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Jar-Jar Jesus

One of the pleasures of doing acid is the effect of all things seeming to be simultaneously possible and true. The perceptible world is not just made hallucinogenic but becomes a place where everything that happens is miraculous. That a person walking a straight line down a sidewalk in mid-afternoon doesn’t suddenly drop to one knee and start cawing like a bird is an overwhelmingly beautiful affirmation of order, ignoring the possibilities for deviation available to everyone with every single step. In the mania of the high, this affirmation of order in a literal chaos-space seems absurd, a comedy of human irrationality passing for clear-headedness. How else should one walk down a sidewalk if not in a straight line? This is a punch line on acid, and not simply a tedious rhetorical question.

The only invitation less appealing than an offer to see The Phantom Menace (in 3-D) is an invitation to see it on acid. Watching The Phantom Menace on acid is a paradoxically sobering experience. The movie is so flat, its camera so immobile, the logic of its plot so bizarre, its dialogue anchored with so much proper-noun nonsense (e.g. T-14 hyperdrives, midi-chlorian counts, underwater ships called “bongos,” votes of no confidence in “Chancellor Valorum”) it normalizes the absurd and presents it with the directness of historical fiction.  Do the other Messiah stories make any more sense for their lack of Jar-Jar Binks? How else should one walk down a sidewalk if not in erratic, squawking zig-zags?  By the time the fatherless protege accidentally pilots a space fighter into the hangar bay of the Trade Federation’s control ship, I was sure the acid I’d taken on the walk to the theater that morning wasn’t having any effect. It wasn’t until the house lights came on and it took me eight minutes to put my sweater back on that I realized the acid was fine and strong and working.

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I saw the original Star Wars for the first time when I was four years old and have no special recollection of the experience. Five years later a school friend called Daniel showed me a small pamphlet filled with pictures of various toys and action figures from the movie, and I became obsessed with it. Seeing the toys triggered subconscious memories I’d kept from that first viewing. In the mania of childish avarice, those forgotten moments resurfaced: the whiny kid dressed in a karate shirt and what looked like an elaborate version of an adult diaper, the crazy old wizard who’d known the kid’s father, the goggle-eyed sand people who barked like walruses, the pasty British men taking orders from a sarcophagus, the bun-headed princess who could fire a gun and seemed impervious to romantic swooning, and the robotic butler who seemed to intuit some personality from the bleets and bloops coming from a garbage can with an onboard hologram projector.  These bric-a-brac inventions orbited a story that reaffirmed the primary school mantra: believe in yourself, you can do it.

No one I encountered as a child would have refuted this psychosocial equivalent of a breath mint, yet every time I closed my eyes and tried to use the force of my self-belief to make my dog levitate or hypnotize my parents into doing what I wanted, I discovered that, as true as Star Wars seemed, it was a diorama of lies. Like any successful religion, Star Wars was meant to be used, molded, and interpreted; it wasn’t meant to exist as its own literal truth.

George Lucas has often been criticized as an exploitation artist, someone who conjured wonder in credulous children only to defile that spirit in the adults they’d become. He transformed the purity of the original Star Wars — half dark Oedipal drama, half cosmic punk fantasy — into an automatic teller machine with plastic dolls, television specials, and breakfast cereals. Revisiting the series after a 16-year intermission, he completed the desecration by making it seem the ATM was in the director’s chair, putting a pidgin-tongued life-debtor with amphibious tendencies in place of the star punk rebel who sometimes looked at his sister funny.

Young George Lucas understood the power of myth and its capacity to serve as a chew toy for the undirected imagination. He also had a disdain for emotion and the tricks of exploiting it in cinema. That the original Star Wars was entertaining and emotionally resonant seems to have been a consequence of key production-team members resisting Lucas’s impulse to turn the sacred-hero myth into a hyper-conscious kitten-in-danger montage — the grad-school equivalent of beating up one’s absent father with a baseball bat.

