Sunday, December 14, 2014

A New Look

Not the same as my perspective, but there's certainly a lot of well researched claims at this (blog? website? medium 2.0 piece?)

“[The repeated patterns] also allow, through variations, an emotionally and intellectually complicating emphasis upon difference and change. The broad pattern of human life, from youth to maturity to death, remains constant, but individual circumstances within the pattern inevitably differ, creating different possibilities and problems.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Why Darth Vader is Cool

I’ve been reading about the concept of authentic Evil, capital E. Regardless of it’s moral veracity, it’s certainly an interesting literary trope.

We are often fond of shows with good villains. Sometimes it’s because those villains have sympathetic motivations, human details, and understandable logic. They can be so sympathetic that they blur the line between villain and anti-hero. This post is not about those.

Sometimes a villain starts with worldly motivation. They miss their homeworld, or they’re ashamed of their differences, or they’re very attached to keeping their love alive. And they do extreme things to hang onto those, things that we the audience understand are bad. Against the metaphysics of the universe. It’s very human of them, but often weak or even pathetic. We aren’t expected to respect these actions.

And then they lose. Everything.

It’s generally a long process. Sometimes caused by the cruel forces of the world that take away that which we hold dearly. Or even it’s the victories of the protagonists that lead to this stripping away. But regardless, everything they care about - every hope they have for the future - is violently, painfully torn from them.

Anakin Skywalker killed his wife and unborn child (as far as he knows), betrayed and destroyed his order, and lost his normal body. He would live in a black chrome body for the rest of his days, knowing he is responsible for the ultimate tragedies he has suffered. All this for a master he knows cares nothing for him. I cannot begin to conceive of this loss (or the resulting self-loathing.)

When everything is gone, then he can make a choice. He has reached true existential freedom. Nothing he does matters, in that none of his goals can be saved or redeemed. He is beyond status, or class, or hope. He is beyond caring.

Existential freedom is terrifying. It means we are entirely responsible for our own choices. We can no longer blame them on the things we want or forces that motivate us.

That moment of utter despair is a singularity. What emerges after it should have no connection or resemblance to what came before. All that comes is a single, all-encompassing, world-shattering choice.

“evil” little-e is about petty needs and attachments to the world. “Evil” capital-E is about choosing nihilism. Everything the villain cares about is gone, so they destroy the whole world.

It’s only through this authentic Evil that someone can radically remake the world. They do not possess attachment to a person, or their ego, or the respect of others. They are not risk averse. They are infinitely destructive, if that’s what matters to them.

When a villain goes through that, it is awesome.

Anakin Skywalker is a whiny proto-fascist. But Darth Vader is amazing. He cares nothing for what others think of him, or the general racist Imperial structure. He chokes out corrupt incompetents and hires subversive bounty hunters and gets in the thick of battles and comes up with great new plans on the fly. He is totally committed to his cause. (Which isn’t nihilism, but is universal.) And when this happens, his powers as the greatest Jedi finally blossom.

Zod from Man of Steel also falls under this trope. For most of the movie he only cares about his beloved Krypton, and his elitist order within it. When returning to that world is no longer possible, then he becomes a man with nothing to lose (or even gain). That’s also the point when he learns to fly.

Garrosh Hellscream fits this, and this may be the best thing about WOW: Warlords of Draenor. For three expansions fans had gotten sick of him, and his descent into racism and militarism. And he lost the dignity of his people, his city, and his freedom. Another expansion about him seemed abominable.

But instead Blizzard made him cool. He went to war not just with humans, not just with other races, but the whole of his timeline itself. He rejected history as inadequate. He went back in time, killed two gods who would rule his people, and remade the Orcish clans into a competent coherent machine. When he has his final throwdown with Thrall, it is the best, most convincing bit of dialogue that Garrosh has had in five expansions.

He dies. But the authentically Evil villain doesn’t care about their death or life. They only care about the singular choice they have made. When we see them, we find them admirable because they do not care about us.

