Relearn What You Have Learned

Comparing Criticisms of ‘The Last Jedi’ to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

I don’t relish playing the “Pop Culture Defense Force” role. I really don’t. Star Wars is and probably always will be massively successful, and a bunch of dumb Tweets isn’t going to change that. I should just ignore them.

But.

I have a fanboy conniption when I see people say The Last Jedi is a betrayal of canon. If the movie didn’t work for you, fine. There are valid criticisms to be made about the pacing, the script, the effects. I don’t agree with those criticisms, but they’re valid.

What’s not valid is claiming The Last Jedi isn’t Star Wars, or that it doesn’t understand previous films. It understands. In fact, it understands so much it hurts.

But instead of diving deep into the character motivations and themes (gotta have something for future posts!), I thought I’d compare some of the common criticisms of The Last Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back.  After all, the latter is widely considered the best film in the series. Surely if The Last Jedi is such a black sheep, the best Star Wars film ever made will avoid its pitfalls, right?

Finn and Rose’s mission was a failure. They just made things worse!

This is an increasingly common hot take in the Twittersphere, and man, it’s one of the worst. Let’s start with the fact that ‘learn from your failures’ is one of the essential themes of the film. Yoda quite literally beats Luke over the head with this. Dealing with mistakes is an essential part of every single plotline in the film.

Comparing this to Empire Strikes Back, we see the same themes of failure. Luke’s arrogance makes him quit his training, face Vader unprepared and generally screw things up. Nothing he does in this film is successful, none of it helps the rebellion or hurts the Empire, and everyone would have been better off if he hadn’t done anything at all.

Han and Leia spend the entire movie running from the Empire, and in the end, they’re caught anyway. Han is turned into a popsicle while Leia and Chewie barely escape and end up worse off than they were the beginning of the movie.

Of course, everyone knows the Empire is not only engaging despite our heroes’ failures, but because of them. They inspire essential character growth that is interesting to watch as it happens and integral for the final chapter in the trilogy.

Likewise, Finn’s failure — and DJ’s betrayal — informs his decision to be “rebel scum” (a decision that he doesn’t quite fully understand, and one that Rose thankfully saves him from executing stupidly). He sees the cost of DJ’s ‘success,’ and he rejects it. He would rather fail than throw his conscience under the bus. That seems like a trite lesson, and it can be–except that most stories ultimately give the hero a win in the end, making the ‘lesson’ pointless.

Finn’s failure has consequences. It doesn’t secretly save the Resistance. It gets people killed. It would be easier for Finn to take DJ’s way out. To run. That he chooses not to is far more powerful than it would be if Finn had turned out to be the Big Damn Hero. Regardless of the plot boxes it ticks, the story provides crucial character growth.

Fine, but the story was still empty. Nothing happened!

Here’s what actually happens, plot-wise, in The Empire Strikes Back. If someone skipped from Ep. IV to Ep. VI, these are the essential plot points they would need to know:

  • Luke meets Yoda and learns that Vader might be his dad
  • Han is captured by Jabba.

“But wait!” you cry out. “That skips all of the character development! The romance! The new characters, the themes, the wounds!”

Yep, and ignoring the Canto Bight plot does the exact same thing. As I said in the introduction, I think criticisms about the editing, pacing, etc. are fair game. But the assertion that Rose and Finn’s subplot adds nothing is a fundamental misunderstanding of this film’s goals. To wit, without the Canto Bight plot:

  • Finn doesn’t join the resistance. Yes, some people may have forgotten this, but throughout The Force Awakens, Finn is not actually a rebel. In fact, the film never resolves the fact that he wants to escape the war entirely, and only joins the Resistance mission because he wants to rescue Rey. He begins this film immediately trying to get as far away from the doomed rebel fleet as he can. Without the Canto Bight plot, without meeting DJ, without seeing Rose’s strength and persistence, there is nothing motivating Finn to fight the First Order instead of running from them.
  • The Resistance doesn’t meet Broom Boy. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. Who cares if they inspire some slave kids? Hundreds of resistance fighters died because of what they did! But Broom Boy is one of the most important characters in the story. The film ends on a shot of him staring into the stars, instead of on our heroes gathered in the Falcon, and this speaks volumes. This is the shot the filmmakers wanted to leave us with. This is the character they wanted us to focus on. Not the present, but the future. The future of the Resistance, and possibly the Jedi as well. Without Canto, we see none of this, and the Resistance plot becomes the same old “white hats vs. black hats” battle that was fun in Star Wars but has since gotten stale. The Canto Bight plot shows us the real source of rebellions: injustice and inequality, not death stars and tie fighters.
  • Speaking of good vs. evil, no Canto also means no DJ and no discussion of the war machine subtly present in all Star Wars films (including the prequels!) Though the film’s military-industrial criticism is understated, it is nevertheless meaningful. “Let me learn you something. It’s all a machine,” might be my favorite line in the movie. And I suspect we haven’t seen the last of DJ, or what he represents.

