Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi, Intertextuality and Fanishness.

Almost the first thing we know about Star Wars is that we are watching one part of a larger saga. 

Granted, when we first saw Star Wars it was just Star Wars and not Star Wars: Chapter IV - A New Hope. But the opening crawl was undoubtedly telling us The Story So Far, and the story was already well underway when we started watching. We kept hearing about things like the Spice Mines of Kessel and the Clone Wars as if we ought to know what they were but didn’t.

As more and more episodes (and comics and cartoons and games) have come out, we have learned more and more about the Star Wars universe, but we have never really felt we are in possession of the whole saga from beginning to end. Watching the hidden parts being unveiled has always been one of the pleasures of a new Star Wars movie.

Some of us went to see Empire Strikes Back honestly not knowing who Luke Skywalker’s daddy would turn out to be. Some of us can still percieve that Vader’s identity was a choice; that until the moment of revelation the story could have gone off in a quite different direction. Some of us still wish that it had. What would a sequence of sequels in which Darth Vader had literally murdered Anakin have been like? More like Star Wars, I sometimes think. 

"Gradually showing us more and more of the setting” is one of the ways in which the Star Wars saga unfolds. The more questions the saga answers, the fewer possibilities there are. If the Clone Wars are revealed to be this, they can’t also be that. The alternative is not to tell any stories at all. 

So: in A New Hope, an Emperor is mentioned. In Empire Strikes Back, we see this Emperor as a hologram. And in Return of the Jedi, we finally meet him face to face and discover that he is an evil Jedi. In the prequels, the concept of “evil Jedi” is further explicated: The Emperor is identified as a Sith master and Darth Vader as his apprentice. Some of this is problematic (I am suddenly troubled by Tarkin telling Vader that he is all that is left of the Jedi religion) but this gradual decoding is clearly a big part of the trajectory of Episodes IV-VI and I-III. 

We reasonably expect The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to develop in a similar way: introducing new mysteries about the Star Wars universe and gradually untangling them. When The Force Awakens withholds key information about certain characters while clearly coding them as “mysterious” that expectation is reinforced.

The Force Awakens is constructed in such a way as to make us wonder about the identity of Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s identity isn’t a mystery or a secret inside the the Star Wars universe: Luke, Han, Leia, Dameron and some of the First Order officers all know perfectly well who he is. But it is a piece of information which has been withheld from the viewer: a puzzle, a source of tension. About half way through the film, the set-up pays off: it turns out that (SPOILERS) Kylo Ren is Ben Solo. This is a good dramatic moment in the film; it makes sense of what we already know of Kylo; it fills in a wodge of background about Han and Leia and it increases the emotional jeopardy. We now know that Han Solo has a personal stake in the action. 

The Force Awakens was also constructed in such a way as to raise the question about who or what Snoke is. Again, Leia and Han and Poe and Kylo Ren and the various First Order functionaries know who he is, but we don’t. He’s presented very much as the Emperor was in Empire Strikes Back, only more so: a gigantic hologram that we don’t get a good look at; who appears to have some kind of facial disfigurement, bespeaking some previous fight. So, we expect there to be a similar revelatory moment about Snoke, one that explains and deepens him and makes the plot more complicated. Not necessarily “I am Yoda’s sister” — the family ties thing is specifically about the Skywalker clan — but some hint about who he is and how he got there.

The original trilogy tells us that however strongly the Force may be with you, you still have to go off to Hogwarts to learn how to use it. Luke is the most powerful Jedi in the universe and he still doesn't have any Force magic until he meets Ben. Nor does Anakin, who was literally conceived by the Force. (Yes: the prequels are canon. Episodes VII and VIII reference Clone Troopers, Darth Sidious, the Jedi Temple and the idea of bringing balance to the Force.) 

So, the rules we have been taught encourage us to ask, “Why is Snoke so Forceful?” Is he another alumnus of Luke's Jedi school? Did Darth Sidious have a backup apprentice? Is there a mysterious Sith Temple churning out little Darth Mauls? "Actually, there are lots of natural Force users running around the Galaxy who don’t need to be trained" would be a permissible, if rather boring, answer, but if that's the case why does Snoke talk as if he is part of some wider conspiracy? If people can just spontaneously start levitating rocks and telling Stormtroopers which droids they are meant to be looking for, why does Luke Skywalker's Jedi school even matter? But the film doesn’t give, or imply that answer. The question doesn’t seem to have occurred to it.

Episodes I - III reconfigured Star Wars as being about the battle between the Jedi and the Sith. They hinted at some interesting stuff in which the "Dark Side" wasn't wholly dark and the "Light Side" wasn't wholly light, and suggested that there were secret teachings within the Jedi tradition that Yoda and Qui-Gon were privy to. So we reasonably want to know what happens next. Did the death of Vader bring the Sith’s thousand-year history to an end; or are they going to spring up again in some other form? Is Snoke a new Sith Lord, or is he part of some other Dark Side tradition? But if there are Dark Side traditions apart from the Sith, what was defeated when Darth Vader was defeated? If Snoke is a Sith, is Kylo Ren his apprentice? Or has Ren independently decided to revive Granddad's cult? If Ren doesn't see himself as the continuation of the Sith, in what sense does he think he's the new Darth Vader? (But why hasn't he taken on the title Darth?)

I agree that one can be too obsessed with this kind of thing. I agree that many fan theories — however ingenious they might be — are palpably not the kind of thing that would ever happen in a piece of mainstream popular culture. There were a couple of fans who were convinced that the final episode of Doctor Who Season I was going to reveal that Christopher Eccleston was not, in fact, the Doctor but a new incarnation of the Master and the real Doctor was imprisoned on an asteroid somewhere. Brilliant, but just not the kind of thing the BBC would ever do. There certainly are people who spot that the new movie contradicts something mentioned in a footnote to a backup strip in issue #6 of the new Darth Vader comic and claim that this ruins the movie for them; just as there are fans whose whole interest in the Last Jedi rests on a rumour they heard that it will award canonical status to Jaxxon the rabbit. I agree that this kind of thing is tiresome. 

On the other hand: if Disney are going to make a big song and dance about anathematizing the whole of the Extended Universe and creating a new, singular canon in which everything is “true” I think we are entitled to expect very broad consistency between the comics, the movies and the cartoons. If Clone Wars tells us that Younglings were taken off to a special cave and taught how to make Lightsabers that suited their particular abilities, I think I am entitled to be surprised if a movie says that Obi-Wan bought his in Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe on Diagon Alley.

And yes: if Star War IX mentions Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe then twelve hours later three fan sites will upload five excellent stories about how the Empire conquered Ilum and three Jedi preserved the craft of lightsaber forging under cover of a shop. No canon is so contradictory that it is impossible for exegetes to harmonize. 

There is a theory that the normal, indeed correct, way of watching a movie or a TV show is with your ears turned off, one eye on your smartphone, one eye on your popcorn, letting the big funny lights wash over you. Those of us who give multiplex movies our full attention are therefore bound to misunderstand them: we're trying to do something with them that they were never intended for.  ("But Andrew" says an elderly TV viewer of my acquaintance "Normal people don't analyze Doctor Who in the way you do. They just watch it.”) 

There is something to this. But the line between "Star Wars fan" and "casual cinema goer" is much wobblier than it used to be. The prequels were incredibly "fannish" and people still went to see them. The Clone Wars cartoon series is (among other things) a fannish exercise in redeeming the prequels, and it went out on the Disney Channel. There is a fine moment in Star Wars: Rebels where the scooby gang is sent to meet an old-wise-mysterious Rebel contact, and she turns out to be Anakin Skywalker’s estranged padawan from Clone Wars. (Who doesn't know what happened to her old master, but is aware that the Empire have an incredibly nasty Sith Lord working for them. It doesn't end well.) That seems to be supremely fannish, if by fannish you mean “asking questions about what happened to subsidiary characters after they left the stage” and “expecting characters from one series to turn up in another” and “being interested in the shape of the saga, not just the fight scenes”. But Star Wars: Rebels is quite clearly a kids’ cartoon.

Some fans are more obsessive than others. Some people would regard me as quite a lightweight: I am still inclined to think of spaceships as “pointy ones”, “big pointy ones” and “really huge pointy ones”; and couldn’t confidently tell you the difference between an A-Wing and a B-Wing. But "a person who saw the prequels" and "a person who pays attention to the dialogue" is quite a puritanical definition of "fan".

