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PopMatters Television Review – The Amazing Race – Season 19 Premiere

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title below to go to the review.

The Amazing Race – Season 19 Premiere

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

PopMatters Television Review: Luther – Season Two Premiere

September 28, 2011 1 comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title below to go to the review.

Luther – Season Two Premiere

 

Categories: Reviews, Television

Myriad Americas: A Sojourn in Massachusetts

September 26, 2011 5 comments

The recent radio silence at Random Dangling Mystery has a simple explanation: I was on vacation. Such a limpid term, I know, but then tourism can be a limpid experience if one is not careful, or rather if one is too careful. I make no claim to either, but my latest flurry of travel, the first in quite a while, was not unrewarding. Spending close to a week in Boston and its environs, wandering the city until my feet were sore with the effort of enjoying as much of this unique and resonant city as possible, I was struck anew by the strange stew that is America, as I always am when I find myself in that country.

To put it another, more accurate way, though, I am struck not by America, but by Americas, by those myriad versions of the same thing that are nonetheless different. I speak not of the stereotypes of the United States, those crude caricatures of boorish wealth, spontaneous excess, and shoot-from-the-hip credulity, although, admittedly, there were plentiful examples of all of those things on display, should an observer choose to focus on them. The food portions are rather enormous, and the cheerful serving staff often seems greatly concerned that a diner in search of smaller amounts might leave in a state of insufficient satisfaction. The working-class opiniated loudmouth is a well-entrenched type there as well, especially when it comes to sports and/or politics, subjects upon which nearly everyone is much quicker to venture a viewpoint than even your most diehard hockey-loving suburban conservative in these parts. And although centuries of undiminished exploitative capitalism have left a city gloriously strewn with edifying cultural institutions and beautiful public works, there is a bit of a mishmash of styles, to say nothing of evident fondness of generations of American architects for secular temples of Neoclassical grandiosity. These features of the American human landscape are considered prevalent because they are stereotypes, but can it not alternately be argued that they are stereotypes because they are prevalent?

But my choice of reading on the trip, E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 epic of early-20th-century America Ragtime, began to point my perceptions in another direction, or, rather, directions. A rambling novel of stream-of-consciousness Americana, Ragtime argues that there are so many stories to this grand mess of a land, so many competing and cohabitating narratives constituting the nation, that one story, or even three or four, will not suffice. Doctorow gives us stories of opposing sides of the wealth and the racial divide, but they are the stories of strivers, reachers, the masses of the hopeful. And every American dream is unique and singular.

All these different Americas were very much on display in Boston, unquestionably one of the finest urban experiments in a country overflowing with them. We know much of the proud, sophisticated, proper history of the Sons of Liberty and their glorious revolution, as well as the immigrant story implied by the tight-packed stone of the North End and the vaulting glass-and-steel collaborative triumph of business capital and engineering vision trumpeted by a skyscraper like the John Hancock Tower. But there are so many other stories living in the bones of this great old port town, and discovering them was wonderful.

There is, of course, faith, that core element of American identity. Despite Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberal enlightenment and educated spiritual doubt, it’s hard to miss nearby Salem’s historical example of religious hysteria run rampant; tucked away behind the wax museums and witchy bauble shops is a sober memorial to the very human victims of puritanical excess. The flip side of this is the tremendously impressive Christian Science Plaza, a monument to a perhaps deluded ideal of faith as something that can be reconciled with and even assimilated into the secular capitalist order, rather than something that stands impotently in the way of progress, shouting “Stop!” with all its feeble might. And there is the Old North Church and the haunted burying grounds with their tilted Halloween tombstones, constructions with religious origins that history has transformed into symbols of something more inclusive and secular.

