"Funny, incisive, and timely ... Jameson does for geeks what geek culture does for its superheroes: he takes them seriously, respects their power, and refuses to hide his deep affection." —Lawrence Kasdan, co-screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and Solo: A Star Wars Story
In I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing, A. D. Jameson takes geeks and non-geeks alike on a surprising and insightful journey through the science fiction, fantasy, and superhero franchises that now dominate pop culture. Walking us through the rise of geekdom from its underground origins to the top of the box office and bestseller lists, Jameson takes in franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy, Harry Potter, Star Trek, and, in particular, Star Wars—as well as phenomena like fan fiction, cosplay, and YouTube parodies. Along the way, he blasts through the clichés surrounding geek culture: that its fans are mindless consumers who will embrace all things Spider-Man or Batman, regardless of quality; or that the popularity and financial success of Star Wars led to the death of ambitious filmmaking.
A lifelong geek, Jameson shines a new light on beloved classics, explaining the enormous love (and hate) they are capable of inspiring in fan and non-fan alike, while exploding misconceptions as to how and why they were made. I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing tells the story of how the geeks have inherited the earth.
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"OH, I'M BACK OUT IN SPACE AGAIN"
The Realism of Star Wars
Star Wars has achieved such a legendary status in our culture and warped the entertainment industry to such an extent that it's difficult today to see it as a product of its time. Instead, critics then and now have tended to emphasize how George Lucas broke with — some would even say betrayed — American cinema of the 1970s, making something totally unlike the movie that won the Best Picture Oscar that year, Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Whereas Allen crafted one of the most sophisticated and adult romantic comedies ever made — one that trusts its audience to recognize Marshall McLuhan and references to Marcel Ophüls's The Sorrow and the Pity — Lucas served up a shiny retread of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, in which Luke and Han vie to kiss Princess Leia. And while Lucas didn't win Best Picture or Best Director, his film set the agenda for the next forty years, during which time studios have repeatedly struggled to re-create its success, leaving pictures like Annie Hall in the dust.
At least, that's the account offered by Peter Biskind in his 1998 volume Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which documents in gossipy detail how the fifteen years between 1967 and 1982, the so-called New Hollywood, became the last great period for American cinema. According to Biskind, as the classic Hollywood studio system broke down in the mid- to late 1960s, rebels like Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese fought their way out from under both censorship and the factory-like production methods of the big studios to produce classics like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Godfather, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. With those canonical films and others, the artists of the New Hollywood reinvigorated a stale U.S. film scene with techniques and concepts drawn from European cinema and the counterculture (not to mention drug use). The result, Biskind repeatedly asserts, was a torrent of gritty and psychologically complex movies, "character- or theme-driven," transcendent of genre, and (above all else) astonishingly adult, challenging viewers with "fractured narratives riven by flashbacks and psychedelic dream sequences," as well as downbeat endings.
As the story goes, the New Hollywood didn't last long. Instead, these serious, intelligent, sophisticated adult films were displaced by the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars, which ushered in the modern Hollywood era of epic blockbusters designed to sell toys to little children. Biskind opens his chapter on Star Wars, "Star Bucks," with a quote from Paul Schrader: "Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big budget comic book mentality." With Star Wars, supposedly, George Lucas turned his back on his peers, creating what Biskind calls "the mirror opposite of the New Hollywood films": a simple, straightforward tale with "accessible two-dimensional characters whose adventures ended happily." Whereas the New Hollywood directors drew on recent advances in European cinema and experimental documentary filmmaking, Lucas dumbed it all down again, "infantilizing" viewers in a return to "the pre-'60s Golden Age of movies," an era that Lucas apparently longed for, having paid tribute to it in his 1973 film, American Graffiti. As it happens, Lucas set American Graffiti in September 1962 (right as the Vietnam War was escalating), but Biskind's point is clearly that Lucas was keen on rolling back the artistic and political advances of the counterculture, serving up with Star Wars a simplistic "good vs. evil" type morality play in lieu of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The result, Biskind argues, is that filmgoers today "are the children of Lucas, not Coppola," crass consumers with ADHD, just looking to be entertained, rather than self-conscious, self-critical connoisseurs of moody European art. Later, Biskind writes that "the success of Star Wars, coupled with the failure of New York, New York" — Martin Scorsese's costly flop, released one month after Star Wars — "meant that the kind of movies Scorsese made were replaced with the kind of movies Lucas (and Spielberg) made." Spectacular junk crowded out more enriching cinema. As evidence, Biskind quotes Robert Altman's complaint that by 1997, American multiplexes had become "one big amusement park" (roller coasters again!), devoid of worthwhile movies, a condition that Altman calls nothing less than "the death of film." Still not content, Biskind scores a coup by giving the last word of the chapter to the editor of Star Wars — George Lucas's ex-wife — Marcia Lucas: "I'm disgusted by the American film industry. There are so few good films, and part of me thinks Star Wars is partly responsible for the direction the industry has gone in, and I feel badly about that." A New Hope? More like, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
But while Lucas's science fiction epic differs in many ways from the works of Scorsese and Coppola, it's hardly the "mirror opposite" that Peter Biskind claims. Star Wars wasn't a simplistic return to earlier Hollywood films; nor did it reject cutting-edge techniques derived from foreign cinema and documentaries. Indeed, insisting on those points misses how Star Wars was very much a product of the New Hollywood, and why it was so successful.
