So, this is the second in a series of essays about Star Wars as a film franchise, and about The Last Jedi in particular. Click here if you wish to get a sense of a wider sweep.
In the previous essay, I laid out a fairly basic reading of the key elements of Star Wars, from the perspective of film form, style, and aesthetics.
Star Wars is made up of various mythological and filmic influences. As a film franchise, it’s basically a remix of Western, Samurai, and space opera. The Last Jedi takes these, keeps most of them wholesale, and then juggles them around a bit — mainly tweaking the plot structure, and then subverting some specific plot devices, tropes, and strategies of characterization.
If that’s all fairly obvious to you, no need to read the last one. Just keep reading here, and you’ll get to the more contentious stuff.
Table of Contents
|1.0. More Contentious Stuff?
2.0. What’s not to like in The Last Jedi?
3.0. The Politics of Style
1.0. More Contentious Stuff?
You see, the tack I took last time was fairly unassuming.
Instead of going:
- “this is good, and this is bad”,
- “This is this, and that is that”.
To which I added:
- “I never really liked that as a kid, but I did like this.”
The natural consequence of such an approach is some form of friendly, self-deprecating “agree to disagree” conclusion.
“We come from different starting points; no wonder we come to different end-points too.”
You’re a space opera fan, I’m a sci-fi fan.
You’re a sci-fi fan, I’m a martial arts/fantasy fan.
You’re a martial arts/fantasy fan, I’m a martial arts/fantasy fan fan.
And that is, at the end of the day, probably the most honest way to look at our various aesthetic preferences. These are usually low-stakes questions, and what is the point of getting into arguments about them — on the internet or otherwise?
Well, that’s the thing. Sometimes there is a point. Sometimes, these aren’t low-stakes questions. Sometimes, our attitude towards art is so inextricably tied to the most important parts of our identity that this neutral, historicist, uncontroversial phrasing is the one that is truly dishonest.
At those points, the way forward is clear. You go out to bat for your team. If you’re reflective about it, you don’t expect to be “objectively right”, from some purely theoretical universal standpoint. Fuck that. Who cares about whomever’s standing on that universal standpoint? If they have an issue with your assertion, they can come down here and face you. Then maybe they beat ten shades of shit out of you, and you repent in dust and ashes. Or maybe you stick to your guns and fall on your sword. Or maybe, just maybe — you well and truly school them. Who’s to say in advance? Fuck it. We may or may not find out.
In the meantime, you assert what you believe in, and open your doors to any misguided challengers who somehow got it into their heads that it would be a good idea to contest you from their own limited, non-universal perspective. Best of luck to them; they’re gonna need it.
So, you simply start off by saying: “This thing is the greatest”.
And if questioned along the lines of “ah, but this is just your personal preference…”, you swiftly follow up with:
And, by extension:
And that’s legit. That’s super legit. There is, in fact, very little that is more legit than that.
…but you do have to ask yourself… “is this what I’m going to bat for? Am I really gonna go all-in for this? I’ve got limited resources of time and energy; is this the place I’m really going to make your last stand?”
And if that place is the aesthetic validity of a Star Wars film… there’s probably bigger fish to fry out there.
And so, when talking about your favorite entry in a pop culture film franchise, it’s probably best to keep things polite. It’s not exactly Gospel, after all. There’s no real cause for a religious war.
………..until that film franchise starts making religious statements. At which point, full jihad, fellas. First of all, in blog-post form. It’s all already there, just waiting to pop off in the essay on Religion. Get hype.
There is another option, though. And that’s not asserting that your view of a film is right. It’s simply pointing out how someone else’s point of view is wrong.
Because there truly is a way to be wrong here. If you can show that someone’s conclusions do not follow from their premises, then you don’t have to suggest that your premises are infallible. You can just point out they’re wrong.
And that’s the purpose of this essay.
To show why people who don’t like The Last Jedi are objectively, undeniably, structurally wrong.
So let’s get to it.
2.0. What’s not to like in The Last Jedi?
So, there is basically only one major criticism of the form and style of The Last Jedi which fulfils both of the following conditions:
- I’ve heard of it.
- It’s not — at first glance — a pile of shit.
(e.g. “It has a black guy and a woman in it. SJW Illuminati confirmed.“)
That one major criticism basically boils down to the feeling that the film is too cold and mechanical. Rian Johnson’s approach has squeezed out all the whimsy from the universe. Where Star Wars used to be fantastical, light, and free, he made it heavy, ponderous, and rigid. This is above and beyond any particular changes to the plot structure or tropes. It is, fundamentally, a question of tone. Amorphous, all-pervasive, and yet distinctly unmistakable.
Gone is virtually every trace of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers spirit.
Before, the world’s circumstances were entirely contingent on the character’s emotions.
When the character, stuck in the middle of disastrous straits, is suddenly lifted by a potent speech or emotional memory into a tizzy of courage and righteous anger… then suddenly the sun dawns behind him (and it was always a “him”) as he vaults over his bunker and charges the thickly-stacked enemy lines with his blaster pistol; they speedily melt before the glory of his unbridled will.
Bazinga. Take that.
When the character is in a humorous mood, the enemy plays along, clumsily mishandling their weapons and bumping into walls as if they could hear the Benny Hill theme tune tinkling away in the soundtrack while the protagonists make their rinky-dinky, magic-up-a-spaceship-from-a-heap-of-scrap-metal-and-some-spit escape.
