To the Editor:
Richard Grenier’s perceptive article on the disturbing Star Wars phenomenon [“Celebrating Defeat,” Movies, August 1980] demonstrates once again why he is one of the best critics writing today in America.
I would like to add a few thoughts of my own to his cogent observations. The original Star Wars was hard enough to stomach since all George Lucas did was to turn the content of rotten old movies into pop art and give it a 1940’s science-fiction setting. It was almost slander to writers like Asimov, Bradbury, Disch, Ellison, and Silverburg to call it science fantasy and it certainly was a letdown after Lucas’s own promising futuristic “art” film THX138. But if people wanted to go gaga over recycled Flash Gordon, it was all right with me. . . .
The Empire Strikes Back is a work that Time magazine declares is “in the tradition of Homer.” But this estimate won’t hold up because to build a saga one has to place a soul at its core, and all Lucas can supply is gadgetry. In both of these works, there is not one moment of mystery or terror at the grandeur of space. Whole planets are destroyed with the impersonality of a ride at Disneyland. Movies like Robin Hood, Treasure Island, and Gunga Din, on which Lucas claims to have based his work, had well-defined heroes and villains who satisfied an audience’s need for the possibility of valor in an imperfect world. This “epic” features as its heroes untalented actors, who make the contract players at Republic look good, playing straight men to a Wookie, so the only heroism possible is in the boys’ world of laser-beam duels. . . . Lucas starts out in the ghetto of Saturday morning cartoons for his true inspiration, so he needs technology, psychological drivel, and mysticism (he was heavily into Castaneda at the time of The Empire Strikes Back) to conceal his movie’s lack of depth, just as he needed a coda at the end of American Graffiti to convince us that what we had just seen was significant.
The thing that disturbs me most is that this celebration of the stunted adolescent, almost a cartoon study of the “me generation,” has been proclaimed by most reviewers as a great fantasy that enriches our lives. I wonder what this misplaced adoration will do to truly visionary film-makers, who desire to work on a larger scale, when they see that an audience’s idea of an epic is one big intergalactic Zen pinball game.
New York City
To the Editor:
Amy Carter may be only twelve years old, but she already can tell which end is up better than Richard Grenier can. At least she knew enough to concentrate on the way Yoda’s ears wiggle rather than to try to analyze the implications for our civilization of every word the cute little guy said.
I do not claim to be as well read as Mr. Grenier in mythology and philosophy, so I will not attempt to dispute his assertions regarding the underlying theology of the Star Wars epic. . . . I will also avoid saying anything about the fact that Mr. Grenier (the cad) gave away the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, because it makes me seethe just to think of that dastardly deed.
Rather, I would like to correct some of the glaring errors of fact scattered throughout the review. Mr. Grenier is clearly devoid of the most elementary knowledge of comic-book science and of extraterrestrial political theory. Just for starters: Mr. Grenier refers to the “quaintness” of giving Princess Leia the “seemingly contradictory titles of princess and senator,” and to the fact that she retains a royal title though a citizen of a republic. Well, it is entirely possible that in the rebel alliance, descendants of royal families retain courtesy titles—as many of the nobility in republics like France and Italy do. Perhaps she serves in an upper house of the senate similar to the House of Lords in Britain. Then again, her position may be similar to that of Otto von Hapsburg, who is the scion of an imperial house, but serves as a representative in the European parliament. Anyhow, what kind of cultural myopia leads Mr. Grenier to expect earthly political arrangements in outer space?
Mr. Grenier’s interpretations of events in the movie are frequently questionable. What leads him to conclude, for example, that when Luke Skywalker casts himself off a high platform during a light-sword battle with Darth Vader, he is trying to commit suicide? Luke, remember, was able to use the Force only minutes earlier to project himself upward out of the carbon-freeze pit. Obviously, he knew he would be able to use it again to drift, rather than plummet, from the high platform. And so he does—or they would have been scraping him off the computers in the next scene.
Then, Mr. Grenier wisecracks that Luke, falling out the bottom of the space station, “happily breathes the non-air of intergalactic space” while awaiting rescue. Pay attention, Mr. Grenier, next time you’re tempted to make wise remarks. Luke fell out the bottom of the City in the Clouds. If there were no air—if they were in intergalactic space—where did the clouds come from? Finally, Mr. Grenier marvels at the fact that Luke hardly bleeds at all when Darth Vader cuts off his hand. Use your head, Mr. Grenier! When one is cut by a light-sword, the wound is cauterized as it is cut.
How are we to take Mr. Grenier’s intellectual analysis seriously if he can’t get his facts straight? . . .