Ozymandias from Watchmen tried to voluntarily give up those things, so he could become such a creature. But it was voluntary, and inadequate, and his grandiose plans were too caught up in the world as it was. Dr Manhattan had his attachments torn from him, and the freedom he realized was much more austere for it.

The Joker was always authentically Evil, and attempts at his backstory do a great job of showing no matter what sad sack of reasons led to his creation, the only thing that matters is that this being has now been created.

These are horrible people. No, they are monsters. But it is only in being a monster that a character can begin to contemplate the ultimate acts necessary to save the world. The lack of attachment earns our admiration when we see it, and is capable of so much more than all the other characters trapped in the normal system of class and worldly desire.

Who is the best, most authentic Evil villain? Who makes our heart soar for their ability to leave who they were behind?

Picture you are Anakin Skywalker, lying on that medical bed. Your whole life you’ve been training to be the best Jedi, the one everyone is counting on to save them. You’ve been living a double life, caught between your order and your love. And in one day you lost both.

I hypothesize what you would think, is exactly this:

Monday, December 1, 2014

Until December Ends

And that was November, folks. Against all sanity I accomplished my goal of blogging every day about a Star Wars Prequel Trilogy scene (or some such related).

There's still so much more to say! But for now at least, I don't think I am committed to the breakneck speed of posting every day. Put this in your feed and expect to see something here when I am particularly bored or some such. If you're curious about a particular character or scene, ask me to break it down!

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Many thanks to my inspirations (mostly, SMG), and to the readers who told me how amused they were.

Trust in the Force.

The End (part 1)

A friend linked me to a funny tweet about how the upcoming new movies will end.

While tongue in cheek, it did remind me that the final shot of these trilogies is probably one of the first things the authors think of. The final shot of the Original Trilogy is a funeral pyre, and Force ghosts, and Ewoks singing Yub Nub with the rebels, which is a great view of the ending elements and joy of the Light Side of the Force.

How do the Prequels end?

Beru and Owen Lars holding Luke to the sunset. This is the same sunset and view that Luke looks to early in A New Hope as he ponders how small his life is and how great the wide universe is. It’s a very epic shot (with soaring music), and this shot captures that magic while paralleling it. This final shot is perhaps the most stirring single shot of all three movies.

Which fits many of the other design choices we see in the final third of the movie. We suddenly have shots aboard Imperial cruisers and good guy space ships and they look a lot more like what we are used to from the Originals, than the ships we were seeing for most of the Prequels.

The set design is saying a thing. It’s saying “okay, now we have moved into the next era, the one you saw before, remember all this?” After the climactic moment, everything, even hallway decor, changes.

So a key point here: the artists of the Prequels did not suddenly forget how to make things look like the old movies. They knew how to make stirring shots, how to evoke the sacred, and not the overly artificial pablum we see so often instead. The Prequels were not a failure of skill.

Now the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen, and now there is finally a chance to fight it. Now noble children like Luke and rural families on impoverished planets enter the picture. Coruscant and Jedi temples and midichlorians and chrome spaceships were a phase and now they are over.


So I guess bonus question: given everything we know about the story of Star Wars, and how the last shot of each trilogy has been powerful, what do you think the last shot of Episode 9 will be?


Okay I have two more in me. First, I want to talk about light sabers some more.

The light saber is one of if not the iconic image of the Original Trilogy. Yet part of its power is that it is used so sparingly. Only three characters ever wield a light saber (and the fact that for the first two movies Luke wields Anakin’s old light saber is deserving of analysis all on its own), and duels are fairly scarce. In fact in the three movies there is more time spent on effete robots arguing with tribally-coded aliens than there is spent in light saber duels.

It’s special. And we value things more the less we see them. In the real world this often leads to bad implications of people denying themselves good things in order to retain specialness, but in art the symbol is more powerful and the inefficiency loss is less real, so we can stick with this value-through-scarcity thing as a somewhat okay thing. It would be very hard for Lucas not to have recognized this.

