Friday, November 23, 2018

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 1: The Problem of Definition.

If the goal for this series of posts is to define what Star Wars is, in order to gain a better understanding of what it’s not, then it only makes sense to build your case one level at a time.  The last entry helped establish part of the answer by taking a look at the history behind the writing of the Original Trilogy by examining the creative methods of George Lucas.  The big reveal was that Lucas had no method, or rather that he has a hard time both coming up with, and constructing, a well thought out narrative with engaging characters, setups, and resolutions.  The record shows that Lucas has always worked best when he is more the sounding-board from which capable screenwriters are then able to develop and re-shape into a workable form consonant with the format.

When Lucas is left to his own devices, well, we’ve seen the result.  What happens then is that you get the Prequels.     
 The Other Elephant in the Room: The Prequels.

It’s best to clear this part out of the way before moving on to the bigger fish.  I understand that the Prequel Trilogy has its fans and defenders.  I realize that these people are sincere and genuine in their love for these particular films.  It has to be stressed, however, that alongside these fans there are others who enjoy SW just as much as the Prequel advocates.  For us, the Prequels just never do much of anything in terms of entertainment.  If part of the goal was to deepen the OT by filling in the gaps of the backstory, well, how do I say this?  I just can’t shake the idea that sometimes it’s unnecessary to fill in the blanks unless the author has a genuine idea that is guaranteed not to lose.
The trouble is that history provides us with little in the way of evidence that such outcomes are a guarantee.  All artistic endeavors are a gamble, almost by necessity.  The reason for this is because of the ever-shifting nature of audience tastes and expectations.  Even an entirely original idea is at the mercy of its reception by the crowds.  This rule of thumb applies even to the original 1977 release of A New Hope.  At that time, Lucas was lucky to have such creative talents as Gary Kurtz and his wife Marcia to steer him in all the best possible artistic directions.  Even their presence, however, never removed the level of creative risk involved.  It’s just that nature of the creative arts in general.  This doesn’t mean the customer is always right.  However, it does mean that all art needs to display some level of professionalism.  It needn’t be sophisticated.  However, it does take a certain level of imaginative engagement necessary to carry the first sparks of inspiration over the finish-line to completion. 

These are all the ingredients Lucas is sadly lacking as storyteller.  The result is the success of the OT is a true collaborative effort.  It’s a successful patch-work quilt stitched together by multiple hands over a number of years.

The prequels, however, are all the work of one mind.  The problem is that the mind in question is not the most creative in the business.  Because of this, the prequel films have a lackluster rhythm to all their narrative beats.  It also doesn’t help that there are a few plot-holes, and the main character comes off as neither likeable or imposing.  For these and other reasons, I will be excluding the prequels from my consideration of canon in this series.

It is possible to raise one objection to this particular approach. Lucas wrote and directed the prequels, and he created the whole thing, so we should regard them as part of the official story.  In modern fandom this is sometimes referred to as the Word of God trope.  The idea is that when it comes to disputes about canonicity of a plot element in a work of fiction, the author should be regarded as the sole arbiter for the truth of any given action, character trait, or plot point of a story. 

However, there are issues and roadblocks to an easy acceptance of this idea:

“A number of people reject the notion of Word of God being equal to canon, considering something to be canon only if it appeared in the original source material. If the creator had wanted a certain fact to be canon, the thinking goes, they should have included it in the work to begin with. Other audience members go even further, considering the uncertainty and ambiguity of canon to be a good thing and decrying the Word of God as shackling the imagination and interpretations of the fans. These attitudes have found some acknowledgement in literary criticism: Wimsatt and Beardsley's "The Intentional Fallacy" and Barthes' Death of the Author essay both argue that the interpretation of a work cannot be limited to attempts to discern the "author's intentions."

 “Something else to consider is that, often, particularly when it comes to comedy shows, creators may make statements that are meant as jokes, or at least, not meant to be taken seriously. It may sometimes be difficult for people to tell if certain creators are making a genuine statement of canon or not. So, be careful when relying on things like humorous DVD commentaries and interviews on comedic talk shows for confirmation about something.

“Another thorny issue is that not all stories have a single creator, and the collaborators may not actually agree with interpretations of their story that weren't made explicit in the work. This is especially likely if they no longer work together, and particularly if they had a real-life falling out. In this case, there are multiple "Gods" given potentially contradictory explanations, so whose word is to be considered correct? Likewise, in many cases the writers of a story are not the copyright holders, meaning that they're not the highest authorities on its meaning even if you do subscribe to the Word of God theory.

“If a work has more than one creator and they disagree with each other on a crucial point, you'll likely see fans embrace conflicting statements. What happens when multiple fans are equipped with the Word of God? What happens when one Word turns out to be more ridiculous than expected (web)”?

It also helps to remember that the OT came down to a collaborative effort.  Because there were so many voices involved in the making of this film, we’ll have to find some other way of interpreting and establishing what counts as canon for this franchise.  I’d like to suggest that a good starting point is the simple question of what is this whole canon idea, anyway?  Why should anyone give a single rip about when there are episodes of Breaking Bad just begging for a re-binge? 

