Memo to Michael Hiltzik: If you think The Force Awakens Stinks, the Problem was your expectations — and here’s why….

Posted on | January 2, 2016 | Comments Off on Memo to Michael Hiltzik: If you think The Force Awakens Stinks, the Problem was your expectations — and here’s why….

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A couple of days ago on Facebook, my buddy Aaron Starkey posted the following piece by L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik: Admit it: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ stinks — and here’s whyIf you haven’t read the piece, you might want to do so before continuing.

Given the historic box office success of the Force Awakens, and the triumphant tenor of the press surrounding it, I can understand the curmudgeonly impulse to want to take the piss out of the film.

Indeed, I’m exactly the sort of cynical, middle-aged, white guy who is ripe for a piece like Hiltzik’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Star Wars hater. But I also have no special relationship with the films, aside from seeing all 7 installments in the theater upon their release.

I’m not deep in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars didn’t define my childhood. I don’t have a position on the role of the expanded universe in the Star Wars canon (I don’t even know what the expanded universe is).

I don’t attend conventions, collect action figures, or camp out overnight weeks in advance to buy tickets for the 3:00 am showing on opening night. I don’t hang out on Internet message boards devoted to Star Wars, or quote passages from the film in day-to-day conversation.

An attack on Star Wars doesn’t feel like a personal attack on my community or my identity. I have no personal stake in defending it, and I’d welcome interesting and insightful criticism of the Force Awakens.

Unfortunately, Hiltzik’s column was neither insightful nor persuasive — and here’s why.

It’s unfair to judge the Force Awakens against our memories of seeing New Hope in 1977, and we need to acknowledge the affect of personal history and cultural context on our reaction to it.

I saw the first Star Wars movie when I was 14 y/o (Hiltzik is 11 years older than me, so he was around 25 y/o in 1977). No matter what the Force Awakens is (or isn’t), I can only see it through the eyes of the 52 y/o guy that I am now. Given that I’ve seen a lot more at 52 than I had at 14, my take is bound to be different, no matter what the film is (or isn’t), and it’s probably going to feel somewhat compromised.

I have this problem with music all the time. I’d love to hear more music through my 14 y/o ears, because those ears knew so much less about the history of music and how the sausage was made. They didn’t have that knowledge getting in the way of just eating the sausage on its own terms and enjoying it. There was so much uncharted territory to explore.

On the other hand, it was the love of that sausage that motivated me to study the history of it and to learn more about sausage making, so it’s a trade-off. I can still love music, but I have to love it in a different way and with different expectations than the ones I had in 1977. But that’s nobody’s fault, and it’s not an inherent flaw of today’s culture. It’s just one of the challenges of aging and acquiring knowledge and wisdom. The old drugs don’t work like they used to.

These days, Everybody is More Aware and Self-Aware

In 2015, everybody has a lot more knowledge about a lot of stuff. I didn’t even know what sushi and wasabi were in 1977 when I was 14 y/o. Today, sushi and wasabi are ubiquitously available in every grocery store, and my 14 y/o nephew, with whom I saw the Force Awakens, has been eating these foods for much of his life.

So everybody is more self-aware, and one imagines more cynical too, even young folks. Or maybe I’m just extrapolating on that idea based on my nephew (the apple doesn’t fall too far from the family tree).

There’s a lot more meta-commentary available in 2015 than there was back in 1977, and a lot more opportunities for regular folks all over the world to engage in deep discussions about this stuff with other folks who share their interests.

Indeed, viewing things through the “inside baseball” prism is a big part of what defines our current cultural moment (for better and for worse). The “making of” and “marketing of” narratives are always going to be part of the story today, in a way that they were not always part of the story in 1977 (or perhaps we were simply less consciously aware of how these stories were being used for marketing purposes back in the day).

This is particularly true of something that’s part of a popular series. Prior to the release of the first Star Wars, there wasn’t much discussion of it, because few people knew what it was or cared. Moving forward into the next six installments, there was a lot more discussion, because the first film was popular and the sequels were eagerly anticipated.

One imagines that the same thing was true of, say, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors vs. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. After Rumors was super popular, the making of the follow-up became a story, one that kind of dwarfed the album in many ways when it was released (most expensive album ever made…., USC marching band, etc.).

Hiltzik Builds a Paradise Lost Story on Flawed Premises

In 2015, the block-buster cultural product continues to loom large, but it’s also increasingly a residual cultural artifact, as more and more of our cultural products have moved towards smaller scale and more diffuse demand patterns.

Nevertheless, our incumbent culture industries are premised on a few blockbusters subsidizing everything else. They remain very dependent upon these big sellers. Indeed, they’ve probably never been more dependent, because there are less and less of them to be had. So there is a lot at stake in each one.

That being said, and contrary to what Hiltzik says in the article, I’m sure that if we looked carefully at the pre-Star Wars film industry, we’d find this was also true then, just maybe not as much as it was in the post-Star Wars era (See e.g., Gone With the Wind, Ben Hur, et al).

