Monday, November 19, 2012

Thoughts on Episode VII: SomethingsomethingsomethingDARKSIDEsomethingsomethingsomethingCOMPLETE

Death Star, Return of the Jedi (1983); Ben Fry, All Streets (2010)

I know what the Coruscant of Star Wars: Episode VI should look like. It is not the Coruscant we saw briefly at the end of rejiggered versions of Return of The Jedi, it is something very different. It is a world entirely transformed by the Sith. While the Emperor was defeated in Episode VI, his plan would have been already complete. I know this because I know what the original Star Wars movie was about: It was about George Lucas and his friends.
In a (suspiciously) auspiciously timed hagiography of Lucas, published just before Lucas Arts/Disney deal was announced, Camille Paglia wrote:
Lucas was born and raised in the small town of Modesto in the flat farmland of the San Joaquin Valley in Northern California. His father was an exacting owner of an office-supply store who expected his only son to inherit the family business. Small, shy, and socially maladroit, Lucas was a daydreamer who had trouble reading and writing at school and who gravitated toward mechanics and the visual arts...
That bit biography sets the scene. Luke's restlessness and his conflict with his uncle Ben, are Lucas's own. Paglia goes on to explain that "Lucas's youthful liberalism (versus his father's rock-ribbed conservatism) was typical of the bohemian San Francisco Bay Area, a 1960s hotbed of radical politics and psychedelia." It is this bit of biography that gives us Luke's nemesis; his "rock-ribbed" father.
Mark Hamill behind the camera; George Lucas directing Sith

But by the time Lucas had made Star Wars he had successfully escaped Modesto. He had gone to film school, where he had thrived, and gone on to become Francis Ford Coppola's protégé and close friend. And most importantly Lucas had made a critically and financially successful film, American Graffiti (it was nominated for 5 Oscars, and remains one of the most profitable films of all time). Lucas had rebelled on his own terms and proved himself in terms that both his father and his mentor couldn't help, in their very different ways, to recognize and admire (picture Death Star exploding here).

Additionally the rebellion of a small town dreamer had become part of the greater rebellion sweeping the globe. His father's rock-ribbed conservatism, had become indistinguishable from the violence and destruction of American Cold Warriors. McCarthyism, Segregation, the Vietnam War, as well as the "creative destruction" of Modernist Architects and Urban planners became part of Lucas's story. The rebellion of Civil Rights activists, the Yippies, Feminists and community activist were the bohemia of radical politics that shaped Lucas's youthful liberalism.
George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Luke and Vader

The story thus far, is the story of Luke's "dark father" - the discovery that behind the exacting office-supply store owner's "rock-ribbed conservatism" is racism and violence on a scale that rightfully horrified the small, shy, and socially maladroit, daydreamer. The daydreamer (or Skywalker), joins the rebellion that successfully destroys the Empire. Here is the thing to remember: no one else but Lucas had thought to cheer. The mood of the mid-1970s was not triumphalist, it was alienated and aimless.

While the Civil Rights movement had succeeded by any and all measures, blacks in the US were still at the bottom of the social ladder and possibly even worse off economically. And while the women's movement had racked up victories as, if not more significant, the Equal Rights Amendment had begun to stall, and en entire generation of middle-aged "home makers" found themselves single as their husbands took advantage of liberalized divorce laws and stated second families. And while America had gotten out of Vietnam and Nixon had resigned, the war and scandal had left Americans feeling defeated and cynical, not victorious.
Richard Nixon; Emperor Palpatine

Finally community organizers had brought an end to an era of American road building that in less than 20 years had transformed the US, linking and ringing its cities with over 42,500 miles of modern roadway. But as Earl Swift explains in fantastic book, The Big Roads, that progress came at a cost. "Smog had burned eyes and throats in Los Angeles since the forties; it had been so fierce at one point during WWII that residents feared the Japanese had launched a chemical attack." By 1970, "car and truck exhaust had formed a dirty brown pall over even small cities."

1970 was the year Nixon passed the EPA, it was a year after Jane Jacobs and her allies finally killed Robert Moses' LOMAX that would have sliced through Manhattan's historic SoHo, and seven years before Baltimore's Movement Against Destruction finally defeated the plan to extend a expressway through Fells Point. 1977, the year Star Wars premiered, is the year Swift feels, "The Road War was over." The protesters had won key battles that ended further expansion of the Interstate system - in New York they did so in time to preserve SoHo (picture the successful defense of Yavin here); Baltimore was not so lucky. Fells point never recovered, and Baltimorians were stuck with "the Ditch" - a mile and a half of sunken four lane highway from, and too, nowhere (picture the destruction of Alderaan here).
LA freeway interchange; destruction of Aderaan

And as Swift also notes, with the exceptions of a few projects like LOMAX and the Ditch, the Road War ended with very little of the Road Warrior's plans left unbuilt. With Star Wars, Lucas's gave the rebels he associated himself with; single a concrete victory over an easily identifiable villain (Space Nazis). These concrete villains and victories echoed the far-less concrete constellation of victories that had left youthful liberals discouraged. Perhaps Lucas's genius was deliver a triumphant reward, no real-world victory had actually delivered, at a time when alienation and cynicism passed for common sense.

If I were to write a script for a sequel to Star Wars, I would build it on the real world victories of the past 30 years. Real world struggles that we should feel proud of but have left youthful liberals discouraged. I'd start the next trilogy with a film called, "Episode VII: Attack of The Drones."
Obama horsing around with a toy lightsaber; weaponized US drone.


  1. Nice extended set of relationships mapped out here. As I said on twitter, I really like the highway / Death Star : neighborhood / Yavin isomorphism, and onetime anti-highway activist Barbara Mikulski is definitely a Jedi!

    One point, though, from a former resident of the neighborhood: Fells Point is doing fine. In general, the poor white neighborhoods of the southeast that were spared the highways: Fells Point, Canton, Little Italy, Butchers Hill, etc., have been quicker to recover (and even gentrify) than poorer african american neighborhoods west of downtown. Neighborhoods next to the line where the fragment of RT 40 (The Ditch, or the Highway to Nowhere) runs have gotten the worst of it.

    Harlem Park, for example, immediately adjacent to the highway fragment, is one of the poorest and most vacant neighborhoods in a city that's very well know for plenty of both. This pattern of unequal development and investment is all too common, unfortunately.

  2. Thanks Fred. I've never been to Baltimore, and while I'm sure I must have driven through at least once, I have no memory of the drive. Highways were in my mind, and Baltimore the point of cleavage, because of Earl Swift's book. I cannot praise it enough, and he spends a lot of time on Baltimore, so the distinction between Fells Point and the area around the Ditch (why couldn't it be called the the Trench?) should have been clearer in my mind. It's entirely my sloppiness, not Swift's. (FYI: Swift relays a great story of Mikulski's on page 281.)