Star Wars as pomo metafilm
November 3, 2005 5:36 PM   Subscribe

The Force. Some see it as a religion, some as an academic discipline to be studied. But what if it's really a manifestation of metatextual authorial intervention? Three decades on, the kids who grew up playing with Luke Skywalker action figures and carrying Princess Leia lunchboxes may be startled to discover that Star Wars is really just one big elephantine postmodern art film. (more within)
posted by whir (37 comments total)
Ok, bear with me here. At first I thought the premise was pretty sophomoric too, but the author of this article actually gives a pretty interesting reading of the two trilogies, and I find the lit-crit mode of analysis rather more interesting than the usual Star Wars chestnuts.

PS: let's just let him slide on the phrase "postmodern," even though meta-fictional readings can be found in all kinds of narrative from lots of different eras. Here's a recent MeFi discussion on postmodernism if you'd like to argue about it.
posted by whir at 5:37 PM on November 3, 2005

For a moment I misread the title as "Star Wars as porno metafilm". That would have been more interesting.
posted by Goblindegook at 5:42 PM on November 3, 2005

I've been trying to make a similar argument here, elsewhere, and on my site, but it usually ends with mediareport calling me a nerd.
posted by muckster at 5:45 PM on November 3, 2005

Ok but an art film is a film that don't make money, right?

It's like what do you get when you don't succeed: experience.

What do you get when you make a film nobody watches: art.
posted by scheptech at 5:47 PM on November 3, 2005

What do you get when you make a film nobody watches: art.

Anti-intellectualism has one of its queerest expression in this construction of 'art' as irrelevant, pretentious and boring, something that normal people don't care about.
All movies are art. It's an artform. Some of them are boring, some are not. Some make money, some don't. 'Art' isn't a value judgement, it's a field of endeavor.
posted by signal at 5:54 PM on November 3, 2005

What do you get when you make a film nobody watches: art.

scheptech: that's just silly. I bet from your point of view anything with less viewership than Encino Man falls under the 'nobody watches' category.
posted by tweak at 5:56 PM on November 3, 2005

That "postmodern" article has got to be the funniest article i've read this year. No, really. Is it Alan Sokal in disguise or something?

There's no such thing as bad writing there's only "an elaborate meditation on the dialectic between chance and order". Brillantly hilarious.

Check out this rebuttal wherein veils are lifted and buttocks exposed.
posted by storybored at 6:04 PM on November 3, 2005

Most significantly, we start to notice that the films are an elaborate meditation on the dialectic between chance and order. They all depend upon absurd coincidence to propel the story forward. Just what are the odds, in just one of near-infinite examples, that of all the planets in that galaxy far, far away, the droids should end up back on Tatooine, in the home of the son of the sweet (if annoying) boy who had built C-3PO decades before?

Um, r2-d2 didn't have it's memory erased.

You'll remember in the first film, R2 and C-3po disagree about which direction to go. Also, R2 has an affinity for Luke Skywalker when he picks out his droids.

It's not a coincidence at all. The author has no idea what he's talking about.

Sure, we focus on the presentation of the movies themselves, but that's just because they SUCK BALLS.

At least the new ones.
posted by delmoi at 6:11 PM on November 3, 2005

Within the films' fiction, that force is called … er, "the Force." It's the Force that makes Anakin win the pod race so that he can get off Tatooine and become a Jedi and set all the other events in all of the other films in motion.

Again, wtf? Anikin didn't need to win the pod race in order to get off the planet. Was this guy drunk during the whole move? It would explain why he didn't think it was the intellectual vomit of a brain-dead self-sycophant (if such a thing were possible).
posted by delmoi at 6:13 PM on November 3, 2005

He's only got a beard so you can tell where his neck ends and his face begins.

It serves the same purpose as "Return of the Jedi" in telling us where the crap starts and good stuff ends.
posted by delmoi at 6:16 PM on November 3, 2005

It's my view that literary criticism is a form of entertainment in and of itself, and that incites into a work which may not have been intended by the author may still hold value. In this case the idea of the 'force' as an analogue of the 'plot' with the dark side as the design itself (Lucas *is* the emperor, crafting away and so forth) is interesting.

