks.  Just mulling this over a bit.  The Sith or those who practice the Dark side tend to poach the most glamorous pupils of the Jedi ... which is why no member of the Sith ever tried poaching Yoda, who was able to get super old without falling prey to the Dark side. 

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