Saturday, March 31, 2018

Shakespeare's Second Best Lampshade.

I said:

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Mike said:

I think this is a rare case where you are exactly wrong. Subsequent episodes have overwritten our perception of the original film, but looking at that film as a film -- a single, self-contained drama -- Leia's/Foster's analysis is not only spot on, it also precisely captures what's so magical about that film. There is nothing about Luke, Han, Chewie, R2D2 or C3PO that marks them out as suitable for a grand adventure. The only characters on our side with any kind of power are Ben and Leia; but he is decades past his prime, and she spends most of the film in captivity.


No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.
Northanger Abbey

So: the Duchess's drunken uncle and her melancholy jester decide to play a prank on the puritanical steward.

The plan is to convince him, the steward, that she, the duchess is head over heals in love with him; and then convince her, the duchess, that he, the steward, is demon-possessed. As you do.

The prank depends on the steward being unbelievably vain (which he is) and the duchess being unbelievably stupid (which she isn't). It also depends on it suddenly turning out that the duchess and her chambermaid happen to have indistinguishable handwriting.

This is a bit of a stretch even by Shakespeare's standards: so just as the steward is swallowing the forged love-letter hook, line and sinker, a bit part player chips in with the famous words "If this were played upon the stage, I could condemn it as improbable fiction."

The TV Tropes website calls this kind of thing "lamp-shading", and Shakespeare is very fond of it. It isn't exactly breaking the fourth wall: Fabian doesn't know he's in a play, and he can't see the audience. If a real person had just negotiated Malvolio into such a successful heffalump trap, there is no reason at all why they wouldn't say "I’d never believe it if I saw it in a play!” I don't think it is quite true to say that Shakespeare is apologizing to the audience for the stream of plot devices he has just subjected them to. I don't think Shakespeare's audiences expected plays to be realistic: they went to the theater to see the surprising and the preposterous. I think that what Shakespeare is really doing is reminding us that everything in the play except this plot device is perfectly realistic, or at least asking us to pretend that it is. "This isn't just a story" he is saying "And these aren't just fairy tale characters. They are people just like you and me. This kind of thing doesn't happen to them every day. They are as surprised by it as you would be."

So: when Princess Leia (in the novelization of Star Wars) says "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes" is she simply engaging in Shakespearean lamp-shading? Is she pretty much just saying "Luke Skywalker wasn't a hero; he was just a person who this stuff happened to. He felt as out of his depth on the Death Star as you would have done. I know it's all very far fetched and unlikely, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy yourself…."

It is, almost inevitably, more complicated than that.


If we are going to talk about Star Wars -- and indeed, if we are ever going to stop talking about Star Wars -- we have to keep three things very separate in our heads:

1: Star Wars, a stand-alone art-house movie from 1977 which made it very, very big.

2: The Star Wars Trilogy, a science fiction epic consisting of a slightly revised version of Star Wars plus The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983).

3: The Star Wars Saga, a six part epic consisting of substantially revised versions of the Star Wars Trilogy and three more films -- The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2003) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

It is easy to forget that these are not at all the same thing; to assume that things we only found out in 2005 were already true in 1977. I just re-read the Dark Empire comic books, and was forcibly reminded that in 1995 there were no such things as Sith or Padawans, and no such planet as Coruscant.

Alan Dean Foster's book is definitely a novelization of Star Wars, not of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Darth Vader (first name: Darth; second name Vader) is merely a treacherous Jedi, one of a number of Dark Lords, not necessarily a pivotal persona in the galaxy. Luke Skywalker's father is still anonymous; he was a friend of Ben Kenobi and notable mainly as a star pilot. The only thing Ben says about Luke's heritage is that he is  "quite a good pilot".

In this version of the story, Luke Skywalker is no-one of consequence. The arc of Star Wars is spoiled if he is. Ben teaches him the meaning of the Force while he is practicing lightsaber fighting on the Millennium Falcon. He saves the universe 45 minutes later because he remembers and puts into practice what Ben taught him. Luke destroys the Death Star because he trusts his feelings, trusts the Force and trusts Ben Kenobi – not because he inherited superpowers from his dad.

So: is he a hero?

Well, the word hero has a number of different meanings. To a tabloid subeditor, anyone who has served in the armed forces in any capacity is by definition a war hero. Anyone who has done anything brave, whether saving a cat from a tree or going up a tall mountain by the difficult route could be said to have been heroic. If I admire a sportsman or a singer, I might say that they are my hero. For Wagner, hero is pretty much a job description: Siegfried is “the young hero” before he has done anything particularly brave. Joseph Campbell overloaded the word with Jungian symbolism and Freudian baggage, but a lot of the time, "hero" doesn't mean anything more than "the main character in a story."

So: the nub of the gist is that there is nothing heroic about Luke Skywalker, and nothing marks him out as a hero at the beginning of the story.

That is to say:

Having been explicitly told that Star Wars is a fairy tale, we would naturally assume that an orphan of mysterious parentage, living with a wicked, or at any rate indifferent uncle in a remote location is going to be a secondary and unimportant person in the story. We are, on our first viewing of Star Wars, surprised when Luke ends up taking center stage. After all, it comes as a surprise to us in the actual fairy tales when the plain, adopted and ill-treated sister gets to go to the big party and marries the prince: we naturally assumed the story was going to be about one of her older, prettier and more legitimate stepsisters. We are absolutely astonished when the Wart pulls the sword out of the stone: we assumed that big brother Kay was going to be king of England and kid brother Arthur was in there for comic relief. Even in the Good Book we all take it for granted that the singing shepherd is only in their for local colour; we very naturally assume that Samuel is going to pick one of the more impressive older brothers as King of the Jews.

Because that's how stories work.

Very ordinary people are sometimes thrust center stage by dumb luck. Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. Shakespeare said that. It's part of the letter that causes Malvolio to make such a prat of himself. You never planned to be a disability rights campaigner, but you were sort of forced into the role when the steamroller ran over your legs. You'd planned to spend the next five years racing pigeons, but you were 19 and it was 1942 and you kind of just found yourself helping to save the world from Hitler. Those nice kids in America are in the public eye because they happened to be in school on the day when one of their classmates blew a fuse. If the terrible thing hadn't happened we'd never have heard of them. 

None of which is to denigrate the accidental hero. No-one chooses to live in dangerous times. All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time which is given us. (I think Shakespeare said that, too.)

So by all means scrub out the idea that Luke had special powers because of his lineage; by all means scrub out the idea that Daddy was anything more than one Jedi Knight among many; and definitely scrub out the idea that Ben Kenobi is on Tatooine specifically in order to watch over the Chosen One. That still doesn't give us Luke Skywalker the accidental hero; Luke Skywalker who just happened to be in the shopping center when the bomb went off. Rather the contrary. A huge series of massively unlikely coincidences conspire to put him in the pilot's seat above Yavin at the precise moment when the entire future of the galaxy is hanging on one single proton torpedo. The more ordinary Luke Skywalker is, the more it looks as if the Galaxy, the Force or the Plot are fudging things to put him in that driving seat.

