Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Force Awakens Gen X Nostalgia

The Force Awakens Gen X Nostalgia

The opening text scrolled up the screen … and it was 1977 again. By now, those of us in our forties who have seen JJ Abrams’ re-tread of George Lucas’ classic space opera have settled into a comfortable pose of contented reminiscence, as we reflect on the most important movie of our youth. Yes, of course, as too many critics have been quick to point out, we’ve been here before. There is no doubting the striking similarities between the original film and Episode VII, with Rey almost identically substituting for Luke in the early scenes, and the plotline of a secret message carried by a droid making us nostalgically nod our heads or cynically roll our eyes in recognition and reminiscence. But it was almost as fun the second time around. A true Gen Xer can enjoy the movie for all the praise it gets while also acknowledging the validity of every criticism of Abrams. Yet, we get it – you have to go back to go forward. Screenwriter Blake Snyder pointed out that Hollywood studios and filmgoers simply want “the same thing, only different.” That is the art of allusion and archetype which grounds all fiction and continually enthralls audiences with the same basic stories re-told with different costumes, settings, and characters. And, considering the original Star Wars: A New Hope drew heavily from the mono-myth first explained by Joseph Campbell, it’s only appropriate that Star Wars: The Force Awakens pay homage to the archetypes. At this point in our lives, Generation X is ready to look back and live it all again, maybe a bit jaded, but hopefully with some wisdom.

In framing the story of Rey and her almost mystical connection to The Force, Abrams doesn’t dodge the obvious connections to the past. Instead, he writes the redux directly into the film, referencing it when Maz Kanata tells Rey, “I’ve lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people. I know your eyes.” Clearly, Maz is dropping hints about Rey’s true identity, but Abrams is drawing on a larger truth about stories and the human condition. Students of literature and film know that there only seven basic stories anyway. And, as the children of Generation X move into adolescence, and as the political and cultural landscape reflects a stagnation reminiscent of the 70s and 80s, the return of a familiar epic hero seems eerily appropriate. Is it really that surprising that the Star Wars myth is returning at the exact same time Sylvester Stallone is back to the original Rocky story? Most Gen Xers are now heading into the midst of the U-curve of emotional growth, and it’s at this point that life seems to bottom out only to suddenly start getting cool again because we are now looking at the world with a bit of hard-won wisdom. We know stuff. The year of 1977 brought the release of Star Wars, but it also saw the rise of punk rock and all its rebellious spirit which no doubt influenced young Gen Xers.  As disaffected a generation as Gen X was supposed to be, the idea of nostalgia would almost seem unfathomable. In Star Wars terms, Gen Xers were much more like Luke Skywalker who couldn’t wait to get away from home than they are like Rey who wants nothing more than to get back home. Yet, strangely, Generation X is every bit as retro as their initial hipness foresaw, and the return of Star Wars is a reminder of the magic their entertainment represented to their coming-of-age. The nostalgia boom is big for Gen Xers, and it’s with no shame that forty-somethings are looking back fondly upon a past that really wasn’t much to speak of when they were in it.

So, what to make of the nostalgic feelings about a story that seems so familiar but contains enough subtle twists to be “the same thing, only different.” Certainly, the villain of The Force Awakens is a bit of a departure, or perhaps a development in the Lucas legend. Kylo Ren – a child of divorce and the emotionally-frazzled product of a dysfunctional home – is not the cold and calculating automaton that intimidated us as Darth Vadar, but instead a brash young bully, prone to Millenial-esque emotional swings and moments of self-doubt.  Clearly, the moment of patricide – an ironic reversal of the “Luke, I am your father” scene from the original – was a clever bit of re-branding. And, Gen Xers get it. Of course, Han Solo had to die just like Obi Wan did. That was our first acknowledgment of the archetypal coming of age – the loss of a mentor figure. Generation X was a group defined by loss and harsh realizations, especially about institutions and authority figures. Luke would ultimately be abandoned by the only father figure he knew – for that was how Xers grew up. As Gen X writer, Chuck Klosterman noted in his essay “Lisa Loeb on Planet Hoth,” Empire Strikes Back is really the most Gen X of movies – it’s the darkest of films grounded in disappointment and frustration, the good guys losing, and the deepening sense that it’s never going to get better. Ultimately, Empire and the whole trilogy reflected Cold War and recession realities that left a generation jaded, but stronger and wiser for it. That wisdom, wrapped up in myth and legend, is why Star Wars nostalgia resonates with Xers.

