Putting the Cult in Culture

by Dan Galemba | 5/23/02 5:00am

In the interest of social science, I attended

"Star Wars Episode II," notepad in hand, to observe the behavior of the masses and try to draw some conclusions about both the movie itself and the status it has achieved as a cultural phenomenon.

Now I realize that this isn't the film review page, but for something as representative of popular culture as "Star Wars," it doesn't matter. Not to mention, film review loses relevance when the subject of discussion can hardly be deemed a "film" without doing insult to every film ever made. "Episode II" can more accurately be denoted a cultural curiosity.

As I sat in the corner, glancing occasionally at the screen and occasionally at the audience, I (as an anthropologist) noted some peculiar behavior. The audience's tacit acceptance of the flat-out horrible "filmmaking" was intertwined in a seemingly irreconcilable paradox with its excitement and enthusiasm about it. The audience laughed at all the wrong times, comfortable in the knowledge that the dialogue, particularly in the more romantic sequences, must have been written by someone with the intellectual horsepower of Jar-Jar Binks. The acting was about at the level of your run-of-the-mill elementary school production, featuring the talent of children who still have trouble reading and pore slowly, deliberately and emotionlessly over their lines and which, far from enrapturing the audience, serve more as a novelty, charming in its way but certainly with no power to convince of its authenticity.

This audience, as its laughter indicated, was not fooled by acting so bad. It's no wonder Natalie Portman was unable to watch herself on the screen at a showing for family and friends. It is a wonder that she, an intelligent Harvard student, let alone respected actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor, could read the script and not immediately think to herself, "Okay, it's time to stop the reign of terror of George Lucas' ego, grab a pen and rewrite the entire thing myself."

Yet at the same time, the audience cheered wildly every time Yoda popped onto the screen (the best actor was computer animated), applauded at the end as a tribute to the movie's greatness and left the theater chattering enthusiastically about how "brilliantly" the movie fulfilled its expectations, paving the way for developments that will happen (already happened) in the original trilogy. From whence comes this mental division enabling one person to realize the movie's -- for lack of a more appropriate term -- downright crappiness, and simultaneously celebrate it as a cultural phenomenon deserving all the praise it gets and more?

Maybe the answer to my puzzlement has something to do with the "Star Wars" series' humble beginnings as a cult film that surreptitiously sneaked through the cracks of the mainstream and exploded into the most influential movie series ever. It moved expertly from cult to culture. And, like any good cult, it has sharply-honed brainwashing skills compelling us to celebrate it and demand more, even though somewhere in our consciousness we know it's just plain wrong.

And just as we know that, by typical film standards, "Episode II" is about as good a film as the "Main Street" corridor in the library is a brilliant architectural creation, George Lucas knows we're all a bunch of brainwashed drones marching aimlessly to the theater all the same. Like a clone army, without unique minds to call our own, we go to the theaters in record numbers, filling George Lucas' pockets, ignoring the other part of us that laughs out loud at the movie's ridiculousness.

Many will argue with me, suggesting that "Star Wars" is not so popular for its acting and dialogue but for the storytelling within the world Lucas creates. Doesn't "Battlefield Earth" have a story? Plot is the most fundamental feature of any film; it's the skeleton upon which everything else is added. That skeleton only gains life, only gains mobility, when you add some flesh and muscle on top of it making it believable, giving it the power to walk, talk, act and engage you in a reciprocal relationship; otherwise, it just sits there, a pile of bones to look at. As Yoda would say, "Plot alone does not a good movie make."

The world of action and excitement Lucas creates cannot possibly justify "Episode II"'s popularity either, since that action is so sterile and without life of its own that watching it approximates the act of sitting on the couch while watching someone else play a video game. You know that it's fun for someone, but it sure as hell doesn't mean anything to you; watching the action by itself means nothing unless you're actually drawn into participating, enmeshed in the world of the game for a little while before heading back to reality. "Episode II" does no such thing; you just sit there watching it while George Lucas, sitting behind the screen and pushing all the buttons, gets to have all the fun.

But no matter. The American public, clones that we are, will continue to pour into the theaters, suppressing the part of us that seeks expression by laughing out loud while superficially conforming to the mainstream cult that is popular culture.

Rob Morse of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "All I want is George Lucas to stop before he digitizes again. Don't make that last Star Wars movie. Leave it to our imaginations. Remember imagination?" But we won't have such luck. The movies get worse but the audiences get bigger, and the same people who laughed out loud at "Episode II"'s absurdity will be the first sucked into line to get tickets for "Episode III." It's a good thing the clones in the movie attack; we can live vicariously through them since we'll never revolt against such horrible filmmaking just keep coming back for more.