Myth, Canon, and Culture.

For me, the idea of a fixed canon of art is wrapped up with the concept of culture.  In olden days, the   greatest way a civilization had of expressing itself was through its myths.  The best example of this can be found in the ancient Greek myths.  The reason the myths of Hercules or Odysseus were held in such high regard for so long is because, taken all together, these tales and legends helped as a summary of all the values of ancient Greek culture, and the ideas it believed in.  These values and beliefs are best expressed in the writings of philosophers like Plato, Socrates, Cicero, Aristotle, or Heraclitus.  There may have been parts of their thinking that were outmoded even before the classical civilization began its decline.  However, the fact that their writings survive even to this day stands as proof that they got at least enough right to make their work essential for the functioning of any culture, even one in the 21st century.
The irony is that such ideals are hard to communicate to a wide audience.  If those same ideals, however, somehow manage to find (often unconscious) expression in a well told fictional story, suddenly the result is something that can often outlast its original author or creators.  In other words, it might not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Aristotle owes his survival and name recognition to Zeus.  Without Olympus, Socrates is nothing. 

The key is that through stories like The Odyssey or An American Tale, a culture is able to see its most deeply held beliefs put into a form of symbolic action.  These fictional actions can take on a subtle nuance on occasion.  Let’s take Homer for instance (the real life poet, not the fictional couch-potato).  What makes The Odyssey so unique is that it marks a transition in the state of Greek culture.  It is the first work of fiction to show its main character showing the first faint glimmers of an ethical awareness that until then was something of anomaly in a world culture that could best be termed as primitive.  It took a long time for world cultures to come to something like an actual, basic moral understanding about life.  The idea that there a consequences to our actions is something we all take for granted now.  However, in the harsh times of the Bronze Age, contemporary morality was all but unheard of, with such concepts as slavery and rule through conquest being considered the norm. 

In the reflections of the character Odysseus, we see the mind of a barbaric culture slowly beginning to consider what happens when you begin to take the life of others in a serious way.  It’s clear the poet himself was either struggling with the first developments of a genuine moral sense, or else the tale was written long after the full growth of conscience and had to struggle with finding a way to put what was then a new concept down on paper. 

The same applies to the myth known as The Labors of Hercules.  What makes the character stand out is just how he changes and is shaped by the experiences he undergoes.  At the start of the myth, the character is just a dumb strongman, almost something of a rowdy lug.  It isn’t until he kills his own family that the myth again sounds a new note in literature by actually having the character show a conscious sense of guilt and remorse.  The myth, however, does not stop there.  Again the audience is presented with the thematic idea of an a-moral culture slowly developing a sense of reality based ethics.  Instead of being made into a figure of tragedy, the character of Hercules slowly begins to change as he undertakes each of his 12 labors.  Over one piece at a time, the figure helps to redefine the protagonist of ancient myth from a Tragic Barbarian into the first glimpse of the idea of the Hero.  The story of Hercules represents nothing less than a leap forward in human thinking about morality as a necessary component of heroism.  It was small step at first.  The interesting fact is that this small step continues to have repercussions from the Sohei Buddhists of Medieval Japan, all the way to the Civil Rights Movement.  It was a true literary revolution, and we’re still living with the shock of its aftereffects today.

Now this may all be fascinating, but what does this have to do with Star Wars?  Simply that the OT is one of those benchmarks like The Odyssey that acts as a summation of the best that has been said or thought in the form of a well written work of fiction.  If someone tries to alter the story in too jarring a fashion is rob the story of any meaning.  That is the reason some stories are considered canonical.  They establish a sense of tradition that other artists can both work off of and respond to.  I think it would be a mistake to saw that Star Wars is the same story, or even the same kind of narrative, as the legend of Hercules.  I do think it’s more accurate, however, to say that the modern film is an inheritor of themes and ideas from ancient myth.

This does beg at least one question.  If Star Wars is not the same as a retelling of Hercules, or any other mythological narrative, just what kind of story are we talking about when we talk about the OT?  I think there are answers to that, and I think that it again helps to look to the past for clues.  However, this will have to be the subject of the next essay.  For now, I had to establish a foundation from which to proceed with such an enquiry.  There are a few ground rules in play here.  I’m not trying to spin stuff off the top of my head.  I am approaching the question of what kind of story the Star Wars franchise is from a more or less worked out view about art in general.
For now, I’ve articulated the first of these principles.  In the next essay, I’ll give a few more as I hope to demonstrate an idea of just which stories the OT appears to be drawing from, and how certain characters from each of these ancient narratives might be a clue as to how we are to view all the familiar characters we know and love.  Until then, I hope I’ve done something to suggest that SW is a particular type of story that requires a certain type of narrative or characters in order for it to work properly.  I have more to say on this topic, so I hope you’ll join in for next time.


  1. Some interesting things going on in this post, #6. Here a few of my thoughts:

    (1) Oh, the prequels. I could write you 60,000 words on 'em, I bet. My feelings about them are very complicated. On the one hand, I don't think they work at all; on the other hand, there are aspects of them that I love, and even my disdain for the worst of them ("The Phantom Menace") waxes and wanes over time. Ultimately, I'm kind of with you in that I get why they are beloved by the people who loved them. I'm personally not *really* one of them, but I'm not a hater, either. Not precisely. But boy, 1999 Bryant sure was.

