Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Star Wars and Mythology via Marketing



A curious thing has happened in the past month of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Most of my facebook friends are in my age range, and they've got kids in a wide range of ages.  Not all, but many of them, made sure they and their family partook in a screening of Star Wars.  That's a normal thing.  (A) If I have learned one thing, it's that parents mostly take kids to the movies for the possibility of silence and peace in their lives for 20- 90 minute stretches, otherwise unknown while the kids are awake, and (B) people take their kids to see Star Wars, in particular.

But I saw the families dressed up in Jedi garb, the post-Christmas-Day pics of kids in Kylo Ren masks waving $10-40 plastic lightsabers, and the joy in the posts as people proudly showed off how they'd passed down Star Wars - something I've seen even with the weaker Prequels, which I am always amazed to hear the kids like just fine.*

We are certainly in the age of multi-generational media.  Or, rather - we have re-entered an age of multi-generational storytelling.



Most of us in my age range grew up on disposable, novel media and narratives.  In an era before home video, the era into which I was born, media was created with a limited shelf-life.  TV broadcasts were not often repeated.  Movies came and went from theaters.  And this had been going on for a long time.  There was no reason to suspect revivals and continued success of Gone With the Wind, no matter how much money had been spent on the thing.  If you wanted to watch all of The Thorn Birds, you better clear your damn calendar.

Then, of course, cable and the home video revolution, then movies cheap enough to own, then streaming.  Plus theaters showing older movies.

As I said in my 2015 Movie Round-Up, I very much consider movies to be like books.  I don't care when they came out, I just go to the shelf and pull one off - and I am far from alone in this approach.

And while books and novels and poems have been published as pop artifacts since the printing press and type-set got itself sorted out, storytelling used to be oral traditions or scrolls in the great libraries.  A story began and was added on to and added on to.  A cursory glance of Greek Mythology will give you a sprawling tapestry from Titans to Odysseus chasing suitors out of his house.  All of that is intertwined, and hardly sprung from whole cloth.

Soap operas spun and spun on the same story, and movies had sequels from the earliest of cinema.  But it was still ephemeral for the audience, coming and going, disappearing once the titles left the marquee.  But once you could comfortably have the story unfold again and again in your home, that made the recitation of chapter and verse of the myth all the more easy to achieve.

Certainly Star Wars has marketed itself as a myth.  By the 90's, Star Wars needed a comeback, and Lucas started with the Joseph Campbell stuff Hero of a Thousand Faces, the Power of Myth and whatnot.  Around the same time the original three installments returned in their dubious Special Edition formats, Lucas and Campbell-fan Bill Moyers explained how Luke-as-hero was on the proto-Western hero's journey (something I doubt Lucas had thought about much, but he was using the DNA of a lot of other source material to put Star Wars together).  I very much recall going to an exhibit at one of the Houston art museums to see artifacts from the Star Wars movies under the banner of "The Magic of Myth" or some such.

I don't actually disagree with Lucas and Moyers on this score.  There are certain beats we see repeated in heroic stories, things we recognize that makes for a selfless hero, things we recognize in a story that makes it more powerful, and whether we recreate those intentionally or subconsciously - I suppose it does matter, but I also don't want to treat Lucas like some story-genie.  His version of events leading up to the final product we now call Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is a constantly changing mythology itself.

Myths had to start from somewhere.  Someone told a story about why a mountain looked odd, and the story was liked and retold, again and again until a generation or so after the person who cooked up the story died, and no one knew where it came from - and now it's hard boiled into what we already believe.  Especially if you tie it to what people already know and believe.  I'm not familiar enough with Norse-Germanic mythology, Greek Mythology, Babylonian Mythology, Egyptian, etc... to begin to have even a mild knowledge of the roots of the various stories and folktales from which the things we've hard-coded in Edith Hamilton and other places as "Mythology" - as set in marble as the faces of the dieties on monuments and now in museums.

But a pretty cursory glance will tell you how much the various cultures took from one another as migration, occupation and other forces took hold.  Stories transmogrified from one tradition to another, and common themes pop up, partially because so many gods in so many traditions act like rich, jerk mortals, and seem to be of limited imagination, using their powers to turn into sexy geese, and whatnot.

Star Wars is no less a collection of 20th Century pop-art artifacts, from Buck Rogers to Flash Gordon, to name the bigger players.  And some even suspect Lucas must have seen Darkseid and Apokolips of DC Comics fame in imagining Darth Vader and the Death Star (Kirby's creations first appeared in 1971).  Throw in WWII fighter plane movies, Harryhausen films, and it's a jumble of a hundred myths and influences that preceded it.

So, what the hell am I on about?

Well, we're 40 about years out from the release of Star Wars.  Half the world knows all about this movie and series of movies.  I've lost count of how many generations have now passed Star Wars on to their kids.

Seeing the images of kids in Darth Vader helmets and swinging lightsabers around while their parents arrange action figures on shelves and carefully plan the reveal of the Star Wars universe for their kids makes me wonder...

In 300 years, what the hell will people make of Star Wars?  What about in 1500 years?  I mean, the cultural detritus of Star Wars will surely be so great with all the plastic little figures still in existence, with sculptures and paintings and everything else.  There's no guarantee the actual movies would survive, but the artifacts will.  And us, some primitive race of beings who can't get past our own moon will have tales of cosmic beings on ships sailing between stars.  What would visitors from another planet make of all this?

And, what if the stories are told and retold?  What happens when they remake the movies?  When the novelizations are found?  The picture books?