  • Luke Skywalker who is no-one of any importance is living in an unimportant settlement on an unimportant planet. By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight in the universe just happens to be living a few hours drive from his front door.
  • By sheer coincidence, the last Jedi Knight just happened to know both Luke's father and also his father's murderer.
  • A Top Rebel Agent comes to Luke's planet to recruit the Last Jedi Knight to the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, she just happens to be a pretty young woman of about Luke Skywalker's age.
  • The Imperials capture the Rebel Agent before she can get to the Last Jedi. By sheer coincidence, the Imperial Agent who captures her just happens to be the Last Jedi's former apprentice and the murderer of Luke's father.
  • The Rebel Agent hides a message to the Last Jedi in a robot. By sheer coincidence, the robot just happens to be picked up (in the middle of a desert) by used robot salesmen.
  • By sheer coincidence, the traders next stop-off point just happens to be Luke's entirely unimportant homestead in the middle of nowhere. (If the sandcrawler had gone somewhere else first, there would have been no story.)
  • By sheer coincidence, Luke's uncle just happens to be in the market for some new robots. (If he had had plenty of robots, or been skint, there would have been no story.)
  • Luke's Uncle wants to buy the Little Red Robot, but by sheer coincidence, it explodes a few seconds after he hands over the money, and Luke's Uncle takes the secret-message carrying Blue Robot instead. (This is such a stretch that at least two different bits of fan lore exist to explain it.)
Once Artoo Detoo is in Luke's Skywalker's possession, the plot develops reasonably naturally from the choices Luke makes: not too many more coincidences are needed to nudge him in the right direction. He takes out Artoo's restraining bolt because he wants to rescue the damsel in distress; he follows Artoo into the desert because of his recklessness and his bad relationship with his uncle; he volunteers to go with Ben to Alderaan because of his restlessness and wanderlust; he tries to rescue Leia from the Detention Block because he's in love with her hologram. It is however, important that, by sheer coincidence, Darth Vader just happens to choose exactly the right moment to blow up Leia's home planet. If he had delayed by even ten minutes the planet would have been intact when the Millennium Falcon arrived and the ending of Star Wars would have been much more like the ending of Rogue One. If he had lost patience with Leia ten minutes earlier, the Death Star would have been long gone by the time the Millennium Falcon arrived in the place where Alderaan used to be. The Princess would never have been rescued (boo), Obi-Wan would never have been killed (hooray) and the Millennium Falcon would not have accidentally revealed the location of the rebel base to Darth Vader.

None of this should be read as criticism of Star Wars. The film is a masterpiece of structure and form; really the only weak link is Leia's "they let us go.." moment at the end of the third act. Everyone manages to be the main character in their own story: to Luke, Leia is the damsel in distress who he travels half way across the galaxy to rescue; but to Leia, Luke is little more than an undersized country bumpkin who blunders in to her cell with no plan for getting out. Ben is an old warrior coming to the end of his tale; Luke simply the latest in a long line of young hotshots he has introduced to the Force. And Han Solo is a professional adventurer. Ten years down the line he'll be sitting in another bar on another planet boasting about that one time he rescued an actual princess from a battle-station the size of a small moon. But various plot magnets pull their stories together. Ben Kenobi pulls Leia and Artoo and Vader towards Tatooine; Leia pulls Luke and Ben and Han to the Death Star, and the Falcon leads everyone back to Yavin.

But the first half of the movie still takes a lot of swallowing. I suppose we could apply the Samwise Gamgee theory of narrative. As soon as he asks the question "Why do people in stories never turn back from their quests?" he can see that the answer is "Because the ones who did turn back never had stories written about them." So we might say "Luke Skywalker is the hero because he happens to be the person who Artoo Detoo fetched up with." Someone was bound to get the message eventually; the story might just as well have been "from the adventures of Wormie Starkiller" or "from the adventures of Camie Loneozner".

But I don't think that works for five minutes. Wormie's dad wasn't Ben Kenobi's best mate; and so far as we know he wasn't a hot pilot, certainly not hot enough to learn how to fly an X-Wing in no seconds flat. I think that The Plot is quite clearly at work; driving us to the moment when Luke Skywalker and The Guy Who Killed Luke Skywalker's Dad are chasing each other down the Death Star Trench. Luke has a personal stake in the battle between Obi-Wan and Obi-Wan's apprentice that no-one else in the galaxy could possibly have. 

So let's admit that Star Wars is massively driven by fate and coincidence and plot device. Alan Dean Foster could see this clearly; and he could also see that this was precisely what made the film so much fun. So he hung a lampshade on the very first page. 

"If this were written up as a movie novelization" says Princess Leia "You would condemn it as a bit of a stretch."


“Oh but Andrew,” I can hear you saying “This is far too straightforward. Why do you assume that it is Luke Skywalker who Princess Leia is talking about. She doesn’t mention him by name. And there are other heroes in the story.”

That is a very good point. Ben Kenobi is one of the heroes; but he wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time – he was summoned by Princess Leia. And Princess Leia herself is one of the heroes, but she wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time either: she’d been sent on a really important mission by the Rebel Alliance. And Han Solo and Chewie were heroes, albeit mercenary heroes, and even they weren't really in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were adventurers by profession, in a tavern waiting for a patron to hire them.

So who else could the Princess be talking about?

Once you have asked the question, the answer is embarrassingly obvious. There is indeed an innocent bystander who gets drawn into the story entirely by accident and becomes the most pivotal character in the whole adventure. Princess Leia could have entrusted her secret message and her secret plans to any one of a dozen astromech droids on the blockade runner. Artoo Detoo just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

All stories are true. Of course Artoo Detoo is the hero of Star Wars. He's the one with the secret mission and the secret plans inside him. He's the one who brings Luke to Ben. He's with Luke on the X-Wing at the end. The very first line in the film is Threepio talking to him; the very last line is Threepio asking about his welfare. So why wouldn't Leia, looking back years after the events, remembering how she unwittingly involved two lowly robots in Galactic events, say "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time...naturally they became heroes."

This makes the ret-con which said that Artoo knew Leia’s mummy and Threepio was kit built by his daddy even less forgivable. But it does give the problematic ending of Star Wars a hitherto unnoticed irony. While the humans are awarding each other medals in an incredibly overdone awards ceremony with undisguised Nazi overtones, the actual heroes are looking on from the sidelines. Doing, I suppose, the robotic equivalent of smiling wryly. And Princess Leia is in on the joke.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Last Jedi: Quinary Thoughts

Ever try. Ever fail. No matter. Try again. Fail better.

Samuel Becket


This was not the essay I wanted to write.

I wanted to write about Poe Dameron taking on the First Order dreadnought in a single X-Wing; and Kylo Ren cutting the Supreme Leader in two; and Yoda popping up right when you didn't expect him to and most of the battle in the ice (even though it went on forever) and Luke tapping the dust off his coat after the First Order have thrown everything they have at him; and how Dameron really does jump into an X-Wing and blow things up after he has been told not to and Luke really does take on the whole First Order with a laser sword after he has said he won't. 

So many moments. 

One can sit in front of Star Wars Rebels and enjoy the Death Star shaped corridors and the proper shiny Stormtroopers and Tom Baker being a tree without over-worrying about what effect all this will have on The Saga. Because although Rebels is, to the extent that we care, Canon, it is pretty clear that big developments in The Saga aren't going to happen in 15 minute cartoon episodes.

But Last Jedi is not just a film. Last Jedi is the next chapter of the Star Wars saga. Last Jedi affects every future Star Wars movie, every comic book, every novel, every role-playing game and (in fact) every story that is going to be played out in the head of every child with an action figure or a set of Star Wars Lego for all time. Star Wars Episode VIII has a significance which issue #18 of the official Poe Dameron spin-off comic can’t ever have. Fun though issue #18 of the official Poe Dameron spin-off comic may in fact have been.

If Frank Miller or someone really wants to tell a story in which Batman sexually molests Robin (and I assume that someone has at some time told such a story) then he does very little harm, because at the end of the day it is just one more weird take on Batman among a million other weird takes on Batman. Paedo-Batman can be put in the box alongside Camp Batman and Lego Batman and Had Tea and Bat Cookies With Scooby Doo Batman and never thought about again. It isn't enough for a Batman story to be canon. Every Batman story is canon until it isn't. It has to be a good story as well; good enough to become part of the consensus Batman which all subsequent writers will take for granted. I am a sufficiently old-school Marvel Purist that I still believe that the real Bucky died in a plane crash and the real Captain America agonizes about him for at least three pages every month. But I know perfectly well that the version in which Bucky survived the war and became the Winter Soldier has overwritten Avengers #4 because it's better. More interesting. More believable. More suggestive of new stories. If the Winter Soldier story hadn't really worked, it would have turned out to be a dream or an imaginary tale or a clone or an android messing with Cap's head.

Granted, dozens of novels and hundreds of comics were relegated to "legends" as soon as the words "The Force Awakens" crawled across the screen. But the main Star Wars movies can't endlessly reboot themselves. The Last Jedi says what the Last Jedi says and there is no doing anything about it.


"Try not" said Yoda to Luke in 1980. "Do. Or do not. There is no try." 