Catherine V. Barr
To the Editor:
Richard Grenier seems to argue that, whereas Star Wars was charming by being childish, trivial, and meaningless, its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, loses that charm by aspiring to meaning. Mr. Grenier’s impression of it might best be summed up by the one word “adolescent.” Now, I should think that for a child to become an adolescent might be considered a sign of growth, and praised, however distasteful adolescence may be to those of us who have passed beyond it. Space opera, indeed—and these two films are the truest screen renditions of space opera I have yet seen—has always been a somewhat adolescent genre, in both its crudities and its aspirations to higher things. But even Mr. Grenier’s praise of Star Wars is unwarrantedly condescending. Star Wars was clearly a fairy tale, and fairy tales contain mythic themes of great significance; in this one, the myth of the birth of the hero, the symbolic reflection of a rite of passage to greater maturity. In the first film, Luke went from childhood to adolescence; in the second, he has gone from adolescence into adulthood. In both, the symbol for this is his training/initiation as a Jedi. Anyone familiar either with space opera (notably E.E. Smith’s Lens-man series) or with the occult would instantly recognize, from Star Wars, that Luke had to continue to learn “the ways of the Force” in the second film, or the meaning of the first film would have been betrayed. That it was not betrayed shows that Lucas had a good idea of what kind of material he was working with, and enough artistic integrity to work within its assumptions. I should think that respect for a genre’s assumptions would be considered as much a virtue for the critic as for the artist; I regret that Mr. Grenier was unable to find anything worthy of serious attention in the Star Wars series.
William H. Stoddard
Chula Vista, California
Richard Grenier writes:
I thank Dan O’Neill for his compliment. I can only agree with him that The Empire Strikes Back is indeed a celebration of “the stunted adolescent” and that George Lucas was better off dealing with what Mr. O’Neill calls recycled Flash Gordon,” as in the original Star Wars, than setting himself up as a successor to Homer.
I must plead guilty as charged to Catherine V. Barr’s accusation that I am a cad for giving away the ending of The Empire Strikes Back. But what is the poor critic to do in evaluating the work of this new Homer? Could one interpret the Iliad without “giving away” that at its end Troy is destroyed, Hector lies slain? The Odyssey without revealing that Ulysses returns home to find Penelope waiting? May I remind Miss Barr that it is Mr. Lucas who has placed himself in this Homeric league, not I?
I defer to Miss Barr’s superior knowledge of “comic-book science” and am positively exhilarated by her understanding of “extraterrestial political theory.” But I look in vain for the “glaring errors of fact” in my article which she says so undercut my interpretations. To debate only her first point: I consider it “quaint” that “Princess” Leia, retaining her royal title, should be such a fervent leader of an alliance to restore a republic, whereas Miss Barr finds this unremarkable, and thinks it “myopic” to “expect earthly political arrangements in outer space.” Is this an error in “fact”? To bring Miss Barr back to earth—where I am not at all certain she wants to be—I am quite aware that pretenders to former European thrones sometimes retain titles of nobility even under well-established republican regimes. But they tend to avoid such provocative nomenclature as “king,” “queen,” or “prince,” which would seem to imply an active claim to royal power. The pretender to the French throne is called the Count of Paris, and Otto von Hapsburg, an example Miss Barr herself cites, is normally referred to in the Austrian press as just plain Otto v. Hapsburg.
French history, of course, does contain a spectacular example of a person simultaneously using both monarchical and republican titles. When Prince Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon’s nephew, was elected president of France under the Second Republic, he had himself called Prince-President. Since he wasted little time destroying the republic and restoring the empire, it might have been he who gave the practice of using hybrid monarchical-republican titles a bad name. But Miss Barr is certainly right. If Prince Louis-Napoleon had been elected president of a republic somewhere in George Lucas’s outer space, he would never have staged his famous Deux Brumaire or done anything else mean or unworthy—no doubt further evidence of the superiority of outer space over earth. Is Miss Barr content? I leave her in contemplation of the wiggling of Yoda’s ears.
William H. Stoddard mistakes my meaning. I do not for one moment think that the original Star Wars was “meaningless,” but rather, like the works that Lucas himself says inspired it (Flash Gordon, Westerns, “early John Wayne,” Kipling’s Gunga Din), that it proceeded from a system of accepted, traditional values. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, like his artistic models, expresses not the slightest hesitation about the virtues passed along to him by his society and culture. In the second film he is assailed by doubts and gives signs of getting ready to junk the whole business. In the first, he apprentices himself to a Jedi knight who, as I said, for all practical purposes “could almost have been a knight of the monastic Order of St. John of Jerusalem sworn to defend Christian Europe against the infidel Saracen or Turk.” In the second, he is turned over to an Oriental guru teaching a hodgepodge of vulgarized Oriental mysticism, magic, and “counterculture” anti-materialism. Mr. Stoddard affirms that in The Empire Strikes Back Luke goes “from adolescence into adulthood.” All I can say is that if this is Mr. Stoddard’s definition of adulthood, we differ.
Neither of my critics, I note, takes issue with my central thesis: that counterculture attitudes, widely thought to be quiescent, are still very much present in the national consciousness, and have surfaced now in a hugely successful movie. The film is a children’s story—which many will say is an appropriate vehicle for counter-culture attitudes—but there turn out to be far more twelve-year-olds in the population than George Lucas, or for that matter the census takers, ever imagined. Far from symbolizing the passage into manhood, The Empire Strikes Back celebrates the world of the permanent child. An ineradicable element of the child’s condition (and this extends to most college students, and fans out through the large segments of society which benefit heavily from the welfare state) is dependency, and any attempt to portray the child or ward as purer, or more disinterested, or higher-minded, or “better” than those who nurture and protect him is an exercise, frankly, in compensatory narcissism.