Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Like progressivism, The Last Jedi goes down easy… but leaves a bad aftertaste.  §

Why didn’t I like the latest Star Wars film?

Because it’s overhwhelmingly a film of the moment, and it wears its politics on its sleeve.

The most indicative moment probably comes late in the film when a character inserted essentially to be Asian, female, and cheerful and not much else says, in a throwaway line with her dying breath, something like “We won’t win by fighting against anything, we’ll win by fighting to save what we love!

Vomit.

And more to the point, entirely out of place. Her character was completely out of place—the bubbly differently abled body-positive high school girl of color who’s generally clueless about conflict in the world but that’s okay because all are welcome in our circle—in the midst of the hardened, constantly beseiged, hardscrabble-death-star-destroying Rebel Alliance (which is of course now, regrettably or gleefully, depending on which side of the political aisle you’re on, “The Resistance”). And the message is even more out of place than her character is. Comrades are dropping like flies around her in the midst of a hellish, multi-generational war against a totalitarian galactic power that is suposedly all these people have ever known amidst their terrible lives on inhospitable planets. And she’s all alone. And her job ain’t that great. And she’s gonna die young, never really having lived. And she’s there because it all sucks so bad that it’s worth any sacrifice to try to destroy the basic order of the galaxy to try to change things. And she’s only just met Flynn.

What, pray, is it that she loves so much—that she is trying to save—exactly?

It’ll tell you what she loves. That 100% organic, progressive, eco-friendly attitude that she’s so careful, thanks to our hero the director, to virtue-signal. You know the one, it’s an inch deep at most, obscures deep resentment and fear on the part of those that express it, but nonetheless keeps them talking about “the power of love” decades after Lennon was killed in front of a hotel in New York and despite the fact that they hate as many things as much as anyone else, and probably even moreso, but can’t say it because that sort of un-PC speech is verboten beneath their hardened, glassy faces of joyous progress.

The rest of the movie is much the same. There’s no good and there’s no evil any longer, even on the light and dark sides of The Force, so Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren are both just… troubled. And because we shouldn’t judge, one isn’t even more troubled than another. They’re simply differently troubled, that’s all. And Rashomon and two equally valid but different and totally understandable points of view that are deeply felt, of course and that must be validated or bad things will happen, because it’s really invalidation that’s the source of all the ills in the world. The same for everyone here. And anyone with the slightest bit of masculinity is, of course, a buffoon. The ladies, naturally, are wise and strong and rule, but only—only if they wear organic fabric earth tones and hand-crafted silver-and-crystal jewelry of the sort that you might find at a Sedona craft fair. Even high-tech stuff looks as if it were hand-made by tribal elders using traditional indigenous tools.

Not only that, but we get meditative astral projection, predators going vegan, a transparent critique of the military-industrial complex, ideological populism, and a lot of runaround to make these points, besides.

Star Wars fans are upset about this film because there are precious few places any longer to talk about the problem of evil in the world. Religion is out, now being seen as mere “bigotry” and most in our population have become disconnected from it anyway. The question of good and evil is now seen as a prejudicial framing that comes from those who fail to be empathetic—to try to understand others. There are also precious few places today to escape what our politics has become (and if you want to know what it’s become, just re-read everything I’ve written so far; forget about issues of life and death and nation and just focus on Burning Man style virtues, and you’re there).

And so naturally we get a film in which the good guys are also bad, religion (even one based on something as apparently powerful as The Force) is explicitly described as an immoral failure, the bad guys are tortured hipsters with daddy issues who just need someone to care, you shouldn’t eat meat even if you and your species don’t have the right teeth for anything else, post-menopausal granola women are the best suited to “humanely” rule because they don’t bother to explain things to toxically masculine men, who of course suffer from the “flyboy” malady of testosterone insanity and thus wouldn’t understand, and so on.

Sorry to sound like a philosophical prude here, but whatever redeeming qualities Star Wars has ever had—and all of the reasons for which it has for so many years been in tension with Star Trek—have been about its embrace of the foundational concept that evil exists and is categorically different from merely “uncomfortable” or “sad” or “distasteful” or “troubled,” and that and the quandary for those who are good—many of whom may also indeed be and often are uncomfortable or sad or distasteful or troubled, yet not evil—is and forever will be to figure out how to fight evil without becoming fundamentally evil in the process. This is one of human history’s classic—and mostly deeply bothersome—questions.

Johnson doesn’t buy that line of thinking and so he goes all DailyKos on us and tells us that no, in fact evil people are just hurt and misunderstood, good people are all murderers given the right circumstances, but they don’t want you to know it because they’re oh-so-judgmental, and religion on the first hand and a general lack of diversity on the second are the real problems in the world. What we need isn’t to fight, but to wear different clothes, listen to women and minorities more, be done with philosophy, which is just another word for religion, and just love each other. All you need is love, man! Just love! Oh, and an end to all the stuff that isn’t love, like eating meat and being masculine and calling some people evil and trying to fight them. I mean, that’s just bigotry.

May The Force be with you, especially if you do yoga and meditate at the Zen temple with the other overpaid white folks that shop at Whole Foods and that understand that chakras beat psalms any day of the week.

I’ll say it again: Vomit.

— § —

And now I’ll say it less snarkily.

The first Star Wars trilogy was interested in characters, yes, but as deadly serious participants in a morality play that encompassed things larger than any individual. Empires and movements, social conditions, the same questions of the relationship between individual and society and society and ethics that plagued all of the 20th century, and about which we, too used to use language like “good versus evil.”

Now Tarkin has been replaced by Hax, Admiral Ackbar with Laura Dern in an evening dress, Vader with Ren, and deeply difficult civilizational questions of morality with merely “ambiguous and that’s okay” questions of individual psychology.

In short, Star Wars has lost everything that we have, after long being one of the last pop-cultural repositories of these things.

It’s our loss.