I am largely on Ezra Bridger's side: what does this even mean? How can you possibly do a new thing unless you try to do it? Granted, when Luke said "I'll give it a try" he was preemptively excusing his failure, and there is nothing wrong with a master encouraging a student to be self-confident. Possibly, Yoda is appealing to the old Hollywood cliche that even an elephant can fly if he believes in himself sufficiently. Perhaps he is even being a little Christ-like and enjoining Luke to have the faith that can remove and sink the mountain to a plain. But I am afraid it has always made Yoda seem altogether too much like one of those PE teachers who would punish you for not being able to catch a cricket ball because the only reason you failed to catch the cricket ball was because you didn't want to catch the cricket ball. (Luke hits Rey while he is training her. Not hard or abusively, but enough that she says 'ouch'. Ben, come to think of it, sets up the floaty thing to zap Luke's legs during lightsaber practice, enough that it hurts him. And the Younglings are very young indeed. At twelve, Anakin is already too old to start the training. Was there an undercurrent of abuse at the old Jedi temple?)

In 2017, Yoda's ghost offered Luke some new advice:

“Heeded my words not, did you? 'Pass on what you have learned.' Strength, mastery, .. but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes: failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”

If this is what passes for Jedi Wisdom, then perhaps Luke should have held on to the ancient books. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. Learn from your mistakes. It's fairly good common sense advice, of course. And it's almost the exact opposite of what Yoda told Luke on Dagobah thirty years ago. I suppose being dead has given him a new perspective. 

What is it that Luke is to pass on to Rey? That however badly things turn out, she is on no account to cut herself off from the Force and spend Episodes X and XI moping on an island? That she definitely isn't allowed to elect Kylo Ren as president of the Third Republic? That even if the Boy With the Broom turns evil, it probably isn't a great idea to pull a lightsaber on him?

"Yes: failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is." 

What does that even mean?


You might have expected that after the defeat of the Dark Side at the end of Return of the Jedi, the Light Side would have been in the ascendant for many years. But Luke doesn't say this. Instead he says that after the fall of the Sith, there was a period of balance. 

Many of us hoped that these sequels would discard or ignore the Prequel Trilogy and we would never have to look at a Gungan or a Midichlorian again. But the Original Trilogy was about a Manichean struggle between Light and Darkness, which ended with the rout of the Dark. The idea that Anakin's role was to bring balance to the Force comes entirely from the prequels. It is taken absolutely for granted in the Force Awakens and the Last Jedi. When Rey reaches out to the Force, she feels "life, death; warmth, cold; peace, violence. And between it all. Balance and energy…the Force.” Han Solo now defines the Force, not as a hocus-pocus religion or a fancy word for "luck" but as "A magical power holding good and evil in balance." 

And Snoke sums the idea up very dramatically: 

“Darkness rises. And the light rises to meet it. I warned my apprentice that as he grew stronger, his equal in the light would rise.”

What does any of this even mean?

We all agreed a long time ago that Star Wars made much more sense if we assumed that every time anyone mentions The Force they are really talking about The Plot. Ben tells Luke that "The Plot is what gives a Jedi his power"; Luke has to learn about the Plot before he agrees to travel with Obi-Wan. When Alderaan is destroyed, Ben feels a great disturbance in the Plot. Vader realizes that the Plot is strong in Luke, and Luke only saves the universe when he lets go of his conscious self and trusts the Plot. 

Which is as much as to say: the Jedi are the Author's representatives in the Story. They have got some knowledge and understanding of where the Saga is going, and they get to manipulate and exploit fate and coincidence to keep the story on track.

Anyone who has ever run a role-playing game knows that certain characters have "plot immunity". However badly they screw up, they will always be found at the bottom of a pile of dead bodies with one hit point left. Even if their spaceship blows up they will be found floating in the vacuum and be hauled back on board an allies' ship, unconscious but alive. Because if they die the scenario stops working, and the game comes to an end. It is hardly surprising that before going into a dangerous situation Star Wars characters say "I hope that you turn out to be one of the characters that the story teller can't afford to kill off because you have something important to do in the next movie but one".

Which is to say: "May the Plot be with you." 

We all know, from the moment he first steps on stage, that Luke will fire the shot that destroys the Death Star. That's what happens in this kind of movie: the hero saves the day. The hero could, in fact, hit his target blindfold and with one hand tied behind his back, because the Plot demands it. That is what Luke Skywalker more or less does. He switches off his targeting computer and trusts to the Plot.   

This is why Rey turns out not to have a backstory: she doesn't need one. From the moment she steps on stage it is clear that the Plot is flowing through her. A whole series of wild coincidences -- Beebee, Finn, the Millennium Falcon, Han – conspire to put her at the center of the action. It really misses the point to say that she is a Mary Sue. Star Wars heroes and heroines are all Mary Sues. The Plot is with them.

If Star Wars were a single movie, or even a single trilogy, then we could afford to conceptualize it as the battle between Light and Dark. When the Dark is defeated, the story comes to an end. But if Star Wars is a saga, then the one thing we know for sure is that the Light can never, ever completely win.

For over a thousand generations, all of the Plot devices were being used by the goodies. However bad things looked, a Plot device would always come along and ensure that the goodies came out on top. Which meant, of course, that there couldn't really be any stories. 

The first of the prequels is called Episode I. The words "every saga has a beginning" were emblazoned across the posters. There are events in the Star Wars universe before Qui-Gon and Anakin become involved in that petty trade dispute; of course there are. But there are no previous stories. How could there be? The stories only start once there is a villain powerful enough to challenge the goodies. This is why Anakin is introduced as the one who will bring Balance. He has no human father. He is quite literally conceived by the Plot.

When the goodies were in control of the universe, the Plot begat Darth Vader. When Darth Vader won, the Plot begat Luke Skywalker. When Luke Skywalker brought the story to a complete and satisfying conclusion, the plot created Kylo Renn. Because Kylo Renn was too powerful, the Plot created Rey. We expected Rey to emerge from the threads of the Plot which have been built up over twenty hours of cinema and thirty years of history. But she is actually a pure Plot device. There is a girl who can use the Force on Jakku because there needs to be a girl who can use the Force on Jakku. The Plot has arbitrarily placed her there because that is where she needs to be.

It will be remembered that Alan Dean Foster (nodding at Frank Herbert, I am sure) inserts a little quote from Princess Leia into his Star Wars novelization right after he introduces us to the Journal of the Whills. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time: naturally they became heroes." Foster is obliquely acknowledging how heavily the Star Wars saga relies on coincidence. But everything Leia says is completely wrong. Luke and Han and the Droids were marked out as heroes from the very beginning. That is why the Plot made very sure that they were always in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. 

Yoda tells Luke that the Dark Side of the Plot is quicker, easier and more seductive than the Light: but not, in the end, more powerful. It is more fun to be the villain. You'll be strangling generals and blowing up planets while the hero is still being grounded by his uncle for not doing his chores. It is harder and often less fun to stick to the script and be the good guy. But the Light Side of the Plot is more powerful. Goodies always win.


Darth Vader is not born a baddie; and we are not told that he is predestined to turn into a baddie. We see a series of more or less comprehensible steps turn him from the relatively angelic Tatooine pod-car ace to the nightmarish figure who haunts Luke on Cloud City. Similarly, there is nothing inevitable about Ben Solo's transition into Kylo Renn. His fall is the result of his own choices -- and of some very bad decisions made by Luke Skywalker. 

This repulsed me on a first viewing of the movie, as, indeed, it repulses Rey: it seemed less to be an act of deconstruction; more of willful desecration.

“Hey, saddo fans: you know that guy who has been your hero since you were eight -- well, this is what he is really like. Panicking and pulling a sword on a teenager and creating a new Darth Vader.”

I think we would have tolerated it more if (as someone must have considered) Luke Skywalker himself had turned to the Dark Side: if there had been a big Cloud City Moment in which Kylo took off his mask and revealed the face, not of Adam Driver but of Mark Hamill. Luke as the new Vader would have felt like an epic failure with an epic grandeur behind it. And Leia or Han or Rey or indeed Kylo could have dragged him back to the Light in the final reel. But this felt petty. Sordid, almost.

