What was once groundbreaking

A big disconnect I have with geek culture is that I don’t share their taste in fiction.  I think the most celebrated sci-fi and fantasy stories are just bad.  For instance, Star Wars.

This will be a spoiler-free discussion, entirely avoiding reference Episode VII, and focusing purely on a common defense of the original Star Wars trilogy, which is that it was “groundbreaking”.  To me, this is not a defense of Star Wars, but a condemnation.

When you praise Star Wars as groundbreaking for its time, it doesn’t really function as praise, but as an explanation.  It explains why other people value Star Wars.  More to the point, it explains away why other people value Star Wars.

Other people like Star Wars because they lived through the time that the movies were released, and therefore were amazed by how groundbreaking it was within that context.  I, on the other hand, have never lived in that context, and therefore have no reason to share their valuation.

However, the explanation doesn’t entirely work.  Many of the people offering this defense of Star Wars are, like me, too young to have lived through its original release.  I can only speculate why:

  • Some people are strongly affected by empathy for previous generations.  If you imagine people in the 70s and 80s being astounded by Star Wars, that might make the movie more enjoyable.  Some people had parents who were very enthusiastic about Star Wars, and that enthusiasm understandably rubbed off on them.
  • On a meta-level, if fiction is praised as groundbreaking long after it loses its novelty, that could encourage new fiction to try out new ideas, rather than rehashing old ones.
  • Some people don’t really know why they like what they like, and will offer inaccurate explanations.

Personally, I believe in value that is transient.  When a work of fiction is novel in some way, I am willing to praise it as such.  And then when the novelty wears off, I will stop praising it for novelty, although it could perhaps be praised on other grounds.

We are all well-acquainted with the fact that taste is subjective, and that different people have different tastes.  But another consequence of subjectivity is that value can change over time.  Just because something is great doesn’t mean that it needs to continue to be great for all time.

9 thoughts on “What was once groundbreaking

  1. Sara K. January 6, 2016 / 5:42 pm

    I have not seen any of the Star Wars movies since I was in middle school (okay, I’ve seen clips since then, but nothing longer than ten minutes), and I’ve never seen any of the 21st century Star Wars movies all the way through.

    I remember seeing the Empire Strikes Back (the first SW movie I saw) with my best friend when I was an elementary school student. I actually missed the first ten minutes of the movie, and knew nothing about the plot of the first movie. I was impressed by the visuals and the acting, but I was also trying to figure out what was going on. When I saw the famous “No, I am your…” moment for the first, my reaction was that it was a really weird thing for Darth Vader to say.

    I then saw all of the Star Wars movies in the 3rd grade … and then seeing them again in the 4th grade (my 3rd/4th grade teacher was a major Star Wars fan, and made a point of showing the whole class all three movies – there were only three back then – every year). I really liked them back then (even though I was not as enthusiastic as my teacher and certain classmates) and I will always have positive nostalgic feelings about Star Wars for these reasons.

    Come to think of it, the original trilogy is about twice as old now as when I first saw them. Weird.

    Anyway, I think it’s best if I don’t see the original Star Wars trilogy again. All of the flaws in the movies will be way more obvious to me now than they were to my eight-year-old self.

    One thing I definitely still like about Star Wars, even today, is the soundtrack. Sometimes I wonder if the soundtrack is what sealed the movies’ popularity – it was that extra something which turned a decently made action movie into something that people had stronger feelings about.

    Anyway, I can relate to not always liking the most popular fantasy/sci-fi fiction. I never managed to read LotR all of the way through (and I did get as far as Return of the King, so it’s not like I didn’t give the books a fair shot). I liked the movies better … except for Return of the King, which was terrible. I also think a lot of Star Trek is bad (I also think that there is a significant portion of Star Trek is good … but I often see parts of Star Trek which I think are bad being celebrated).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Siggy January 6, 2016 / 7:47 pm

    Oh yeah actually the sound track is pretty decent. I’m not a fan of the John Williams style in general, but it’s among the best examples.


  3. The Barefoot Bum January 7, 2016 / 3:34 am

    Star Wars was groundbreaking for its time, but there are plenty of movies that were actually groundbreaking, seen as groundbreaking, but have not achieved the same enduring acclaim. 2001 springs immediately to mind.

