by Matthew Waldron
In December, upon the release of The Last Jedi, an individual asked me on Reddit if I was a Star Wars “fan." It wasn’t a casual inquiry, it was a challenge. I was active in a thread where “fans” were raging against Rian Johnson and the decisions he made as the film’s writer/director. Not a single person was criticizing the quality of the script. Or the performances. No one had anything critical to say about where Johnson put his camera. No one was aghast at blurry, out-of-focus shots or anything remotely unprofessional. But many people were pissed because they’d spent, by their own choice, the past three years speculating about who Rey’s parents were, and didn’t like the answer they’d been given. I brought up the inherent dilemma behind criticizing a filmmaker’s work, not because of its quality, but because of its non-alignment with what you feel, as a “fan," you were “owed." I made the argument that Johnson owed no one anything beyond a commitment to his personal version. This was the point at which my “fandom” was called into question.
The first film I ever saw in a theater was Return of the Jedi when I was four. I remember very clearly the exterior scene in the Ewok village when Luke tells Leia she’s his sister. I remember the blue tint of the lighting, and subtle ambiance of the background forest soundtrack, and Williams’ score. I remember, most of all, how drawn in I felt, even as a child, by the performances of Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. This was, I believe, the first “immersive” experience I ever felt watching a film, as my tiny mind was occupied by nothing but what was happening on the massive screen before me. That’s where it all began and, accordingly, I’m quite confident describing myself as having been, every day since, a fan.
Beyond that, I also explained to this Reddit individual how filled my childhood was henceforth by a neverending presence of Star Wars: toys, action figures, vehicles, video games, books, records, etc. Star Wars is important to me. I even like the prequels. Meditate on that a second. No argument, The Phantom Menace is challenging. Jar Jar is indefensible. But Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, I feel, are genuinely good films. I really like them both. If I list my three favorite action scenes of all time they would be:
1) Omaha Beach Invasion - Saving Private Ryan
2) The Final Defense of the Village - Seven Samurai
3) Yoda vs. Count Dooku - Attack of the Clones
Not trolling. Watching that scene for the first time, in my early-20’s, made me feel transported again. Like I did when I was a child. I know “Mr. Plinkett” thinks it’s a larf. And he’s very clever. And the rest of the internet thinks “it sucks.” But what matters most to me, despite everything, is what I felt. That’s cinema at its most powerful.
Yes. I am a fan. Whatever that means. Because that’s the real issue, maybe as important now as any time in cinema: what is a “fan?" The individual on Reddit (who I believe was speaking, if not officially, certainly figuratively on behalf of a vast amount of other similarly-minded users in the thread) framed things as if being a “fan” entailed something proprietary. As if once you were a fan, you were owed something. Star Wars owed you. I’m quite comfortable painting nearly every disgruntled Star Wars “fan” I’ve encountered online in the weeks following The Last Jedi’s release as bearing the distinct belief they’ve been wronged because Star Wars - specifically Rian Johnson - didn’t deliver to them exactly what they were owed.
I have no sense of humor about how I feel about this. It is unequivocal and without an ounce of ambiguity: When we start to demand from artists as if they “owe us” anything, that is the death of culture.
Hey man, fan theories are great. In the lead up to The Last Jedi’s release, I spent way more hours checking out theory-vids on Youtube speculating Rey’s parentage than any guy in his late-30’s ever should. Speculating is fun. But I never felt like I was “part of” the Star Wars universe. Because I’m not. I’m a fan. I’m on this side of the sidelines. Unless you’re George Lucas/Lawrence Kasdan/Rian Johnson et al., so are you. Even if you watched twice as many videos as me. Even if you were the creator of those videos.
Under Stalin (and henceforth) Soviet filmmakers were not allowed to do what they wished. They were insidiously “encouraged” to produce films (literally “approved art”) solely from the perspective of what they called “Soviet Realism”. Great films were still, amazingly, produced by Soviet filmmakers of vision, like Elim Klimov’s Come and See, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying. But even these films were irrevocably compromised. It was made clear to these filmmakers that even if a film was well-shot, well-written, and well-acted, it didn’t matter if THE CONTENT didn’t jive with the prevailing cultural standards. Their films would still be ruthlessly purged. Today’s “dissatisfied” Star Wars “fans” would do well to study the techniques so successfully utilized by Stalin’s intolerant censor-mongers. Their mutual hostilities towards art created outside their personal standards run shockingly in tandem. The absolute freedom to dictate to filmmakers what content is and isn’t suitable, I imagine, should be enough to make contemporary dissatisfied Star Wars “fans” salivate.