The moment that yielded films like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Chinatown” was a very discrete moment in the history of the film industry, and Hiltzik seems to conveniently ignore the history prior to that moment, because it doesn’t fit his paradise lost narrative.

Indeed, part of what made Star Wars popular in the first place was that it wasn’t a dark film like Chinatown, the Godfather, or Bonnie and Clyde (all great films with their own romanticized, nostalgic relationship to the past), but rather a movie about the future that was inspired by past movies about the future.

Hiltizk is not wrong to venerate the movie industry culture of the 1960s and 1970s, which produced these sort of films. Indeed, many of my favorite films were made in this period. His mistake is building a paradise lost story around the idea that the post-Star Wars era ushered in a disjunctive break from the film industry’s sustained history of producing “important” gritty works like those referenced above.

The historical truth, it seems to me, is the exact opposite of the story Hiltzik tells in his piece. It’s the late 1960s and early 1970s that were the anomalous period in Hollywood film history, and during the post-Star Wars era, the movie industry has regressed back to its historical mean, reconnecting to many of the principals and approaches that defined it prior to the 1960s.

It’s quite a lot to ask any film to mediate a sustained relationship between you and your innocence. That the Force Awakens does it at all is an accomplishment.

In our Facebook discussion of Hiltzik’s column, my friend Ian Moore characterized the first Star Wars movie as an amusement park ride–an escape from both the political realities of the mid 1970s and the hard-boiled, cynical, social realism of a lot of the films being made during that period.

Starting with American Graffiti, George Lucas was about innocence. He was about letting baby boomers (including a young boomer like me) connect back to a moment before their innocence was gone, a moment where they could still believe without cynicism, a moment that was forever destroyed for many people by the events of the 1960s and the early 1970s (e.g., Watergate).

That’s the world we still live in now. Pretty much everybody is a cynic, carefully guarding what little innocence might still remain, and constantly searching for places that feel safe to take it out of the box and experience it.

For many people, the Star Wars movies are a place where they’re able to do that. Indeed, seeing the new movie with my brother and my nephew was far more emotional for me than I expected. That’s probably because it connected me back to a moment where I had more innocence available, and it let me be in that space just long enough to believe that it’s still possible to get there.

So I can’t really criticize anything major about the film. It wasn’t a tour de force. But to the extent that it made an implicit bargain with the audience about what it was going to bring forth, I think it delivered on that promise.

That being said, I still felt disappointed when the film ended (like Hiltzik). But I concluded that feeling was more about me than it was about the film. We don’t live in an innocent time. So even when we’re given the opportunity to bring our innocence out and experience it, we know it can’t last (especially those of us over 40). This is very disappointing.

When you stop and think about it, it’s quite a lot to ask any film to mediate a sustained relationship between you and your innocence. Most films fail to do this at all. Few films do it really well. Even fewer multi-installment movie franchises manage this trick in a sustained way over time.

That this installment did it at all is an accomplishment (the prequel trilogy was quite weak in that department). So for now, I’m withholding final judgment on the Force Awakens, because I think it will be hard to accurately judge it until we see where they take the next one.

If the next installment also commits the sins alleged in Hiltzik’s article, then perhaps he will end up having the last laugh. But if the next installment uses this installment to jump off into something else, then the choices of this installment will come into better focus.

The Heroes and Villains May Change with the Times, but to Retain its Power, the Plot of the Mythological Story Must Remain the Same.

Myths are powerful because they’re timeless, elemental stories about situations that most of us regularly face (e.g., the choice between good and evil). What makes a myth relevant to a particular moment are the characters populating the hero and villain roles. Consequently, while the story must remain the same, the heroes and villains can and must evolve to reflect the times.

Reasonable people may differ as to whether it’s a novel move in 2015 to change the gender or race of the heroes in the Force Awakens. But at the end of the day, it’s probably not the job of middle-aged white dudes like me and Hiltzik to judge the value or cultural importance of making that move.

We’ve both had ample opportunities over our lives to see other white dudes in the hero roles. That’s the default setting. Even if it feels old hat to us, this move is likely more novel and important than we realize for the many people who have rarely been given the opportunity to play the hero roles on the big stage.

These historically excluded folks have probably all seen 10,000 movies and TV shows with a white male hero. Maybe we should at least give them 500-1000 high profile hero roles before we question the novelty of making this move.

Casting women and people of color in hero roles will cease to be novel on the day when doing so no longer draws any special attention. We may be getting closer to that day, but we still have significant distance to travel. In the mean time, imho, it’s a big mistake to underestimate the significance of these sorts of casting decisions.

Doing so is a bit like Hitlzik and I announcing on Twitter that America is now a post-racial society and we’re no longer going to acknowledge racism as problem. We might believe that’s true. But it’s not really our call to make.

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