Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Won’t Get Fooled Again: “The Last Jedi” Incites a Fan Rebellion against Disney’s “Star Wars” Empire

Well ahead of the release of The Last Jedi, I’d made a private resolution to stop being so goddamn grumpy about Star Wars and superheroes moving forward.  That’s not to suggest, mind you, I rescind my cultural criticisms of them, merely an acknowledgment that I’d said my piece, have nothing more to offer on the matter, and have no wish to spend 2018 mired in negativity.  There’s enough of that going around these days.

And yet here I find myself, first post of the New Year, compelled by fate—just like Obi-Wan, I suppose, and, more recently, Luke Skywalker himself—to crawl out of hiding.  Here’s what happened:

The week Last Jedi hit theaters, I was preoccupied with last-minute errands and arrangements for my trip home for the holidays, and Star Wars, frankly, was the last thing on my mind.  I was peripherally aware the movie was “in the air”—reviews were near-universally hailing it as “groundbreaking,” the best of the series since Empire—but altogether oblivious that it had already opened.

Until Saturday, December 16.  That’s when unsolicited text messages start pinging in rapid succession from friends and colleagues, decrying it as “the worst Star Wars ever,” “a betrayal,” “the death of the franchise,” etc.  (One old friend even suggested I stay away from the movie at all costs if I wanted to preserve any fondness I had left for Star Wars.)  I couldn’t quite reconcile any of that with the glowing critical notices, so I went to Rotten Tomatoes, and, sure enough, an overwhelming plurality of the audience was hating this movie.  Not strongly disliking it, mind you—despising it.  Some excerpts:

“I will pass on IX and it won’t make any difference in the grand scheme of things, but there is nowhere the plot can go in the final movie that I particularly would care for.  I have no investment in the characters, plot or universe anymore.”

“Steaming pile of bantha poodoo.”

“Easily the worst in the Saga.  Lifelong Star Wars fan.  It’s now all over.”

“Worst movie EVER.  I can’t begin to find the words that express how bad this was.  Guess it’s hard to say much without spoilers.  Just be warned it’s not the star wars you know.”

“You won’t fool me, nor my money, ever again.”

And then there was this succinct four-word review:

“Fuck you rian Johnson”

How to explain such opprobrium?  (Note:  There are those that suggest a vocal minority of haters has merely created the misleading illusion of substantial backlash—possibly that’s true—but the sampling of direct responses I’ve fielded for the most part range from faint praise at best to seething vitriol.)  I mean, these were the movies that were supposed to “redeem” Star Wars after creator George Lucas’ best malignant efforts to ruin all our childhoods with the prequels, right?

Epic fail—”Episode VIII” turned out to be something other than the glorious return of the Jedi many fans anticipated

So, what’s gone wrong? I wondered.  Were fans simply being oversensitive?  Or did filmmaker Rian Johnson, making his Star Wars debut, indeed deliver a credibly bad movie—a “franchise killer”?  How exactly did things reach such an extreme, fevered pitch a mere two years after Disney’s much-anticipated brand-relaunch of Star Wars?

It’s a complicated answer with more than one determinant, but I can get to the heart of the problem for you.

Hold that thought, though.  We’ll get back to Star Wars shortly.

 

NEVER SAY DIE

Working screenwriters find themselves committed to what’s known in the industry as “general meetings.”  These are sit-downs with development executives, sometimes ironically called creative execs, who’ve read your latest spec script and want to “get you in a room”—that is, glean a better sense of your personality and sensibilities.  They want to know if you’re someone they can work with, and these agent-arranged meet-and-greets offer screenwriters an opportunity to cultivate relationships, learn what kind of material prodcos are looking to develop, and see if you can’t maybe find a project to work on together.

Back when I was taking a ton of these meetings, there was a refrain I heard over and over again:  “The project I really want to find is the next Goonies.  Got anything along those lines?”

The Goonies, if you’re unfamiliar, is a children’s adventure from 1985, conceived by Steven Spielberg, scripted by Chris Columbus (Gremlins), and directed by Richard Donner (Superman:  The Movie), about a group of plucky preteens, facing eviction from their coastal Oregon homes by a country-club developer, who discover a treasure map hidden in the attic and embark on an adventure to find the fortune that will save the neighborhood.  It’s Stand by Me meets Indiana Jones.

Jeff Cohen, Sean Astin, Corey Feldman, and Ke Huy Quan in “The Goonies”

Amazingly, the movie, a commercial success, never spawned a franchise, but it is no less beloved by Gen Xers than Back to the Future, or classic-era Star Wars, or Ghostbusters.  Maybe more so, even, because it’s standalone status imbues it with a kind of cultural purity:  There aren’t interpretations and iterations of The Goonies—ones we like and ones we don’t; there’s just The Goonies, exactly as it is and has always been.  And finding a new version of, a contemporary take on, The Goonies has been the personal dream and professional mission of many of the development execs that came of age with it, a sort of Hollywood Holy Grail.

And I know more than my share of colleagues who undertook that crusade—not me, for the record—devising pitches and even full-length scripts in the Goonies mode:  A group of inner-city kids whose tenement is about to be torn down find an archaeologist’s journal with clues to the lost city of Atlantis—underneath the island of Manhattan!  A lot of that sort of thing got pitched and written a few years back.

And yet none of it—zero, mind you—got sold, let alone produced.  All of those pitches and scripts were met with a tepid meh.

Why?  This is what Hollywood wanted—right?  If you took a general meeting anytime between, say, 2010 and 2014, you were going to encounter at least a few ambitious execs with an eye out for the next Goonies.  So how did a town full of zealous screenwriters fail to come up with a single spin on it that captured the interest of a prospective (and ostensibly receptive) buyer?

That is a question my writers group debated long and hard.  And here’s the conclusion we finally drew:  None of those execs actually wanted the next Goonies.  Seriously.  They said they wanted it, but they didn’t.  So, were they just fucking with us, then?

No.  What they in fact wanted, though they couldn’t have articulated this, was a script that made them feel the way they felt when they first saw The Goonies at nine years old.  They wanted to recapture the immaculate sense of innocence they once had, that guileless belief in magic, and no screenplay in the world, no matter how brilliantly executed, could hope to deliver on that; at best, all it could be is a conceptual/structural recapitulation—a mechanical exercise, not the erstwhile emotional experience they so yearned for.

Last month, novelist Jennifer Finney Boylan published an essay about the power of classic Christmas movies to quicken that special sense of security we know only in our youth:

“Basked in the blue glow of television light, I am a child again, safe in my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, all the trauma of our lives off in the distant future.  How sweet it is, to be restored, fleetingly, to that world, and how bitter to be reminded of how long it has been gone” (Jennifer Finney Boylan, “My Favorite Holiday Movie Involves a Giant Rabbit,” New York Times, December 12, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/12/opinion/christmas-holidays-movies.html).

Indeed.  Which brings us back to a galaxy from a long time ago—one far, far away… and receding further still with each passing year.

It was only yesterday I was standing outside the theater in 1983, gazing at the one-sheet for Return of the Jedi—a pair of hands hoisting a blue-bladed lightsaber aloft—as we waited to be admitted to the movie.  I recall precisely the unique sense of wonder that inspired, the boundless power of imagination it imparted on my receptive young mind.  Make no mistake:  My life’s work was forged in the crucible of eighties fantasy cinema.  Accordingly, I know that when a forty-year-old goes to see a new Star Wars movie, he wants it to make him feel as he did the first time he saw the old ones; he longs to taste from that wellspring of wonder and innocence again, and he wants—needs—Star Wars to be the fount to quench that thirst.

But it can’t.  To quote another cherished sci-fi film from the same era, those moments are lost in time, like tears in rain.  And when we try to get them back, by commissioning an ersatz Goonies or buying a ticket to the new Star Wars, we find only disappointment at best, and, at worst, disillusionment—the bitter reminder, as Boylan observes, of just how long it’s been since our naïveté succumbed to irreversible depletion.

Inevitably, we accuse The Last Jedi of “ruining” our childhood, whereas what we mean to condemn it for is not restoring it, or the special sensation of it, anyway.  We have certain expectations when we see a new Star Wars, but none so preponderant as that—and that’s the one fairytale wish no Star Wars movie, even if it’s inclined to do so, can ever hope to fulfill.

 

“THIS IS NOT GOING TO GO THE WAY YOU THINK”

(Mild spoilers ahead.)