Completely wrong about this now think I that I was. 

On a second and third viewing, I am much more excited by the structural cleverness of the reveal than I am annoyed by the diminution of Luke Skywalker. Star Wars started out as a sort of riff on Hidden Fortress, so why shouldn't the pivotal moment of the third trilogy nod its head towards Rashamon? We see Ben Solo's fall from three points of view: the dishonest version that Luke initially gives to Rey; the misleading version that Kylo tells her; and the more truthful version that Rey eventually forces Luke to give her. (Is this final version the unvarnished truth or does it still depend greatly on our point of view?)

The account, like all accounts of the origin of evil, doesn’t quite work. Did Luke threaten Ben Solo because Ben had turned to the Dark Side, or did Ben turn to the Dark Side because Luke Skywalker threatened him? But on reflection, it’s a perfect fit to the Star Wars saga. It is shocking that Luke Skywalker creates Kylo Ren: but we have long accepted that Ben Kenobi created Darth Vader. 

We got three versions of that story, too. In Obi-Wan’s first account, Vader is simply an apprentice who turned to evil. In his second account, he presumptuously took Yoda’s place as a teacher; and some defect of training sent the apprentice bad. “My pride has had terrible consequences for the galaxy.” In the prequels, Obi-Wan goes against Yoda’s will and trains him to fulfill an oath to his own master, Qui-Gon, and Palpatine traps him in a complex web of lies. But in each version, Darth Vader, the prototypical evil Jedi is produced by Ben Kenobi, the prototypical good one.

The end point of Luke Skywalker’s story is the creation of Kylo Ren: the failure of the Light produces the new Darkness. And then along comes Rey, nobody from nowhere. The Plot produces her at the moment she is needed. To restore balance. To make sure the Saga carries on.

Rey thinks that the Plot is a source of powers and plot devices; but Luke tells her that is really a matter of understanding how everything fits together. Perhaps this is why the Last Jedi sometimes feels as if it doesn't quite fit into the Saga. Luke has closed himself off to the Plot. If the Plot is no longer with us, then perhaps things don't all fit together in a satisfactory pattern. We are no longer in a world where the goodies always win; where the cavalry always come over the hill, shouting Yee Har! and knocking Darth Vader off your tail. We are now in a world where people who volunteer for suicide missions really do end up committing suicide. The Jedi are passing away, and everyone is going to have to learn to cope in a Universe where no-one has privileged knowledge of the Plot. 


There is a piece of satire circulating on Twitter in which a True Star Wars Fan reacts to the Empire Strikes back in the same shrill tone that some True Star Wars Fans have reacted to the Last Jedi. “What is this movie? It invents Force Powers which there were no sign of in Star Wars. It turns Ben Kenobi into a great big liar. It introduces a fucking Muppet. And what’s all this Episode V nonsense? You've ruined my childhood."

This would be quite funny were it not for the fact that it is precisely how a lot of Star Wars fans did react to the Empire Strikes Back. And they weren't completely wrong. The Empire Strikes Back did turn the Force from a mysterious ancient power to an endless source of get-out-of-jail-free cards. It did turn Obi-Wan from a voice that Luke thinks he may have heard into an actual ghost. It did turn the lightsaber from an archaic ceremonial weapon to a Swiss army knife. It did reduce Han Solo from a dangerous rogue to a sardonic good guy. It did turn Star Wars from a happy upbeat salute to the good old days into a rather sordid tale where your idols lie to you and everyone betrays everyone else. And it doesn’t have an ending. Or a beginning. It’s entirely made up of middle.

And despite all that it really is the film which created the Star Wars saga as we know it. And from any reasonably objective point of view, it’s the best movie in the series.

The Last Jedi is a great movie. It tries to offer the arias and soliloquies of epic drama while still retaining the simple blacks and whites of a cartoon strip. It tries to give us the thrills and machismo of a war comic while still depicting the desperate heroism of an actual war.

This is, of course, impossible.

The Empire Strikes Back represented a tear in the fabric of the Star Wars tapestry. It took a hammer and smashed my pulp movie serial into a thousand pieces. Out of those pieces we built the Saga. And now, the Last Jedi has taken a hammer to that saga. What we are going to build from the fragments we don't yet know.

Luke Skywalker closed himself off to the Force. I sometimes fear that Walt Disney may have lost the plot.

Monday, March 05, 2018

The Last Jedi: Quaternary Thoughts

I'll burn my books!—ah, Mephistopheles!
Doctor Faustus

In a 1980 interview Mark Hamill recalled how George Lucas had originally wanted Star Wars to begin:

"It started with a helicopter shot of an enchanted forest and they push the camera through the window of a tree and you see a mother Wookie trying to breast feed this squealing baby! He keeps gesturing towards the bookshelf and there's all this Wookie dialogue going on. She goes and points to one particular book and the baby gets all excited. She takes the book off the shelf and we see it's titled Star Wars. She opens the book and that's when the ship comes overhead and the film we know starts... Then, at the end, after we get our medals, we bow and it cuts back to the baby Wookie asleep — hopefully not like the audience. And the mother closes the book and puts the baby to bed."

The first Star Wars movie was the end result of a decade-long editorial process; ten years of cutting, simplifying and pruning Lucas's original script. Screeds of political back story were cut back to “it is a period of CIVIL WAR”; pages and pages of mumbo-jumbo about Bogons and Midichlorians were condensed to two lines from Alec Guinness about an energy field. And this ill-judged prologue was reduced to ten of the most famous words in cinema history: 

“A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far Far Away…”

Mark Hamill thinks the studio objected to the prologue because the Wookies weren't wearing any pants. If this is true, the scene must have been at least partially filmed, and is presumably preserved somewhere on Skywalker Ranch. Perhaps that is the real reason Lucas tried quite so hard to stop us from seeing the Star Wars Holiday Special: it's all that is left of a path he decided not to take. But that caption, "A Long Time Ago In a Galaxy Far Far Away.." appears in neither the novelization nor the comic book adaptation. It must have been added quite late in the day. 

Alan Dean Foster's 1976 novelization is subtitled "from the adventures of Luke Skywalker" and begins with a 500 word prologue taken from "the first saga" of something called "The Journal of the Whills." Lucas seems to have envisaged the Journal of the Whills as a mystical tome. But Foster's "first saga" seems to merely be a history book, giving us a rather dry account of the rise of Palpatine and how Empire succeeded Republic.

Foster's history book is very different in tone from Lucas's proposed Wookie scene. But it serves the same narrative purpose. It draws a frame around Star Wars and turns it into a story within a story. Lucas agrees that this was the intention:

"Originally, I was trying to have the whole story told by somebody else there was somebody watching the whole story and recording it, somebody probably wiser than the mortal players in the actual events."

William Goldman famously used this kind of device in The Princess Bride, which is presented as the story which a modern-day grandfather is reading to a modern-day child. Although The Princess Bride didn't reach cinemas until 1987, the novel (presented as an abridgment of a longer text) was published in 1973—exactly when George Lucas started to work on his epic space saga.

So: Star Wars is a story. But what kind of a story is Star Wars? 

"It is history" says the Journal of the Whills — ancient history, maybe, but history nonetheless.

"It is a fairy tale" says the opening caption and the lost prologue; something to put children to sleep with, but maybe not to be taken too seriously.

"It is a movie" says the opening crawl: specifically, it is the kind of movie you watched at Saturday morning pictures in the 1950s.

But history, fairy tale, and movie are three very different things. "Episode I" and "The First Saga" are part of very different conceptual worlds. If something is history, or even legend, then it is legitimate to look for the facts on which it is based. But a story is just a story. You might very well  watch a movie about Jesse James or Davy Crockett and ask "Is it true? If not, what really happened?" But it is literally meaningless to ask the same question about Shane or the Milky Bar Kid or the Lone Ranger.

