Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Luke Skywalker, Alchemist: the Star Wars Trilogy as Magnum Opus

Last week I was talking to Chronkite about cinematography and how it's often used to draw the viewer into a state the director wants to effect. There are many ways that this can be accomplished (the Kuleshov Effect comes immediately to mind), but the example I used was the reveal of Luke's green lightsaber in Return of the Jedi. Until this point in the third movie, lightsabers are either blue or red: Darth Vader wields a red one, and Ben Kenobi and Luke (using his father's) wield blue ones. This is important not because of the colors or even the visual implication of good versus evil, but because it sets up Luke for two movies visually in the subconscious.

Thus when the green lightsaber is first activated, it short-circuits six years of the viewer's expectations about how the Star Wars universe works, and it does so brilliantly. We know everything that's going to happen in the scene; in fact the setup is so visually and musically languorous that even a child knows that Luke's about to wreck shop on Jabba's lackeys. But what they don't know is that Luke is a different kind of Jedi. The green lightsaber represents a third choice, and that's why the scene is so exciting even though we know exactly what's coming.

What is that third choice? Alchemy.

At the beginning of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, the galaxy is run almost entirely by the Empire. The Empire represents science and reason as a superior force. Darth Vader is mostly robotic, sucking oxygen loudly through a life support system and speaking through a metallic speaker box. The Empire is literally and metaphorically mechanized: legions of Stormtroopers, waves of star fighters, immense battle cruisers, and a planet-sized monolithic Death Star as the final culmination of their technical prowess, represented as a perfect sphere, the most elegant and primordial of the natural shapes.

We're soon told that things weren't always this way: there used to be a group of cool bros called the Jedi who took care of things for a thousand years. The Jedi represent religion as a superior force, so much so that the 'god' they put their faith in is literally called The Force. They were wiped out by the Empire in what essentially amounts to an intergalactic zerg rush: mechanization producing superior numbers. The Empire is the Walmart to the Jedi's mom and pop store. Quantity overtakes quality; assembly-line sweatshops put craftsmanship out of business. (This is all expounded later in the prequels, but let's leave those be for now.)

We therefore have the classic struggle of science versus religion as the set-up for the entire Star Wars universe. But there's a third option: the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance represents alchemy as a superior force.

Many people misunderstand alchemy as something akin to either pseudoscience or a strange mystic cult, which shows you how effective science and religion have been at both suppressing it and consuming it into their binary scheme. Alchemy in this case means the authority of the individual. In the dichotomy of religion versus science, authority is always placed outside the body. Religion insists that truth is unknowable and thus man must default to God's will. Science, in contrast, insists that truth is knowable only through observation and detachment. In both cases truth is impersonal and separated from the experience of the individual. Alchemy says: fuck that noise, the truth was always inside you. You know the truth already, and that empowers you to be your own authority. Rules are not laws, they are merely good ideas, and you can come up with those on your own.

Of course, this is a gross threat to all those who need people dependent on externalized authority to retain money and power, which is why we're taught from the earliest age to depend on the authorities outside us. It doesn't matter that those authorities conflict with one another, that school and church teach you drastically different methods. In fact, that confusion serves to amplify the real lesson, on which both church and school (as well as politics, commerce, and art) agree wholeheartedly and with crystal clarity: to make you believe that you don't know what you're doing. It's no coincidence that fire-breathing fundamentalist Christians and hardcore conservative Republicans always find themselves at the same dinner table come election time, nor that the liberal and social elements of government always tag team with academia and celebrities. Whether the subject is fiscal policy, international relations, education, separation of church and state, medicine, entertainment or anything else, these players all push the same agenda: you need them to tell you what to do.

Now we introduce Luke. Luke's kind of a dumb regular kid. He doesn't like the Empire (who does? They're dicks!) but he's willing to go to the Academy nevertheless, because anything's better than being stuck on Tatooine (an interesting situation in light of military recruitment tactics in the real world, where you can simply substitute “US government” for “Empire” and “Flint, Michigan” for “Tatooine” and get the same result). We can tell Luke's kind of different from his friends and his adoptive parents. He has a fire in his belly, a wanderlust. He doesn't know exactly what he's supposed to be doing, but he knows it's sure as shit not this. That's the athenor burning in Luke's belly, the alchemical furnace. The message that primal urge is telling Luke is one of life's most important lessons: “You know how it seems like everyone else is just as full of shit as you are? Well, guess what, they are. So you may as well go your own way.”

It's not long before Luke gets his window of opportunity. Fate has a way of finding those meant for the path of alchemy, because, as we'll see, fate is not the enemy of free will, but it's ally – but let's not get ahead of ourselves. In any case, events lead Luke to the house of Ben Kenobi, who gives him his first real choice: to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Jedi. Here Luke begins to understand the nature of authority and choice, but he still has a long way to go. He hasn't chosen his own path yet, he's merely become aware of the possibility of choice – and finally given one, jumps headlong into it.