In fact, why don’t we have one of the bad guys fall comically off a ledge into a bottomless pit? And when they do that… let’s have this hilarious in-joke about making this goofy, goofy sound as they fall to their inevitable and yet excruciatingly delayed death?
But now, under Mr. Johnson’s directorial baton… the circumstances have their own opinion about how things should be run. And this time, it’s pretty hard to argue with. The characters can no longer impose their will on the world, willy-nilly. If a piano is about to fall on your head, it doesn’t matter if you think you’re in the first ten minutes of a romantic comedy; if you don’t move out of the way, you and your romcom fantasy are both going to go splat.
And if a ring of Space Nazis is surrounding your house and you’re in a particularly brave mood… the world will give two shits about your mood. You come out of the house with your pop-gun firing… you’re going to get mowed down by sheet of cold, clean, Aryan steel rain (...although… would Space Nazis in a film made in 2018 actually get their steel from a Space China-corollary, too? Surely corporate fascists wouldn’t be so market-inefficient as to prop up their local steel industry and its base of blue-collar workers. …ok, I digress.)
As a result, the colorful personalities of the oddball cast of characters get drowned out by the still and silent black of the interplanetary void. Outer space being, famously, quite devoid of warmth and air.
And guess what.
The Last Jedi was the first Star Wars film not to use the Wilhelm Scream.
That just about says it all right there.
But hey. That reminds me. Can any of you think of a pulp entertainment genre in which characters are famously colorless in personality, and whose lives are determined entirely by the rigid force of a cruel and uncaring fate which surrounds and determines them?
Maybe a genre that Rian Johnson made his name in? Which he approached with the same half-reverential, half-subversive angle he took to Star Wars? Maybe, you know, the genre of his first feature film?
Oh yeah. That’s right.
All of a sudden, the shift in tone in The Last Jedi starts to feel a little less mysterious.
All he’s done is taken the Western, Samurai, and Space Opera melting pot… and added in a dash of noir sensibility for spice.
And so, in The Last Jedi, everything is rigidly plotted and mechanically executed. The visual style is extremely spare and controlled; less Michael Bay or JJ Abrams, and more David Fincher. And the story takes on the feel of a robotic juggernaut, advancing forward with all the weight of clockwork logical inevitability.
And, turns out, some people didn’t like that.
People like Richard Brody, the lead film critic at the New Yorker.
According to him, the film comes out looking “conspicuously crafted”, in the hands of a director who is “stolid, intelligent, in deft command.” It’s the work of a writer whose plotting “dominates” him. For whom “twist after twist, touch after touch, line after line has the feel of the compulsory, of homework done elaborately, with extreme labor.” The film ends up “ironed out, flattened down, appallingly purified (…) terrifyingly calculated”.
And if you don’t find that particularly amusing, that’s fine. I get it. If you just wanted something light — the visual equivalent to popcorn and cotton candy — then this may not be the film for you. I understand where you’re coming from.
But before we all go home at peace with ourselves and with the world, pleasantly agreeing to disagree… I do have to point out one small thing.
…you do realize this is a WAR FILM, right?
I really, really hate to break it to you. But… what else did you think was going on? I mean… all the characters — 100% of the named characters — are literally fighting in a war. They’re killing people and getting killed. All the good guys are in this army called the Resistance or Rebellion, and the whole plot revolves around fighting this evil empire of Space Nazis. And it’s been like this for 7 whole films now. Goddamn it, why am I wasting my time… it’s THE BLOODY TITLE, for God’s sake!
The really keen-eyed among you, if you’ve read the previous blog post, might have noticed that I kind of failed to mention this. Well, here’s your pay-off. Now’s the time. The last piece of the Star Wars puzzle of influences is: classic war film, centred around fighter pilots taking down. If the overall story structure of the original Star Wars was directly inspired from the Hidden Fortress, then the final, climactic half-hour was taken straight from The Dam Busters.
So now, the cat’s finally out of the bag.
Star Wars is a war film.
Will the wonders never cease?
If pressed, I will confess to being confused that you haven’t cottoned on to this by now. The “secret” has been streaking through our streets all along, genitals flopping most conspicuously.
But in case you hadn’t noticed… now you know.
Why am I assuming people didn’t know that?
Well, remember what I said about outer space? You know what else is famously unwhimsical and uncaring and black and dark and soulless? You know what human pursuit has notoriously little room for hijinks and larks? You know what kind of thing involves terrifying calculations and compulsion and extreme labor and deft command and conspicuous craft?
War. Motherfucking WAR. That’s what.
So why on Earth, or any planet in any bloody galaxy you care to imagine… would you ever go into a film about war and expect anything other than a relatively grim and cold experience?
And even if you didn’t go in expecting that… how the hell is this a surprise to you?
If you make a war film in which all the main characters are using guns and swords and cruisers and fighter jets and bombers to fucking murk people for 100% of the length of the film… and then you start treating it like a little stroll through the park and filming it in the fashion of a funny fairy tale adventure… maybe you’re the one doing it wrong.
Cus you know what you don’t do in a war? Fuck around. You wanna fuck around? Don’t go to war. Cus when you and everyone you know is doing a thing which risks getting them all killed… maybe prancing around in tights and spending all your time making eyes at the pretty boy in your regiment and improvising wildly at every given juncture might not be your best option.