Now, to be perfectly fair, Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson didn’t go out of his way to reward or even indulge first-generation Star Wars fans.  He seemed driven by—and, by some estimations, even delighted in—the impulse to upend all the cherished tropes and conventions of a Star Wars movie.  There are those that suggest such subversion was the very point of The Last Jedi, and in time—when cooler heads prevail—Episode VIII will be as highly regarded as the once-controversial Empire Strikes Back.

I’m betting not, however.  As a Star Wars apostate, I went into The Last Jedi completely sober and dispassionate:  I was willing to be entertained without any premeditated agenda—per my vow to chill the fuck out about this stuff—but I wasn’t going to be disappointed if the movie sucked, either, ‘cause I simply don’t care enough about any of this anymore to be let down by it.  And what I saw was—its disregard for the series’ aesthetic and tonal orthodoxy notwithstanding—a demonstrably unfocused and misguided piece of screenwriting.

The Empire Strikes Back is driven by a central dramatic question—Will Darth Vader tempt Luke to the dark side?—and all the movie’s turns of plot are a direct consequence of that, until the matter is definitively resolved at the climax (the repercussions of which, in turn, open the door to the next installment, Return of the Jedi).  The Last Jedi, in stark contrast, is an assemblage of flabby scenes, full of inessential details and tangents, with no discernible narrative spine to give them meaning or causality.

And the point of milking the sea cow was…?

Certainly part of the reason for that is the movie has no idea who its main character is, a recurring problem that has bedeviled this franchise since The Phantom Menace.  You watch the original trilogy, and you can easily identify its protagonist:  Luke Skywalker.  Han and Leia and Obi-Wan and the droids, integrated and indispensable though all of them are (with their own transformational arcs, to boot), are narratively subordinate to Luke.  The classic trilogy follows a very clear hero’s journey story arc as Luke goes from idealistic nobody (A New Hope) to headstrong pupil (The Empire Strikes Back) to disciplined luminary (Return of the Jedi).

And then things—while still on Lucas’ watch, mind you—got messy.  Qui-Gon drives all the action of The Phantom Menace, but dies at the end.  Anakin seems to be promoted to hero position in the next movie, but because he’s an unwitting tool of the antagonist, the virtuous Obi-Wan is made to supply a lot of the story’s dramatic purpose… though he isn’t himself the main character.

Jumping forward now to The Force Awakens, Rey is ostensibly given the Luke Skywalker arc—to learn who she is—but J. J. Abrams, with his preference for ambiguity over lucidity, didn’t set her up properly for that particular type of emotional journey, saddling her with a psychic wound—a seemingly futile longing for the return of her unidentified parents—that Rian Johnson then summarily dismissed in The Last Jedi.  Consequently, Rey stands by the sidelines throughout most of Episode VIII (poor Daisy Ridley was made to act her heart out to compensate for the lack of clear characterization on the page), while copious screen time is devoted to Luke Skywalker traipsing not-very-heroically from one end of that island to the other, barking at Rey to bugger off.

So, the Joseph Campbell elegance of the original trilogy got abandoned along the way, rendering Star Wars—like, alas, Luke Skywalker himself—an in-name-only changeling.  And audiences sense that, even if they can’t put their finger on it, and they certainly feel emotionally disoriented in the later movies—both the prequels and the Disney entries—because so much mental energy is expended trying to puzzle out:  Whose story is this?

The Last Jedi, then, is a perfect storm of fan discontent:  a wantonly subversive Star Wars movie—and that’s tricky territory under the most favorable of conditions, Rian—that isn’t even a very efficient or satisfying piece of storytelling.  And here we are, with—no joke—fans now petitioning to have Episode VIII stricken from canon.

That’s ridiculous, of course—for many reasons, but this one foremost:  Disney doesn’t decide which Star Wars stories are canonical and which ones aren’t.  There’s only one person on this planet who determines canonicity, and it isn’t Bob Iger.  Or Kathleen Kennedy.  Or J. J. Abrams.

It’s you.

Overreacting with formal petitions just adds fuel to the argument that The Last Jedi is a great film, made greater still by its refusal to cater to veteran fans through “audacious choices” with an eye toward keeping the franchise adaptable to changing mores in changing times.  But just because a film is ambitious—and I say this as someone who has repeatedly censured Star Wars for its increased cultural presence and diminished cultural relevance—doesn’t by definition make it creatively successful.  The Last Jedi might even be best described with the same damning two-word appraisal of the fictitious Spinal Tap concept album The Sun Never Sweats:  “ambitiously flawed.”  And as much as I ferociously support the John Carpenter ethos of creativity—“it may not be what you like and what you want, but fuck you”—when you’re playing in a public sandbox, is it wise to exercise that degree of artistic latitude?  Do you really want to say “fuck you” to fans who, quite rightfully, feel as proprietary about this stuff as you do?

Still, regardless of whether or not you cared for—or took offense at—Johnson’s unconventional approach to the material, there are legitimate narrative shortcomings in this new cycle of Star Wars movies that audiences have every right to take issue with.  Case in point:  For all the insistence that J. J. Abrams’ reverent-to-a-fault offering, The Force Awakens, is a beat-for-beat rehash of A New Hope, there’s an overlooked structural issue with it that betrays its inferiority.

Unlike the inchoate Last Jedi, The Force Awakens is actually driven by a central dramatic question:  Where is Luke Skywalker?  Everyone wants the map that will lead them to Luke, the way everyone wanted the plans to the Death Star in A New Hope.  Fair enough, right?

The problem, however, is that the entire third act of the movie—the very point at which all the plot threads should be coming together—is essentially a narrative digression, catalyzed by an out-of-nowhere revelation:  There’s yet another iteration of the Death Star, and we need to destroy it!

Huh?  What does that have to do with the search for Luke?  Absolutely nothing.  (That quest only resumes in earnest after Starkiller Base is wiped out, when Artoo conveniently decides to “wake up.”)  Abrams needed a thrilling climactic set piece, so he contrived one out of thin air, versus devising one germane to the story’s nuclear dramatic engine, like Lucas did in A New Hope.

Viewers are entitled to take umbrage with such carelessness, to say nothing of the equally casual way these new movies have been developed from the outset:  Unlike George Lucas’ two trilogies, there was manifestly no grand design or unifying vision to this relay-race experiment in mythopoeic filmmaking.  On the contrary, Disney hired two directors who plainly weren’t on the same page creatively—one nostalgic, the other iconoclastic—and then expected those approaches to complement one another to produce a cohesive overarching narrative with meaning?

For better and arguably for worse, Lucas envisioned a broad-strokes three-act story arc for his trilogies and plotted them accordingly; his fingerprints are all over those six films.  The Disney installments, by comparison, are a crazy-quilt patchwork of competing visions, conflicting agendas, abandoned storylines, and aesthetic inconsistencies.  Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a bridge, merely a detour.

 

“IT’S TIME TO LET OLD THINGS DIE”

My point is, I could teach a class on the storytelling transgressions in these movies, so it’s important to recognize—and this is quite a concession in light of how relentlessly reproachful I’ve been of Gen X’s crippling nostalgia addiction—that not every criticism of Star Wars is strictly a veiled lament for the passing of our analog-era childhood.

But—and I warned you this was complicated—the very fact that we even see the very real faults in these movies should tell us something about ourselves.  Because no current twelve-year-olds I’ve consulted take notice of, much less take issue with, any of the screenwriting flaws I’ve illuminated above, or the multitude of grievances expressed on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere.

Over Christmas, my eleven-year-old nephew declared The Last Jedi “the best movie ever.”  Whether he’ll still feel that way in twenty years is immaterial; his moment of wide-eyed wonder is, at present, still in progress—and, let’s face it, not for much longer.  One day, The Last Jedi may very well come to symbolize the period in his youth he still believed in pure magic, the way The Empire Strikes Back and The Goonies emblemize mine.  And it kills me to think he’ll someday find himself watching Star Wars:  Episode XII in the vain hope of recapturing it.  Because when it’s gone, it’s gone for good.  Tears in rain.

Rutger Hauer in “Blade Runner”: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

That’s a drum I’ve admittedly been beating for a while now, which is why I’d quietly sworn off further dissertation on the subject.  And then The Last Jedi happened.  And, to my profound surprise, many of the friends who texted me on December 16, trying to come to terms with the bitter aftertaste left by the movie, independently uttered things like “Maybe I’ve gotten too old for Star Wars,” and “This series just isn’t for me anymore.”  And my sense is they actually mean it.  They’re over it; they’ve moved onThe Last Jedi, true to its subtitle, may very well end up being the last Star Wars movie for a generation of fans whose formative years were enriched by the saga.

