Issue #31, March 1997
Star Wars: the Music
I always think of Black people when I think of Star Wars. No, not because of malt liquor-crooning Billy Dee Williams' appearance in the second film; because of them baffling me with Star Wars' music.
My high school crowd in the early 1970s musically gravitated to Brian Eno's churning synthesizer bleeps in Roxy Music, which along with silver padded upholstery on the record cover, conjured up a British sort of retro-Sputnik Art Rock style (when — according to Ron Howard — we were supposed to be home worrying about the fate of Apollo 13). We all knew about spacy post-Coltrane Black jazz but I sure had to be in a special mood for it.
Sun Ra's Intergalactic Arkestra made a movie in 1972 Space is the Place in Oakland, California that set his expressive astronomical jazz themes in the context of inner-city programs and grass-roots Black Power politics, though the movie got little theatrical release at the time if any (it's now available on video-try Tower). A college film enthusiast, I wore the '70s cinaste snobbery that kept me out of mainstream theaters, studying instead only the foreign, obscure, independent or Camp. Sure, I'd read that George Lucas — whose low-budget THX 1138 was a rare bright spot among sci-fi movies in a decade usually more comfortable crafting a lame Flash Gordon remake (or the horny comedy Flesh Gordon) — was making a swashbuckling space story, but I didn't put much faith in it. I'd been taught that Jean-Luc Godard was smarter and more political.
Nearing the end of college in the New Hampshire woods four years later, I knew of no contemporary music with any outer space in it. The smooth Disco or bombastic Arena Rock most radio stations played was as ground-hugging as the Cadillac Eldorado of the era. You really had to scan the outer reaches of the radio dial to find the sole exception, George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic Mothership, blasting around the country to nearly all-Black venues.
Now 1977, my final undergraduate year, my window looked out on to the Black students' residence hall. Where people listened to Stevie Wonder, Kool and the Gang, the Ohio Players, some James Brown and the JBs, right? Not watching TV or attending mainstream theaters where I might've seen previews of Star Wars, I didn't associate Lucas' latest project with that odd music now coming out of several windows. Its first few measures sounded like the soundtrack of Born Free, from a '60s movie about lion cubs. That's odd ... It then went into a tweedling Dixieland passage (years later employment in a San Francisco neighborhood bar made me appreciate "Star Wars'" clever bar scene from whence this came, as I remain surprised the bar scene never spun off into its own movie or TV sitcom). Most peculiar indeed. Then on to more swooping, stirring symphonic passages. Hmmm ... what are they listening to over there?
Evidently those Black collegiates had returned home after the previous semester ended — probably to one of the big cities like New York, Boston or Washington DC where the movie had first opened — bringing back the soundtrack album of the hippest new movie there. Maybe it was brought by freshpersons still as excited and somewhat anxious about their upcoming experience in a mostly-white college as they would be if about to conquer a hostile Death Star.
Maybe I'm romanticizing things, for perhaps those Black students moved, grooved to the movie's mercurial medley for a while just as many white or other people did, then moved on. Or somehow at that still-optimistic moment in African-American history the symphonic soundtrack spoke to them (and John Williams is NOT Stevie Wonder), and — hokey as the meandering music sounded to me, ignorant of its "Star Wars" context — in it they found an evocative, heroic and empowering space.
Where's the Mashed Potatoes?
Like many others, I trotted on down to the theater recently to take part in the Star Wars Revival. I had shown the movie to a class I was teaching last summer, so it was fairly fresh in my mind. While I enjoyed it this time, as I had last summer and as I had back in the day when I stood in the long lines to see it in its initial run, I also have had pretty much the same response to it at every viewing. (I am speaking here of the first movie; I like the second better than the other two, didn't much care for the third, but I don't remember any of them changing my mind about what follows.)
Basically what I want to know is, where is the sense of awe and wonder? With all of this Force crap, many people talk about Star Wars as some kind of religious text, but I don't get it. Mythological, sure, but religious? For me, religion helps us get in touch with the awesome infinity of the universe, forces us to understand there is something larger in the world than the ordinary. I'm not a believer in religions, but I can suspend disbelief at the movie theater, and have often responded emotionally to religious movies, perhaps especially science-fiction movies that regularly feature worlds and beings out of the ordinary.
I don't see much of this in Star Wars. I see special effects, which certainly were dazzling in their day (and extremely influential, as many have pointed out during this revival, where George Lucas gets blamed for all the techie excesses that followed). I see myth, as in cardboard characters standing in for archetypes. But I don't see awe, I don't see wonder, I don't see anything that takes us out of the ordinary. For a futuristic fantasy, it's damned retrograde, owing more to cowboy movies than anything else.
Let me put it this way. There is more awe, wonder, and religion in the simple scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind where Richard Dreyfuss plays with his mashed potatoes than there is in the entire Star Wars saga. That's what's missing from Star Wars, the mashed potatoes.
Confessions of a Sci-Fi Dweeb
The last time I saw Star Wars was when it first came out. I was 16 years old and a major sci-fi dweeb (still am — a major sci-fi dweeb that is). I saw it twice in its opening week and then I never saw it again, not on cable, not on video, not on its 15th anniversary. Not again. Until three weeks ago, when I went to see it in a packed matinee theater full of children and nasty grown-ups, and whose THX wasn't working. I think the deck was stacked against me, but ...
I find I'm left with the same question I had all those years ago: why do we like the Rebel Alliance instead of the Empire? Yes, the sexy stars of the movie — a very young but quite good Mark Hamill, a Harrison Ford who still hadn't grown into his head, and a Carrie Fisher with lock-jaw — were fighting for the rebel alliance and they kept telling us that the Empire was bad and that they really hated the Empire. But come on, I mean I know empire is a buzzword for "BAD PEOPLE" but still. Think about it. The Rebel Alliance had nice old men (and one lone woman) sending young boys to die for the cause and the Empire had nasty old men (and no women) sending faceless young men to die for the cause and I honestly don't know why I'm supposed to like one over the other.
Please don't tell me it's because the bad guys wear black; I wear black. Besides, most of the imperial storm troopers wore white, didn't they?
Maybe I'm missing something. Perhaps there's a qualitative and quantitative difference between the number of people available to be killed on a Death Star that's as large as a planet and the numbers of people who live on a planet? Why is it okay to root for the Rebel Alliance to kill everyone on board the Death Star, but not okay for the Empire to destroy Alderaan?
I'm afraid the Force is just not with me. And after years of watching the warp effect on Star Trek: TNG, the special effects don't grab me either (but Jabba, now he did — he was cool).
Don't get me wrong, Star Wars was fun. But it wasn't great and considering the impact this movie has had on the masses, it quite frankly should have been.
The George Lucas Sensorium
In the years since Star Wars was released, George Lucas has perfected state of the art movie sound systems — Dolby THX and dts digital sound — and has helmed one of the movie industry's most successful special effects studios, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Rather than releasing movies after Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983, Lucas devoted all his time to these projects, provoking bewilderment in moviegoers who wondered why he wanted to work on sound and image effects when he could be creating another Star Wars. Now, after over a decade of hopeful rumors, the next three installments in the Star Wars series are underway, and the original Star Wars trilogy has been tarted up with new ILM special effects and re-released to phenomenal box office sales. So, why the wait?
Lucas has said that he didn't want to do Star Wars over again until he could "get it right," with the kinds of effects he wished he'd had in the original. But his interest in special effects goes far beyond making old movies look better. George Lucas has been trying to create a new sensorium for his audiences, enhancing and changing their ways of seeing, hearing, and even feeling motion pictures. Ads for Lucas' Dolby THX made this clear: after a huge, psychedelic noise swoops from speaker to speaker around the theater, the movie screen asserts, "The audience is listening." This isn't just a bland statement of the obvious. It's almost an order, a command that the audience should be listening in a new way, with senses they did not possess before.
Hundreds, even thousands, of movies have been fitted out with Lucas' sound systems, and cineplexes proudly advertise which of their theaters feature THX or digital sound. When a new movie comes out, my friends and I often pick which time we'll go see it based on when it will be shown in digital, and I suspect we're not alone. Furthermore, we always know that the effects are probably not going to be too shabby if they're done by ILM.
What is Lucas doing to us by making us see through his effects, and hear through his sound systems? Quite simply, he makes audiences feel differently about what they're watching at a physical level — he creates narratives which we experience in our bodies, not just in our minds. With digital sound, we can literally feel the roaring of spaceships in our vibrating muscles; with ILM's morphing technology, we can see bodies melt and unmelt, and watch dinosaurs eat people with gory realism. What our minds tell us is unreal, our senses find absolutely believable. Experiences with Lucas' sound and vision might explain the peculiar way many of us remember Star Wars, and other special effects movies of the 1980s and 1990s. We often forget their narrative content, instead recollecting them as pleasurable/creepy invasions of our bodies, feelings which we enjoyed as fiction and now remember in our bones.
Psychiatrists say that "body memories" are the most difficult to dispel. People who have been traumatized physically remember the trauma more often through sensations than through coherent narratives. This is why so many victims of sexual assault cannot bear to be touched for long afterward — physical sensations bring back what they have experienced and force them to remember. When Lucas plays with our bodies through digital sound and impossible visual effects, one might say that he is implanting body memories. Hearing cars crash, we suddenly remember spaceships. Watching a cat race up a tree, we are reminded of dinosaurs. Our sensorium has been changed dramatically, for we associate old sounds and images with new sensations, and vice versa.
I suppose the George Lucas sensorium could be described as merely another high tech method for suspending disbelief. After all, artists have often tried to manipulate their audience's feelings using subtle and overt forms of "special effects" like repulsive language, erotic scenarios, and humorous situations. Our bodies can respond physically to pornography and to sitcoms, and it would seem that we are none the worse for it. Yet Lucas has taken these techniques one step further, developing discrete media which generate "feelings," rather than stories which arouse feelings through narrative. What I mean is that Lucas' sensorium can exist outside the movies which feature it — the audience will listen, as it were, even if there is nothing coherent to hear. Lucas' effects are detachable feelings, easily slapped onto any movie, guaranteed to make you remember certain stories at a gut level, without thinking critically about them.
What good are feelings detached from their context? As any good drug dealer knows, they are worth money. People pay millions of dollars to get a tingly, joyful rush from cocaine and a benevolent contemplativeness from marijuana. But when we pay now to see the old Star Wars trilogy revamped with Lucas' incredible special effects, and the new trilogy at the turn of the century, we won't just be getting a hallucinatory thrill ride for our money. We will be taught to remember — and feel — the late twentieth century in certain ways. In our eyes and muscles, we will remember military engagements between good and evil, in which good always triumphs through well-timed explosions. We will remember riding high-speed rocket cars through the jungles of a planet where the squeaky, furry natives are happy to be colonized. And we will remember how satisfaction feels, as music erupts in speakers all around our heads in the theater, and we gaze out at rows of armed troops, in hierarchical formation, awaiting the command of their monarch.
I do not want to remember the twentieth century as a military triumph, but even I, with all my leftist education and critical self-consciousness, can feel it. My body refuses to forget.
A New Hope
Star Wars is my earliest memory, credits rolling the wrong way up the screen, lasers flashing over a score sparkling with operatic drama. I was three. I saw it with my parents at a drive-in. What I remember most from that first time are the feelings, raw emotions, FEAR of the Storm Troopers, Darth Vader and the rest of the imperials replaced with JOY when the heroes won, removing the fear. Since then, Star Wars has been a major recurring theme in my life. In sequence: First the toys, then the sequels and late nights on the Movie Channel, video rentals, video games, Star Tours at Disneyland and now (finally) the re-release: Opening night my girlfriend thought she lost her ticket. The ushers weren't going to let us in. I cried.
The first time I ever tasted debt it was to a Star Wars toy. I remember my parents and I were in Spokane, Washington, about sixty miles from our home town. It was the nearest place where you could find a Toys R Us. A new toy had just been released — I hadn't even seen commercials for it yet. It was the ATAT (All Terrain Armored Transport), one of those giant Imperial Walkers that come humping across the snow like enormous metal cows at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. This toy stood two feet off the ground and was about two and a half feet long. It could fit up to ten storm troopers in its belly, had lasers which actually flashed and moved and a head which you could operate via a control arm on the inside. I had to have it, but it was sixteen dollars more than the toy I had originally planned to buy.
It took most of the day to beg the money off my parents. Finally, they agreed to give sixteen dollars worth of credit. That's sixteen weeks of allowance at a dollar a week.
"Sixteen weeks!" I was later quoted as saying. "That's over a year!"
Nevertheless, I paid my debt and I still have the ATAT. But thinking about these childhood financial matters makes me wonder if all that excitement, all those feelings of FEAR and JOY, weren't just an enticement.
Star Wars has always been my favorite movie. It is a movie which I have worshipped and my method of worship has always been product consumption. If I can be seen as representational, then Star Wars, for all its action, is really just the heart of a publicity campaign for itself, a spectacle creating a vacuum of need, pulling cash towards itself in exchange for an army of inessential, yet highly desirable, crap. Like a little black hole, generating less light than it absorbs, Star Wars cost far less than it has taken. Furthermore, if this exchange really is the heart and purpose of the films, then the re-release is nothing but a re-iteration, a little kicking of the generator, to get things spinning again.
And I don't know about you, but it sure works on me.
Since I am in Berlin, I haven't be able to take part in the Star Wars re-release spectacle. At least not yet. Luke, C3PO, Darth Vader and all the rest will eventually make their way across the Atlantic, and knowing the German dubbing companies they will be outfitted with the least appropriate voices imaginable. Instead of sounding rebellious and heroic, even if somewhat harried, Han Solo will probably sound like one of the many plodding, excessively not-very-interesting bureaucrats who pain my existence whenever I interact with the leftovers of the German welfare state. I can't say that I miss this latest Star Wars experience, though. Indeed, when I first saw the trailers last Summer, I remember having a decidedly sour reaction to the news. I thought it was a cynical move on the part of the Lucas entertainment juggernaut to line George's pockets, pockets, according to the stories I had perused, already overflowing with cash.