And so we get the most blaring shot from the trailer of the Phantom Menace.

After Episode 1 came out, some friends of mine did a skit about light sabers. If a two bladed saber was cool, then an elephant wielding three blades must be even cooler. And thus they christened Darth Pachyderm, with a sword in each hand and one grasped by his trunk. They then theorized that this would lead to Darth Porcupine with… you get it. Good times, everyone laughs.

The thing is this is exactly what happened.

First in Attack of the Clones, we get a giant colosseum scene with dozens of Jedi each fighting with their own light saber, each waving their own glowing phallus around. Yoda goes to town and shows us his own wild ninjitsu with a light saber, which audiences loved.

They took the logic “If one light saber was cool, then two are even cooler” to the logical conclusion of “more more!”

Where does it end, if not with Darth Porcupine?

Remember, the top two were spinning.

Guys, I think Lucas is in on the joke.


Which is saying what then? The same thing as midichlorians and the decadence of the Republic and the whininess of Anakin Skywalker.

If you take something holy, and demand more of it, what you get does not have the same feeling. You can not simply ask for “more Star Wars.” Which can be fairly nihilistic, but it also means parsing what you actually liked and pursuing that.

Figure out what you like. Some might say “the three act structure and a Cambellian hero myth”. That’s more fundamental, but you can get that from many many more movies than Star Wars.

Some might say it was the dialogue, but that’s hard to believe. One of the most biting comments about movie dialogue ever was by Harrison Ford speaking of the script in A New Hope, “you can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it.”

As fans prepare for JJ Abrams final three movies to end the… nontology?... there’s a lot more theoryizing about what they “wanted”. Since the Prequel Trilogy was very clean and had lot’s of CGI, there’s a demand for a return to the dirtier, rustier aesthetic of the 70’s movies and less CGI. But is that any more likely to be the thing people actually loved about Star Wars?

Was what you liked “light sabers”, or their sacred feeling? If the latter, see how to incorporate the sacred into your life. If the former, you are a fundamentalist who should be satisfied with midichlorians and porcupines.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Worst Thing

At the exact middle of the Prequel Trilogy, the central character commits an act of horrible evil. Anakin Skywalker’s mother has been kidnapped, he goes to rescue her only to see her die, and he kills upwards of thirty Sand People in revenge. He then goes back to his girlfriend and cries in her arms over it. We cannot resist analyzing such a powerful piece of the story (even if any of the characters never do.)

Much like with the Phantom Menace, and the droids themes running throughout, the movies make no attempt to hide from this evil. It is explicitly spelled out that Anakin killed this tribe, including their children and women (presumably non-combatants.) Whether we dwell on it is left up to the audience, but we can’t not know.

And uncomfortably, the proto-Lord Vader is badass when he does it. In fact this is perhaps the first time in the trilogy that Anakin is unquestionably cool. The Sand People are not defenseless, they’ve already fought off one law enforcement party and presumably will continue doing evil for a while. They murdered his mother, and although we don’t know the details of it every piece of evidence is that it was horrible. So Anakin flies off on his land speeder, full of grim determination, with Duel of the Fates playing in the background. We are given every reason to wish Anakin some measure of vengeance. So when Anakin pulls out his light saber and deflects the first shots of the guards he is ambushing, part of us cheers for justice served.

The movie shows us what a terrible mistake that was. He commits mass murder and we are undeniably provided with the evidence that this was evil. Given that Attack of the Clones broader political theme is “sometimes you go too far when fighting even your legitimate enemies”, this scene fits in perfectly with that.

(Practically speaking, many movies contain mass killing done by the hero of course. Often without emotional consequence. Luke blew up untold thousands on the Death Star, and at ten years old Anakin made a similar attack of mass destruction. I generally feel that this is bad messaging and bad art, where the target of the attack is treated like an object, and the consequences to people are not considered. We hand wave it away with “they were military targets so it’s okay” and return to the character driven drama. Which is fine, since we are here for character drama and often these objects function mostly to highlight successes for the characters. So it is a very different style of scene, and message, when a movie takes time to show genuine regret and even utter horror over the murder a character inflicted.)