But not, let’s be clear, defined by it.  Star Wars, culturally important as it’s been—perhaps too important, but I won’t be the one to write that essay—could no more make one’s childhood than it can spoil it post factum.  No movie, for Christ’s sake, should be granted that degree of authority over our lives.  If it was in fact Rian Johnson’s intention to immolate Star Wars as we’ve known it and replace it with an unfamiliar mutation—and I don’t pretend to know what his agenda was, though I doubt it was any more malignant than Lucas’ when he made the prequels—he has, I think we can all agree regardless of whether we approve, succeeded.

And to those feeling the sting of crushing disappointment from that (admittedly not everyone is), look on the bright side:  You’ve been liberated from Star Wars.  Further installments no longer need be a promise broken, a new hope dashed.  It was never going to give you what you really wanted from it, anyway, and now it’s indubitably apparent it never will.

Doesn’t it feel good to come to terms with that?  It’s finally time for something else.

26 Comments

  1. Hahah Absolutely. I love how you talked about execs “wanting’ the next Goonies. Hollywood often seems fueled by a wish to recreate something that cannot be reproduced just to capitalize off of a train that lost steam long ago, but young kids haven’t seen it all yet so they don’t care. I decided to stop talking about Star Wars altogether and pretend that this popular wave of remakes and rehashes doesn’t exist. That’s probably how my parents felt when they remade The Blob and The Fly.

    • Hey, Jess!

      Something I’ve talked about at (nauseating) length on this blog is how Gen X, the current superintendents of Hollywood, don’t seem to (care to) grasp the difference between inspiration and imitation. George Lucas was inspired by the Flash Gordon serials of his youth to create a space opera of his own, Star Wars, which he structured based on his studies of The Hidden Fortress and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Dan Aykroyd took inspiration from the old Bob Hope ghost comedies of the ’40s, filtered them through the lens of his Second City experiences, and reconsidered them in the light of all the intense research that was conducted into the field of parapsychology in the ’70s, and from that Ghostbusters emerged. Both of those Baby Boomers took their experiences, their interests, and their influences to create these wonderful, culturally defining pieces of entertainment they gave to the world, particularly the children of that time: Generation X.

      And then Gen X — of which both J. J. Abrams (born 1966) and Rian Johnson (1973) belong — grew up, and instead of taking inspiration from its influences, just remade all those films wholesale. Here’s a new Star Wars! Here’s a new Ghostbusters! Here’s a new Halloween! Hollywood became a glorified fan-fiction factory. And though Gen X may find it comforting to retreat to the toy box of its bygone youth, it’s a very selfish, culturally retarding practice we’ve instituted. We’re not fulfilling our responsibility to give the next generation their own heroes, their own stories, their own fantasies — we’re just recycling ours ad infinitum. And kids are fine with it, as you point out, because it’s all new to them. But we need to take a hard look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves: We’re not really making these movies for them; we’re making them for us — and, as The Last Jedi demonstrates, to vastly diminishing returns.

      As for pretending the new Star Wars never happened, I wholeheartedly endorse that philosophy. That’s something I wrote about in an essay called “This Counts, That Does Not”: “Canonicity” — whatever the fuck that means — is something each of us determine for ourselves. There are no “official” stories, or retconned stories, or stories that have been banished to “legacy” or “alternate universe” status. That’s all meaningless bullshit, whether we’re talking about Star Wars or the superheroes of DC and Marvel or any story with more than one iteration. The only stories in an ongoing series that “count” are the ones that have meaning to you.

      And whatever you may have imagined for Luke Skywalker — and Han and Leia, for that matter — after the closing credits of Return of the Jedi is equally legitimate as what Abrams and Johnson conceived. Hell, once you recognize that their visions don’t even harmonize — talk about taking this new trilogy in completely incompatible directions! — you have free and full license to elevate your vision to “canonical” status, too. Just because Johnson got Hamill to star in his post–Return of the Jedi fantasy doesn’t somehow lend it more legitimacy than yours or mine.

      That is, I think, what George Lucas intended when he closed the curtain on Luke’s saga in 1983: Where the character went from that point forward was entirely up to each of us, individually. That was the gift Star Wars gave us: to inspire our imaginations as Lucas’ had been inspired; to say, These are the kinds of worlds and stories you’ll find on your own hero’s journey. He wanted us, I suspect, to each undertake that journey for ourselves, and not endlessly retrace the path he forged. In that sense, The Last Jedi is a complete bastardization of everything I believe he intended to accomplish with his franchise. Regardless, his legacy is secure. Can second-rate copycats Abrams and Johnson really say the same?

      Thanks for joining the convo, Jess! Have a productive week!

      Sean

      • >Working screenwriters find themselves committed to what’s known in the industry as “general meetings.”

        A basic reason why I can’t be a screenwriter. My social anxiety. I do not do well dealing w/ strangers, particularly under pressure. Too bad, because my personal style works well for screenplay format, and I love the big blockbuster “high-concept” stories (the kind they used to make before the “warmed-over second helpings” age)

        • Hey, Dell! Happy New Year!

          The most successful screenwriters in Hollywood are seldom the most talented, I’ve found. Rather, it’s the writers who are “great in a room” — who are personable and charismatic — that find success, time and again. That’s because they don’t sell their work, they sell themselves. They walk into a room with complete confidence in themselves and their abilities — and trust me when I tell you that 90% of the time that confidence is offensively unjustified — and people in this town want to work with writers who have poise and confidence. (It’s an attractive quality in friends and lovers, too, not just colleagues. And in Tinseltown, it’s way more valuable than raw talent.) More often than not, producers and executives who control the rights to an IP know they have something cool… they just don’t know what to do with it. That’s why they need you, the writer — to come in and tell them what to do with this thing they own. Sell them on a vision. If you can do that, you’ll get the fuckin’ job. (Give it up to Rian Johnson: He sold Disney/Lucasfilm on his vision for Episode VIII.)

          On that note, I’ve seen a lot of promising writers suffer from quick career flameouts because they don’t project total confidence in themselves or their ideas. And I get that: Writers are by nature introverted and often diffident, especially if they’re inexperienced. But one of the great benefits of taking general meetings — what they sometimes call a “couch tour,” because you go around to every prodco in town and sit on the couch in the lobby as you wait for the exec you’re there to see — is that you develop the required social skills in short order. You learn to walk into a room, look the exec in the eye, find common ground with him quickly, and pitch your ideas like you just laid a golden egg. It forces writers out of their shells. (And in some cases it doesn’t, and those guys never, alas, establish a career.)

          I don’t think it’s always the worst thing in the world to throw yourself into a situation, particularly a social one, in which you are less than fully comfortable or even prepared. It’s how we grow; it’s how we cultivate new skills. And that particular skill set is, to be sure, a great sales tool, because it’s important for all writers to remember that they aren’t selling their wares so much as selling themselves. That’s the point of a blog, even: Through this forum, you learn more about me — my biography, my personality, my creative sensibilities — and then at some point when you see a book on the shelf with my name on it, you go, “That guy’s pretty cool. I feel like I know him, even. I’ll check out his work.” You know what I’m saying? One way or the other, we’re always selling ourselves, be it to a reader, a prospective employer, a first date, etc.

          And that doesn’t have to be a cynical ploy: We can present an honest portrayal of ourselves, both in person and online. It’s just a matter of saying with self-confidence, This is who I am. And then people can take that or leave it at their pleasure. But if you know who you are, and you’re confident in your work and your abilities, there ain’t no better feeling in the world. I spent the whole of my thirties getting to that place!

          Thanks for reading and commenting, Dell. Wishing you a very productive 2018! Would love to see your own high-concept stories published or produced at some point, bud! Keep me posted…

          Sean

      • Lucas WANTED to make a Flash Gordon movie. He couldn’t get the rights for a reasonable price, so he had to make his own version

        http://herocomplex.latimes.com/movies/star-wars-was-born-a-long-time-ago-but-not-all-that-far-far-away-in-1972-filmmakers-george-lucas-and-gary-kurtz-wer/ :

        For (Gary) Kurtz the popular notion that “Star Wars” was always planned as a multi-film epic is laughable. He says that he and Lucas, both USC film school grads who met through mutual friend Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s, first sought to do a simple adaptation of “Flash Gordon,” the comic-strip hero who had been featured in movie serials that both filmmakers found charming.

        “We tried to buy the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive,” Kurtz said. “They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.”

        • I studied Lucas’ career while still in high school during the early ’90s, because I really admired what a visionary artist and forward-thinking businessman he was, and I’ve read all the different (and often conflicting) accounts of the genesis of Star Wars. At this point, there are so many contradictory versions — from Lucas’ mouth alone! — it’s sometimes hard to suss out truth from legend.

