Friday, October 1, 2010

No one is forcing you to see Star Wars in 3D

(December 10 note: From an early age I've been obsessed with science fiction and fantasy. This inspired me to become a writer and filmmaker myself, and also to enter the field of computing.

Somehow, I thought the imagination and complexity of SF was similarly inspiring to others. Over the last four or five years, however, I've felt increasingly alienated from nerd culture and “fandom” – or at least fanboys.

I've always admired and identified with filmmakers and creative people. Fanboys don't. They regard film as a second-class art form that exists only to create adaptations of other art forms (comic books, TV shows, old novels) or to perpetuate aging franchises. They are passive consumers of mainstream pop culture, yet somehow believe that hating the stuff they're passively consuming is enough to make them smart. They seem less interested in seeking out the good stuff than in focusing on stuff they can complain about and sneer at.

I finally realized that, if you aspire to be in any way creative, clever or imaginative, these guys are not your audience, nor are they your peers.

The latest round of bitching about
Star Wars gave me a reason to vent about all this once and for all. While some of my words below are harsh and perhaps overly emotional, these are things that I had to get off my chest.

In the 90s it seemed everyone was aspiring to be an artist. Today, being a sneering fan/consumer is what's cool, and I'm determined to resist this. Doing so makes me a heroic defender of highbrow aspirations, or an out-of-touch snob, or both.)

“If it hadn't been for the self-discipline … my [school] work would never have gotten done. I felt there were a lot of kids that never figured that out, and they just sort of whiled away their lives and woke up one day to find out they were thirty-five years old and hadn't amounted to much.”

--George Lucas on how he made it through college, in Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas by Dale Pollock

I'd like to take a break from talking about my own movie, Saberfrog, to talk about another movie – or rather, a set of movies – that seems unlikely to fade away any time soon.

Just when it seemed like my generation had managed to go a whole week without complaining about George Lucas, predictable nerd outrage has greeted the news – long talked about, now confirmed – that the six Star Wars movies would be released in 3D in the next few years, in numerical order, starting with The Phantom Menace.

While I'm as big a Star Wars fan as anyone else my age, I have to confess that I'm a little tired of Star Wars as a topic, no matter what the context. And I'm especially tired of listening to my generation foam at the mouth about the new films.

So thoroughly did Star Wars make the future safe for itself (to paraphrase Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) that no one – at least, no one currently under forty – can quite remember why the original film was such a big deal when it first came out. Geek culture has taken over so completely that no one remembers why Star Wars was such a breakthrough in the depressed 70s, nor how disreputable sci-fi was before then. Fans take for granted the idea that every cantina creature and background robot has its own identity and backstory, forgetting that sci-fi movies and TV almost never had that level of detail before George Lucas – inspired by his love of Japanese films that felt no need to spell out their rules for a Western audience – decided to apply the same strategy to an invented universe.

When I was a little kid, it wasn't yet possible to waste your entire life watching the Star Wars trilogy over and over on home video. Instead, there were TV specials and magazine articles that detailed the making of the movies, showing how puppets, miniatures and stop-motion animation were deployed to make an imaginary world come to life.

Most of all, there was Dale Pollock's 1983 book Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, which detailed the man in plaid's rise from teenage misfit to film-school prodigy to world-famous filmmaker. It covered Star Wars' painful journey from concept to completion – Lucas' two-year struggle to write a decent script, the sandstorm that destroyed his sets early in the shoot, his struggles with the English crew, the studio's horror at the incoherent rough cut, and ILM spending half their budget with just a handful of effects shots to show for it. The book not only inspired me to be a filmmaker, but demonstrated the amount of persistence, determination and stamina required to make your aspirations come true.

Though written when Lucas was at his popular and creative peak (Return of the Jedi was still in production when the book was written), it also gave voice to many criticisms of Lucas that were common even then – that he wasn't very good at writing dialogue or directing actors. But his determination to succeed even in areas where he wasn't naturally gifted is still an inspiration to me.

Lucas apparently never had the quitter attitude that so many of my generation have embraced. Even in film school, when his classmates complained about lack of resources, Lucas' attitude was: “If I got sixteen feet of film [about half a minute of 16mm], I made a sixteen-foot-long movie. Nothing could stop me.”

