(And yeah, it’s probably just all Star Wars posts for the next month. Then I guess Doctor Who and then maybe Ducktales? The world is burning, man, and pop culture and literary criticism can’t stop it, but it’s literally what I have a college degree in so it’s what I’m gonna do.)
I’ve been trying to find a way to articulate this for two years now. With Rise of Skywalker coming out, I might as well try to get it down. I think J.J. Abrams was more interested in making Star Wars than making a sequel to the Star Wars trilogy, and that undermined Rian Johnson’s job in actually making a sequel to The Force Awakens.
First, let me say a bunch of nice things about The Force Awakens, because I really do like that movie, and by the end of this you might think I hate it:
- All the costume and set designs are superb.
- Everything with Rey in it. Daisy Ridley’s performance, her toughness, her bewilderment at Finn’s attempts at chivalry because she has no basis for understanding why a woman would need a man to help her, the way she looks longingly into the sky/horizon at the beginning, looks at the woman cleaning scrap and wonders if that’s her in a bunch of decades, her competence, how she can speak fluently to Chewie, the way she slowly starts to understand her Force abilities. Need I go on? Because I could.
- Everything about Adam Driver’s performance. The way he’s so clearly a wanna-be Darth Vader, with a purely cosmetic helmet complete with a voicebox and a lightsaber that’s trying to look cool by doing something new (cross guards) even though cross guards on a lightsaber aren’t a particularly useful idea but he’s young so he doesn’t quite grasp that the OG lightsaber design was already perfect; no need to modify it, because that’s what young people do.
- The design of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber having a crackle to it, which shows that it’s homemade and not done with the guidance of a proper Jedi/Sith and also reflects that Kylo is unfocused and spitting undirected hatred at the world for no particular reason, because he’s really just an entitled prick.
- The general theme of the First Order as Neo-Nazis, who had nothing in particular to be upset about but organized against the new Republic, anyway.
- Han Solo’s death. You know it’s coming the moment he steps onto that bridge but you and he know it has to happen, anyway.
- The moment when Rey Force pulls the saber.
I could go on. Point is: I like the movie. It has some smaller issues (in trying to ape the Star Wars formula it treads over the line and feels too much like a remake, Luke being missing has no actual bearing on the plot), but they’re ultimately minor. The real problem I have with The Force Awakens is that the setup relies on a premise Abrams has little interest in establishing. Namely, it begs you to ask:
- Why did Leia fail to establish a stable new Republic?
- What is the First Order?
- Who is Supreme Leader Snoke?*
Or, more succinctly: What happened after Luke and Vader defeated the Emperor?†
And The Force Awakens’s answer seems to be: We’re just not interested in telling you. In fact, would you mind more or less pretending that the end of Return of the Jedi sorta didn’t happen? Because that would be more convenient for us. We want to have imperial officers and stormtroopers and rebels without having to bother explaining where they came from. Thanks.
That works when you’re making the first movie in 1977. You can say: There’s an evil empire and there are good guys fighting it. In fact, the movie just starts by making you read a few paragraphs saying literally that so that it can get on with its story.
I really want to argue that that’s not okay when you’re making sequel. The events need to proceed from what came before. If it’s a mystery that will be revealed in time, that’s totally fine. Why did Han and Leia’s relationship end? Because their son fell to the Dark Side and it tore them apart. Great. That works. Why did Luke not train a new Jedi Order? Well, he tried, but then his star pupil went evil and murdered them all. Cool. But simply ignoring the victory the characters achieved in the third movie? Not cool.
So when Johnson goes to make The Last Jedi, he’s stuck with Snoke, who’s been given no backstory whatsoever. He shows the stalwart Resistance finally finding its resolve, but we were never shown why they didn’t have it or really even why they were fighting, since we don’t know who the First Order are. Sure, you can blame Johnson for not patching this stuff in, but it would have made the movie flabbier. I think instead Johnson just pretended that this basic premise stuff had been explained and proceeded from there.
Something to consider: What are these movies even about? My take might be:
(prequels) “How do you lose a republic?”