“Rey is a Mary Sue! She is strong enough to beat Kylo and a horde of Praetorian Guards without any real training!”

Let’s take a look at what training Luke had prior to his duel with Darth Vader (in which he at least held his own):

  • Used his lightsaber to play with a training remote on the Falcon for about five minutes
  • Trained with Yoda for somewhere between two weeks and two months. There is never any indication of any direct combat training in this time.
  • That’s literally all of it

By contrast, Rey at least knows the basics of combat from her time on Jakku, so her maneuvers against the guards are not surprising. But Empire makes clear that tangibly using the Force is not something that necessarily needs years of training. To some — such as Luke Skywalker — it apparently comes naturally.

What does require years of training is learning how to use the Force responsibly, which is where we come to:

Luke doesn’t act like Luke! He’s a different character!

Well, yeah. It’s been thirty years. He’s lived to see his nephew turn to the Dark Side and murder the rest of his students in cold blood. He’s seen the Empire he thought he defeated rise again, stronger than ever. He’s not the same person he was forty years ago. No one would be.

But anyone who thinks Luke’s mistakes in this story are out of character doesn’t understand Luke’s character. His big screw-up — sensing the dark in Ben Solo and igniting his lightsaber — is seen as some as a massive betrayal of the previous films. Luke would never do threaten violence! And to a FAMILY MEMBER no less!

Except … well…

 

Luke being brash, emotional and quick to violence in the face of the Dark Side is Luke Skywalker’s defining character flaw. “He has too much of his father in him,” Aunt Beru says, and while that quote didn’t originally refer to the Dark Side, George Lucas was certainly mindful of it when he wrote the words, “No. I am your father.”

In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke ignores his masters, rushes to face Vader, loses a hand and very nearly his friends (remember what I said in the first section about most ‘characters make mistakes’ stories pulling their punches?)

They could have given us a Master Luke who had mastered his emotions, who no longer had flaws. But that Luke would have been the same as Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back. A ghost of the past who existed solely to spout platitudes and clarify some plot points so the important characters could act. He would have had no arc. Is that seriously what self-proclaimed Luke fans wanted to see?

And look, I get being unhappy with seeing Luke brooding instead of taking action. There’s that part in all of us who want to see our heroes wreck shop. There’s a reason one of the most pervasive images of Jesus, generally known as a peaceful guy, is him vandalizing a temple.

But, here’s the thing: blaming Rian Johnson for turning Luke into an exile makes no sense. It was The Force Awakens that put Luke on a deserted island, living a hermit’s life while those he left behind struggled. Johnson had two choices: turn Luke into Goku (“No, I’ve just been training in 10x gravity this whole time to become a Super Jedi, let’s go kick Kylo’s ass!”), or turn Luke into a broken man with unresolved issues.

If Johnson wanted Luke to be little more than a cameo, he could have gone with the first option. I’m happy he chose to make Luke a character instead.

There are too many people of color!

I’m just kidding. This is not something anyone said about The Empire Strikes Back. I’m happy it’s something a minority of assholes are saying about The Last Jedi. Racist tears are delicious.

Luke from 'The Last Jedi' grumpily drinking milk

 

NoteDarren Gendron beat me to the punch with a satirical article on this topic over at MovieTimeGuru. You should absolutely read it!

Lucasing the Joint – HERBIE (1965)

Like LOOK AT LIFE, Lucas’s next film, HERBIE, was made for a student film class. Compared with LOOK AT LIFE, HERBIE is much less ambitious. The film is short, only three minutes long including the credits. There are no actors (a trait Lucas might not have realized appealed to him, given his future comments about his distaste for the profession), few concrete images and not even any spoken dialogue, save for a line about improvisation, presumably spoken by the titular Herbie Hancock, that introduces the film.

As Hancock’s jazz piano jams in the background (one suspects Lucas likely didn’t have the rights to this music), the film shows the audience a series of blurry and bizarre images reminiscent of UFO sightings. Even well over halfway into the movie, we’re not quite sure what the lights we’re seeing represent. Is this a shiny black piano being tickled under stage lights? Is there anything real here at all, or is it pure cinematic trickery? It isn’t until the end of the film that we start to comprehend what we’re seeing. A door handle. A window. And then, as the images focus, a 1960s intersection, city lights and vehicles. Roll credits.

