A Very Local Look at Star Wars 7

Reheated – But More Like Stuffed Cabbage

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

Star Wars is like sarma, Slovene stuffed cabbageit gets better when left to rest and reheated. A more highbrow description would be – it is a fairytale as defined by Vladimir Propp, in his infallible Morphology of Fairytale (1928), not missing one single element listed there as necessary to recognize the structure. And it does function like a fairytale: first it destroys everything we dream of when yearning for a fairytale, then it restitutes some of this, with irony and wit, so we can regain control of our fairytale dreams. I watched The Force Awakens in an independent cinema in Ljubljana: among the public, I counted three “ancients” of my and my husband's generation, the rest were in their thirties or younger. Holding to large portions of popcorn, emanating that strong cinema odor, we made alliance in our corner of cultural space, in a galaxy far, far away... Far away, especially from the referendum the next morning, aimed at overturning the much-delayed liberal and humane law that had been passed, on giving equal rights to all couples and families irrespective of gender orientation.

I discovered Star Wars first in literary form: the novel by George Lucas (actually by his ghost writer, Alan Dean Foster) based on the film scenario was first published as feuilleton in the Belgrade daily newspaper, Politika, in 1976-7: at the time films, especially the commercial hits, would come to Yugoslavia with some delay – mainly because they were too expensive to screen immediately or, more rarely, for ideological reasons. The film hit the screens there in late 1977, and the text was then published in a reputed book series for youth, Plava Ptica (Blue Bird) in 1978; George Lucas was credited as the author. Whatever promotional and commercial tricks behind it – and we were well aware of them at that time – I just loved the text. It combined two almost incompatible discourses and genres: the arbitrary, political and often cynical Greek myth, and the strict (Proppean) structure of the oral fairytale – and it worked! It was fresh, with distance, and playing with all the tricks of the trade. It made it possible for me to start writing literary texts, without remorse and for the fun of it. Five years later, I wrote an adventure romance situated in the 18th century, which took me one year to finish (every Friday a new chapter), where the first chapter was a birthday present for my young friend and student (or perhaps apprentice), who then had a number of demands and suggestions on the process; later, friends convinced me to propose it for the same Plava Ptica (Blue Bird) series. It was published as Leon and Leonine in 1984 under a pseudonym – I thought that I had to think of my reputation as an academic at the time, and was reprinted several times. The publishing house Prosveta does not exist anymore, and neither does the series... The romance is now accessible for free on the portal Peščanik (http://pescanik.net/leon-i-leonina) under my name.

When it comes to the revival of the Saturday matinee B movies by Lucas and Spielberg, I think my generation was the lucky one; we were in our late twenties and early thirties, trying to overcome our 68' engagement and defeat and struggling to achieve whatever we were trying to make of ourselves for real. Luckier than the kids then, I mean, because we could work around the genre without being sucked into the new myth. My husband is an archaeologist: whatever amateurish mistakes Indiana Jones was making, the films (except the last one, that crystal skulls rubbish) were perfect for teaching and relating to theoretical debates. We often forget how many serious theoretical archaeological articles were written in the 80s with reference to Indiana Jones. And the TV series about the young Indiana Jones (1992-3 and 1999) was, except for minor flaws, a very good initiation into debates on the reception of European cultures. The other privilege, and a shortcut to pleasure, was the new relationship to academic attitudes, the newly-acquired freedom from pretentious, falsely serious, highbrow discursive habits – thanks, 68'! And in Yugoslavia, there was this new freedom and the accessibility of theoretical works from the West and from the East equally: some, especially dissident books, appeared first in translation in Yugoslavia, and then eventually (if ever) in their language of origin in the Soviet bloc.

Needless to say, I just adored the Star Wars series. What I liked the most were the creatures, as I liked Sesame Street and Muppets – all created by the same group of artists. I loved the basic story, especially when it slips into irony, but my favorite is the acoustic identification in all the movies in the series: the invention of new languages, the fun of guessing which languages were used in the process; the fact that sounds give some basic information about the plot – spaceships, robots, and any other machinery belonging to bad guys have a mean tone, which slight changes when in use by the good guys, while the good machines have a good acoustic signature. For me, the secret of success of the three additional movies, which function as “footnotes” to the first three episodes, lies in this simple recognition system, enriched by allusions, references and hints from pop-culture. The acoustic clues are crucial: for instance, the sounds emitted by the partly-feathered mega-lizard in rainbow colors who loves to run (Revenge of the Sith) clearly recall the cartoon Roadrunner's “mee-mee” sound... The three primary films, which came out during the socialist times here, were used to make local references, and Jabba the Hutt was immediately renamed “Brezhnev.”

