I know that some people, who know who they are, will say that this post belongs on my Ruminations Blog but since I have not posted much recently and am classifying it under “Manners and Customs” I am posting it here anyway.
Although this is the period of our hibernation we do emerge occasionally to check our stores of nuts and the like or to see items of popular entertainment in order to remain abreast of the zeitgeist. So it was that we found ourselves in the Odeon, Bath with just three other people for what amounted to a private showing of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, in 3D, because I hadn’t noticed that this was a 3D not a standard 2D showing. Never mind, I quite like the 3D experience even with clip-on glasses, and clearly for a movie such as this it does augment the visuals.
Like everyone else I went to see the first one or two, maybe even three Star Wars movies but I haven’t seen them all loosing interest in the prequels. It was only because so much fuss had been made of this re-launch of the “franchise” as these products are so excruciatingly called although they are not franchises, of course, because a franchise is in which lots of different people get to use the same branding and product for their own individual businesses and since the rights to the Star Wars business has been sold to Disney there is absolutely no way that Disney are going to be allowing any “franchising” of their product. “Franchise” is just a term that lazy-minded Americans (and slavish others) have decided to apply to a phenomenon whereby repeated versions of the same film may be made as many times as you can get away with before everyone gets bored by it.
It is well known that the original Star Wars story was explicitly based upon a theory regarding the universal structure of “all stories” dating back as far as Aristotle and his “Poetics”. You can follow up on this at a variety of web sites such as this one, this one and this one and I am sure there are many more. Whilst I think that this is all very interesting I think that what these theories and discussions all miss is that the appeal of Star Wars – and much contemporary, epic Sci-Fi movie-making – is not the compelling nature of their stories but the compelling nature of their visual impact. In many ways the plot-lines are quite banal and I feel certain that if the stories of the Star Wars movies were to be played out against some relatively prosaic physical environment they would have almost zero appeal. But of course they aren’t. They are played out in amazing exotic locales on imagined planets in star systems many light years from the Milky Way.
This is demonstrated from the very earliest moments in “The Force Awakens” when we are first introduced to Rey clinging perilously to a cable inside a vast cavern where she is scavenging parts from some mechanical structure which turns out to be an absolutely gigantic spacecraft that is now half buried in sand. Then there is one of those classic shots that for me constitute the key visual ingredient of these films which makes them so captivating – she abseils down the cable and we gasp at the impossibly vertiginous descent inside what turns out to be one of the rocket motors and then emerges from this as if it were a huge cavern. This is not normal, we do not see this sort of thing in our normal lives. There simply are not such things on such a huge scale. It is breathtaking and enthralling and it fulfils the function of a kind of magic whereby we are transported to a world where the most impossible interplanetary spacecraft leap from planet to planet at light speed, where man-made stars hold whole worlds inside them and slim metal bridges arc out over metal canyons that descend into unplumbed depths at whose purpose we can only wonder. This is demonstrated even more clearly when we see Rey’s “motorcycle”, a clapped out old banger in any other context, that is instantly turned into a sort of steam punk retro delight by the mere fact that it is somehow hovering a couple of feet above the sandy ground and simply speeds away powered by – well, that’s it isn’t it – by some system of propulsion we just cannot fathom. How does she re-fuel it? Who knows? Where might that energy source come from? One can only guess and by the way how the hell did that cable get there anyway, magic?
This continual visual dazzlement is relentless and leaves the viewer awestruck. The plot becomes incidental, the characters mere ciphers who are simply there to provide a reason to marvel at the visual imaginations of the makers. They almost never eat, sleep or relieve themselves because they are in a world that does not partake of humdrum reality with which we have to contend.
Yet there is something more here, for me, and this is a problem I have with many of these fantasy movies – and yes I know that they ARE fantasy movies – which is the complete divorce of the primary actors and their physical environment from any sense of how any of it came into being. There is nowhere any indication of the economic basis of these civilizations nor how any of these extraordinary material structures could ever have been built nor how any of the armies are sustained either in food or clothing or equipment. Where are the people or even machines who must actually make all of that stuff? At least we are now pretty clear on how the pyramids were constructed and how the armies of workers were housed and sustained. All we are provided with is the occasional fascist rally style scene with vast, digitally rendered cohorts of the Imperial Army of the First Order (Third Reich anyone?) but never of what must be the immense economic infrastructure upon which they rely.
Of course none of that is anywhere to be seen and that is just how we want it to be. There mustn’t be any sign of prosaic reality, of all the humble toilers who are making it possible for these battles between X-Wing fighters and Tie-fighters because we would have to admit that it would be people like us who were making all the laser guns and the light sabres and so on.
