Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
War stars in Star Wars by Dan Berrigan (1978)
An oldie but goldie – this piece by the late Dan Berrigan appeared in (Nonviolent News’ predecessor) ‘Dawn’ magazine No. 36, February 1978, but Dawn had taken it from Sojourners magazine in the States which is still working away today - see https://sojo.net/ and https://sojo.net/magazine
We haven’t edited the original and we think it still reads as a very useful commentary on the Star Wars franchise, forty years on. The title of the piece puts it in a nutshell but Dan Berrigan analysed it in his own inimitable way. The piece is as relevant today as it was then because the Star Wars juggernaut rolls on, four decades later. Berrigan’s perspicacity is impressive and says much about recent and contemporary culture. Here’s the piece -
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I tracked ‘Star Wars’ across country, trying to find out what the hullabaloo was about. Outside Detroit the lines were as long as Halley’s Comet’s tail. Yes, we could get tickets – tomorrow. We settled, as I recall, for Altman’s ‘Three Women’, a disaster with all six of its feet on terra firma.
I was due in Omaha. There I was told you could get to see ‘Star Wars’ only at the kiddies’ 2 p.m. matinee. I was accompanied by a nun and a young Jesuit, both of whom confessed to three previous viewings. I was astonished, wondering what had kept them coming back. It seems they loved everything about the film, but especially an episode in which a space rocket breaks the sound barrier. That, they assured me, was it. In Omaha, I reflected, not much is happening.
The ‘New Yorker’ calls ‘Star Wars’ good clean fun. Another critic points to the ironic use of western frontier themes, including violence straight from the hip, dualism amid the planets, etc.
Something else struck me. ‘Star wars’ is a clever adaptation of the flattened, quasi-human future first envisioned by Buck Rogers comics years ago; i.e., science (understood as research and production of hard and soft ware. invariably military and paramilitary in character) is in charge of the imagination and the universe. See your tomorrow today. Peace is war, as to method and goal. Also, computerized humanoids, looking like anything from old sanctus bells to ourselves, prove more interesting, witty and domineering than the recessive humans, who trail along learning from their betters.
I wish I could be lighthearted about all this. It would be funny indeed if a film like STAR WARs had been shot by a race of peaceable folk, exploring the dark side of their blonde psyche. We would have to imagine their technology, in comparison with ours, at the tooth brush and egg beater stage; also that they are in touch with firm roots, symbols community. What fun and terror such a film would evoke, like one of Grimm’s fairy tale seen through the wide eyes of a Montessori kindergartner. You mean such things are happening out there? (A delicious shiver) But children have other business, toys, explorings, besides their attention span with regard to terror is mercifully brief.
Alas for us; we are not children. We are star warriors. The joke is sour. For its sweetness, that joke depended by a featherweight on the oppositions, ironies, and clear lines it could draw and maintain. It would take seven-day wonders in a garden of Eden to view STAR WARS as a joke. (Or cynics in a different sort of place – but that’s Dante’s story, not mine.) Unless the critics mean to call it a cruel joke – something else again.
I think the film is cruel. I’m not sure it’s all a joke.
But even granting the joke, I think the film’s cruelty all but cancels the joke. I’m even willing to suggest a principle; if cruelty is substantial, pervasive, in a film, novel, poem, dance, any art form it seems to me the joke turns sour. The hangman gets hanged; the joke, so to speak is on him. This is what happened to me during and after STAR WARS. The cruelty is like the hardware; it’s the simple extension of what many of us, for much of our lives, in various brutal and subtle ways, hold in our hands, hold to the heads of others. The attitude is both callous and carefree. And it affects our very biology, body and soul.
Infantile to this point; that our universities are centres of retardation, where young people far from coming of age, fall away like the rest of us, having learned the feints and skills and tracking processes.
So much depends on where one comes from. I didn’t go to STAR WARS from an innocent kid’s nursery; nor in any case, could I qualify as an infant. No, we’ve all presumably grown up; twisted many of us – hurt, angry, afflicted with a terminal sense of things (the tunnel at the end of the light). Lost at sea, lost on land, lost in space. “Coming of age” used to be the fashionable word for it; until we began to take our measure against our machines, and found ourselves, as to those haunting human criteria of ends and means, infantile indeed.
I think the joke of STAR WARS is so cruel because of all the gimmicks – intergalactic distances, light speeds, laser guns – there really isn’t any distance at all between here and then, them and us, ancestor and progeny, good guys and evil. The film is therefore a most sombre and cynical exercise in Necessity, a guided tour of the Kingdom of Necessity. This is how things will be, a simple extrapolation from the way things are; at both ends, an unexorcised curse.
No breakthrough. Indeed, in the film no touchstone of self-understanding is offered. It’s addle-headed violence that gets things done (in the film “things” are wars). Alternatives? The film dumps bigger and better loads of concrete on the same impasse.
I haven’t told the story of the film itself. Regrets. I’m not even sure there is a story; or whether the humans and humanoids are more than manikins assembled to show off all sorts of chic futuristic motifs, costumes, modes of conduct: a restricted range, roughly from the junky to the derisory.
To dispense with acres of jargon about cultural trends, escapism and movie genres, let me say that STAR WARS reminded me of films as down to earth a TAXI DRIVER, SERPICO, and the cop sages playing night and day on television. They all rub our faces in the ground glass of our hard times and crocked hearts. Except of course, that STAR WARS is more dwarfishly inventive, everyone’s nightmare, everyone’s retirement fantasy rolled into one.
Quantum leap? It reminded me of something more modest; say, a jump across a foul ditch. The jumper fell in, he was meant to. He can’t get out again, he isn’t meant to. A very old idea, pre Christian, called destiny.
I have trouble with it, understanding as I do all leaps, quantum or otherwise, in a biblical sense. You die, you get reborn. But that idea isn’t currently in vogue in America. (Has it ever been?) Our working principle was suggested earlier on; if it can be done, do it! Or Kill, you’ll be rendered immortal.
For the opposite view, brilliantly and gravely explored, see (of all things) a Russian movie, ‘SOLARIS’. Modestly speaking, it’s worth hitching to Moscow to view. In fact you might have to, One thing is reasonably sure: it’ll never play in Omaha.