So this is me watching every single Star Wars film until now:
O….K…. I mean, I’ve never been to war… but it seems to me as if they’re treating this awfully lightly. This doesn’t tally with the hundreds of harrowing and clinical accounts of war I’ve spent the majority of my life reading. This is some weird cognitive dissonance. Oh well, whatever. It’s just a film. I’mma put this out of my head, sit through it, try to enjoy it, and see what I can see.
And this is me watching The Last Jedi:
…OK. Everything checks out. Nothing in this seems weird to me. Nothing is particularly jarring or out of place. So I can just sit back and enjoy the film.
But then I come out, and everybody and their mother is like:
Me oh my, that was very grim and that made me feel weird inside and so I didn’t enjoy that.
And I’m just like.
…mate. You know that you could go watch anything else, right? If you want your story to be fun and whimsical, then make it about little girls going into the woods and having an adventure with magical creatures. (The obvious irony is that almost all the stories like that were significantly darker than anything in this film… but more on that later.)
I’m serious. If you want a lot of bright colors, and a lot of whimsy, and a plot which meanders according to the character’s mood and the author’s free, poetic inspiration rather than the rigid demands of a plot modelled after a logical and consistent world… then by Jove, have I got some good news for you.
There’s this guy out there called Hayao Miyazaki. He makes films like that. They’re all amazing.
He’s full of images like this:
You ever look at a stormy sea with waves so threatening they look like boat-sized fishes and think to yourself: you know what would really make sense here? Being able to run along the surface of the water, skipping happily like a child.
Or do you ever think to yourself: you know a country which gets a lot of tsunamis? Japan. You know what would be cool? Using tsunamis as a whimsical backdrop for a little family drama that all resolves neatly and with minimal mechanical efficiency and maximum magical fun.
Well then, I have you covered. Go for a little flight of fancy with Hayao.
Do you want your plots to be less like a sudoku puzzle or an accountant’s ledger, and more like a child’s summer day, where the tone shifts with every lazy wind that may blow a cloud before the sun? Where nothing in the previous scene necessarily determines (or even influences) what the character does next, beyond a vein of numinous daydream-logic so deep it will be largely invisible to you until your fourth or fifth watching?
Did your previous scene revolve around saving a doll from some crows and talking about art with a random young painter lady living in a cottage and then a cat getting help from a preternaturally wise old dog? That’s cool. The protagonist is going to go baking with an old lady now and risk missing a party. And then maybe she’ll just have a lie-down and go look at some clouds drifting in the sky. Cus she can just do that, and the plot can go get stuffed.
…but see, here’s the thing.
When Master Miyazaki gears up to do a war film… you know what suddenly happens?
The plot tightens right the fuck up, that’s what.
Oh, and arms start flying off too. Gotta love that trope.
In Princess Mononoke, there are 4 different factions split into 2 broad (and fractious) alliances, with one mysterious and purportedly all-powerful figure looming mistily in the background, and one central protagonist threading the needle between the other 5 of them in complex, shifting ways. The varying interactions between these players generate a half-dozen main subplots, and as the central protagonist moves through the amazingly cohesively-defined space the action takes place in, he switches between these subplots and advances at least one of them without fail in each scene.
So that’s the “mechanistic plot” angle taken care of.
Now, to the muted, unwhimsical characters whose individuality and personality gets crushed under it.
How many character traits do the main characters each have in Mononoke?
Maybe 1-and-a-half at a stretch.
How do they get to demonstrate this single character trait?
Through strong actions and few words.
Each occupies the stoic Heroic archetype, in varying shades of Nobility,
You can literally infer these characters’ entire personalities from those three stills. Now, excuse me for a second while I change my underwear. Seeing that wolf girl always manages to do a number on me.
The fact that Miyazaki manages to make an epic war film of such mechanical precision while still maintaining such a sense of wonder and natural simplicity is nothing short of monumental genius, and something I am not going to expect from this or any big-studio Hollywood action adventure blockbuster. It’s a balancing act only one of the greatest directors of our or any time could pull off, and one which dovetails perfectly with the overarching theme of this film and Miyazaki’s whole career: a marriage between nature/animals and humans/technology, in which our machines can act like animals without sacrificing their utility (cf. the robots in Laputa), and our people, when there’s a fucking war on, act with the discipline of machines without sacrificing their inalienable nobility and humanity — which is, after all, the utmost attainment of our Martial Arts. In the Way of the Warrior, you become the sword you wield, and the sword you wield is your own self. (…once again, more on this theme later.)
So basically, if you don’t want to watch a war film whose space-age setting cannot entirely vacuum away the smell of gunpowder and sense of soot… then go watch a kid’s cartoon. In fact, go ahead and watch the best kids cartoons, which I believe beyond a reasonable doubt are amongst the very, very greatest films ever made.
…but the thing is… even if you do go to kid’s cartoons by the best and most whimsical director out there… when the time rolls round to get a little serious… I’m afraid you’re going to find the same thing happening over there. If you go to war, then metal and machines will start to creep into your heart; dealing with it by holding to your core and not letting it strangle the love in you is where the trick is.
…and we haven’t even mentioned Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind yet…
Dudes, I’m just itching to write a book or three about Miyazaki.
…you can probably tell.
