Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Bit of an Acquired Taste

Maybe this will clarify things about prequel "apologists" or maybe it will just get me more derision, but here are a couple of stories that I think bear light on the subject.

Not long out of college, I read a couple of books by Gene Wolfe: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. The first one amazed me -- brilliant, literate, and highly entertaining all at once. But the sequel just plain baffled my brain. I found it a total chore to get through, a maze of mythological allusions and deep dives into what I think was the history of the Peloponnesian Wars. The ending made no sense at all, and I finished the book thoroughly dissatisfied. Not long after, I got into a debate about the book on GEnie (yeah, this was pre-WWW for me) with a guy who said SoA was just as good as SotM, if not better. You just had to be willing to work at it more, he claimed. I pretty much blew him off, arguing that Wolfe had managed to make the first book not just comprehensible, but gripping, and that he should have done the same thing with the second one.

Also not long after college, I re-read The Lord of the Rings. I'd first read it in seventh grade and found it absolutely tedious. Having devoured The Hobbit multiple times and knowing that everybody and his dog loved LotR, I expected the trilogy to be wonderful, and instead it put me to sleep. I spent all of high school and most of college thinking its popularity just represented people jumping on a bandwagon without knowing what fantasy ought to be like. But a friend of mine insisted I must have been too young to appreciate Tolkien's opus, and I respected his opinion enough to give it another try. And ... I still thought it was boring and overblown, full of cardboard characters and melodrama. But in my early thirties, yet another friend I respected let me know in no uncertain terms that I was wrong, so I tried it again. And finally, I saw what everybody else saw -- a phenomenally rich fantasy world layered with brilliant allegory on what it means to be alive and human.

In retrospect, I'm positive the Soldier of Arete fan knew what he was talking about. If I'd put the effort in, I would have found that book extremely rewarding. But here's the thing: I didn't want to put that much effort into it, and I still don't want to. Gene Wolfe is a genius. I've read a bunch of his books, and the man is on a whole other plane. But I don't get most of his stuff. I just don't get it, and I don't want to put in the effort that I know it will take for me to get it.

I'm not saying George Lucas is another J.R.R. Tolkien or Gene Wolfe. But when tons of smart people are able to speak passionately about the intricate elements of a fictional world and the meaning they find in that world's characters, it probably means there's something there. I was wrong to look down my nose at all the Lord of the Rings fans in high school. I was wrong to assume that the guy on GEnie was just full of himself.

And you're wrong to scoff and sneer at prequel supporters. You're simply wrong. It's fine that you dislike the movies. It's fine that they don't click for you. It's fine that you don't want to devote any brainpower to analyzing the films in search of things that might make you like them better.

But it's not fine for you to ridicule people who find something deeper in these movies. They're right. There IS something deeper there. You're wrong to tell them that they're mistaken.

There are millions of people around the world who have no business ever trying to read The Lord of the Rings. That's not because they're dumb or ignorant, but because the reward they'll get out of it is far less than the effort it will take for them to finish it. It's just not a book for everyone.

The prequels aren't for everyone. But they are for some people. Hate them however much you want, but at least try to acknowledge that you dislike them because their flaws make them indigestible to you personally, not because they lack any inherent value or aesthetic accomplishment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

He Has Too Much of His Father in Him

Recently, I've seen people complaining variously that The Force Awakens wasn't true to the Star Wars "feel" because some scenes were too much like Guardians of the Galaxy or too much like Firefly.

Am I the only one who thought Guardians of the Galaxy and Firefly were the way they were because they were trying to be like Star Wars? James Gunn explicitly said as much in interviews about Guardians of the Galaxy, even.

People find the most ironic things to complain about.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

From a Certain Point of View

I recently ran across this article purporting to describe all the ways the prequel trilogy "forgot" about the version of Anakin Skywalker established in the original movies. The author's contention is that the OT films lay out certain concrete story elements related to Luke and Leia's father, and that by ignoring those elements, the prequels gave us a less interesting story.

Now, there's no argument that much better scripts could have been written for Episodes I - III. And I don't think there's much argument that all of us old-school fans would have been less annoyed by the prequels if they'd followed our expectations.
But if you assume that the story of the prequels leads to the story of the OT, most of the inconsistencies raised in the article disappear with just a little examination. For example, the article's author wonders why Owen and Beru talk as though they knew Anakin, even though they basically met him only once in their lives. But the answer to this is simple: Owen and Beru both lived with Shmi Skywalker for some period of time -- months or years in Beru's case, and almost certainly years in Own's case. So Shmi would have told them all about Anakin ... probably more often and in more detail than they wanted to know. It doesn't take any reaching or straining to get to that conclusion. Anakin was Shmi's entire life. He was everything to her. There's absolutely no way she didn't brag about him and wonder aloud how he was doing and where he was in his adventures while the Lars family worked and lived around the moisture farm. 

