27.12.19

THE POVERTY OF CONTEMPORARY CRITICISM.

The latest iteration of the unending Star Wars story spins out, to the discontent of those who would have you believe it introduces too many woke prejudices into that galaxy a long time ago, too far away, as well as to the discontent of those who would have you believe it's Triumph des Willens with a John Williams score.

Think I'm kidding?  Check out Tim Kreider's essay in the Newspaper of Record.  First, the na├»ve view thought to appeal to the kids of the era.
Now that it’s one franchise among many, “Star Wars" seems timeless, but the original is very much a product of the 1970s: Mr. Lucas began writing it while American troops were still in Vietnam and Nixon was being consumed by his dark side. It’s remembered now as a proto-Reaganesque, reactionary backlash against the morally ambiguous cinema of the ’70s, but it’s also a countercultural, anti-fascist fable about shaggy young outsiders fighting a revolution against the faceless, armored henchmen of a military technocracy. The Empire is comfortably identified with our favorite movie enemies, the Nazis, which helps disguise the fact that they are also, metaphorically, the imperialist invaders of Vietnam, confident in their devastating firepower to crush an ill-equipped insurgency. This subtext got a lot less subtextual in “Return of the Jedi,” in which the occupiers’ superweapons are thwarted by the guerrilla tactics and crude booby-traps of a pretechnological people.
He continues. (Let me enlighten you, deplorable, from my throne at the Cathedral.)
Lots of critics pointed out that the coda of “Star Wars,” when three heroes march up a corridor between columns of massed soldiers, is a visual quote of the wreath-laying at Nuremberg in “Triumph of the Will,” but everyone seems to assume this is a random allusion, devoid of historical context. It’s not as if Mr. Lucas was oblivious of the source. His film is full of fascist iconography — all, up until this moment, associated with the Empire. Assuming this final image is deployed intentionally, it might be most hopefully interpreted as a warning: Don’t become the thing you’ve fought against. The intimation of a hidden kinship between our hero and his enemy was right there in Darth Vader’s name all along — the dark father.

The ostensible moral of “Star Wars” is anti-technology, pro-“feelings” — a very ’70s sensibility. The Empire is a rigid, militaristic hierarchy, obsessed with its high-tech weaponry. But underlying it is an older tradition, represented by Darth Vader, that’s religious, mystic.
I recall a graduate school contemporary of mine raising the possibility that "Darth Vader" meant "dark father," and yes, that came to pass during Empire Strikes Back; and later we discover that somebody sliced Anakin's hand off the way Vader sliced Luke's hand off.

Maybe it's best to think of it all in fun, and that's where Mr Kreider leaves it (after lamenting that the 1978 version is currently in Disney's version of the Oak Island Money Pit.)

On the other hand, logic dies in darkness, and Jeffery C. J. Chen gets a platform to elaborate.
Star Wars is shot with “Orientalizing” stereotypes — patronizing tropes that represent an imagined East, or the Orient, as inferior to the rational, heroic West. Think, for example, of the uniformed conformity of the evil Empire vs. the scrappy (American) individualism of the rebel heroes, the vague Eastern mysticism of the Force and its Shaolin-cum-Samurai practitioners, and the uncomfortable racial stereotypes embodied in the hookah-smoking Jabba and the miserly Watto.
No Nuremberg Rallies for the Republic here. Apparently no cross-references between the corrupt interplanetary senate that midwives the dark side and Star Trek's Borg, either.

That's not where Mr Chen wants to go, though, not a-t-all.
Even those who have noted these prejudices could be excused for not noticing the presence of such tropes in another key element of every Star Wars film: John Williams’s iconic musical score. Williams’s music associates the “good guys” with the grand orchestral style of the European Romantics (think of the beautifully hummable melodies for Luke, Leia and Rey), while the themes for the “bad guys” are expressed in the vocabulary of Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern music.
Really? I once raised, on a faculty discussion list, the possibility that the closing music in what became the first episode (young Anakin the pod racer) called to mind the first movement of a Shostakovich piano concerto: and a colleague in music noted that I was not totally off base to do so.  Play it, play the closing music, then play the Imperial March, which isn't quite right to parade your storm-troopers through Berlin, but it would not be out of place in another Shostakovich rendition of the rhetoric of Nazi orators, and it might have been anticipated in Prokofiev.

Never mind, he's on a roll.
This may seem incidental or unimportant. But this music reinforces, even at an unconscious level, the primacy of Western culture against an imagined “other” that reproduces harmful prejudices in pop culture that, given the power of mass media, has larger political consequences.

Star Wars builds on a long history of using Eastern music to depict evil on - screen or to convey to moviegoers that they are entering an alien world. It is an established Hollywood technique, going back to such classics as Max Steiner’s music for “King Kong” (1933) and “Casablanca” (1942), and Maurice Jarre’s score for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). This way of scoring movies reflects the training of the first generation of film composers, who introduced the tropes of European opera into Hollywood music. Among Steiner’s many influences were Richard Wagner, who popularized the leitmotif (associating a character with a musical theme), and Richard Strauss, whose opera “Salome” about a necrophiliac princess from Judea summarizes all the tropes of Orientalizing music.

Williams, who was born in 1932 and grew up with this generation of composers, epitomizes the Wagnerian approach to film scoring. Each character in Star Wars has his or her own musical identity, a compositional technique Williams also uses to brilliant effect in other franchises, such as “Indiana Jones,” possibly the most famous modern example of cinematic Orientalism.
Wouldn't it be equally valid to suggest that, today, "Shall We Gather at the River" or Adeste Fideles might signal to the wokerati that they are entering a strange land?

In the end though, it's not about music or movie-making at all, it's about making the core curriculum even more coreless.
The solution is certainly not to blame these composers, but to be more aware of the way music, especially music written for popular media, can shape our understanding of the world. There are plenty of young composers of non-Western descent whose work deserves to be heard and to frame our stories, and there are plenty of established artists, such as Tan Dun, Joe Hisaishi or A.R. Rahman, who could be hired for Hollywood assignments.
Yes, and that's the way to deprive young people of the way to understand the writings of years past.

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