Indeed, there can be something very haunting about New England, especially when the fog rolls in over the towers of the downtown core, turning them into towering iridescent lanterns in the deepening twilight. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how Eastern Seaboard authors like Washington Irving, Edgar Allen Poe, and Massachusetts’ native son Nathaniel Hawthorne were inspired to craft literary works of gothic resonance by their surroundings, an atmosphere not merely attributable to the foggy indistinctness on the coastline or the stentorian severity of the British colonial architecture. Surely once or twice they must have passed by the wide still marshes and fens north of the city and seen a lonely white crane edging through the reeds like a restless ghost. It isn’t hard to conceive of this America as a shadowy realm of headless horsemen and telltale hearts, where the perpetual golden sunrise of intrepid individualism is preceded and well-tempered by dark midnights of the solitary soul.

There are so many more Americas to be glimpsed in a place like Boston that any summary seems cruelly truncated. There is a considerable, singular artistic heritage to a city that names a square after one of its painters and maintains a major museum based purely on the whims of taste of one of its wealthy connoisseur daughters. This is to say nothing of the town’s mixed but fascinating history of professional sport or its role as the educational centre of America. But really, ultimately, it’s a city that lives, that breathes, that thinks, and that tastes of America, however that proper name is defined at any given time. Most cities in America do that, but it really does feel that Boston does so just a little more deeply. A fine place, then, for a sojourn.

Film Review: The Remains of the Day

September 18, 2011 1 comment

The Remains of the Day (1993; Directed by James Ivory)

It’s visually meticulous, narratively sophisticated, and impeccably acted, as Merchant-Ivory productions always seem to be, but tiny quibbles begin to gradually add up as I watch The Remains of the Day.

Tell me, Miss Kenton... would your first name be Clarice, perchance? Do you enjoy fava beans and chianti?

Maybe it’s because Kazuo Ishiguro is such an impeccably precise stylist of language and theme and metaphors that no visual adaptation of his work, even one as literate and faithful as this one, can quite handle the particular tone and perspective of the original material. Maybe it’s because as subtly, powerfully good as Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson both are, they are undercut at several turns, too. The former never gets the cathartic moment of ultimate emotional unburdening that Ishiguro gives his Mr. Stephens, and feels a touch too automatonic as a result (and the Stephens of the novel would emphatically not go into the crying Miss Kenton’s room to twist the knife as he does in the film). The latter seems oddly out of place in an undefinable way, as if she’s surely too clever and handsome to be a mere housekeeper (although Miss Kenton does escape the servants’ quarters, unlike the duty-bound Stephens). Maybe it’s because James Fox is just a touch too ridiculous an upper-crust dilletante for Lord Darlington. Could be all of those things, to similar minor extents.

But really, it could be that the aforementioned precision of the novel, and the subtly unreliable narrative voice provided by Stephens, can’t help but be flattened by the absolutist demands of the wide screen. Elements that were laid out with gradual technical grace in Ishiguro’s pages are just launched out there by director James Ivory, like so many paper boats on a duck pond. The extent of Lord Darlington’s dalliances with Nazi appeasement, for example, is not left as a barely-uttered mystery for long at all, compared with the half-acknowledged, half-justified truths favoured by Ishiguro’s Stephens. Even well-established prestige-hawkers like Merchant and Ivory can’t resist the lure of a good filmic Nazi threat, it seems.

Compared to most big studio productions, of course, The Remains of the Day is downright minimalist, not to mention miraculously trusting of its audience’s intelligence. But it’s still the cinema, and the cinema, by virtue of its very formal standards, must always be dragged kicking and screaming towards ambiguity. Merchant and Ivory were never much for dragging anything anywhere as filmmakers, so to speak, even when it might well be necessary, and there are times when it could be necessary in the case of The Remains of the Day.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Local Hero

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Local Hero (1983; Directed by Bill Forsyth)

Likable, smart, and gently satirical, Bill Forsyth’s quaintly dated tale of a small Scottish town sent into conniptions by a multimillion-dollar offer from an American oil giant to buy it up and turn it into a refinery is charming in its attempts to give a more nuanced view of life in small rural communities.