Another complaint is that Ben speaks as though it was his idea to train Anakin, whereas the prequels reveal that the burden of doing so was thrust upon him by the death of Qui-Gon Jinn. How do we reconcile this? Well, the prequels also reveal that Obi-Wan idolized Qui-Gon and blamed himself for Anakin's fall, explicitly saying, "I have failed you, Anakin." We, the audience, don't put a lot of stock in Kenobi's announcement of his own culpability -- it's obvious to us that the entire Jedi order failed Anakin, starting with Qui-Gon. But Obi-Wan isn't the kind of person to point fingers at friends and colleagues, and he took the role of teacher to Anakin's padawan learner very seriously. Rather than admit that his mentor made a mistake by thrusting this responsibility on Obi-Wan when he wasn't ready, and rather than admit that he spent his life in service to an order that got so many things wrong, Kenobi bends over backwards to assume blame himself. He has a compelling subconscious reason to do so, above and beyond the fact that he's a stand-up kind of guy: if Qui-Gon blew it, and if the Jedi blew it, then Obi-Wan's entire life has been spent in service to futility.

The fact is, the great majority of our OT Anakin knowledge comes from Ben ... and Ben explicitly acknowledges that the things he has told Luke have only been true "From a certain point of view." Once we understand that Obi-Wan failed Anakin -- and KNEW he had failed him -- it becomes clear that Kenobi has spent 20 years struggling with his guilt and trying to find some way to reconcile his Jedi beliefs with the seduction of his friend. The idealized version of Anakin that emerges from this inner conflict is his solution: blame the Dark Side for the corruption of this terrific guy, and keep telling yourself that once the Dark Side seduces someone, it's game over, with nothing else to be done. In this way, he can preserve his faith in the Jedi order and his friends, and he can absolve himself of the responsibility to track Darth Vader down and attempt to bring him back to the light.

The prequels undoubtedly would have been much more adventurous and enjoyable if the Anakin we imagined from Ben's descriptions had been real. But that doesn't mean the prequels forgot about the OT Anakin. It just means what we already knew from Ben's dialogue in Jedi: the Anakin of ANH was a sugar-coated version of reality. We simply didn't know the degree of sugar-coating until we saw the prequels.

Now let's circle around to the other part of the article's thesis: that our OT-inspired expectations of Anakin Skywalker would have yielded a more interesting story than the story in the prequels. Frankly, I think this is bunk. A fair chunk of Star Wars fandom dismisses The Force Awakens as a mere retread of A New Hope. But I've yet to hear anyone say that TFA was as badly written and acted as the prequels are always accused of being. Even detractors generally admit that J.J. Abrams delivered some good popcorn-flick dialogue and managed to draw good-to-excellent performances out of his cast. So why don't we take a moment and imagine what the reaction would have been if Episode VII had featured the same clunky dialogue as the prequels, delivered with the same flat quality of performances. Imagine that all the practical effects had been obvious CGI instead.

Abrams would have been crucified, right?

And if we flip it on its head, how would people have responded to the prequels if they'd been full of snappy dialogue and compelling performances? The love story from Attack of the Clones is usually cited as the abominable nadir of Star Wars filmmaking, but what if it had been delivered with fantastic chemistry between the two leads and every line written to perfection? Jar Jar's annoying omnipresence and intolerable, offensive accent aren't elements of the prequels' storyline. They're bad choices in presentation. Remove them and replace them with genuinely clever dialogue, and there's no way he would be remotely as hated.

In the end, some people try to find fault in every aspect of the prequels that they can. But in truth, the story these movies tell is solid, consistent with the original trilogy, and much more subtle and socially relevant than the story we all expected.

Lucas just told the story in highly problematic, inaccessible ways, and ultimately, that's the crux of it: the prequels were badly directed.

We really don't have to go any farther than that.

Friday, May 13, 2016

You're Free!

If, unlike Pete the Retailer, you like fantasy books, my novel The Last Tragedy is free from May 14 to 18!

Friday, May 6, 2016

It's Not a Story the Jedi Would Have Told You

So ... not too long ago, someone on Star Wars Minute Listeners Society Facebook page wondered if Pete and Alex might be the first people to finally unravel the "labyrinthine" plot of Attack of the Clones, once SWM gets to AOTC in the fall.

Of course, the answer is, "No," because the plot of Episode 2 is actually fully comprehensible if you just do a little literary interpretation.

Here we go:

In the ten years or so since The Phantom Menace, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious has been hard at work setting up the doom of the Galactic Republic. His game-plan is simple -- stir up a war so that the Senate will give emergency powers to the Supreme Chancellor, enabling him to transform the democratic government into a totalitarian one. It needs to be a war that will seem to put the Republic in genuine danger, but it can't be a war that the Republic might lose.

To this end, Sidious recruits Count Dooku, who marshals a faction opposed to the Republic, the Separatists. Simultaneously, he arranges the creation of a clone army for the Republic, so that when the full-scale war breaks out, the Supreme Chancellor's side will be positioned to win -- especially since he effectively controls the leadership of both sides.

Are Sifo-Dyas (who the Kaminoans say commissioned the army) and Tyranus (who Jango Fett says hired him) the same person? Evidently not, if you check the Wookieepedia article. But the details don't really matter. One way or another, Palpatine's maneuvering has resulted in a clone army, with the genetic source for the clones being hand-picked by Tyranus/Dooku.

