Star Wars releases have always been received critically either by the press or by the fans or by both but perhaps never more so than since the rise of social media. Yet almost all critics of Star Wars get it wrong … here is why. And here is also how it sheds a new light on one of The Last Jedi‘s most iconic scenes.
Critique needs analysis
Now it is easy to say everyone is wrong because I am right, but that is not what I intend to do.
Obviously every one is entitled to their own preferences and this post is not about whether people are right or wrong to like or enjoy a given Star Wars story or output. If you enjoy something then you’re right and if you don’t enjoy something you are also right and better find something else to enjoy. Saying I don’t like this or that is not a critique, it is a statement of preference and that is totally fine.
Now a critique requires some degree of analysis. A culinary critic, film critic or literature critic can’t simply state their preference and then expect people to give that any more weight then the preference of any other arbitrary person. So many people who call themselves film critics, on YouTube for example, think their critique deserves to be given more weight then just an arbitrary preference because they claim they have made an analysis of the film under review. But what does analysis even mean?
Analysis needs a framework
This is where it mostly starts to go wrong so let me take you through a couple of misunderstandings about what a framework means:
- Execution / Cinematography / Acting / Writing : many of the “critics” take the view that there is some objective measure of professional skill that allows an objective distinction between a good movie and a bad movie.
How could this be a mistaken framework? Isn’t it true? Well of course there is a level of technical skill where this might be true. Say, suppose you see a film where the camera runs into objects on the set, where the image is all shaky and unsteady, or where the image is so dark you actually can’t see anything. It seems reasonable to argue that this is bad movie-making, isn’t it? Well, that depends: shaky-cam isn’t always evidence of limited ability of the camera crew, quite often it is a deliberate choice. Very low levels of lighting aren’t bad filmmaking when they are the result of deliberate choices. And uncomfortably perhaps, we have to admit that whether or not a film is made well depends very much on the choices that the filmmakers made. A badly made film is one where the stuff on-screen is not what a director, the actors and set-designers, etc, wanted and were capable of putting on film. Such films exist, don’t get me wrong, but there are only very few of them. But what makes it even more complicated: a badly made film can still be a good film!
Wait!? What? Whether or not these technical skills are badly executed depends on what the these artists wanted and what was feasible. A kid’s drawing isn’t a bad drawing simply because it ain’t a Rembrandt, right? When you have just learned to play guitar you’re not a bad player simply because next year, with practice, you’ll be more skilled, right? Space Odyssey 2001’s special effects aren’t bad film-making simply because nowadays they can be done more realistically, more seamlessly and on a larger scale. So although you can debate the technical skill and execution of a film, it is a discussion that is extremely closely tied to when a film was made, what budget the filmmaker had, what technical capabilities were available, what the filmmakers intentions were, etc. But in the end: it doesn’t make a film bad or good.
Pretending that the technical aspects, about execution, cinematography, acting, writing and so on, themselves present a framework is illusory because they only become meaningful when all these other questions are answered. It is the answer to these other questions that hides the clues to what a real framework actually is. A framework for critique must answer three core questions:
- What is the object of critique: often a term used here is taken from literary theory, namely that the framework should tell us what text is, i.e. what is the thing we seek to analyse;
- What is the source of a text: in the simplest case this is an answer to the question: who wrote / made it? But in some examples below we will see this can be a lot more subtle.
- What is the source of meaning: what about the text is it that provides it with meaning? This is often the crucially overlooked question that turns a lot of “critics” into people who are merely stating their preferences.
A framework that answers these three questions will then typically also tell you what analysis means and how a critique works. Such a framework is often called an author theory.
Two author theories for Star Wars
There are very many different author theories conceivable but for the sake for making progress let me discuss just two examples with Star Wars as its content.
- Author-centered: An author-centered author-theory about Star Wars would go like this: The ‘text’ we are talking about are (1) the Episodes I through VI and The Clone Wars, the origin of these ‘texts’ is (2) George Lucas and what gives meaning to these texts is (3) the intentions of the author.
This is pretty much the standard way in which most people think about texts, whether they are written prose, cinematic, spoken poetry, music or whatever. The author, their intentions are made central. As a result the skill of the author becomes a meaningful element of analysis. Was George the right director for Star Wars, or would Spielberg have made a better Star Wars? The author’s intention often also become important and that could go either way: some Star Wars fans will argue that Episodes I through III are closest to what George wanted and thus the most meaningful texts, while some OT fanboys will argue that Episodes IV through VI are the best Star Wars because others translated George’s imagination in a much better way than George himself could. Some Prequel-haters would even go so far as to suggest that the Prequels are bad because George had bad intentions (“sell toys!“). In such a framework critique becomes debating the author’s intentions, the authors skill, etc.