In a matter of hours Luke's life turns entirely upside-down. Once a farmboy with only the eventual promise of the Imperial Academy to look forward to, Luke is now consorting with ancient warrior-prophets, cool dude smugglers, crazy-ass aliens and beautiful princesses. He's definitely knee-deep in The Shit, too (literally, at one point), but the ride is so balls-out awesome that the severity of his actions seem lost on him for the moment. Luke is heady on vertigo like a child on a roller coaster.

And then the inevitable strychnine crash from this acid trip euphoria happens: Ben gets murdered right in front of him. HOLY FUCKING SHIT. For the first time, Luke has doubt about The Force and the path of the Jedi Knight. Hell, if Obi-Wan Kenobi can be taken down, what hope does a backwater shmuck like Luke have?

But even in his moment of crushing despair and confusion, the voice of his first mentor calls to him, echoing that fire in his belly, that driving urge that set him on the path to alchemy, that fiercest and most primal of animal actions: Run, Luke! RUN!

Luke runs, and he doesn't stop running for a movie and a half. He becomes a fighter for the Alliance. He takes out the Empire's glorious technological marvel with a single manually-targeted torpedo volley. He begins learning what the Jedi are about, and how giving himself over to the will of the universe can give him great insight and ability.

This is where Luke learns the benefits of religion, but he also learns the benefits of science. Remember, Luke's best friend and closest companion through the first two movies is a robot: R2-D2. As Ben Kenobi and Yoda are Luke's mentors in religion, so is Artoo his mentor in science. It's Artoo who first sets him on his path, not Ben; without Artoo he would never have known why Ben was important in the first place. Artoo carries the Death Star battle plans. Artoo attends Luke's X-Wing and plots the course to Dagobah. Artoo fixes the hyperdrive on the Millennium Falcon, finally allowing our heroes to escape. In fact, even while he studies the ways of the Force, Luke becomes so familiar and comfortable with the realm of science that he learns to speak Droid. This is Artoo's role in Star Wars: to give Luke perspective. Religion is great and all for its powers of oratory and determination, but when you need to actually get shit done, science is the guy you want on call.

This also leads Luke to his first real test of character. Yoda tells Luke to stay, but Luke, using reason, deems that his knowledge of his friends' suffering will allow him to prevent it. Conversely, when Luke first confronts Vader, a vastly superior mechanical foe, he uses intuition to fight him. The problem with both of these decisions is that Luke is still trying to navigate the world based on either-or principles. If religion is wrong, default to science; if science is wrong, default to religion. But what if they're both wrong?

Well, then you get your hand chopped off by your dad. Life's a motherfucker like that.

At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is at a crossroads. He knows that science is flawed, and that following the path of his father will lead to mechanization and lifeless duty to the state; he's even got a mechanical hand to remind him of that. He also knows that religion, in deference to what Kenobi and Yoda told him, cannot hold all the answers. That too leads to death; he has, after all, seen Ben himself die while pridefully clinging to his idealistic and irrational faith. But Luke is still alive. The Alliance is still fighting. Some of their friends are lost to them, but they have new friends now.

Here is where Luke makes his most drastic and amazing decision: he chooses to follow no path, but to forge instead into unknown territory and cut his own way. At the fork in the road that turns left to science and right to religion, Luke takes the only way that truly makes sense: forward. He is careful not to dismiss the lessons of the right and left; they have been useful tools, and he will not abandon them out of spite. With science he constructs a new lightsaber to replace the one lost to his father, and with religion he learns the proper way to wield it. Most importantly, he does all this on his own.

When Luke returns, he is a grown man. He dresses in all black, a curiously stylish embrace of his father's scientific world to set him apart from the loose-robed Jedi ascetics we have seen before him. He is calm, even-voiced, controlled. He is sure of his abilities, but not overconfident. When his techniques fail, he is not distracted by anger, nor does he give himself up to despair. It seems Luke has tread a line between both worlds: he wields both the efficiency of science and the assurance of religion.

But it's not until the fight over the Sarlaac pit that Luke's true power opens up like Krishna revealing his ultimate form to Arjuna.

Once the green lightsaber is activated, Hell on Earth breaks loose from Luke's hands. His dizzying flurry of attacks are furious and unrelenting, like nothing we have ever seen in the Star Wars universe. Until now, lightsaber battles have been something halfway between ballet and fencing, with careful opponents measuring each other like chess masters or poker players. Luke, in contrast, is a 500 pound quarterback. He does not care what path it takes to get around, over, under or through you, but you can be damn sure he is going to be on the other side of you faster than you can process.