Of course, the only way to arrange this two-sided charade is for Sidious to have a charismatic and highly capable ally maintaining tight control over the Separatists -- and of course, any charismatic, highly capable wartime leader is going to be ambitious as well. So Sidious knows that eventually Dooku will attempt a coup of his own. This means Sidious needs a replacement apprentice to deal with Tyranus once the latter has served his purpose.

Thus, we begin Episode II after ten years of Dooku consolidating his power among the Separatists, Palpatine in full control of the Senate, and Anakin already well under the wing of his future master. Anakin's discussions with Padme are littered with hints that Palpatine is mentoring him and planting the seeds of discontent in him, like the notion that Anakin is "ahead of" Obi-Wan in many ways.

What happens, then, during the film?

First, Padme's ship gets blown up in an attempt on her life. Is this a real attempt, or just a way to manipulate Padme's actions? The answer is that either Padme's death or her seclusion from Senatorial affairs suits the Chancellor's purposes perfectly well. If she dies, it means one voice fewer in the Senate speaking for peace and reconciliation. If she lives and is forced into hiding, he has the chance to arrange things so that she and Anakin end up in close proximity, which he has undoubtedly Force-foreseen as a situation likely to lead to Anakin being more vulnerable to corruption.

Next, another attempt on Padme's life occurs ... utilizing a weapon (deadly centipedes) that the Jedi are easily capable of defeating. Jango Fett provides the centipedes to an assassin who is much less competent than he is himself. He then tracks or trails the speeder chase that results in order to be in a position to kill the assassin with a distinctive dart that points toward Kamino.

What's up with this? If the drone can cut holes in the window for the centipedes to enter through, why doesn't it just fill the room with poisonous gas or napalm? Because by this time, events have made it clear to Sidious that the Anakin/Padme connection is likely to be fruitful. Additionally, Sidious wants the Jedi to find the clone army on Kamino, because he needs the Republic to be aware of this resource when the moment comes to activate it. So it's no slip-up that Jango uses a Kaminoan dart.

With the second attempt on her life such a near miss, Padme has clearly had her safety compromised, and Palpatine is able to encourage her sequestration in the company of Anakin. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan goes to investigate the dart, also according to the Sith Lord's plan.

On the trip and after arrival on Naboo, Anakin presses his courtship of Padme. She goes from dismissive to resistant to conflicted under his steady stream of manipulation. Is this a natural response? Maybe. But it's equally likely that Anakin is not just psychologically manipulating her, but consciously or subconsciously projecting his romantic desires into her with the Force. We see him explicitly and admittedly abusing his Force powers to entertain Padme, so clearly he isn't tightly restricting his use of the Force to the very limited rules of engagement laid out by the Jedi Code. And the intensity of his obsession with her makes it clear that he is at or beyond the limits of his own personal restraint.

Obi-Wan heads to Kamino, where he discovers the clone army and encounters Jango Fett. Jango takes Obi-Wan's arrival as a cue to immediately depart and head for Geonosis. Has he been instructed to do so by Dooku? Or does he react this way on his own? Given how cool-headed he is throughout the film, the latter is doubtful. Jango is an immaculate professional operating as part of a meticulous plan. If he's been left unaware of the fact that a Jedi is going to show up on Kamino sooner or later, it's either because the conspirators want him to be captured and eliminated, or because they want him to be unsettled and make a quick dash to his superiors. Since Dooku has clearly provided Jango with knowledge of where the Separatist leadership is gathering, it again seems likely that this move must be according to plan.

Anakin's every attempt to wear Padme down comes to naught on Naboo. They reach an impasse at which Padme acknowledges having the emotions Anakin wants her to have, but still refuses to act on them. For the relationship to move forward as Sidious doubtless wants it to, something needs to happen. And then something does -- a particularly bad dream about Anakin's mother compels him to go to Tatooine. Is this coincidence? The will of the Force? Sidious using the Force to somehow implant these dreams in Anakin? That's hard to say. But once the dream occurs, the young Jedi doesn't hesitate to use it as a means of milking Padme's sympathy and taking out of her comfort zone on Naboo into his own home territory.

Obi-Wan makes it to Geonosis and proceeds to spy on the Separatists. It's difficult to tell whether he accomplishes this on his own talents, or if he's allowed to do it ... but it does turn out later to play into the plans of Darth Sidious.

Anakin tracks down his mother and reaches the Lars homestead. As he is about to set out on the hunt for the sandpeople, he has a parting conversation with Padme that is among the most wooden of their interactions -- and it is presented as a shadow-puppet play. Is this a hint that his Force manipulation of her is taking hold? It's interesting to note that when she is defending Obi-Wan earlier in the film ("that's what mentors are supposed to do"), and when she is warding off Anakin's advances on Naboo, her delivery of her dialogue is much more naturalistic than in any of the scenes where she gives in to these romantic impulses.

