Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Gungan in the Room

Let me tell you a story.

There was a spaceship above a planet. A battle took place on the spaceship, and two of the combatants - good guys - found themselves on the losing end. So they retreated to the planet and went to ground. There they stumbled onto an innocent native and had to explain the entire nature of the galactic conflict and their role in it, in order to enlist his aid. After some initial resistance, he chose to help them and became part of their adventure, even though it required traveling far from home.

This is how the entire Original Trilogy opens.

It is also how the Prequel Trilogy opens.

Playing the role once held by Luke Lars, is Jar Jar Binks.

Now, was George Lucas purposefully drawing a parallel between Luke and Jar Jar? I think so, but maybe he didn't intend that. But then the reason for the similarity is “this is the only way Lucas knows how to start a trilogy”. It is as much a part of the Star Wars liminal experience as “A long, long time ago” and scrolling text. And it works pretty well too: you start with a splashy battle and evidence of an epic story, you have two characters talking to each other instead of one lone escapee who would just be silent, you have the yank to mundane circumstances, and you have the audience stand-in who everything has to be explained to.

Jar Jar has the character arc of Phantom Menace, from naive bystander to traveling sidekick, to high-ranked participant in the finale battle. Jar Jar learns things. Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and Amidala really have no similar character arc. (Anakin does, but he enters very late and so is secondary.) Intentional or not, it is there and part of how the story works.

There is a name for the conflux of logistical tropes that come together in Jar Jar Binks. It’s “protagonist.”

(Jar Jar does save the day occasionally. "But that's an accident by a clumsy doofus, Blue." In a world with the Force? In a world where someone saves the day by turning off their targeting computer and firing a torpedo down a chute blindly? Or where a kid lands by accident on the enemy mother ship and by accident shoots out the engine? Note that the non-protagonist Jedi never/rarely have "accidents" like those.)

Jar Jar certainly is not the focal character of the movie, or trilogy. We see things from the point of view of Obi-Wan or Qui-Gon. We inhabit their moral and cultural outlook, and all the baggage that comes with it. It would be impossible to be the naif again, as we’ve seen the Original Trilogy and we know about the greater galaxy already.

So, how does an innocent protagonist look like to self-satisfied warrior-monks who sit at the cosmopolitan center of the universe?

He looks like a complete bumpkin that’s what.

Jar Jar’s character design employs a lot of uncomfortable racial imagery. It harkens back to the minstrel shows of the early 20th century, and all the degradation that implied. And that’s very uncomfortable for the audience (for the Jedi as well). The protagonist could have been much more “normal” (read: American-like), and so the audience and Jedi would not have had to deal with the foreign. But that would be a lie. Dealing with people of different cultures and lower class is going to be uncomfortable and involve things you aren’t used to. The moral answer is to treat them respectfully even though they are different in uncomfortable ways.

The focal characters don’t do this. Qui-Gon especially does not do this.

Are you brainless? You almost got us killed!

I spake.

The ability to speak does not make you intelligent. Now get outta here!

Really Qui-Gon Jinn. You’ve chosen to believe that speech doesn’t make a creature in your universe sentient. That is amazing bullshit. I wonder how the Jedi do determine whether a creature is intelligent. Standardized tests? Grandfather clauses?

Of course the ability to speak makes Gungans intelligent. Jar Jar Binks is, and there is no evidence to the contrary, a sentient being. But he is treated with condescension and annoyance by the white human cosmopolitan characters constantly. And the audience, inhabiting that point of view, tends to hate him and write fan edits where he doesn’t exist.

Again, it did not have to be this way. Jar Jar could commit immoral acts and thus deserve his poor treatment to a greater extent (like Watto or Jabba). Instead Jar Jar is frequently the moral voice pointing out obvious moral truths that the Jedi ignore (we’ll get to those later.) Qui-Gon could simply not be a jerk and manhandle Jar Jar in ways like pulling his tongue out (really Qui-Gon seems obsessed with Jar Jar’s ability to speak, it comes up several times.) Or Jar Jar could have just been completely similar to a human except with blue skin. (*coughAvatarcough*)

And Jar Jar largely buys into it. Early on he objects to his poor treatment, in a buffoonish manner that makes it easily dismissed but is accurate no less, and points to his alien society as reason the focal characters should fear him. So they travel to the Gungan court (where we find that Jar Jar is low class even for Gungans, but still nothing justifying his treatment), and the Jedi convince this native alien culture “You need to join up with us and fight our enemies for us”.