In moments, the mild-mannered lawyer enters the booth and then exits it as... SCOTSMAN!

The later Celtic-adult-contempo-hit Waking Ned Devine seems rather influenced by Local Hero, but unlike the romanticized Irish village that bamboozles the big-city lottery folks out of millions for the good of the town, the avarice is much less warm and fuzzy here. With the exception of a beach-dwelling eccentric who holds up the deal (and causes it to transform into something else entirely), all of the colourful rustic villagers are quite happy, eager even, to sell their ancestral property to corporate Yanks.

Nor are urbanites constructed as slick, soulless operators: the town’s negotiator, Urquhart (Denis Lawson, a.k.a Wedge Antilles), is every bit as sharp as Mac (Peter Riegert, probably best known as Jim Carrey’s hapless police lieutenant antagonist in The Mask), and their repartee is quick and never one-sided. Forsyth utilizes a lot of sly visual cues and sneaky verbal suggestions that serve to show this town as anything but your traditional Capra-esque locii of honesty and moral rectitude (a common enough view of small-scale habitation in Britain, if Midsomer Murders‘ catalogue of raging ids is any indication).

Beyond its nuanced thoughts on the urban-rural split, the film is fairly scattershot in terms of real laughs. Peter Capaldi’s gawkish Oldsen is often amusing with his awkward schoolboy crush on a comely local scuba-diving biologist, but the regal Burt Lancaster provides the film’s real appeal as Felix Happer, the hereditary head of Mac’s corporate employer.

Lounging unfulfilled in his opulent office and quarters at the top of a skyscraper like a banished old wizard, Happer wends away the hours with his amateur astronomy habit, hoping to give his name to a comet since he can’t give it to any children (he has none) or to his company (his father bought out the original owner but left his Scottish name intact). There’s an undercurrent of mystic sadness to the performance, but Lancaster mostly plays Happer for cathartic laughs, particularly in his interaction with Moritz, an unorthodox shrink whose method is to berate and insult his client in increasingly determined and elaborate ways (even after he’s been fired). It’s the highlight of amusement in a smart but meandering film about identity and belonging that has something to say about finding your place in the world, but not too much.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Inspiration and Aspiration: Cultural Narratives and Income Disparity in Contemporary Capitalist Democracy

September 11, 2011 8 comments

In an age of a historic income disparity between rich and poor, wherein the owners of the means of wealth production and the labour necessary for its production are separated by a truly remarkable socioeconomic chasm, it is essential, from the owners’ point of view, for the cultural discourse to reflect and reinforce the terms of that disparity, to render that set of relations as fair and heteronormative. It could be argued that this rendering is also preferable from the more proletarian point of view, to make their marginalization by forces that they can barely comprehend seem more palatable or even escapable, which it can be, after all, in a system that still allows for limited amounts of social mobility.

This discursive imperative often finds its form in corporate-funded and/or –produced film and television narratives through the familiar “inspirational” genre. In these stories, the plucky, unlikely underdog, often coming up from the underclass or from some other oppressed or marginalized subculture, overcomes the “odds” (ie. the pre-established alignment of social class and success) to triumph in some unlikely sphere. You have Northern English working class boys becoming dancers (Billy Elliot), bountifully-boobed middle-aged women exposing corporate malfeasance (Erin Brokovich), gutsy, unrealistically moral Mumbai street kids winning flashy game shows (Slumdog Millionaire), and, of course, dim, plain-spoken Philly proletarians winning boxing championships (Rocky, in many ways the exemplar of the genre).

Must... surmount... metaphor...

Many bemoan the Hollywood dream factory’s remarkable weakness for these types of narratives, but the studios are merely reacting to the obvious popular appetite for them. In America, especially, where more and more citizens are scrambling for less and less available wealth and opportunity, such tales remain talismans for the broken-back masses who toil and strive and work themselves ragged for a mere fragment of what such silver-screen stories promise.