But as a matter of fact, we don’t need to go so far afield as that. Let’s take the basic mechanic at play here: you take a serious subject, start making fairly flippant, light-entertainment versions of it, then eventually people get bored and want a more mature treatment, and so import in an auteur of sorts to make it grimmer, greyer, and give it more of a message.
…that’s the exact same thing that happened with Christopher Nolan and the Batman franchise.
Hell, that’s the same thing that happened in contemporary popular depictions of the American military in the age of the Iraq War, from Call of Duty to American Sniper.
And you know what? People didn’t seem to have too much of a problem with them. I saw the Dark Knight and American Sniper and thought “well, these are still explicitly conservative-authoritarian in their politics and themes… but hell, they’re better than other Batman films or contemporary depictions of the American military. At least they’re technically accomplished. In terms of form and style at the very least, these are clearly superior works. It would be ridiculous of me to deny that, just because I think these are borderline fascist films.”
But then we come to Star Wars, and a significant proportion of fans, and a not-unsizeable number of well-respected critics, don’t seem to make the same move. Regardless of the political standpoint of the film, they say, they just don’t enjoy the way it was all presented.
What on earth, then, could be the problem here? What’s so wrong with having a war film be a fucking war film? What’s the difference between this film and The Dark Knight or American Sniper?
And then it hit me.
Oh. Oh yeah. Of course that’s what’s going on. What else would ever be going on?
Well then. You know what this means, right?
I have so much to say about this stupid little film that I’m splitting it into three parts: aesthetics, politics, and religion.
And now I’m going to have to spend half the time on the aesthetics part… talking about politics.
No two ways about it, though. It’s gotta be be done. So here we go. Let’s get through it.
…let’s look at one more Mononoke gif before we go though. Real quick-like. Just to tide us over.
3.0. The Politics of Style
So, I’ve picked out Richard Brody, the film critic from the New Yorker, as my major interlocutor in this essay. And the reason why is pretty simple: steelmanning, or the principle of charity. Basically, take the best possible version of your opponent’s position. Richard Brody is a critic I have genuine respect and occasional admiration for; if I’m gonna pick someone to throw stones at, better it be him than some vomit-bot on Twitter.
But the substance of his critique was one I came across constantly.
And this, friends, is the final paragraph of his review. It sums up, in my opinion, everything you need to know about the explicitly technical and filmic criticism levelled at The Last Jedi — and more generally, the problem with the art world as it manifests itself in positions of power: bourgeois, American, white, etc.
And beyond even that, it serves as the perfect example of how it becomes impossible to extricate one value from another — ethics from aesthetics, politics from art.
Now, in “The Last Jedi,” that world has been tamed, tamped down, boxed in, neatly packaged, to a chilling extreme. It fixes its heroes in an abstemious, militarized world of twenty-four-hour-a-day work for mere survival, in which no personal life remains outside the realm of official function, a de-mentalized world that the movie presents, moreover, as appealing. If there’s any artistic unconscious or second level to “The Last Jedi,” it’s in a recurring plot point involving the very notion of mind control. And if there’s a sense of ego built into the movie, it’s with the built-in certainty that its maker and its viewers are on the right side of things. Lockstep consensus is cultivated not with chewily carnivorous troglodytes flaunting wanton violence and cruel spews of gore but with purpose and virtue, devotion and tradition, in the unimpeachable and unexceptionable name of liberation. “The Last Jedi” is a story about the Resistance, but the film itself is a cinematic masterwork of the First Order.
So what’s being said here?
He’s saying this is a fascist film. Even though, on the surface, it’s about a bottom-up rebellion resisting imperial power… the very form and style of the film itself is actually representative of the First Order. And what is the First Order? Space Nazis. This film is a Nazi film.
Why? Because of the aesthetic choices I discussed earlier. There’s no whimsy. Everything is all business. No one has any room for introspection or free thoughts — just doing their job, fighting in the war. Thus, on a symbolic (aesthetic, formal, stylistic) level, it reinforces what on a political and economic level would translate into: “don’t have independent thoughts; don’t have fun; just stay in your cubicle, don your grey jumpsuit, and get in line with the other worker drones”.
OK. Grand. Well then. What do you have to say about American Sniper, then Mr. Brody?
Oh, well there it’s quite different. That film is clever. That film is profound. That film is a serious meditation on the tragedy of how the American military victimizes its poor soldiers. Sure, it may look like it’s actually celebrating American militarism — lionizing it, eulogizing it, mythologizing it. Sure, that’s how everybody else in the fucking world took it, especially the most enthusiastic proponents of more and bigger military interventions — the people who want to turn Syria and Iraq into a glass crater to wipe out ISIS, and nuke the fuck out of Iran before they get a chance to… comply with a nuclear deal to keep them from making nuclear weapons… or… something.
Sure, Fox News conservatives loved the film. But I’m just going to ignore that, and read this film as an extreeeeeemely subtle critique of American militarism.