As a school project, it’s technically competent. The images have a logical progression. The cuts are well-done. The audio blends pleasingly with the visuals. While it’s simple, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t invite repeated viewings or philosophical discussions. It gives us a charming synthesis of lights and music, and finishes. As a film, there’s not much to recommend, though it does foreshadow an obsession with cars and visual effects in his future work. The film reminds me of a modern-day Lexus commercial, which seems like a damning statement, but in reality is a compliment. A student capable of producing an interesting and engaging advertisement is a talented one, and even in its brevity, HERBIE marks Lucas as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Next time, we’ll skip over some minor credits to take a look at FREIHEIT, generally considered Lucas’s first narrative film. See you then!

Lucasing the Joint – Look at LIFE (1965)

Background

Unlike his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas did not grow up making films. His major at USC–cinematography–was something of a lark, as he needed something artistic but professional-sounding so as not to arouse the suspicions of his conservative father. He dived into the art form with zeal, however, and was disappointed to find that many of his early classes were more about theory than practical, hands-on filmmaking (those were the days when films was a limited resource!).

His first real filmmaking experience came in an animation class. Students were given a 1-minute section of film and told to run through a series of basic exercises with the animation camera. Lucas, ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to make something real, took it to another level. It’s the equivalent of assigning a spelling test and getting a fully-formed short story in return.

The Film

As a student assignment, it goes above and beyond what’s expected. Look at LIFE is a fully-realized film, clearly reflective of the social strife of the 1960s. As Lucas’s first film, it’s awfully ambitious.

Let’s not be too gushing, however. It’s impressive as a student project, but it’s hard to call it required viewing. It feels very much like the output of a young college man–raw, political, imprecise and a little bit nonsensical. Some of the images are powerful: Martin Luther King Jr. along with images of racial violence (at least implied; it seems likely to me on repeated viewings that several images are taken out of context, which is a sign of clever editing). Some are less striking: a random woman in a bra, possibly an advertisement, which doesn’t suggest much of anything.

In one of the film’s best moments, a haunting biblical narration contrasts love and hate. And then we’re helpfully informed of the film’s end by a cutout reading “END,” followed by an ominous “?” The punctuation is so trite that it’s tempting to read it as a sarcastic joke; but if that’s the case, the tone of the rest of the film does a poor job in helping the viewer reach that conclusion.

In the end, ‘Look at LIFE’ is an interesting beginning to the career of an interesting filmmaker. Like his future films, it’s political, but overly simplistic. It’s technically impressive, with moments of genuine emotion, but also moments of “…huh?”

In any case, it’s freely available online. See what you think!

Lucasing the Joint is a monthly dive into the career of George Lucas, from his early student films to his later behind-the-scenes roles.

Lucas-ing the Joint – The Beginning

Inspired by Brian Jay Jones’s excellent biography, “George Lucas: A Life” (which, if you haven’t read, you should), I’ve decided to do a deep dive into the filmography of Mr. Lucas? Why? Simply because he’s one of the most fascinating directors in existence. Note, of course, that ‘fascinating’ does not necessarily mean ‘best’ or ‘worst’ or ‘most genius’ or ‘most selfless’ or anything like that.

We’ll be starting in May with “Look at LIFE,” an animated tone poem, and George Lucas’s first student film. See you then!

Carrie Fisher has died. Princess Leia lives on.

Carrie Fisher passed away today. She was depressingly young–only 60 years old. She had more wit, more snark, more acerbic takedowns of Hollywood culture to give to us. We will never get to hear them.

Many people have spoken at length about Carrie’s most important traits. Unapologetic. Intelligent. Hilarious. Unashamed to speak about her mental illness and substance abuse. And of course, her status as the sole woman in the boys’ club of Star Wars, at least as it was originally conceived.

It may seem crass to write about Fisher’s most iconic role so soon after her death. As others have pointed out, she was far more than Princess Leia. She was a renowned novelist, sought-after script doctor, mother, daughter, and champion for the lives of so many living with invisible ailments. And after all, she didn’t create the character which brought her so much fame. She wasn’t responsible for her continued portrayal in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where many (like me) grew to love her even more than in the films. She was not the primary author of Princess Leia.

That last point, though, could be argued. There’s a degree to which any actor informs their character, of course. Jodi Foster or Cindy Williams may have done the role justice, but it would not have been the Leia we knew. “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board” would have been imbued with a far different meaning if delivered by anything other than Fisher’s sardonic, strangely accented voice.

Beyond that, Fisher was responsible for at least some of Leia’s dialogue in the later films. While not limited to that character specifically, her work on Return of the Jedi served as one of Fisher’s first opportunities to punch up a script, condensing lines of dialogue to be snappier and less … well, Lucasian. Fisher was not simply Leia’s actress; Leia, in many ways, was Carrie Fisher.

