Order, and Narrative Thereof

I’m one of those people who will respect you less if you pick an album to play, and then play it on shuffle. See, there’s a deliberate rhyme and reason for the order of songs on an album.

U2’s War needs “Surrender” to be its penultimate song. After an album about war, violence, and fighting for hope, we have a song about giving up which leads into “40,” an adaption of the Bible’s Psalm 40. It’s crucial that the album ends there, in that space of a different sort of surrender. Furthermore, its refrain “I will sing a new song” works in tandem with the first track, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”’s “How long must we sing this song?” Listening to War in any other order robs you of the experience. Look at how “New Year’s Day,” a song about being apart from a lover, works as a sort of reprieve in between “Seconds” (about nuclear threat) and “Like A Song…” (in some ways, about military proliferation). With “New Year’s Day” where it is it takes on another level of longing; musically it’s far more understated then the fast paced songs around it and the song itself becomes a desire for an escape from the world. Sure, you can listen to the songs alone, but putting the album on shuffle’s just stupid. There’s an intentionality to how it’s set up.

Hang on, an intentional order that echoes and mirrors what came before creating and complicating a general emotion? This sounds like a narrative. And you bet it is. No, it’s not a beginning-middle-end story, but there is still and arc (still on War, each side of the record ends on a quiet song, “Drowning Man” and “40,” giving it something of a two act structure). All this to say, a narrative can be built out of order. If you’ve ever agonized over a mixtape or a playlist, you know that the tracklist matters as much as the individual songs.

So now let’s talk about Star Wars.

The saga is a bit of an oddity, with episodes 4, 5, and 6 coming out before 1, 2, and 3 (only to be followed by 7). This, of course, has led to a variety of different ways to introduce someone to the movies. Do you screen them within the chronology of the films (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)? Or in the order they were released (4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3)? Do you ignore the prequels entirely (4, 5, 6) or try out the Machete Order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6)? No matter what you do, these are still the same movies. But the order you watch them in shifts the narrative.

Say you watch them episodically. You get a very straightforward story about Jedi and trade disputes, forbidden romances and arbitrary falls to the Dark Side, a time skip and a plucky Rebellion against an evil Empire. The narrative shift really starts to show when you compare it to the order the movies were released. Episodically, there are fun beats like seeing an adult Boba Fett and meeting Yoda again in Empire. Luke’s arc is a mirror of Vader’s, and Jedi sees him in the position to make a similar choice due to the foreshadowing provided by Sith. Watched in the order they were released, however, shifts Anakin’s arc to be a mirror of Luke’s, where he fails where his son succeeded. The mirror, episodically, makes Luke’s success more heroic and, release-wise, makes Anakin’s fall more tragic.

Machete Order, where The Phantom Menace is dropped and Clones and Sith are watched in between Empire and Jedi, somewhat gets the cake and eats it too. By putting the prequels after Empire, we get a two-movie long flashback sequence that expounds on the twist that Vader is Luke’s father, explaining not only Anakin’s rise and fall, but also more on Obi Wan, Yoda, and the Emperor. It shifts the overall narrative, giving a great deal more focus on the stakes of Luke’s choice between the Light and the Dark. It also gives Luke’s line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” much more impact, given that it emphasizes Anakin as a Jedi rather than Anakin as evil. Still the same Star Wars movies, just different emphases.

The order something’s presented in can do a lot for it. It gives U2’s War an additional layer of subtext and shades the overall arc of Star Wars. Think about that the next time you hit shuffle on that new album you got.

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