I went to a theatrical screening of A New Hope recently. For some reason I never saw the Special Editions in theatres as a kid, so this was a pretty exciting deal for me. Star Wars on the big screen and all that. For me, an opportunity to watch these movies for what they are: movies.
What actually happened during the screening is that I started ruminating on the extreme, potentially destructive form in which fandom has manifested in Star Wars enthusiasts. I mean, I noticed some stuff about Luke’s character journey that I hadn’t picked up on before, and generally enjoyed myself. But there was definitely some ruminating going on.
It started soon after the opening crawl concluded, when I noticed a truly weird energy in the screening room.
The first sign was a bizarre, extremely forced bout of laughter at Luke’s infamous “Toshi station” line. Now, I’m not ignorant; I know the line is infamous in the fan community. In the context of the movie, though, it’s about as close to throwaway dialogue as Lucas ever gets. There’s a bit of exposition, sure, and a nod to where Luke is as a person, but… it’s not much of a line. The way this screening reacted, you’d think Dave Chappelle was onscreen doing his bit about Native Americans.
The forced responses continued with the crowd booing as the special edition changes went by. Han’s altered shootout with Greedo — predictably — got the biggest groan,* but pretty much every alteration in the first half of the thing got a reaction. Actually, that’s not quite true. They weren’t booing removed matte lines or the redux establishing shot of Obi-Wan’s hut, but that invites the thorny question of whether or not some changes actually improve the movie. Nobody booed the after-market addition of “Episode IV” to the opening crawl, either.
Anyway, let’s just set aside the obvious question of why someone would pay to go see a movie and then start booing stuff they already knew was going to be in there. That sucks, but the more concerning piece of it is the lens through which these fans were watching the movie, good OR bad. Put simply, it appeared they weren’t here to get lost in Star Wars so much as to excite a near-Pavlovian string of responses to their memory of it.
Also known as “letting the Wookie win.” Oh wait, that makes actually no sense…
This is just not a healthy way to watch movies, folks. There are surely several problems with this — for instance, it robs you of the opportunity to plumb a film for new revelations — but one problem in particular stands above the rest.
Consensus. Which — for me — is basically a four-letter word on the best of days. Doubly so when it comes to Star Wars.
As someone who basically doesn’t care about (or is at least willing to tolerate) the changes made to the Special Edition, it was a pretty jarring experience to have people booing at the movie I was trying to enjoy. I’m sure no disrespect was meant. In fact, I imagine most thought they were in the clear. The assumption would run something like, “This is what a Star Wars fan thinks.”
A consensus among movie folk isn’t news. Most flicks — especially pop culture ones — cultivate some sort of “definitive” reaction amongst their fans/anti-fans. In the best scenarios, this sort of aggregate opinion of a movie can be a catalyst for its broader rediscovery after years of neglect. Only a very sad person would mourn the posthumous elevation of The Thing to masterpiece status. Consensus causes problems, however, when it just stops the conversation cold.
A “cold conversation.” Wait, that’s a terrible joke…
Let’s step away from Star Wars for a second.
Prometheus, though uneven by any metric, is nevertheless one of those endlessly fascinating things that shows up in theatres every couple of years. Reasonable people can argue it’s a misfire, but it’s also massively accomplished in a number of areas and obviously has some stuff on its mind. Still, after the dust settled, the consensus was that we had seen a Bad Movie.
Fast-forward to a couple weeks ago, when I saw someone mention they were reconsidering their formerly harsh opinion of Prometheus. The reaction was alarming. People weren’t curious about the reconsideration; they weren’t asking what caused it or considering a second look themselves or anything. They simply pleaded with this person: PLEASE DON’T RECONSIDER.
I’d like to submit that this is pretty terrible.
Now, I’m not saying there’s a problem in developing a canon, or even that aggregate opinions don’t have their own value. Even aside from their value in resuscitating the occasional John Carpenter movie, they rightly codify the excellence and influence of the Godfathers and E.T.’s and Dark Knights of the world.
But as the canon is formed, we must remember it’s just the conversation, and the conversation is never truly over.
When we forget this, we have a tendency to get lost in the woods. Watching a movie becomes a process of cynical evaluation, bias confirmation, or fan ritual. We stop short of actually experiencing the damn things. You see this all the time with the way people approach classics — the number of times I’ve heard someone slight Citizen Kane for not being the best movie ever made is simply depressing.**
Wow. Let’s just take a second to admire everybody’s face in this screengrab.
One of the reasons I keep speaking up about the (still largely ignored) brilliance of the Prequel Trilogy is because the criticism towards those movies has become reflexive. It’s not something that’s considered or really even felt at this point, it’s just “what you do” when you talk about Star Wars. The last time most people tried to just look at any of the six movies as a movie happened years and years ago.***
There’s this great scene in The Great Beauty, where the main character comments on a conga line at one of the endless parties Rome’s social elite throw. It’s the best in Rome, he says, because it never goes anywhere. We can do better than that in movie-fan-land, and we should. It’s all just movies, in the end. Leaving room for the occasional passionate dissent simply leads to more interesting conversation.
And hey, there’s no telling what cool stuff might show up after taking an honest second look.
*Despite the current version being just about seamless.
**Hint: There’s no such “best movie,” and Citizen Kane is REALLY good.
***Or at least I assume it is, because one of the things I keep hearing is that the cinematography is poor, which is basically a load of crap. That’s another column, though.