And what’s that critique? Well, it may make no mention of the unspeakable depredations visited on the civilian Iraqi population by these American soldiers. It may concentrate solely on how unpleasant it is, from a sniper’s perspective, to have to shoot so many people in the head, and how hard that makes it for him to resettle back into civilian life. So, it could look like a total whitewash of American war crimes, with a fetishistic need to concentrate on the proportionally tiniest direct victims of the war when the vast hosts of more obvious victims are condemned to another few decades of silence (you know — the people who got shot in the head, and their families). Cus you know, there just isn’t enough appreciation in contemporary American culture of the sacrifices made by our brave men and women in uniform. Meanwhile, we are just inundated with sensitive, aesthetically robust portrayals of Iraqi orphans whose civilian parents were killed in a drone strike and whose siblings all died from lack of clean drinking water after the Shock and Awe campaign (totally different from terrorism, you understand) levelled the water treatment plant.
So here, we’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Here, the narrow focus on the ascetic military life will be a bold aesthetic choice, enabling us to concentrate on one aspect of the conflict (the virtue of our noble warrior monks) so as to deliver a pointed cinematic experience rather than fritter our attention away with too many different angles on affairs. Here, that will be a serious philosophical manoeuvre to better bring into relief the important moral message of selfless sacrifice to a greater cause when the going gets tough and we are called to put aside our happiness and friends and family in order to effect grand political change.
I can see that. I can take things from your angle in this case. I can see why you wouldn’t rip into the drab, mechanical methods used in this case. I can see why you wouldn’t end your review calling this a fascist, authoritarian, militarist film. Fine. Fine.
…but then…….. Star Wars? ……….The Last Jedi….. is an authoritarian film instead…? That one is the fascist one? That one, you don’t give the benefit of the doubt to? That one’s just a simplistic celebration of unthinking killing machines?
You know what… maybe. Maybe that’s the right way to look at things. Maybe I know very little about film form, and American Sniper is clearly the objectively better-made and more thematically complex film. Maybe the consensus opinion of critics got this one wrong too. Star Wars: The Last Jedi stands at 91% critical approval on RottenTomatoes, while American Sniper‘s gunning at a 72%. But maybe the critical consensus is deluded in this case. Maybe anonymous polls on the internet (famously an excellent and revered metric of artistic quality, not at all dominated by thoughtless trolls) got it right, when they gave The Last Jedi a 48% approval rating, and American Sniper an 84% on that same website.
Or, hey. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe there’s no real through line connecting these pieces, and Mr. Brody just so happened to rate American Sniper, and — totally unrelatedly — just so happened to be repulsed by The Last Jedi.
May very well fucking be.
….but you know what. Something in me doubts that. Something in me — read, every fiber of my body, every particle of my rational faculties, every strand of my aesthetic and moral warp and weft — has a different view of what’s going on.
And this is what that is.
So there’s this thing that happens — particularly among old, rich, white men, but to all of us at some point.
You take someone who is basically a good person. Someone with sound moral intuitions, a basic sense of decency, a bit of a nose for the fresh, clean scent of righteousness, and something of a preference for peace.
To this, we add a strand of abstract intelligence — the will and ability to take this ground of motivation and distil it into a loose but nevertheless useful collage of general principles for action and speech. Something vaguely along the lines of:
- You shouldn’t force people to do unpleasant things.
- You generally shouldn’t kill people.
- And you shouldn’t encourage anyone to do either of those.
Grand. Everything good so far.
…but soon enough, you start to notice a problem. Your fairly nice and acceptably intelligent person is doing something strange. They are applying the principles sometimes… but then sometimes they aren’t.
Weird, you think. And then you look further, and find something very discomfiting.
Not only are they inconsistently applying the principles… they seem to be applying it precisely the wrong way round! When they should be sticking fast to them, they’re nowhere to be seen; and when they should be lenient with them, they’re being a stickler for the rules.
This manifests itself in two ways:
They apply the principle to cases which are comparatively less severe, in and of themselves.
- A has killed 1 of B, while B has killed 10 of A… and our person only criticizes A.
Severity of the case itself aside, they apply the principle when there is no possible benefit to doing so.
- A and B have both killed 10, but A is impervious to your criticism (they’re dead; they don’t speak your language; etc.), while B could understand and be forced to apply your criticism. And yet our person only criticizes A.
So let’s take some examples.
Our generally nice person is an old, rich, white, American man. In America, two things are happening. Largely white police officers are literally shooting and killing unarmed black men. And then black men and women are marching through the streets, chanting slogans and very, very occasionally breaking things. Killing, as far as I am aware, a grand total of 0 people. And yet our generally nice person spends their time criticizing black men and women for being violent and oppressive, and does not see fit to criticize (let alone do anything about) the issues they are protesting: the actual, physical violence and significantly more weighty oppression visited upon black people.
So let me get this straight. America is a society where white people are disproportionately advantaged economically, politically, and socially. They have the most militarized internal police force in the world. This police force systematically targets racial minorities, either killing them or imprisoning them in what represents the single greatest sustained policy of mass internment — per capita and gross — in the world today, and throughout human history.
But it’s the Black Panthers who are the Nazis. It’s Malcolm X who is a hate preacher. It is Marcus Garvey who is a segregationist.
It’s not the white, organized, militarized, powerful sector of society with all the actual authority which is authoritarian. It’s actually the objectively oppressed underclass who, in attempting to resist this state of affairs, more closely resemble the First Order.
And so our nice, intelligent person will apply the principles of not forcing people to do things and not killing people in one case but not the other. And it just so happens to be the case which it would be most useless/counter-productive to apply these principles to.
OK. Let’s have another one.