Finding his mother, only to have her die in his arms, Anakin goes berserk and slaughters the village of Tusken Raiders. Then he breaks down and admits this to Padme. Here, he pulls a deep and genuine sympathy from her. Is it because she's already attracted to him and empathizes with his suffering? Is it because his emotions are so wildly out of control that he's exuding his most powerful Force influence on her yet?

Obi-Wan is captured -- but not before he gets a message out to Anakin. Coincidence? Good luck on the part of the heroes? Maybe. But he doesn't actually acquire that much useful information -- certainly not the critical information that the Geonosans are planning to build a Death Star.

Anakin and Padme receive Obi-Wan's message. Suddenly, for the first time, instead of finding a way to wiggle around the specifics of his orders, Anakin acts as though there's nothing he can do to help Obi-Wan. It takes Padme's initiative to get him to attempt a rescue. Inconsistent behavior on Anakin's part? Or a subconscious understanding that with Obi-Wan out of the way, he has a much better chance of making things work with Padme and becoming a full-fledged Jedi instead of just a padawan -- or possibly of simply running away with the object of his heart's desire?

Dooku goes in to see his Jedi prisoner and makes a fairly heavy-handed attempt to lure Obi-Wan into his influence. Does he really expect this to work? It's probably in the "worth a shot" category for him, even though he knows Kenobi is likely to refuse. The two have known each other a long time, and their connection through Qui-Gon makes it plausible that Dooku might be able to entice Obi-Wan away from the Jedi. Certainly, if Kenobi could be convinced, he would make a fine apprentice for Tyranus, and one who might well be capable of helping dispatch Palpatine once Dooku is ready to make his move. And if not, he'll simply dispose of Kenobi in the arena.

The remainder of the film is really just the pieces falling into place. "Representative Binks" playing the part of the Supreme Chancellor's patsy and moving for the Senate to convey extraordinary powers on Palpatine. Anakin and Padme captured. Padme allowing their hopeless situation to break her resolve against telling Anakin her feelings. Arrival of the Jedi. Massed combat in the arena. The death of Jango Fett. All appearing to be lost. Miraculous cavalry-charge of the clone army.

Two important thematic moments appear amidst the high-action of the last act. We see young Boba Fett discover his father's head, and we see Anakin directing the clone troopers on how to target the weak points of the Federation starship. In Boba Fett's case, this is the moment in which he is orphaned, and goes from the obedient son of a meticulous bounty hunter to a boy on his own with lots of shiny equipment, a lot of anger, and no one to guide him. Is it any wonder that the adult Boba Fett is so scuffed and unkempt compared to his polished father? Any wonder he ends up in company so much more sordid than Jango Fett's employers? In Anakin's case, this is a key moment in his transition from maker to destroyer. Previously, he's used his mechanical talents to build things, to create. Now he's using them to tear apart and bring down.

The close proximity of these two coming-of-age moments underscores one of the main messages of the prequels: the importance of family and of healthy relationships in the development of individuals, especially those on the border between good and bad.

The Jedi confront Dooku. He defeats Anakin and Obi-wan, but has to flee from Yoda. Even so, this is only a defeat for Dooku -- not for his master. If he'd been able to kill Yoda, the Count might well have found the path to defeating Sidious as well, and taking his place as Emperor. But having been humbled here, he must stay in Palpatine's shadow. When they meet on Coruscant, it is clear that everything in the movie has gone according to plan. The schematics for the Death Star are in the Sith Lord's hands for future use. The war has been launched. And from the perspective of the Separatists, the initiation of the war is actually due to the Republic's military assault in response to the attempted execution of three spies.

The movie closes with:

 Yoda acknowledging that they've all been played, and that the war none of them wanted is now upon them.

Palpatine overseeing the military might that's been handed to him on a platter.

Anakin and Padme being married in a secret ceremony, to the tragic strains of their love theme, with Anakin's awkward metal hand emphasizing how unnatural the moment is.

As with The Phantom Menace before it and Revenge of the Sith after, Episode 2 is, ultimately, about the ascendance of evil due to the faulty vigilance of good.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi ...

When discussion in the Star Wars Minute Listener's Society Facebook group turned to definining moments in the Star Wars saga, it reminded me that prior to the release of The Force Awakens, I had mulled over what it would take for Episode VII to knock it out of the park.

My main hope, contemplating the arrival of the first new Star Wars film in 10 years -- and the first to advance the chronology in more than 30 -- was for the filmmakers to score a "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi" moment in the film -- an image and/or line transcendent enough to become an indelible part of film history -- one encapsulating all the elements of personality, history, theme and plot that bring a science fiction or fantasy movie to life. 

Empire, of course, has "No -- I am your father." Jedi has "I am a Jedi, like my father before me." But "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi ... you are my only hope" is possibly the greatest McGuffin in all of film -- mysterious, personal, instantly sympathetic, pulling us and our young hero inescapably into the action that follows.

My response to TFA was tremendous, and I considered it a whole-hearted success from my very first viewing. But I hadn't thought to measure it against my original bar until reminded by that Facebook discussion.

So how did the movie do, on those grounds? Is there such a pivotal, captivating, transportive moment?

