Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Evil Emperor's Teeth

Quick follow up on my last post....

Saw "Revenge of the Sith" today with Andrew and his buddy JJ.

Brief review: special effects and battle scenes remarkable; music stirring and operatic; story line ok; acting mediocre; dialogue embarrassing and distracting; mature human feeling or believable drama barely registering. In other words, it's a Star Wars movie. Not as good as the first three but better than the last two.

The whole thing is a sci-fi comic book and a very violent video game on the big screen. I went with Andrew so I could debrief the relentless violence and try to build on the human and spiritual elements in the movie and series. I've gotten used to doing that with video and online games so I've had some practice.

Technically skilled grown ups with a subtle and mature sensibility will eventually make use of these kinds of digital/visual breakthroughs to produce more worthwhile stuff. But that day is probably still some years off. Right now all we can do is celebrate the male adolescent creativity and fantasies that produce amazing visual stuff like Star Wars and the current crop of destruction and dominance game offerings.

Turns out that poor hygeine on the Dark Side has nothing to do with the Evil Emperor's bad skin and teeth. Brush their teeth and use sun screen, they do.

The Emperor gets a plasma facial from one of the Jedi. Question answered. Glad to hear the problem wasn't a lack of self-care or self-esteem.


Blogger ruth said...

I find your lack of faith disturbing.

(and what, exactly, is wrong with sci-fi comic books?)

Actually, I think the first trilogy was more than just male adolescent fantasies. Lucas did a pretty good job of drawing on some universal elements of mythology. I think people were so drawn to those movies because they are (for our times) a well-crafted myth. Not that the acting, script, or special effects is great, but it's the kind of story that becomes a thing in itself. Put into the Pot of Story, Tolkien might say. Like the Arthur myth- Malory is pretty dry stuff, but somehow the elements of that story got in people's heads.

The latest ones, however, have lost whatever it was that made the first three so appealing. I think of them as advertising for the Lucas toy empire. However, I will probably see the third one just to find out what happens...

9:30 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Yes, I get that lack of faith response a lot, Darth Ruth.

Nothing is wrong with sci fi comics. I love em. I grew up reading em and watching 50's and 60's sci fi flicks.

But that kind of stuff does have limitations. Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendevous with Rama" or "Childhood's End" are examples of sci fi for grown ups. Or any of Ursula Le Guin's stories--especially "The Dispossesed." I think you'd especially enjoy that one if you haven't already read it.

You're right that I didn't give enough credit to SW episodes 4-6.

Lucas built that trilogy on the basis of Joseph Campbell's writings on mythology. I read his stuff as a result of Star Wars.

I especially liked "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." Campbell was a Jungian who believed that our behavior is directed by "archetypes" (mythological images and stories).

The image of the hero--in his thinking--is one of the most powerful "deep images" that everybody responds to even if they can't describe that story. He thought we knew that kind of stuff in our bones and in our cultural memory.

Luke Skywalker is the archetypical Campbell hero. Darth Vader is the archetypical Campbell villain.

Campbell argued that both villain and hero have a thousand faces in different cultures, but that the fundamentals of both archetypes are basically the same.

I think Campbell was right that societies think in these kinds of categories. Religions especially seem attracted to simple totem images. Suicide bombers believe they're going to Paradise because of the kind of mythological power that Campbell describes.

In New Testament thinking, these mythological ideas of good and evil are principalities and powers that deceive people while selling lots of movie tickets and putting lots of governments in power.

A columnist here in Denver described the Star Wars spirituality as "Buddhism with violence."

That's a pretty good take on it from my point of view. I don't think it has muc to do with a Christian world view.

If SW is powerful for your particular generation, I wonder if that's because it unites a fuzzy spirituality with a full on committment to technology and a focus on the visual. I don't know. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

As I've gotten older--though probably not wiser--I've become less interested in archetypes and generalities.

I'm not as big on violent, heroic fantasies as I once was.

But you're right to quote Tolkien. The violent stories and fantasies of male adolescents are a part of the larger story. Sometimes those adolescents are sheltered literature professors from England and sometimes they're tech geeks from California like Lucas, but there's no reason they shouldn't get a hearing along with everybody else.

