The Last Jedi and the Anxiety of Influence

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Let me start by erasing my own anxieties about “reviewing” The Last Jedi (2017, dir. Rian Johnson). I saw it over a month ago in a packed theater with my wife and two young children. We loved it. I haven’t seen it since then, although I’d like to. Because I’ve only seen it once, this “review” will be far lighter on specific illustrating examples than it should be. Now, with some of those (writing) anxieties dispersed, if not exactly erased:

The Last Jedi strikes me as one of the best Star Wars films to date, of a piece with The Empire Strikes Back (1980, dir. Irvin Kershner) and Revenge of the Sith (2005, dir. George Lucas).

Not everyone agrees with me. Clearly, a lot of people hated Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars. I won’t repeat the laundry list of gripes about The Last Jedi, but instead offer this: the numerous noisy denunciations of The Last Jedi can be rebutted via the terms, tropes, and tones of any of the previous films themselves. Put another way, anything “wrong” (tone choices, plot devices, casting, etc.) with The Last Jedi can be found to be “wrong” with any of the previous films. Furthermore, I don’t intend to directly rebut gripes about The Last Jedi here. Most attacks on the film simply amount to iterations of, “This film did not do what I wanted this film to do,” to which my reply would be, “Well, good.”

“Well, good” — the passionate reactions to The Last Jedi show the film’s power—both narratively and more importantly, aesthetically—to disturb a cultural sense of what the Star Wars franchise “is” or “is not.” In burning down much of the mythos (again, both narratively and aesthetically) of the films that preceded it, The Last Jedi opens up new space for the series to grow.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi’s most immediate predecessor,  The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams), but was critical of its inability to generate anything truly new. Riffing on The Force Awakens, I wrote that the film “is a fun entertainment that achieves its goals, one of which is not to transcend the confines of its brand-mythos. . . [the film] takes Star Wars itself (as brand-mythos) as its central subject. The film is ‘about’ Star Wars.” And, more to the point:

Isn’t there a part of us…that wants something more than the feeling of (the feeling of) a Star Wars film? That wants something transcendent—something beyond that which we have felt and can name? Something that we don’t know that we want because we haven’t felt it before?

The Last Jedi transcends the narrative stasis of The Force Awakens. “Stasis” is probably not a fair word to describe TFA. Abrams’s film excited viewers, roused emotions, offered engaging new characters, and even killed off a classic character via the classic Star Wars trope of Oedipal anxiety erupting in violent rage. TFA’s stasis is the static-but-not-stagnant excitement of having expectations confirmed. In contrast, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi punctures viewer expectations at almost every opportunity, aesthetically restaging tropes familiar to the series but then spinning them out in new, unforeseen directions.

The Last Jedi echoes visual tropes from The Empire Strikes Back in particular. Indeed, many fans believed that Rian Johnson’s TLJ would (or even should) reinterpret Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan’s entry into the series, much as J.J. Abrams had restaged A New Hope (1977, dir. George Lucas) with The Force Awakens. Instead, Johnson pushes the Star Wars narrative into new territory, with an often playful (and sometimes absurd) glee that has clearly upset many fans.

Johnson’s (successful) attempt to reinvent Star Wars might best be understood in terms of what the literary critic Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Bloom uses the anxiety of influence to describe an artist’s intense unease with all strong precursors. To succeed, new artists must overcome their aesthetic progenitors. Bloom compares the anxiety of influence to the Oedipal complex. An artist has to symbolically kill what has come before in order to thrive.

An apt description of franchise filmmaking’s inherent anxiety of influence can be found in Dan Hassler-Forest’s essay “The Last Jedi: Saving Star Wars from Itself,”  published last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

An overwhelming anxiety of influence predictably permeates any new director’s attempt to elaborate on the world’s most famous entertainment franchise. In J. J. Abrams’s hands, this anxiety was clearly that of a fan-producer struggling to meet other fans’ expectations while also establishing a viable template for future installments. In doing so, his cinematic points of reference never seemed to extend far beyond the Spielberg-Lucas brand of Hollywood blockbusters that shaped his generation of geek directors, and he tried desperately to make up for what he lacks in auteurist vision with energy, self-deprecating humor, and generous doses of fan service.

But Rian Johnson is a filmmaker of an entirely different caliber. Just as Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan once added complexity, wit, and elegance to Lucas’s childish world of spaceships and laser swords, Johnson makes his whole film revolve around characters’ fear of repeating the past, and both the attraction and the risk of breaking away from tradition.

A break with any tradition, however, paradoxically confirms the power of that tradition. Johnson understands and clearly respects the Star Wars tradition. Despite what his detractors may believe, Johnson hasn’t erased or trampled upon the Star Wars mythos in The Last Jedi; rather, as the Modernist manifesto commanded, he’s made it new.There are some significant spoilers ahead, gentle reader.

The aesthetic and narrative newness of of The Last Jedi evinces in a number of ways, many of them experienced by fans as disorienting, disruptive, and even disturbing. (A favorite disturbing moment of mine is the scene where Luke Skywalker milks a giant placid marine mammal, then gulps down its green milk with a strange, defiant gusto. I haven’t looked for an explanation for the scene because I don’t want one, I don’t need one. I love its strangeness).

Strange and memorable images anchor The Last Jedi—a thrilling throne room duel between Kylo Ren, Rey, and the Praetorian Guard; Leia Organa’s miraculous space flight; Yoda summoning lightning to destroy the Jedi archive; Chewbacca’s plan for porg snacks; Laura Dern’s hair and lipstick.