As much as I love the film, I'm inclined to think the answer is, "No." And I suspect that's a big reason why it's dismissed as derivative by a certain corner of Star Wars fandom. There are tons of things in TFA that we've never seen before. But they're all part of the general flow of the story. None of them stops the action and hits you on the head with an understanding that film history is being made here. "Help me Obi-Wan" does that. "I am your father" does it so well that even people who've never seen a Star Wars movie know about that line.

The moments that define Episode VII don't have that same ability to stand on their own without context.

"I'll come back for you. It'll be all right!"

Rey licking her plate in the shadow of the fallen AT-AT's foot.

"Hey, I'm not the one who chased you down with a stick."

"The droid ... stole a freighter."

"The one I'm pointing to."

"You are the Han Solo who fought with the Rebellion. You knew him."

"This was a mistake!" / "Huge!"

"I never ask that question until after I've already done it."

"It's true. All of it."

"You. You're afraid ... that you'll never be as powerful as Darth Vader."

"It would take a miracle to save us now," followed by the cut to those blast doors opening up to reveal Han and Chewie.

Rey prowling in a circle around the defeated Kylo Ren.

Line for line and scene for scene, I think The Force Awakens is easily playing in the ballpark of the original trilogy. But its high points don't reach quite high enough to make that leap from art to archetype.

In a way, I wonder if that was actually a smart move, maybe even a deliberate one. By having TFA demolish so many records and fulfill so many people's expectations (though obviously not everyone's) without breaking any obviously new ground, they set Rogue One and Episode VIII up to go even bigger -- if those two movies top the artistic success of this one.

Whatever you want to say about TFA's lack of originality, there's nothing in the Rogue One trailer to suggest that it's going to be a retread of any Star Wars story we've seen before. Did it just sort of happen that way as a fluke? That strikes me as a bit unlikely.

Surprisingly, I'm fine with there being no "Help Me, Obi-Wan" moment in TFA. It shows that you can have a terrific Star Wars movie without resetting the bar for pop culture. My desire for the movie to reach that lofty achievement didn't come to fruition ... but then, Leia never ended up meeting Obi-Wan, either.

Instead, she met Han and Luke, just as we met Rey and Finn and Poe.

TFA, it turns out, was not our only hope.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Whatever You Do, Don't Stare

I went into the grocery store this morning to get some coffee and creamer, and what did I see the second I walked in the door?

The end-cap where they display the latest big release, with a big-screen TV over shelves of whatever DVD they're showcasing.

And what image was on the screen?


The Falcon's belly gun getting stuck in the forward position during the ship-chase scene on Jakku.

I stopped and watched for a few seconds, then had to force myself to move on before I got stuck in the forward position too -- because I could easily have just stood there staring through the entire rest of the film. Luckily, the sound was either off or too low for me to hear from my position in the doorway, with the entire row of registers between me and the television. I'd have been sunk if the music and dialogue had gotten their hooks in me.

All the Star Wars films bear rewatching. Even the bottom half (which for me consists of I, III, and VI) have plenty of set pieces and performances that never grow old.

But The Force Awakens may be the most beautiful of the films to date. Not the best -- I still put Star Wars and Empire ahead of it. But Episode VII has forty years of cinematic advances on those movies, and the overall film-making in TFA matches or beats anything else in the series.

Tonight I'm going to a friend's house to watch the movie on video for the first time. I have my own copy of the blu-ray, and I watched the deleted scenes reel, but I've so far maintained the willpower to avoid putting the movie itself on and watching it over and over. In part, that's because I knew my wife would mock me ("Aren't you going to Rick's to watch that on Sunday?"), but in part it's because I've had a bunch of stuff that needed doing, and if I'd indulged in my copy of TFA, I wouldn't have gotten anything accomplished since Tuesday night. Yesterday alone, I caught myself four or five different times and held back from putting the disc in. If my kids hadn't hogged the TV at a couple of crucial moments, I'd have grabbed it and been mesmerized.

And damn if Rogue One doesn't look like it might be even better.

I'm probably too embarrassed to watch The Force Awakens today while my wife is around.

But maybe I'll think of something else I need from the grocery store.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

I Guess You Don't Know Everything About Women Yet

A story popped up in my Facebook feed about "Star Wars fans" being upset that Rogue One has a female lead. I found this asinine for several reasons, chief among them the fact that all real Star Wars fans knew Rogue One had a female lead by last summer at the latest. No one acting surprised and disappointed now that the trailer is out is a real Star Wars fan.

More importantly, every day, millions upon millions of cretins and morons make sexist comments on Twitter and the Internet. The fact that it suddenly becomes newsworthy if Star Wars is involved is actually almost as sexist as the comments themselves. And making the headline a blanket statement about Star Wars fans pretty clearly shows that the media isn't really interesting in combating marginalization. 

I'm not linking to the story itself because I don't want to give more traffic to this clickbait, faux-righteous, fan-insulting trash.

Can't we all agree that giving trolls a louder voice, just because they latch onto something we love, is worse than useless?