* * *
THE NEW HOLLYWOOD did indeed emerge, as Biskind writes, in the midst of the Classic Hollywood's breakdown, springing up amidst the ruins of a tried-and-true production model that endured from roughly 1927 to 1967. As the baby boomers entered their teens and twenties in the mid-1960s, big Hollywood movies like Cleopatra and Doctor Doolittle started flopping, failing to find any purchase with a burgeoning youth culture that was more interested in rock and roll and drugs, civil rights and sexual liberation. Studio executives were forced to rely on emerging filmmakers like Warren Beatty and Mike Nichols, who alone seemed to possess the secret of how to appeal to their peers, many of whom were turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. Those artists and others used the opportunity to pursue creative freedom, refusing to sign long-term studio contracts, and pushing against the limits of Hollywood's new ratings system, established in 1968 to replace the outdated censorship of the Hays Code, which had been the law of the land since 1934. Indeed, movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate reveled in the elimination of the code, which had prohibited profanity, the glamorization of crime and criminals, and realistic depictions of adult relationships to the point where even married couples couldn't be depicted as sleeping in the same bed, or kissing lustfully.
But in other ways, nothing really changed. Hollywood remained an industry, adjusting its product to suit changing tastes, going where the money was. And even the most aesthetically ambitious works of the New Hollywood were still genre pictures. Easy Rider was trippy, and included a five-minute-long LSD sequence set in a New Orleans graveyard, but it was also a biker movie, produced to cash in on the success of other, more underground biker films, such as The Wild Angels, which had starred Peter Fonda. Fonda had also appeared in The Trip, a movie about LSD written by his Easy Rider costar Jack Nicholson, who was at that time still laboring in obscurity. After Easy Rider struck a nerve with college students, other New Hollywood movies — The Rain People, Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, American Graffiti — similarly hit the road, capitalizing on the youthful allure of feeding one's head via the open highway system. Meanwhile, Taxi Driver was an urban vigilante film, a follow-up to hits like Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, and Death Wish, as well as blaxploitation films. Scratch the surface of any New Hollywood classic, and you'll find a genre film made to placate audience demand. The French Connection, Mean Streets, and The Godfather, parts one and two, are crime/gangster pictures, long a Hollywood staple; Annie Hall and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore are romantic comedies. But while these films are all genre pictures, none of them are generic. The reason audiences responded so strongly to those films, and why we think them classics today, is because the people who made them did more than strictly adhere to formulas, going above and beyond traditional genre requirements.
Biskind certainly gets this. Throughout Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he routinely calls attention to how the artists of the New Hollywood "transcended" and "deconstructed" formulaic genres, making their pictures look less contrived by, say, casting unconventional-looking actors, and shooting on actual locations. But Biskind goes further in his appraisal of the New Hollywood, presenting it as a body of work that appealed to "a new generation ... that seemed to want movies about real people in real situations." Although Biskind never explicitly says so, it's clear he thinks that art progresses by better capturing life itself, meaning that the more a given artwork looks like real life, the better it is. That's why he heaps so much praise upon Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, which he calls "one of a kind, a bravura directorial performance. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen before." Scorsese succeeded, Biskind claims, because he listened to his professor at NYU, Haig Manoogian, who encouraged his students "to make films about their own lives, what they knew," thereby avoiding typical Hollywood clichés. According to Biskind, Mean Streets is "a gangster film, a genre film ... in name only," overcoming "artificial formulas with little claim on our attention" thanks to Scorsese's ability to document "life as he knew it." By Biskind's logic, Star Wars is the "polar opposite" of Mean Streets because it looks nothing at all like real life. If only Lucas had been a classmate of Scorsese's, studying at the feet of Professor Manoogian, then he would have stuck with making pictures like American Graffiti, documenting his teenage years in Modesto, California!
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a gripping read, catching the reader up in the dizzying reversals of fortune that are, I presume, commonplace in Hollywood. One day William Friedkin is on top of the world for having made The Exorcist, the next he's losing millions on an arty film like Sorcerer, which isn't about a sorcerer, and which had the misfortune of opening one month after Star Wars. But although Biskind routinely praises the New Hollywood for its realism, he never offers a coherent or compelling account of what realism is. Rather, he perpetuates a common mistake by presenting realism as a kind of content or subject matter: cops, Peoria, ulcers, kitchen sinks. For Biskind, realism means better capturing reality itself, which is why he writes that the New Hollywood was "art imitating life imitating art," the two blending together in a heady whirlwind until the one could no longer be distinguished from the other. And that's why Biskind takes pains to portray both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas as utter squares, nebbish nerds unhip to the times. Being dweebs, they had no real lives to document.
