George Lucas, The Force Awakens, and Fairy Tales (and Bruno Bettelheim)

star-wars-new-trailerBelow some ideas that came up while preparing for a show hosted by the supersonic Christopher Lydon on The Force Awakens. Link to the show is at the end.

“The Force Awakens”: Once upon a Time

In directing the latest installment to the Star Wars films, J.J. Abrams has taken to heart Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new.” His requel (both a sequel and a reboot of the Star Wars films) hits the refresh button in ways that enable the franchise to live on and replicate itself for generations to come.

Like George Lucas, who sat under an oversized photo of the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein while writing the first Star Wars film, Abrams is a master of montage. But more than that, he has taken a leaf from Lucas’s playbook and turned himself into what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a bricoleur, a mythopoeic director who takes bits and pieces of what is close at hand to create something new (it’s no coincidence that Rey is introduced as a scavenger).

“The Force Awakens” may be something new, but is it original, daring, and inventive? Did the first Star Wars film create a new mythology, as NYT film critic Roger Copeland declared in 1977, or is it just a postmodern pastiche signaling a sense of gloom and exhaustion when it comes to creativity?

Star Wars has always had a self-reflexive edge—what goes by the name of “meta” these days. It is a mash-up of space opera, samurai movie, western, and war film, also paying homage to films and television productions ranging from The Wizard of Oz and Flash Gordon to Casablanca and Metropolis. In its most recent iteration, it engages in a sly nudge, nudge, wink, wink game of self-referential jokes, as in the golden moment when Harrison Ford turns to his furry sidekick and says, “Chewie, we’re home.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone so immersed in film. I have an idea he goes to bed in it, wrapped up in it, you know, the actual material.” Alec Guinness was not joking when he described his friend George Lucas as a man devoted to his craft. Is it any surprise that Lucas would make a richly allusive series of films that recycle the tropes and give a tip of the hat to the films he loved? And the Star Wars films, unlike many other cinematic franchises including Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, the Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and the Twilight saga, has no real textual story base—even if Lucas claimed that his real inspiration came from reading comic books as a ten-year-old.

Still, there is also a dark side (as it were) to all the talk about postmodern playfulness and sophisticated hyper-referentiality in the Star Wars film. “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it,” Harrison Ford complained on set to the director. The film has also been seen as a mélange of dreadful dialogue, flat characters, and absurd sidekicks and gizmos with narrative circuits as banal as they are borrowed. Consider the opening crawl: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”

Now a Disney franchise, The Force Awakens does what Disney does supremely well, turning itself into a platform for selling toys and costumes. Even before Disney, toys were a regular part of the Star Wars world and wookiees coexisted peacefully with storm troopers in the long lines on opening night for each new episode.

Blame it on Joseph Campbell if Star Wars fails to deliver fully on the promise of a new mythology. Or can we? The Golden Bough, a study of mythic beliefs by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, was evidently also on Lucas’s reading list, even while he was poring over Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and learning about the twelve-step program for the Hero’s Journey.

“Look around you, ideas are everywhere,” George Lucas once said, and it soon becomes clear that he was never just a cinephile. When he claimed to be building “something unusual” about “whatever was to hand,” he was thinking in the broadest possible terms. While working on the third draft of the Star Wars script, he read Campbell and decided to make his film fit more into “the classic mode.” But he was also reading Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, which championed the therapeutic value of fairy tales (and read many of the stories as enactments of Oedipal dramas).   Channeling Bettelheim, he worried that there was “a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales, and kids need fairy tales.”

“Young people today don’t have a fantasy life anymore, not the way we did,” Lucas once stated. “All they’ve got is ‘Kojak’ and ‘Dirty Harry.’ . . . All the films they see are movies of disasters and insecurity and realistic violence.” Young people, he added, no longer have fairy tales.

Children, like adults, need symbolic worlds in order to navigate the real, and fantasy can be the place where they are most at home. We may dismiss them as escapist fictions, forgetting that jailers are the only ones against escape. Quest narratives give us something primal: heroic figures suffering from nostalgia, uprooted from a world that has turned toxic and in search of a new place to call home.

It was the genius of George Lucas to create a “once upon a time” that is long ago and far away, not in the here and now, and not even on planet Earth. “I put this little thing on it: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . .’ Basically it’s a fairy tale now. Star Wars is built on top of many things that came before. This film is a compilation of all those dreams, using them as a history to create a new dream.”

Watching the films today, you never quite know where you are, a fact that goes far toward explaining the film’s global appeal. Mix universal applicability in with a palliative narrative that is cozily familiar and filled with hi-tech wizardry and low-tech gags (where else can you fix a space ship with a screwdriver?), and you suddenly have a generational totem for the ages. In the decades to come, the conflicts between the Rebel Alliance/Resistance and the Empire/First Order will remain as robust as the domestic drama that pits father and son against each other.

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