My theory on writing is that people who regard themselves as powerless, who can't imagine anything they do having an impact, are the ones who write a page or a paragraph and then get stuck, because they can't envision their protagonist actually doing anything. By contrast, Lucas has written or co-written the screenplays for over a dozen completed feature films, including all of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films – a resume of admittedly varying quality, but not so bad for someone who “can't write”. Whatever his weaknesses with dialogue, he is capable of constructing plots, which is perhaps the hardest and most challenging aspect of writing, an aspect that many people never master.

The Star Wars movies have always explicitly been about taking a stand and making moral decisions, perhaps because Lucas – according to most Star Wars-related interviews I've seen or read, even those that predate the original film's release – was trying to communicate positive values to a generation otherwise growing up without them. That's quite a noble goal, even though – judging by how the Star Wars generation has turned out – it seems he failed pretty spectacularly.

“[T]he behavior of the children, that is, the fans, does not resemble the noble ideals set forth in the writings and pronouncements of the parents, the writers … For them, courage and rational behavior are alien concepts only to be read about in slambang space operas. Such concepts do not impinge upon their miserable lives in the real world.”

--Harlan Ellison, “Xenobiogenesis” (1990)

The Star Wars style of special-effects fantasy – along with much else that symbolized the 80s – faced a stern backlash in the grunge era. By the time I was in college, everything was about Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino and the culture wars; it's stunning to remember that Lee's Malcolm X opened to the same kind of hype and anticipation as The Phantom Menace would just seven years later. I became familiar with – if not quite agreeing with – the orthodox account of film history, which stated that Star Wars had had a terrible effect on movies by dumbing everything down with action and special effects.

By the end of the 90s, though, people were lightening up a bit. Even though I'd kind of moved on from Star Wars, and had become a fan of many other things – Doctor Who and Red Dwarf, Terry Gilliam and David Cronenberg and Harlan Ellison – it was kind of cool to have the Star Wars saga finally resume, something I never thought would actually happen.

I saw The Phantom Menace opening night, and had mixed feelings but didn't hate it. It took too long to get going, and the final battles weren't as stirring as they should have been, but I enjoyed most of it at the time. It's aged badly, neither delivering the thrills of the original trilogy nor setting up the darker direction of parts II and III, but I certainly didn't think I'd seen a film that would one day be considered synonymous with evil.

My own life took some rough turns in the years spanning Episodes II and III – I'd given up on my filmmaking ambitions for various reasons – so I found a lot of resonance in the story of Anakin Skywalker, a guy who seemed to have so much potential but ended up blowing it. I completed a programming degree on the eve of Episode III's opening, and vividly remember finishing my last degree requirement in the morning before work, then going to the movies that evening to see Anakin complete his transformation into a machine-creature.

My friend John Karyus theorized that once all six movies were on DVD, people would marathon them all in story order and start to find unexpected connections between the films, so one weekend I sat down and put John's theory to the test. I wrote pages of notes about my thoughts and feelings, and based on those notes I'm tempted to make a series of blog entries about the experience.

Yet a large part of me just wants to let it drop. I've grown so tired of this entire subject. I know what Star Wars means to me, and am fed up with having to listen to other people's hostility on the matter.

Digression: I collect old Doctor Who episodes on DVD. A year or two ago, I went to Borders looking for the most recent release, and when I couldn't find it I asked a clerk for help. When he found the episode for me, another (female) clerk observed us and asked, disapprovingly, “You're not buying Colin Baker, are you?” referring to the sixth actor to play the Doctor. It actually wasn't a Colin episode, but something about the cover made her think that it was, and she started explaining to me how she didn't like his version of the Doctor, apparently hoping I'd agree.

Some months later, I (thoughtlessly) went back to the same Borders for another old Doctor Who, and this time it was a Colin episode I was purchasing. When I got to the checkout desk, there were two clerks … and one of them was her. Oh please no, I thought. Please let the other one call on me instead. No such luck. Fangirl called me to the desk, I gave her the DVD, and she briefly lit up – “Doctor Who!!!” – before immediately sneering, “Oh. It's Colin.” Again she started in with her Colin-hatred, all the while smiling and trying to get me to agree with her, when all I wanted to do was just buy my DVD and get the hell out of there.

People like that make me realize how Nazi Germany came about. She was sweet and smiling and charming, she clearly was pleased to meet another old-school Doctor Who fan and wanted to bond with me. And yet, what she wanted to bond over was how much she hated something about it, and how much she disliked someone who had actually worked on it.