So we have two sides (apparently). On the one, there is the United States of America — supposedly white, supposedly Christian. On the other, there are disparate swathes of North and Central Africa, West and South Asia, and pockets in Europe and elsewhere… which are Muslim, and Arab/Persian/Kurdish/Turkish/Punjabi/Bengali/Javanese/Sundanese/Chechen, etc. etc……
OK, nevermind. I’ll start over.
There’s Team America. White. Christian. But also secularly Enlightened.
And then there is Team Muslim, who are brown, with a few sneaky whites in the Balkans and the northern parts of Central Asia. They are also backwards, primitive barbarians.
So, in terms of physical violence officially sanctioned by a widely-recognized political or religious body (a nation-state or large-scale clerical institution) or by the Muslim world at large against United States citizens… what have we got? Well, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, in which 8 US servicemen were killed. Past that… I mean, I guess you could say the Battle of Mogadishu (the inspiration behind Black Hawk Down), but that was against a warlord in a decades-long civil war who only subsequently declared himself President (without any legitimisation mechanism, such as elections).
I’m really not being facetious here guys. I’m genuinely struggling to recall occasions in which Muslim-majority nation-states or religious groups with more than a few thousand followers ever explicitly committed or endorsed physical violence against US citizens. I swear, the only example I can even remotely think of is Bin Laden’s famous 1998 fatwa calling for the killing of Americans and their allies. And that was a fringe group among fringe groups, directly representing a few hundred people at the very most.
Which brings us to the next level down: physical violence perpetrated not by groups with any legitimate mandate from anyone at all (whether through elections or the belief and individual institutional identification of a significant number of people — like someone saying “I’m a Twelver Shi’ite Muslim who believes in the authority of the Twelve Imams and their legitimate successors, who are currently the clerics in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran”) against US civilians, but rogue, unrepresentative minorities.
There’s more to go with there. The horror of 9/11, of course. The 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, which together accounted for 224 deaths. And that… pretty much covers it. There were two shootings in 2009 — most famously, Fort Hood, where 13 people were killed. The Boston Marathon bombing – 3 dead. If you want, I guess you can count Benghazi — 4 dead there. No matter how you count it, less than 4000 corpses. That’s 4000 too many, from any principled perspective, of course.
Note, also, these were actions taken by private individuals. There’s nothing an average Muslim person could have done about these. They weren’t asked. They didn’t get to vote for the people who organized them. And the people who organized them do not ascribe legitimacy to the public sphere of newspapers and television channels and non-Islamist websites and such. So there’s no clear mechanism by which a Muslim could exert any influence on their actions.
…now let’s turn to the other side. In terms of official, state-sanctioned violence. By a democratically elected government. On the public record — no rumors or state secrets here. Open, unambiguous examples of physical violence perpetrated by official US institutions against the citizens of the Muslim world.
Jesus fucking Christ.
A history of regime change and election meddling and arming of insurgents so extensive the very thought of going into it now gives me heart palpitations.
Wars in Afghanistan, Iraq. You may have heard of them.
An actual fleet of flying killer robots, which have killed at least 7000 people (including at least 242 children) without any due process. For all we know, every single one of these people were as innocent as the proverbial lamb; there has not been a single case in which the US government has provided an open justification for these killings, let alone a trial.
And then there’s the open abduction, detention, and torture of citizens from over 40 different countries in a nightmareish concentration camp, against every conceivable written and unwritten norm of human rights and international law.
All of these things, committed openly, through official institutions.
And that’s entirely leaving to one side any form of violence more attenuated or ambiguous than literally shooting someone in the fucking face. Things like economic sanctions, or the establishment and enforcement of an inequitable economic system. But we don’t even need to go into that. Which is certainly saying something.
So. If you are an American citizen, you can vote against the people who organized these activities. You can openly state your opinion, in a forum which will reliably reach and influence the people who organized these activities.
…but you know what?
Let’s not do that. Because it’s Islam which is the death cult. That’s what’s really important for us to spend time pointing out.
Sure, any glance at the objective situation would seem to show the opposite being true.
And sure, it is very unlikely that a rich, old, white American man critiquing Islam could lead to a reduction of violence and coercion.
And sure, there are a thousand, extremely direct ways that same person could apply those same principles to reducing American violence and coercion.
But no. Nonono. Muslims. They’re the new Nazis. Islamofascism is the threat. Not the white guys with all the money and the fleet of flying death machines. It’s Islam that deadens you to life and whimsy and imagination and joy. Because all those American army veterans from the War in Iraq are clearly so full of the zest of life, compared to those stupid Sufis with their ecstatic trances and their silly swirling. It’s not putting your poorest citizens through the full metal gauntlet of boot camp, and then systematic murder in a foreign country, that’s dehumanizing and robotic and reminiscent of the First Order. It’s not the American military which creates a world which has been tamed, tamped down, boxed in, neatly packaged, to a chilling extreme. Which fixes its heroes in an abstemious, militarized world of twenty-four-hour-a-day work for mere survival, in which no personal life remains outside the realm of official function, a de-mentalized world which is presented, moreover, as appealing.
Nope. That doesn’t sound like the US fucking military to me, and its portrayal and celebration in contemporary US culture. What that reminds me of is Islam. What that brings to mind is some fucking book of poetry about God. And people having beards, and praying 5 times a day, and not eating during the sunlit hours for one month a year. That’s the real fascism here folks. That’s the robotic, undead ideology causing the world so much harm. That’s where we should focus our moral energies. That’s a really good idea, guys. Let’s all do that.