I don't think The Last Jedi is a failure. I do not think that Johnson is ten thousand parsecs from embracing Russel T Davies' theory that coherent story telling is for wimps. On one viewing, I would say that Last Jedi is better than any of the prequels, but not as good as the Force Awakens or Rogue One. I only say that some of the narrative decisions were disappointing and may turn out to be damaging to the Saga as a whole.

Here is a question. Please do not try to answer it.

1: In the Force Awakens, the identity of Rey’s parents is presented as a mystery. Which of the following is true of the eventual solution?

A: J.J Abrams knew when he wrote the Force Awakens that Rey’s parents were blah blah mumble mumble mutter mutter.

B: J.J Abrams did not know who Rey’s parents were when he wrote the Force Awakens: he presented it as an unanswered question but left it open for his successor to answer.

C: When he wrote the Force Awakens, J.J Abrams intended Rey’s parents to be, for example, yadda yadda yadda, but at some point during development, Johnson changed this to mumble mumble mutter mutter blah blah.

2: As a way of developing a film script which is part of a forty-year saga is this

A: About how you would expect things to work.

B: A bit of an odd process, frankly.

C: Completely fucking deranged.

How Andrew rates the Star Wars movies.
For amusement only. 

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Anonymous said...

What leads you to believe that the answer as to who Rey's parents were that is given in The Last Jedi is True?

James Holloway said...

I agree with a lot of this, but I do think that the thing with Rey's parents is very much an intentional bait and switch -- you are clearly meant to think they are hrrm hrrm hrrm but by saying that they are actually hum de dum, Johnson is trying to provide an alternative view of the series' themes, implying that the story is not the saga of just you-know-who but implying that it is really about, you know, everyone. And I do think that was set up from the first film -- it was an intentional fakeout all along. It is *obvious* in the first film that Rey's parents are ahem ahem so that this could be subverted.

Similarly, with the lightsaber bit, I totally believe that the script notes for this episode said something like "Rey offers Luke the lightsaber and he rejects it; he no longer believes in the Jedi knights and considers himself a man of peace, wars not make one great, violence is the path to the Dark Side, etc., etc." I don't think that was always intended to be the bit of comedy business it turned out to be, though.

Mike Taylor said...

I do concede that we're entitled to wonder whether Snoke was a Sith, and if so, how he fits into the always-two-there-are model. One might profitably muse on whether Sith-ness is in fact constrained to the always-two-there-are model, or whether that was just a story Plagueis/Palpatine, Palpatine/Dooku, then Palpatine/Vader told themselves to make themselves feel special. What I don't concede is thar the films have to explore that. I rather think we'll have more fun speculating on such things ourselves that we would get from being told the what The Answer is. Because whatever The Answer turns out to be, the only possible response will be "oh".

But more importantly:

If Snoke is a Sith, is Kylo Ren his apprentice? Or has Ren independently decided to revive Granddad's cult? If Ren doesn't see himself as the continuation of the Sith, in what sense does he think he's the new Darth Vader? (But why hasn't he taken on the title Darth?)

I think the defining characteristic of Kylo Ren is that he doesn't know what the heck he's doing. He pretty explicitly started out as a Vader fanboy ("I will finish what you started, grandfather"), just like any other edgy teen who is drawn to big-R Romantic notions of darkness. The only difference is that instead of sublimating this into making a collection of Judas Priest LPs, Ben Solo has enough innate Force ability to parlay his really slightly laughable obsession into something genuinely dangerous. Subsequently, he is obviously fascinated by the idea of turning away from this path to return to Han, but too much in fear or in awe of Snoke to do it. When the chance comes, he kills Snoke in a completely unpremediatated moment. He's thinking with his hormones, not his brain -- by which I don't just mean whatever kind of affection he has for Rey, but more broadly the whole wash of mutually confusing and contradictory adolescent hormones. At any moment, he could go either way -- as when, immediately after Snoke's death, he and Rey fight joyously side by side, only for the moment of camaraderie to dissolve the moment the Red Guards are defeated.