What will be made of this thing of devotion to so many people?

If you don't know me, you don't know I have an office in my house that's really my "Superman Room", where I keep comics, statues, toys, etc... and I have this vision that a volcano will blow and my house will be covered in ash, and some space archaeologist will dig my house out in 2500 years, and they'll try to make sense of the religious significance of this shrine.  I mean, they'll surely have found the "S" Shield elsewhere, in stone and metal and certainly plastic.  Who was this caped fellow who fell from the stars?  Well, he clearly was an American Folk Myth, and this man his worshipper.  Apparently some kept home shrines with artifacts.

And, I guarantee you, there's a lot more Star Wars stuff floating around out there than Superman stuff.

George Lucas has made no small point of getting the word out.  He didn't have to do much other than create a totally cool world he could replicate in cheap plastic, but there's no doubt the Star Wars marketing machine, even pre-Disney, was an absolute monster.  Yeah, we get commercials and Harrison Ford doing the rounds on talk shows.  We also get serious with coffee table books convincing you all this was classy, talking head interviews on the legendary creator behind the myths, TV specials for the kids, toy commercials, licensing opportunities the likes of which had rarely been seen, and which never saw that kind of success previous...  Really, you'd kill yourself thinking of all the ways Star Wars doesn't just appear in your day, but as this pretty tightly controlled message comprised mostly of iconography and images of faces.

With Disney behind the effort, there's really no stopping the franchise.  The Mouse knows how to convince people to spend countless dollars to fly across the country to come to dolled-up roadside carnival attractions and eat overpriced food next to sweaty tourists.  They can surely sell a few million lightsabers and DVDs.

And, can Disney continue what Lucas began?  Will the story of the Skywalkers remain intact?  Will the one offs become footnotes and lesser myths?

And, if I can be so bold - how many decades until someone goes ahead and - not just for fun - but for real, gets some folks together who think all of this is real?

Maybe Hercules was always just the coolest action story they had in Greece?  Maybe no one ever bought it as religion or thought of it that way - but he had cool little statues or something you could buy?  Maybe some village once had a noisy blacksmith named Thor and we're all reading way too much into all this Ragnarok business, but there was a really neat hammer necklace you could buy at his shop?

I dunno.  This is what keeps me awake at night.

Also, I went and saw the movie a 3rd time on Saturday.  It was still super fun.

This is the worst movie review I've ever written.





*kids are stupid, it seems


10 comments:

JaredMithrandir said...

The Prequel are what made me a Star Wars fan as a kid, and today at 30 I still like them the best.

horus kemwer said...

No, the worst movie review you ever wrote was The Revenant review . . .

Ryan Steans said...

Couldn't bear it?

Stuart Ward said...

It does seem a little weird that we take such effort now to pass down the pop culture obsessions of our youth to our kids. My parents and grandparents may well have read Superman and Batman comics, but they didn't really care whether I did or not.

Seems a byproduct of the infantilization of our culture. Being that it works out so well for the copyright owners of these (now multi-generational) intellectual properties, I wonder if it was engineered that way, or just a happy accident for them.

Ryan Steans said...

I don't know. Stories have always been passed down, whether it's Grimm's fairytales or King Arthur. Print changed the oral tradition, then moving pictures. We're still putting Aesop's fables into kids' hands, and it's still cultural shorthand to discuss tortoises and hares.

I suspect it was a happy accident to learn we grew up and were more than happy to share Star Wars with our kids (well, those of you with kids). I'm not sure that was entirely possible for folks before us who thought of media as ephemeral. Rin-Tin-Tin wasn't available for me to watch as a kid, but I do remember my Dad sitting and watching old Mickey Mouse Club episodes when the Disney Channel first launched - but he wasn't really reinforcing it, just saying "oh, yeah. Annette." But he did also grab me at age 2 to see Star Wars to make sure I'd see it because it reminded him of all the stuff like that he'd liked, from fighter movies to Flash Gordon. It's anecdotal, but makes as much sense as anything.

The Marvel and DC efforts are so managed and engineered, it's painful to watch DC in particular.

I'm not sure that the myths didn't have folks benefiting from them all along, engineering them and making sure someone was benefiting from their existence, but we're treading into some shady territory here. But this isn't humanity's first rodeo. I'm just wondering if this is the first story propagated by motion picture that will move well beyond its creators and into the kinds of stories we think of like, oh... Jason and the Argonauts, or will it retain novel-like status like "Last of the Mohicans" or even Beowolf.

Stuart Ward said...

Our understanding of your other examples (Thor, Hercules, etc.) are based on artifacts from times without widespread literacy. In contrast, I think any archaeological finding of entertainment memorabilia from contemporary timed would also dig up the corresponding metatextual materials on the subject.

We are nothing as a culture if not verbose. So much so that the original work is often drowned out by the commentary surrounding it. Also, I would assume any culture advanced enough to be making an analysis of us would themselves have a context for popular fiction.

So I think there's little chance of Star Wars being interpreted as a true religion. But I've been wrong before, at least twice.

Ryan Steans said...

That is - until Star Wars becomes a religion.

Stuart Ward said...

Well - I'd *like* to think that any attempt at founding a religion based on contemporary science fiction would be laughed out of existence. Alas...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology

J.S. said...

Star Wars could have been a religion. But then Lucas was good enough to explain midi-chlorians to us so we'd know that the Force really just gives certain people super powers.

Ryan Steans said...

And all this time, I've just been putting midichlorians in my salad as a topping.