(Sigh) I've said it before, but you people have transformed nostalgia into a national passtime. Constantly dissecting and referencing it until all of your cultural creations become like an Ouroboros devouring and excreting itself over and over again..."
And I view this more and more as a perversity. A form of consumerism heightened to the level of religion. But the biggest problem is not the merchandising. Its the continual new attempts to "add" to the initial piece of art that are hollow and devoid of value. Photocopies of photocopies that succeed not on their own, but by manipulating the audience, who wants so badly to recapture that experience, into projecting those feelings onto these...well, "clones" seems an appropriate term.
But then came the Prequels. And what these showed more than anything, blatantly and on every level, was that this George Lucas, a man 20 years isolated on Skywalker Ranch, surrounded by sycophants, idolized by a generation, a man who had become the embodiment of the very elite that his younger self railed against in THX 1138, possessed no understanding of the films his younger self created. What George Lucas did with the Prequels was create his own fanfiction, and all that that implies.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written and spoken about the prequels in the years hence, so that's not a subject I need to get into in depth, but let me simply highlight one, perhaps subtle, thing to illustrate my point that tends to get missed in the furor over Jar-Jar Binks and Midichlorians. Ben Kenobi, in the original Star Wars, hides on Tatooine following the rise of the Empire, living out the remainder of his life as a hermit. And he dresses appropriately. His garb is for the most part the same as that worn by Luke's uncle, and presumably the large majority of humans dwelling on the dessert planet. In the Prequels, this is suddenly the official uniform dress of ALL Jedi. I'm sure I don't need to go into detail as to why this makes absolutely no sense. Kenobi was in hiding for years dressed exactly like a member of the Jedi council? Uncle Owen just happen to dress pretty much exactly like a Jedi?
The reason this struck me as such an important oversight is because it clearly displays that quality of creative failure that defines fanfic. Jedi dress that way in the Prequels because thats how a Jedi was dressed in the original film. This is not creation, this is simply an echo of an original idea. It is vapid and hollow recycling of ideas from another imagination.
A photocopy of a photocopy.
There has been remarks that the new films by Disney have "saved" Star Wars. I saw the term "redemption" thrown around so often in their wake that if I'd never made the analogy to a consumerist religion before, it would have been undeniable at that point. But while its impossible at this point to divorce this film from the originals, and the Empire that's grown from them, I'm certain that if this film had been released without the Star Wars branding in place - if it didn't count on the legions of devotees willing to project their love for those original films onto it - it would, in and of itself, be a failure. It does not stand alone as a story, or work of art. And sure, I can bring up how it's plot was blatantly a recycling of the original film, but that's low hanging fruit. Everyone knows that. What matters is the excuses people are willing to make to compensate for that. To project a gravitas onto it that it was carefully designed to exploit. And I'm not saying its a bad film. What I'm saying is...its no Star Wars.
Now obviously art is very important to me. More than most people, I'm certain. I remember the shock I felt as a teenager the first time I realized that there were people who simply didn't experience art at all. Or at least not in the same myriad ways I did (I warned you this was going to get pretentious, bear with me). But I feel that certain works of art deserve to be cherished. That they deserve to exist in that moment (a different moment for everyone who first experienced them, but always that same moment) that they touched the audience's spirit. Not everyone can be a part of that audience, but thats okay. I mean, I will never experience that feeling of awe and holy rapture from a church or Biblical verse that so many other do. But I experienced that as a kid watching Star Wars. I experienced it reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, and in so many years, for the hundredth time. I experienced that with Dune. And just as a religious follower speaks and prays to their deity, performs penance and makes offerings, extends faith, the relationship between a work of art and the audience is a two-way street. Its reciprocal. The imagination of the artist comingles with our own, and inside of us is born a synthesis of the two, personal and greater than the sum of its parts.
And to illustrate what I mean here, I don't think I need to look any further than this exchange from the original Star Wars:
Luke: No, my father didn't fight in the Clone Wars. He was a navigator on a spice freighter.
