Against Nostalgia (Part 2)

Despite being the worst of the original trilogy of Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom was the one that I remember watching the most as a kid.  As an adult I could construct a complicated rationale for this about my relative levels of comfort with face melting, heart ripping, and rapid desiccation of a live body (these movies are gruesome), but the reality is probably more simple: I could never find the Raiders of the Lost Ark video in my parents’ house when I was a kid, so Temple of Doom was my first exposure to the colonialist action hero.  Still, you’d think that the heart scene would be the most iconic thing I remember about Temple of Doom, but it isn’t; the bridge scene is.

There’s a moment in the course of the escape from the Thuggee cult where Indy and his companions find themselves trapped on a rope bridge between two groups of cultists.  One of them steps forward to confront the hero with pair of swords that he wields with expert menace.  Smugly, Indy reaches for his holster to realize that he’s long since lost the pistol he normally carries.  Another solution will have to be found.  It’s a weird moment that follows a series of beats that don’t make sense in the context of story.  So many things have happened since Indy was last fully prepared for action with his standard adventurer’s gear that it’s ridiculous he’d suddenly think, “Oh, I’ll just use my gun now.”  If you’re a person who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you get the meta joke that Spielberg and Lucas decided to make here: Indy, when previously confronted with a dangerous assailant who is obviously better versed in some kind of hand-to-hand combat during that earlier adventure, decided to take the most expedient route to victory, and here he can’t pull the same maneuver even though he’d like to.  The reason it’s a meta joke and not a plausible character beat is that Temple of Doom is set five years before Raiders of the Lost Ark.  That earlier success hasn’t happened yet, so it’s bizarre that Indy acts like he knows the solution to this absurd problem and then is bewildered to find it won’t work this time.  The audience, if they’ve seen the first movie, can find the moment delightful, but they have to do some extra labor that should have been on the filmmakers in order to get a comprehensible reading of the character off the chronological order of events.

In short, Indy going for his gun and comically failing to have it is a bit of pure fan service.  It’s silly and nonsensical and even inconsequential in comparison to many of Temple of Doom‘s other sins (or even the litany of problems with the concept of Indiana Jones in general), but it acts as a moment of prioritizing audience delight over building a meaningful and coherent story.  Its foundation is the idea that folks will get a kick out of the filmmakers nudging them and whispering, “Remember that bit you liked in the last movie?  Here it is again with a twist!”  It’s fine in small doses, but overindulgence just leaves you with an empty feeling after the fact, like stuffing your face with Christmas cookies and getting caught up in a sugar fugue.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker poster.jpg

The Rise of Skywalker Theatrical Poster (Image credit: Wikipedia)

That’s pretty much the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker.  If you were to take the hundred and fifty minute runtime and chunk it up into individual thirty second nuggets, any one of them alone might be delightful.  Instead, we get to reenact the bit from The Simpsons where Ned-Flanders-as-the-devil tries to punish Homer with endless donuts.  Your mileage may vary as to whether you are Homer or someone who doesn’t have an unlimited appetite for sweet treats.  I, for one, said with all seriousness this past week, “Please don’t offer me anymore cake,” so you can guess how I feel about this last Star War in general terms.

I have spent the intervening weeks between seeing The Rise of Skywalker and working on this post thinking and on and off about what irks me so much about the film.  I can’t say it makes me angry precisely; the Discourse of Star Wars has become largely tiresome in the last few years; it’s just not fun to discuss the creative choices being made with these movies, largely because people take it so seriously.  I’m guilty of this myself (see the first part of this series); that doesn’t mean I find conversations about storytelling choices boring in general (quite the contrary), but I think I’m reaching a point in my life where I’m learning to let go of the more toxic aspects of enthusiastic fandom.  Stories are absolutely important to a person’s sense of identity, and the corporatization of a particular mythology doesn’t make it any less impactful for the people who see vital reflections in it; however, I’m just not there with Star Wars anymore, and I suspect a large part of that jading is the fandom itself.  I was so irritated with the negative response to The Last Jedi two years ago because it promised so much potential for new kinds of stories in the Star Wars movies wrapped up in a very simple theme: The Force is for everyone.  It was such an invitation!

Two years later, I’m still in love with the ideas and execution of The Last Jedi as a movie and as an entry in the flagship series of the Star Wars mythos.  It grapples with a lot of the complexities that are supposed to be present in warfare.  The Resistance is justified in its fight against the First Order (because they’re Nazis, and you always fight against Nazis), but there is no glory in the application of violence to achieve a worthy goal.  People suffer, families are ripped apart, and it’s typically the most morally bankrupt who stand to make the most profit from any kind of armed conflict.  Balanced against that very frank look at the guts of warfare that hero narratives so often gloss over is this extended meditation on interconnection as the very stuff of the Force; Rose Tico’s observation that hope lies in saving what we love instead of destroying what we hate reflects back what Luke has been banging his head trying to explain to Rey in the grumpiest way possible perfectly.  Anyone can participate in this grand thing, and the way we do that is seeking out things to love.

