Sometimes we watch movies under circumstances that make it impossible for us to like them. I still remember being in a Blockbuster video with a friend (not long after seeing The Phantom Menace) when he learned that I hadn’t watched the original movies. We immediately had a Never Seen Star Wars conversation. “Whaaaaaaat? Dude! How have you never seen Star Wars?” No idea what I was expected to say: does it take effort to not watch a film? Did he want to know my special never-seen-Star-Wars diet and workout regimen? Regardless, he snatched my handful of tapes and reshelved them. My heart sank: I knew we’d be watching Star Wars that night.
I’ll admit that this ruined the film for me. Even today, my principle association with Star Wars (both film and franchise) remains “the kind of thing people bully you into enjoying.”
I admire parts of it now; good puppetry and special effects, and Alec Guinness is a talented actor. His scenes on the desert planet (which were filmed in Tunisia, I think) have the stately gravitas of Lawrence of Arabia or The Man Who Would Be King. Long shots of desolate horizons, with grime and rust and sand corroding through the frame. There’s a sad, understated quality to his performance – the sun’s going down, his sun’s going down, and everyone lives in the shadow of a once-glorious empire that is rotting like late summer fruit. It’s very British film in places.
In other words, I enjoy the margins of Star Wars, where it isn’t Star Wars. At the movie’s heart is a ball pit of kiddie stuff – lightsabers, blasters, the Force, the Millennium Falcon – that doesn’t move me at all. The more quintessentially Star Wars the film becomes, the worse it gets.
It’s obvious that Star Wars’ tacky, toyetic style dispersed through culture like poison spores and made the world worse. Less obvious is the fact that this doesn’t work in the original film. Dark Vader and the stormtroopers resemble shiny plastic action figures: any sense of danger is undercut by how stupid they look. One of the most over-the-target gags in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs that the villains of Star Wars are impossible to take seriously.
Once Luke leaves the desert, the film’s overriding look becomes “plastic and PVC”. Next to the awesome heft of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars looks weightless. The X-Wings resemble model kits glued with Araldyte, and they’re flown by pilots wearing dorky oversized NASCAR helmets equipped with welding goggles. Is there a point when you’re flying at sixteen times the speed of sound? One collision with anything and you’re toothpaste.
The actors either suck or are deep-sixed by the writing. Mark Hamill has the charisma of a crash test dummy, Carrie Fisher is a sociopath who wisecracks about Chewbacca being hairy the same day her planet blows up, and honestly, why are we allowing ourselves to be psyopped that Harrison Ford is a charming rogue? He’s a miserable grouch whose main character trait is that he doesn’t want to be in the movie.
There is a gay robot. I’m not offended by the gay robot. He is a time-honored British archetype, after all. He’s just a very odd character given the “Epic Campbellian space opera that should be taught in schools and forcibly inflicted upon children in a collective hazing ritual” role Star Wars has in our culture.
The Star Wars setting is interesting, if incongruent. It’s a universe where moon-sized battlestations exist and lasers shred entire worlds to plasma…but spaceships can still be fixed by smearing engine oil on your arms and rummaging with fuel lines. Lucas’s setting is futuristic, but he clearly only cares about the past (particularly, the past he saw movies of his youth). He provides pastiches of WW2-style dogfighting, wild west gunfighter duels, Turkish prisons, medieval swordfights, and more. Speaking of, lightsabers seem like they’d be dogshit weapons. Who needs a sword that annihilates everything it touches? A careless backswing would split your head in half. The careful, slow-paced lightsaber duel at the end is actually realistic: that’s the only way you could ever fight with those things.
Lazy reviewers who don’t think usually default to describing films as “a love letter to [the film’s most prominent influence].” Lucas wrote a love letter complete with spelling errors, backward letter Rs, and semen stains. He sometimes comes up with inspired ideas, and sometimes he squeezes the ball through the hoop in spite of himself, but nowhere do we see evidence that he’s competent. Star Wars is just an occasionally compelling mess, roughed into shape by skilled and patient editors.
Was the opening text scroll his idea? It’s a good example of my least favorite thing: audience handholding. Yeah, why reveal the backstory through context or dialog, when you can just put some text-based exposition on the screen. Why even make the movie at all? Just throw the entire screenplay up there in yellow News Gothic Bold text. Really good filmmaking there.
I am not reacting to Star Wars so much as it’s fans and its place in society.
Star Wars belongs with bacon, duct tape, I Fucking Love Science, We Don’t Deserve Dogs, and “DAE wrong generation?” Beatles worship. In general, I am creeped out by effusive public cheerleading for things that are universally loved. No, it’s not wrong to enjoy a thing that eight hundred million other people enjoy. But it’s at least suspect to turn it into a marker of your identity. What hole are you trying to fill?
