Letting Go of Star Wars

I’ve been thinking about nostalgia with the recent blitzkrieg that is the marketing campaign for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Instead of the pure excitement and anticipation that many have felt, I felt trepidation. Not just because I was burned by the prequels, but mainly because I was worried that, if the film was good, I still wouldn’t feel the same joy that I once felt when I was young.

Nostalgia is not just longing to return to a place or a past where one was once happy. It is a type of pain. It comes from the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain or ache.” My forty-year old edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a form of melancholia caused by a prolonged absence from one’s home or country.” Nostalgia was seen as a disease from which people could die. Of course, it was only in the twentieth century that it became a wistful longing for the past. Yet when I look at the current waves of nostalgia that are saturating our current pop culture, no one seems hurt. There is no longing; there is glut. We wanted there to be more media of our many beloved fictional universes, and we got what we wanted. Everyone rejoices in this plenty.

When nostalgia was first coined, it was used to refer to soldiers who missed their home. I wonder what it means for several generations to be nostalgic for a place and a time that doesn’t exist. But isn’t that the problem with nostalgia, what we long for was always a fiction. Soldiers return home to find both themselves and the ones they left behind changed. The idyllic childhood is result of a child’s limited perception and the flaws inherit to memory. Perhaps our obsession and our love of fictional universes reveal a certain jadedness that our culture has. We look around us and realize that the world we want to live in could only exist in fiction.

I suspect it’s a mistake to focus on the longing for place when considering nostalgia. Place simply provides the details, but what one is longing for is a time. The soldiers who originally suffered from nostalgia were longing for a time before they knew war. Perhaps the thousands of people who are buying The Force Awakens tickets are longing for their childhood or at least the good part of their childhood. Many have leveled that criticism at different fandoms. Yet when I examine my own nostalgia for Star Wars, I can’t help but be struck by how unhappy a child I was. In Elementary school, I escaped my daily life by reading Anne of Green Gables (and its many sequels), Animorphs, and the Star Wars Expanded Universe books. I suspect what I long for isn’t a return to childhood, but a return to whatever comfort those books provided me then.

Star Wars BooksI finished the Anne of Green Gables series in late elementary school, and the Animorphs series didn’t end until high school (by then I could read an individual Animorphs book in two to three hours). These series loom large in my memory, but I have not returned to them. They ended, and I was moved. I will probably never reread them. I fear that, if I returned, I would only find the flaws of memory and the ways I’ve changed. However, Star Wars never ended. The expanded universe always kept me supplied with new books and new adventures. I read them through my undergrad years in college. Worse than leaving home and returning to find it changed is to stay home and watch yourself change until home is like a foreign country. I stopped enjoying the expanded universe novels.

I told myself that it was just the expanded universe that I was tired of. Its need to retcon developments in characters to keep them familiar and the fact that there would never be an actual ending was what had turned me off. These reasons were part of why I’d never been able to get into superhero comics. Surely, I thought I would feel that familiar joy when I re-watched the original trilogy. I haven’t re-watched it in years. I don’t want to sit down and realize they had been reduced to a fun popcorn movie in my mind. I refused to return because I feared I would find the experience different then how I remembered it.

I saw the The Force Awakens on New Years Eve, and it was a good, fun movie and nothing else. What the film made me feel was the nostalgia for my former relationship with the expanded universe—the collection of stories the film retconned. I missed those characters, and, while the ones I was introduced to are interesting and sympathetic, I didn’t feel for the same excitement I once did. I still like Star Wars, but I can no longer define myself as a fan. They’re fun movies, but they no longer fill me with the excitement and the joy they once did. Why does this make me so sad?

It bothers me that I miss being able to get lost in this fictional universe. It’s just movies and merchandising; it shouldn’t be so important to me. I still lose myself in movies and books, but the way I do is different. Why does this difference matter to me? Is it representative of a more naïve and optimistic viewpoint? I doubt it; I was a pretty jaded child who hated beloved classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Disney’s Snow White. I remember watching Disney’s Little Mermaid over and over and loving it so much, until I didn’t. That loss never bothered me.