But my sense is that they get too much of a hearing right now.

I just wish some other voices were heard more often. Our kids and culture would be a lot better off if that was so.

11:52 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

whoa. the Jungian archetypes of good and evil are some of the principalities and powers in the NT. That is an interesting thought.

I haven't read any Campbell. My thoughts on this kind of fantasy are mostly drawn from Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" (which I highly recommend).

(but about Tolkien… Sheltered literature professor?!? Male adolescent fantasies?!? He was born in South Africa, and fought there in WWI, in which he conceived most of the Silmarillion in the trenches. So I would not dismiss him as sheltered. However, I acknowledge my deep and unalterable bias of being totally unable to say anything negative about him. I also wonder how many adolescent males fantasize about Norse alphabets, but who knows?)

Anyway, I don't think it's just the fuzzy spirituality and visuals that make SW popular. I think it appeals to deep human longings that are unfulfilled in our time. One is for moral clarity. I think deep inside, we want to be part of a motley crew of loyal friends who defeat the empire of our day. Inside the world that Lucas created, there's an internal consistency- good and evil are clearly defined, and the imaginary world operates by a set of rules that are never broken. (that is, in the original trilogy.)

This is what Tolkien calls “sub-creation”: the creation by a human being of an imaginary world that is consistent enough within itself to allow people to suspend their disbelief and enter it for a while. I think it’s obvious that this has occurred with Star Wars, as well as other series with cult followings. Seriously- some people never leave the sub-created world. And of course escapism isn’t a good expression of fantasy, and that’s happened quite a bit. But, according to JRRT sub-creation is an essential human activity. We create our own worlds because we are made in the image of a God who creates worlds.

SW also has the essential element of high fantasy that Tolkien calls a eucatastrophe: the surprise happy ending, which comes with a swift turn of events just when all hope is lost. This is our darkest hour, help me Obi-Wan Kenobi you’re my only hope, etc. etc. etc., and things get darker and darker until the rebel fleet is almost destroyed, the last Jedi is about to be zapped by the Emperor, and suddenly, beyond hope, the evil henchman switches sides. It’s more than a male adolescent fantasy. Tolkien says that we like this because it’s a reflection of the true story of redemption- the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate eucatastrophe, and all really good fantasy reflects this story, whether Christian or not. I think he says something like,

“Art has been validated. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men, and of elves.”

Call me an escapist if you want… but I think the eucatastrophe thing is real. SW falls far short of the true story, but it has enough reflections of it to make it a myth in the MacDonald/Tolkien/Lewis sense.

However. Even the best fantasy can be used for lesser ends. I definitely agree with you that right now, these other worlds are mostly providing entertainment and dollars rather than inspiration. I suppose they also provide the escape of joining vicariously in the good vs. evil struggle in an imaginary setting, while ignoring it in real life.

Still thinking about the NT vs. Jung. I think that rather than see the good and evil archetypes as powers and principalities, I see them as part of Art, a thing that is good in itself but gets twisted to evil ends just like pretty much everything human does. Even the highest forms of art get subverted, either as commodities or propaganda. But I am not going to throw them out because they’re tainted- what isn’t?

“Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors' own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

I wonder if Tolkien’s voice really is getting a hearing right now. I don’t know if he would be so into special effects and commercialism.

What are the other voices you would like to hear?

7:28 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

This is fun Ruth.

When I think about the NT idea of principalities and powers I usually include anything that shapes the way people think and feel and behave. Archetypical images ("archy" simply means "power" in Greek) are at the heart of the principalities and powers that rule the way we all do life.

I think you can make a strong argument that these kind of archetypical images are the most powerful principalities and powers of all.

I grew up listening to Greek myths and biblical stories at bedtime and I've spent my adult life helping people act on some of those images.

Christians think that one archetypical story is true and that the rest of the stories have some fatal flaws along with a lot of the right kind of drama.

Tolkien and C.S.Lewis and Dorothy Sayers and all that wonderous group at Oxford in the mid 20th century did their best work by forcefully re-introducing the power of stories and myth.