          That said, it seems Flash Gordon did in fact inspire the project, even if it was a failed attempt to acquire the rights that led to Lucas develop his own thing. (But hey — limitations inspire creativity!) There are, that I know of, four completely distinct drafts of what was then “The Star Wars” — Lucas conducted at least three page-one rewrites before he landed on the iteration of the story that ultimately became what we now know as Episode IV — A New Hope, tearing down what he had and rebuilding it from scratch, each new draft both incorporating and expunging elements from the last. If you’ve ever read through the different drafts — and I recommend it as an invaluable academic exercise — it immediately becomes apparent that Lucas envisioned this massive, sprawling universe rich in idiosyncratic detail (much of which got repurposed in the sequels and then later the prequels), but he was struggling to give it narrative cohesion.

          Eventually, he took all these exotic worlds and creatures he’d created and poured them into a tried-and-true mould: the monomyth. He reduced all his crazy ideas down to a very basic Golden Fleece plot, inspired in part by The Hidden Fortress, and put all his effort into telling one standalone story really well. And it worked: The familiarity of the hero’s journey grounded all the fantastical elements, so groundbreaking at the time, in a very relatable, digestible structure.

          As for how much veracity to lend Kurtz’s dispute that Star Wars was envisioned from the outset as a multipart epic, I think that depends, as Obi-Wan himself might counsel, on one’s point of view. Did Lucas have the three stories preconceived, let alone the scripts written, for what became A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi? Of course not. All of that developed over time, movie by movie — as it should’ve! As Lucas saw what worked in one movie, presumably he was able to tailor the next one to play to those strengths, and to find the overarching narrative as he went along. That’s the way series television and comic books had always worked, after all; what was so innovative about what he did was bringing that “chapter-play” approach to feature-length filmmaking, which — though commonplace now — had never really been done before outside the B-movie serials of the 1930s (to which Star Wars owes a creative debt).

          It’s also worth remembering, one of his other influences was Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings cycle. Because before Lucas, “trilogies” weren’t a thing in popular cinema (that was only popularized much later with Back to the Future and The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.). There were sequels, sure, but no one at that point had set out to tell a finite, overarching story over a defined number of movies; you made one movie, and maybe if that worked you made a sequel, like The Godfather or The French Connection, or the way the James Bond films were produced. (Even Lord of the Rings is an accidental trilogy, artificially split into three volumes by the publisher. Same with the so-called Man with No Name series, which the American distributor packaged as a trilogy despite the fact that there’s plenty of evidence — in context of the movies themselves — to suggest such a direct connection was never Leone’s intention.)

          And though, no, I don’t think Lucas had the twists and turns of the entire trilogy mapped out when he set out to make Star Wars, I suspect he had an intuitive sense that if he could get the first movie to work, his ideas could be expanded into a cohesive series (like the 13-epsiode Flash Gordon serial from 1936, only on a much bigger, more ambitious scale), and just as he’d looked to Campbell to give A New Hope a narrative template, he then took a cue from Tolkien as to how he might pattern a closed-ended multipart epic. And doing it as a trilogy makes a kind of sense, because it’s got that logical, three-act elegance to it: beginning, middle, end. And that’s ultimately the shape the classic Star Wars trilogy took: an unlikely hero rises (IV); he’s trained by mentors and tempted by adversaries (V); he achieves apotheosis and vanquishes the nemesis (VI).

          But before Lucas could build all that out, the first one had to work in its own right, which is why it’s the most self-contained of all the Star Wars movies, so much so that A New Hope falls under a different Save the Cat! genre than the other five Lucas-helmed movies: He kept his ideas focused through a conventional Golden Fleece paradigm, then got a little more experimental by switching to Superhero for V, VI, I, II, and III. He wisely tempered his ambitions on the first one in order to get it made, and to make it work as a coherent story in and of itself, and only then he felt empowered to open up the sprawling universe he’d created — to admittedly mixed creative success, but that’s neither here nor there.

          But if Lucas didn’t have a proper plan when he started, at least he had a notion of how it might all cohere — a singular vision — which is more than I can say for this sequel trilogy. What’s crazy is that Lucas was finding his way in the dark when he made the first trilogy — certainly when he produced A New Hope and even Empire Strikes Back (of which you should read the failed Leigh Brackett draft if you can find a PDF online) — whereas Kathleen Kennedy and company have a proven template to work with, and yet somehow they’ve cocked it all up. Lucas, whose legacy has taken a beating over the last fifteen years, is looking more and more like an audacious visionary with each successive Star Wars film. No, not all of his forays into the fictional galaxy he created were artistically successful, but I think audiences are gaining a finer appreciation of just how hard it is, even for the creator himself, to pull off a satisfying Star Wars movie. He made it look so effortless the first time around, and if the later movies have given us anything, it’s a more enlightened perspective on just how much effort — and risk — went into making those masterpieces. It may never be repeated, certainly with respect to this particular franchise.

          Thanks again, Dell. So grateful for your contributions to the conversation!

          • >But before Lucas could build all that out, the first one had to work in its own right

            I would say, “tell that to the Hollywood execs, because they don’t seem to know that,” but I know you’ve tried

          • Haha! Indeed. The thing you have to understand about Hollywood is that almost everyone here — directors, producers, execs, agents — are themselves failed writers. Everyone came to this town to tell their own stories, but few had the talent and determination to succeed at that. So what they’ve done instead is create a hierarchy in which the screenwriter sits at the bottom of the totem pole, forced to take his marching orders from directors and producers and execs and agents — they very people that, ya know, failed at screenwriting (what Lucas himself calls the creative industrial complex). It’s as backwards and dysfunctional an industry as I can imagine — one desperate for systemic restructuring — but that’s why I got out.

  2. I didn’t see The Last Jedi, simply because I’m not a band-wagoner who goes to see much on opening night or anywhere close, unless it just so happens that that’s a night I have free. But your entire discussion here caused me to hearken back to your posts on the relatively recent introduction of “post-narrative” writing and it’s growing presence as a replacement for traditional, plot-driven story arcs. I wonder if these new producers are a product of this post-narrative thinking and approach, deeming it of primary value to drop people into “the world,” without much thought to character development or plot fulfillment. In that context, “milking the sea cows” would make sense: it’s a lingering and unique visit to a place in “the world” and therefore has value, despite it’s detachment from character or plot.

    I’m not defending it. I’m just able to think about possibilities in a new context, thanks to other ideas you’ve presented here on your blog since I became acquainted with it and you.

    • You’re 100% correct, young Padawan! The collapse of narrative — our collective sense of linearity, our very trust in the institution of storytelling itself — that Rushkoff identified in Present Shock is very much a factor as to why The Last Jedi feels like such a radical aesthetic departure from conventional Star Wars. That is something I didn’t address in the post itself, which was already running long, because it would’ve led the essay down a path somewhat tangential (though not altogether unrelated) to the thesis, but let’s discuss it here.

      The Aristotelian story arc — Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” — is broken; it no longer reflects the way we see the world in our Digital Age. Explains Rushkoff:

      “Right now, there aren’t really any [traditional stories] because we’ve woken up from 2,000 years of it. We were fools. We don’t want to be fooled again in that way, so when the narrative gets broken, whether it’s by 9/11, or the Internet, or the collapse of the economy, we look back and say, ‘Those great narratives of the 20th century, most of them were lies.’ Yeah, Martin Luther King Jr. was cool and I guess Gandhi was cool, but most of these things, like Nazism and communism and capitalism, and all of the ‘isms,’ were all really manipulative stories. Advertisers abused the stories so much that we don’t want to surrender our trust to anyone. We don’t trust the storytellers anymore, except in very few circumstances. Even our movies are all about time travel and moving backward because we don’t want to just go down that single path.”

      He also says:

      “When we do [consume stories], much of it is this ongoing odyssey format, like Game of Thrones, or a fantasy role-playing video game. You’re no longer watching the protagonist: Now you are the protagonist, making a series of choices in a story that gets more open rather than more closed as it goes along. There is no ending.”

      That’s important to understand, because it explains the narrative schizophrenia that’s bedeviling Star Wars at present. I doubt Rian Johnson is consciously aware of this (unless by some chance he’s read Rushkoff), but The Last Jedi is very much a story caught between eras: The series has Joseph Campbell in its DNA — Baby Boomer Lucas consciously, as he’s stated publicly on numerous occasions, created a conventional single-protagonist hero’s journey when he wrote it — yet Gen-Xer Johnson (unconsciously?) felt compelled to “modernize” the storytelling, presenting a fractured “postnarrative” sequence of events in which elements seldom correlate or pay off, they just happen or exist as part of this sprawling galaxy.