At this point, I think it’s gradually seeped into the general consciousness that Disney as a profit seeking entity decided to change course from all these radical reimaginings of what the Star Wars universe could be about because they feared the backlash against The Last Jedi impacting their bottom line with the final episode of their trilogy.  Sort of secondary to that big idea is the understanding that Star Wars has become a cultural touchstone which is predisposed to turning into a battleground for our ongoing culture wars.  Folks across the political spectrum want to be able to lay claim to it because there’s cultural cachet attached that can steer broader popular sentiment.  I’m fully aware that this phenomenon is one of the driving reasons I adore The Last Jedi and feel generally apathetic towards Rise of Skywalker before we even get into issues of story structure and plotting.  I could easily rant about the regression of this movie’s politics from radical inclusivity to another played out story about genetic destiny and uncritical cheerleading about war.  That stuff’s all there, and it irritates me if I think too hard about it.  What’s more interesting to discuss is the impetus for these changes in sentiment.

It comes back to nostalgia.

Nostalgia is an inherently conservative force in the makeup of the human condition.  It’s the feeling that we chase when we realize that things have gotten more complicated than we would like them to be; it’s an effective way to soothe anxiety about the ever changing state of the universe around us.  There’s comfort to be had in memory.  When William F Buckley coined his infamous characterization of conservatism as someone standing athwart history and shouting stop, he was directly appealing to nostalgia and suggesting that there might be a way to actually achieve the feeling it promises to people who pursue it.  It’s the core thing that drives people who hoard power to stomp on people who demand that power be shared among everyone.  It’s an obsession with rule by the old order reduced to the pettiness of small slights.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Rey finds herself confronted with her lineage: Emperor Palpatine is her grandfather, and for vague reasons this is a major catalyst for her temptation to submit to the Dark Side of the Force.  The intended subtext is that there’s something about the Palpatine family that is inherently predisposed to rage and passion and fear; apparently genetics matter way more than upbringing and social support systems in this version of Star Wars.  In the end, Rey rejects this proposition in favor of choosing the heritage of the Jedi (whom Rise of Skywalker seems to go out of its way to venerate following the serious interrogation that Luke and Yoda did of the tradition in the last movie) and as a cookie for saving the galaxy, she’s given permission by Luke and Leia’s ghosts to claim membership in the Skywalker clan.  Honestly, it’s a dumb, empty plot resolution that only feels emotionally significant because we already know and like most of the Skywalker family.  You can honestly say the same thing for probably ninety percent of the beats in the rest of the movie.  So little about this last adventure is built on new thought or even just realistic character sketching.  It’s nostalgia all the way down.  When Lando shows up to assist the heroes, you go, “Hey, it’s Lando!” and then you move on to a chase scene without actually spending any time with who Lando has become (because there’s been no consideration of how Lando might change after Return of the Jedi).  When Luke shows up as a Force ghost to deliver a pep talk to Rey in her darkest moment (or what passes for a darkest moment) and then raises his old X-Wing out of the ocean so she has a ship to fly to confront Palpatine, you say, “Hey, Luke’s doing a Yoda!” without pondering how he must feel literally resurrecting the symbol of his hotshot glory days so this girl he barely knows can go off to maybe get herself killed in an ill-advised solo mission (Abrams only seems capable of echoing heroic moments from the original trilogy, never the bits about how stupid and rash Luke was at the end of The Empire Strikes Back).  When Chewbacca gets the medal during the final celebration you feel satisfied that that error in the first movie has finally been rectified (never mind that we have no idea what Chewbacca and Lando actually did to warrant that kind of recognition).  The Rise of Skywalker is just a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t actually care about its central characters beyond their capacity to play ersatz versions of the old heroes, and it’s all fueled by the bet that nostalgia is the moneymaker.

At the risk of bumbling into overwrought doomsaying, I find myself growing more and more fearful of the broader pop culture trend towards nostalgic storytelling.  We’re living through some incredibly bad and volatile times, and the impulse to curl up with stories founded on past glories makes total sense.  A lot of comfort is needed.  What I fear is the general stagnation of mass storytelling in response to these needs.  Part of this is rooted in the growing anxiety that our modern mythologies are slowly being rounded up under a single creative umbrella that has no impetus to allow for experimentation and innovation.  The people who stand to make the most money are always the ones who have the fewest qualms about ignoring any kind of principles or ideals, whether those are related to how you tell a story or what ideas you give dignity.  It’s clearly how we’ve gotten two decades of JJ Abrams wandering into established intellectual properties and shouting a bunch while throwing old bits around like so much confetti.  Indy’s going to be reaching for that missing pistol forevermore.

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