Now you can take an entirely different approach and I will present what might actually be the other extreme.
- Reader-centered: A reader centered author theory about Star Wars could go like this: The text we are talking about are (1) all Star Wars stories and episodes, including fan-fiction, the origin of these texts is (2) the vast collection of myths and legends stories that human beings world-wide have grown up with and developed over the millennia and what gives meaning to these texts is (3) you the reader by sensing what these texts do to you when you read, watch or hear them.
In such a framework the intentions of George Lucas or any other author become completely irrelevant. In a sense all that an author does in this framework is borrow material from this vast collection of mythical and legendary stories, rephrase and adapt it. Story-telling becomes a form of story-retelling and the different myths, legends and Star Wars stories become expressions of underlying themes that we humans have been telling stories about for thousands of years. You as a reader construct that meaning on the basis of what you feel and what stories you have been exposed to earlier in your life. In such a framework analysis becomes the game of identifying what Star Wars means for you by how it interacts with other stories and texts you know. In such a framework critique becomes a discussion of what makes Star Wars meaningful for you and in that discussion there is no good or bad Star Wars; there are simply stories which do, and stories which don’t, mean something to you .
So which one should we choose?
In principle you could choose whichever you prefer. The advantage of the latter one definitely is that there would be no senseless discussions about The Last Jedi and Rian Johnson. But I do believe there is something about Star Wars that actually makes the case for a framework like the latter.
When George Lucas started out with his drafts of Star Wars he wrote his notes in the form of a “Journal of the Whills” and used the well-known story-telling trick of introducing authors inside the story that are telling the story. Another characteristic of Star Wars is that it quotes and echoes elements and themes from across the entire world of cinema, art and literature. Also George’s fascination for the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung feeds from this same underlying idea that Star Wars taps into a universe of mythical stories, legends and themes that already exist within human imagination. Although many films and books do so, Star Wars is exceptionally explicit in doing so even to the extend that Picasso paintings pop up in Star Wars: The Clone Wars episodes. The upper-left image from Clone Wars is directly inspired on Picasso’s “Guernica” whilst the bottom-left is a near-to identical copy of Picasso’s “Korean massacre“. Both paintings that depict the gruesomeness and injustices of war. Very apt artwork for a Mandalore that has turned away from its warrior past!
Star Wars texts
In Episode VIII The Last Jedi Luke and Yoda discuss the Jedi texts … page-turners they were not. Some viewers saw this as a direct commentary of the obsession of some fans with canon and with sacred texts in terms of which films count and which don’t. Perhaps this was Rian Johnson’s intention, perhaps it wasn’t. But really, that intention is immaterial given that it was clearly a possible meaning that these viewers picked up on even when it was to their own displeasure. What it reveals is what the big downside is of such an author-centered way of looking at Star Wars stories: these fans felt subsequently offended by Rian Johnson and/or Kathleen Kennedy … on the basis of a meaning they themselves as viewers had constructed but which they felt they needed to ascribe as intentional by others. They could not imagine taking the liberty of ditching that meaning if they didn’t like it .. and thus they started a new Star Wars crusade online.
Interestingly however, the reason why Yoda is not worried about the destruction of the sacred texts is because “the girl Rey already knows all she needs to know“. Here we have Yoda telling us that all these sacred texts do is call forth from us, readers, the meaning that already resides within us. The destruction of these few books with texts would indeed be immaterial. For some fans this was another outrage! How could Rey already know this without training? See how the author-centered paradigm also requires these fans to think in terms of somebody authoring Rey’s knowledge and skill?
Which framework you choose as your ‘author-theory’ not only influences how you critique Star Wars stories, it even affects what you take from the stories themselves! So one last thing: when the Jedi tree burned down and Yoda said the Jedi texts were no longer needed, did Yoda know that Rey had taken the books with her? And why didn’t they show on-screen how she took them? It is because the sacred Jedi texts live within us … of course Rey has them with her and of course we don’t need to see her take the books from the tree. The texts need no author, no book … they are right there, surrounds us and binds the galaxy together.