Even if regular working people may be lacking the essential talent or spark that allows such inspirational figures (fictional or partly not so) to succeed, they can certainly approximate the perseverance and determination that underscores their success. This feeds into the central lie repeatedly disseminated to capitalist labourers in Western democracies: with hard work and fortitude, anything can be accomplished. It cannot, not by everyone, certainly, but all that hard work and fortitude being displayed by those who make less money greatly benefits the quality of lifestyle of those who make more of it. Funding the entertainment of the masses by the feats of their supposed avatars thus has a positive, if indirect, value for the elites.

But a much more interesting and increasingly noticeable phenomenon in corporate entertainment serves a more direct need of those in the upper end of the tax bracket: the desire to experience their own stories on screens of variant sizes. Instead of the gutsy servants mastering spectacular obstacles, the relatively well-off are treated to overseers demonstrating their dominion over the world and are told that these people, the ones most like them, are the underdogs. Thus, millions thrilled at a monarch, encased in a cocoon of privilege, striking a putative blow against fascism by learning to suppress his stutter (Oscar-sweeper The King’s Speech), or a computer super-genius attending the continent’s most prestigious institute of learning surmounting numerous bothersome interpersonal entanglements to make billions of dollars (The Social Network), and they may soon likewise thrill at a well-heeled sports executive fielding a competitive team by pouring over mind-numbing stats and by spending fewer millions of dollars on players than some other talent managers (the upcoming Brad Pitt vehicle Moneyball).

Products of this type are proliferating, perhaps because they cut both ways, appealing not only to elite media opinion-makers and the comfortable upper-middle-class, but also to the aspiring lower-income consumers as well. We can call these not inspirational stories but rather aspirational stories. There is some overlap with decidedly less stirring entertainment that nonetheless glorifies wealth and fame as romantic ends in themselves, to be sure. But these usually take the form of traditionally-conceived notions of escapism, brief and desultory getaways from the daily competitive ordeal of keeping up with the Joneses by pretending to keep up with the Kardashians (as if anyone could, or would actually want to try).

What it truly illustrates in the American instance is the manner in which history’s purported watershed “classless” society is increasingly defined by minor gradations in income as it creeps into a period of unproductive post-imperial decadence (if America was ever anything other than post-imperial, or other than decadent, for that matter). Hairline distinctions in status are established through commercial consumption, while the truly deprived are effaced entirely; are identities really defined by whether you own an iPhone or a Blackberry when millions can afford neither (including those who make them)?

More than left and right, faith and reason, or East and West, even more than rich and poor, this is the definitive division of our time: those aspiring to more and those who have more and aspire to self-justification. The main thing they have in common is a mutual desire for the latter, however that may be delineated in individual cases. So perhaps aspiration cannot wholly be separated from inspiration: they are two aspects of the same post-modern human need for validation.

PopMatters DVD Review: The Best and The Brightest

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: I write regular album, DVD, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title below to go to the review.

The Best and The Brightest

 

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Slumdog Millionaire

September 6, 2011 4 comments

Slumdog Millionaire (2008; Directed by Danny Boyle)

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a lot of things, but above all it’s one of the liveliest films to become a critical darling in recent memory. Look at the other Best Picture nominees from the year it triumphed at the Oscars and you’ll find ponderous, staid Prestige Pictures of the type that the Academy can never seem to resist (with the arguable exception of Milk). As conventional as Slumdog is at the basic levels of narrative, character, and themes, its furious sun-baked energy and the Orientalist alterity of its setting makes it seem much less predictable and generic than it really is.

Made it, ma... top of the world!

Slumdog Millionaire trades on the common narrative tropes of the “rags to raja” drama in undeniably obvious ways: overcoming obstacles, showing up naysayers, falling in forbidden love, and giving voice to youthful yearning. It owes roughly coequivalent debts to both pull-up-your-bootstraps crowd-pleasers like Rocky and vibrant quick-cut portrayals of the Third (Under)World like City of God. The look, sound, feel, and style of the film are its truest joy.