      So, you had Abrams raise all these questions in The Force Awakens — Rey’s parentage, Snoke’s origin — for which, let’s face it, he didn’t really have answers. (Let’s not forget that Abrams created the quintessential piece of 21st-century postnarrative fiction Lost, which was all about leading us down a rabbit hole of compounding questions for which there were never any answers, so shame on us for not catching wise to his tricks at this point.) And then Johnson, running with the ball Abrams passed him, simply disregarded all of that with the stroke of his hand. Not merely ignored it, mind you — dismissed it as nothing… and then told the audience (through the dialogue of certain characters) that it was foolish to have even expected any of that to pay off! That’s what (rightfully) pissed fans off — that they’d been teed-up for answers and then told they were assholes for having wasted two years expecting them.

      But let’s be clear: That sort of worldview the essence of postnarrativity. It’s not about providing answers, or satisfying resolutions, or giving us a story arc that follows the linear journey — and emotional transformation — of a single protagonist. Rather, it’s simply about presenting a hyperlinked narrative that grows more open as it goes along, and never culminates in a moment of catharsis, because there are no endings in an ever-on Digital Age. So the questions these kinds of stories raise, Rushkoff explains, “are the questions of our time: What is this about? What is it for? Why am I here? When you no longer have these great, overarching narratives, like the one where you’ll go to college and get a job and then retire, it’s almost like we’re in that plateau of middle age, where we say, ‘Now what?'”

      Thusly, postnarrativity has emerged as a viable form of fiction because the prescriptive hero’s journey was no longer helping people contextualize their place in a nonlinear, digital world; there’s nothing, therefore, inherently wrong with presentist literature. And perhaps, as you suggest above, Johnson unconsciously recognizes that audiences respond to a different mode of storytelling in our new millennium, and he is simply trying to accommodate that.

      The trouble I think he’s run into, however, is that a postnarrative approach is at odds with the way Star Wars — a forty-year-old relic of another era — was designed. It’s like a xenograft: They’re trying to transplant organs from one species to another… and finding that the host is rejecting the foreign tissue. And that was a concern I expressed in private conversations I had with colleagues when Disney launched their version of Star Wars, based on the “cinematic universe” model they’d successfully pioneered via Marvel; I thought they might be fiddling with story mechanics they didn’t fully understand. I was pooh-poohed at the time for the suggestion… but it seems as though it might be coming to bear, if the angered response to The Last Jedi is any indication.

      If this franchise is going to have a viable future, it either needs to scratch this last movie and commit to being an old-fashioned hero’s journey, or, conversely, use The Last Jedi as a starting point for a new postnarrative Star Wars which is all about open-ended world exploration in which we don’t see this galaxy through the eyes of a surrogate (like Anakin or Luke or Rey), but rather, as Rushkoff says, we are the protagonist making a series of choices within that fictional realm. It’s got to be one or the other, though; if they try to walk the line they will doom this enterprise to failure.

      But in order to do that, they would need someone to spearhead the franchise with both an institutionalized understanding of Star Wars as well as a command of the differing (and incompatible) modes of narrative and make a choice to adhere to one or the other, versus what they’re doing now, which is imposing 21st-century sensibilities on a 20th-century creation. If they understood this stuff, perhaps they could get the ship back on course. But Hollywood being Hollywood, I am far from optimistic.

      Anyway, pal, thank you for bringing this subject up, because it was worth discussing as a supplement to the main point. I think it also serves to illustrate just how complex story mechanics can be, and why true mastery of craft — something I’ve long-advocated via this blog — is a pretty uncommon thing, even amongst the custodians of our popular fictions.

      Sean

      • I often find myself wishing I could be the proverbial fly on the wall and hear the actual conversations people had going into a venture—to know for certain. But I guess, then, where would the fun and the conversation be?

        I myself don’t have any desire to linger in a world for the sake of the world. I want to fall in love with characters and miss them—not the world or the movie itself—when the reel stops.

        • You know, people talk themselves into bad ideas all the time — that certainly isn’t exclusive to Hollywood. What complicates Hollywood, of course, is that you have big egos, and Big Money, not to mention creative matters are inherently subjective, which takes all the science out of decision-making. And you apply all those tricky X-factors to a culturally beloved franchise — to say nothing of billion-dollar corporate asset — like Star Wars, which everyone has a strong opinion about, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that what you end up with is a Frankenstein’s monster of incompatible components. The original Star Wars worked because it was the singular vision of a single artist who wrangled the right talent, and pushed the movie through when no one else believed in it. It took one determined guy — George Lucas — to get that made. That took vision, and it took grit.

          Now, however, these movies are made in boardrooms, by people without vision who arrogantly think they’ve purchased a “magic formula” for commercial storytelling. But as I said to Dell in the comment above, Lucas figured these movies out through trial and error, drawing from personal influences as diverse as Flash Gordon and The Hidden Fortress and The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Lord of the Rings, producing many unsuccessful (and jettisoned) drafts, before finally conjuring the very unique alchemy that ultimately resonated the world over. And that’s a trick that’s never really been repeated since the original trilogy, and audiences — who’d hoped Disney would “redeem” the franchise in the wake of Lucas’s prequels — are finally starting to recognize that maybe Star Wars was merely a product of the right filmmaker with the right story at the right moment in our cultural history, all cohering to create something special — something that transcended logic and formula — never to be reproduced, it turns out, in quite the same way.

          As for The Last Jedi specifically, I’ve heard (and who knows how true any of this is?) that Disney CEO Bob Iger was sold on Johnson’s vision from Day One — he was a big supporter of where Johnson saw the series heading — and when the guy at the top of the food chain has put his muscle behind a particular filmmaker and project, who’s gonna speak up and say, “Is all of this really a good idea?” But perhaps there will be consequences; it’s very possible the brand’s been damaged. God knows, Last Jedi has left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of fans — quite rightfully — and word on the street is that Disney is already preparing for this May’s Solo: A Star Wars Story to bomb. Who knows — perhaps Star Wars will be remembered, over the long haul, as a cautionary tale about the perils of hubris?

          To address your last comment, I’ll turn to Rushkoff again:

          “There’s still room for traditional stories. It’s just that we have to almost consciously reintegrate those stories and understand that they’re just one way of seeing the world. … But I do think that as we get a little bit more comfortable, or maybe as we get uncomfortable in a purely digital world, we will start to ache again for these more prescriptive narratives and, hopefully, turn to trustworthy storytellers to do it.”

  3. It’s been a while, Sean, but I loved your take on the whole thing. Independently from any storytelling shortcomings and/or virtues Last Jedi might have, the whole discussion about what this movie (and movies like it) should do has left a sour taste on my mouth. A lot of entitlement, a lot of frustration towards this movies that aren’t really about the movies themselves, but about what they represent. Like you said, tears in the rain. Trying to recapture what we felt the first time we fell in love with movies (hell, this is a usual problem in relationships as well, misguided expectations) is a recipe for dissappointment. I remember reading (a rather cynical take, but no less accurate) David Mamet’s thoughts on the issue on “The Three Uses of the Knife” a couple of years ago and feeling this queasiness ’cause I knew he was right about many things. After watching the Return of the King when I was 14 (the movie that set me on the path of becoming a storyteller) I remember spending some years trying to recapture that feeling. 99% of the time I was dissappointed, 99% I was thinking: “I wish I were watching LotR again”. What I was actually wishing , like you said, was “watching it again for the first time”. An impossibilty. I eventually realized what I was doing and I managed to reset my expectations. Back then I thought about it as if I were trying to lose my virginity again everytime I had sex (which, life being life, it isn’t such a big deal either).

    At its worst, this feeling of trying to “recapture the magic” is, I fear, arrested development. It’s a trap, a prison. I have mostly moved on from superhero storytelling, but when I do enjoy something in the genre, I do it, I want to believe, genuinely. Not as something I lost that I regained, but as something new, and interestingly enough, as something I’ve always had. Last year I watched this anime called “My hero academia”. For me, it captures what supehero storytelling should and can do. I loved it not because it made me feel like a kid again, I loved it because it ignited the stuff that these stories set afire when I was a kid. But it was a new fire, with new lumber.

    What many producers can’t realize is that It’s impossible to set new fires from ashes, which is what most franchise storytelling is trying to do. They should let us all, audiences and writers alike, go into the forest looking for new trees.

    Cheers,

    Carlos Tello de Meneses

    • Carlos! So nice to hear from you! Happy New Year! Hope you’ve been healthy and productive.