You must be getting tired of this by now, so we’ll do this last one real quick.
So in the 1970s, a global empire which had just won the Space Race and established itself as (to the best of our knowledge) the first Galactic hegemon in the history of the Milky Way steps up its decade-long intervention in a small third world country to the tune of a full-scale invasion.
It has vastly greater resources, and is the most advanced, mechanized, technological organization the world had ever seen. And it proceeds to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, including hundreds of thousands in a bombing campaign of neighboring Cambodia. And it is fought by a popularly-supported group of resistance fighters, who somehow manage to hold off the most advanced military in the world for years through little more than courage and grim dedication.
So, that’s the Vietnam War.
And the original Star Wars is about that situation.
Don’t believe me? Fine. Check out this article here, or that article there, which says the same thing. Or howbout George Lucas’ interview with the Chicago Tribune, in which he states that Star Wars:
“was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.”
And if you think it stops with the original trilogy, howbout that time he told the New York Times:
“Anakin Skywalker is a promising young man who is turned to the dark side by an older politician and becomes Darth Vader.” He added, “George Bush is Darth Vader. Cheney is the Emperor.”
Or just take it from the horse’s mouth. Look at what Conservapedia has to say about it.
But all authorial intent aside… come on. What’s going in Star Wars?
“A large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.”
Which side do you think the United States most resembles, and which one hedges closer to the VietCong? You decide.
So there we go. We have the US military on one side. And we have a band of communist partisans on the other side.
Who, according to the vast majority of white, old, rich American men for the past 50 years, is the real threat here? The real fascism? The real totalitarianism? The one we should be scared of, and spend all our energy resisting, lest they turn us into soulless murderbots?
Yup. That’s right. It’s communism and its grey jumpsuits that is (a) the real threat, and (b) the one we, as American citizens, should be focusing on. It’s the ideology of desperate freedom fighters resisting an overwhelming technological oppressor that is the dangerous one. That’s what’s gonna influence our youth badly. That’s the moral threat. That’s the quick path to totalitarianism. Not the US military and its global aggression. Nope. It’s the fanatical fervor of people defending their countries and civilian population from obliteration.
So then, the one fucking time we get an American blockbuster action film which is so clearly on the side of the indigenous partisans and not, for once, the evil Empire….. THAT’S the film that makes us uncomfortable. THAT’s the one which we apply our hallowed principles of freedom of thought and nonviolence to. Not the film “American Sniper”. And not… you know, actual American snipers. We don’t protest outside armament factories and boot camps. Nope. The relevant time for a moral courage is……… when you’re watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Because the fact the plot made sense and there weren’t a bunch of zany asides was too much for Milquetoast Liberal McFuckingNuggets here, and his hair-trigger-sensitive moral sensibilities.
Once again, a caveat. The points about the Black Panthers, Islam, and Vietnam were clearly rapidly sketched out. If you don’t already agree with the underlying point, those sections sure ain’t going to convince you. And fair enough. The evidence was too haphazardly collected, and the argumentation, clearly too glib. So if you really think I need to go into greater depth on any of those points, let me know in the comments.
In the meanwhile, we will proceed, and note that everything I’m doing is an attempt to explain a perspective and analytical approach, not eventually justify or prove it (which would, perforce, take a more serious form than a rambly review of a Star Wars film).
Where have we arrived at?
Basically, a situation in which someone applies their moral principles in one case and not another. And not the right way around.
So how did we get here?
Remember, we started with the premise that our interlocutor was a basically good and intelligent person. And I earnestly believe that. Richard Brody is, I’m sure, a fine person, and not a raging asshole. And our general case — our theoretical decent old white dude — is certainly a basically good and intelligent person. Because I defined him that way.
So why does our theoretical decent individual act this way?
Well, there are two major mechanisms at play here.
They don’t have an independent, over-arching understanding of when it’s relevant to level political or moral criticism.
And, even more crucially:
in the absence of an over-arching understanding which they spent significant time and effort trying to come up with on their own, they default to their society’s standard understanding of when it’s relevant to level political or moral criticism.
At this point, it only becomes necessary to add:
…with all the baggage that entails. Namely, that this understanding might reflect the interests of the sectors of society with most power and authority. Not those with the least power and authority.
And there you have it, folks. The crux of this essay, in a nutshell. The basic factor underlying the major aesthetic critique of this film. And a perfect example of what people are really talking about whenever they throw around phrases like “bourgeois art“.
What I’m referring to here is the following intuition.
You say you dislike something on ethical or aesthetic grounds. But you are unable to perceive how what really underlies that is a certain political stance. And that is because you fundamentally know very little about politics — or at least, do not have a robust understanding of its structure and influence in other realms of human cognition (like ethics and aesthetics).
It’s like someone who isn’t familiar with the basic logic of modern medicine, and is unable to tie their anger and frustration to the fact they haven’t eaten in a while. They’ll say it’s because of something in the content of the situation. And to them, it will genuinely appear that way. But as soon as they accept the ability of physiology to act as a determinant factor in psychology, they’ll stop making that basic error. They will know the workings of their mind well enough to question their immediate narrative — that something or someone in the world outside is the main thing making them upset.