(originals) “How do you get it back?“
And if so, then the sequels should probably be: “How do you keep it?” (to quote Ben Franklin). But Abrams doesn’t seem terribly interested in going that deep, so instead he’s just continuing the question as if Jedi hadn’t already answered it beautifully (through peace and love). His characters are still fighting the same basic battle that’s already been won in an earlier movie, and they’re even doing it on a silly copy of the same battle station.
All of which brings me to: Why are these movies episodes 7–9? How are they actually a part of the Skywalker saga? If the first two parts are “Father turns evil” and “Son redeems father,” it’s pretty clear the sequels need to be, “Grandson: ???“
I’m pretty sure in Rian Johnson’s eyes the answer goes back to Hegelian Dialectics. You take the thesis of the Light Side, smash it against its antitheses, the Dark, and come up with a new synthesis of the two. Luke’s realizations on Ahch-To speak to this: he’s come to feel that the Force isn’t just a simple, two-sided thing. Kylo Ren kills his master, seemly rejecting the Dark Side, but then he also doesn’t go with Rey. Finn and Rose discover that the bad gamblers sell guns to both the First Order and the Resistance. Poe learns that leadership is more complicated than just winning a fight. Nothing is as simple as light vs. dark, win/lose, good/bad. There’s something more out there. I just wish I had the confidence that Abrahms knew what it was. We’ll see in another week.
* You might be tempted to add a fourth, “Who are Rey’s parents?” but I’d argue that’s not a question the movie really asks. Rey wants to know, but it’s much more a question the viewers think is supposed to be important rather than one the movie ever spends much time with. The answer—that their identity isn’t important because anyone can grow up to be a hero regardless of who her father was—is subversive in a way I really like. ↩
† I’m not at all interested in whether this stuff is fleshed out in a comic or a novel. The movies need to provide this. That’s like serving me unsweetened iced tea and then giving me a sugar packet. That’s not sweet tea! ↩
I’d wager if the Senate got Trump on the stand they could get him to admit everything and/or lie to Congress. (He’d then be acquitted, anyway.)
I’ve written down my demands for what needs to happen in Rise of Skywalker or I will take legal action, and I did it as a Twitter thread because that’s the best place for longform writing.
My ideal version of Star Wars would likely not be what most people actually want to watch. It would have film grain and look like it was made in the 1900s. What most people want is a cleaned-up copy with no/few changes but a modern look.
Finished reading Galaxy’s Edge: Black Spire, the first Star Wars book I’ve ever read, because my curiosity of Disney world-building was apparently stronger than my general disinterest in SW tie-ins. Anyway, it was a fun read. 📚
Lots of good Star Wars music out these days. There’s Ludwig Göransson’s cool scores for the Disney+ show, and here’s DJ R3X’s Playlist #1 from Oga’s Cantina in Galaxy’s Edge.
It seems like my gaming ping goes way up when Disney+ is playing in the house. Doesn’t happen with iTunes or Netflix videos. Does this seem possible? My computer is plugged into Ethernet with 150 up/down, so there should be plenty of bandwidth. (Could be unrelated.)
I know people say “this website” when referring to Twitter to belittle it (as in “it’s just a website, not something bigger/more important”), but it always confuses me because in 13 years I’ve almost never used twitter.com so I forget it is a website.
The Ventures’ Christmas Album is a cool surf rock record you might like. 🎵
A bunch of Switch games are on sale on the eShop. I picked up Ni No Kuni, which I’d been meaning to get. Also I finished Link’s Awakening, which was a joy to play.
007 Days of 007 ’19
In the olden days they ran the “007 Days of 007” on TV. It was fun to put on around the holidays when there was nothing else to do. Last year I tried to replicate it for the streaming era by randomly picking Bond films to watch throughout December. Here are ’19’s films:
- Diamonds Are Forever
- Live and Let Die
- License to Kill
- Die Another Day
- Casino Royale
- Quantum of Solace
Watch them along with me over the course of the month if you’d like.
Why? Are they really all that good? Worthy enough to watch every year instead of much better movies I’ve never seen? Nope! I just like ’em.