      Everything you’ve said here… very well-stated, my friend. I concur with all of it. I particularly loved this sentiment: “It’s impossible to set new fires from ashes, which is what most franchise storytelling is trying to do.” Too true.

      The longing to recapture the innocence and wonders — the magic — of youth existed long before Generation X turned ’80s nostalgia into a billion-dollar industry. Boomers yearned for 1950s Americana (many of them still do, an altogether different matter), which was reflected in the popular culture of the 1970s with the likes of Happy Days and Grease and Lucas’ own American Graffiti.

      Thornton Wilder’s Our Town concludes, quite poignantly, with Emily, now in the afterlife, opting (against better advice) to relive the day of her twelfth birthday, before succumbing to overbearing heartache at the experience. Wilder understood that every moment should be cherished as it happens, because it doesn’t come around again. To truly live in a moment is to understand — and appreciate — that it’s ephemeral, it’s fluid; one can no more pluck it out of the ether and preserve it than one could a snowflake, or a rainbow. These wonders are of a moment, beautiful because they’re fleeting, limited, rarefied. If these were things that could be saved to our iPhones and relived on demand, they wouldn’t be special or even worth preserving.

      But the thing is, modern technology has allowed us to store those moments indefinitely, through photography, and now video (ever see someone watch a live concert through the screen on their phone?); even recorded art — music and movies — help “freeze” the liquidity of a moment for us: A pop song has the special power to take us back to the time it was a Top 40 hit (the reason why people cherish their prom songs); a movie is a snapshot of precisely what we were feeling when we first saw it, how it moved us and made us see the world from a new perspective. That’s the sort of experience that can make an indelible impression on us, just like losing one’s virginity, and it’s tempting to periodically refer to those digital reminders in the hopes of recapturing the magic of the particular instant they captured.

      And I was discussing this very thing with Wendy Weir over on her blog, Greater Than Gravity, the other day: that while modern technology supplements our faulty memories, it has also given us this very unnatural opportunity to live in a perpetual yesterday, to be frozen at a point in time like a mosquito in amber. Maybe total recall isn’t always a good thing; maybe there’s a reason human beings are programmed to forget. Forgetting, after all, is what allows wounds to heal, so we can go about the business of living — moment to moment; each one, like snowflakes, different from the next.

      Speaking for myself, I certainly cherish the special cinematic experiences of my own youth, like the first time I saw Return of the Jedi, and Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Those moments, to quote Blade Runner again, are lost in time now. They exist only in my heart and mind, and I have even found that revisiting those films can diminish, rather than quicken, the special feeling they once evoked. Sometimes, rather than serving as audiovisual simulations that can be revisited ad infinitum, those movies are best kept merely as abstract reminders of my lost innocence. Because a DVD can be replayed, but one’s childhood cannot. Innocence slips away.

      And yet here’s what I got in return: Experience. Wisdom. Skill. And now I get to take all those things and create stories of my own — snapshots of this moment in time. That gives me a thrill that Star Wars and Back to the Future, much as I love them, never could. So what I do is this: I remember the special feelings those stories stirred in me, and try to let that be the spirit that guides me in the creation of my own work. That’s how those movies — and the experiences of seeing them for the first time — continue to pay dividends: not as totems of another time but rather as creative and emotional apogees to strive for. As influence, and inspiration.

      So my advice to you would be this: Don’t lose touch with what you felt the first time you saw The Return of the King. Because that fourteen-year-old isn’t you anymore; instead, he is now your target audience. Just worry about impressing him, your fourteen-year-old self, and you’ll have created plenty of new magic to go around. We needn’t lose touch with the child within, merely redefine our relationship with him: He’s a companion on our journey, a reminder of the way station — childhood — we’ve left behind.

      Stay in touch, pal!

      Sean

      • Hey, Sean!

        Happy New Year to you too!

        I’m happy to read we agree on many things regarding this topic. I mean, trying to make someone else feel what I felt the first time I watched RotK is the whole reason I became a storyteller. Ray Bradbury used to write that we shouldn’t lose sight of the stories that shaped us in our youth because they’re one of the main bulding blocks of who we are not just as writers, but as people. That doesn’t mean longing for the days gone, but what they mean for the days moving forward and for the people we hope to inspire.

        Carlos

        • Great insight from Bradbury! That’s what Lucas did, and that’s what I try to do in my own work: take my creative influences and recast them in my own image — make them reflect the world as I see it. Both Star Wars and Willow owe a great debt to Tolkien, for starters, but they ultimately serve Lucas’ worldview. Lucas never lost touch with what he felt when he watched those old Republic serials, and he merged that visceral thrill with scholarly interests he developed later, like mythopoeia and anthropology, and from that mélange, respectively, Star Wars and Indiana Jones were born. He fused a childlike spirit with an academic sophistication, and created two of our greatest contemporary cultural treasures in the process.

          Keeping in touch with the child within — something all people, artists foremost, should strive to do — doesn’t mean willfully stunting one’s own intellectual and emotional development. And while I’m sure it’s a childhood dream come true for filmmakers like Abrams and Johnson to make their own Star Wars films — kind of like playing with the biggest playset imaginable, complete with real-life action figures! — there’s something creatively bankrupt and artistically misguided about it. Children play with toys, because it’s what teaches them to develop their imaginations. Later, as teenagers, maybe we even try our hands at fan fiction; I certainly did: I wrote a story in high school called “Indiana Jones and the River Styx.” Those were the early stages of my artistic development: first creating freeform reenactments with action figures, then later trying to construct more disciplined narratives within the framework of established worlds and characters. But eventually, I had my own things to say, and action heroes of my own creation whose adventures I wanted to chronicle. And Lucas remains to this day an important formative influence for me in that respect, but, to be clear, he’s only one of many. (Something I’ll explore deeper in the next post.)

          For me, movies like The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and now The Last Jedi, which are nothing more than big-budget fan fiction, represent a generation — my generation, sad to say — that was given a chance to explore new fictive worlds, yet opted instead to revisit the old ones ad infinitum. Whether you like those films or whether you don’t, you can’t help but ask, What are they worth? They don’t advance new ideas or offer new cultural insights; they just serve up the same old comfort food — which somehow tastes a little less delicious with every serving.

          And that, to me, is how Gen X has failed in its responsibility to the culture. Far from inspiring our imaginations, we’ve dedicated billions of dollars to reenacting Star Wars as opposed to reinventing it as something new and different and relevant to the folkways of the here and now. These movies aren’t made with a childlike spirit, but rather a childish one. (For an excellent overview of the differences, see this post from our friend Erik Tyler.) They’re trying to recapture a feeling from childhood, but they’re going about it the entirely wrong way: They’re hoping to recreate the moment itself, which is gone and never coming back, versus the sensation we felt when we first experienced it, which is renewable, provided we do our part as artists to facilitate the evolution of our stories and not the endless recapitulation of them. That’s the lesson to take from Lucas and Star Wars — and certainly Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, too — as you create your own works of narrative art.

          Keep me posted on your progress, Carlos…

          Sean

          • I believe many of the same things. While thinking about what I’d do if I could play with certain characters and worlds, I always thought these were supposed to be thought experiments and/or catalyst for creating my own worlds. After all, we have Rio Bravo only because of Hawkes and Ford’s contempt for High Noon. And like you said, we have Star wars thanks to Lucas’ love for sci-fi serials and we have Middle-Earth thanks to Tolkien’s obsession with mythology and language. It’s alchemy. I want my own worlds to be an extension of myself, not “original” or “unique” ’cause I think those are tricky concepts, but mine, something only I could have created, and I belive that’s only possible through an honest exploration of what makes me “me”, what I love, what I hate, what i believe in, and such.

            It’s always a pleasure trading words with you, Sean, and I’ll certainly keep you posted!

          • That’s right: The narrative arts are a continuum, with new offerings building upon — and sometimes directly and even consciously rebuking — what came before. So, in the example you pointed out, John Wayne makes Rio Bravo as a response to High Noon — an alternative view of the American West and its archetypal hero. But then Clint Eastwood made a bunch of Westerns in the early days of his career, a decade or so after Rio Bravo, that were a reaction to the mythic John Ford/John Wayne view of the West: They were far darker, not at all romantic, and more morally ambiguous. And Wayne let Eastwood know of his distaste for films like High Plains Drifter, telling him in a letter: “That isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” But Eastwood had a different interpretation of our mythologized history than Wayne, who himself had a different interpretation than Gary Cooper. All were valid in that they were sincere efforts, and resonated with (many of the same) audiences throughout multiple eras. Our culture is enriched by having all those diverse points of view.

