Thursday, December 10, 2015

Star Wars Memories 10: I Disagree with Joseph Campbell

If you haven't seen it, it's worth
watching. You may not agree
with everything, but there's a
lot of grist for the old mill, if
you know what I mean and I
think you do.

Girls and high school and a move some four hours away from my home town, and making new friends and band and jobs, and girls, all pretty much conspired to keep me from thinking overly much about Star Wars from 1984 to 1988. I wasn’t buying the toys any more, and even though the terrible animated cartoons were showing on Saturday morning, no one would ever argue that those were connected to the Star Wars story in a meaningful way. Kid’s stuff. Easy to skip.

There was, even then, a shared language that formed a kind of short hand amongst my friends and classmates. We’d all seen the movies. Who hadn’t? There was always one weird kid who was a Jehovah’s Witness, but other than that, everyone knew if you said, in class, for instance, “I have a very bad feeling about this,” you were referencing Star Wars. Right?  It may have been a movie about space, but it wasn’t rocket science.

Other points of reference included Death Star trench fight chatter; any reference to using The Force; nearly every line of Vader’s dialogue from Empire Strikes Back, and any reference to the Cantina Scene, usually levied at someone who was weird-looking, or a situation that was bizarre and strange. In high school, that could have meant anything. But it was possible to have a conversation in shorthand, using dialogue from the three movies. We did it all the time.

“These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

“I have a very bad feeling about this.”

“You worry about those fighters, I’ll worry about the tower.”

“The Force will be with you. Always.”


“Here’s the pop quiz I’m supposed to pass back to you.”

“Dammit. I’m going to fail this. I haven’t studied.”

“You can copy off of me.”

“You’re a good friend.”

For those of you reading this under the age of 30, the above conversation was done in person, face-to-face, back when you had to sit next to the person you wanted to talk to in math class.


In the Pre-Internet world, I’m sure the fan club was chugging along with monthly newsletters, but aside from that, there were other fish to fry. Other movies to see. Other things to obsess over. Star Wars became another shared childhood experience along with Schoolhouse Rock, the Micronauts, and Disco. Or so we thought.

I don’t recall who in my family was more interested in watching The Power of Myth when it aired on PBS in 1988. Probably my mother, who was always very earthy-crunchy, and would have been certainly interested in what Joseph Campbell had to say. Unfortunately, those conversations with Bill Moyers are as dry as toast. Fascinating subject matter, rendered boring as hell by two white guys nattering at one another.

I don’t mean for that to be reductive or dismissive, but at the time, all I was really interested in hearing was his commentary on Star Wars. See, there was this idea that had been floated around as Return of the Jedi ran its course and the documentary From Star Wars to Jedi: the Making of a Saga first aired (and later hung around on VHS cassette) at the end of 1983 that maybe, just maybe, Star Wars was about more than just space ships and monsters and robots and Jedi Knights.

The aforementioned documentary certainly planted the seeds of greatness, using language and terminology that suggested a deeper connection with mythology—and in the same documentary, Lucas makes some assertions about the nature of the story and how writing shifts to meet the needs of the filmmakers on-set.

The other great influence on this new intellectual renaissance was curiously absent from the discussions, and that’s the amount of money annually made on the then-burgeoning Star Wars merchandising line. I remembered something, post Jedi, as I was taking the film apart in my head: the Christmas after Empire, the must-have toy was the Yoda puppet and stuffed doll. Everyone wanted them (okay, Mothers wanted them), and no one had enough. It was the first time I remember a news story about a toy being on the television. Yoda was the most popular Kenner toy that year.

This fact would not have been lost on George Lucas, who had his finger in every pie, his input on every decision. In fact, in a movie full of grim truths and harsh realities, narrow escapes and life or death situations, Yoda’s first meeting with Luke, more or less, is the lightest, most comical scene in the story. Granted, for me, the important Yoda information all occurs once he drops the buffoon act and becomes the stern and sober Jedi master. But Kenner, Lucas, and the nascent soccer moms of the world all thought he’d make a much better stuffed plush toy. Nice.

Fast-forward to Jedi prep, and the idea behind a planet of Wookies, for some inexplicable reason, no longer appeals to Lucas. But a planet of Teddy Bears (and he calls them that in the documentary) would make perfect ecumenical, commercial, and licensing sense. Oh, yeah, and yadda yadda yadda hand-waving about the service of the story.

If you’ve not watched From Star Wars to Jedi: the Making of a Saga, do so. It’s a great interview with Lucas, young and lean, without his neck-pouch, and you can see he’s trying out some revisionist scripting that has now become fairly dogmatic. It’s obvious. There are language choices involving words like “mythic” and “hero” and “Good” and “Evil” being applied to the three movies that definitely implied a much broader interpretation of events in the story.

By the time we get to The Power of Myth on PBS in the late 1980s, the fix was really in.

I listened eagerly to Campbell’s explanation of the monomyth, the hero with a thousand faces, and those ideas as they related to Star Wars.  Hero and Princess, Rogue and Mentor. These archetypes from Jungian Philosophy and Campbell’s reading of myth and story worked, and they worked well. I’m a senior in high school at the time. I knew about some things, like symbolism, but I didn’t really believe it, until I saw Moyers and Campbell applying it to Star Wars.

My “Literary Criticism” brain turned on in that instant. And then it did something I wasn’t expecting. Onscreen, Moyers and Campbell were talking about key scenes in Star Wars, and Moyers asked Campbell about the scene where they fall into the trash compacter and are nearly crushed.

“Well, that’s the classic idea of the hero entering the Dragon’s Den,” said Campbell. He continued to explain himself, and I sat there, dumbfounded. Um, professor, wouldn’t a much closer reading of that scene be Jonah and the Whale? I mean, if this is what we’re doing, and this is how you want to do it, the entering of the Dragon’s Den happens when the Falcon is towed into the Death Star. Frankly, the idea of the heroes harrowing hell to rescue someone is much closer. But Dragon? No. That’s the Rancor scene from Jedi. Not the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. Was the old man confused? Why wasn’t Moyers correcting him?

Yes, Joseph Campbell is dead wrong about that one thing. What else, I wondered, was he wrong about? And let me be very clear, here. I am not accusing Campbell of throwing the game, either. I don’t think he was coerced into saying what he said. Between 1983 and 1988 we heard, those of us who were listening, about some of the real behind the scenes things going on with the creation of the Star Wars movies. The information was out there, scattered around for those who wanted to see it. It came from a variety of other sources, most of the time, from Lucas himself, in the service of other films, like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lucas was certainly aiming for the fences when he envisioned Star Wars. But initially, he wanted to remake Flash Gordon. The old Buster Crabbe serial. Certain elements of Star Wars (and Empire) now make more sense, don’t they? Stuff like the presence of light swords in a world of blasters. Also, Lucas loved the famed Japanese director Akira Kurasawa. It’s funny how some of the structure of Star Wars looks an awful lot like the movie, The Hidden Fortress, isn’t it? More on this later.

Thanks to The Power of Myth, I started learning more about literary criticism. I started reading books about lit-crit, paying more attention to things like the Introductions of books, and most importantly, I started examining these pop cultural artifacts more closely for evidence of someone else choosing to think creatively. Sometimes this had unintended consequences. Sometimes this ruined (and still does) movies and TV shows I’m not supposed to examine critically. But I couldn’t help myself. I wanted more substance in my soup. I’d gotten a taste for it, and I found that I liked it.

So, why was George Lucas trying to change the flavor of the soup that he sold us all on? He was trying to pull off the world’s biggest Jedi Mind Trick. And some folks were taking the bait.

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