They were in the midst of the most extreme versions of simple minded secularism and scientific reductionism that denied any role to mythical and religious thinking. So they were appropriate "prophets" in their own day.

England and Europe in the 20's through 60's were a far more secular environment than America in the early 21st century.

They were doing their best to make myths and stories that re-introduced what they thought was the "heart myth" (or the story of stories) to a sceptical population. They thought that the end of myths and heroic stories meant the end of Chrisitan faith.

They did it brilliantly in my view. I carried around Lewis and Tolkien in my backpack through my teen and college years. My paperback copies of their stuff eventually fell apart with age and use.

There are lots of kinds of myths and stories. Some of em are more true to a Christian vision than others. Some of em are pitched mainly at children, some at adolescents, some at adults, and some at elderly people. Some are more skillfully done than others.

Lord of the Rings is magnificent as a myth. More true to a Christian vision than anything I can think of off the top of my head. Very skillfully done. Tolkien was a great genius and I'm very appreciative of his influence.

But I think it's mostly an adolescent myth. I don't view that as a perjorative comment. Myths and great stories tend to focus on the mindset and worldview of people of a certain age and experience. That's pretty much a requirement for really gripping drama and stories.

Lord of the Rings is really about the faith life of a couple of adolescents on a spiritual quest. Their universe is largely a black and white world that is filled with lots of particularly male adolescent ideas of redemptive violence and carnage and visions of medieval Christian heroism.

Having been an adolescent male, I'm pretty familiar with that imaginary territory.

Suffice it to say that no middle aged woman would have ever written Lord of the Rings.

Wars are fought largely by very young men because they believe in all that stuff. If the world's armies had to rely on middle aged men or the elderly to light the fires of battle very few wars would ever be fought.

The strength of Star Wars is the simple fact that it's a myth and a powerful story. I guess at this point that makes it pretty different and interesting.

But in my view it's an extreme version of adolescent male myth. The primary focus is on carnage and battle and a black and white moral universe.

Lord of the Rings is deeper and much more overtly Christian.

But I think it has a lot more in common with medieval notions of Christianity than it does with the gospel stories. That whole Inkling crowd at Oxford may have been more attracted to medieval English and Norse myth than was good for them.

You seem to feel that your generation needs more "black and white" thinking. I'm not in a position to argue with you since I'm not an insider.

In my own thinking, it seems like Christians right now are pretty at home in adolescent black and white perceptions of the world.

On the other hand, the broader culture may need an even stronger dose of a male 15 year old worldview.

What other voices would I like to see represented in the visual entertainment universe?

Mythical stories from children's points of view. Mythical stories from middle aged people's points of view. Mythical stories from elderly people's point of view. Mythical stories from women's points of view.

I can say with some confidence that none of them would look like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.

I just saw an English movie called "Millions" that is a brilliant mythical tale from a child's point of view. It's so skillfully done that adults, adolescents and the elderly of either gender would get it.

I'd love for my son Andrew to have a better chance to interact with those points of view rather than just the sword and sorcery, good and evil, "slaughter anybody who disagrees with you" world of big budget sci fi and fantasy movies, video games, and online offerings.

Non-mythical stories would be good too. And lots of stuff that is overtly scientific and pragmatic. I'd love to see a lot more anti-myths on film. That would be good for the conservative Christian community in particular. It might restore some balance.

The economics of the thing probably mean Andrew will continue to see the same stuff. Adolescent movie goers and folks who are really into the online and gaming worlds are the folks who are buying most of the tickets and making most of the hits. We're in a capitalist economy. Enough said.

I enjoy fantasy and fiction and I'm glad we have the opportunity to see things like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. As I said, every point of view deserves an artistic hearing.

But mundane reality is a pretty fascinating place too. You know, that whole incarnational thing. I think our current American brethren could use that more than another big concept fantasy.

10:05 PM  
Blogger TPB said...

Similar to your comment on Jason's blog, I find this discourse "courageously geeky." But as a wannabe nerd, I enjoy reading it! I only wish I had something of substance to contribute to this discussion. Good work, guys!

10:05 AM  
Blogger ruth said...