However, the author has a head full of cheese (gouda, thanks for asking) and apparently was high on mushrooms when he watched the movie, missing key plot elements while at the same time feeling very insightful about the whole affair.
posted by delmoi at 6:20 PM on November 3, 2005

i think lucas needs to take his iodine... that's a wicked goiter.

anyway just to pick nits here, IIRC didnt Liam Neeson Sensei win anakin's freedom in a bet with that watto guy over the podrace?
posted by joeblough at 6:23 PM on November 3, 2005

The link storybored posted is the real gem here.
posted by malphigian at 6:26 PM on November 3, 2005

delmoi, I think the author's tongue is pretty firmly in his cheek throughout this article. I read it more as "here are some bizarre circumlocutions which would explain the ham-handed plotting throughout the Star Wars movies, transmitted in the academic mode of the time." I think lines like:
As Obi-Wan would tell him, the Master's nostalgia for his artsy youth is misplaced. That Force has been with him, always.
...give away the game.

PS: That rebuttal is well-done, thanks for that. Again, I'll assert the funniness of the article over its desire to be taken seriously though.
posted by whir at 6:42 PM on November 3, 2005

.... that's just because they SUCK BALLS.

Hey that's not postmodern talk! :-)
posted by storybored at 6:44 PM on November 3, 2005

anyway just to pick nits here, IIRC didnt Liam Neeson Sensei win anakin's freedom in a bet with that watto guy over the podrace?

Hmmm... Maybe it did, now that I think about it. I really don't remember why aniken had to do the pod race. It might have been some other reason. Either way, the jedi could have just cut watto's head off, or paid him with the money I'm sure the jedi counsole had.
posted by delmoi at 6:45 PM on November 3, 2005

...oh, and comparing it to the Cremaster cycle or Peter Greenaway, too. But I still think the idea of The Force as Lucas's authorial intervention is interesting on its own. Like most page-long analyses with an overarching concept, it's not going to fit every close reading. On the other hand, I doubt any of us would want to read a dissertation in this vein.
posted by whir at 6:47 PM on November 3, 2005

It's even more postmodern to read postmodernism into works of pop culture.

Really, if anything, Star Wars is a work of Modernism in so far as it explores notions of mythological epic/heroic archetypes, like those explored in the works of Newman, Mark Rothko, and Cy Twombly, IMO.
posted by Jon-o at 8:20 PM on November 3, 2005

I read the whole article thinking it was satire. Ah well.
posted by dhruva at 8:29 PM on November 3, 2005

Yeah, but those new Star Wars films sure do suck.
posted by wfrgms at 8:31 PM on November 3, 2005

You know, I once developed a theory of how the first four Ramones albums actually formed an epic Philip Glass-esque minimalist songcycle that merely used the harmonic, melodic and textural motifs of rock n' roll as source material, building through repitition and slight variation.

And just like this guy, I was fulla shit.
posted by arto at 8:32 PM on November 3, 2005

My friend and I once made a film, only it wasn't a film it was a brick, attached to a film screen and everyone at the little arthouse cinema was all like "whoa - is this still a cinematic experience? cos it's just a brick but we're here looking up at it in a cinema, all lined up and all straightening in our chairs when the curtains opened so maybe it IS a film after all, just a really postmodern film since there are films with bricks in them and now there's a brick with a film somehow WITHIN it because we're here at a Short Film festival and suddenly I see that the whole thing's become a metatextual meditation on the post-colonial subversion of dominant paradigms within the audiovisual modes of sense-making"

And, like the guy who wrote this article, we thought we were pretty funny, too
posted by bunglin jones at 8:53 PM on November 3, 2005

LOL! The author doesn't know the secret. "The Force" was lifted entire from the Carlos Casteneda stuff about Tales of Power. Jedi knights are Toltec Sorcerers. The Force was called "Intent." Dark sorcerers are trying to steal intent from others, while light sorcerers are striving to halt their own wasting of intent so they can build it up. Even Obi-wan's description of the force was directly from the quotes of Don Juan:

'Intent' is a kind of energy field which binds the universe together. It controls our actions, yet it obeys our will.
posted by billb at 9:16 PM on November 3, 2005

Well, it's probably unfortunate that this writer so emphasizes the term "postmodern." Both because he doesn't really need this term, and because it generates such a predictable response from people who seem to have at some point been personally traumatized by this word.