There’s no particular reason for this.

The Trade Federation is blockading the planet. This is really annoying to the human colonists of Naboo who apparently can’t go through a week of an interstellar blockade without starving, but to the native undersea dwellers? That is definitely an “over there” problem. The Trade Federation is an affront to the Galactic Republic. Well the Republic could deal with this (or rather, why it doesn’t deal with it is interesting and important). Instead it sends two space-ninjas, who’s latest plan is to conscript the natives into their war. It really reminds me of “Paddy’s Lamentation.”

(We could be more accepting of this if the Trade Federation was some ultimate evil that everyone had to fight together. But it’s a phantom menace after all. It’s a puppet of the real threat, and actions taken against the Fed are actually engineered to help the real enemy. Which makes it all the more disturbing to see natives conscripted for this false conflict.)

But the galaxy spanning, thousand worlds, trillions of people, galactic empire (of white humans, for white humans, by other people) convinces the native Gungans to do their fighting for them, as part of their assimilation into galactic culture. And given the dominance of white human culture, both from Coruscant and on Naboo, this is not going to be an equal assimilation with both cultures learning from each other.

This is going to be like watching Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks work together.


The Phantom Menace is, among other things, the routine story of how the Galactic Republic assimilates non-human cultures, and how Jar Jar is assimilated into this tale. Jar Jar eventually becomes the Senator representing the Gungans on Coruscant, after all.

This is a fairly boring story, but also important, and there are good reasons some fans dislike it. They go so far as to declare you don’t need to watch Episode I, or to edit all Jar Jar scenes out.

Why is it important then? What is the Phantom Menace?

Let’s talk about the Original Trilogy briefly. Educated fans will tell you that it is a classic Cambellian myth, of a hero from a humble home (but epic origins) who defeats the One Enemy that is making everything wrong. And certainly many have read Return of the Jedi as meaning that “once the Emperor is killed, everyone else can start fixing things again.” He was one man, responsible for the world being so bad. Educated opponents of the films might worry how reductive this is, as the world is full of complex problems that are not the fault of a “bad guy”.

Part and parcel of this ideology is that, since all the bad is due to one person (or group, or philosophy), then before they came along, everything was perfect. The Galactic Republic, the Jedi Council, it all sounds so grand. Maybe there were other bad guys then too, but they were dealt with by awesome Jedi Knights. If you’re rooting for the heroes, then you must be rooting for that golden age. And some movies in that golden age must be great. This is often called “prelapsarian” thinking.

But the Jedi and the Republic were not brought down by one man. They were brought down by themselves.

A story of revolution needs three things at least: the long term causes, the short term causes, and the spark of ignition. Episode I takes place well before the more proximate causes, and shows us the long term causes of the Jedi and Republic’s failures. It shows liberal capitalism trundling towards the horizon of some looming apocalypse. It describes why, in the terms I’m laying out, the Republic was doomed.

“Your golden age was actually corrupt and declining and not very nice” is not something some prelapsarians wants to hear. So, better that we never have a movie about the golden age. Better we start right at the moment of conflict, where events can be much more blamed on individual actors.

But what would a “positive” movie about the Republic even look like? If all the institutions worked correctly (like the Senate), if there were no dirty corners of the galaxy to clean up (like Tatooine), if the Jedi aren’t incredibly arrogant, then how do problems even come about? Unrealistic for one, but also boring and illogical. Palpatine can’t smoothly transition into ultimate power if anyone is paying attention at all.

There was no golden age. But there were long term causes. The Prequels are great (and uncomfortable) when they force us to confront these truths.

And Jar Jar is nothing if not true and uncomfortable.

1 comment:

  1. This is so good. I suppose I should actually watch the prequels at some point...