The Wookie, and the listener to whom the words "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." are addressed is looking back to legendary days long passed when Luke Skywalker saved the rebellion and restored peace to the Galaxy. So too are the students studying the writings of the Whills and the audience watching the movie serial. But Princess Leia reminds Ben Kenobi of heroic deeds done “years ago”; Luke Skywalker hears about how his heroic father fought in the Clone Wars and Ben Kenobi evokes the days of the Old Republic when the Jedi Knights stood for Peace and Justice. The people we are looking back on are themselves looking back; the characters inside the legend have legends of their own.

But their legends are not true.

Star Wars may be a fairy tale, but it is a fairy tale in which the golden coaches are tarnished and most people don’t believe in fairies. To Han Solo, Ben Kenobi is an old fossil; to Uncle Owen, a crazy wizard. The Imperials regard the Force as a quaintly obsolescent superstition; Han disbelieves in it altogether. Granted, in Episode IV the fairy tales all come true: the moody farm boy rescues the captive princess and his faith in the Force saves the galaxy. But in Episode V all those certainties fade away. Luke’s heroic father fades into the horrific Darth Vader; Ben the wise old Jedi knight turns out to have been a manipulative liar.

If Luke can’t believe what Ben told him about his father, why should he believe what he told him about the Jedi Knights?

But if Luke can’t believe Old Ben’s tales of the Jedi, why should Baby Wookie believe a single word of what Mummy Wookie tells him about the Star Wars….

Here is Luke Skywalker talking to Rey in the Last Jedi:

“Now that they are extinct, the Jedi are romanticized, deified. But if you strip away the myth and look at their deeds, the legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris. At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader… “

My first reaction to this speech was to be revolted by it: to see it as an attack on the whole idea of Star Wars.

The Jedi are the spiritual centre of the movies. They provide the magic and mystery and colour. They are what gives the Saga its significance: behind the battle between Empire and Rebellion is the deeper battle between the Dark Side and the Light. The inner light is more powerful than any battle station; faith is very much a match for a good blaster by your side. Remove the Jedi and what you are left with is a lot of big spaceships blowing each other up.

George Lucas placed the saga in quotation marks. Because it was “only a story” we could enjoy the outrageous swashbuckling while at the same time admitting that no-one could possibly be quite that heroic in real life. But now we have a character inside the frame questioning the story. It is one thing for Obi-Wan to lie to Luke Skywalker. But what happens if the story itself turns out to have been lying? If going to Alderaan and becoming a Jedi like your father was never a terribly good aspiration; if the EVIL GALACTIC EMPIRE was maybe not so evil and the WISE JEDI KNIGHTS were maybe not that wise?

I still think that my first reaction was correct. From a certain point of view.

What Luke Skywalker calls "the myth" of the Jedi Knights is what Obi-Wan told us about in Star Wars. It was that myth that we first generation Star Wars fans fell in love with. The Jedi Knights were the most important thing in Star Wars because they were almost completely absent from it. The most wonderful thing about Jedi is that Ben Kenobi is the only one.

What Luke Skywalker calls "the reality" is what George Lucas showed us in Episodes I, II and III. Everything Luke says is entirely accurate. Obi-Wan really did create Darth Vader by stupidly disobeying Yoda. The Jedi Council really did fail to spot that Jar Jar Binks had nominated a Sith Lord as President of the Republic. They aren’t even that great at preserving peace and justice. By the end of the second movie they are waging a terrible war across the entire galaxy. And Qui-Gon seems perfectly happy to condone slavery and gangsterism on Tatooine.

What Luke Skywalker has in fact done is acknowledge that the prequels were a bit of a disappointment.

Did you get that? The fact that the Phantom Menace wasn't very good is now part of the text of the Star Wars saga. The idea of the Jedi does not live up to the reality. The prequels did not live up to the first trilogy. This is not Rian Johnson deconstructing Star Wars. Star Wars has already been thoroughly taken to pieces by George Lucas. What Rian Johnson is attempting to do is put Star Wars back together again.

Luke says that he is going to destroy the Jedi books which are stored in a holy tree on Act-Tu; but the ghost of Yoda invokes Force lightning and destroys them himself. At the very, very end of the movie, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene, it transpires that the books were not really in the Jedi Tree: Rey had hidden them on the Millennium Falcon.

It still irks me that they are books. The Jedi store important information on small cubes called Holocron. I realize that this is a parodically fannish thing to be irked by, but irked by it I am.

Are we supposed to think that Rey has deceived Luke and Yoda? Or that Yoda and Rey have conspired to fool Luke? Or possibly even Rey and Luke have fooled Yoda? The narrative logic seems to say that the burning of the tree is a decisive step and that Yoda really has brought the Jedi to an end. I am inclined to think that the brief shot of the texts on the Falcon represents a last minute editorial cop out; that having filmed a scene in which the Jedi came to an end, Johnson was persuaded to splice in a get-out clause which allows J.J Abrams to bring them back if he wants to.

But I also note that Yoda says that the books contain nothing which Rey doesn't already possess, which is just the sort of double-tongued thing he might say if what she literally possessed was the books themselves. Splicing in an extra scene which reveals that an apparent Bad Thing didn't really happen after all -- that would be a very Flash Gordon thing to do.

Luke thinks that by destroying the books, he will destroy the Jedi; but Yoda implies that Luke himself hasn't read them. We can see what it might mean for a religion to venerate texts which it no longer bothers to read; but we can't see how this applies to the Jedi because we don't know what's in the books. (Were they rescued from Coruscant when the Temple was destroyed? Or are they texts which even the Jedi Council has forgotten? Or did Mace Windu come on study trips to Craggy Island to read them?) The Jedi training we have seen doesn't get very far beyond Mindfulness 101 -- hold your mind still, don't give in to distractions, let go of your conscious self, act on instinct... You don't need secret texts to access this very basic spiritual practice. Luke seems to think that the Jedi were somehow hoarding the Force instead of sharing it,  but it isn't clear what difference setting fire to some texts will make.

But still: Yoda and Luke, together, burning texts. After Luke has so thoroughly debunked the Star Wars saga, it is a very suggestive image. Perhaps it is one of those scenes which would have been better dubbed into Chinese, or explained with a couple of words of inter-title?

La la la 
old books burning;
La la la 
old order passing
Yub nub 
new way of doing things
Allay loo ta nuv

You don't suppose these "ancient Jedi texts" could be the Journal of the actual Whills, do you?

The first three Star Wars movies ended on tableaux; the characters all line up so we can say goodbye to them. The one in Return of the Jedi felt painfully like a curtain call. The Last Jedi seems as if it is going to end the same way. The four or five surviving rebels are gathered on the Millennium Falcon and Leia tells them "we have everything we need".

It is another hopelessly cryptic moment. What is it that they have got? The Jedi books? Rey's knowledge? Rey herself? But what is Rey's significance? Is she the next chosen one, stuffed to gills with Midichlorians, with a chance to fulfill the bloody prophecy and  make up for Anakin’s descendants buggering everything up? Or is the important thing about her what she learned from Luke? Which is what? That the Force is not power but balance? That it's about wisdom, not floating rocks? (She's really, really good at floating rocks.) Does Rey have everything she needs because spontaneous, untutored spirituality is going to replace text-based religious studies? Or does she have everything because she preserved the texts that Luke was going to recklessly destroy...and is actually intending to read them? Is the point of the ending that both extremes are true? Or merely that Johnson can't decide and wants to tip the ball back into Abrams court?

But this isn't where the film ends.

The film ends back on Canto Blight, the unimaginative Casino Planet where Finn and Rose went for their contrived mid-movie adventure. (When Chewbacca and Artoo Detoo wanted to pass the time on the rickety old Millennium Falcon they play a chess like game with holograms of live aliens. When the richest people in the galaxy want to have some excitement, they put physical coins into mechanically operated slot machines.) During this side-quest, our heroes encountered a group of kids who help them escape. In the very brief epilogue, one of the children uses the Force to levitate the broom he is meant to be sweeping up with. He also has a signet ring, given to him by Rose, with the insignia of the Resistance on it. The film ends with him looking out to the stars. 

