Star Wars and the Future of Mythology
Star Wars has always been a complicated subject for me. The half-hearted First Baptist Church of my youth failed to captivate me, and the journey of Luke Skywalker became the myth that really explained the universe. I was no less devoted to Star Wars than any of the strictest adherents to any religion. I meticulously arranged my collection of toys, numbering in the hundreds, into a well-maintained shrine charged with a spiritual undercurrent I couldn't have explained at the time. Ultimately, to my 12 year old unconscious self, the three movies were a closed loop tracking the life, death and rebirth of the Cosmic Sun God.
"It wasn't just the production value that made that such an exciting film to watch, it was that it came along at a time when people needed to see in recognizable images the clash of good and evil. They needed to be reminded of idealism, to see a romance based upon selflessness rather than selfishness." --Bill Moyers
"Star Wars is not a simple morality play, it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man." --Joseph Campbell
George Lucas only wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie. He couldn't get the rights, so he made up his own characters instead. Although Lucas himself had read plenty of Joseph Campbell and understood the spiritual component of the story, it's likely that the bulk of his motivation lay in capturing the boyhood wonder of the Saturday Morning Serial Adventures. Lucas didn't want to create the first Geek Religion. He just wanted to make some crazy aliens that made weird noises and funny robots and exploding spaceships. There is an innocent kind of purity in this motivation that the muses smile upon. Lucas's youthful enthusiasm for exciting and strange adventures attracted (almost unwittingly) a far more profound ancient paradigm of myth. The solemnity of the Cosmic Drama, acting on its own agenda, injected itself into the whimsical swashbuckling extravaganza. Thus, in 1977, movie screens around the world became primitive campfires, with Lucas as the Raving Shaman receiving transmissions from the Gods.
"Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks ‘Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?' Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart." --Joseph Campbell
The phenomenal success of Star Wars speaks to a spiritual hunger, particularly in the context of America's cultural ambiguity. Unlike the Old World, which had thousands of generations of matured tradition and myth to provide a bedrock of identity, America was and is, collectively, an uninitiated child. With no visceral rites of passage to provide a spiritual transition into adulthood, a certain portion of American youth reach for the powerful yet ultimately impoverished substitute of the cinema. Star Wars dances on the line between gaudy commercial spectacle and indispensable world-explaining myth. As far as the Cool Kids Table is concerned, Star Wars is just a weird movie about aliens and robots. To the Loner Geeks, Star Wars is proof that there is a transcendent narrative embedded in the fabric of reality.
By devoting himself to the minutiae of memorizing the names of supporting characters and the serial numbers of the Death Star's garbage compactors, the geek is feeling for the material contours of some ungraspable magnetic energy that has inexplicably drawn him to the story. He knows Star Wars is important, but he can't really tell you why. It's easier for him to wrap his head around whatever secret knowledge he can find. Luke is playing with a toy model of a T-16 Skyhopper in the oil bath scene. One of the asteroids is actually a potato. You can see the cameraman reflected on C-3PO's helmet in the Ugnaught recycling facility. This is the equivalent of studying one's scriptures, expecting to find meaning in every word.
"Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind." --Bill Moyers
The inability of the "Entertainment Industry" to truly replace the culture-unifying, existential certainty of religion is best exemplified by the bloated and protracted life of the Star Wars franchise. The goose, having laid three golden eggs, was locked in a cage, poked, prodded and squeezed. Expecting a reliable source of golden eggs to continue indefinitely, the Industry instead gets a mixed batch of silver and brass. Ecstatic cinematic myth-making devolves into the cynical production of narrative as product. The preacher recites and gestures with fervor, but he no longer hears the voice of God. Muses can be flighty and easily offended.
Such is the case with Star Wars. A finite three-part Sun God Myth is transformed into an infinitely realized parallel universe full of quirky exposition, intergalactic logistics, and mundane concerns. A quick browse of Wookiepedia shows that no stone has been left unturned by detail obsessed fan-creators. Novels, comics and videogames have been extrapolating galactic events well beyond the films. As if the Sun God has anything to do after he has triumphed over Father Darkness and brought the Light of Life back into the world. But what would it be like if Han and Leia got married and have kids? Does Luke found a New Jedi Order? Does a New Republic emerge to bring Peace and Justice to the galaxy? These questions are ultimately meaningless. The story was finished in 1983. The heroic cycle was closed, and it was time to move on. Unsatisfied, we couldn't bring ourselves to move on. Enter the Prequels.
The excessive quality of the ‘Expanded Universe', including the Prequel Trilogy, shows how desperate we are for a modern myth to make sense of the modern dilemma. The tribe beseeches the Shaman, "Tell us more about the Sun Hero!" The Shaman, drunk on praise yet bereft of his Muse, is forced to placate the tribe with whatever comes to his mind next. If you honestly believe that George Lucas had the details of Episodes 1, 2 and 3 ready to go back in the late 70′s, much less the newly announced 7, 8 and 9, I advise you to read the early drafts of the scripts, "Luke Starkiller and The Journal of the Whills" and so on. The George Lucas responsible for the Prequels is not the George Lucas of 1977-1980. Age, divorce, fatherhood and unfathomable financial success have a way of shifting one's perspective. The goose was never meant to lay golden eggs forever.
"We have a large group of ideas and characters and books and all kinds of things. We could go on making ‘Star Wars' for the next 100 years." --George Lucas
The key question in this moment is the responsibility of the writers and directors who will be making the next feature films. Lucas is returning to his rightful place, creating only "story notes" as in ESB and ROTJ. Gone is the Lucas as helicopter parent, insisting on writing and directing his prequel "babies" despite his near complete inability to write dialogue or motivate actors. Is it even possible to make episodes 7-9 a story worth telling, a story that will stir the same primal forces of the original trilogy? I personally doubt it, even if the geek masses were capable of electing their saviors J.J. Abrams and/or Joss Whedon to squeeze more golden eggs out of their withered goose. I'm willing to be proven wrong. The world has changed much since the 1970′s. More than ever, we need the power of myth to breathe spiritual conviction into our chaotic circumstances. Harry Potter gave us "spiritual journey as scavenger hunt", and Avatar merely danced on the surface spectacle, delivering an empty gesture of stilted environmental politics. We need a new myth that cracks open the spirit of our children.
I worry that cinema as a whole has become far too corrupt and profit-driven to achieve the maturity necessary to fully inherit the role of Shaman Storyteller. Has any Star Wars fan, myself included, actually derived any truly valuable spiritual teachings from six hours of rapid-fire imagery? Can we really depend on film writers and directors to help our children understand their place in the Cosmic Drama? If the religions of our parents have failed us so completely, and film-myths have proven so fragile and hollow, are we left with anything solid upon which to build a new spiritual culture that can endure for future generations? Perhaps we need to step out of the theater and return to the campfire.
Image by pasukaru76, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet