Forrest Wickman has an outstanding article, currently featured on Slate, called “Star Wars is a Postmodern Masterpiece,” where he efficiently itemizes the original film’s many influences. It’s all been said before, but it’s nicely formatted with properly condensed film clips and clever before-and-after pictures like those of the original “Danish Girl” – namely, Queen Fria of Flash Gordon who inspired Princess Leia’s famously pastry-like hairdo. But here’s the rub, Forrest, rub: with a title like “Star Wars is a Postmodern Masterpiece,” you need to explain just a little more about Star Wars’ postmodern aspects. Let me help.
Wickman’s article amply covers the big influences: Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, John Carter, Dune, The Hidden Fortress and other jidaigeki, Metropolis, The Triumph of the Will, Casablanca, The Searchers, Lawrence of Arabia, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and fictional and nonfictional films about aerial dogfights. Wickman goes on to explain that viewers and critics in 1977 “understood they were seeing something that sliced and diced cinema history in a new and interesting way” and that Lucas’ somewhat original style of pastiche cast the widest possible influence over Hollywood.
All true; all valuable. But postmodernism is not only about pastiche of old forms into something new; it’s also about the disruption of the once-clear relationship between author and reader/viewer. We might say George Lucas invited a revisionist impulse the first time he glommed the words “Episode IV: A New Hope” onto the scroll that begins old prints of Star Wars. We might also say that because George Lucas was the first screenwriter/director with any sort of budget to invent an entire universe out of whole cloth (and not base it directly on pre-existing material, however deeply Lucas was indebted to indirect borrowing), he made scores of filmmakers – and armies of fans – say “I can do that” or “I can show my appreciation for that.” In the early days, this was sometimes as simple as dressing up at conventions (what’s now called cosplay) or playing the stand-up arcade Star Wars. But in the internet era, well, we’ve got all sorts of fan edits, discussion boards, and everything else seen in the film The People Versus George Lucas. Even before there was fanfiction.net, there were thousands of nerds, paid and otherwise, writing stories set in the Star Wars universe.
If Star Wars didn’t exist, we would have had to invent it. Lucas responded to a cultural need that many of us didn’t know we had, for redone myths, for whiz-bang space epics, for humans and aliens and robots (droids) living together in grumbling, messy disharmony. Every Yoda imitation that comes out of nowhere, every time a beginner gets called “padewan,” Star Wars proves itself to be a story our culture keeps telling itself in ways large and small. In that sense it’s more than just a cinematic franchise. That’s not necessarily a compliment. Last summer, when Disney announced plans to create a “Star Wars Land” in several of its theme parks, every paid writer on the subject noted that this was Disney’s attempt to compete directly with the very popular “Harry Potter’s World of Wizardry” lands, and some were skeptical that Disney could replicate Potter-Land’s crowds, but none (that I read) managed to suggest why: other than the canonical books and movies, Potter fans have nowhere else to go – no TV cartoons, no “for junior readers” books, no comics, no other narratives with which to slate their Potter thirst. By contrast, Star Wars is absolutely overflowing with canon: literally hundreds of Jedi cartoons, thousands (yes, thousands) of supplementary books of all sorts.
To call Star Wars a postmodern masterpiece requires that we acknowledge its unique status as a palimpsest, an unfixed text, like a wall that seems to invite new graffiti artists each year. In Roland Barthes’ terminology, Star Wars, the franchise, is less of a writerly text, and more of a readerly one; viewers/readers reinfuse it with new themes and meanings with startling regularity. We don’t think this way about The Wizard of Oz; no one’s asking how it might be different if The Wizard or Dorothy had remained in Oz. We don’t talk about fan edits of Titanic where Jack survives the sinking. There’s something particularly malleable about Star Wars, something that suggests an unfillable (black?) hole of creative energy.
This semester in one of my film classes at Sacramento State, we took the opportunity afforded by a Death Star-sized hype machine and discussed Star Wars. We focused on two simple questions: does George Lucas have the “right” to re-edit the films however he pleases, and should people observe the Machete Order? In case there’s any doubt, the Machete Order has officially become a thing; in case you don’t know what it is, read up. The general consensus was that the Machete Order doesn’t feel like a defiling, as rearranging the Harry Potter films would, because of Star Wars’ unique postmodern properties.
Some of my students comments on the class blog:
“The biggest knowledge bomb dropped on me this week what the Machete order to watch the Star Wars saga. I was home for the holidays and telling anyone who would listen how they should watch the film in preparation for the new film.”
“Do you guys think the machete order actually makes the story more enjoyable and minimizes the affect of the prequels?”
Reply: “That’s tough, I’ve already seen the films so the impact would probably be different if shown by someone who hasn’t seen them. Also, it would be hard to not notice the change in story lines and time periods when the films were created. Besides that I would like to think I would actually put the time in to see this machete cut version. I really disliked the first three episodes but the story line could bring them together more cohesively and stronger than watching them in order.”
“My question. I heard there is a Machete Order for other films? I heard Rocky was one of them. Makes sense, with Rocky 5 being remembered as the Episode 1 of the franchise, still making the new movie, Creed, still relevant.”
“My question for this week is about the Machete order. Are there any other series of films that have any similar orders like the Star Wars series?”
Reply: “I like that question too. Maybe the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series could be a cool one to play with. I personally didn’t watch the Hobbit series but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came up with something similar.”
“Of course I learned about the Machete Edit. It was very interesting, I don’t know if I could do it. When ever I have a kid I guess I will experiment on him/her. Also I still don’t know about re-edit but I just watched Blood Simple and I guess the Coen Brothers re-edited the re-release of it because the studio wanted to cut out anything that would confuse the viewers. That was an interesting concept, I didn’t think about limitations from the original edit. Yet Lucas wanting horrible CGI in his versions didn’t seem to make it better. Yet again it’s their film and their vision, we don’t have to like it, they do.”
“In class, I learned about both the Machete Order, which I am definitely going to try once the semester is over, and that the source of Lucas’ famous wipes is Flash Gordon.”
“This week, I learned about how effective an edit can change a films narrative. Specifically the Machete Order. A new way to experience the movie, by changing the order and taking out episode one. For example, the many things that the prequels have presented to the Generation X, and Y are known to Loath about Star Wars. With the Machete Order, the “comedy” of Jar Jar is gone, and so are the Midichlorians. It makes it a better story.”
“One thing i learned was that a re-edit might be good for some people, whereas to the ones that it matters most to (like the director) it might now be wise.”
“Would yo have reconsidered a re-edit to any of your films you have done?”
Reply: “I mean not really. I honestly think that if an edit did not come out the way that I really wanted the film to be, I would make those changes and avoid those errors in the next project. Film is not meant to perfect and a film that is created within a certain time or frame of reference should be kept that way. As a filmmaker, I would want to make a film to the best of my abilities off the bat. Changing the aesthetics in the future is like playing the same song over and over again. It can be exhausting and it may compromise your original vision.”
In a way, the students defending Lucas’ “right” to go back and change the films against the students who assert that the films should remain untouched are both on the same side of a revanchist, almost sentimental modernism, where one sees the author as inviolable, the other, the text. The uncomfortable truth is less definite, more free-floating, more postmodern. The uncomfortable truth is that the “first films” a.k.a. “original trilogy” (it’s telling that some of my students use these terms to describe Episodes I, II, and III) will always exist in some form, yet they will always have second-tier status, and your grandma shouldn’t expect to see Han shoot first when she clicks her digital download of Episode IV. The uncomfortable truth is that we live in a fragmented, disassociated universe that Lucas did much to make palatable for all of us.
In one sense, clear from Wickman’s article even though he doesn’t say it explicitly, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens squares a circle: the original blockbuster franchise is back to play by 21st-century franchise rules, including an expanding, closely mapped universe, and a reboot with a new director and more diverse sensibilities. In another sense, Star Wars VII already strikes some as a bit been-there-done-that, partly because of all the extant thousands of revised texts, and partly because Campbell’s myths are unlikely to be thrown into the trash compactor. In yet another sense, though, nothing less than our postmodern sensibilities are at stake. Here are the real actors who once made the postmodern universe fun, none other than the real Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Queen Leia, here for one last rodeo, one last attempt at a claim on the Star Wars narrative that might possibly supersede all the other claims. Just as Star Wars offers unique succor to both the political left (rebels = North Vietnamese!) and the political right (God-like Force, Manichean good/evil dichotomy), it offers comfort to both modernists or postmodernists. The end of the trailer is perfect for both groups: “just let it in.” It’s a fragmented universe all right, but the genuine presence of those actors suggests a pathway to something approaching real resolution – well, if the Force is with you.