The boy doesn't have a name. We will probably never see him again. He is nobody. This is the message of the Last Jedi: bloodlines and books and prophecies never really counted; the Force always was available to everybody. That's why it all comes down to a fight between Kylo Renn, son of Han Solo, third generation of Anakin's bloodline, the logical next step in the Skywalker saga….and Rey who doesn't have a last name. Up and down the universe, thousands and thousands of Nobodys can use the Force and thousands and thousands of Nobodys believe in the Resistence. We don't need no stinkin' Jedi Knights. It's all us Nobodys who will burn the First Order down.

Except, sorry -- can it really be a plot point that the whole idea of the Adventures of Luke Skywalker was a misunderstanding? Can it really be that we have been reading the wrong book all these years?

The boy with the broom isn't merely Nobody: he is very specifically a slave. And I know who else was a slave: Anakin Skywalker, that's who. So the message could just as easily be: here is a new bloodline; here is another child conceived by the Midichlorians; here is another shot at completing the prophecy. The whole Vader - Luke - Kylo cycle is going to play out again, and burn the galaxy down in a new and bloody war. Unless Rey really can learn from Luke’s mistakes.

Johnson has gone to some lengths to leave matters open; to allow Abrams the final say in what Star Wars is really about. Rey is important because she has preserved the Jedi books. Rey is important because she doesn't need the Jedi books. The boy with the broom is of no importance; he's just one of many people who can use the Force. The boy with the broom is of huge importance; the next film will be about how Rey finds him and trains him.

The boy is discovered playing with improvised action figures. He is re-enacting a scene from the movie we have just seen: Luke fighting Kylo Ren on Crait. Perhaps the scene is saying that Anyboy can use the Force if he plays with his action figures? Perhaps all it ever took to be a Jedi was to say "I do believe in fairies" and think beautiful happy thoughts. The Force is become a metaphor for fandom. It is the quality which those of us who believe in Star Wars have got, and those of you who disbelieve in it will never have.

We are all Jedi now. 

Luke stopped believing in the legend of the Jedi, and cut himself off from the Force. The boy can use the Force because he does believe in the legend of Luke Skywalker. The boy with the broom is a hopeful thumbs up sign at the closing moment of what could otherwise have been a pretty damn depressing film. He's a lot like the little boy who redeems everything by telling King Arthur that he still believes in chivalry even if nobody else does. He is what heals the rift between the two trilogies and refutes Luke's claim that the Jedi were a failure.

We are inside the movie; inside the framing sequence. And a little boy is telling stories about Jedi Knights. It is as close as Rian Johnson dare go to the Baby Wookie's bedtime.

La la la 
hopeful final scene;
La la la 
upbeat conclusion
Yub nub 
maybe young will save the day
Allay loo ta nuv
Allay loo ta nuv

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Last Jedi: Tertiary Thoughts

People who don’t like Star Wars seem to have mostly liked the Last Jedi; it is Star Wars fans who seem to have had misgivings about it.

This is doubtless why the vibe on the opening night was so negative. The five hundred people who had sat through the Force Awakens/Last Jedi double bill were, by definition, the five hundred biggest Star Wars geeks in Bristol.

The five hundred biggest Star Wars geeks who could afford to go to bed at 4AM on a school night, at any rate.

The media still talks as if Star Wars fans are some obscure cult, like collectors of 78rpm vinyl or Juliet Bravo enthusiasts. But even in 1977, when Star Wars was new and strange, it was also the most popular film of all time. Not a movie, more of an industry, said Barry Norman, before it had even opened in the UK. In the ensuing 40 years it has only grown bigger. It is strange to look at Star Wars Lego and Star Wars computer games and Star Wars Lego computer games and realize that millions of kids who have never seen a Star Wars movie know the identity of Luke Skywalker's father.

There is a show on Radio 4 in which guests are challenged to try things they have never tried before. So the notoriously well-dressed journalist is asked to buy a pair of jeans; the serious food writer is asked to go to McDonalds; someone who claims never to have eaten cheese is presented with a vast tasting palette of the stuff. The title of the show is I’ve Never Seen Star Wars.

We are all Star Wars fans now. 


Richard Dawkins famously said that if atheism is a religion, then not playing chess is a hobby. Garrison Keeler, almost as famously, said that in Minnesota, even the atheists are Lutherans: it is the Lutheran God they didn't believe in. 

Everyone has seen Star Wars. Nearly everyone likes Star Wars. But if you are reading this you are part of a tiny minority who have seen all the films an average of 16 times each; and have spent time thinking about them — as history, as mythology, as drama, as the possible subject matter for role-playing games.

It may be hard for you and I to believe, but the overwhelming majority of people who saw the Last Jedi didn’t have any strong feelings about it either way. They honestly haven’t given it a second thought since they left the cinema. They are, however, enormously looking forward to the Black Panther. Trust me, if you think the Phantom Menace retrospectively ruined your childhood, or even if you take the contrarian view that A New Hope is boring and dated and the sequels are where it's at, then you care infinitely more about these movies than nearly anyone else in the world.

Any schism between people who hated The Last Jedi and people who quite liked it is a schism within that tiny minority. It is not an argument between people who like Star Wars and people who do not. It is an argument between Star Wars geeks who like Star Wars and Star Wars geeks who don't. People who are geeky about liking Star Wars and people who are just as geeky about not liking it. There are, in fact, a fair number of people in the world whose hobby is telling other people to stop playing chess.

In this corner a group saying it is just so great that this film annoyed Star Wars fans because we fucking hate Star Wars fans, us, and want to see them getting annoyed. And in that corner a group saying we, the fans have ownership over this material; we, the fans get to decide how this material is used; and no-one else has any say.

And in the middle, an overwhelming majority whose review of the Last Jedi is the same as my mother’s review of A New Hope when she took me to see it at Barnet Odeon in 1978. “Yes, that was an enjoyable film. Now can I please forget about it?”

Is it possible to find balance between the two sides?

Who is Star Wars for?


We are all Star Wars fans now.

The Last Jedi cost literally $200,000,000 to make. It is on show in every multiplex cinema in the world. It is the literal definition of mainstream. It’s target audience is everybody.

But "everybody" isn’t invested in Star Wars in the way that you and I are. Everybody will not feel that their whole day is ruined if someone uses the Force in a way that no-one has ever used the Force before. Everyone doesn’t care if the film’s very existence does spoil Return of the Jedi. Everyone doesn't think very hard at all about what the film means. Everyone is probably not even giving the film their full attention while they actually watching it. 

When I am in a cynical mood, I say: “Oh: I suppose that means that everybody but me just gazes zombie-like at the big coloured lights and listens to the loud bangs?”

When I am being less cynical, I say that if you watch the movie for the landscape and the battles and the shape of the story without engaging with it at a cerebral level you are watching it in exactly the way it is supposed to be watched.

I once speculated that Star Wars could best be understood as a succession of images held weakly in place by a plot — that the emotional power of the first movie comes from seeing a little spaceship and a big spaceship and a scary man in a black cloak and a golden robot and a squeaky little robot even if you aren't quite sure exactly what a "consular ship" is. George Lucas considered dubbing the film into Japanese, or into some entirely made up language, to force audiences to attend to the imagery. Mark Hamill told Leslie Judd that the story of Star Wars is “only so much non sense to hang a great visual spectacle onto.” 

The plot of Star Wars is a little long a song lyric. Not a song by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, just a pop song. We understand them perfectly well. They go:

the sort of thing that people say in love songs 
the kind of thing a young lad might say to a girl at a party
The kind of thing which people say in songs like this

The person who asks exactly where the strings of one's heart are located, and what exactly it would feel like if one of them went "zing" has clearly not quite got the idea of songs yet.

We are all Star Wars fans now.

I am a big fan of The Godfather Part II, although I always get lost during the Cuban sequences. Most people agree with me that it is a fine movie. Some people say that it is one of only two sequels which is actually superior to the original. (I forget the name of the other example.) 

But The Godfather Part II doesn’t stand alone. Al Pacino Robert De Niro is not merely portraying Vito Corleone; he is quite specifically portraying Marlon Brando portraying Vito Corleone. It is a fabulous performance precisely because we can so easily believe that Pacino De Niro is the young Brando. You wouldn’t think me a pathetic gangster geek if I said that you really won’t get very much out of The Godfather Part II unless you have seen The Godfather. The Godfather is one of the things which the Godfather Part II is about. The main thing, even. 