Absent Gary Kurtz and Marcia Lucas, Lucas created The Phantom Menace, a many tentacled beast of a movie, so all-encompassing as to be indigestible, a movie that sits in one’s psyche like a tricycle in a snake’s belly. Lucas seems to have been aware of this awkwardness. After a disastrous screening of The Phantom Menace‘s first rough cut, he admitted to his editor Ben Burtt and producer Rock McCallum that he knew there was some basic incompatibility in all the different story elements. This was by design, he argued. The movie was supposed to be incoherent, both cynical and heartfelt, childish and overly intellectualized. What was needed was a way to arrange those discordant elements in a way that made them minimally offensive.

The trick in art is not telling the truth but convincing the audience you believe something that is self-evidently untrue. The central flaw of the Star Wars prequels is that they are impossible to believe in. Watching them is like listening to someone you know is lying tell a story that never runs out of new details, each one more clumsily dishonest than the last. The Phantom Menace is so freely composed of whims and half-thoughts that it engenders a creative spark in the audience, which begins to imagine alternative lies they would have been far more willing to accept as true. It’s a process movie, not about its own creation but the process through which we reject it again and again. That’s why it’s better remembered by the cultural attempts at fixing it — the fan re-edits to remove Jar Jar Binks, or the Red Letter video critiques performed as a semi-literate serial killer with a sexual interest in cats — than for what it is.

The originals seem miraculously focused in spite of the wildly random elements they sometimes allude to. The presence of robotic bounty hunters, gambling tycoons, blue-skinned go-go dancers, and two-legged dinosaur ponies can all be made sensible by a Messianic parable. Believe in yourself and you don’t have to wonder about where the dinosaur ponies come from. They come from the Force, and their blood can be used as a blanket in times of crisis. Where the prequels provoke disbelief in every single detail, the originals lubricate their discordances so efficiently that they slip past one’s forebrain without a second thought.

In The Phantom Menace, there was a chamber drama about a trade dispute, an origin story about the prophesied chosen one, an escape romp, and a children’s farce with bantha poodoo. There was also an attempt at romantic predestination in which a small child swooned for a teenager he mistook for a “space angel.” All this happens against the backdrop of repeated shots and dialogue fragments meant to evoke the first three films, a cinematic version of rhyming stanzas, Lucas argued. In trying to explain precisely how incoherent and bizarre the movie is, one falls into a complicated web of ideas wherein the criteria for evaluating good and bad disintegrates. The Phantom Menace is the end of cinema not in the historical sense but in the topographical sense. It takes the linear story-driven movie to the limits of credulity, a simultaneous homage to and desecration of its origins.

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It’s commonly thought the weakest parts of The Phantom Menace are its most childish, but you might think these should be the most hallucinogenic. There is a clear relationship between the aesthetics of hallucinogens and children’s entertainment, from Alice in Wonderland to James and the Giant Peach. When adults create works that enshrine irrationality, it is most easily explained as baby talk meant for the wee ones; it is never for their own sake that the space-alien fart joke or the arch and awful romantic line is delivered. In the same way that the original Star Wars movies can be taken as reflections of Lucas’s youthful angst and idealism, the prequels are a strange expression of what one thinks of childhood the farther away from it one gets.

Adulthood in The Phantom Menace is all parlor-room negotiation, haunted by a holographic demon waiting to claim the pulpit of democracy for the antichrist. Childhood exists in a separate realm, where slave children have their own massive hot rods and leave their mothers to travel to faraway planets without once convulsing in homesick tears. It’s a world where the distraction of new toys remains, where there is no half-life to the delight of pastel-rococo space things. This idea that things alone should suffice to entrance children, to hold their gaze and preoccupy every wandering thought they might otherwise have, is so strangely inhuman that the addition of hallucinogenic overtones would almost be redundant. Absent those sensorial breaks, Lucas’s conception of childhood is a static mannequin land presented with canonical gravity.

This is a good explanation of The Phantom Menace‘s failure as entertainment, but it fails to account for how transfixing the movie is as a thing in the world. For the original trilogy Lucas drew on religious myths to anonymize his private melodramas, and with the prequels his private melodramas appear to have been left unresolved and forgotten under the rubble of time. What remains is the religious architecture and the sudden freedom to invent connections between the old stories and the new. You can almost see the question forming in the old man’s head: Why shouldn’t it be me who writes that bible? And the audience then must ask themselves, Why shouldn’t it be me who believes in it? Sometimes I do.
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