Yet, there are also unexplained and underdeveloped plot twists in The Force Awakens that give an original fan pause, seeking to understand those meta-moments and glossed over plot points. A significant difference and development is the new weapon that wipes out numerous planets in The Republic for whom the audience has no real emotional connection other than passing reference to The Republic. In Star Wars: a New Hope, it was Leia’s home planet of Alderaan that was at risk, and as the vulnerable and recognizable humanity served as the example of the Empire’s power and sheer ruthlessness, the chilling effect was pervasive. But in The Force Awakens, the massive weapon is just a cool special effect for many younger viewers who won’t take time to consider the significance of The Republic.  Has an era of drone strikes and a never-ending War on Terror so desensitized society that the political ramifications of mass destruction are reduced to big impressive fireworks? Some deep humanist reflection is missing in a movie that so blandly glosses over the annihilation of millions. From that point, Star Wars: the Force Awakens veers into meta-fiction during the déjà vu discussion of attacking the new “Death Star,” which for older audiences had to happen, but also weakens the overall story. Do we really need Jedi fighters seemingly aware that they’re in a movie, repeating lines from nearly four decades ago? It seemed a self-serving conceit from a slightly embarrassed director, rather than an insightful bit of self-aware satire. Meta-fiction in Star Wars seems eerily out of place, as amusing as it is. Gen Xers were the first audience to truly appreciate meta-fiction, but its use in Star Wars is somewhat pathetically patronizing.

Thus, the question for Gen X viewers is whether we appreciate JJ Abrams’ paying homage to the original epic, or whether we are pissed off at the way he hacks off the foundation of the franchise. As Generation X sits in the heart of middle age, with the youngest at 35 and the bulk of us taking our pre-teens and middle schoolers to the movie, The Force Awakens is a perfect moment of “Where Are We Now.” The original news that Disney had purchased the franchise sent shivers of artistic malpractice through many Gen Xers. For a group raised on punk rock, and for artists and fans instrumental in the rise of alternative music and independent film, the Disney-fication of our most sacred bit of pop culture seemed a gut-wrenching sell-out. Yet, as our kids’ eyes lit up with the hype of the first trailer, and we couldn’t help but smile at the appearance of Han and Chewy, the nostalgia won us over. Despite the cynicism of a jaded generation, Generation X was ready to reflect fondly on its past. Gen X is, no doubt, a strangely sentimental group that has been in some ways nostalgic for the past almost from the moment they entered adulthood. Perhaps no group ever graduated college as ready for retirement as the group of Xers in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming who lamented, “I’m nostalgic for five minutes ago.” It wasn’t as much about slacking as it was about weariness. And now, as those nostalgic kickers and screamers enter middle age, the return of our oldest mythology revives the wisdom of our pop culture mythology.

If there were ever a time for Generation X to begin looking back, then 2016 is the moment. This year represents the quarter-century mark for much of the entertainment that marked the post-Boomers as Generation X – notably, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and Nirvana’s Nevermind. But if the seminal works of the 90s consciousness are representative of Gen X identity, then the iconic films of the late 70s and early 80s like Stars Wars and Empire Strikes Back were the foundation.  With the return this year of both The Muppets and The X-Files, Gen Xers can embrace the satirical whimsy of childhood in Kermit and Piggy’s innocently dysfunctional romance, while also wallowing in the jaded cynicism of Mulder’s return to smoking out government conspiracy. Certainly, the darker side of reflection would seem to be the default of Xers, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott has explained as the midlife crisis of Generation X.  And, recent works such Ben Stiller’s While We Were Young and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, and Noah Baumbauch’s Greenberg have almost too often reflected the generational ennui that never really left Gen Xers after their youth that was, in the words of Allison in Breakfast Club, “unsatisfying.” Thus, for a generation that has often felt like reality never stopped biting, the return of our original rebel alliance, framed so poignantly in that final encounter between Ray and Luke Skywalker, is righteous cause for the cautious nostalgia the Force has awakened.

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