Yes, Mr Exception, I know you saw Part II before you saw Part I and enjoyed it very much. Please say so in the comments below: I am sure we will all find it fascinating. 

People sometimes propose the experiment of finding someone, maybe a child, who really has never seen Star Wars and showing them Episodes I - VI, in that order, in George Lucas’s preferred, redacted form. Would they understand them? Would they even be watching the same movies which we love so much? Would Darth Vader's dramatic entrance in Episode IV be even more dramatic if you immediately thought “It’s Anakin! And the lady in the white dress must be the girl baby all grown up! And he doesn’t even know!” Would it be more fun to see Old Ben drive the Sand People away if your immediate thought was "Golly gosh! Ewan McGregor has sure let himself go!” And would the climax of Empire Strikes Back be even more climactic if all the way through it you were thinking "Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know! Vader is Luke's Dad, and Luke doesn't know. Is he going to tell him? Is he going to tell him?"

Once we have done that experiment, we could try to imagine what it would be like to watch The Last Jedi without having seen the Force Awakens; nay, without even having seen A New Hope. 

“The old guy has gone into some sort of space ship. Is it the ship the younger woman came in? I suppose the thing that looks like a dustbin is a robot of some kind, a much more primitive version of the one we saw the guy in that little red and white space ship talking to earlier? The way he’s touching it, I suppose he must think of it as a friend. Maybe he used to own it? It is showing a very old film of a girl. Who is she? Sounds like she’s in some kind of trouble. I suppose the robot is reminding him of some time long ago when he helped a person in trouble. Maybe it’s a reference to some previous film.”

It is possible to watch a film like that. It can be quite fun. I have occasionally enjoyed watching a detached episode of a soap opera, where all the characters present themselves as “that-kid-who-has-to-admit-to-his-dad-he’s-done-a-bad-thing-I-have-no-idea-what” and “that-woman-who-is-meeting-someone-she-shouldn’t-be-meeting-I-have-no-idea-who”. Back when I only read Marvel Comics (on religious grounds) I used to positively enjoy it when someone else’s DC title fell into my hands. The Teen Titans felt so much more superheroey than the X-Men because I hadn’t got the faintest idea who any of them were. Because I didn't know the backstory I could actually attend to the surfaces. It used to be quite normal for films to be playing on endless loops and for audiences to catch the second half, of one and the first half of the other. You'd get to see some car chases and some kissing; you could tell if it was a police movie or a romance. Only some kind of weird movie geek actually care about the plot. 

But these are accidental pleasures. When we saw Star Wars for the first time there was indeed a kind of joy in hearing people talk about the Clone Wars and the Jedi Knights and having no idea what they were. But George Lucas intended us to have no idea; very probably he had no idea himself. Rian Johnson knows perfectly well what Artoo Deetoo is and why the hologram is important. He expects us to know as well. If Mr Exception goes to see the movie and enjoys the confusion of not knowing, then he is finding something in the film which the director didn’t put there.

But it's a silly question. there is no way of carrying out the experiment. Everyone knows who Luke Skywalker and Artoo Detoo and Princess Leia are. We are all Star Wars fans now. 


Who is Star Wars for?

At the very end of the movie, we see Luke Skywalker meditating, floating above a rock, looking into the sunset. It is a double sunset; Ach-Tu is a binary system. After a moment, we see his empty robes fall away: he has vanished.

It is theoretically possible that John Williams thought “I suppose I had better play some sad music at this point. I can’t be bothered to write a new tune, so I will bung in one I’ve used before. It’s not like anyone will notice!” It is possible that he said “This scene needs a bittersweet sound track with an element of triumph and an element of sehnsucht” and just happened to compose a tune that was very similar to the tune he composed the last time he wanted to signify sadness and happiness and triumph and nostalgic longing. And certainly, if you have Never Seen Star Wars you would not sit through that scene thinking “I am baffled! What is this music and why is he playing it now? I feel confused and excluded!” 

But everybody has heard this music before; during the iconic Binary Sunset scene in the first act of A New Hope, when Luke was looking out to the horizon wishing for adventure; and again in the final seconds of Revenge of the Sith, when the infant Luke first arrives on Tatooine. The meaning of the scene depends on our familiarity with the score. The music, far more than the pictures, is saying: “Luke is setting off on a big adventure” and “Luke has come home”. 

In fact, if you could translate what the music and the pictures were saying into words, it would come out much more like “LUKE SKYWALKER!!!!!” or possibly even “THE SUMMER OF NINETEEN SEVENTY BLOODY SEVEN!!!”

The man who has Never Seen Star Wars might look at the scene and say “What just happened? Has Luke been beamed up to the Starship Enterprise? Has someone done a conjuring trick? This crazy science fiction stuff is impossible to understand!” You and I are remembering that moment when Darth Vader struck Ben Kenobi down his cloak fell to the ground in two parts, but Ben's body was not in it. And that moment on Dagobah, when Yoda's body vanished, leaving only his robes behind. We may not even be thinking of those specific scenes: but everybody knows that when good Jedi go to be with the Force, their bodies vanish.

You may think that this is all so obvious that it is hardly worth saying. But it would not be obvious to your Mum, to Mr Exception, or to the man who has Never Seen Star Wars.


Who is Star Wars for? I do not have an answer. I am minded to accept the theory that I have spoiled the Last Jedi for myself by over-thinking it. There is a strong case for saying that when I ask myself whether Luke's grounds for rejecting the Jedi order are fair I am making a category mistake. It isn't exactly that I am the only person who is listening. Everybody is listening. But everybody else hears  Luke's speech as a song lyric. 

La-la-la, mystical nonsense,
la-la-la, the kind of thing old mentors say in this kind of movie,
la-la gub-gub hey nonny no. 

Everyone may even think that the Ach-Tu sequences are just the boring bits they always put in between fight scenes so you have a chance to go to the toilet and get some more pop corn.

And yet the film seems to demand a fairly high level of engagement. It seems to think that we can identify musical themes and recurrent motifs. It seems to be about Star Wars in just the same way that the Godfather Part II seems to be about the Godfather. The film's entire punch comes from the fact that this is not just some guy saying that it is time for the Jedi to end (and then sacrificing his life to keep them going) this is Luke Skywalker. The kid who wanted to pick up the power converters at Toshe station; the kid who flew down the trench; the hero with a thousand faces who tried to save his father and found he already had. Luke Skywalker.

**********L*U*K*E  B*L*O*O*D*Y S*K*Y*W*A*L*K*E*R **********

Only Star Wars can possibly be expected care about this stuff.. But we are all Star Wars fans now.

For whom is Star Wars?

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Last Jedi: Second Thoughts

The controversy over The Last Jedi has become so incendiary that one hesitates to rejoin the fray. I thought I was going to be one of a small minority of purists who wasn’t happy with the film. In fact my review turns out to have been one of the moderate ones. 

The debate has reached Colstonian levels of absurdity. If I continue to not like the Last Jedi very much, I am aligning myself with dangerous nutters who think that the very existence of Daisy Ridley is part of a Cultural Marxist plot to emasculate young men. But if I decide I quite liked it after all I am taking the side of people who think that Star Wars fans are contemptible and that any film which irritates them is a good film.

I largely stand by the criticisms I made after my first viewing. I still think that the Last Jedi is muddled. I still think that it uses humour inappropriately. I still think it includes imagery which is incompatible with the established look and feel of Star Wars. I still think that there is evidence of multiple rewrites and poor editing. I still don’t know how Rey goes from having an emotional climax in the Supreme Leader’s throne room to being all “yee-har!” on the Millennium Falcon five minutes later. I still think that several plot threads fizzle out without pay-offs. I am still concerned about the direction it seems to be taking the saga. 


I think that the film is far smarter and far more interesting than I initially gave it credit for.