Boyle deserves credit, but his team of collaborators aid him greatly. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography drinks in India like a fine tea, all multichromatic clutter and bright, sweaty vivaciousness. Chris Dickens’ mastefully kinetic editing had to be an Oscar shoo-in. And A.R. Rahman snatched a pair of golden statuettes for his blood-pumping score, to say nothing of the pitch-perfect contributions from M.I.A. (the “Paper Planes”-scored train sequence trumps the Pineapple Express trailer for the aptest visual companion to Maya’s new modern classic track). The cinematic skill with which these elements are applied and the deep, abiding delight they continually produce overcomes every bit of the script’s generic predictability. The plot and characters are a mere skeleton for the lovely skin of this film, a hanger for Boyle’s robe of many colours that has a gutsy poetry all its own.

And anyway, Slumdog Millionaire is more a meta-commentary on the narrative conventions it is employing than a simple repetition of them. The genius of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s employment of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as the main thread of the plot is located precisely in its superficial predictability. Millionaire‘s huge popularity is now a thing of the past in North America, but the kernel of its hit status was its simplicity, indeed its very contrivance: it is simultaneously entirely predictable, endlessly repeatable, and inherently dramatic and suspenseful.

You think this thing will qualify for the "Cash for Clunkers" program?

In Slumdog Millionaire, it serves as a common touchstone, a paradigm of the endlessly repeatable and yet viscerally engaging game-show tension that all of the genre’s great success rely upon. Boyle and Beaufoy seem to recognize that a game show like Millionaire has shifted the axis of the rags-to-riches narrative in the popular consciousness; what’s so compelling about an inspiring story of working from nothing to everything in “real” life when it can be done on primetime television in the space of an hour? Beyond its jump-cut editing and globalized soundtrack, the dialogue between the film’s narrative conventions and those of the game show (which Jamal’s “destined” knowledge of the trivial answers and his unflappable approach to the format’s cliches upends, as when the boy turns the tables on Anil Kapoor’s slimy host by asking if he is nervous) is what truly makes it a post-modern meta-commentary on genre.

Despite misguided accusations of neo-colonialism and stereotyping in the film’s use of the Indian setting, this absorption and adaptation of Western culture is what makes Slumdog Millionaire such a prescient and timely film. It is not a film about India as much as it is a film about what the rise of India means to the world (read: the Western world), and how that rise incorporates Western culture and recasts it and views it through an Indian kaleidoscope. The presence of the Millionaire show at the heart of the film is a complex metaphor for this process, and it’s simply too bad that so many critics of the film seem to have missed it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: I’m Not There

September 5, 2011 2 comments

I’m Not There (2007; Directed by Todd Haynes)

Less a traditional biopic than a complicated, obtuse tone poem on the vague belief-system that is Dylanism, Todd Haynes’ fascinating but inscrutable I’m Not There plays loose with the myths swirling around Dylan’s life (most of them self-perpetuated) but never sacrifices a furiously artsy vision of what Dylan’s music means. That is, if it means anything at all. Either possibility is left entirely open at all times, and that much is to Haynes’ credit.

This group must somehow form a family...

The various “personas” of Dylan portrayed by the cadre of massively talented actors at Haynes’ disposal work with varying degrees of success, but always present firm and interesting theories on the phases of Dylan’s public life. Cate Blanchett’s widely-praised Jude Quinn is the sort of immaculate impersonation of a recognizable figure that the Academy seems to be convinced qualifies as great acting. For all of her tic-ing and quipping amongst the slick setting of the Mod mid-Sixties, only in her encounters with Bruce Greenwood’s pitiless television reporter is anything remotely insightful about Dylan’s intertwined art and identity touched upon.