As for whoever those dipweed trolls actually are, they're obviously in need of a lot more female advice.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

This is Gonna be a Real Short Trip

I'm pleased as Ponda Baba to have my Force Awakens blu-ray ... but dang, I thought there'd be more to the deleted scenes section!

On the plus side, Leia's deleted scene showed Carrie Fisher pulling out a pretty good performance. The scene itself wasn't amazing, but she was good in it.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Surprise, To Be Sure, But A Welcome One

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I bought two tickets premiere day: one for the very first midnight showing, the other for a matinee the next afternoon. The brilliance of the trailers had me convinced this would be the best movie of the year, and I put so much faith in it that I simply knew I'd want to watch it again right away.

And if I hadn't done so, my feelings about the movie might be very different today.

Although I didn't react as badly to Jar Jar as many fans did, somewhere around the time the pongo surfaced in the capital of Naboo, I realized that Episode I was not the movie I'd been waiting for. I kept waiting for the fantastic scenes from the trailer to arrive, and then kept being disappointed when they did.

One of the biggest duds came in the Senate chamber, where Queen Amidala appears in her most magnificent, opulent, aesthetically spellbinding costume to plead the case for her planet. Yes, she uttered that iconic line, "I was not elected to watch my people suffer and die while you discuss this election in a committee." But on either side of her big speech, we see her looking absolutely lost and forlorn. I couldn't understand why George Lucas thought it made any sense to show us this young girl totally out of her element one moment, then have her give an electrifying address that topples the most powerful man in the Senate, only to return to a look of hopelessness immediately thereafter.

The film continued to let me down repeatedly, until somewhere around 2:00 a.m., the credits rolled and I walked out of the auditorium thinking, "Well, that kind of stank."

I felt so dejected that I considered going to the theater the next day and getting a refund on my matinee ticket. With finances pretty tight for me at the time, any waste of money, even just the price of a movie matinee, made me uncomfortable. But I remembered how cool the lightsaber battles were, and that the pod race had been a nice bit of spectacle, and I figured that maybe with my disappointment confronted, I might enjoy it more the second time around.

I went to the theater. I sat down and watched. Much of it played out just as it had before ... mostly okay, occasionally stilted and wince-inducing, even more occasionally breathtaking. And then, the Senate.

The scene I'd found so inconsistent before absolutely blew me away.

What I hadn't known that first time through was that immediately after departing the Senate, the young queen would take Senator Palpatine completely by surprise and then defy his advice by insisting on a return to Naboo. With that context in my head for the second viewing, I no longer saw Padme as a lost little girl being manipulated to fulfill the villain's schemes. Instead, I saw a brave and bright and highly idealistic young woman coming to the realization that the galactic democracy she believes in is a failure.

Suddenly, her fiery denunciation of Chancellor Valorum took on an entirely different light -- the passion of a true leader, furious with governmental impotence, who knows that she has no further recourse but to go back home and die with her fellow citizens.

And then, in the apartment afterward, another scene of incongruity resolved itself the same way. We open on Amidala and Jar Jar talking, the queen staring out the window almost distractedly. On my first viewing, it came across as an utterly passive moment from this girl who had just upset the whole Republic's applecart, only to be followed by another zig-zag shift of demeanor as she announces her return to Naboo.

But seen holistically, that distant stare became contemplative: the look of a tightly controlled mind awash in fatalism, the decision to die already made. Until ...

Jar Jar brags about the Gungans' mighty army, and the queen's eyebrow twitches.

Armed with this new information, she springs into action as soon as Palpatine returns. His political maneuverings no longer hold the least interest for her -- already determined to head home, she is now galvanized with the knowledge that her return may not be suicidal after all.

What had been a bumbling, incoherent mess on my first viewing, disjointed and portraying our heroine as a ping-pong ball of erratic moods, now became a seamless revelation of her intense intellect processing multiple consecutive pieces of world-tilting information and pulling them together into a plan of action rooted in stubborn hope.

As I walked from the matinee that day into a wash of sunlight, I found myself startled to realize that the hot mess of a film I'd seen the night before actually held depth and subtlety beyond any expectation I might have had.

It was a bright day, and I felt very lucky to have bought that second ticket.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Revealed, Your Opinion Is

It's been a rough week on the Star Wars Minute! I absolutely love that podcast, but a couple of guests during their Phantom Menace Minutes have been big-time prequel haters, and none (to date) so much so as this past week's guest Chris Radtke. Sorry in advance for picking on you here, Chris.

Let me say, I feel for prequel haters like the estimable Mr. Radtke. I left the theater after Episode I and Episode III thinking, "Well, that stank." And I winced my way through the love scenes in Episode II along with everyone else. But luckily, in the case of both Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith, I purchased my midnight showing tickets with next-day matinee tickets at the same time, and in each case, that second-day showing revealed to me a lot of worth that I'd missed the first time around.

Sadly, all too many people seem unwilling to give the prequels a second chance.

I don't mean they refuse to watch them again, although in some cases that's true. But for a true prequel hater, subsequent viewings always occur through a lens of confirmation bias, and no thought or energy is devoted to answering the question, "Why in the world would anybody do that?"