    (2) I don't agree that the prequels are ALL the work of one mind (I don't think the contributions of people like John Williams and Ben Burtt can be written off quite that easily); but I get what you mean. I totally agree that the prequels would have benefited tremendously from Lucas being more collaborative.

    (3) I would (kind of) love to strike the prequels from canon, but I don't personally think that can be done. What you're saying when you say they don't count as canon is that you're opting not to consider them. Those, I think, are different things. As I see it, at least. But in the end, it all amounts to the same thing. We all decide what to consider and what not to consider in relation to issues like these. (I kind of hate the idea of "headcanon," but must confess that I have been known to use it from time to time. Not merely as a word, but as a concept!)

    (4) Expressed another way, I have to wonder: if George Lucas ISN'T able to speak with a Godlike voice of authority regarding the "Star Wars" films (at least those in which he was involved), then who is? Nobody? That'd be hard for me to swallow. If it's not him, then it's no single person, surely. And if it's no single person, then it's either the corporate entity who legally possesses the right to administer the development of his creation(s) or it's the dread spectre of COMMON CONSENSUS.

    If it's the latter -- and I think it eventually will be, if it isn't already -- then I'd say there's no striking the prequels. I think more people by far accept them than don't, but even if that's not the case, it eventually will be. Every passing year reduces the number of people in the world who were alive before the prequels existed. And they/we are the only offensive force against those movies. On top of that, many of us accept them. Many of us don't; but, again, our numbers dwindle with each passing year.

    (5) I think we all know what happens when there are multiple sects offering their interpretation of the Word of God...

    (6) "taken all together, these tales and legends helped as a summary of all the values of ancient Greek culture, and the ideas it believed in" -- Now, I'm no expert on ancient Greece, so take this as a layman's question. But I do wonder: is this actually true, or is it a thing we in modern times assume to be true simply because it's what survived? There may be no way of answering that question, of course. And I'm not sure it actually matters: those myths/tales are our primary means of understanding anything about at least some aspects of ancient Greece. So they do seem to be what you say they are, if only by the common acclaim of modern culture. In other words, we're back at the notion of common consensus.

    (7) This all makes me want to read "The Odyssey" again! Been way too long.

    1. (1)-(7).

      The idea of common consensus does seem to be the basic fallback (for better or worse?).

      The funny thing is how it can sometimes make room for interesting developments regarding films or books regarded as canon. I even know a pretty good example. "The Karate Kid" is still regarded as a classic. The funny thing is how now you hear certain fans holding the idea that Daniel is the real bully in the film.

      The irony is someone even went out of their way to make this point by creating a full, mockumentary short film.

      Here's the weird part. If all audiences had to go on is just this one fan project, odds are it would remain either just a theory or a curiosity. Now, however, we have "Cobra-Kai", which features creative choices that could at least be interpreted as an acknowledgement of the Daniel-as-Bully theory. The result seems to be a strange hybrid case where one movie has somehow turned into two.

      I don't to either interpretation, to be honest. I also have to admit that it does put a more interesting spin on the original film.

      As for the problem of multiple competing sects of fan interpretation. I have found myself asking something I don't think I've ever considered before. Is it possible for the entire pop-culture, the one established by generations of sci-fi/fantasy, and horror geeks, to find itself simply collapsing?

      Yeah it does sound strange, and I hope it never happens, at the same time, I keep seeing a lot of evidence that the current state of worldwide geek-hood is getting kinda uncomfortably toxic for some reason. Supposing for a moment that such a thing would happen, the most logical conclusion I could see would be that the arts scene becomes both totally indie produced (which might not be such a bad thing). Beyond that I'm not sure, I sometimes wonder if that means books and films will become seen more as leisure hobbies, more than the natural pastimes they're viewed as now.

      The only problem is I don't know how that would all turn out, one way or the other.


    2. Fascinating ideas all. I think pop culture as we know it *could* collapse, but that the odds are against it. Pop culture is a living, breathing entity composed of the thoughts and biases of individuals as filtered through the thoughts and biases of group interactions; and I assume that as long as the conditions which enable those thoughts and biases (both individual and of the groups resulting from them) exist, then so will the popular culture. It derives from human nature, and that ain't changing anytime soon. But if society itself suffers massive enough changes, then that would obviously have a major impact.

      The argument could probably be made that we are already in the initial stages of art becoming an entirely independently-produced thing. I don't think that is likely ever to fully happen unless capitalism is removed from the equation and creators are no longer in a position to own their works. Which sounds ominous and awful in some ways, but hey, it works on Star Trek.

      I've heard that Daniel-as-bully reading of "Karate Kid" and it makes me grumpy. But at the same time, I'm all for the idea that Johnny himself is more complicated than being merely a bully. I think that idea is present in the original movie, which is part of what makes that a great movie. I haven't seen "Cobra Kai," but I'd like to.