Cyrus R. K. Patell



July 14, 2021


This issue of the newsletter marks two holidays: Bastille Day, which commemorates the start of the French Revolution in 1789, and Chökor Düchen, the Buddhist Festival of the Turning Wheel of Dharma, which occurs on the fourth day of the sixth Tibetan lunar month and is one of the four major Buddhist holidays





It seems appropriate to mark a holiday that commemorates the storming of the Bastille to think about Gareth Edwards's 2016 “anthology” film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in which a group of rebels infiltrate Scarif Base, an Imperial station in which the original plans for the Death Star have been stored—the very plans for which Darth Vader is searching at the very start of the first Star Wars film.


The film thus takes place in the interval between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and offers an explanation for why it was that a massive station like the Death Star—“That's no moon!”—could be destroyed by a single, well-placed shot from a small X-wing fighter. 


To the list of genres on which George Lucas’s Star Wars films drew—science fiction, Saturday matinee serials, Kurosawa samurai films, Hollywood Westerns—Rogue One adds the World War II platoon movie: it’s particularly indebted to The Guns of Navarone (1961), adapted from the bestselling novel by Scottish writer Alistair Maclean.


And—no real spoilers here—those of you have watched end of the second season of The Mandalorian, will see that it the television series is drawing on a formula for new Star Wars onscreen storytelling that was used successfully in Rogue One, in terms of making connections to the Skywalker Saga and its characters, while not being beholden to them. 


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There's a somber connection between Rogue One and Bastille Day. The film was released around the world on December 14, 2016, six month after a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day, in which 86 people were killed, including 10 children, with another 458 injured. The following day, Gwendolyn Christie, who plays Captain Phasma in the sequel trilogy, was moderating a panel at Star Wars Celebration London about the upcoming Rogue One film and began the event by asking for a moment of silence to remember the victims of the attack. 


At the conclusion of the moment of silence, someone in the audience started singing ”La Marseillaise" and the rest of the crowd joined in, with Christie, visibly moved, clapping along. You can watch clips from ET Online here





In 2005, Matthew Bortolin, an ordained member of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist community, The Dharma of Star Wars. Bortolin argues that, although Lucas’s saga is “not a Buddhist epic,” it is “a story of human beings and other creatures grappling with issues of freedom, hate, love, power, and suffering” and thus “an exploration of the human condition”—as is Buddhism. Bortolin presents The Dharma of Star Wars as “an exploration of the deepest universal themes in the Star Wars saga, using Buddhist teachings to investigate them; simultaneously, it is also an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha, using Star Wars as a doorway through which to examine them.” The book is fun to read and is available on the Internet Archive.


Asked by Bill Moyers during a 1999 interview whether he had been “influenced by Buddhism,” given that Star Wars came along just about the time there was this growing interest in America in Eastern religions,” Lucas was typically non-committal, reiterating that what he had learned from the work of Joseph Campbell was to “find the common threads” that link various mythological and religious traditions. 


In its story of fall, sacrifice, and redemption, the original trilogy seemed to many observers to invoke elements of Christian belief, a pattern that only seemed enhanced when Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) presented what looked a version of the Virgin Birth when telling the story of how Anakin Skywalker was born. “There was no father, that I know of,” Shmi Skywalker (Pernilla August) tells Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson): “I carried him, I gave him, birth ... I can't explain what happened.” Qui-Gon comes to believe that the Force itself created Anakin.


It's in The Phantom Menace, however, that Lucas begins to draw fully on Buddhist motifs in order to portray the Jedi order and its aversion to attachment. A conversation early in the film designed to introduce us to Qui-Gon and his Padawan learner Obi-Wan Kenobi invokes a concept that is crucial in Buddhism—mindfulness—as well as the recurring phrase that links the film to its three predecessors:

OBI-WAN : I have a bad feeling about this. 

QUI-GON : I don't sense anything. 

OBI-WAN : It’s not about the mission, Master, it’s something ... elsewhere ... elusive. 

QUI-GON : Don’t center on your anxiety, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now where it belongs. 

OBI-WAN : Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future ... 

QUI-GON : ... but not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force, my young Padawan. 

OBI-WAN : Yes, Master ...


Obi-Wan’s misgivings turn out to be well-founded, and Qui-Gon's belief that the negotiations that they]ve been sent to conduct will be routine is soon scuttled. It’s the first hint we have that Jedi masters aren’t—in contrast to the Buddha—infallible sources of wisdom—and even master Yoda will turn out to have been wrong about a good many things. 


I discuss the idea of fallibilism in Lucasfilm: Filmmaking, Philosophy,and the Star Wars Universe, portraying it as an important way in which the saga models the acquisition of knowledge. Whether the films portray a problem with Buddhist ideas about attachment—or simply with the Jedi’s implementation of similar ideas—I will leave to the interested reader to consider and perhaps debate. 


Cass Sunstein, by the way, has a pretty firm view of the matter. In The World According to Star Wars, a book I very much admire, Buddhism is one of the “thirteen ways of looking at Star Wars” that Sunstein invokes in his fourth chapter. Towards the end of the book, however, Sunstein lays his cards on the table. Star Wars, he tells us, is “not didactic. Is it feminist? (Kind of.) Is it about Christianity? (Yes.) Does it embrace Buddhism? (It tries, at times, but nope, not at all, anything but.) You can interpret it in countless ways; it invites disagreement and obsessions.” Presumably you are free to disagree with his conclusion about Buddhism.




If you're anything like me, you've often wondered who you would be if you were a character from Star Wars. The traveling Star Wars: Identities exhibition gives fans the chance to explore just that. Designed as a journey into "the forces that shape you," visitors embark on a quest to design their unique Star Wars character while learning about the biological and cultural factors that influence a person, from species, genes, parents, culture, mentors, friends, events, occupation, personality, and values. The interactive exhibition features no less than 200 original costumes, models, props, and artworks from the Lucasfilm archives, complete with commentary from psychologists. While visitors gawk at Boba Fett's armor, the Millennium Falcon model, and genuine Jedi robes, they can also learn more about how iconic characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padmé Amidala, and Anakin Skywalker became who they are in the films.

I was thrilled to visit the exhibition in Singapore (my home country) on the last stop of its world tour, especially because my experiences in the Global Text: Star Wars course had sparked an interest in how diverse audiences interact with Star Wars. During my research for the class I came across countless transcultural Star Wars artifacts, from Native American twitter embracing Baby Yoda as an indigenous symbol, to hijabi cosplays of the Jedi Order, and wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) shows starring characters like Darth Vader. While the objects on display in the Star Wars: Identities collection remained the same across different countries, I wondered how local culture would recontextualize the exhibition. For example, in Singapore, where 76% of citizens are ethnically Chinese, the exhibition included Mandarin translations for all the English museum labels, reminding me of how Standard Chinese, like the Star Wars language Aurebesh (Galactic Basic), is used to unify disparate geographic regions. 


The choice to host Star Wars: Identities in the futuristic ArtScience Museum, part of the glitzy Marina Bay Sands integrated resort (essentially, Canto Bight on Earth), also made me think about the cultural capital of displaying U.S. American popular culture memorabilia in Southeast Asia. I ended up choosing an Ewok senator as my character, especially because the tropical forestry of Endor reminded me of the lush greenery of Singapore. 


Next Issue: Eid Al Adha!

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