Looking back on it, I did not identify with who I was supposed to identify with in Star Wars. Being eight at the time and not yet fully in contact with my maleness I wasn't particularly interested in Luke Skywalker, the intergalactic Aryan. Nor was I interested in sex enough to spend time ogling that foxy lady with a light saber, Princess Leia, which isn't to say that I didn't find her attractive in my own pre-pubescent way. No, I was fascinated with the machines in Star Wars. The way in which technology defined the very identities of the two warring nations in the film colonized my imagination, and for months after first seeing the film I amused myself by drawing the various spaceships and instruments of oblivion used by the rebels and the Empire.
This reaction is perhaps no surprise, given that I was socialized in late 1970s and 1980s during the second Cold War. In the shadow of détente failure and the increasing hostilities between the US and the Soviet Union, I experienced the threat of extermination through the technologies of nuclear warfare as very real and very immediate. The theme at the heart of Star Wars, however trite, namely that technology could be a powerful force for good if only used by the right people and embedded in a system of belief provided no small amount of solace in the face of scenarios of nuclear destruction with which I was confronted.
With the Internet, bio-technology and now cloning, the subject of technology is again on the political agenda. And again the political pundits and other people who talk too much are forecasting either the imminent collapse of civilization at the hands of these new technologies, that is, the age of the Death Star, or the beginning of a new technologically advanced stage of human development. Missing from this debate is a notion that technology is not simply an object we use or mis-use, but also something that we ourselves produce through our social and political relationships. These relationships significantly determine technology's impact in our lives. The problems, and by extension, the opportunities opened up by new technologies cannot be confronted by obliterating the evil technology or using technology according to some golden rule, but through a politics of technology that shapes our social and political lives along the lines of justice and less along the lines of profit.
I Ate Nachos with Darth Vader
Recently, I thought that I could actually feel the Force flowing through me during a visit to Taco Bell. Obi-Wan said that the Force controls your actions, but it also obeys your commands. It didn't take me long to realize that the Force, in this case, was the cash in my pocket. And as I sidled up to place my order I distinctly sensed that PepsiCo, Taco Bell's parent company, was counting on me to, in the words of that cloaked guru, ...let go of [my] conscious self and act on instinct. So I drew upon my Jedi knight's instincts, deeply ingrained since the tender age of 7, and ordered a #2 combo.
I must have seen Star Wars thirty times or more, though it's no longer something to brag about (yet, I do remember some boastful episodes as a kid). I was every bit as excited as millions of other adolescent boys by the action and adventure of this film, or more accurately this product, that heralded a revolutionary new potential of marketing options. But I was unprepared, twenty years later, for the gradual maturation of this marketing approach, which was now drawing upon what had become some acutely immediate chapters of my personal history . Something that I had made a part of me during those countless hours in rapt attention to the movie screen was now being used as a tool for suggesting an order of NachosBellGrande. Ad agencies have been using nostalgic cultural memorabilia toward the same end since at least the early eighties, primarily relying on pop hits of the 60 as background music for car ads and the like. And in spite of my well-formed, slowly built callous to such techniques, this time they somehow broke through.
As I sat down to my NachosBellGrande, I could not help feeling a more distinct sense of loathing at this latest triumph of mass-marketing excess. Perhaps it was the life-sized cardboard cutout of Yoda mocking me, reminding me of the power of the Force. I thought I had seen it all, but I was grossly mistaken. While pondering this as I ate, what I finally realized was that the approach itself had not changed much. What had changed was me. Though I hadn't realized it before, I was now old enough to be included with the other millions of adults who have a vast personal history composed of cultural artifacts of mass media that can be used as a marketing tool. Those TV commercials which relied on oldies to sell luxury autos to my parents had always rung hollow precisely because I could not identify with their cultural history from personal experience. Yet, even though I was quite consciously aware of this, I had never had this technique targeted at me before, using as its tools the home grown, personal media library in my head. About this time, the speakers overhead stopped blaring the standard bland pop music fare and erupted with the familiar strains of John Williams opening title sequence, confirming my conclusions.
Doubtless, my nachos will never quite seem the same again, now that I've been reminded from whence the true power of the Force derives and all the associated consequences. In the near future, I fully expect to see Saturday Night Fever or ET undergo a magical nostalgic rebirth to motivate me to buy super size fries and non-dairy confections. But nothing will quite compare to the bizarre experience of crunching into the heavy cheese as the strident tones of Darth Vader's March blared all around me.