There's a crap-ton of stuff in all of the prequels to furrow the brow of unmindful viewers -- things that make no sense on a surface level. I'll highlight two examples that received a huge heap of ridicule in minute 73 of the Phantom Menace Minute.

First, there's a complaint about the spotlessness of the landing platform where Amidala's ship lands and is greeted by Chancellor Valorum and Senator Palpatine. In a universe often praised for its "used" and "worn-in" look, shiny infrastructure like this landing pad and the queen's starship are seen as inconsistencies -- failures of Lucas and his design team to pay attention to what people valued in the original trilogy. But in Episodes IV-VI, there's a reason everything looks beaten up and past its prime: the Empire has been letting the place go to hell for 20 years.

The Republic possesses both the resources and the inclination to keep its machinery squeaky clean, whereas the Empire has no such inclination -- and uses its resources exclusively in the pursuit and maintenance of power. In this contrast, we see the difference of philosophy and priority that distinguishes the two civilizations.

And we see one of the many seeds of the Republic's downfall.

Even as it expends time and money and energy maintaining the bright upper levels of Coruscant in immaculate splendor, the Republic turns a blind eye toward injustice -- like the existence of slavery in the Outer Rim. Padme, who is a highly educated member of the Republic's upper class, isn't even aware such things exist. And while the purported guardians of peace and justice in this civilization have had a thousand years to address the evil of slavery, Qui-gon Jinn never shows a moment of interest in doing so.

Despite its structure as a democratic union, the Republic is a vain and egocentric realm with a rotten underbelly (as shown in numerous scenes in Episode II). Far from being a baffling inconsistency that contradicts the portrayal of technology in the Original Trilogy, Chancellor Valorum's spotless landing pad should be viewed as an example and symbol of the Republic's fatal flaws: the arrogance and complacency that ultimately lead to its overthrow.

The other complaint from minute 73 proves equally explicable if we move past outraged bafflement and actually try to answer the question, "Why would they do such a thing?"

At the end of the landing pad sequence, Anakin follows along in the wake of the queen and her retinue. Then, confused, he stops and looks to see why Qui-gon isn't right behind them. Padme tells him to come on, and Qui-gon gestures that he should go with her.

Like Anakin, our intrepid Star Wars Minute commentators didn't get it. Qui-gon is the one who's brought Anakin along, and while the midichlorian-packed little rascal is smitten enough with Padme to want to dog her heels, he clearly knows she isn't the reason he's here. Why doesn't his Jedi benefactor call him back and take him along to the temple? Isn't that the reason he accompanied Qui-gon and Obi-wan to the capital in the first place?

To answer these questions, all we have to do is watch a few scenes deeper into the film and see the immense skepticism the Jedi Council shows every aspect of Qui-gon's presentation. They don't believe him when he says he thought a Sith attacked him on Tatooine. Some of them literally roll their eyes at his suggestion of a vergence in the Force. When speaking of the boy he's found, Qui-gon picks his words with utmost care and diplomacy ... even though we later learn that he's gone against the Council on numerous occasions, and is viewed as obstinate and a bit of a wild card.

Could it be any more obvious that, in raising this subject, Qui-gon seeks the Council's approval for something he thinks they'll be hesitant to do? Is it not abundantly clear that he's trying to appear deferential and respectful, as opposed to presumptuous?

If he'd brought Anakin with him, it would have implied an expectation on Qui-gon's part -- an assumption that the Council would accept his judgment and test the boy. By leaving Anakin behind, he demonstrated the opposite: humility.

These conclusions are not hard to arrive at, if we just free ourselves from the view that everything puzzling in these films reflects thoughtless incompetence on the part of the filmmakers.

Of course, if you enjoy hating the prequels, you can certainly stick to that attitude and find your entertainment value in negativity. Just don't pat yourself on the back over how discerning you are, because what you're doing is stopping at the superficial.

Don't believe it?

That is why you fail.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

This Will Begin To Make Things Right

Continuing my defense of Attack of the Clones ...

To watch this movie correctly, you really have to pay attention to the implicit storytelling. You have to listen to the things Anakin says and the way he talks about Chancellor Palpatine. Although we don't see them together much during this film, there are lots of hints dropped that Palpatine has Anakin firmly under his wing already. And it's very heavily implied that the chancellor is manipulating young Skywalker's attitudes while also teaching him to be manipulative himself.

Keep an ear out for the way Anakin talks to others about Palpatine -- always with respect and admiration, often with quotes of the man's ideals. Contrast this with how he talks about Obi-wan: a mixture of perfunctory praise and much more intense criticism. How has Anakin decided that Obi-wan is holding him back, that "in many ways" he's already ahead of Obi-wan? His phrasing is almost always very precocious. Is this because he's a precocious young man? It's true that he is. Is it because Lucas hasn't got that great an ear for age-appropriate diction? Possibly. But in every case, the wording sounds like exactly the kind of thing a manipulator such as Palpatine would tell Anakin in order to slowly alienate him from his mentor and from the Jedi in general.