But before being too cruel to this "first year Grad student" (even trotting out Alan Sokal), it might be worthwhile to consider whether he's saying anything interesting. And, probably, he is. Stuff that's more interesting than the usual chestnuts, anyhow, as the OP pointed out.

I mean it seems true enough, and worth discussing, that the Star Wars series concerns itself pretty often with story-telling and narrative.

The film's famous opening credits suggest some off-camera narrator who's both a kind of tribal narrator, and a force of Imperial (Empyreal?) power, yes? That smooth wedge of story is echoed momentarily by the star destroyer right behind it, but the outcome of the story depends really on this tiny human battle that's invisible from the perspective wide opening shot.

Think also of the films exaggerated cuts between scenes, and the explicit thematizing of sotrytelling and the force, when 3PO actually becomes a floating shaman to those annoying Ewoks. And note how carefully all of the films avoid showing any characters viewing any sort of virtual entertainment.

Ok, so the Slate piece gets weird and annoying with a facile claim that the badness of I-III is explainable as some sort of deliberate gesture. But it might be more useful to note or comment on the insight here than to do the "I hate pomo" thing, again.
posted by washburn at 9:21 PM on November 3, 2005

Intellectualizing over Star Wars? Puleeeeze.
posted by alumshubby at 3:08 AM on November 4, 2005

Fluff piece. But amusing.

alumshubby, ever heard of Joseph Campbell? Guess not.
posted by keptwench at 5:15 AM on November 4, 2005

whosa intellectual?
posted by Hands of Manos at 5:21 AM on November 4, 2005

Heard of? Yes, and read, and, and...

So what?

Six movies, of which two were mildly entertaining. I'll begrudge Mr. Lucas his ability to raid the storehouse of myths, but there's a point at which analysis crosses over into wankery, and this is well beyond the line.
posted by alumshubby at 9:26 AM on November 4, 2005

"The Force" was lifted entire from the Carlos Casteneda stuff about Tales of Power.

I have no idea if Lucas ever read Castanada, but I do happen to know precisely where Lucas got the phrase "the Force," because I figured it out in the course of writing my in-depth Wired profile of Lucas earlier this year, and verified the sourcing with Lucas.

The source of the phrase itself is much, much, much more interesting that you might imagine. It comes from a beautiful, strange, and nearly forgotten film called "21-87" by a Canadian filmmaker called Arthur Lipsett who committed suicide a couple of decades ago. There's more info about Lipsett in the article.

After the piece came out, I had the pleasure of tracking down the guy whose voice was sampled by Lipsett in the film, which then inspired Lucas to use the phrase. He lives in a house in rural Canada now, and had no idea he was the secret source of the phrase. "My grandchildren will love that!" he said.
posted by digaman at 10:21 AM on November 4, 2005

More on Lipsett.
posted by digaman at 10:24 AM on November 4, 2005

I have no idea if Lucas ever read Castanada

"Lucas had by now simplified the mysticism in his script. Obi-Wan Kenobi would be a guardian of the wisdom of the Jedi knights and the force, a mysterious power "that binds the universe together". Lucas had found the inspiration for the idea in a story in Carlos Castaneda's Tales Of Power, in which a Mexican Indian mystic, Don Juan, described a "life force" (Empire Building, page 62).

If you've read the Castaneda books, you'll know that they're jam-full of the capitalized word "Intent." Intent this, Intent that. Intent Intent Intent. Just as the Star Wars films are filled with the capitalized word "Force."

One important point: Castaneda and others claim that "The Force" (intent) is real, that it operates in the everyday word. Real phenomena are open to independant discovery and independant naming.

Perhaps it's only coincidence that Castaneda has Don Juan speak of "a sort of energy field which binds the universe together?" While Lucas has Obi-Wan speak the same phrase, but with the word "galaxy" rather than universe? In the same breath, Don Juan says that "Intent" controls our actions, yet it obeys our will. In the same breath, Obi-Wan says the same thing about The Force.

(I really need to find the exact quote from that book... this is just from memory. But I found it stunning when I stumbled on the phrase while re-reading the CC books a few years after the first Star Wars film, and suddenly knew where Lucas got the phrase.