In addition to the strange aesthetics, Johnson’s film employs strange narrative gambits. My favorite of these is the “Force conversation” between Rey and Kylo Ren, which I take to be the heart of the film. (Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren makes the most persuasive case for the Dark Side the series has ever offered). The Force conversation echoes the final moments of The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke reaches out to Leia, but Johnson amplifies and enlarges the conceit, producing something new.

Another major narrative device is The Last Jedi’s refusal to definitively answer the question of Rey’s parentage. Of course, Kylo Ren offers one answer: that she’s from nowhere, from nothing. Kylo Ren could be lying of course, but I like his answer because it rejects an aristocratic notion of how one might “use” the Force. Indeed, Kylo Ren’s answer is very much in keeping with one of Luke’s Jedi lessons for Rey: “The Jedi don’t own the light.” The answer also reverberates in the film’s final powerful shot of an enslaved child casually using the Force to pull a broom closer to himself. There’s a dissonant confirmation of Star Wars’ tradition of democracy and rebellion here—the Force’s light is for everyone—coupled with a disruption of the series’s traditional handling of secret parentage and Oedipal anxiety.

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The Star Wars series itself is thematically and formally organized around Oedipal anxiety. Each new hero must battle a progenitor—Anakin and Obi-Wan, Luke and Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and Han Solo. The Skywalker familial saga is bound up in symbolic and literal acts of cutting off—sundering both limbs and lineage—as characters attempt to overcome and erase (or at least navigate) the ethical anxieties that underwrite the series’s larger plot of submission and rebellion. The Force Awakens highlighted Oedipal anxiety by shrouding Rey’s parentage in extreme mystery. What progenitors exist for her to test her mettle against? The Last Jedi suggests that she has to answer to herself, not to an unknown antecedent.

Or perhaps Luke Skywalker is the unknown antecedent that Rey must Oedipally encounter—a known unknown who seeks out of the game, seeks to make himself unknowable, disconnected from the Force: cut off. He refuses to mentor Rey; he refuses to take on a symbolic descendant. And yet he fails to reject her, even as he warns her (and, more significantly, the audience): “This is not going to go the way you think.”

Luke’s Oedipal conflict with Kylo Ren/Ben Skywalker is more direct. Johnson stages the memory of this primal conflict from both perspectives—we see what Ben saw, we see what Luke saw. The film doesn’t settle on one particular truth except for the truth of radical doubt, of ambiguity. Anxiety of influence overcomes both Luke and Kylo Ren. Anxiety of influence leads Luke first to disappear into a hermit’s life, and later, to raze the Jedi texts—ultimately a futile gesture, as Yoda shows him. Anxiety of influence eventually leads to self-erasure—Luke’s last attempt at a cutting off. In kind, anxiety of influence leads Kylo Ren to the Dark Side. In The Force Awakens we see him emulating his grandfather Darth Vader, kneeling before a melted mask and donning his own helmet in tribute. The Last Jedi, bristling with its own anxiety of influence, pointedly casts the mask aside. The film wants to look through fresh eyes.

The most direct moment of Oedipal violence in The Last Jedi occurs when Kylo Ren kills his master Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke’s death is thrilling but also arrives without any revelation about the arch villain’s past and identity. Instead, we are shown something about Kylo Ren’s identity and future. Again, The Last Jedi focuses its anxieties of influence on disrupting the narrative traditions we expect from Star Wars. It points to the future.

The climax of The Last Jedi stages a more subtle (albeit visually spectacular) Oedipal contest, again between Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. Luke has previously scolded Rey for her faith and hope in him. “You think I’m going to walk out with a laser sword and face down the entire First Order?” he demands. But at the end of the film, Luke appears to do just that, taking volley after volley of First Order ordnance in an impossible display of omnipotence. Furious, Kylo Ren descends to kill his former master personally, only to find—along with the audience—that Luke isn’t on the planet at all, but light years away back on his hermit planet. What we’ve seen is his astral projection, his image: the idea of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master.

Johnson subverts the climactic light saber duel we’ve come to expect from each entry in the Star Wars franchise, offering instead illusion, signification without literal substance, and yet signification utterly, profoundly real in its meaning. Luke sacrifices himself for the Resistance: the Force projection takes all his remaining strength, and he disappears into the ether, his robes dropping to the ground. Despite the clear visual echo to Obi-Wan’s death in A New Hope, Johnson gives us something new, both in content and form. We have not seen a Force power like this in a Star Wars film before, and neither have we seen a climax like this in the series.

For some Star Wars fans, the apparent strangeness of The Last Jedi is simply too much—too weird, too far out. Rian Johnson takes the franchise into a space they don’t want it to go to, makes strange moves they’d love to see erased. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom suggests that it is precisely the strangeness of a text that confers that text artistic power. Strong art is strange art—art that can originate within (and even against) a canonical tradition. For some, The Last Jedi’s strangeness reads as an affront to a beloved canonical traditional. However, as Bloom points out, over time a strong text’s strangeness can assimilate its audience to such an extent that the audience no longer recognizes the work’s original strangeness. Strangeness reshapes the canon. And because strangeness reshapes the canon, strangeness is always under suspicion. I take the suspicious denigration of The Last Jedi as a sign of the film’s radical strength. Highly recommended.

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4 thoughts on “The Last Jedi and the Anxiety of Influence”

  1. Yes, Mr. Biblio, you have a way with thought and a talent for putting them into words that is fine, indeed.
    “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”
    ― Pablo Picasso

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an excellent take. (I thought the Finn/Rose subplot could have been substantially improved, but the Rey/Kylo stuff was all great.)

    Like

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