I can at least respect people who join cults because they’re doing something brave, and going against the tide. What bravery is there in being a fan of a thing like Star Wars? You are the tide. I don’t hate you if you swear a Han Shot First T-shirt but I also think that if you lived in the world of the movies you’d swear allegiance to the Empire.
And God damn it, a flickering holographic ghost is emphatically not more powerful than I can possibly imagine.
A 1942 propaganda film where Donald Duck supports G*m*r*g*te and votes for Tr*mp.
Backstory: between 1942 and 1944 the Disney Studio produced 400,000 feet of film for the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Treasury. This allowed the studio to remain financially solvent under difficult wartime conditions. Most of these films don’t stand out at all. One of them (1943’s Education for Death, directed by Clyde Geronimi) is unusually dark. But ultimately, it’s Der Fuehrer’s Face that gained a second life on the internet, mostly thanks to the dreamlike “how does this exist?” state it inspires. The first time I saw Donald do the Nazi salute, I felt a blood vessel explode in my brain.
Although it was never banned, Der Fuehrer’s Face took a long time to come out on home video. It’s the closest Disney has to a “Censored Eleven” short, and once the war ended (and the focus shifted toward “fetishistically scrub all traces of Nazi imagery from pop culture”) it increasingly seemed a bizarre artifact. But that’s the quality that makes it memorable. If you made a list of nazi kitsch – Ilsa the She-Wolf, Wolfenstein 3D, and so on – it’s safe to say that Der Fuehrer’s Face would be the only Disney short to make the list.
Here’s what I learned from Der Fuehrer’s Face:
- Adolf Hitler canonically exists in the Kingdom Hearts universe
- Donald occasionally wears pants
- Scorcese’s Casino once held the record for most uses of the word “fuck” in a feature film (422, supposedly). Der Fuehrer’s Face probably holds the record for “heil Hitler” (37, by my count).
- This does the “where the fuck is your chin?” joke fifty years before Garth Ennis’s Preacher. Hermann Göring is bragging about how they’re “Aryan pure supermen” (or something) and we get a shot-by-shot of the Axis high command so we can see how fat, skinny, bald, effeminate, and Asian they are.
- The 1940s exists across an unbridgeable cultural gap. A lyric goes “If one little shell should blow him right to…” with the “…hell” censored by Donald banging his head on a shell. BONK!
- The trippy sequence involving flying/marching bombshells was adapted from Dumbo, making it possibly the oldest example of Disney recycling animation.
- “Character dying of starvation” is my favorite cartoon gag. Dipping a single coffee bean in a mug of water, eating bacon and egg scented air for breakfast…that kind of thing is never not funny. The wooden “bread” is a reference to the wartime practice of stretching out flour rations with sawdust.
- The direction of the swastikas (on drumskins, armbands, and posters) keeps changing. Can you spot all the times this happens? Turn it into a game, in case you’re bored and videogames are suddenly uninvented.
- Donald does a good job assembling shells overall. He deserved that paid vacation.
- The movie has some caustic anti-American satire without even being aware of it. Donald wakes from his nightmare to see a terrible shadow on his bedroom wall: a looming figure with an arm raised above their head. He begins to Sig Heil…and then sees it’s the Statue of Liberty. Likewise, the message of the film seems to be that Americans had better really put their shoulder into the war effort, because if Hitler wins we’ll slave all day building shells for him. You hear that? Now work harder.
- Disney, by all accounts, wanted to make escapist fairytales. But fairytales have a way of feeding back into mainstream culture. “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” became a national rallying cry during the Depression. “There are no strings on me” appeared on the signs of striking animators outside Disney’s Burbank office in 1941. The “comix” movement of the 70s was reacting against the Disney Corporation’s conservatism, but that same conservatism was a fuel they relied on.
- A standard propaganda trope (seen here) is that The Enemy is both all-powerful but foolish and easily defeated. Germany (fictionalized as “Nutziland”) is portrayed as both ludicrous and scary: Big Brother with an extra chromosome.
- There’s a campy gay panic moment where Göring makes effeminate gestures while talking about men. It’s vague and deniable but definitely there.
- At least two of the dictators mocked in the short were huge Disney fans. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, in his diary entry of December 22, 1937, writes of his Christmas gift to Hitler:“…18 Mickey Mouse films. He is very excited about this. He is completely happy about this treasure.” Hirohito, too, was in the House of Mouse – he visited Disneyland in the 70s and was even buried with a Mickey Mouse watch.
- The song’s a fucking banger
As a kid, I watched Beavis and Butthead with the understanding that they’d prove a fleeting pleasure. “Soon I’ll be too old for this crap and it won’t be funny anymore.”