            E. L. James famously wrote a bunch of Twilight fan fiction that she then turned into its own multiplatform franchise: Fifty Shades of Grey. And without opining on the artistic merits of either of those series (which I’ve done elsewhere), James clearly used her passion for Meyer’s fiction as a “thought experiment” — a creative incubator — until what emerged more accurately represented her interests and particular imagination (whatever you may think of it).

            Now, most fan fiction we may write never evolves into an independent story of its own — and that it did in this case betrays the problematic nature of both James and Meyer’s work — but as an exercise in creative evolution, it’s can be a helpful developmental tool. We should want to explore our own worlds, and create our own characters, even if they owe a debt — as everything inevitably does — to someone else’s work. That’s why storytellers like J. J. Abrams — and now David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, who’ll be jumping George Martin’s ship for George Lucas’ — are such an enigma to me. With all that considerable clout, don’t you motherfuckers ever want to write something that comes from within you?

            Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe there’s something to be said for making an actual living as a storyteller, and working on projects that draw a substantial audience, and that that doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with artistic integrity. But for reasons discussed in this post, as well several others on this blog, and per the conversations you and I have had both on- and offline, Star Wars seems ever more like the ephemera of a previous century, and it has become emblematic, in my view, of a backward-looking, nostalgia-addicted generation that has abdicated its responsibility to the culture in pursuit of an ever-elusive nostalgic fix. When George Lucas created it, Star Wars was anything but a “sure thing”; it took courage and vision to pursue that project, against the counsel of powerful naysayers. Has Gen X thus far shown that degree of creative courage? Or are we simply content getting paid big bucks to write fan fiction?

            Thanks, Carlos. Wishing you only the best of luck on your own projects…

  4. I think Boylan hit the nail on the head when she said that we like the movies we grew up with because they take us back in time to that time in our lives. I know that’s true of many movies for me. They’re classics in my mind because of where I was, who I was, and what was happening around me. Music is a great example of how what we grew up with still owns a rich portion of our hearts.

    Franchises are fine for a while but as I age they fail to recapture the feeling I had when I was ten or sixteen. I lost interest in Star Wars, Star Trek, and many of the Super Hero movies. Part of it may be the screen writing, but I’ll bet a lot of it is just outgrowing the stories. It would be nice if Hollywood realized that and started creating the wonders that will capture us as well as the new generation. I would love that. 🙂

    • Hey, Diana!

      Yes, the Boylan quote really resonated with me, too. The sheer newness of movies — and books and music, too — at that age, when we’re receptive to the wonders of storytelling, unaffected by cynicism, is I think in part what imprints on our minds, and stays with us for the rest of our lives. If you’re a kid in 1977 who’s never left his middle-class suburb, and you go see Star Wars, you’ve just had an entire universe opened up to you! And if Star Wars had gracefully and permanently exited the cultural stage in 1983, I think my generation would feel a healthy fondness for it akin to Back to the Future and Ghostbusters, but perhaps not an obsessive interest… one cultivated by the continuing stream of new movies/novels/TV shows/videogames. And when you wait thirty years to see Luke Skywalker back in action — an event endlessly teased and exploited by both the filmmakers and the studio — only to basically be told you were an idiot to wait around for this guy, he isn’t who you remember, and we’re not going to give him any meaningful business in this story, you have the right to feel affronted by that, even if you yourself are somewhat complicit in the sense of getting your expectations up. But expectations or no, The Last Jedi had a strange streak of contempt for first-generation fans — it enjoyed disappointing them — and that, in my view, is a complete bastardization of what Lucas set out to do when he created this series.

      So maybe Star Wars stayed too long at the party, or we did, or both entities did together, but however it happened, the law of diminishing returns seems to have finally caught up with this franchise. We do outgrow these things, after all. I mean, how many times can you consume the same story before you hunger for something different? That’s a question I’ve spent the last two years asking publicly, and I never would have guessed that at the close of 2017 we’d see Justice League catastrophically underperform, and The Last Jedi drive diehard fans from Star Wars in droves. Didn’t imagine that was gonna actually happen. Maybe it was the kick in the ass Gen X needed to at long last let go of the 1980s…? We may very well end up thanking Rian Johnson for what he did!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Diana! And feel free, anytime, to stop by and share new books or movies or TV that you think deserve wider recognition…

      Sean

  5. Great summary. I had no intention of reading this entire piece (I usually allot 2-3 minutes to a post!) but I couldn’t stop. My 30-year-old son, an Army sergeant and committed nerd/sci fi fan (he’s in satellites; he says they’re all Marvel comic et al fans) felt meh about it. But your nephew–I bet that’s the pulse of the problem. We long-time SW fans do have expectations and your nephew listened with an open mind.

    I’m glad I kept reading. Nicely pulled together.

    • Well, thank you, Jacqui, for sticking with the entire piece, a lengthy one even by my standards! I don’t take the time you spent reading it for granted. For the past two years, I’ve mostly refrained from weighing in on the new Star Wars movies, since everyone has an opinion about them, and who needs yet one more? But I felt, in this instance, I had a different perspective to bring to the table — up till now it’s been a strictly binary debate online, with defenders calling The Last Jedi a subversive masterwork, detractors a tone-deaf betrayal — and I felt there was a more truthful, nuanced position I hadn’t seen expressed. And once I started typing, I realized I had a lot to say! (This post should be, if all goes to plan, my final word on Star Wars.) Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You’re 100% right: My nephew — like all of his peers — isn’t bringing forty years of emotional baggage and heightened expectation to every new Star Wars film. My generation grew up alongside Star Wars, whereas he’s more of a third-generation fan — born well after the originals and even a year after the last prequel — so Star Wars already has a long history that he is able to catch up on over a period of weeks, not years, like those of us who lived with it through that history in real time. It’s a different relationship (a narrative versus postnarrative association, now that I’m thinking about it).

      And Disney is discovering that the cultural love for Star Wars is more complicated and multifaceted than they’d realized — that there are different generations of fans that bring different expectations to each movie, and ya just can’t please all the people all the time. And Star Wars is struggling right now to figure out which faction to service, and how to service them, and they’ve thus far attempted two wildly diverse approaches — nostalgic (The Force Awakens) and iconoclastic (The Last Jedi) — to mixed feedback. And as I’ve noted in other replies on this post, Disney is going to have to figure out who the target audience is (especially now that they’ve alienated the diehards), and settle on a consistent aesthetic (and preferably the vision of a single filmmaker) that can serve as the house style. They should have done that to start, of course, but that’s what they need to do — pronto — if they’re going to turn this ship around. Ball’s in their court.

  6. Hi Sean. I always look forward to your posts. It appears you and your readers have hit on all the hot buttons. (I skimmed the comments section) But I’ll add this, which someone may have said, but Hollywood is interested in making money. Profit is more important than whether or not the person sitting in the seat feels nostalgia, and if spectacle sells over substance, guess what you’re going to see?

    We all bring to the movies or to books or any art form our own perceptions and experiences that influence whether or not we enjoy that piece of art. How we feel watching a movie at the age of ten will most likely not be the same thirty-five years later. We aren’t the same person any longer.

    Recently my seventeen-year-old read A Clockwork Orange. He loved it. I had never read it, somehow missing it all these years, so I decided to read it too. About half-way through I said, “this book is awful” and stopped reading it. For me, that book was nothing but gratuitous violence. My son could not understand my view on the book. In fact, was a little insulted that I didn’t enjoy the book as much as he did.

    I explained to him, his view of the world is different than mine. My experiences and perceptions skew my opinions on art. As do his. He isn’t wrong in liking that book. If he enjoyed, felt some emotion from it, was moved by it, that was exactly what should happen. What the author hoped would happen. Had I read that book in high school I may have a different opinion. And possibly thirty years from now, should he reread that book he may wonder what he liked about it in the first place.

    I do wish all the reboots would go away. I’m certain plenty of very good stories are floating around waiting for a place to land. But again, why should Hollywood or any publisher invest in the unknown when they can back what has already proved to be the winning horse? Someone should tell them, that horse is old, tired, and in need of a nap.

    • Stacey! Thanks so much for the thoughtful, comprehensive response!

      To continue along your line of thinking, what we respond to in art very much depends on a host of factors: our age, our gender, our socioeconomic status, our life experiences — to say nothing of our unique personalities and sensibilities. All of that is a contributing factor. For instance, I know a lot of guys my age — white males from upper-middle-class suburbs, incidentally — who spent their teenage years in the ’90s listening to hip-hop and even hardcore gangsta rap. I never did, despite the fact that the genre has its origins in my hometown of the Bronx; oddly enough, I related more to hard-rock bands like Rush and the Who (neither of which are even American!), who often sang about their experiences growing up in middle-class suburbia!