Ben is a kid who is fascinated by Nazi memorabilia, first excited then horrified to find he actually has it in him to create a Fourth Reich, and now winging it from moment to moment.

Isn't all of this tremendously more interesting than one more This Is Your Destiny journey?

(I really should have written all this on my own blog.)

Oh, and for what it's worth: I found resolution of the "mystery' of Rey's parents deeply satisfying: much, much more so than any of the fan theories. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally, she became a hero.

Spoilers Below said...

Thanks very much for this post, Andrew. It's good reading :)

I never meant to imply that digging deeper or asking question was an incorrect way to enjoy a series, nor that it wasn't a very fun and enjoyable endeavor. (and I've got a shelf-worth of Doctor Who novels, Star Wars comics, and "expanded universe" Roman poems and plays about Greek Mythology if you don't believe me!) You are emphatically not wrong for thinking about the question and wanting an answer. I was thinking more in terms of the wilder and crazier theorizing ("23 Reasons Why Snoke is Porkins and You're Not a Real Star Wars Fan if You Disagree"), not that merely asking questions was wrong.

One of the things I love about Star Wars, in fact, is the idea that every single character you ever see is having a life just as interesting as the protagonists, at least as far as Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina/Jabba's Palace/the Bounty Hunters/etc. led me to believe. So, while I don't think that, to address my earlier comment, "Who is Snoke?" couldn't lead to an excellent short story or novel or movie (Palpatine is very interesting in the prequels), merely that it isn't a question that the movie seems interested in.

The movie is interested in Kylo Ren texting Rey a shirtless pic of his muscly chest and "sup girl?" late at night, his adoptive dad telling him "I knew about you sneaking around the whole time, and you're a loser, and also your girlfriend sucks", and the pair of them killing him and his friends before Kylo is dumped for just not getting why she isn't into him. Snoke is a symbol, the big father (the Dark Father?) who Kylo has gotten rid of, but he still hasn't managed to grow up. To me, that's who Snoke is. He's a point in Kylo's development as a character, a chance where he could have seen where he'd gotten things wrong and changed, but instead threw himself even deeper into trying to be an ideal that he'll never manage to reach.

Russel T Davies was very interesting in regards this, because a lot of his slapdash approach was, from what I understand, intentional. He loves the novels and audio-dramas and and wants the show to keep running forever. I'm paraphrasing, but when someone asked him where The Wire (from The Idiot's Lantern) came from, he replied "I have no idea, and I'm excited to find out when someone writes that story!" Before the prequels and before Empire Strikes Back, the original treatment for Star Wars had the detail that Tarkin was the man actually in charge of the Empire, keeping the Emperor on the throne as a puppet and manipulating things from behind the scenes. I think the Emperor turned out to be a great deal more interesting that than. There's almost certainly a market for a Knights of Ren film, or a "Zurneith Kal, Traitor to the First Order" movie that would explore Snoke's backstory or rise to power.

Just because Last Jedi wasn't the right film to tell this story doesn't mean it isn't a story that shouldn't be told.

A. L. Brackett said...

Hello, Mr. Rilstone

Firstly I would like to congratulate you, you were wright, I was wrong.
Although i did begin to drift toward Rey Solo as the trailers came out, initially I was hard core Ray Skywalker. It is now quite clear that Rey is Leia's doughtier. Indeed it is quite as clear as the fact that Snoke was just an avatar that Leia was using to create her own Vader, but even after that theory I did give Rey Solo full play as you did from the beginning.
So,congratulation once again.
Oh, and an A-wing is a space supremacy fighter wile a B-wing is basically a light bomber...but then you knew that already.

JAn said...

In this quite interesting interview with Simon Mayo, Johnson says he was basically given carte blanche to take the story wherever he wanted. How truthful he's being can be brought into question, but it does seem as though there is no "showrunner" so to speak - which if true is bonkers.

He also says he's a huge SW fan. We can talk about whether he gets it or not, but he does come across as someone invested in the story and universe.

My main issue with the film qua film is the baggy middle bit during which some of the characters have to run off and collect plot tokens. The Poe v Holdo dynamic held no tension for me because the film had almost literally said "let's park here until this other stuff's resolved". Poorly drawn out storytelling in a film that didn't need to be two and a half hours long.