Despite this mystery it is not so very far from how our own ruling elites regard the toiling underclasses these days. They must be kept safely from view except when they perceived to be a danger to society that needs to be contained and when necessary subject to exemplary justice. This was brought to mind by a recent piece in the Guardian in which Ian Birrell, a former deputy editor of the Independent who worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign claimed that his views “have shifted from ultra-liberal to a more rounded appreciation of the state’s centrality, along with the role of community” and that “Ministers even seem to be losing fear of nanny state accusations with new drinking guidelines, more parenting classes and slow acceptance of a sugar tax“. Hmm…those parenting classes. I wonder why the Tories, of all people, are suddenly interested in parenting classes? Who exactly needs them? Don’t the middle classes already go to these if they think they need to? Parent Effectiveness classes, for example, have been around for years for those who wish to pay for them. How come the Tories are suddenly interested in this type of social engineering?
This is the PM who just a few years ago was bemoaning the fact that our society was “broken” after the riots in London and other major cities in 2011. What historical echoes does this have of an underclass about whom we know nothing and whom we fear. In 18th century Georgian Britain while the genteel idled away their time in London and Bath the judges were despatching the poor and the wretched to penal servitude on what might just as well have been the planet Jakku from Star Wars but was, in fact, Terra Australis. We might not deport the riotous underclasses anymore but they must still be dealt with. It may be dressed up in the faux tones of “collective” responsibility but Cameron’s speech at the time of the riots is replete with the most breathtaking hypocrisy and unintended irony as evinced by the closing passage:
“Government doesn’t make the video games or print the magazines or produce the music that tells young people what’s important in life. Government can’t be on every street and in every estate, instilling the values that matter. This is a problem that has deep roots in our society, and it’s a job for all of our society to help fix it. In the highest offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about the example we are setting. Moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society.
In the banking crisis, with MPs’ expenses, in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement. The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society. Because whatever the arguments, we all belong to the same society, and we all have a stake in making it better. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ – there is us. We are all in this together, and we will mend our broken society – together.”
So, let’s see, what have the government done about all that then? The bankers have just been let off the hook again with the decision not to publish the report into the banking culture as reported in the Guardian: “The Treasury has defended the City regulator’s decision to ditch a review into banking culture as the chancellor came under pressure to revive the scrapped study“. As the Telegraph stated: “The decision is another sign that the era of “banker-bashing” following the financial crisis may be coming to an end” and noted that “Martin Wheatley, the former chief executive of the FCA, was ousted by Chancellor George Osborne in July” adding that “At the time, Mr Osborne said a “different leadership” was needed to take the regulator forwards.” Well, fancy that?
So, all those brave words about all being in it together and the moral decay of the country but the only action that we are hearing about now is what, in any other context would be considered as the actions of the “nanny state”, is the attempt to re-educate the underclasses in how to bring up their families because, of course, their material conditions can have nothing to do with why their families are breaking down, can they?
As the Economist reported in piece a couple of days ago:
“As couples marry later or not at all, the majority of babies are born outside marriage in at least 20 countries, and laws have yet to adjust. “France passed the milestone in 2007. Britain is nearly there. America not far behind. Rates across the OECD group of 34 mostly rich countries vary hugely, from 2% in Japan to 70% in Chile. But overall the average is 39% — more than five times what it was in 1970.”
And the implications of this are far-reaching:
“Policymakers wish they could change the trend. Unmarried parents are more likely to split up. Their children learn less in school and are more likely to be unhealthy or behave badly. It is hard to say how much of this difference is due to marriage itself, however, because unmarried parents differ a great deal from married ones. They are poorer, less well-educated and more likely to be teenagers, for example.
But efforts to persuade people who otherwise would not marry to do so have generally failed. Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, says that a plethora of policies in America, from tweaking incentives in the benefits system to teaching couples how to be better domestic partners, have had little or no effect on marriage rates. Better, she says, help women to avoid unplanned pregnancies and delay childbearing at least until they finish school and are in a solid relationship, whether married or not.”
So, remember that the new proposal for so-called “parenting classes” comes after an earlier attempt at this by the Tory government that was an abysmal failure and that there is clearly a much more profound problem with the underclasses and unfortunately we can’t just ship them off to the Planet Jakku these days either. Why aren’t they busy underpinning the economic well-being of a ruling class in a galaxy far, far away, or am I being too harsh?