Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Year of Thinking Magically: The Irresistable Force

In 100 years everyone will have forgotten the prequels and the sequels and the spinoffs and focus solely on the original Star Wars movie.
Why? Because there's nothing said in anything that came after that wasn't said best in the first film. Sure, Empire Strikes Back was fun and exciting, but suffers from its episodic nature and from following a story that is complete and finished in and of itself.

I'll admit to being an extremely unbiased commenter- the original Star Wars came out shortly before my 11th birthday and blew the top of my head off. I pored over every scrap of information about the making of the film I could get my hands on (though I quickly lost interest in the comic as soon as the adaption was done).

I even planned the building of a Star Wars fan clubhouse on stilts, only to have a carpenter neighbor tell me my plans were not only ridiculous but extremely dangerous, to boot. The point is that I consider myself to have been the exact right age to experience the film, even if I was too old to play with the toys (or at least thought I was at the time). It helped that I was already an obsessive sci-fi and comic book fan several years running. I don't remember if losing my virginity hit me as hard as Star Wars did, which probably goes to show that it didn't.

And of course, the first
Star Wars- the real Star Wars- is about (and only about) magic. A magical battle, to be exact, between the white magic of the individual and the black magic of the state. Maybe even more subversively, the magic of the film is a profoundly pragmatic variety -- magic as a finely-tuned expression of our intuition. Certainly not the fanciful spellcraft of the Harry Potter Universe.

And the ideas about a pervasive Force that can be wielded by the magician are explained in the movie so explicitly as to approach panentheistic propaganda (as opposed to the pantheism charge usually leveled against the film), a concept which comes straight of the magical playbook. It should be no surprise that all of this inspired a half-serious religion based on the Jedi.

The Jedi are a sci-fi take on the Knights Templar, in fact they were called the "Jedi Templar" in an early treatment. The sixth film, Revenge of the Sith, is a fairly cogent allegory of the fall of the Knights Templar, which serves to set everything up for the real Star Wars. This is borrowed heavily (along with a ton of other plot points) from another magical narrative, Frank Herbert's Dune. Herbert used the House of Areides as his Templar stand-ins, and the repulsive Harkonnens as his Vatican stand-in. The Bene Gesserit were Herbert's sex-changed Jesuit stand-ins, which speaks to the gender fluidity which permeates both religion and science fiction.

But the Jesuits would probably prefer they not be seen as magicians, which the Bene Gesserit and Jedi most certainly are. And the Jedi are much less ambiguous in their allegiances than their Dune counterparts, which gives the first Star Wars its kick. There's also a residue the strange confluence between the fall of the Templars and the Arthurian romances which rose to popularity soon after in the Merlin-Arthur relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker (originally Luke Starkiller, Son of the Suns).

There's a little of everything in Star Wars, actually, which accounts for its immense popularity. The secret to create a monster franchise is ripping everything off and recombining it all in a new way. And by that I mean, adding magic. Roddenberry did it with Star Trek, Chris Carter did it with The X-Files, and George Lucas raided everything he could get his hands on for ideas. Going so far as to add a highly unlikely source for a Hollywood blockbuster, but one that Secret Sun readers are well-acquainted with.

Although I'd argue (along with many others) there's quite a bit of Alan Watts in Obi-Wan, there's also a lot of Carlos Castaneda as well. Aside from Flash Gordon and The New Gods and Joseph Campbell, Lucas lifted quite a bit of Don Juan (or Wan) for Obi-Wan. (There's a very interesting essay at a Star Wars site that digs into the influence, and that's where some of these quotes have been pulled from.)

This isn't speculation, it's all pretty well-documented. Like this:
"Lucas had by now simplified the mysticism in his script. Obi-Wan Kenobi would be a guardian of the wisdom of the Jedi knights and the force, a mysterious power "that binds the universe together". Lucas had found the inspiration for the idea in a story in Carlos Castaneda's Tales Of Power, in which a Mexican Indian mystic, Don Juan, described a "life force" (Empire Building, page 62).
And then there's this:
"The idea of using another person, perhaps an alien, for Luke to play off of came up during story meetings. George Lucas and Leigh Brackett thought that the alien could be an Indian desert type, very childlike even though he's an old man" (Annotated Screenplays, page 167)