This is important thematically and cinematically: Luke is not merely a Jedi or a Rebel Alliance hero or even his father's son. He is something completely new to the Star Wars universe, and that was the point of his story all along. Jabba's cronies fluster and flail at Luke's onslaught of pain and death. Even the supreme badass of Star Wars, Boba Fett, gets his face so thoroughly handed to him by Luke that a half-blind Han Solo ends up taking him out with an accidental assist. The reason this is so effective, so believable, and so accurate, is because it is literally true that none of them have encountered anything like this before, and neither has the audience. Luke is like a Lovecraftian horror emerging from n-space, something so alien and impossibly outside the accepted science-religion continuum as to be inconceivable to the common man.

Luke is a fully realized alchemist at this point in the story. From here on, all that is left is for Luke to fulfill his destiny as the harbinger of the new authority of self. He visits Yoda, but what more can Yoda teach him at this point? He has so far surpassed Yoda that the only thing the little green elf can possibly do to help him is get out of his way. He then goes to see Vader, and their confrontation is largely the same, although admittedly somewhat notably more intense, since Vader refuses to accept that Luke has nothing to learn from him, and won't change his mind until he's on the bad end of an embarrassingly exhaustive ass-beating.

Unfortunately, there's also the Emperor to deal with. “You meddlesome kid,” says Palpatine, “do you honestly believe that you and your pathetic self-policing are any match for the mechanized juggernaut of science and progress? You're nothing to me, kid. You're a stain on my suit collar, an unfortunate oversight at best. I wield the power of the elements and atoms; what the fuck do you have?”

And sadly, Palpatine is correct. The final lesson that Luke has to learn is his most painful: that even though you have chosen the path of alchemy, even though you are now a fully self-made man with all the authority and powers due, people are still going to try to kill you, and some of them can. Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you, and Palpatine is one motherfucker of a bear.

And then Vader finally sees the light. “Fuck you,” says Vader, “the kids are alright. And I'll fucking kill myself to stop you hurting them. What the fuck do YOU have, bitch?” Palpatine goes down in a trail of fire and madness, and Vader dies in contentment, proud of his only son, who has done what he'd always dreamed of and never truly accomplished: becoming Nietzsche's superhuman.

In our modern world, we have largely abandoned alchemy. As I've noted earlier in this post, that works to the benefit of the people who run things in the world and need everyone else unempowered enough to let them. But I would posit that we as a society have felt the hunger in the pits of our stomachs, that we have craved that long denied self-actuation, and that this is the real reason why the original Star Wars trilogy rings with such clarity to our imaginations.

It's also the prevailing reason why the prequels don't. Here we have the opposite system to the Empire: a Republic run largely on dogma and faith, with Jedi Knights entrusted with the highest ceremonial, political and military duties – duties for which they are about as appropriate and qualified as Bono is to hold an audience with the Pope (another perplexedly accurate real world parallel). We hate the prequels because they're the exact opposite of the originals. Instead of a third option, they present us with only two equally vile ones: an austere life of service to the Force bereft of love or passion, or a public life of service to the state bereft of awesomeness. Ironically, Jar Jar Binks, well established as the most hated of the prequel characters, is in fact the only one that escapes this binary pull; he may be a clueless, loud, accident-prone jackass, but at least he's not mind-numbingly boring. Jar Jar's only sin is that he is a man out of time. He has no place in the prequels because the prequels are not where alchemists belong. If he'd been a supporting character in the Rebel Alliance, I speculate we'd hold him in a similar regard as we do Admiral Ackbar or Lobot, or at the very least the Ewoks*.

More to the point, the world has only gotten more mechanized and faith-based since the release of the original Star Wars trilogy. It would have been nice for the prequels to speak to that, to give us hope once again that, somewhere, there were yet some alchemists forging rules for themselves and accepting the destiny of supermen. The nature of the science-religion dichotomy is the illusory choice between fate and effort. There is no choice, says alchemy. Fate and effort are one in the same, and once you realize that and accept it, your true power will be revealed.

Alas, George Lucas himself is, as stated elsewhere in this blog, now a slave to science. Lucas has become Anakin; we can no more expect him to deliver us an alchemical narrative as we can expect Darth Vader to take up the mantle of self-made man. But perhaps his offspring have a few tricks up their black-clad sleeves.

* Say what you will about the Ewoks, but I firmly contend that the Battle of Endor is a striking parable of the Vietnam War: the Empire is well-equipped, entrenched, and disproportionally technologically superior, and they get their asses handed to them by stone-age spear-chuckers because they are not at all prepared for the type of guerrilla warfare that the Ewoks are willing to wage.