Star Wars is all about landscape and scenery and imagery; about kids with binoculars looking at binary sunsets and small moons turning out not to be. The Last Jedi is full of genuinely beautiful moments. Luke Skywalker and Kylo Renn facing each other, samurai style, from opposite ends of the letter box screen. Holdo crashing the Rebel capital ship into the Imperial dreadnought. The whacky beauty of Luke's Craggy Island retreat.

The whole thing — I don’t know how better to phrase this — is shaped like a space opera: the clash of mighty dreadnoughts forming a background against which knights battle with laser swords; soldiers mutiny against their leaders and traitors face execution. I adore the way that Finn's big confrontation with Captain Phasma takes place on a ship which has already been wrecked and is going to break up at any moment.  Phasma has no particular importance to the plot, but she looks utterly fabulous. The scene put me in mind of Captain Victory and the Hunger Dogs. Star Wars was always more Kirbyesque than we cared to admit.

Star Wars is a movie serial and fairy tale and a Wagnerian saga, but the and biggest yellowest letters are the ones which tell us that it is about a series of WARS fought out among the STARS. The Last Jedi follows Rogue One in actually feeling like a war movie. We’ve always had Mon Mothas and General Dodonnas telling the galactic Few what target to aim at; but never before has the Rebellion felt so much like a military operation. Never before has so much of the plot taken place on board a Rebel command ship. 

And yet, I was disappointed. Why?

If you are not very careful “that was not at all what I expected” can turn into “that was bad”. I honestly can’t remember whether my first (and therefore truest) reaction to the Empire Strikes Back was that the surprise ending was gobsmackingly cool or that it was a bit of a cheat because it totally changed everything about Star Wars.

This is a big problem with blockbuster culture. You live for three years on speculation and hints and leaks about what is going to be in a movie, and then spend two hours thinking “oh…so that rumor was true and that rumor was false and why wasn’t that bit in the trailer?” rather than actually watching the film. I can very clearly remember my first (and therefore truest) reaction to Rogue One. It was “How the hell did they keep that ending a secret?” We can only experience a film once we have already seen it. Where that leaves the question of spoilers I really couldn't say.

So my first (and truest) reaction to the Last Jedi was disappointment. "After 30 years, is this really all the Luke Skywalker we are going to get?" One of the lovely things about the Force Awakens was that we got a big, meaty chunk of Harrison Ford playing at being Han Solo before his Proper Major Plot Arc started to kick in. I suppose I wanted to see Luke Skywalker the swashbuckling hero swing across one last chasm or fly one last X-Wing down one last trench. Or at least walk into a bar and chop a walrus man's arm off. He may be getting too old for that kind of thing, but he’s not as old as all that. Canon says he was 19 in Star Wars so he is barely 50 in Last Jedi. Star Wars never did handle time very consistently.

That would have pleased me, pleased the crowds, pleased the fans. It is doubtless to Rian Johnson’s credit that this isn't where he went. 

Back in '77 we expected to get a Star War every couple of years. We assumed we’d eventually get to Star Wars Part XVII in which Very Old Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker rattles around the galaxy in a rickety old starship, dispensing fortune cookie wisdom to the new generation of hot young turks and probably cutting down a few Bad Jedi along the way. By '83, we were imagining a film about the early days of the New Republic in which Luke sets up a new Jedi Academy while Mr and Mrs Solo play politics in the reconstituted Senate.

And, from a certain point of view, this is exactly what does happen. All the obligatory plot developments have, in fact, developed. Han and Leia did marry and have a son. Luke did set up Jedi Camp for younglings. But Mr Johnson and Mr Abrams have correctly spotted that people living happily ever after is not what Episode VIII of a space opera saga should be about. (What were you going to call it? Star Peace?) The various comic books and novels told us that our heroes hardly had time to do the washing up after the Ewok party before, whoosh, they were off on another adventure. The new movies tell us that their happy ending lasted for a quarter of a century. But we don't rejoin the action until everything has gone horribly wrong. The story resumes in the immediate aftermath of the apparent triumph of evil; when the surviving Jedi are all hiding out in swamps and in deserts and on islands and some people are holding out for a new hope. 

Exactly where we came in during Episode IV.

I expected Old Luke to be kind of a strange old hermit; or maybe even a wise Councillor to Leia or Mon Motha. (Obi Wan always seemed more Merlin than Lancelot.) Maybe he could have been one of those old alien duffers who sit in the Jedi Temple being serene and insufferable. But in retrospect, he was always going to become Yoda; hiding away on an uninhabited planet, cooking soup, milking cows, refusing to train obviously talented students who come looking for him, not taking the film quite seriously. It's easy to forget how comedic Yoda was when he first appeared. That was everyone's second reaction as the lights came up at the end of Empire Strikes Back. “Alec Guiness’s mentor was a muppet? Are you kidding me?” Luke’s rejection of Rey’s precious lightsaber is an important plot-point. Luke chucking the thing over his shoulder as if it was a piece of junk is not a misstep (as I first thought) but a perfectly judged piece of characterization. It’s just the kind of thing which Yoda would have done.

From the fannish point of view, it seems a great shame to have put Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher into the same studio and only given them 30 seconds of screen time together. And we all wanted Luke and Artoo to take one last trip in an X-Wing, or at least on the Millennium Falcon, with Threepio making annoying comments in the background. But that would have just been a tribute act: getting the band back together to sing all the old hits. That kind of thing never works. And anyway, it would have gone against the whole idea of the saga. Heroes get old. They pass the torch, or at any rate the lightsaber, to the younger ones. Po and Beebee fly the X-Wings nowadays. Luke is a supporting character in their movie, just as Alec Guinness was a supporting character in his. That is the way of things. The way of the Force. That was the life lesson that Joseph Campbell thought that the Journey of the Hero taught us. Life is a journey; everyone has a character; one man in his time plays many parts. (And women too, but not so much.) You've had your go at the Reckless Young Hero template. Now it's time to have a go at the Mysterious Old Mentor.

The few seconds which Luke spends with each of Leia and Chewie and the two robots will prove more memorable than any anticipated reunion scene could have done. The wink at Threepio is just perfect.

But still. Doesn't this failed Luke, this defeated Luke, this Luke who came to Ach-To in order to die, undermine the ending of the Return of the Jedi -- and therefore of the original Star Wars saga.

Yes. Yes, it does. Of course it does.

Return of the Jedi ended with a resounding full-stop. Granted, some people looked at the fireworks and listened to the gub-gub song and said “Well, okay, they’ve destroyed a really, really big battle station…but is that really the end of the Empire?” But the prequels answered that question. The Empire turned out to be the final gambit in a centuries long struggle between the Jedi (hooray!) and the Sith (boo!) George Lucas had originally conceived Star Wars as a multi-generational saga about the Skywalker clan, but the death of the Emperor and the redemption of Vader had such finality that for years he said that there couldn’t be any more episodes. I agreed with him:

The cycle, which has been more like a spiral, is completed. Lucas is absolutely correct to rule out making Episodes VII, VIII and IX: there is absolutely nowhere left for the sequels to go. Hochsten Heiles Wunder! Erlosung dem Erloser!

(That's your actual Wagner, that is.)

So where does that leave the Last Jedi? Is it a story set after the end of the story; a new cycle which begins after the final notes of Gotterdamerung have faded away? Or is it merely a new chapter in which it turns out that the story wasn’t quite so over as we thought it was?

Perhaps Star Wars is like Lenseman where behind each ultimate evil there lurks an evil even more ultimate? Or is it more like Middle-earth, where each iteration of evil becomes pettier but more insidious? 

It is quite late in the day to start complaining about spoiling happy endings. Star Wars -- Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope -- is a perfectly framed fairy tale, with a satisfying happy ending. It has always seemed rather vulgar to imagine more adventures after the medal ceremony. Luke is a Jedi the moment he switches off his targeting computer: it is almost sacrilege to think that he has to go to a swamp and take extra P.E lessons from a frog.

But it makes no sense to be a Star Wars fan and wish that there were no Star Wars movies.

The ending of Star Wars was spoiled the moment someone said “We could do Star Wars 2”. The ending of Return of the Jedi was spoiled the moment George said “Okay, let’s do a third trilogy after all.” But that, I suspect, is also the way of the Force.