A lot of people love Yoda, but I see him as a badly-animated Obi-Wan reprise. Obviously not really anticipating a sequel, Lucas killed off Obi-Wan for dramatic effect and then had to scramble when Luke needed to be trained as a Jedi. It would have been immensely more dramatic had it been Obi-Wan, but there is one interesting factoid about Yoda that should be pointed out in this context:
Another idea, which did not make it on to screen, was to show Yoda " ... during the training ... always smoking from his gimer stick, a short little twig with three branches at the far end". (Annotated Screenplays, page 183). This may allude to the shaman's ingestion of psychotropic plants as an aid in their quest.
The writer goes against the grain of fan opinion and presents the loathesome Jar Jar Binks as a possible vegetation spirit, citing no less than RAW to bolster his argument.
Robert Anton Wilson recounts his own experiences of Mescalito in "Cosmic Trigger". He describes seeing "a man with warty green skin and pointy ears, dancing in a cornfield." He then tells of reading Castaneda's "The Teachings Of Don Juan" five years on from his experience, in turn realizing Castaneda's description of Mescalito as being exact with the figure he saw. He suggests that Mescalito may simply be an archetype of the collective unconscious, placing him in the same archetypal group as the Irish leprechaun or of Mr Spock from Star Trek (I believe that some writers tie extra-terrestrial experiences into this grouping also).
By proxy, the potent narrative magic of Carlos Castaneda had given Star Wars its own magic in turn. Or at least that would be my argument. Reading about the making of Star Wars is like reading a play-by-play description of a multi-car pileup on an interstate- the entire production was plagued from start to finish and yet somehow pulled together at the very last minute and changed the world forever.

That, my friends, is magic. That is what I'm trying to explain. Maybe without the explicit magic none of it would work at all. It's magic that defeats the Empire, a lesson we'd all do well to pay close attention to.

POSTSCRIPT: Like a lot of other people, I'd argue that the magic was gone from the Star Wars Universe after Empire, which may be explained by the firing of producer Gary Kurtz, who had a major influence on the creation of the franchise. Sure enough, Kurtz is yet another Sci-Fi Mormon and has become something of a martyr to fans who feel betrayed by Lucas's stewardship of the franchise. In an interview with The LA Times, Kurtz splashes ice water on Lucas' claims of a preordained epic:
For Kurtz, the popular notion that “Star Wars” was always planned as a multi-film epic is laughable. He says that he and Lucas, both USC film school grads who met through mutual friend Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s, first sought to do a simple adaptation of “Flash Gordon,” the comic-strip hero who had been featured in movie serials that both filmmakers found charming.
“We tried to buy the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ from King Features but the deal would have been prohibitive,” Kurtz said. “They wanted too much money, too much control, so starting over and creating from scratch was the answer.”
Lucas came up with a sprawling treatment that pulled from “Flash Gordon,” Arthurian legend, “The Hidden Fortress” and other influences. The document would have required a five-hour film but there was a middle portion that could be carved out as a stand-alone movie. Kurtz championed the project in pitch meetings with studios and worked intensely on casting, scouting locations and finding a way to create a believable alien universe on a tight budget.
Kurtz went on to accuse Lucas exactly of what many fans have -- writing to facilitate merchandising. Kind of the story of Lucas' generation, in a strange, sad way.

UPDATE: Talk about Synchronicity! This posted today on NME.com: "George Lucas believes the world will end in 2012." Thanks to an eagle-eyed reader.


  1. Fabulous entry! Mind spinning in the powerful simplicity, which eloquently expresses such a powerful, subtle idea. Great, great stuff!

  2. Magical post,Chris...and may the Force be with you .-)

  3. Hey Chris,

    Awesome post here, brother. I agree with almost every point you make in this essay. Seeing as I was born on 22nd of July 1979 I was a little late to get caught up in the whole Star Wars thing, I didn’t even see it until I was about six or seven years old.

    By that time I’d already consumed a ton of sci-fi that probably owed a lot to Star Wars, so for me the effect was dulled somewhat. But I remember clearly thinking about the Force and saying to myself, “Well, duh, of course there’s a mystical power that binds everything together. That’s why there’s something rather than nothing.”

    Pretty strange for a seven year old, or maybe not that strange at all.

    For me Star Wars was always about magic. As a kid I remember thinking that TV’s and cars and electricity were all magic (and movies), but it was just magic that we thought we understood. So it wasn’t much of a surprise for me to see sorcerers using lightsabres and stuff to channel their magic. We did a lot of similar but not as cool stuff in our world too.

    Also, I dig all the Castaneda references, being a huge fan in my teens. I think like many people that the later stuff lost a lot of the potency of the earlier work, but there’s still stuff to enjoy throughout the cannon.

    Me and my buddy Christopher would constantly debate whether or not Don Yuan was real and whether it mattered. Chris was always more of a realist, hard-science type, whereas I had more direct experience with ‘magic’ and as a result was more open-minded or perhaps even flakey.

    I didn’t care if Yuan was real or not, I only cared about the power of stories and Yuan as a character in the context of a story of initiation.

    Chris eventually came round to more of my way of thinking, but I’ve sharpened my hard-science wits and intellect through the endless discussions I’ve had with him over the past 15 years. In a simplistic sense I gave him more magic and he gave me more rigour, something I’m still indebted to him for. (He is now my brother-in-law, which is weird in a cool way)

    I find some of the beats in Star Wars a little forced, as I do with some of Castaneda’s work, and even my beloved X Files – but that is not a gripe, merely an observation. God knows I’m guilty of the same thing in much of my own work. I like to think that those tiny imperfections add to the overall perfection and perhaps aid rather than prohibit the flow of the irresistible force.

