Saturday, January 25, 2014

Attack of the Trads: What Catholic Liturgists and Laymen Can Learn from Star Wars

For some time I have searched in vain for some sort of cultural analogue that would assist advocates of traditional Roman liturgical praxis in explaining their objections to the 20th century reforms without delving too deeply into the obscure concerns of people with specialized knowledge (the pre-1911 psalter was a fact of life since the age of St Benedict, but no clergy alive have ever really known it). Last week my priest and I were chatting about my impending move. "Go to Texas you will," he said in his best Yoda voice. The other day I recalled this amusing imitation and the parallels between what happened to the Roman liturgy in the 20th century—all the reforms—and the Star Wars films is really uncanny.

I am 24 years old. I am just old enough to have clear memories of what the original Star Wars films were like in their theatrical releases (1977, 1980, and 1983). My father bought the first VHS package of the trilogy in 1992 and I watched the films regularly, a few times per year, until 1997. As a child I had fond memories of the films, sometimes wearing a Darth Vader costume while watching them and acting out the scenes during recess at school with the other boys. Then in 1997 George Lucas issued a "special edition" of the original films amid chatter that a new trilogy was immanent. Although 7 years old going on 8 and unable to grasp the general movement of the series, I could tell something was amiss in these modified films. I found some of the changes agreeable and even helpful: cleaned and digitized picture, the greater movement of the fighters during the Death Star battle, and the deeper look into Cloud City; Lucas could even have updated some of the technological aesthetics, such as the screens and buttons on the computers. Instead of focusing on updating in accordance with the latest technology Lucas focused on purifying perfectly fine films in order to align them with his newly invented vision, to put these films in line for the new movies.

Some scenes in the "special edition," particularly those in Return of the Jedi, have absolutely no significance and contribute nil to the story. Why did there have to be an inane alien band singing a pseudo-Jazz ditty? Why did the pit in which Han and Luke were to die require the addition of a bulbous worm? Why the hell did Jabba the Hutt need to repeat Greedo's lines in A New Hope? And why did Greedo now have to shoot first? In 1997 some of these scenes were technically impressive, but they added nothing to the plot and did not aid Lucas in telling the saga any better than the unmodified originals.

Yes, the 1977-1983 trilogy still existed, but something had cut into its heart, its integrity, its spirit. It was more or less the same story and same characters, but it was changing and anticipating something new. Then in 1999 "something new" finally came. The Phantom Menace.

The Phantom Menance had potential, unlike Attack of the Clones. The political subtext was brilliantly constructed throughout the new films and Ian McDiarmid played Palpatine quite well from the first movie onward. Liam Neeson's Jedi character very much captured the soul and spirit of the Jedi as portrayed by [Catholic convert] Alec Guinness in the first films. Lucas wasted these few positives and instead pursued an endless barrage of spectacular special effects of no teleological significance, countless menial minor characters, and stale dialogue that only functioned to move the films along so Lucas could collect his $1+ billion in box office receipts. And of course there was the disastrous cast, which included Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, two actors who would not have found set assembly work on a decent movie. The new films were "valid," but only did the bare minimum in satisfying audiences which expected movies in continuity with their predecessors.

Perhaps the greatest crime in the new movies is that Anakin Skywalker, lauded as a "cunning warrior" and a "good friend" in the original films, displays no warmth and kindness whatsoever. The father who saves his son in the original films attempts to kill his wife in the new ones. The man whose fall was a tragedy has absolutely no sense of goodness in the new films. And, worst of all, Darth Vader dropped from ultimate bad@$$ to hormonal, whiny teenager.

And yet did we not all see it coming in the "special edition?" Before Lucas made Darth Vader a wimp he made Han Solo one by having Greedo shoot first. Before Revenge of the Sith implemented meaningless special effects the improved Return of the Jedi did the same thing. Some time after he stopped the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films in the 1980s George Lucas' creative powers dried up and the reservoir has yet to be replenished. The same mind behind the new—and banal—films is the same which constructed the improved "special edition" films of 1997. Surely one who looks at the 1997 emendations and the timeline involved can deduce that they belong to the same forces as the new trilogy. 

And yet many younger fans, who grew up on the newer films and have no memory of the pristine older films in theaters or cassette do not question the changes. Their view of Star Wars is from the new films looking back. The changes to the older films must have made them more in line with Lucas' true vision of his created universe. And why should the younger generation question these changes and these new films? The series belongs to Lucas—or did before he cashed in with Di$ney. He is the man with all the authority over the films. Star Wars belongs to the Lucan magisterium.

Seen this man?
A friend of mine who had seen the new films confessed, years back, to having never seen the originals in any edition. We watched them over the course of a week or two. She found them enthralling: the epic, classical story told in a fresh environment; the creativity in making new worlds; the personality which emanated from the characters from their first introductions; the seamless use of effects in driving the story; and the enduring appeal of these films in their re-watching. Then there is also the uncomfortable implication that the new films lack a great many of these wonderful qualities.

Future generations of film viewers will have to deal with the reality that the new movies are now part of the saga and the story continuum, even if they lack the style, aura, appeal, personality, and depth of the films which preceded them. They are somehow "two forms of the same rite" even though those of us who recall the older films when they were the only films do not really buy into it. And while, as I said above, the older films could well have done with some aesthetic updates many of the changes were puzzling and clearly meant to transition into the newer films. 

Translation key:
  • Original version of original films: the old Roman liturgy
  • Possible updates of films: more popular singing, public Divine Office, fewer Double feasts, less bureaucratic management of liturgy
  • 1997 Special Edition: 1911 breviary reform, 1955 Holy Week reform, 1955 kalendar reform, 1960 rubrical reform
  • Post-1980s George Lucas: Popes Pius XII & Paul VI
  • New trilogy: Pauline Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, new Pontifical and Ritual Books, 1970 lectionary and Sacramentary
  • Hayden Christensen: Archbishop Annibale Bugnini/Masons—yes some find it fashionable to blame him rather than admit who is really responsible; his performance was bad, but ultimately he was not the one who behind the new trilogy

1 comment:

  1. Er, this is a ‘Sci Fi’ reference if I am not very much mistaken. What is it about my trad contacts and that genre? It seems Ardal O’Hanlon, or rather his scriptwriters, were on to something, but they were explicit that it was ‘bishops’ who liked it, presumably meaning the sort of individuals who have recommended themselves to the inner workings or workers of the curia.

    The great and Mercifully not late Hilary White of LifeSite News and the “Orwell’s Picnic” Blog has branched out in that direction herself. Perhaps she is the New Lucas...

    Well, now, looking beyond the genre of expression to the specifics.

    “more popular singing, public Divine Office...”

    We have experienced the latter in a big way in a certain Institute that shall remain nameless. There is always room for more of the former.

    But if you were referring to the older rite, to what does “less bureaucratic management of liturgy” refer ? I thought these problems came later, perhaps with:

    “Annibale Bugnini/Masons” - HJM W also thinks the Masonic angle was the problem, but Rubricarius has pointed out he was promoted when he left the liturgical office.