Methodology: Using Dice by PCalc I rolled 1D6 representing each Bond actor and 1D8 for each of his films in order, discarding rolls for duplicates from previous years and for films that don’t exist (as in “4, 3,” since Dalton, the fourth actor, only made two pictures). Once I had the list I sorted it by release order. This year we get one from Connery, two from Moore, one Dalton, one Brosnan, and two Craig. There are enough movies to do it for three years without repeating any (almost four). 📽
I like that Arrow did a time loop episode where the characters have already seen Groundhog Day so they don’t have to waste time having everyone not know what’s going.
Christmas Playlist ’19
I’ve been carefully building a Christmas playlist for over a decade, adding one track a year. There are now eighteen songs on the list.
- “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love
- “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley
- “The Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues
- “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Judy Garland
- “A Holly Jolly Christmas” by Burl Ives
- “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
- “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” By Dean Martin
- “Christmas Time is Here (Instrumental)” by Vince Guaraldi Trio
- “The Christmas Song” by Nat “King” Cole
- “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson
- “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon
- “I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard
- “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Elvis Presley
- “What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder
- “All I Want For Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey
- “What a Wonderful World” by Joey Ramone
- “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie & Bing Crosby
- “Father Christmas” by The Kinks
- “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade
This year’s addition is “Sleigh Ride.” I’m using the Leroy Anderson orchestral version, but the Ronettes’ is also great. We played “Sleigh Ride” every year in high school band so I just have a soft spot for the version without lyrics.
It’s been a few years since I’ve looked at the song sequence. I might change things around a bit once I listen to it a few times.
Had a nice Thanksgiving in Charlottesville. Emotions are high, though. My understanding is for every touchdown Tech scores Charlottesville has to remove one statue of a confederate general.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus: The Musical. 👍🏻🎭
A few weeks ago I made a pithy comment about how the first episode of The Mandalorian only had one speaking role for a woman. It was just an observation. The show’s opening scene had several unnamed aliens. Couldn’t one or two of those roles been given to a woman?
Well. A segment of the Star Wars fanbase was not happy with my faint criticism. I got, I’ve learned, onto a list of people to troll, and received a number of nasty comments from people whose feelings I really seem have hurt. Kat Tenbarge of Business Insider wrote a story about the negative response from Star Wars fans and quoted me: ‘The Mandalorian’ is taking heat for its portrayal of women. Now, feminist critics are facing waves of online harassment.
First, I really do like the show. It might have done a tiny bit better in its casting early on, but it’s made up for it by featuring the first women to every direct a Star Wars show or movie, Deborah Chow. Upcoming episodes have women featured in major roles. There are a hundred other shows I’d pick to highlight gender inequality before this one. So: faint criticism effectively rescinded.
As a general rule, unless you’re making a scene where the sex of the characters is relevant—a WWII movie will probably have you casting mostly male actors; a movie about a woman’s softball team, mostly female actors—your background actors should be roughly 50/50. I’m not even asking you to rewrite characters. Just look around when you’re shooting and if you notice you’ve hired only men, maybe wonder how that happened.
But let’s talk about Star Wars and feminism. Where the comments I got were coherent, a few said something along the lines of, “Why can’t something just be for entertainment and not political? Why does everything have to have gender stuff mixed in?”*
Well, because all art is political and gender is a fact of our lives from birth. The people who tend not to think class struggles are part of our history tend to be the ones on top. People who don’t see racism tend to be white. It’s men who don’t think about gender much. If you’re part of the group that rarely gets disadvantaged by the fact of who you are, it’s easy not to notice this stuff.
Star Wars has always been political. George Lucas, a man who wasn’t required to serve in Vietnam, wrote a movie during the height of the conflict in which a small rebel force fights off a highly mechanized military-industrial regime. Star Wars is ultimately a story about pacifism and love winning out over hatred and violence. Political.
Who’s the first named character in Star Wars. Princess Leia, a woman, in a prominent leadership position in the rebellion. In Return of the Jedi, another woman, Mon Mothma, gives the major military briefing. Women are leaders in Star Wars and it’s no big deal. Political.
Yet there are, by my count, only six women who get speaking roles in the entire trilogy.† Take the final “trench run” sequence in Star Wars. The scene features over a dozen pilots. All of them are played by men. When they were casting the X-Wing pilots, did they intentionally cast only men because at that time (in our world) women weren’t allowed to fly combat missions? Or did they just not think about it?