      But perhaps for my suburban counterparts, rap music put them in touch with a culture and a way of life that was intriguing yet foreign to them. The very particular Bronx experience that art form expressed, though — and, to be sure, hip-hop, like all modes of artistic expression, arose from an emotional need for it — wasn’t my Bronx experience, so it didn’t really resonate with my teenage self. Instead, I looked to art — be it music, books, cinema — to take me to worlds that were foreign to my experiences, that piqued my intrigue. It was only in adulthood that I came to appreciate what rap music was doing — articulating a particular cultural experience — and it’s only now, as an artist myself, that I have returned to my roots to tell stories about the City of New York as I know it (in Escape from Rikers Island, et al.), something I discussed in last month’s reflection on my Bronx upbringing.

      With particular respect to Star Wars, it was only through my response to Jacqui‘s comment above — and that’s why I thrive on this kind of direct dialogue, because it helps me refine and better understand my own positions on the topics I write about — that I realized Disney is facing something of a unique conundrum with this franchise. I’m assuming, when they acquired the rights to it from Lucasfilm, they thought, “Great! Everyone loves Star Wars! We got ourselves a license to print money, baby!”

      And I think what they’re discovering is that “everyone” accounts for different factions of fans who bring correspondingly different expectations to each new Star Wars movie. On the one hand, you’ve got the first-generation fans who grew up with this series in real time, and thusly feel very proprietary about it; they’ve also spent the last thirty-five years both waiting to see Luke Skywalker back in action, and wondering if that would in fact ever even happen. So, for them, The Last Jedi is the culmination of literally a lifetime of hopes and dreams, a reunion with a childhood hero they didn’t know for certain they’d ever see again.

      On the other hand, you’ve got the third-generation fans, for whom forty years of history is binge-experienced — compressed and consumed like a season of television that streams on Netflix. They haven’t invested the same extensive volume of time — the same years of their lives — in Star Wars, so what an eleven-year-old expects from the experience isn’t what a forty-year-old does. Consequently, Disney finds itself trying to service two incompatible and irreconcilable demographics. So, I think a franchise they assumed had can’t-miss four-quadrant appeal is proving, because of the long history of the series and the nature of the emotional (and temporal) relationship different generations have with it, to be a more complicated beast to manage than they’d anticipated. That’s something I find fascinating, and an aspect of all this I hadn’t really considered when I wrote the post itself. (So thanks for letting me piggyback it on my reply to your comment, Stacey!)

      To come back around to your point, Stacey, yes: Art speaks to us in different ways at different stages of our lives, and it has value as both an expression of something we’re feeling in the moment (the way your son may be responding to antiauthoritarian themes of Clockwork Orange, a message that appeals to teens) as well as a reminder of something we once felt but have since outgrown (like the innocence and wonder Star Wars evoked, or the violence and misogyny I now find so repugnant in many of the ’80s action films I adored as an adolescent). That’s the complexity of the gift art can give us: It can provide the insight into human nature we need to grow emotionally and intellectually, and it can also serve as a marker of that growth — a reminder of a way we used to feel but no longer do. And for many of my friends — the ones who said they think they may’ve outgrown Star WarsThe Last Jedi serves as an agent of the latter. All that means — and they can and should take heart from this — is the Star Wars they knew and loved now offers a different, less immediate, kind of value to them.

      Thanks so much for chiming in on this; I’ve really been enjoying the conversation this piece provoked, and I’m happy you contributed.

      Sean

      P.S. I’ve never read A Clockwork Orange myself. Saw the movie when I was a kid and found it extremely unpleasant and unappealing. I know it has its ardent supporters, and I’m sure I’d feel differently — certainly more appreciative of it — were I to watch it again (and/or read the book), but I just have no interest in revisiting it, a position I’m sure you second!

      • Sean,

        You’ve brought up so many more wonderful points I don’t want your response to go unacknowledged, but I don’t know what to hit on first.

        I’m wondering if the people at Disney ever sat around a table and discussed who they were really marketing to. Was it everyone and anyone? Old fans, new ones? Did they think about the fact those of us who sat in the theaters in the ’80s would view their movies in one way, and those seeing the movies for the first time, say those born in the 2000s, would want, need, and relate to the story in a completely different way? Just because Mickey Mouse is timeless doesn’t mean Star Wars is.

        Art does speak to us in different ways and at different stages of our lives. And yet, some things, like a song, or a movie, or a book, may always fill our hearts with joy, or make us cringe, and no amount of time or life experience will change that.

        • The short answer — and you should know by now I never just leave it at that! — to your question as to whether Disney/Lucasfilm thought through which audience they were targeting with these new movies is, No, they didn’t. That was the beauty, after all, of this particular $4 billion investment: The brand appeals to everyone!

          I recall when this plan was first announced — a sequel trilogy interspersed with “standalone” entries — that it sounded to me like Disney was taking a postnarrative approach to universe-building, akin to what they’d done so successfully with Marvel, and I questioned whether they fully understood the story mechanics they were so casually invoking. I remember sharing those concerns with colleagues here in Hollywood who unanimously felt the Lucasfilm Story Group had a tight grip on all this, and understood the responsibility they had to restore the brand’s luster after the bitter pill that was the prequels. I was dubious, though.

          I think, as I argued in my response to Erik above, that the narrative schizophrenia of The Last Jedi is very much an unintended product of a story that’s trying to be postnarrative — that is to say, one in which plotlines quite intentionally don’t correlate or resolve — when the saga itself was consciously designed as a classic monomyth. In other words, the filmmakers imposed incompatible story models — with competing worldviews, no less — on Episode VIII, and found the final product didn’t satisfyingly adhere to either.

          But there’s another aspect to all of this I didn’t consciously acknowledge until I starting discussing the matter further here in the comments, and it also goes to the ways different generations view narrativity. First-generation fans (Gen X) who grew up with Star Wars and watched the saga unfold in real time came to The Last Jedi with hopes of seeing Luke Skywalker back in action again, alongside Han and Leia and Chewie. Right or wrong, that’s what we expected. And Rian Johnson, exercising questionable wisdom, basically told those fans to fuck off.

          Whereas for third-generation fans, like my eleven-year-old nephew, the vast history of Star Wars — the one Gen X spent literally a lifetime investing in, waiting patiently for years between movies — is reduced to an on-demand, binged experience: In the span of a few weeks — if even that long — they’ve caught themselves up on forty years of history and they’re ready for the next installment. So the “return of Luke Skywalker” doesn’t carry the same emotional weight or sense of expectation for them, therefore they aren’t disappointed by how he was depicted in The Last Jedi — it’s just one more episode in the never-ending continuum of the saga, right? And they’re not wrong to feel that way — it’s just the perspective they have on the material having made no temporal investment in it. It’s the difference between showing up for the harvest versus having sown the seeds and tended the crops.

          And I don’t believe for one minute Disney — or Lucasfilm, or its president Kathleen Kennedy — took any of that into consideration. I think there was probably a very hubristic sense of confidence in the brand — that, like Mickey Mouse, it’s all things to all people, and so long as we include a little bit of this (new characters), and a little bit of that (old characters), there will be something in it for everyone to like.

          And that is corporate storytelling at it’s absolute worst. Star Wars has proven to be a much trickier brand to manage than they anticipated, because the long history of the saga, dating back to before the Digital Age and the collapse of linear narrativity, means that it means different things to different generations; it doesn’t just automatically appeal to all of them. But there’s no question that if you’re a first-generation fan, and you waited thirty-five years for the onscreen reunion of Luke, Leia, and Han, that ain’t happenin’ now — we’re past that as a possibility any longer — and if you walked away from The Last Jedi disappointed on account of that, my advice to you is to bail out now. ‘Cause the Star Wars you’ve been waiting for is never coming back. With Episode VIII, the last remnants of Lucas’ Star Wars have been swept away.

          It is what it is. We don’t need to be happy about it to accept it and move on. The Last Jedi at least gives us the opportunity to divorce ourselves from Star Wars if we now choose to.

          And to chime in on your last comment: Yes, some works of art speak to us — continue to resonate — throughout all the seasons of our lives. It’s a rare thing, but it does happen. When I guested on the Spinal Tap Minute podcast last summer, I talked about how, for me, Spinal Tap has been the gift that’s kept on giving — that unlike nearly every other interest/hobby I cultivated at the time I was introduced to Spinal Tap (back in junior high school), Tap still intrigues and entertains me. There are a few other artists, and works of art, that remain timeless and relevant to me, and I really do cherish them, because they are few and far between.

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