This is what I've seen again and again from the nerd mindset. It's not about genuinely loving and enjoying something. It's about finding something to hate, because – as every bully knows – bashing something you hate is a satisfying shortcut to self-esteem, especially when you have nothing else going for you.

There's something pathetic about people who are entirely dependent on mainstream, commercial pop culture for their identity when they don't even like it. The reason Lucas continues to infuriate the nerds so much is that he's a drug they can't wean themselves off of. No matter how much they grow to dislike his work, they cannot bring themselves to think about or talk about anything else instead.

I guess I just don't relate to that kind of passivity. To me, Star Wars was always something that somebody made, not some holy religious text. It's the product of a flawed but industrious human being, who'd made his most celebrated films by age 39, and who is now being bashed by people who have reached a similar age with much less to show for it.

I feel strongly about all this because I'm a writer and filmmaker myself, and have spent my life developing my craft and trying to get better at it. So my sympathies are with the people who do the work, not the people who complain. That's the real distinction – not between people who are cool or uncool, but between people who do the work and people who don't.

If there's anything that I am bitter about regarding the prequels in general, and Phantom Menace in particular, it's not so much the films themselves (which are certainly flawed, but also quite ambitious in their scope and themes). It's the effect they had on my age group as a whole. To a generation that otherwise seemed to value nothing but their own sarcasm, Star Wars was the one thing you were somehow allowed to like. It was the one thing you could sincerely enjoy without snobby nerds or contrary hipster dillweeds giving you a hard time. Today it's the opposite; Star Wars is the one thing you must absolutely never bring up in polite company unless you're prepared to risk being subjected to an angry ten-minute diatribe. If Phantom Menace had been a better-paced, better-acted movie, I don't think there would have been such a backlash; Episodes II and III could have been exactly the same as they are and would have been viewed more favorably. But still ... it's an 11-year-old movie! It's the same age now that Return of the Jedi was when Clerks came out. When are we going to move on?

Why is Star Wars so important? I know what it meant to me as a filmmaker, but what did it mean to all these angry fans and ex-fans, who continue to spew venom any time it's even mentioned? I'm sure that if you were to ask them, their responses would always contain the two words that make my skin crawl when I hear them uttered in a petulant tone from the mouth of a thirty- or forty-something adult:

“ childhood.”

That's it. That's what Star Wars means to so many trolls born in the 70s and late 60s. Star Wars means clinging to the past, and avoiding responsibility or risk-taking. Pretty much the opposite of the characters in the movie, then.

When Phantom Menace first came out on video, Entertainment Weekly's Marc Bernardin wrote a review that has always stuck in my head:

“To do its job as a prequel, The Phantom Menace has to provide only three pieces of information: (1) introduce Anakin Skywalker ... and Amidala ...; (2) establish Obi-Wan Kenobi ... as Anakin's teacher; and (3) let us meet Palpatine ... before he becomes the evil emperor. We don't need to know anything about Gungans, senatorial chancellor elections, podraces, droid armies, or midi-chlorian levels.”

There are many criticisms of Phantom Menace I would agree with, but that isn't one of them. Bernardin isn't really criticizing Gungans or pod races per se. What he's actually saying here is: This movie shouldn't have had anything new in it. It shouldn't have had anything we didn't see coming. It should have consisted only of continuity references to films we've seen. It should have been predictable.

In this regard, Bernardin speaks for all the nerds who only go to movies that are remakes, or adaptations of familiar material from other media, even if it's just to complain about how wrongly they were done. New ideas, new styles, anything that might surprise you … these things are to be avoided at all costs.

I used to get mad when film snobs accused Star Wars of turning people into mindless, passive consumers. I used to think they were wrong. I'm not so sure anymore.

Will I be seeing the Star Wars movies in 3D? Maybe, maybe not. I might see Phantom Menace out of mild curiosity, to see if Lucas fixed anything (hopefully he at least replaces that cross-eyed Yoda puppet with CG) but otherwise … why? I've seen these movies already. Many times. And I own them all. In multiple versions, and multiple formats. I can watch them any time I want. Hell, I can watch the old ones in my head just by closing my eyes.

If you're planning to see the 3D versions when they come out, I hope you have a blast. If you're not, that's okay too; if you don't want to go see them, then don't. Just stop making such a goddamned fuss about a theatrical release that no one is forcing you to attend.

“I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned,” said Alec Guinness the last time Star Wars was re-released. I hear ya, Alec. I hear ya.

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