    There are some technical reasons: Star Wars was sold like no other movie beforehand. Merchandise, novels, comics, video games. Even before The Force Awakens, I always could see Star Wars kids underwear at Target. If you’re not a person who can be sold to (and I suspect you’re not, siggy), then this won’t touch you. But a lot of people can be sold to, and the sales job did a lot to cement the acclaim for Star Wars.

    But this is not a complete explanation: a lot of things have been sold as hard as Star Wars but have not achieved the same acclaim.

    For all its flaws, which are considerable, Star Wars uses a mythic structure that is extremely appealing to a lot of people: the notion that an ordinary teenager is in reality ultimately exceptions, and the key to saving the galaxy. Again, if someone is not alienated and frustrated by his or her perceived ordinariness, the idea of the exceptional savior will not resonate. Even if it’s true that George Lucas didn’t really intentionally try to adapt Campbell’s monomyth, the whole point of the monomyth is that it pervades social consciousness; at worst, Lucas got lucky in bringing this underlying mythic structure to life in the films.

    See also 4 Reasons ‘Star Wars’ is better than ‘Star Trek’.


  4. Siggy January 7, 2016 / 8:39 am

    People usually refer to the monomyth aspect of Star Wars as an explanation of the movie’s popularity rather than a defense of it. I suspect that when a person enjoys it for its mythical structure, they have a subjective experience of enjoying it for other reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The Barefoot Bum January 7, 2016 / 10:31 am

    I’m not sure, now, how you’re distinguishing between an explanation and a defense.

    If by defense you mean a reason why someone ought to like something, then I think nothing is defensible in this sense. I think there are literally zero things of any kind, much less works of art and/or entertainment, than anyone ought to like. People either like things or they don’t.

    As far as your “groundbreaking” argument goes, I agree: I don’t think anyone (other than a film scholar) really likes anything now because it was “groundbreaking” nearly 40 years ago. (Damn, I’m old; I remember when Star Wars came out.) I think being groundbreaking doesn’t even qualify as an explanation, much less a defense.

    I suspect that when a person enjoys it for its mythical structure, they have a subjective experience of enjoying it for other reasons.

    I dunno. Most people are not all that reflective (and there’s no reason they should be); they like all sorts of things for reasons they don’t spend a lot of time and thought making explicit. If they were to simply report their subjective experience, they would just say, “I just felt it was awesome.” It requires real analysis to talk about what’s going on in their minds to elicit the feeling of awesomeness.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Siggy January 7, 2016 / 10:51 am

    I will modify my previous statement. My impression is people usually refer to the mythical aspect of Star Wars in order to explain other people’s enjoyment, rather than to explain their own personal enjoyment.

    At first I thought people might be embarrassed to admit that they enjoyed a thing because it resembles a monomyth, but then it occurred to me that the more charitable and likely explanation is that people just don’t subjectively experience it that way. I think the disconnect between subjective experience and objective explanation is interesting, although perhaps not surprising.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The Barefoot Bum January 7, 2016 / 11:45 am

    Let me be considerably more precise. When I said that people like Star Wars because it is a monomyth, I didn’t really say anything interesting. It’s not like there’s this objective thing, a monomyth, and people detect the properties in Star Wars, identify it as objectively a monomyth, and therefore like it.

    What Campbell does is identify (more or less) common features of many very persistently acclaimed stories, and declare those features to constitute a “monomyth”; in other words, something is a monomyth because people like it a lot for a long time. Thus, to say that people like Star Wars because it is a monomyth is to say that people like it because they like it.

    The more interesting question, I think, is why (some) people like monomyths (and why some people don’t).

    Related is Dan Harmon’s (the creator of Community and co-creator of Rick and Morty) paradigm of the “story embryo” (and here too).

    It’s interesting to note that, given your earlier posts/comments about writing, that this kind of a story does not seem to grab you.


  8. Siggy January 7, 2016 / 12:24 pm

    Thanks for your comments. I’ll think about it some more.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. luvtheheaven January 27, 2016 / 12:30 pm

    I’m watching all the Star Wars films for the first time now and… yeah I don’t really, fully, get why people praise and love Star Wars the way they do, even tons of people in our generation.


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