Maybe it was because I built part of my identity around being a fan of Star Wars, and now I must say “I’m no longer the person I once thought I was.” If my love of a series of movies and books can change for no clear reason, what else can change? I’m left wondering what person I’ll become without willing it. I worry that I’ll lose my sense of awe and whimsy. I worry that I’ll lose joy in trivial and mundane things because, while the things themselves may be banal, the joy they can give never is. That joy is why I can’t criticize those who still find it in the films, even if they are twice my age. Perhaps, I’m worried that I’ll become the caricature of an adult—no joy just grind. Or maybe nostalgia is just emotion that we all feel, and, if I didn’t feel it for my former relationship with those stories, I would simply miss some other fiction.

In Praise of Endings

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

I have a habit, where, as I’m reading a book, I turn to the last page. I don’t read the last page, I just see what it is and calculate how many pages I have left to read. I do this whether I am enjoying a book or not. The other night, as I was reading Because They Wanted To: Stories by Mary Gaitskill, I noticed that the last sentence didn’t have a period or closing quotation marks. There was no flyleaf or an about the author page. My copy was missing the last four pages. Google books let me preview several pages, in fact a surprisingly large amount of pages—but not the last four. I’ve checked several libraries and have discovered that there is no e-book version of the text that I can quickly check out. They did have physical copies, so I was able to Xerox copy those missing pages.

I wish I made this discovery earlier in the book, when I could have contacted the bookseller and got a different copy. But since I was 220 pages in, with annotations, I’m just going to hold on to the copy I have. Never before had I felt so much like the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

We are all frustrated when we are denied the ending of a book, a film, or a television series. We want to know how the story turns out. But recently, I find myself not longing to know what happens next, but wondering how things will end. There was time when I devoured the books in the Star Wars expanded universe, but somewhere in my twenties I lost interest. One book would introduce a new idea with interesting consequences, and the next would find a way to get rid of the consequences and return the characters to the status quo. I once was a fanatic about the show Supernatural, and considered the ending of season five near perfect. It would have been perfect if it had ended five seconds earlier, removing the cliffhanger that would lead into the sixth season. When I meet other fans of the show, they are shocked and even suspicious of me. How could I allow the characters to remain in such an awful situation? Didn’t I want to spend more time with them? However, the continuation of the story cost the fifth season’s ending its catharsis.

Once I just wanted to spend time with the characters, and I still do, but catharsis has become much more important to me. Even if that means things don’t go well for the characters that I love. Now I’m not knocking those who turn to fiction only to spend time with characters they love—it’s just that we have different tastes and want different things from our fiction. I also enjoy ongoing series. However, I’m aware that if a series goes on long enough I will eventually lose interest, even if it is still good, because it’s denying me the end, the catharsis.

Perhaps the reason that I find endings so satisfying is because things do end. People break up, retire, and die. The hero of one battle is rarely the hero of the next. Yet the longer a series goes on, the hero becomes more and more central to the universe. Eventually the universe seems to revolve around them, and, when that happens, it becomes unbearable claustrophobic. The protagonist becomes the most important person in that world. No longer are they just a human being fighting against fate, but they are mythical in their power and influence. While there is a certain pleasure in reading about characters whose importance is of mythical proportions, I prefer when the characters start out mythic rather than becoming so through each new edition to the story. Perhaps the best example of this transformation is that of John McClane, which has been noted by many people. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that John McClane is an everyman, a regular cop, who finds himself in an extreme situation and rises to the occasion. However, several movies later he has become the supreme bad ass. All sense that he is a regular guy is gone, which means the tension of the original is gone. We know he will succeed because he’s no longer is a mortal man. He’s something more. Also, the bit of escapist fantasy that is in the first one—a regular person winning against near insurmountable odds—is gone. I like John McClane, but I rather his story ended when his universe was big, and he was only one somewhat believable man.