They will, in a word, tell you that they’re just “hangry“.
But someone unfamiliar with the notion that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their physical existence that determines their consciousness” will be categorically unable to observe their own reactions from the structures of their physical existence, and will be forever subject to them in extremely predictable ways.
And as with physiology, just so with sociology. Just like the systematic, scientific, materialist understanding of how your physical body can determine your conscious thought will allow you to distinguish your more universally applicable intuitions from those which only hold water when you’re hungry….
the systematic, scientific, materialist understanding of how the physical and ideological structures of the body politic can determine your conscious thought will allow you to distinguish your more universally applicable intuitions from your history of political brainwashing.
Let’s take another example. Say I’m watching a hip hop video, and the chorus features a bunch of black men jumping up and down and making vigorous physical gestures. And say I start to feel uncomfortable. What am I likely to say?
“Oh, it’s the limited and repetitive nature of the music that’s making me uncomfortable. It’s the violence of their gestures, and its celebration of a culture of thuggery and base materialism (in the sense of get money, fuck bitches).”
Alright. But let’s say I am familiar with the deeply embedded racist tropes prevalent over decades and centuries of American and Western culture, which have associated black men with violence and a lack of intelligence/spirituality, etc. At that point, I’ll go:
“You know, I’m probably just suffering a bit from structural racism.”
And at that point… I’ll stop judging it based on biased premises, and actually listen to the music, and find that it’s no more repetitive and limited to the popular rock music I listen to, and their gestures are no more violent than any other vigorous dance moves, and the lyrics are celebrating a culture of thuggery and base materialism no more than any other pop and rock lyrics. And then, I’ll either pass over it peacefully to a kind of music I like more… or, more likely still, I’ll get the fuck over myself and learn to love hip hop.
Cus that’s the magic of this scenario. As with many things, simply picking out the cause of a mental motion very often eliminates the mental motion entirely.
Simply realizing you’re hangry… often stops you being angry at all.
Simply realizing you are suffering because you are caught up in the wheel and web of karma… eliminates the suffering wholesale. Fuckin’ magic, that one.
Understanding the structural (usually social and physical) causes of your Self generally emancipates you from them — to a large extent in the very instant of the insight.
Simply being able to pick out the cultural narratives at play behind and within you changes your base perceptions — if not immediately, then very swiftly afterwards, by force of repeated habit.
…but the failure to do so works just the same way.
Decades of subjecting yourself without rigorous questioning to the systematic biases of your culture and society will mean that, come old age — with its slowing of raw cognitive capacities and its entrenching of lifelong beliefs — your society’s politics will be so intrinsically interconnected with things it has no necessary connection with (your sense of beauty and appreciation of film form) that you will be entirely unable to pick them apart.
You will see a normal Hollywood action film set in wartime and be unable to notice how, when it puts itself on the side of real American war criminals, you view it as a formalistic tour de force… and when it puts itself against their fictionalized corollaries, you view it as a fascist sleeper agent, menacing the minds of our youth with its unassuming, configurational authoritarianism.
That’s the consequence of living in society dominated by bourgeois (read, rich), corporate, militaristic power structures. That is the long-term, diffuse effects of a lifetime’s subjection to real, true-blue, highly effective propaganda.
And that’s fundamentally what’s going on here.
Dislike the film because you disagree with its politics… fine. We’ll have that debate in the next blog post.
Dislike the film because you disagree with its spirit — because you think it has lost the core of the Star Wars feel and philosophy — fine. We’ll have that debate in the blog post after that.
However. Dislike the film because of its basic structure as a film — its pacing, its plotting, its composition and color….. and I will be suspicious.
If you’re an Art Cinema aesthete who only breathes the most rarefied air of film form, subsisting entirely on a diet of Vertov, Dreyer, Bresson, and Ozu… fine. That’s OK. I get you. If you were to ask me, I’d think it might be getting a little stuffy up there. But no problem. So long as you’re breathing comfortably — you do you.
But tell me you liked the other Star Wars films… and I’ll be doubly suspicious.
Then tell me you liked American Sniper… and… well… that’s it. Toys out of the pram. Table flipped over. Fuck it. You’re a shill for the Man, and the fact you don’t know it is no excuse for your genteel advancement of his agenda.
I saw Star Wars, and liked it. I thought it was fairly pretty, pretty politically on-point, and pointed towards a deep and fascinating set of ideas about the universe and humanity’s place in it.
I thought I’d start telling you about how it was fairly pretty. To do so, I pointed out a few other things that are fairly pretty. Firstly, because that’s easier than explaining filmic prettiness from square one. And secondly, because the Star Wars franchise, perhaps more than any other series of films, is so explicit and direct in its borrowing from other kinds of prettiness.
But while explaining that filmic prettiness, I realized that, if I were to be honest in the expression of my ideas, I’d have to point out how politics intrudes on aesthetics. Because if one is unaware of this point, one will inevitably, sooner or later, start to confuse the one for the other.
And now, that point is made. And thus, I can continue. And I’ll continue by examining in detail what the film actually has to say about the politics of the real world.
But not today. 8,000 words is quite enough for today.
If, however, you wish to continue on next week… Well then, let me keep you updated.
Sign up to my mailing list, or follow me on Twitter, or do whatever you wish to do to keep in touch.
Best of luck, lots of love… and of course… may the Force be with you.