Watch carefully in the scene where Anakin and Padme debate the nature of politics. Pay attention to his borderline fascist sentiments, and the way he deflects into humor when Padme disapproves. Is he really just teasing her? Or is he testing the waters and then retreating when they prove inhospitable to his ideas? Either way, it's a calculated steering of her emotions. And again, Palpatine's name explicitly comes up in this exchange.

Think also about what Anakin accomplishes by pulling his prank with the weird fat-bodied grazing beasts on Naboo. On one level, it's a whimsical bit of fun. But at the same time, he's deliberately yanking on her emotional strings, making her fear for him -- and drawing her in close where he can initiate physical contact.

If we look, it's very easy to see that Anakin's entire courtship of Padme is riddled with hints of the chancellor's hand guiding and subverting our young Jedi into habits of deceit, trickery, and manipulation.

All of this comes to a head outside the Lars homestead just before Anakin rides off to find his mother ... and exterminate the sandpeople. The dialogue between the two of them paints Anakin as the steadfast hero and Padme as his earnest supporter, but in such stilted and cliched terms that it's easy to dismiss it as bad writing on Lucas's part. But the scene is literally shown as a shadow play. We don't see the two characters expressing these things directly, as people, but as manipulations of fading sunlight. And of course, Anakin's shadow clearly presages the helmet of Darth Vader.

At this point, Anakin has snared Padme. When he returns, she's willing to console him despite the fact that he admits to mass murder. Very few Star Wars fans buy that he's pulled this feat off through his awkward, stilted teenage attempts at seduction. But even fewer bother to ask the critical question: If his romantic skills clearly weren't good enough to win her over, how did he do it? 

My answer is that he's been subconsciously projecting his own emotions onto her with the Force ... and even implanting in her some of the words he longs to hear. Certainly, we can blame Padme's stiff delivery of her lines on bad acting or bad direction ... but in story terms, her unfeeling expressions of affection and love are perfectly explained if they're not really her expressions at all, but things Annakin is willing her to do and say. That's why we get the shadow play: because by this point, Anakin has found the right hooks to make her at least partially his puppet.

Wouldn't this be a good reason for Jedi to have the rule about avoiding emotional attachments? If the constant danger exists that they might unconsciously insinuate their own feelings into those around them?

If you hate the lame romance in Episode II, I challenge you to try watching it again from the perspective I've spelled out above. I think what you'll see is that Natalie Portman's performance suddenly makes complete sense, and that all the hackneyed dialogue falls into place as the wishful teenage projections of an obsessive young man.

Don't fight against it just because you think George Lucas is an incompetent storyteller. Sure, maybe you're right. But even if these things all came about accidentally, the fact is that they make for a highly coherent and multifaceted plot -- if you just choose to see them as story elements instead of mistakes.

Give it a whirl. I think you'll find it's a great improvement.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It's Coarse and Rough and Irritating

For some reason, people single Episode II out as the worst of the prequels. And for some reason, they especially hate Anakin's line about not liking sand.

Does no one else hear that line like I hear it?

"I come from a planet covered in something I hate."

"Most of my childhood meals were full of grit."

"Every day, I had to sweep the sand out of my owner's shop."

"Whenever I fixed something, the sand would get in it and screw it up again."

When Anakin complains about sand and then says, "Not like here," he's speaking as someone who makes things and is frustrated at whatever causes those things to break. He's implicitly telling Padme that she transports him out of the lousy circumstances of his youth and into someplace better. And he's idealizing Padme as a creature of tenderness and softness, even though we've seen her ability to be cold and harsh, and she's just told him she likes the sand.

In short, those lines encompass three of the major themes of the movie: Anakin's journey from maker to destroyer, the dangers of not having a place you can think of as home, and the compulsion our hero has to make our heroine into something she's not.

It's really a very rich and subtle line, full of backstory, personality, and symbolism even though it also reads as an awkward teenage pick-up line. What's more, Hayden Christensen's delivery is spot on, playing his complaint with an engaging humor so that it doesn't come across as whining, but provides a charismatic, self-deprecating segue into his attempt at seduction.

I think most viewers don't truly understand what it is that they dislike about Attack of the Clones. What dissatisfies them is not what a bad job Christensen and Natalie Portman do in portraying a love affair for the ages ... it's what a good job the two do at portraying two people who really have no business getting together in the first place. But that's the story we have. Anakin is too young for Padme. His attraction is a childhood obsession. And it's arguable that her stiff reaction to him, even when declaring her love, is due to the fact that he's projecting his own affection onto her with the Force. This romance is not just doomed to failure -- it's a linchpin of galactic-scale descent into tyranny and suffering.

Embrace the sand. Stop wishing for the story you want to see and start listening to the story that's on the screen.

It's got a lot in it if you're willing to sift through the grains.

Friday, January 8, 2016

I Can't Believe It!

The Force Awakens has been out over three weeks, and no one has taken That's crazy!

Well, it gives me a chance to start blogging about Star Wars again without utilizing my old, embarrassingly misspelled blog title, (a name I haven't heard in a long time ... a long time).

Hopefully I'll have lots to say in the coming weeks about Episode VII and more ...