The second half of this arc follows shortly. Anakin breaks down and tells Padme what happened out there.

Annie, what's wrong?

I... I killed them. I killed them all. They're
dead, every single one of them...

(ANAKIN focuses on her like someone returning from far away.)

Not just the men, but the women and the children
too. They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like
animals... I hate them!

(There is silence for a moment, then ANAKIN breaks down,
sobbing. PADMÉ takes him into her arms.)

Why do I hate them? I didn't... I couldn't... I
couldn't control myself. I... I don't want to hate them...
But I just can't forgive them.

To be angry is to be human.

To control your anger is to be a Jedi.

Ssshhh... you're human.

Anakin confesses an act of utter evil to the epitome of good guy liberal democracy in these movies and… she has no idea how to react. Remember that the Senator is often a moral giant who opposes the military buildup, stepped down from being Queen when she could have continued, and in many other ways is doing the “right” things by the Republic. Yet what does she have to say in the face of genuine evil, but “you’re human”.

Assurance of humanity is a very disturbing point in response to Anakin killing aliens. He calls them animals, and Lucas’s costume design has always done a good job of making tribal cultures appear dirty and lower-class. Subhuman, almost (until we finally unite with them). People like Amidala and the Jedi should be the least racist of anyone in that culture, but slip into it easily when thrown off their emotional balance.

Not that this blog is supposed to give Padme Amidala lessons in how to treat her boyfriend. Perhaps she should have run away then and there, or had him tried, or gotten him extreme therapy to make sure he doesn’t kill again. But without comprehension of actual evil, she’s incapable of doing any of those things. 

We must understand that Padme is emblematic of the Republic’s failures and not personally accountable for them.

She was trained to fight conservatism in the Senate, not confront a vicious and grieving murderer. Much like the Republic has been trained to deal with technocratic problems like the Trade Federation taxation issues, and not solve slavery on rural planets.

So Anakin’s anger, and severe attachment issues get forgotten. Like Yoda sensing the Dark Side, all of the problems that bring down the Republic are explicitly presented in Episode 2, and ignored by the “good guys” in their mad dash, only in order to explode later.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Breaking: Episode 7 Trailer

I can’t not comment on the trailer for Episode 7 that just came out. Disney and Abrams are definitely returning to the set and prop design feel of the Original Trilogy as much as possible, probably as a reaction to the reception of the Prequels. This will probably work out fine.

I’ve been fairly optimistic about this movie ever since I heard the title was “The Force Awakens”. It shows a lot of awareness of what the movies are about, compared to various alternatives. The movies are a spiritual journey after all.

But this trailer makes me really excited.

For one there’s the black stormtrooper we see as the first character. This is excellent. A lot of racists in youtube comments may feel this in violation of the entirely white Imperial Order we saw before, but readers of this blog know better. The clones are one of the many underclasses of the Star Wars universe, and are used by white humans as cannon fodder to die for them. The fact that even post-clones, the front line troops continue to be the underclass fits in perfectly with the Empire’s hierarchy.

(Of course in the Original Trilogy there is one Imperial character played by a black man. Darth Vader. And his general treatment by and of the Imperial staff definitely re-emphasizes this theme of racial strife.)

The light saber tripart hilt is interesting. We may be seeing the continued debasement of light sabers, like we saw in the Prequels, where they’re everywhere instead of being holy objects. Or it could be the further sanctification of them, as it literally looks like a cross*. We will have to see.

But the best thing is the final line. The narrator says “The Dark Side” while showing a Sith.

And then says “The Light Side” and shows us… the Millenium Falcon.

The Millenium Falcon is the home to our heroes who are united in trust and the Force. It shows up multiple times out of nowhere, just to save the day. It’s non-standardized and illegal. It is the best non-character symbol of trust and community in the entire six movies. It's a TAZ. Understanding that the Millenium Falcon is the Light Side of the Force shows that JJ Abrams really gets it.

* Of course these are Christian movies. The main figure has an immaculate conception, and dies to rid the universe of the Dark Side. Along the way we all find out that we are one and the best path is to love each other unconditionally. I'm surprised at how few crosses there are.

Friday, November 28, 2014

We are the droids we've been looking for

Star Wars deals with a large number of sci-fi beings, and uses them to say a lot about our world. We just discussed how Force ghosts are more message than person, so the next question that comes to mind is where droids fall on the spectrum. Are they "real people", who should be afforded dignity and happiness? Are they part of the Force?

Long before I started writing this blog, two comments about droids stood out.

  • The droids in Phantom Menace talk to each other as if they have social structures that connote some level of independent action (the droid captain has to tell the other droid soldiers what to do), while they are also dependent on a central computer.
  • The characters, particularly good characters, often treat C-3PO like an object, wiping his memory or selling him to Hutts without any respect to his wishes.

But subtle statements about the droids and their status populate the entire series. I mentioned "machines making machines" earlier… which perhaps could best be described as "machines commenting on machines making machines" for even more escheresque terminology. The most loaded scene is probably R2-D2 playing holo-chess against Chewbacca, when Han and C-3PO give the famous warning "Let the wookie win."

So what are droids? Droids are servants, through and through. But just because they aren't servants doesn't mean they aren't still people.

One of our first introductions to them is as Leia has given R2 and C-3PO a secret message and put them on an escape pod. The Imperial officer who scans the pod says it shows no life signs, and so dismisses it as a threat.

The (racist) Imperials do not detect for droids, only for biological people. And in doing so, they miss a key thing that leads to a major defeat for them.

This would be just like a British upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners, where the fact that the elitist gentry ignores the servants becomes their downfall. Servants are still people, as it is so easy for the elites to forget.

C-3PO is particularly interesting, which is to say, he is very self-consciously servile. He treats most  humans exactly like an eager butler. He's fronting, pretending to be part of their upper class, while never actually claiming equality. He's gold plated.

(C-3PO really does not get along with the other underclasses. He insults Chewbacca, the 70's blaxpoitation cariacature, and condescends to the Ewoks when he first meets them. This is the sort of status-affirming class conflict our history is all too familiar with, where the people not at the top of the pyramid find it most important to emphasize that they are still above some other groups. By the end of Return of the Jedi, though, C-3PO is giving a gentle funeral service to the natives he was previously mocking.)

And we get this sort of… gentle effeminity across droid depictions. The droids of the Trade Federation army are purposefully non-threatening, which Lucas said he was going for. We're supposed to think of them as vaguely cartoonish and silly. Much like Jar Jar makes us uncomfortable, to demonstrate that treating him badly is still wrong.

(I'm particularly struck by how philosophical C-3PO often his. He off-handedly spouts theological truths, like we would expect more from the wise servant figures of an Alfred or Wooster.)

"But Blue," you might ask if you were philosophically inclined, "these are beings deliberately made to be our servants. Why do the humans owe equality or respect or autonomy to people who's very definition is to serve humans?"

And the movies show that even if a being desires to help you, you can still treat it badly or well. Senator Bail Organa coolly orders C-3PO's braind wiped at the end of Episode 3, at once pretending indifference while being quite clear at the violence that is being done. This recalls the scenes on Tatooine in Episode 1, where Anakin matter of factly states that there is a bomb in his head and he doesn't want to be a slave, but gives up on this moral message when the Jedi just ignore him.

C-3PO whines, but he whines about things that are very legitimate to be hurt by. Having his brain wiped, being lost in a desert, being sold to slavers. We laugh, the same way we laugh at Jar Jar when he insists he is sentient because "I spake!" It's against our ideas of politeness and stoic manners, but it's still true.