Marcus Carl Franklin and Richard Gere are similarly patchy in probing the youthful drifter and grizzled reclusive outlaw bookends of Dylan’s career. At least Haynes doesn’t go so anti-subtle as to toss “Song To Woody” on the soundtrack as Franklin’s character visits his dying namesake at a New Jersey hospital, as Dylan was purported to have done. The lamentably-late Heath Ledger is much more powerful as a personification of the mid-70s Blood on the Tracks Dylan, lazily self-involved even as his marriage to Charlotte Gainsbourg unravels; “A Simple Twist of Fate” crops up here, simply the only choice to back these scenes up.

But for my dime, Haynes’ slyly satirical exploration of the protest song period (which he posits as an anticipation of Dylan’s embarrassing born-again Christian period in the ’80s) is the most entertaining and (vitally) funny section of the film, even if it is constantly shunted aside for the other storylines. The naive, cornball pretentiousness of the white-bread folk audience that first embraced Dylan as its Messiah and then demonized him when he dared to evolve before their eyes is well and truly skewered; their reasons for rejecting their one-time hero sound all the more ridiculous for their withering sincerity.

Haynes’ satire is abetted by subtly hilarious performances from Julianne Moore as a Joan Baez proxy and especially from Christian Bale as the Dylan stand-in, Jack Rollins. As always, the genius of Bale’s acting is in the tiniest, easily-missed physical details: the droop of his mouth as he attempts profundity, the deadpan uniformity of his voice as he performs a hilariously meandering “finger-pointing song” with an interminable table metaphor, and the awkward swaying and hand-raising as he sings a gospel song in his reincarnation as a Pentecostal preacher. With all the attention focused on Blanchett and Ledger, Bale gives another underrated yet brilliant performance, something we should have come to expect from the guy as this point but is still welcome whenever we get it.

Of course, in the end, Haynes’ film spends upwards of two hours to conclude that Bob Dylan is an enigma. But he’s an enigma we all have had a hand in creating, and this raggedly post-modern film argues this much convincingly, at least.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

The Aura Will Be With You, Always: George Lucas, His Fans and the “Authenticity” of Star Wars

September 3, 2011 9 comments

Insightful cultural criticism can be hard to come by, but it’s hard to miss it when it does. It may not entirely reconfigure the way we think about cultural production, but the frameworks and perspectives provided by such well-modulated analysis infiltrate our considerations, colouring them with new (and, ideally, deeper) shades of thought.

Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax, which I’m currently working my way through, is just this type of criticism. The book extends and broadens the argument that Potter made with co-author Joseph Heath in The Rebel Sell, shoring it up with reinforced philosophical foundations and many more object lessons from contemporary culture.

For those who haven’t gotten around to The Rebel Sell (for shame!), the argument is, basically, that the cultural, ideology, and socioeconomic predilection towards seeking out and embracing “alternative” or counter-cultural antidotes to the corporate-controlled, alienating mass consumption of modern urbanized life is not resisting or undermining the capitalist superstructure but is actually feeding into its unprecedented, meteoric growth.

The Canadian edition of The Rebel Sell features the familiar visage of Che Guevara staring out not from a t-shirt but from a Starbucks-esque coffee container, and the image succinctly sums up its message: those products, practices, ideas that are usually thought to make you feel like a defiant individual rebelling against an unfeeling and greedy system, be they indie rock albums or organic produce or living in the downtown core and biking to work, are in fact the engine of constant, status-seeking conspicuous consumption. In other words, your imagined resistance is ensuring your enslavement (ie. daily life in the modern world, which the authors don’t find to be all that much of a burden at all).

The Authenticity Hoax makes many similar arguments on the basis of many related cultural examples, but with the concept of the “authentic” as an entry point rather than the concept of the “alternative”. This is a much more powerful starting point for Potter, as conceptions of authenticity underscore practically every important social and cultural value in the democratic West and are not limited to a particular end of the political or cultural spectrum, whereas the counter-cultural focus of The Rebel Sell sometimes came across as one-sided hippie-punching. Misconceptions of the authentic, however, are as endemic to fashionable, knee-jerk-progressive urban hipsters as they are to resentful, anti-government rural Tea Partiers. It’s a discussion that delves deep into all of the myriad values of modernityThe Authenticity Hoax.