But while many people certainly use "realism" as a synonym for "the everyday," and "fantasy" as a synonym for "outlandish," that's too simplistic, and doesn't capture how realism and fantasy actually work. An artwork is more than just its subject matter, and realism is more than just a kind of content — realism isn't cops with ulcers living in Peoria, with dirty dishes filling the sink. An artist can make a TV show about cops that bears no similarity to real life — such as Twin Peaks, whose police officers and FBI agents are archetypes, personifying idealized concepts. Meanwhile, another artist can create a fantasy novel in which supernatural elements are designed to seem as mundane as anything else in the world. That's because realism refers to how the artist portrays his or her subject matter, whether that happens to be cops or something else, such as aliens (who may or may not have ulcers). Put another way, realism is a mode or way of making art, regardless of subject matter, regardless of content.
Here's a simple way to think about it. All art is artifice, all artworks being equally artificial — equally fake, equally unreal. A painting of a bowl of fruit isn't a bowl of fruit, no matter how much it may happen to look like one. (If you're ever in any doubt, just try licking a still life the next time you're in a museum; you'll find that a painting, regardless of its appearance, is always paint on a canvas.) But obviously not all artworks look equally artificial. A painter can make a painting of a bowl of fruit look abstract — she can make it look more like paint than it looks like fruit — but she can also make it look more like actual fruit than it does like paint, and thereby make you hungry, and want to lick it. (Please don't lick paintings.) Realism is that latter case — when the artwork looks more like the thing being represented (its subject, fruit) than it does like the thing that's doing the representing (paint).
Put another way, realism is the use of artifice to conceal any sign of artifice. It's using makeup, say, to make a black eye look like a real black eye, not like makeup. It's using makeup to conceal the fact that it's makeup. In the final scene in Star Trek Beyond, Chris Pine's Captain Kirk sports a black eye, a leftover from his fight with the villainous Krall, who was portrayed by Idris Elba. Supposedly, Elba really punched Pine on set (accidentally), meaning Kirk's black eye was genuine — or at least, that's what Elba claimed at the film's premiere at Comic-Con. But for those of us on this side of the screen, it's impossible to tell whether Elba was telling the truth, or simply telling a good story. Kirk's shiner might be real, or it might be fake, or it might be a combination of the two, an authentic injury augmented with makeup. The point of realism is to make the real indistinguishable from the fake. And in this way, realism is the opposite of other modes of making art, in which the artifice is left openly on display as artifice, modes such as symbolism, allegory, expressionism, pantomime, and camp — all of which tend to represent ideals, and as such are unconcerned with appearing true-to-life.
Realist techniques can be applied in any artistic medium, and to any type of artwork, regardless of subject matter or genre. Peter Biskind recounts how in 1973 Ellen Burstyn, having become a star for her work on The Exorcist, selected Martin Scorsese to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. The original screenplay for Alice struck Burstyn as corny, reminding her of "a Rock Hudson–Doris Day movie," but watching Scorsese's movie Mean Streets had led her to think that he could give it "the opposite of a polish," a "roughing up." In other words, Burstyn thought that Scorsese could take the corn out of the screenplay, and make it realist. By minimizing the film's most formulaic aspects, Scorsese concealed the contrivances demanded by the genre, making the characters seem less like stock types being played by Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson, and more like the spirited single mom Alice and her rancher boyfriend David.
Lucas may have set Star Wars a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but he gave that place and its inhabitants the same roughing up that Scorsese gave Alice. This was hardly accidental. As soon as he had started directing feature-length films, Lucas had begun entertaining the possibility of making a big-screen adaptation of Flash Gordon, having fallen in love with the serials as a kid, when they aired on TV. But he didn't want to simply re-create those movies. As he recounted it in 1979, he'd realized as an adult how "crude and badly done" those serials were — how hokey they were, hokier even than a Rock Hudson–Doris Day romance. Lucas, who still loved the serials despite their being "so awful," started wondering "what would happen if they were done really well." By "done really well," he means "realist" — transforming schlock into a film where the sets didn't wobble when actors bumped them, and where the spaceships weren't plastic models suspended on strings, with sizzling fireworks attached.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing"
Copyright © 2018 A. D. Jameson.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Golden Age of Geekdom
Part I: The Story So Far
1. “Oh, I’m Back Out in Space Again”: The Realism of Star Wars
2. The Children of Spielberg and Lucas
3. Geek Goes Mainstream
Part II: What Every Geek Wants
4. Do You Bleed?
5. Historical Documents
6. The Great Geek Game
7. Geeking Out
Part III: To Be Continued . . .
8. I’ve Got a Bad Feeling about This: The Importance of Being Geeky
9. Why So Serious?
10. Back Out in Space Again: The Beauty of Star Wars