Obi-Wan: That's what your uncle told you. He didn't hold with your father's ideals; he felt he should've stayed here and not gotten involved.
Luke: You fought in the Clone Wars?
Obi-Wan: Yes. I was once a Jedi knight, the same as your father.
Luke: I wish I'd known him.
Obi-Wan: He was the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior. I understand that you've become quite a good pilot yourself.
[sorrowfully]...And he was a good friend.
I think all of us know that there are two perceptions of that exchange that exist:
one before the Prequels, and one after they were released.
And this is what derivative works do;
they impose a lesser imagination onto a work of art.
Okay, so I have to follow this with some explanations, because I know by this point I'm certainly “Begging the Question”:
First off, so what about King Arthur? Arthurian romances, much like Star Wars, hit the cultural landscape of the Middle Ages and caught a ride on the cultural zeitgeist in a similar manner. And its endured to this day, with hundreds, if not thousands of derivative works. So how can I say derivative works taint the original art if these numerous iterations of myth have not diluted the power of the concept?
Well, there’s some key differences here. First, is that there is no single “work of art” held above the others. Sure, one can point to Mallory’s or Tennyson’s contributions to the corpus as definitive. I’d even add TH White and Rosemary Sutcliffe to that roster. But these came hundreds of years after the stories had dispersed into the popular consciousness. And I am not totally discounting the idea that another piece of art can be created that rivals an original, if it exists (but more on that in a moment). Rather, the biggest distinction here is that no one “owned” King Arthur. Star Wars does not belong to the culture that venerates it. It has owners. It has “Word of God”. It allowed Lucas to mangle the original creations, so that even to this day there has not been an official release of the films on a current format in their original forms. And the Prequels are “Word of God”, just as every new Star Wars property that Disney inflicts on us will be, from the tragically flawed Rogue One to the ill-fated “Adventures of Young Han Solo” coming soon. There’s no opportunity for a dissenting voice, and alternative vision. This is not folklore of the people, it’s a product.
Secondly, the original piece still exists (granted one must to hunt down a VHS copy or laserdisc at crazy prices on the secondhand market in the specific case of Star Wars). Can’t they be appreciated on their own, and the stuff one doesn’t like ignored?
Well, yes and no. Its tainted.
I loved the first Matrix. I still do. And every few years I rewatch it, and try my best to ignore the existence of the sequels. But when they talk about Zion, the Shining City, the last bastion of free humankind, as much as I try not to, the first image imposed on my imagination is that of a dirty techno rave party with people in rags. Its fair perhaps to claim this is to an extent a failure on my part maybe. A capacity for distinction I’m lacking in. But, well…fuck off, this is my rant.
And lastly, as I mentioned, there is always the remote possibility that another work of art will be created. A genuine piece of creation that matches or even surpasses the original. And yes, this happens. As I’ve been writing this long and rambling post, Voros mentioned The Hannibal series. This was a television series I instantly avoided from the get-go. Silence of the Lambs was a great film. And I liked Red Dragon. But Hannibal, the film, was trash, and by the time we got to Hannibal Rising, I was like “no thank you Mr. Harris. That will be quite enough.” We’d once again descended into Fanfic territory. Hannibal Lector was no longer a character serving a plot, he was an icon being elevated to levels of superhuman adoration even as the craft surrounding his films descended into b-movie insipidness.
But then I heard who was helming the TV series. Bryan Fuller. And this was a creator I respected. Pushing Daisies remains one of my favourite TV series of all times. And so I gave Hannibal a chance, and it was frankly amazing. It reached, at its best, Twin Peaks-levels of awesome. Thus, that possibility is always there. Its why I’m not condemning the idea of a LOTR TV series offhand, merely cautiously apprehensive. It’s possible. But, let’s be honest; it’s pretty goddamn rare.
Far more frequently we have something like the Dune prequels: