Monday, 22 June 2015

Star Wars Obsession, Man-Child Syndrome and Pop Culture Unhinged

The Desperate Search for New Meaning in a Corporate World of Semiotic Chaos

by J. Albert Barr

I was part of the first generation that literally grew up on the unprecedented pop cultural phenomenon that was Star Wars. As a kid, I watched the first three movies with unbridled excitement and joy. I actually saw The Empire Strikes Back (in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made) before I even saw Star Wars: A New Hope, but because of all the kids I played with who did see the groundbreaking first film, and regaled me with practically every detail about it, as well as all the inescapable merchandising associated with it, including books and comics and such, I pretty much knew the film inside and out by the time I finally did see "Episode 4", shortly after seeing The Empire Strikes Back when it was released, and Star Wars got a re-release.

Like most kids I hung around with, I too was preoccupied with all things Star Wars-related, especially the Kenner toy action figures and space-ships that began to fill the toy sections of the local K-mart, Zellers, Sears, etc, at the end of the 70s. However, being a kid with endless curiosity and having many interests, I was never completely "obsessed" with Star Wars either. I loved sports (particularly hockey and baseball, both watching and following each season, as well as collecting hockey and baseball cards with great enthusiasm), comic books, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Blazers (the American version of the Japanese anime series, Space Battleship Yamato)  Saturday morning cartoons, and pop music, just to name a few of the important interests I had in the late 70s/early 80s.

By the time I got a few years into my adolescence, music and girls were my primary interests, nay, passions. I still very much loved hockey and baseball too, and would continue to do so well into my twenties, until the increasingly ridiculous contracts, micro-managing of stats, trades and acquirings, media coverage, and overt and ubiquitous commercialization of sports, in general, began to alienate me more and more from this once beloved interest. It's probably important enough to note here that I was simultaneously cultivating a relatively new love for literature, poetry, philosophy, cultural and media studies, and psychology around this time as well, as a twenty-something living, as a young adult, in the "alternative 90s", when rock music was enjoying its, evidently now, last burst of renewed energy and creativity. And independent film wonderfully exploded onto the scene too, just as I became a full-fledged film-buff. The burgeoning "social consciousness" that I had been developing since around my early teens had awakened fervently by the time I hit my early twenties. What was happening in the world, outside of the immediate confines of my own hometown, affected me and compelled me to express it through some form of artistic medium.

So Star Wars, for me, and many others who went through a similar, cultivating process as they entered the seeming maturation of adulthood, had become a fond relic from childhood. The initial impact and indelible impression that George Lucas's creation made on my generation, however, is undeniable to be sure. Its immense and sweeping influence was certainly ineluctable, and it did, inevitably, leave its mark (or "brand"?) deep inside the collective constitution of said generation. In other words, the first generation that grew up with Star Wars, as an ever oscillating foreground and background in their lives, appears to, arguably, be the most immature and socially ill-equipped generation of the contemporaneously new postmodern age; an enormously inchoate and disjointed age that germinated during the 60s and emerged in full disorientation through the cynically disillusioned, ambiguous and culturally erratic 70s; only to become, in the 80s, a full-blown, florescent-colored simulacra of depthless frivolousness, with high-budgeted special-effects superimposed over an ever waning sense of visceral reality through nearly all aspects of culture, particularly pop culture, which ultimately became the new "opiate of the masses" through what philosophers/critical theorists, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called the "culture industry" in their enduringly influential 1944 book, The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Prior to 1977, the 70s were dominated by an all pervasive cynicism and implicit sense of disillusionment over the failure of the 60s cultural revolution, at least from the liberal's point of view. Rock music had become bloated, ostentatious and hedonistic; and pop music had become greatly sensitive, introverted and inward-looking with the singer-songwriter movement suddenly flooding the airwaves and topping the charts, by the likes of Elton John, Carole King, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Janis Ian, Gilbert O'Sullivan, etc. Carole King's #1 smash hit, "It's Too Late", was a perfect expression of the disappointment of what the 60s generation tried to accomplish in terms of literally changing society; though the song's lyrics, on the surface, describe a "romantic break-up", I feel its underlying symbolism put into context the sense of collective loss, disillusionment and emotional numbness felt during the first few years of the 1970s - "Something inside [had] died" indeed.

Television in the 70s was chock full of silly, brainless fluff and escapist adventure programming. The rare exceptions were shows like the groundbreaking, and highly topical, All in the Family and M.A.S.H. Film was replete with intensely raw, unglamorous, darkly cynical and realistic depictions of crime dramas, such as The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Walking Tall, Chinatown, A Clockwork Orange, and Death Wish. The many, now classic, but hard-hitting social dramas/satires (some with conspiracy plots) from that bleak and pessimistic period of the 70s included, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces, Last Tango in Paris, The Last Picture Show, Deliverance, The Conversation, Nashville, Taxi Driver, Marathon Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Network, and All the President's Men.

The 70s also ushered in a more pronounced genre/sub-genre assertion in cinema with "disaster movies" (The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake!, Airport series, The Cassandra Crossing); "science fiction" (The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, THX-1138Logan's Run, Solaris, Westworld);  "Blaxploitation films" (Shaft, Sweet, Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Foxy Brown, Black Caesar, Detroit 9000); "art-house cinema" (Scarecrow, The Conformist, Aguirre, Wrath of God, La Strada, Day For Night); "horror flicks" (The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie, Jaws, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre); and the newly established porn film industry, with popular hardcore films like, Deep Throat, Debbie Does Dallas, Behind the Green Door, The Devil in Miss Jones, and the softcore cult classic, Emmanuelle. The semiotics, and relative characteristics, from all these different genres and sub-genres in pop culture, generally speaking, were an indication of a splintering off within the culture that began to divide and sub-divide people, and their respective identities, more and more as the decade progressed, leading to enrooting feelings of insecurity, distrust, and even paranoia, particularly towards the government and its "repressive state apparatuses".

With the predominate sense of cynicism, uncertainty and disillusionment that suffused through the first half of the 70s, particularly, it certainly didn't help that the U.S. experienced a considerable economic recession, and nearly had their disgraced President Nixon impeached during the Watergate Scandal. Perhaps most disturbing, there was a dramatic upsurge in the number of serial killers operating in the U.S. during the 70s, especially beginning in 1974, the year The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released, coincidentally enough. By 1977, something had to give as a way to relieve the psychical tension and rather dour mood just below the surface of all the corny escapism proliferating in the mainstream; I mean, besides a certain feathered blonde bombshell who suddenly took the world (and certainly pop culture) by storm the year before, with her eye-popping appearance in the instant smash-hit television show on ABC, Charlie's Angels, and her multi-million selling, icon-making, red bathing suit pose in the world's most famous pin-up poster.

That so-called "relief" finally came in 1977 in two phenomenally successful forms: Star Wars and disco music, thanks, in great part, to John Travolta's star-making turn in Saturday Night Fever. Ironically, punk/new wave music also made an, albeit, lesser splash that same year, at least in the mainstream, but proved the far more influential, and critically-acclaimed, style, both musically and culturally, in the long run. George Lucas had made two films in the 70s prior to Star Wars: 1971's dystopic and Orwellian, science-fiction film, THX 1138, and 1973's nostalgia-driven, American Graffiti; a film that was a box-office hit and garnered several Academy Award nominations, including Best Director for Lucas. The film, which starred many young, up-and-coming movie and television stars, was a bittersweet look back to a more innocent and simpler time in 1962, before JFK's assassination, the Vietnam War, the British music invasion, the civil rights movement, the hippie counter-culture, and two more devastating assassinations - Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy - before the 60s concluded, and officially died, on Dec.6th, 1969, with the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert, where a young African-American was stabbed to death right in front of The Rolling Stones, by a Hell's Angels "security guard", while they performed for 300,000 restless spectators.This tragic incident was, of course, preceded by just a few months, with the horrific Sharon Tate murders, at Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, perpetrated by brainwashed members of Charles Manson's Spahn Ranch "family", thus, coupled with the Altamont killing, bringing the 60s to a truly "symbolic death", let alone an official one.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco (where "the Summer of Love" had originated in 1967), a demented, and elusive, serial killer, who simply called himself Zodiac, terrorized the city by shooting or stabbing seven victims between December, 1968 and October, 1969. He allegedly claimed at least one more victim in 1970, while periodically communicating with San Francisco newspaper establishments and the city's police department. He was never caught. Indeed, the 70s were born under a "bad sign".

So, again, by 1977, the culture was yearning for some effective escapism; the more visually convincing, the better, it seemed. 1974's, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and especially 1975's,  Jaws (significantly, film history's first official "blockbuster"), had convincingly expressed the culture's collective sense of fear and dread in the spectral face of that decade's hitherto marked pessimism. And then, in 1976, three considerably more mature and adult-oriented films asked more culturally and psychologically pressing, and unflinching, questions about the "true state of things". Those three, now classic and definitive, films were All the President's Men, Taxi Driver and Network. All three were nominated for Best Picture in early 1977, but were "beaten" by the much more crowd-pleasing, uplifting, and, let's be honest, simple-minded, box-office hit, Rocky.

Network was an especially scathing indictment and vicious satire on the apparent dwindling standards in mainstream news, television, and culture, in general, during that time. It was initially perceived as an outrageous, over-the-top film, despite the obvious cinematic acumen of all those involved, from its stellar, multi-award winning cast, to its highly reputable director (Sidney Lumet), and its sharp-witted, culturally-perceptive screen-writer (two-time Oscar winner, Paddy Chayefsky). The film's most famous line of dialogue came from the embattled UBS news anchor, Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, who died shortly after the release of the film, and subsequently, won a posthumous Oscar for his unforgettable performance). After hysterically spouting off a number of society's woes directly into the camera, and declaring that there is something really wrong with the world, Beale insists that viewers get off of their couches, stick their heads out of their windows and shout loudly: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!!"

Well, not nearly enough of those who saw Network, and took the film's stunning revelations (and prescience before the more evident fact in the ensuing decade and beyond) seriously enough, got "mad as hell" and shared it with the rest of the world. And, despite Ned Beatty's media mogul character's jaw-dropping scene, in which he tells a spellbound Howard Beale, alone together in a darkened boardroom, that the world is essentially "a business", thus reducing Beale's spot-on diatribes to mere, network sponsored "entertainment" for a nation of industry-tranquilized consumers. After all, it's all just television, and Network is just a movie. Or so the "gatekeepers of the culture industry" would have you believe. What really got lost, or perhaps even taken away, in the 70s, and remained elusive from there on into the 80s and right up to contemporary times, was, and is, a sense of real meaning and value. The corporate empire and viral mind-set, and the government(s) it ultimately controls, has basically dictated the cultural flow of "meaning and value" for the sole purpose of seemingly endless monetary profit, municipal and provincial power, and a strangle-hold on the environment and atmosphere itself for its own sake, regardless of the population's welfare.

Instead of stimulating a national discourse on what was the multi-faceted, and quite complex, ails of our society and culture, we, predominately, opted for the fantasy, black and white, good vs. evil get-away of the Star Wars movies and their inundation of consumer merchandise, fast-food tie-ins, and "Jedi philosophy". The cruel irony was that, in the end, we were seduced by the "dark side", by the Empire. I don't think it's by accident that Darth Vader is the face of the Star Wars franchise, and that he is, for the most part, its most famous and popular character (our unceasing fascination and not-so-secret identification with "the bad guy" is very telling here). Okay, perhaps I'm exaggerating the all- encompassing reach and degree of seduction by Star Wars and its continuously "expanding universe", both narratively and commercially. The fact is, there are many other popular franchises, brands, sports teams, what-have-you, that have picked up the slack where Star Wars has failed to seduce and, ultimately, distract through our endless consumerist and high-tech world, which is pretty much the air we breathe and the overshadowing vista and artificial landscape our eyes guzzle down on a daily basis.

But, in order to "manufacture" an effective and pacified enough populace of obedient consumers, you must greatly reduce the level of its education, cultivation and overall maturity, and this takes time to execute; an especially "disjointed and beleaguered" sense of time, gradually speaking. And it can take decades of time to fully realize, maybe even a century or so to germinate initially. Adorno's and Horkheimer's discovery and naming of the "culture industry" dates back to around the end of World War II. Shortly afterwards, particularly, in the 50s, consumerism really started to gain momentum, thanks greatly to suburban sprawl and the first shopping malls opening. A few decades prior to all this, the Federal Reserve Bank (a private banking conglomerate, and not a government regulated institution) was established in 1913 after a secret meeting of 1/4 of the world's wealth on Jekyll Island in 1910, in supposed response to the "panic of 1907".

The dubiously named Generation X, was the first generation of impressionable kids and youths to see Star Wars, and devour its feverishly demanded toys and multifarious merchandising. The science-fiction fantasy franchise ultimately became the first of its kind in the ever-changing world of commerce, and would dramatically influence all subsequent pop-culture franchises that rapidly appeared in its wake. Gen Xers literally grew up with Star Wars, and a considerable cross-section of its fans gradually internalized much of its symbolic economy, and definitely its fantasy-based semiotics, its sign system, via its popular characters and their motley set of customs and alien characteristics, during Halloween, costume parties and mounting number of fan clubs. More and more private bedrooms, and ,later (as they "grew up"), living rooms were sporting a considerable Star Wars-themed feng shui of sorts.

The only other science-fiction franchise that can challenge Star Wars' fan-base is of course Star Trek, whose legion of devoted fans have evinced a very similar love and obsession with Gene Roddenberry's initially 1960's creation. But it was, in fact, Star Wars' massive commercial and cultural success that hastened the first Star Trek movie in 1979. Star Wars was also likely instrumental in Warner Bros. making and releasing Superman in 1978. By the early 80s the term, "blockbuster", had become a household word; and so did the words/concepts "sequel" and "franchise", when all the aforementioned movies released follow-ups in the early 80s to a practical fever-pitch of consumer anticipation.

By 1983, the Star Wars franchise had seemingly concluded its improbable run with three incredibly successful, and immensely bankable, films to go with an even more improbable merchandising campaign that appeared bottomless. The gravy train of merchandising and product-placing and ubiquitous advertising had just begun. By the end of the 80s it was DC Comics' turn with the mega-success of 1989's Batman, and the cultural deluge of the omni-presence of the Batman logo seen virtually everywhere.

There was a sudden, and I would suspect, an unexpected sea change in the culture when the alternative rock band, Nirvana, literally burst onto the scene with a discernible sense of anger, postmodern cynicism, and pop cultural anomie. And for a few years anyway, it seemed like serious, and profoundly needed, change was upon us, as the grunge movement gained more momentum, like symbolically dethroning Michael Jackson from the #1 spot on Billboard's Top 200 chart. Even poetry made some sort of comeback in the minds and hearts of many, as Generation X's burgeoning disillusionment and malaise came of age in the early 90s and started to assert its collective self with cultural force.

Unfortunately, however, Generation X wasn't emotionally mature, let alone mentally mature (or in some hapless cases, even emotionally and mentally stable), to articulate enough what exactly was the problem in society and its increasingly alienating culture and system. Part of the inability to effectively diagnose the situation was a profound lack of knowing and understanding our history (and not just American history, but "world history"). Time itself had been imposed upon with a perpetual sense of the present; the then newly espoused notion of "living in the moment" had usurped much of what T.S. Eliot had endorsed in his profoundly important work: "historical consciousness".  

Sure enough, the so-called "alternative music movement" was fairly easily co-opted and absorbed by the predominately corporatized music industry. By the end of the decade, alternative music was watered-down and reduced to just a bunch of snot-nosed wanna-be's who ultimately wanted fame and fortune under the guise of rebellion and sense of cool. Vacuous dance/image-oriented pop music had taken over the zeitgeist almost wholesale, and things haven't much changed since. The Star Wars franchise made a huge, if critically maligned, comeback in 1999, and produced three more world-building prequels, where a newly born Darth Vader can be seen at the end of Episode 3, standing beside the evil Emperor, ready to do some "sinister business",

Star Wars has since become the most pervasive internet and cultural meme - it is simply everywhere!. It has also been sexualized (via the cosplay craze, for instance) by the generation who seems unwilling, out of desperate psychological necessity, I suspect, to grow up, despite its barely contained libido, coupled with a contrarian lack of healthy social skills and comfortable level of intimacy. In its stead, a considerable cross-section of "man-children" (and some "woman-children" as well) have taken over much of pop-culture's tonal motifs and dispositional fashions and attitudes. And their "children", the Millennials, have only reinforced these immature and viciously defensive stances in pretty much all areas of social life and cultural expression. In terms of the ultimate corporate control over the almost completely unsuspecting masses (by also incorporating and perpetuating, as an effective anti-body and defensive tactic, the cliched idea of unfounded conspiracy paranoia, of course), this is how you ultimately "manufacture consent", as American writer/sociologist , Walter Lippman, originally coined it in the 1920's. He also coined the term "stereotype", interestingly enough.

Contemporary culture and society is currently, and seemingly perpetually, mired in a dizzying, and spectrally-imposed, present sense of time (even looking back at older footage of the past, be it originally televised or filmed, there's a biased, present-day context imposed upon it). This is why we're so obsessed with remaining as young as possible whatever measures it takes to, however expensive, silly and superficial, keep us individually relevant, and desirable, in our market-place culture and the all-seeing eye of the digital world and social media. Little do we know that our collective insecurity and fear is what drives the economic machine, hence the psychological manipulation of our omni-present advertising and the quick-to-judge attitudes of those who mercilessly police the hyper-shallow standards of our times, with nary a substance-based criteria to defend or justify.

The rampantly disseminating sign systems in culture have confused not only our collective sense of identity, but also our individual sense of identity. Be it nationalism (coupled with globalism and multiculturalism); religion (and its inherent contradictions that especially fail to mesh in our hyper-politically correct world); political partisanship (the two/three party system that seems to be superficially different sides of the same coin); sports team devotion (bandwagoning with the winners, and projecting one's identity onto a certain team that, when they lose, causes cognitive dissonance); rock/pop artist fandom (selling out issues and angered by an artist changing their sound), so on and so forth; the plethora of sign systems associated with such a vast array of cultural frames of reference, has rendered us overwhelmed and confused with our sense of being and our sense of place, spatially and mentally, ontologically and epistemologically.

There is no Obi-Wan or Neo or Superman, or even God, to literally represent our "only hope". Our only true hope is to regain a sense of "historical consciousness", and engage in an admittedly overtly complex dialogue and discourse that evinces a collectively sound, sobering and mature dialect, without compromising genuine emotion and feeling as well. This also means, however, that we put down "childish things", and heal our deep-seated psychological wounds (that admittedly have festered for many generations), and overcome our addictions to escapism and materialistic and physical desires. This, of course, will not, and cannot, be realized and remedied in a day or week or year, or even decade. It's going to take a long time indeed, a long, linearly-passing and patience-laden time that is not entrenched in an enforcing, and deluded, present filled with youth-worship, social ineptitude, incessant gaming, and singularly pop cultural identifications.  

Some "force" definitely does need "awakening", before or after "Episode 7" is released to, predictably, globe-conquering success. Hey, I'll be buying my ticket too, rest assured.






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