Most disturbing about the “fan”-reaction to The Last Jedi is how the judgments laid against it go wildly beyond the film on its own terms. If an individual walks out of the theater thinking Oscar Isaac let them down with a subpar performance, or Rian Johnson filled his script with dialogue worse than what’s mostly littered throughout the original trilogy (face it), or perhaps had no idea where to put his camera...fine. Those are wholly legitimate reasons to dislike any film. In the wake of The Last Jedi, within large swaths of the Star Wars “fandom”, what happened is more akin to going to a museum, standing before a painting by Dutch Master Jan van Eyck, and then scoffing because you feel you were owed a specific painting to be a triptych, and furthermore feel his usage of cobalt blue is not nearly what you were owed either, based on the anticipation you felt based on weeks you spent studying his OTHER paintings.
It’s unlawful to fault any individual for being upset because their steak, ordered well-done, comes back medium rare. You are then lawfully owed another plate. What Star Wars “fans," red-faced with outrage, need to come to grips with is that cinema has never, from its inception over a century ago, been made-to-order. It’s art. It’s bigger than you. It’s bigger than your expectations. And it’s unlawful to criticize it according to anything other than its own terms. The Tyranny of Fandom is crucifying The Last Jedi not for being what it is, but for not being what The Tyranny WANTED IT to be. As if the “fans”-of-the-world put an order in to Rian Johnson for a medium-rare film, but got back one well-done. As if Brett Ratner was directing and not a film artist like Rian Johnson. Ratner, I’m certain, would’ve been more than happy to accept a checklist from the “fans." Johnson, we should rejoice, has always bore slightly higher standards.
To more than one outraged “fan” online I’ve suggested, with zero irony, “crowdsourcing” the next Star Wars film. None of them will touch it. I thought at first maybe they didn’t catch the satire. And then even I wondered if it wasn’t satire and even I missed how terribly serious I am. But their silence is evidence. They actually caught on loud and clear. Because it’s a rather terrifying prospect. “Crowdsourced cinema." More akin to a paint-by-numbers coloring book. A factory-produced tchotchke painting smiles on Stalin’s censors ear-to-ear.
It all goes back to the ephemeral state of “fandom," and the intrinsic collision of art and “fandom” that Star Wars so intensely represents. It’s a rare amalgam which likely owes to Star Wars’ phenomenal success, appealing to 10-year-olds who like watching shit explode, as well as adults who are into the artistry, the nostalgia, or shit exploding, or all three (and more). It’s a cultural milestone which should be deservedly treasured. There’s nothing wrong, even from a snobby artistic-context, with popular culture when it’s done well. Star Wars, minus its very few missteps, is popular culture done consistently well. But the atmosphere becomes toxic when the sense of entitlement of the majority of the fanbase eclipses their ability to judge the work objectively.
Objectivity, the fairness to assess each film solely on its own terms, is the only thing every fan is owed cinema. Star Wars began as cinema. Star Wars remains cinema. George Lucas is more than just “the guy who ruined your childhood." He’s more than just “the guy who made all that money off action figures.” And he’s more than just the guy who, despite every odd, made a really great sci-fi film in 1977. He’s the guy who gained enough inspiration from Kurosawa films and Buck Rogers serials to try something never done before on a big-budget studio level. He was an integral part of what Peter Biskind calls The New Hollywood, the group of American filmmakers in the 70’s who made nearly every film you love. He’s a peer of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, De Palma, and Schrader, among others. He’s the creator and producer of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. Chase me with torches and pitchforks, but Lucas is a film artist. Cinema is the genesis of Star Wars. It begins, in 1977 with its initial release, as a piece of film art. It either succeeds as cinema upon release...or none of us are still talking about it generations later. It succeeded.
Star Wars is hardly perfect (honestly, upon re-watching the original trilogy in my late-teens I was struck by how “not-so-great” some of A New Hope really kind of is (script and performance-wise particularly) but it is breathtakingly well-made cinema, and as such it transports you. It’s a great film. That’s where this whole thing starts. Without Star Wars being great cinema, there is no “fandom."