    May it be with us in the times ahead.


  4. Just yesterday I was contemplating how true yoga is true magic.

  5. Hey Chris, long time no speak. I ALL-WAYS read your blog, literally everyday, but I prefer to remain quiet, there is simply nothing to add to your notes of brilliance.

    But now I have posted an interesting new article on my sight, "The Meta-Logic Café", after more than a year of silence, and your thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  6. You know Chris, it's always interesting how our experiences parallel. I'm also of that generation that saw Star Wars in May of 1977, and it hit me hard at around the same age. I had already developed an interest in the old Sci Fi pulps from the 30s to 50s, and I completely got that Pulp aspect to it. I was very clearly about Magic. In fact, I'd have to say it set me on the path of wanting to work in film and be a story teller.

    While I don't have as big of an issue with Empire / Return, it was unfortunate with how Lucas shoehorned SW into something it wasn't intended to be. You know I met Gary Kurtz in the mid 80s at a restaurant, and it turned out he was impressed that I even knew who he was, I guess, he isn't recognized very often.

    As soon as Lucas started to surround himself with 'yes' men, he got into trouble. I live not too far from the ILM complex, and it's interesting to observe some people argue that Lucasfilm has become like the Empire, ironically.

  7. Chris, I'd like to add. For our generation, I liken the first viewing of Star Wars to the first appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I mean the impact was that great, and I feel that people who grew up post Star Wars might not appreciate the impact, or the energy level that existed out there with the public in the summer of '77.

    I often look at the current Box Office blockbusters and wonder if anything is having an equal impact compared to what happened in '77, and I have to say, with regret, I doubt it.

  8. I read The Teachings Of Don Juan a few years ago, I would never have made the Star Wars connection.

    Great post Chris.

  9. Sorry,

    Don Juan, not Don Yuan. I'm a terrible typist and my spelling sometimes sucks. As an English Major I should be ashamed I tells ya. Ok bye.

  10. Great thoughts on this very
    important visual mythological
    saga for all of us in the
    generation x bracket.

    When I first heard Krishnamurti,
    or rather, saw his face, I
    made the connection between
    him and Yoda....apparently
    the figure modeler for Yoda's
    puppet form just fashioned his
    face after someone in his shop?

    It is was not Frank Oz either
    but some Brit.

    I really dug your connection
    between ,"wan", and "juan".

    As well as the Jesuits being
    a model for the BG in Dune.


  11. Hello Chris of the Mytho-Music Mastery.
    Just watched/listened to JeffStarship and W@OW@!!!!!
    Have you seen the Brian Auger-Julie Driscoll amazin film????? ......"Brian Auger & Julie Driscoll brainwash The Monkees". You simply MUST see it dahling. The first part is on yootube, and it does seem to say it all re. popular music at the present time. It's the beginning of the "Light the sky on fire" that reminds me of the extraordinary and telling afore-mentioned film. If you ever get hold of the whole thing,then you will see Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis et al, and they are telling us something about the whole muse biz.

    Always Greatly Good to read ya.


  12. OT: Chris, ever seen the 1990 movie Hardware? That flick hammers you with religious/esoteric imagery and plot devices like whoa. Stars Dylan McDermott. I'd be interested in your thoughts on it.


  13. Actually there is a heavy Sufi influence on Bene Gesserit as well. Frank Herbert wrote about how he was trying to cover the Messiah arc in the first Dune novel. Herbert was consciously going after archetypes, which is an interesting counter point to the unconscious workings of same.

    George Lucas was a visionary filmmaker at one time, say up until Indiana Jones was produced. But he had some vices and he literally thought Gary Kurtz had effed up Empire and pushed him out after that. We know how that story ends. We get a $#$@ing puppet show from then on, although I myself came along from a very sheltered childhood to seeing Return of the Jedi as my first big screen stars wars movie at 10 years old and as a result my ideal woman will forever be a lady of around 25 years of age wearing a golden bikini.

    There are many ways magic can work. One thing George Lucas wanted were actors who could say his nonsense sincerely. In the end, that shined through. Or in the beginning.

    -Jon Spring

  14. smoking...

    i was surprised that the 'hookah' of the smoking caterpillar was allowed to remain in the latest version...

  15. This post is growing in my mind- I'm definitely not done with the topic. Will return shortly to respond to your thoughts...

  16. In the original Star Wars movie, I can't recall any overt use of the power of the Force to move objects. Mind control and extra-sensory perception seemed to be it. Then telekinesis came in during Empire when Luke uses his mind powers to retrieve his light saber in the ice cave on Hoth, Yoda pulls the X-fighter out of the swamp and the fight between Vader and Luke when all hell breaks loose.

    I wonder if there was a shift in Lucas' thinking to change the force from a more subtle aspect of the universe to an overtly powerful force.

  17. Anony- Cheers. Simplicity is a lot harder than it looks!

    Briz- And with you as well.

    Raj- Castaneda played it all wrong, but he was writing at a time when meta wasn't yet a workable concept. He was the wise man not his imaginary Indian, but he got so wrapped up in the literal reality of his guru he couldn't take credit for his own genius. And it ended badly.

    GEO- I think that's the idea.

    Anony- Oh, dear. Nice sync, though.

    JB- Welcome back. Interesting post- what have you been up to since we last heard from you?

    Matt- I'm puzzled by people who were shocked by the prequels. This was the Lucas who made Willow and Howard the Duck, after all. And as far as I'm concerned Jedi wasn't much different. I hated that movie when I first saw it- the whole thing with the teddy bears and doing the Death Star thing again just left a terrible taste. And it never was like it was in 77 again.

  18. Cindy- Thanks =)

    Pete- I could never get over the Grover voice for Yoda! He should have made it that ObiWan disincarnated and then reincarnated for the training.

    Flossy- I gotta check that out. Thanks for the heads up.

    Druff- I'm vaguely familiar with it- I'll have to check it out.

    Jon- What exact vices did Lucas have? I always got the feeling he was Mr. Straight Edge. Care to elaborate?

    Kikz- Speaking of the Jeffersons...

    1258- I wonder if a lot of that is Kurtz, because the Force is a joke in the prequels. The whole Jedi thing has zero mystique or magic at all.

  19. Ok, vice. Self indulgence. (He is Mr. Straight Edge I think you are right about that.)


    George Lucas is like the Bill Gates of film. He did some brilliant things. And then subsequently he made sure piles and piles of money were assured, to the detriment of his art.

    Can you imagine if he went back and fixed up THX-1138 with new graphics and editing? Imagine how that would turn out...


  20. Chris,

    I totally agree that Castaneda was the wise man and not Juan, and that 'meta' wasn't yet a workable concept - and that he felt he couldn't take credit for his insight so he kinda wrote himself into a corner.

    But I can appreciate the tension and debating he must have gone through about how to approach the whole thing.

    When I had my automatic writing experiences in 2006, from which my 'Voices from the Fiction' blog posts were culled, it was such a profound experience for me that it was extremely tempting to believe that I was literally communicating with a divine, discarnate entity - rather than some primal aspect of myself.

    It felt external, like downloading, to an extent. But I was also sharp enough to hear what my 'correspondent' told me point-blank, time and again; that she was a more dramatic expression of myself. Still, it would've been real easy to let myself fall into a black and white view of that experience - especially when trying to communicate it to others.

    I felt there was wisdom and usefulness in that material, but I had doubts about how to present it. I think Castaneda had similar doubts. He may have consciously created Don Juan as an alter-ego to voice his insights, without any of the grey-area confusion that I experienced, but at some point I get the feeling that Juan became very real to him (even if only as a fictional mouthpiece).

    Maybe it's similar to the love we have for TV or movie characters. My rational brain knows that Fox Mulder isn't real. But my spiritual/emotional brain filled with geek-love KNOWS that Mulder is real in some intangible but very literal way.

    Maybe Castaneda hoped that in some paralell incarnation Juan was indeed real and his mentor; that all of the fictional trappings of his genuine insights were somehow real, somewhere. Maybe that was the excuse he gave himself to play it the way he did.

    Stunning work as always, dude.


  21. P.S.

    In no way am I comparing myself to Castaneda or think that my little blog posts are on par with his work! I'm not an ego-maniac or anything. In fact, I'm a sychophant of the highest order, as proved by my constant approval of this AWESOME blog!!!! I'm a synchro-phant, if you will. Ok, excuse my hilarity, Chris, and feel free to delete this. I'm gonna go now...

  22. Great article. I myself like "Empire" the best, perhaps because I saw it in theatre 3 times when I was 10, but yes, the original had the magic. I'm surprised by how often I see Star Wars fans talk about the Death Star's exhaust port as a *story* flaw. "Why was the Empire so stupid?" is a typical comment. To me, it's always been obvious - the Death Star was impervious to technological attack. Red Leader was, at that time, a better, more experienced pilot than Luke, and he rode the trench, got a lock with the computer - and *missed* the target. Only Luke, by trusting the disembodied voice of his mentor, trusting the supernatural Force, Luke used *magic* to destroy the Death Star, which was brilliantly fore-shadowed by Vader earlier - "the ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force". I really don't understand why that point should be unclear. Luke's ability to use magic, his ability to trust something beyond technology, was the only thing that saved the day.