ETERNITY AND ITS DISCONTENTS (The Other Star Wars Essay)

Religions place a lot of value in iconography, mostly as a way of simplifying things for endless followers. Is Star Wars the basis for a new religion? Depends when you ask.

Religions place a lot of value in iconography, mostly as a way of simplifying things for endless followers. Is Star Wars the basis for a new religion? Depends when you ask.

After years of waiting and a ferocious build up, the Star Wars tempest of 2015 is finally starting to abate like a Tatooine sandstorm. No doubt those winds will rise again in 2017 when the next installment of the final trilogy comes out. But wait! Rebel sources say this series might not actually be the final trilogy! As many across the galaxy now know, this latest group of movies is only the first salvo of a seemingly infinite variety of planned Star Wars spinoffs. Kathleen Kennedy, the supernaturally successful Hollywood producer, has suggested that this skein of stories has seemingly limitless potential, that the number of products that might spin out from the central canon could continue for a generation or more.

We’ve heard this tale before, haven’t we?

Before I say another word, it's important to establish my bona fides. Like many people who grew up in the last three decades of the 20th century, Star Wars was a nearly religious experience for me. It still shines bright, although more and more I find it’s a well of inspiration that doesn’t run as deep as it did a long time ago. 

All creative enterprises run through life cycles.  In the 1980s the pop music trend was for big arena shows  with thousands of hand-held lighters swaying back and forth. Without an internet to share everything, super-groups staged major release events and the machinery of fame required armies of technicians and publicists. Pop culture, from Michael Jackson’s moonwalk to Atari’s 2600 gaming system to the surprising rise of MTV as a dubious arbiter of mainstream taste, seems to declare itself as transformations for all time. Fifteen years later grunge briefly raged against the machine at the end of the millennium, essentially a final anti-hero fist pump for a now antediluvian style of media distribution. Pop culture lasts as long as it’s popular, and usually that’s not as long as it feels when we’re experiencing it in real-time.

Who knows how anything works these days? One thing’s for sure, however. Those old ways of marketing, selling, and distributing pop culture are largely gone, and they’re not likely to return, ever. 

But back to Star Wars. Here’s my prediction, and I’m not even using The Force for knowledge of the future. Ms. Kennedy: it ain’t gonna happen. I’d be a fool to second guess her movie-producing acumen overall, but this is a special case, and I can already feel a disturbance in…well…you know

Whenever someone thinks a mainstream groundswell of love and enthusiasm is going to last forever, that person forgets that those great feelings are borne on waves of brain chemistry and human novelty. We love what’s new and we love feelings of belonging to a group of other like-minded people. What we don’t love is when those things get stale, or when we realize that the other geeks waiting in line with us are actually from a different political party, or simply unshowered. Star Wars became what it did in it’s first incarnation because it was revolutionary in a million ways. It was completely new and we were all swept up in it’s thrall. 

Star Wars in the 21st century is a phenomenon because it makes us remember those decades old feelings of what used to be new. We’re infused with nostalgia (if you’re of a certain age), and regardless if you’re middle aged, senior citizen, or just a young Padawan, you can still project yourself into a fantasy that promises huge payoffs each time a major motion picture event ramps up for release. You get the next chapter in the story, which keeps you connected to something bigger than yourself. 

This experience acts as an amplifier. We willingly give ourselves over to the conceit that we can keep this newness in our bones a little longer. We live to be loved, and we live to love something fully. But the truth is, Star Wars ISN'T new any more. We know the beats, the vocabulary, the style. We get it, we understand the rules, and the blush isn’t going to last no matter how cool the new droids, ships, romances, or palace intrigues. At some point, it will pass into cultural history. Will it hold a prominent place on the cosmic book shelf? Sure. Will it be named checked and culturally embedded to a degree that most other things cannot claim? Sure. Aintcha never seen The Wizard of Oz? But will it forever dominate the hearts and minds of millions? Will it always be the apotheosis of pop culture, cinema, and all that we imagine? No. It will fade like like a vision of Obi Wan speaking from beyond his ordinary life. 

Don’t scoff! This ain’t sour grapes! The movie studio and its army of mass media mavens are going to get my hard earned dollars at the box office, and I’ll probably buy popcorn, too. But whenever someone thinks they know the future of cultural preferences for all time, I find myself confidently tromping through recollections of tulip mania. (If you don’t know the reference, take two minutes to check it out.)  After all, the greatest Jedi master himself once shared a vital bit of wisdom on the subject of living forever: “The Force is strong…but not that strong.”

@michaelstarobin

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