The saddest aspect of the release of The Last Jedi seems to be the apparent fact that, in a unified sense, there is no actual “fandom." There are factions of fans. I’m one of them. What I’ve expressed here is a pittance compared to how much admiration I could express for every Star Wars film (remember, I actually like the prequels...) but I clearly do not fall in line with the majority of “fans” who, astonishingly, in my opinion, are willing to denigrate an entire film simply because it didn’t meet their personal check-list.
There was one particular Reddit thread where people who hadn’t seen The Last Jedi yet could go for spoilers (don’t ask). More “fans” than I could count, upon hearing that Rey’s parents were “nobodies," among other allegedly non-fan-centric details, posted their intentions to then not see the film at all.
It’s okay to be disappointed by any film. I liked most of Rogue One but, for instance, I felt the ending was much, much too abrupt, and personally I would’ve liked a few more minutes of Vader in massacre-mode. It doesn’t mean I’m going to author an online petition to have these specific beats stricken from canon. Incredibly, there are juvenile petitions making the rounds online to have the entirety of The Last Jedi stricken from canon. At my most cynical, and snobby, I’m wary whether this actually isn’t a collision of art and “fandom," but rather a collision of high-culture...and low-culture. I don’t want to go there. Sometimes it’s hard to see it any other way. Rian Johnson is an important filmmaker with vision (what, do we have “too many” of those...?). That’s not to say we’re obligated to accept his work, or the work of any filmmaker, as “great” or even “good” at face value. Personally, I don’t really care for The Brothers Bloom. I’m not crazy about the script and I feel on the whole it’s a bit derivative of the work of Wes Anderson. That’s me. That’s my opinion. I don’t not like it because going in I had spent the previous three years speculating whether Johnson would reveal the identity of Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody’s parents, but wasn’t presented with what I felt I was owed. That would be preposterous. Johnson doesn’t owe that explanation to anyone. Likewise, the identity of whoever sired Rey-the-mutt isn’t remotely on his obligation-list either. He owes us nothing, besides a commitment to his own vision.
A person on Youtube responded to a comment I made defending Johnson’s right as an artist to make the film he wanted to make with: “you can't just do whatever you want when (sic) join an established franchise.” This requires pointing out that Burger King is “a franchise." Forgive me while I rage against that particular bit of vernacular, because I find it (though industry-accepted) personally abhorrent. But this individual operates under the presumption there’s a “rulebook” (or at least should be) dictating how a Star Wars film must, or must not, be made. As if there are “rules” in cinema. This is a terrifying, anti-art worldview advocating stagnancy in place of free creation of art, and this “fan” expressed it with total sincerity. An exact sentiment which, unfortunately, echoed loudly back and forth, all across the web, in the wake of The Last Jedi.
I always thought of myself as a Star Wars “fan." Never thought I could be anything but. I love Star Wars, but within the context, and with the knowledge, that it is art within cinema itself. That’s where my heart is. Certain people on Reddit claimed this made me less of a “fan." To me these distinctions are irrelevant. I understand not everyone feels that way. And that’s fine. Not everyone has to. Or should. Diversity enriches communities of fans (as it enriches everything). But is someone a “fan” if they place their own sense of entitlement ahead of the visions of creators? Does that make them more of a “fan”? According to what standards? According to whose standards? It’s not the kind of fandom I want anything to do with. In my opinion, that is a form of tyranny fostering an environment where artists feel pressured to create, not from their own inspiration, but instead to the satisfaction of what’s essentially mob rule. In which case, what kind of a “fandom” is it at all? What kind of art is it at all? Questions worth asking though I’m left ever more wary that the prevailing sense of “fan”-entitlement is so endemic it may be too late. You can almost hear them already scribbling out their checklists in anticipation of J.J. Abrams’ next time at-bat. Will he ignore the cacophony, or will he capitulate and go the Ratner-route? Perhaps his safest bet would be to just let the “fans” decide each story beat, via call-in votes, “American Idol”-style. While the ghosts of Kurosawa and Kubrick spin in their graves like R2-D2’s head when he’s hit with a blaster. “An imbalance in The Force there clearly is,” is all that can be said for sure. Sad, that is.