It comes from a beautiful, strange, and nearly forgotten film called "21-87" by a Canadian filmmaker called Arthur Lipsett

Hmmm, if that film is early 70s, then perhaps Castaneda stole from Lipsette. Or perhaps Lucas was inspired by Lipsette who was in turn inspired by Castaneda. On the other hand, that phrase about binding universe/actions/will is a complicated fingerprint which is strong evidence if not proof of direct usage by one author of another's words.
posted by billb at 12:55 PM on November 4, 2005

I do happen to know precisely where Lucas got the phrase "the Force," because I figured it out in the course of writing my in-depth Wired profile of Lucas...

Ah, I see.

"Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us, and they call it God." (from the Lipsett film.)

So Lucas used the word "force" because of the phrase in that 1963 film. Yet this doesn't change my point about the origin of the precise wording of the phrase "bind the universe together, controls our actions yet obeys our will."
posted by billb at 1:15 PM on November 4, 2005

Those who have no idea what 'postmodern' means

those who have no idea what 'postmodern' means know what it means.
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:57 PM on November 4, 2005

I read the whole article thinking it was satire. Ah well.

Yeah, me too. I just assumed it was a poor man's Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity with Slate playing the Social Text role.

And after reading it again, I'm absolutely sure that's what it is.

posted by jack_mo at 4:33 AM on November 5, 2005

The part that I don't understand is why Lucas still insists the movies are meant to be viewed in chapter order, rather than release order.

Back around the 4th of July, my girlfriend was out of town and I had nothing to do (no other family near) so I embarked on a weekend-long marathon of the entire Star Wars saga in chronological order. (including the Clone Wars shorts) The trick was I basically tried to go into it as 'tabula rasa' as I could and pretend it was the first Star Wars I was seeing.

And holy god, it is a MESS. I could go on for pages about all the reasons someone could never watch the films that way and enjoy them. I think my personal favorite is that all the Jedi talk about "master Yoda" this and "master Yoda" that, but Yoda is not ACTUALLY identified until the VERY END of the movie. All the time they're talking about training, and midichlorians, no clue who Yoda is. Nor is he referred to by name during the Jedi Council scenes. Not until the very end, when Obi-Wan and Yoda are discussing Anakin's training.

The other big one is that we are never given ANY reason to root for the Republic and the Jedi Order. In fact, if you forget the fact that the Separatists are treated *as though* they are evil, their position is really the more reasonable one! They just want to split off and have their own, non-corrupted government! That Palpatine is manipulating them at the highest level just PROVES THE POINT that the Republic is dead. After all, all the Senators vote to give him those powers to wage war on all the people who, ultimately, just want to be left alone. And from there, their ploy to lure all the Jedi to their deaths in the Arena actually seems just like a good piece of strategy; a necessary evil prompted by the determination of the Republic to wage war on them.

I could go on and on, but the point is that Eps 1 and 2 are a complete and total mess. I don't think Lucas ever even stopped to think about how incohesive the plot was, and how he was sending far too many mixed messages through the whole thing.

At least with Ep 3 he regained some of his sanity and went back to the Cambellian elements that made the original movies work - but with a huge dashing of Shakespearian tragic hero thrown in as well. It worked. The others do not.
posted by InnocentBystander at 7:38 AM on November 6, 2005

David Langford pointed in his latest ansible that the central argument of this essay ("The Force is, in other words, a metaphor for, or figuration of, the demands of narrative. The Force is the power of plot.") was anticipated back in 1986 in Nick Lowe's (much funnier) essay The Well-Tempered Plot Device:
"The time has come, young man, for you to learn about the Plot." "Darth Vader is a servant of the dark side of the Plot." When Ben Kenobi gets written out, he becomes one with the Plot and can speak inside the hero's head. When a whole planet of good guys gets blown up, Ben senses "a great disturbance in the Plot."

If this is beginning to sound like a silly little verbal game, think again. The reason you can play this sort of game in the first place is that the Force is one of those arbitrary, general-purpose, all-powerful plot devices that can be invoked whenever convenient to effect whatever happens to be necessary at the time. The only ends it serves within the logic of the story are those of the storyteller.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 9:11 AM on November 6, 2005

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