Of course there is also a certain aspect of escapism that comes with an ending. Yes, a person dies, but humanity will continue. When humanity dies, life will continue even if its just molecules on the sea floor living off the heat from volcanic vents. When the sun goes out, the universe will continue. The events of our life are rarely tied up in neat cathartic bows. No one really has the last word. In the Grace Paley story, “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father asks her to write a story like “‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov.’” She attempts to write the story, and, when she finally gets one that her father likes, she frustrates him by adding a scene beyond what her father considered a good ending. The narrator then says of the character that she has just created, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)” If stories in someway mirror life, then, yes, endings can feel arbitrary. After the story ends, the character—unless died—will continue living and making choices.

I think the best endings leave room for the knowledge that time continues. You feel that, when you close the book or turn off the film, the characters’ lives don’t stop. You sense that they will continue with their lives for better or worse, but that they are changed. Or maybe the characters aren’t changed, but the audience is. You have observed the characters go through a set of events that makes you realize something you hadn’t before, and part of the satisfaction—albeit a more melancholy one—is understanding what the characters fail to understand. That is what a good ending provides: a sense of consequence. We are changed by it. We understand how the characters will be dealing with those consequences for some time. I think one of the best examples of how an ending can do this is the new film The Babadook. (Obviously there are spoilers ahead, so go watch the film if you haven’t yet. I highly recommend it)

Poster for The Babadook

The Babadook ends with the titular monster locked in the protagonist’s, Amelia’s, basement. Amelia is caring for it or at least feeding it. I like this ending for several reasons. If you interpret the story as literal—this woman was actually dealing with a monster—the ending suggests that the monster is so powerful that it can never be killed. The Babadook is a curse she can’t rid her family of, but it is one that she can contain and keep from harming her, her son, and others. If you interpret the film as being symbolic, the Babadook representing her chronic depression, then we see the ending as her learning to manage mental illness. She will continue to suffer from it, but she has found ways to deal with it and still live a good life. As I walked out the theater, I discussed the “what ifs” with my husband. It was a fairly long conversation. I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen next for Amelia and her son. However, I do not want them to ever make a sequel to The Babadook. I do want the director and the actress and everyone involved to continue making films, but the ending is so satisfying I don’t want to lose it.

The risk of every sequel, of each new edition, is that it will somehow undermine the consequences of the original’s ending. The couple who started a relationship in the last story are suddenly divorced at the beginning of the new one. The lesson that was learned is forgotten. A sequel to The Babadook would perhaps eliminate one of the possible readings of the original. If the Babadook attacks a new family, I would have to view him as real rather than the manifestation of the protagonist’s mental illness. I’d also wonder what happened to Amelia and her son, whose survival I was so invested in in the first film. If they are killed off to tell this new story, I would be livid. If a sequel returned to these characters, there is a chance that I will lose the interpretation that the Babadook is a supernatural monster.

While it is possible to make a good sequel, doing so without undermining the ending is hard. Part of the reason I think so many people disliked Alien 3 was because the character whose survival was key to the tension of Aliens was killed off at the beginning. Suddenly your joy at the little girl, Newt, being rescued by Ripley is taken away and off-screen at that. For a lot of people, the new film doesn’t change the enjoyment of the old one, and I wish this was true for me. But whenever I sit down to watch Aliens, I can’t help but watch Ripley’s rescue of Newt with sadness because I know that she will die soon after the credits roll.

Once again it’s not to say a good series or sequel can’t be made, Aliens certainly proves that, but sequels can alter how we feel about the original’s ending. Hell, I think that the third sequel to Alien could have killed Newt and still have been a good movie. However, since her survival was a key part to the ending of the second film, her death needed some of its own time. As it stands in the film, it feels like they simply got rid of the character because she stood in the way of their new plot. The consequences of the last film were not explored, instead they were brushed aside.

Perhaps I’m not writing in praise of endings but rather in praise of consequences. Like I keep stating, serialized stories can be good, but each new edition must feel like it is building on the last story. Sometimes the new situation created by the ending can lead to a new story. I feel that the best ongoing series, whether book, film, or TV, acknowledges these consequences. However, when the series does not acknowledge them, the impact of these consequences are negated, and the characters become either caricatures of themselves or just empty vessels that are used to better advertise a product. When a story ends, whether it be realistic or fantastical, I want a sense that what has just happened has some sort of impact on the character’s life and is not just another adventure in a set of adventures that becomes, no matter how extraordinary to us, a boring routine for them.

