Monday, June 13, 2016

Stars And Sunstein

To the academic world, Cass Sunstein is one of the most respected and cited legal scholars around.  But his friends know another side.  He's a fanboy.  And he let's that flag fly, as never before, in his entertaining book The World According To Star Wars.

He came up with the idea about a year ago when he showed his five-year-old son A New Hope.  His son loved it, and they watched the other episodes.  It rekindled an interest in Cass as well, and voila, here's the book.  Divided into ten chapters--or episodes, as he has it--it's all about the world of Star Wars. First he discusses the story of how George Lucas created the phenomenon.  Then he investigates various interpretations of the films.  He ends looking at Star Wars in relation to various topics, such as fatherhood, free will, politics, constitutional law and behavioral science.

While he's written for a popular audience before, I don't think Sunstein has ever been so conversational, or, for that matter, so openly emotional.  I guess the films bring that out in him.

A lot of the best stuff is in the early chapters.  Lucas's story may be well-trod territory, but Sunstein has some fascinating insights.  For one thing (and Sunstein isn't the first to claim this, but argues it well), a lot of what Lucas says he believed when he wrote Star Wars, he didn't actually believe.  For instance, Lucas claims he knew Darth Vader was Luke's father, but this simply wasn't considered until a sequel was in the works.  Vader, in fact, was a minor character until well into the writing of the first film, and his development continued until Lucas had an insight into how to tie things together. (And for sure he didn't know Luke and Leia were siblings.) But, as Sunstein explains, this is how creativity works--people want to believe you can plan everything, but it's openness to new ideas along the way that make the difference.

Later, plotting Return Of The Jedi, Lucas and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan argued about whether to kill Han Solo.  Kasdan felt it would give the film weight, but Lucas said "I don't like that and I don't believe that." Sunstein thinks this is an important statement--the creative process isn't like doing math, but is often about what feels right.  Lucas is letting the Force guide him--from a certain point of view. (Not that Lucas minds killing people.  He kills Luke's aunt and uncle early in A New Hope.  He blows up Leia's entire planet.  Obi-wan dies.  In later films, Yoda and Annakin Skywalker also buy it. Of course, after the Jedi figure out how to stick around though dead, it's not quite as big a deal for them.)

The book also explores why the film that so many thought would flop turned into a smash. The easy answer is it's great. But plenty of things that are good to great don't succeed, so is that enough? Sunstein explains how you can get information and reputational cascades that create popularity, and also how you may need to be in the right place and time. (He has some doubts about the timing explanation, though--it's too easy to come up with "just so" stories about why something succeeded in a certain period.  Sunstein suggests someone like Bob Dylan could only have broken out when he did, while Star Wars would have worked any time.  I've always believed that Paul McCartney would have been a hit any time, while John Lennon could only have been a star during the rock 'n' roll era.)

Some of the most enjoyable material is in the middle chapters.  Sunstein looks at Star Wars through a variety of prisms--is it a Christian parable, an oedipal story, a feminist tale, or a Buddhist teaching?  Some of the ideas are pretty far out--what do you think about Luke as a jihadi, or Jar Jar Binks secretly controlling everything?

Sunstein also takes time out to give us his opinion on a number of issues.  You might not be surprised to know he prefers Star Wars over Star Trek (though he likes both), but would you have guessed he prefers Michael Jordan over LeBron James, FDR over Lincoln (really?), Julianne Moore over Meryl Streep, the Stones over the Beatles (for weak reasons, seems to me), Mill over Kant, Taylor Swift over Adele and (why even bother to say it?) Obama over Reagan?

He also rates the seven episodes from top to bottom. (The book was written recently enough to discuss episode XII):

1.  The Empire Strikes Back (A+)
2.  A New Hope (A+)
3.  Return Of The Jedi (A)
4.  Revenge Of The Sith (A-)
5.  The Force Awakens (A-)
6.  Attack Of The Clones (B-)
7.  The Phantom Menace (C+)

I agree that the original trilogy are the top three, though nothing should beat A New Hope.  I have a somewhat lower opinion of The Force Awakens than he does.  While we're at it, Sunstein also discusses various orders in which the films should be watched, stating (as any rational person must) that the best way to see them are in order of release.

The later chapters have material that might befuddle Star Wars fans, since he gets further from the series and more into legal and behavioral theories that have been his bread and butter.  For example, he explains how many rights Americans believe flow from the Constitution were only officially recognized by the Supreme Court in modern times.  In the same way, new developments are added to the Star Wars saga as it develops (Luke, I am your father)--they have to be consistent with tradition, but are there to make Star Wars as good as it can be.

The book occasionally feels like it was written and edited in haste (I caught a few typos and Sunstein using "searing" far too often), but, overall, it's a very entertaining work and a great addition to your bookshelf whether you're a fan of the film or of Sunstein (or, for that matter, of the light side or the dark).


Blogger New England Guy said...

I have just started this so I'll wait to wait to read your post more closely until I have finished. That being said, its very readable. Although I generally like his books and articles, they can be a bit of tough slog sometimes as he goes to great lengths to be precise/appear precise. Maybe Star Wars has loosened him up

5:39 AM, June 13, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I've only read one book by Sunstein (really his essay included in "The Vote," which is a collection of essays on the 2000 Florida recounts), but in articles I have found his writing fairly accessable. I'm curious why in a book about Star Wars he is commenting on the rights contained, recognized, discovered or inserted into the Constitution? Does he talk about the conflict between originalist constitutional theory and the living constitution? Could I guess which is the dark side?

8:35 AM, June 13, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

In chapter XIII--where he perhaps goes furthest afield from his main topic--he explains how times change and ideas change with it, and how there are infinite possibilities out there, some good, some not. This happened in the creation of Star Wars, and it happens with our Constitutional jurisprudence.

He mentions his old colleague Scalia, whom he reveres, though he does not agree with when it comes to originalism. He notes originalism has not been the approach of the Supreme Court, and also wouldn't work (not to mention, taken on its own terms, is self-defeating).

9:06 AM, June 13, 2016  

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