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Star Wars and the culture of nostalgia

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My friend JJ is in his early 50s, so I suppose he’s in the primo core demographic for the first Star Wars trilogy and everything that’s come after. He has some thoughts:

I just watched R1 to remind myself. Yeah, it’s a really good action movie. Tight plot, well acted, well written. Solid B+ as a summer action movie.

Um, Star Wars changed literally everything in movie history.

It’s different.

You are *forgetting* what the original trilogy created! You’re forgetting what it was like to see the first star destroyer (or whatever the huge triangle ones are called). You’re forgetting what the first vision of Stormtroopers was like. And you’re absolutely, positively forgetting what the first fucking sight of Darth Vader was like, with arguably the greatest theme music in the history of film! You’re forgetting!

And not just that. You’re forgetting how the original trilogy invented this massive *scale* that we now take for granted. Seeing THOUSANDS of troops in perfect alignment, ships 10000x times the size of what you thought was a huge ass ship, entire PLANETS that are weapons. That’s the magic of fucking star wars. You are for.get.ting.

Yeah the plot is lifted from a million different mythologies. It still works, the way a million other movies work with ripped off plots. Star Wars the original still works as an extremely tight action movie on its own, and that’s *without* the “star wars magic” that they introduced!

Rogue 1 borrows heavily from what the original trilogy invented in terms of scale and wonder and amazement. When Vader shows up, that’s from the original. The death star itself – original.

It’s a great action movie, no question. It’s just *nothing* compared to what Star Wars was.

Yeah, yeah, I’m right in that Gen X sweet spot, but honestly at this point it’s like saying the Beatles were overrated. In addition to literally everyone you ever talk to rolling their eyes and wanting to get away from you, you’re just wrong. You’re trying too hard.

(This last part isn’t directed at anyone who likes Rogue 1, just those tiresome bores in general who mistake kneejerk iconoclasm for an interesting personality because they have nothing else to offer).

I mention the role of nostalgia in this sort of context in my forthcoming book A FAN’S LIFE:

Popular culture has increasingly become in essence a kind of time machine that can hurl us deep into the irrecoverable past. Consider in this light the furious online arguments among fans of the Star Wars film franchise, about the quality and authenticity of each new entrant, compared to George Lucas’s original canon. These arguments are so passionate in no small part because these fans are looking for what they can never find, which is the original unmediated thrill they experienced in childhood when they first encountered the Star Wars universe.

I have a very casual relationship to the Star Wars franchise — I think I’ve seen two of the post-original trilogy films — plus I’m no film historian, so I don’t know how to evaluate JJ’s claims about the original elements of the Star Wars series, although I suspect he’s overstating the extent to which it innovated in regard to science fiction film spectacle, let alone film spectacle in general.

But the larger topic of the cultural role of nostalgia at present fascinates me — I just wrote a whole book about it — so I hope other people find both the narrower and broader topics here engaging.

I’ll just note here that it might be significant that George Lucas’s first big film was the classic nostalgia vehicle American Graffiti — and that that film was set all of a decade earlier, indicating among other things how telescoped the concept of the nostalgic past was in the years immediately after the end of the baby boom. (In his THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE Rick Perlstein has some characteristically interesting things to say about the cultural role of nostalgia during the mid-1970s: American Graffiti, Happy Days, the sudden revival of the Horatio Alger books, songs like Chicago’s “Harry Truman,” etc. He interprets this as being in part a product of collective disgust to the sordid realities of the fall of Nixon, plus backlash to height of the late 1960s culture wars.)

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