A Little Epic with my Fairy Tale

(Spoilers: read at your own risk)

I saw Snow White and The Huntsman yesterday, and for the most part I’m happy with the film.  The filmmakers tried to combine the style of a fairy tale with that of an epic fantasy, a la Lord of the Rings, and for the most part it works, but I suspect that some of the elements that are more true to the style of fairy tales may throw some viewers off.  Some of the reviews I’ve read complain that things happen without explanation and characters appear flat, which to me seem perfectly normal when viewed from the context of a fairy tale.

With most movies and fiction we expect a certain amount of complexity.  We want complex characters who have clear or interesting motivation.  We want to understand how and why things happen.   However, fairy tales and folklore do not function on this level.  Fairy tales are not interested in exploring characters.  In most fairy tale you have characters who must leave home and go into the world.  The characters simply change their place or rank in the world, but if you look at the characters themselves they do not change.

In Snow White and the Huntsman, the character of Snow White struck me as being very much the same person she was at the beginning as she was at the end.  All that changed was her place in the world: from princess to prisoner to fugitive to rebel to queen.  Some of the reviews mention that there is no interesting character arch for her and her motivations seem unclear.  However, her arch is that of a fairy tale protagonist, which by its very nature is flat.   Cinderella or the Brave Little Tailor start out with the same characteristics that they have the end.  In fact, the moment in the film that rang false to me was when her character was expressing doubts about her ability.  It seemed that the film was playing lip service to what we expect from a character in her situation (though this may simply be a flaw in the acting).

The problem of merging a fairy tale with fantasy epic becomes clear here.  Since the other characters are presented as characters like those from an epic with understandable motivations, Snow Whites lack of motivation is all the more obvious.  Especially when held next to the wicked queen.

Charlize Theron as the evil queen

Charlize Theron does a wonderful job playing the queen, and her performance is worth the price of admission alone.   In the film there is brief flash back of the queen’s childhood.  When she was about eleven or twelve her village is attacked and the queen’s mother casts a spell on her to ensure that she would remain fair, since her beauty would save her and her brother’s life.  We understand why she is obsessed with beauty and youth, if you’re fair the soldiers keep you alive.  The implication of what happened to her, even though she was still a child, is clear.  This woman has been so victimized that she never wants to be helpless again and wants to destroy the world were such things happen.  Theron’s queen is one of the most terrifying film villains that I have seen in a long time, but unlike a fairy tale villain she has clear motivation.  And while she may terrify the audience, we can’t help but sympathize with her.

Another problem audiences may have is that some things just happen.  When Snow White escapes from the queen there is a horse that she just finds.  I suspect people will ask were the horse came from, but that was a moment that felt like a fairy tale.  As Maria Tatar points out in her book The Hard Fact of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, in fairy tales “ preternatural events and supernatural intervention are taken wholly for granted.”  Here Snow White escaping by following two birds she had helped, and they provide a method for her escape.  We see this type of thing happen all the time.  In Aschenputtel (the Grimm’s Cinderella) two white doves provide the dress and slippers.

Some may think that I would be bothered by how this film meshes the two genres together, but fairy tales come from an oral tradition, where depending on the audience the teller would add detail.  Even in the literary fairy tale tradition we see this happen: Perrualt and the Brothers Grimm added and removed details all the time.  Fairy tales have always been malleable that is part of why I enjoy them so much.  I love looking at what the different versions offer us—the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is all the more interesting for “Little Red Cap” and “The Story of Grandmother.”

Snow White and the Huntsman is fun retelling that highlights the different aspects of the story.  Oh, it is not perfect.  I still find Snow White the least interesting character in the story.  (She reminded me of the character in a first person shooter that the player has to rescue but who keeps wondering off and getting themselves killed, so the player must redo that level.)  The scenes in this film are beautiful though oddly similar to scenes in other films (the forest spirit scene is an obvious homage to Princess Mononoke).  Ultimately, if you’re a fairy tale fan (not to be confused with a Disney fan) you will probably enjoy this film, or at least have interesting conversations about what annoyed you.

The spirit of the forest from Snow White and the Huntsman