Those are good thoughts.

sigh... so when I’m older and wiser, will I not like epic adventure as much? I really hope that doesn’t happen.

I think I’m still not interpreting “male adolescent” in the same way that you’re using that phrase. Perhaps since I’ve never been one, I don’t understand. But, as you said, LOTR is a lot deeper that that. Behind all the violence, you sense Tolkien’s grief at the loss of beauty and innocence, especially as seen by the hobbits. And the redemption in the end comes not from carnage or heroism, but from an act of mercy. I don’t think Tolkien really believed in war in the adolescent male way- I think he saw it as inevitable because those greedy for power are able to manipulate the adolescent males into fighting for them. (Enter the principalities and powers...)

for example-

"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace."

I’m not sure that no middle aged woman would have ever written LOTR. Very few would, most likely, but one never knows. But stereotypical categories of gender are one of my pet peeves. I’ve spent a good bit of time in the imaginary territory you describe as male. (Except not so much the medieval Christian heroism.)

I wonder if Ursula K. LeGuin was middle-aged when she wrote the Earthsea books. Not that they compare to LOTR, although the book jacket probably says something like “An epic fantasy in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien”, as if anything is.

Hmmm, medieval Christianity vs. the gospels. Alas, I fear I too am attracted to English and Norse myth more than is good for me. Though perhaps Tolkien was attracted more to the pre-Christian or very early, still semi-pagan Christian versions of that rather than the medieval. Actually, he thought some of his fellow Inklings were too attracted to the Arthur myth. “Medieval Christian heroism” makes me think of the Crusades and chivalry and knights errant. I don’t think Tolkien necessarily buys all that. Chivalry, maybe. But the simplicity of the hobbits is always mocking the things of that world.

(Evidently I feel compelled to counter even the smallest criticism of Tolkien. Ok, I’ll stop now.)

Yes, I heartily agree that Christians currently do NOT need any more black and white, adolescent level thinking. I was thinking mainly of cynical, apathetic Gen X-ers who need a world where some people really are good and wise, and it isn’t naïve to think you can devote yourself to a worthy cause, and choices are clear.

I like your suggestions of other myths. May they come to pass. It’s an interesting question: so now we aren’t in as much danger of losing the “heart myth” to skeptics- what kind of story do we need? Maybe it’s hard to answer, because our society is so fragmented into different subcultures, and each one needs a different myth?

For now, I will indulge myself in late-twenties female visions of adolescent males paying gobs of money in droves to go see pragmatic science films instead of violent slaughter films.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Who said anything about me being "older and wiser?" Older certainly.

I hope you love Tolkien all your life, Ruth. You're right, I think we are using "adolescent" and some of our terms differently. A piece can have a child's point of view and be great and deep art. If I think Tolkien's work comes primarily from an adolescent point of view, that's no barrier to it's depth or significance.

The only restriction a particular point of view places on the work of art is that it can't be everything. Many Tolkien lovers I knew back in the 70's--when Lord of the Rings sort of swept the youth culture world as it's swept the pop culture world now through Jackson's interpretation--believed LOTR was the work of art "with everything." I didn't buy it then and I don't buy it now.

For example, I think the 'noir' style of stories has produced some really great movies and novels, some of them at the level of art. That style of storytelling comes from a more cynical middle aged male perspective, but the really great noir stuff (a movie like "Chinatown" comes to mind)has a universality about it that allows it to speak to a very wide variety of people.

Other noir stuff just isn't done as well. But it's all primarily middle aged male material. I think Sword and Sorcery myths are primarily adolescent stuff. Some of it, like LOTR, is great and most of it is pretty mediocre or worse. Star Wars seems to me to be a pretty decent stab at adolescent mythmaking, certainly a lot better than much of the genre but not in the league of LOTR.

I think you'll probably appreciate LOTR just as much in 20 years, but I'd guess you'll view it differently.

And the reality is, some folks just like fantasy stuff more than others. I'm one of those people who tends to like less fantastical material better. I probably read 5 non-fiction books for every fictional story I read. That should probably tell you something right there :^)

6:06 PM  

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