The potency of Potter’s dialogue on authenticity was brought home to me recently. I registered the way that “The Creative Self”, his chapter in The Authenticity Hoax on “provenance” and authenticity in the world of art, dovetailed compellingly with the latest skirmish in a long war over one of our modern corporate culture’s most beloved and influential entertainment institutions, the Star Wars saga.

George Lucas’ latest edits to his space fantasy saga for its forthcoming Blu-Ray release were confirmed on August 31st, to predictable fanboy lamentations. Lucas’ new round of tinkering with his cinematic legacy doesn’t simply add superfluous CGI detail or subtly emasculate his antihero, mind you. This time, Lucas is aiming right for the climactic moment of his six-movie saga: the Blu-Ray of Return of the Jedi will evidently feature Darth Vader yelling “Noooooooo!” as he grabs the lightning-flinging Emperor Palpatine and hurls him over a precipice on the Death Star, thus saving the life of his son, Luke Skywalker. No doubt Lucas means to connect this moment with Vader’s other “Noooooooo!” moment in Revenge of the Sith, when the recently black-suited Anakin let loose with just that cornball howling upon learning of his lover Amidala’s death. Whatever his intentions, it’s yet another instance of the figure once memorably and serendipitously dubbed “the Lucas of George” (in a Google-translated script of his first Star Wars film) changing his established work and, in the view of much of his nerdy, quibbling, never-satisfied fanbase, deteriorating the integrity and the authenticity of Star Wars even further.

I find our lack of salt… disturbing.

The conflict between George Lucas and the legions of fans of his greatest creation (mostly of the original trilogy generation or the one just after) goes way back, at least to Return of the Jedi’s cuddly Ewoks and subsequent merchandising bonanza, although the animosity was most inflamed in the late ‘90s with Lucas’ “Special Edition” modifications (including the infamous, afore-referenced “Greedo shoots first” fiasco) and the brand diminishment that was The Phantom Menace. This ongoing quarrel is even covered in a full-length independent documentary film, so I won’t get into too much more detail about it and just encourage everyone with a deeper interest in its contours to seek that out instead.

Star Wars fandom’s widespread criticism of Lucas’ latter-day excesses is balanced by the dedication and creativity inspired by the tales from Lucas’ galaxy far, far away. For every angry blog post from a betrayed basement Jedi or comedy song about George Lucas “raping our childhood”, there are clever viral videos like “Troops” or “Star Wars Gangsta Rap”, to say nothing of Lucasfilm-approved entertainment-industry homages from the likes of Seth McFarlane (with his Family Guy parody ­trilogy Laugh It Up, Fuzzball), Seth Green (Robot Chicken), Genndy Tartakovsky (the Clone Wars cartoons), or J.J. Abrams (whose Star Trek film might as well have been subtitled A New Hope).

In a certain male-geek-dominated subculture, Star Wars is the main reference point for the continual construction of what Potter (après Rousseau) calls “the creative self”: that constantly updated process of identity self-definition that drives the modern world’s search for innate meaning. This is surely a major part of the reason why passionate fans of Lucas’ films get so irate at him when he monkeys with aspects of what are, after all, his own works. Those films, and that entire universe, have become an irreducible part of their own individual identities, their inner “true” selves. When Lucas changes the films, he changes them as well.

Why is this art? Fuck you, that’s why.