We should remember that just because someone is coded on the side of "good" does not mean they are acting correctly. Luke is plagued by the Dark Side. Good characters continue the logic of classism and corruption throughout the series. It is only in brief glimpses of transcendental logic do even the best characters manage to follow the Light Side. Only when they trust other people.

In comparison, Leia trusts the droids and works with them. R2-D2 himself "talks" to other computer systems on Bespin, and convinces the computer to do things around the security locks the Empire has put in place.

Which answers the question about those battle droids. They do have independent existence and have to hear orders from superiors to know what to do. But also they are slaved to a central computer that if it shuts down, they will shut down. This is not a contradiction, but instead a demonstration of how cruel the universe is to the lower classes. They are damned if they do, damned if they don't, just like the system wants them to be.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Yoda Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts

At the end of the Prequels we get Yoda explaining to Obi-Wan about how to become a ghost. This scene is amazing and key on so many levels.

(continuing) Master Kenobi, wait a moment. In your solitude on Tatooine, training I have for you.
An old friend has learned the path to immortality.
One who has returned from the netherworld of the Force to train me . . . your old Master, Qui-Gon Jinn.
Qui-Gon? But, how could he accomplish this?
The secret of the Ancient Order of the Whills, he studied. How to commune with him. I will teach you.
I will be able to talk with him?
How to join the Force, he will train you. Your consciousness you will retain, when one with the Force. Even your physical self, perhaps.

For one, it's awkward and stilted. We can compare it to Obi-Wan's first reference to what will
become of him "If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." This is a very numinous line that is seared in our memory. It specifically makes a connection between the sacrifice necessary for greatness. It also explains, like, nothing. Yoda by comparison is boring and technocratic, explaining a great deal more (including who invented it). Once more we are seeing the midichlorization of the Force, reducing belief to fundamentalist knowledge.

But what are they discussing? Yoda is offering immortal life. Did this movie have anything else to say about immortal life? Oh right, we just spent the whole movie watching Anakin obsessively chase after Dark Side immortality, as he destroyed everything he cared about for it. Why would the Jedi be researching immortality too?

Palpatine sez: The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way, including their quest for greater power.

So this is a movie where we both get that line, and we see separate Sith and Jedi methods for attaining immortality. Lucas could have easily left this scene out (there's no tactical necessity to explain Force ghosts at this point), but is able to include it in such a way that draws further equivalencies between these teams.

Third, it returns us to Yoda's character and his reliance on the "real self". Remember his line of Episode 5 "Luminous beings we are, not this crude matter." Guys guys, he must be thinking, I've finally found a way to really be a luminous being! Concerns about the world, or the effect of our imperfect actions on the world, can go to rot. We can float off and be star ghosts instead of dealing with messiness and reality and other perspectives.

And of course he's wrong.


What is a ghost? (Well, a Force ghost, in this universe.)

It's important to note how they are described. In Revenge of the Sith, Yoda describes them as a way to continue on, to maintaining themselves. This is not how Obi-Wan describes or practices it in the Original Trilogy. Then it's a way to continue to affect the world even after he is gone, a way to help and save people.

Here is what Obi-Wan looks like as a ghost.

Does this look like anything else we had seen in the movies so far?

Force ghosts look exactly like electronic transmissions in this universe. They are a way to communicate with people. Whatever Obi-Wan is (dead, in heaven, etc) this representation is not him. It is him communicating with Luke.

This is why Han can't see him and rides through his appearance on Hoth. This is why Obi-Wan only talks to other characters, and doesn't simply use his transenergy state to fly in and blow up the Death Star himself. We never see ghost Obi-Wan chilling by himself in deep space. He's not really there. We are simply seeing a visual representation of his communication with Luke, which is all a Force ghost can do.

But if the Force is the connection of all believers, then even after death we can influence the world. In fact our ability to influence others – others who trust us – is all that the Force is.

And as we are told, that – and not hanging on forever – is more powerful than you can imagine.