Star Wars did not have the ideological naiveté of the first Star Trek TV series and subsequent film series which just added more glamor to the primary communist/military concoction, nor the metaphysical gravity of Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky, after the novel of the same name by Stanislav Lem, and his Stalker film, after the novel by the brothers Strugacky (Picnic by the Road): these negative utopias or SF tragedies were interpreted as critical of the Soviet system. The highest political achievement of the whole Star Wars series was the continuous fight between a uniform-wearing, Nazi-styled cruel and evil totalitarian dominant majority, able to mobilize huge numbers of people, and a scattered, poorly-disciplined group of different, exotic individuals who are sometimes able to unite in the common desire and for their sensitivity for justice and democracy, and even have some temporary success. In other words, a partizan movement. My generation openly despised Yugosalv western film-inspired partizan movies, or spectacular all-star productions meant to charm international film festival audiences – the latter even more. I had my moment of satisfaction when I noticed the announcement for a film in a shady movie theater for working-class males in central Athens in 1974: the theater had a non-stop double feature program combining karate and porn, and the title was Marshal Tito-Karate, which actually was the very famous Yugoslav film Neretva... In a way, Star Wars, so happily joining anti-Nazi feeling, re-conquered partizan tradition and the mainly lost 68' revolutionary humor and nonchalance were instrumental in finding some balance in a crazy world. And the feeling was sealed by a perfect spoof - Mel Brook's Spaceballs...

This is why the re-heating works so well in the new movie. First, there are old people there: the somewhat unreal Alec Guinness and Yoda are replaced by humanely real old people that we loved when they were young. We now love every wrinkle, every unruly grey hair, every bit of a chin not shaved for a couple of days, every line on the matron's neck of the threesome from the first movie – the hardheaded princess, able to lead the rebels' army, the irresponsible handsome rover and the boy condemned to be a hero. The helpers, necessary in a fairytale and also lovingly recognizable are here: blabbering robots, a walking flokati with a language that recalls a Siamese cat with a really sore throat, the space hangout with monsters, impossible languages and a shrunken, caring Jewish mother figure, some seriously neurotic anthropophagic mega-squids, the Nazi army, and two new love interests for a new princess, one to be met by her in the next movie. The two have already become pals: a handsome Mediterranean perfect pilot, and a consciousness-driven soldier. In a scene in which he removes the helmet and remains in the white plastic suit, confused, the new hero inevitably reminds us of the black sperm among the many white ones, all in white overalls, in the final episode of the craziest early Woody Allan movie, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask, when he utters: “What am I doing here?” Afterwards, because of her, the reformed storm trooper becomes heroic, honorable and ready to sacrifice himself. In the other two announced movies – it remains to be seen if they are going to be as reheated-cabbage-like as this one – it will be revealed whether the new generation is related through a brother-sister connection, niece-uncle, adoption, love or just friendship.

And here we come to the key innovation of this movie, and that is the bad guy, Kylo Ren. He might be the grandson of Darth Vader, but some twist is possible there. Kylo Ren considers his alleged grandpa overwhelmingly sexy-evil, although Vader repented before he died and ended in an afterlife constellation of good guys. Kylo's force is immense, and it is quite inexplicable why he should hang around with funnily-dressed and stiff Nazi generals, and with some oversized hologram zombie who answers to the name of Snoke... and does not even wag his tail. The explanation could be that he represents irrational evil, evil as jouissance: he wears his helmet, which alienates his voice only for propaganda, image and for inspiring terror, not because it enables him to breathe. He takes the helmet off easily and without acoustic suspense, speaks normally. The visual association goes back to 1955, Richard III played by Laurence Olivier. He questions and tortures his sister, niece or just his enemy without much fervor or personal passion. Later, in a duel with her, he is gravely wounded and left without a limb or two: but it is too late for the Vader-like suffering and redemption, because Kylo Ren killed his presumed father, saying “Thanks,” because Solo, with his parental commitment, enabled him to commit a senseless, hideous and cold crime in order to prove himself. Kylo Ren is evil without any reflection, a teenager who, after excessive internet flanerie, decides to join the caliphate to cut off some heads, because it is a much better trip than any game. We can speculate on the presumed father Solo and accuse him of being just a liberal outlaw who does not destroy capitalism but just steals – but it does not help, the bad guy is lost for the rest of the story, unless Solo reappears... So, for the moment, the only Kylo Ren adversary can be a new female hero, young, fresh, sweet and perfectly trained, in capri pants and in beige, almost without make-up. At this point, we have just one excruciating question: which cosmetic line is used by the girl grown-up in a desert, so that her skin remains a perfectly-hydrated English rose?

Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.