Potter gives us other frameworks to further understand this controversy, not only from the fans’ point of view but from Lucas’ as well. Using the example of British artist Damien Hirst’s notorious preserved-shark-in-a-tank work of contemporary “art”, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Potter ruminates on whether a specific work of art remains “authentic” if its traceable, material history, its “provenance” to use an art world term, involves significant edits from the artist or from otherwise well-meaning (or not-well-meaning) curators, preservationists, or restorers. Due to the unanticipated physical deterioration of the poorly-preserved tiger shark at the center of the work, Hirst and his patron Charles Saatchi were forced to alter Physical Impossibility in considerable ways, first by stretching the original shark skin over a fibreglass mould and then replacing it altogether with a new and more professionally-preserved shark. If it’s not the same shark, asks Potter, is it the same work? Or are such concerns purely technical, the purported artistic integrity of the artwork residing not in its corporeal make-up but in the persistence of its concept? Further to the point, is any conception of its “authentic” nature a pointless and deluded conceit anyway?

This same dilemma is acted out by Star Wars fans outraged at Lucas’ edits and his lacklustre prequels. Although many have made the point that the insertion of digital imagery into decades-old films and the privileging of such imagery in a companion trilogy have a purely aesthetic downside (ie. they “look fake”, a visual appeal to the authenticity hoax), it’s the distortion of ideas that really seems get their goat. Add all of the cutesy CGI effects you want and we’ll grumble, they seem to say, but mess with the soul and the aura of the story and the characters, those things that we really love, and there will be hell to pay. If George Lucas changes the content rather than just the appearance of these movies, our movies, then they aren’t the same movies; they aren’t the real deal that meant so much to us. Not anymore. In their minds, he’s stripped them of their inherent authenticity, an authenticity that fans feel that they have granted them with their obsessive commitment, imaginative collaboration, and recurring consumption.

What makes this such an odd reaction, and allows us to understand where Lucas is coming from in his insistence on repeatedly renovating what is, ultimately and legally, his own property, is that these are films we’re talking about. In relation to a similar line of thought, Potter cites Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which, upon its publication in 1936, wondered if artistic production had been made more ephemeral by cheaply reproduced mass-market media forms like photography and film. But here we are, some 70-plus years later, and a massively mass-market film franchise (a well-applied term that always already invokes commerce), one that has been watched and experienced by millions of people worldwide in pretty much the same way (although the many cultural products that have arisen in response to and in dialogue with it might suggest otherwise), is claimed to have some spirit of essential authenticity that is threatened, if not entirely overturned, when rather small adjustments are made to it.

That thing must have one hell of a carbon footprint…

Unlike Hirst, however, Lucas is not replacing the whole shark here. He may be injecting fresh formaldehyde, adding new fins, replacing eyeballs, maybe insinuating a grin on its treacherous, toothy mouth. But the shark is still the same shark, and, also unlike that of Hirst, there’s not only one of them in existence, either. There are millions upon millions of sharks, on DVD discs and VHS tapes and film spools and peer-to-peer servers and Sunday afternoon cable TV and in the active imaginations of children and adults alike, and some of these sharks are even the “original”, unretouched ones, to satisfy the purists. There is not merely one Star Wars, sitting in a wealthy art collector’s parlour or in a privileged place in an art gallery, possessed of an eternal quality to be forever preserved and gazed upon in reverence. There are as many Star Wars as there are fans of Star Wars.

This is what Benjamin, approaching things with his Marxist perspective of an oppressed proletarian class, did not anticipate in his critique of mass reproduction and consumption: the way that those who consume a mass commodity lend that commodity new value – a new aura, to adapt Benjamin’s own term – through their patronage of it and engagement with it. Star Wars fans use the films to craft their own “authentic” selves, and craft the films into something new in the process. They are all following Lucas, this universe’s creation figure, in that. The difference is that the films inform the fans’ creation of themselves, while Lucas’ self informs the actual creation of the films, rather than the re-interpretation of them. In this, he is forever apart and alone, even as he is simultaneously revered and reviled for his initializing and controlling part in this influential and lucrative narrative saga. And every time he moves his creation further from the selves of those who revere it, he moves himself closer to it.