Wars and Stories

Last weekend I went to a matinee. The lights dimmed, previews began, and two last people entered the theater, yelling. They sat near the front, still shouting, over and over: “JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE! JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE!” They weren’t shouting at each other or at anyone else, but at the theater, at the world, who knows. They mentally waged war with something invisible.

At the time, though, my whole body tense, I only thought, “Are they armed? What guns could they have? Is this it? Do we hit the deck and hope to live? Door, where’s the door?” I ignored the screen, leaning forward in my chair and straining to focus on what was going on in front through the strobe of the film — bright and dark, bright and dark — and the din of gunfire, explosions, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack. At last the police arrived and escorted the shouters from the theater, forcibly, over the running movie. I’ve never felt so relieved to see the cops.

lights at the whitneyFinally I watched the show. I tried to relax. This was supposed to be fun, after all —  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the epitome of a feel-good adventure film. So I watched. I watched. I kept watching, but I did not relax. Every scene with blasters seemed a thinly veiled mass shooting (San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, Charleston), every scene with weaponized spacecraft an aerial bombardment (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan). After a brush with the possibility of real-world violence, I couldn’t see the movie as anything but glossed-up news footage.

An irrational response? Or had reality burned away the veil of compliant hypnosis I would have worn otherwise? The one that says, Yes, a galaxy far away! Sweep me into this fictive dream, away from the mundane world! Instead of that sweetly stoned feeling of escapism, I felt hollow. I felt ill. I wondered what the victims of actual trauma experience during this kind of entertainment.

But it’s all just cartoon violence, right? Good, clean fun for kids? Maybe, except more adults than children filled that theater. And the movie boasts the biggest grossing opening night of all time so far. This material makes a major impact on our culture, and as I sat there in shock in the theater, I became acutely aware of the film’s simplistic ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, “light” and “dark” — value-laden, racist terms that have no correlation to the real world. Is sleep worse than waking? Is night worse than day? Does skin tone affect the worth of a soul? But the imagery of Star Wars tells us to draw a sharp line between two sides, to love the “light” and fear the “dark.”

Blake_The_BlasphemerEven while watching the film I felt the blasphemous nature of my thoughts. How dare I question the world of Han Solo! Of Luke Skywalker, the hero’s journey, spiritual guidance for our times! Surely I violated some unwritten rule, betrayed a sacred trust. But that’s an interesting word, blasphemy. To blaspheme, you first need dogma from which to deviate. You have to believe something is true and right, regardless of evidence and rational analysis. Jediism is, in fact, a religion in the UK. This made-up, for-profit story is as susceptible to ideology and fundamentalism as any religion.

Speaking of religion, for the ancient Greeks, the god Ares ruled the physical act of fighting. When called upon to do battle, Ares, like Star Wars, excels at hand-to-hand combat. Ares-at-war and this film share the ethos, “Kill or be killed.” Both demand winners and losers. Both fetishize weapons — blasters (guns) and sabers of “light” (swords) which, because they’re made of light, must be “good” killing tools. Both, if they don’t like someone or something, shoot ’em, slash ’em, or blow ’em up. Even the name of Star Wars’s spirituality — “the Force” — militarizes metaphysics. “May Ares be with you,” the characters could say. Star Wars: Ares Awakens.

The Greeks related to Ares differently than Star Wars does, though. They didn’t only call on him in times of war. They also asked him for protection from their own inclination to fight. The Homeric Hymn to Ares closes like this:

“…diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle.
You, happy god,
give me courage,
let me linger
in the safe laws of peace,
and thus escape
from battles with enemies
and the fate of a violent death.”

aresIn other words, Ares can prevent people from flipping out and wreaking havoc. He provides the courage to choose to get along. The strength of the warrior can work on behalf of the complex, nuanced, creative work of peace-making.

Everyone in the theater just wanted to see the movie, but an inner battle prevented those two disturbers-of-the-peace from realizing they could. No one blocked their view. If they could have set down their mental blasters and light sabers, they could have had their wish. It makes me wonder what other deep desires wait right in front of us, freely available, when the deceptive rush of our spirits diminishes.