If Lucas and friends had cast a few women as X-Wing pilots, it would have sent a few messages:
- In-universe: The rebels are the good guys, and they hire the best pilots available, including women, unlike the Empire whose personnel at all levels are only men.
- In the real world: If you’re a girl in 1977 watching this movie, you can see women flying out to blow up the Death Star and imagine that you might be able to grow up and be a pilot, too.
Instead, we get Leia, who starts the movie as a tough, scrappy fighter with a blaster, sidelined in the final act. Her job is to sit around and look worried while the men go off and complete the mission. (The pattern repeats in Jedi: she’s strangling Jabba in act one, sitting around on Endor’s moon in act three.)
Star Wars is set in a made-up universe. If gender inequality exists there, it’s either on purpose, or because the creator’ biases meant they didn’t notice it. Either way, that’s political. It’s probably true both that Lucas wanted to show women in the rebellion but also that he didn’t notice he’d only cast a handful of them and didn’t give them anything to say.
But let’s be honest here. I can make all the arguments I want about how all art is political, but that’s not the real issue. You can try to persuade someone that a border wall isn’t an effective way to stop illegal immigration into the US from Mexico, but the real problem isn’t the wall, it’s that they don’t actually think everyone should have open access to the American dream. The problem isn’t that these people have never thought of Star Wars as political, it’s that they don’t actually believe that gender inequality is a problem. They want movies where the men swing around the laser swords and the women look pretty and get out of the way during the climax.
All of which to say, if someone’s a bad person, a few sound arguments probably won’t change that. Yet of the thousands of works of art I’ve enjoyed in my life, if I had to pick just one that says that no one’s beyond redemption, it’d be Star Wars.
* I’m paraphrasing, most were: “stfu SJW” something something. A funny part of it was how like a week later I’d get, “Stop talking about Mandalorian,” and, though I didn’t respond, I thought, “I did stop talking about it. I made one tweet about it over a week ago.” If they’d just let it go, I wouldn’t be typing all this out and there probably wouldn’t have been a Business Insider article about it all.
† Princess Leia and Aunt Beru in Star Wars, “other officer” in the Hoth base in The Empire Strikes Back,‡ Sy Snootles, Oola, and Mon Mothma in Jedi.
‡ I’m aware she has a name in Wookiepedia. Brigitte Kahn is credited among several others as simply “Other Officers” in the actual movie. Star Wars is one of the few areas where I’m a strict constructionist. So much of the supplementary stuff is so silly, I just stick to what’s actually in the script, though I do call the tiny bear things in Jedi “Ewoks” just for convenience.
I know the Han/Greedo maclunkey scene got all the attention, but I just watched the Disney+ editions of Star Wars and there were several more changes no one seems to have noticed. 📽 youtu.be/CgbKkushL…
There seems to be no way to have HomeKit change the color of a bulb without also turning it on. What I’d want: if my bulb is on, make it warmer at sunset. If it’s not on, make it that color the next time it turns on.
Anyway the third episode was real good. Not a knock, but it occurs to me that part of why the show works is that it’s what you expect from a Star Wars follow-up, contrary to the way Last Jedi alienated some b/c it skipped past the obvious “Luke trains new Jedi” plot.
I like how some characters have multiple, unrelated powers. Spider-Man can stick to walls and sense danger. Wolverine heals and has claws. Elsa can make ice and summon gowns. ❄️
Equality is the essential American virtue. Gender equality is important in movie casting (& most everywhere else). Many movies are real real bad at this. Mandalorian is a good show that was just barely bad at it in episode 1. If it gets ppl talking about equality, that’s good
Ran a 5K with Girls on the Run.
“Ghost Spider” is the name you come up with and write down intending to come back to it later with something better. Spider-Gwen is a breakout character and should just be allowed to be called “Spider-Woman.” Let Jessica Drew be “Agent Spider” or whatever.
Me, watching e3 of Dickinson: “This show is like Better Riverdale.”
Emily Dickinson, 1 minute later: “Who wants to do opium‽” 📺