I am now very, very old, and still waiting for that day to arrive.
Maybe Mike Judge is a genius, or maybe B&B is so simple that it’s impossible to screw up, but the formula continues to work after thirty years. Beavis and Butthead are still two idiots who stumble through life mouth-breathing and misunderstanding everything that happens to them, and that’s all they will need to be. If only life was so simple for the rest of us.
The plot involves Beavis andButthead literally failing upward. After trashing a science fair (“Did we win the science fair?” “Even better, Beavis. We kicked its ass.”), a judge orders them to attend space camp for at-risk youth. An astronaut sees them, believes they are naturally gifted astronauts (a recurring plotline of B&B is the adult who mistakes them for secret geniuses), and takes them into orbit to study a black hole approaching Earth. In space, they create havoc, fall into the black hole, and emerge in the year 2022.
There’s the obligatory larger plot about government coverups and an incipient apocalypse, but the bulk of the comedy comes from them interacting with this new, strange world. Beavis thinks Siri is an actual woman and sexually harasses her. Later, the duo wander into a college class, are told that they have “white male privilege”, and start using that as carte blanch to do whatever they want. “Step aside please. We have white privilege.”
A 4channer once proposed a movie idea: a generic 90s bully time-travels to a modern high school full of furries and tenderqueers. B&BDTU is almost that movie. Aside from being funny this solves the main problem with the characters: they’re so indelibly a product of the 90s. What’s B&B’s main form of entertainment? To sit on a couch watching TV. Few kids do that anymore. They were further characterized by their love of heavy metal, which hasn’t been a mainstream force in a long time.
The Simpsons never knew how to upgrade its stock 90s setting into the modern age, but Mike Judge draws attention to the cultural gap. His duo is now more oblivious than ever.
There’s lots of bite in Judge’s comedy but no real cruelty. He isn’t mocking anyone except Beavis & Butthead, and even that’s not true mockery. The show was always a parody of boomer paranoia about Generation X (that they’re morally vacuous retards who just want to stare at bouncing boobs on MTV all day). To think Beavis & Butthead exists to ridicule Generation X is as misguided as thinking blaxsploitation exists to ridicule African Americans. And even if they’re figures of fun, so what? Beavis and Butthead are immune to mockery. That’s their power. Deplore their lack of morality, and they’d simply wheeze-laugh. “Heh heh…you said ‘oral’.”
And that brings me to an insight I had about Beavis and Butthead.
In the 17th century, a philosophical debate raged about the nature of mankind. Are humans endowed with an innate moral sense (Shaftesbury), or are we natural savages who must be disciplined by an external force such as civilization (Hobbes)?
In the 20th century, evolutionary theory offered a new answer: we’re both.
Imagine that humans come in two varieties: nice guy and bully. When a nice guy meets an bully, the bully wins. But if bullies become too common, nice guys gain an advantage (because bullies waste time picking pointless fights with each other while nice guys don’t). Over time, an equilibrium of nice guys to bullies is found (attach numbers to this simplistic model and you even calculate the exact ratio). The point is, you wouldn’t say that humans are naturally nice or naturally bully, you’d say that our species is split between two competing strategies. This is the insight of John Maynard Smith’s hawk/dove theory.
It occurs to me that Beavis and Butthead occupy one half of a hawk/dove strategy. The fact that they’re stupid and selfish isn’t a failing, it helps them. David Van Driessen is moral and empathetic, but this gets him exploited by Beavis & Butthead at every turn. Tom Anderson is conservative and proud to be an American, even after his country literally rapes him in the ass. Likewise, the social justice warriors have an elaborate set of shame-based social theories that Beavis & Butthead promptly weaponize against them without even knowing they’re doing so. It’s like intelligence and all its fruits (morality, empathy, time preference) is actually a harmful virus, and only Beavis & Butthead are immune.
I’m probably overthinking things myself. B&B is a fictional show. Whenever the idiots win, it’s because a writer made it so. But I still think B&B is pointing toward a real thing: intelligence is a virtue, but not a universal virtue. In a universe of rippling chaos, sometimes it’s the stupid who win.
Invest wisely and your portfolio will grow 9.89% YOY. Meanwhile, an 80 IQ truck driver just bought a lottery ticket and made a 133,333x return in five minutes. In the long term, intelligence wins out, but in the short term, the winners are usually stupid. And sometimes, the short term is all that matters.
Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Indies was only somewhat less moronic than Beavis and Butthead going to space to get laid. But it led to the Columbian Exchange, the historical event of the millennium. Who knows, maybe the world really will be saved by a man with a T-shirt pulled up over his head, screeching about TP for his bunghole.