Escapism, Popcorn entertainement? Or political film of the year?
By Frank Witte, on 29 November 2016
Queen Jamillia: “The day we stop believing democracy can work is the day we lose it.”
Padme:”Let’s pray that day never comes.”
(Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones)
In the coming month the second of a new tranche of Star Wars films hits the cinema, “Rogue One; A Star Wars Story”. As a Connected Curriculum Fellow who also teaches a voluntary 0-credit class on Star Wars I cannot resist writing something about that here for once. But is that escapism? Entertainement? Or a political commentary on the times in which we live?
Teaching & fictional worlds
In the Connected Curriculum we seek to encourage students to explore and let their own curiosity drive their learning. However enquiries of the ‘real world’ are easilly hampered by all kinds of pre-conceptions we carry with us about that world and our role in it. Some domains of our world are potentially even taboo for one or the other because curiosity-driven enquiry might shake or unsettle to many dearly held ideas that we would prefer to cling on to for moral, ethical and personal reasons. Additionally we are so adapted to living in our own ‘real world’ that a critical exploration of it might just about be the hardest kind of exploration one could think of. In contrast in my ‘Star Wars Class’I use the fictional universe of Star Wars for curiosity-driven enquiry that is largely freed of the hurdles just mentioned. But why would it be of interest to study this fictional world?
Stories about choices
Economics is a discipline that enquires into how humans, and groups of humans, make choices. Economics is not the only discipline to do so and other social sciences and natural sciences study questions that border on, or overlap with, many of the issues that Economics focusses on. But in the Arts & Humanities we can also find expressions of curiosity, or descriptions of ‘explanations’, concerning how humans reach decisions. How many novels, poems, theatrical texts, films and songs do not revolve around one or the other depiction of choices and dilemma’s humans face in their lifetimes. The fictional world of Star Wars, this long, long time ago in that galaxy far, far, away also zooms in on the problem of choice, how sentient beings approach it and how it affect us. When you are interested in how humans make choices, a defendable line of enquiry would be to have a closer look at some of the stories that humans tell about choice, how to decide it and what it does to us. Star Wars as a collection of such stories has a few special characteristics that make it worthwhile as an object of enquiry and curiosity.
Stories affect people
Star Wars burst into public conscience in 1977 with the release of the film titled ‘Star Wars’. The overwhelming public appeal came as a surprise and many contemporary film critics  appreciated the film’s fun-factor and special-effect-wow yet regarded plot, dialogue and ‘message’ with some fatigue. In contrast, descriptions of members of the audience of the impact of that famous opening sequence of the film  bordered on the quasi-religious. Three years later, in 1980, ‘Star Wars’ would be re-named as ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’ upon the premiere of the second film in the series ‘Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back’. The flaws already spotted by the critics in the ’77 film now came to the forefront in mostly negative reviews, such as in the Daily Telegraph , beginning a movie-critic litany about Star Wars that continues to this day. For a sizable section of the audience however, the opinions of critics were irrelevant as for them the movies were identity-shaping.
Efforts to understand the appeal of the two trilogies of films (1977-1983 & 1999-2005) began as early as 1977 and have fed a literature analyzing Star Wars within the context of modern myth . This was in part also due to the clear inspiration that Star Wars creator George Lucas accreditted to Joseph Campbel’s works . There was also a consensus that, despite all their flaws, these films were making their influence felt across many dimensions of societal life. With the arrival of the second trilogy 1999-2005, concurrently with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter cycle, and the organisation of fan-communities around internet-sites a whole new dimension of participation  was added. In Star Wars it hallmarked the start of a deeply divisive, and in many ways extreme, conflict between fans of the ‘Original Trilogy’and of the ‘Prequel Trilogy’, yet all testament to the degree to which these stories affect people. No doubt the fact that Star Wars stories tend to embrace deeply religious themes  plays into this as well. Last but not least, the Prequel Trilogy brought an increasing politicization of the Star Wars narrative . In more recent weeks this is illustrated by the many tweets connecting Brexit, Article.50 and the Star Wars scene of ‘Order 66’  and the recalling of the ‘So this is how liberty dies’ quote from Star Wars Episode III in tweets regarding the Trump election .
Star Wars story-telling
Quotes taken from the recent ‘Rogue One; A Star Wars story’ trailers have in recent days been used in expressing emotions about the Trump presidency  and in a spat between the writers of the movie  and Trump supporters the writerssuggested a reading of their movie as a statement against the Trump campaign. The story-telling in these movies, which is largely visual and musical rather than relying on dialogue, is an example of constructive story-telling . It affects people by shaping and influencing their identities, ethics and moral values. Individuals do not take such stories as just another depiction of some kind of fictional world, a fictional aspect of which they are of course aware, but sharing these stories, engaging in the ‘participative community’ and debating and analysing the moral and ethical content of these stories builds an identity. An identity that likely, as one aspect among many, also affects the choices that these individuals make and perhaps even in the ballot box. Like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, Star Wars sits comfortably in the Fantasy genre rather than in the Science Fiction genre and is often viewed as an exercise in escapism. However despite, or perhaps because of, its use of elaborate literary devices  of mythic story-telling it speaks to, and about, the world we experience around us.
The upcoming film later this December will combine these ingredients; you can already read them from the few minutes of imagery we have seen in the trailers. There are the visual cross-references across the other 7 films, the ‘quoted’ scenes and shots, the use of musical themes, they all serve to compare and constrast different characters at different times facing similar choices. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will, as the Prequels before it and in contrast to last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens, be a film about choice. The trailer of The Force Awakens in 2015 introduced the main characters via questions of identity . The answer to which lead to choices of actions that followed. The trailer of Rogue One in 2016 introduces its main characters via questions of choice of intent and choice of action . The answers to which will shape the developping identities of these characters.
I enjoy exploring these narrative structures about choice & identity. I experience that they offer students a rather safe environment in which a curiosity-driven exploration of concepts, ideas and analytical methods to study choice, economics, ethics and morality becomes possible without the burden of real-world realism. And yet … that real world is always just around the corner. To some this may sound a rather outlandish use for a product of popcorn entertainment … well I can only quote Master Yoda in reply to that : “You must unlearn, what you have learned.”
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