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.