And Leia is important. Many women have expressed how much it meant to see such a powerful woman represented on screen. For me, Princess Leia was not only one of the first female characters I felt encouraged to root for, she was one of the first female characters I felt comfortable identifying with. It may sound strange, but that’s an incredibly powerful–and freeing–feeling for a young boy. Leia was a gate through the fence of gender segregation, a pathway to the realization that there are no boy toys or girl toys, no limitation on playacting certain characters because of their gender identities. Princess Leia was my proto-feminism. The significance of that ideology to my identity speaks volumes about how important a character she has been in my life.

It is Princess Leia who wisecracks to Tarkin and Vader–not Han, not Luke, not Lando, who bends over backwards in fear of the Empire’s retribution. It’s Leia who stands up, fierce and sarcastic, to fascism personified, and who continues to mislead her captors even as her beloved homeland sits in the crosshairs of the Death Star. It is this false information which leads to the sole moment in the film where Tarkin recognizes he has been outplayed. “She lied. She lied to us!” His first underestimation of Leia and her band of rebels is an embarrassment; his second, fatal.

To be sure, Leia hasn’t always been handled well by writers and directors. While she was one of the original Wisecracking Princesses Who Can Save Themselves, her storyline in Return of the Jedi was much closer to a standard damsel-in-distress. And the Expanded Universe often had trouble using her effectively, afraid that political storylines would be far too boring and that Force-heavy storylines would be some sort of betrayal of her character. At the end of the Legends universe that preceded the current canon, however, Leia did receive Jedi training, and watching her navigate abilities the films foreshadowed and face her foes with humor, ferocity and a glowy lightsaber was one of the most genuine joys of those novels.

I hope the writers of future Star Wars tales don’t kill Leia offscreen. I hope they don’t kill her at all, though I’m also apprehensive about recasting the role or using a CGI double (as well as I think it worked in Rogue One). My preference would be to let Leia live on, even if this means awkwardly shuffling her into the background of the story in Episode IX. Unlike Han, whose story arc was completed by a heroic (or tragic) sacrifice, Leia deserves a chance to continue the fight. Or to retire to the life of consultant for the next generation of freedom fighters. Especially in this era of resurgent fascism, we need Leia. We need her stories. We need characters who have been in the fight before, who can show us how to resist.

I do not know what direction Leia will take. But I do know that even if she joins Carrie in leaving our galaxy for one far, far away, neither the princess and general, nor the comedian and advocate, will ever be forgotten.

(Correction: The original post mentioned Fisher’s work on The Empire Strikes Back, along with a marked-up script. The script was actually marked up by the director, Irvin Kershner. Fisher’s first script work for Star Wars was actually on the third film).

The Fight Never Ends

I read, with some bemusement and a lot of frustration, an article asserting that President Obama “permanently” protected Planned Parenthood by executive action. It’s interesting to me that this piece was written prior to the election, but only went viral after Trump’s win, now that sane people are rightly horrified at the coming erosion of rights in the foreseeable future and looking for some reassurance. The unstated assumption is that Clinton would be elected and continue the executive action. Now that Trump is president, he can and likely will rescind the executive action — if he can stop jerking himself off long enough on his victory tour to actually govern, which hopefully is beyond his capacity.

So the idea that Obama has done anything “permanently” with an incoming Republican government is foolish. But beyond that, I get the feeling that my generation (Millennials, or as we’d call ourselves, 90s Kidz!!) lulled ourselves into a sense of complacency. For many of us, President Obama was the first President we voted for, the first time we were really politically aware. After galloping forward on gay rights, racial awareness and more for eight years, the idea that we could turn backward so dramatically was unthinkable. And the idea of Trump becoming president was basically an apocalyptic fantasy. So, we got comfortable. We stopped shouting. We ignored our racist family, we rolled our eyes and kept our mouth shut about our sexist coworkers. We ignored the oppressive laws being passed in our cities and states because, don’t worry, Obama will protect us from anything truly terrible. Our progress was often slower than we’d like, but at least it was solidified.

Flash forward to President-Elect Donald Trump. But actually, put him aside. This isn’t really about him. Yes, he’s abhorrent and dangerous in a hundred different ways that a generic Republican isn’t. But even a generic Republican threatens gay rights. Even a generic Republican  threatens reproductive rights. Even a generic Republican threatens to undo the already meager work we’ve done to beat back climate change. If victory on these issues is utterly dependent on electing a Democratic president in perpetuity, it’s not a real victory at all.

While Trump is particularly awful, the idea that any of our progress, ever, is “permanent” is hopelessly naive. For all the “gummint moves slowly on purpose!” nonsense were fed, you’d better goddamn believe the GOP can move quickly now that they’ve got a majority. We’re only ever one election away from undoing decades of social progress via laws and Supreme Court nominations. We’re only two or three elections away from plunging into a fascist, racist, Handmaid’s Tale-style hellscape. If you consider that hyperbolic, consider that our next president is THE standard bearer for literal Nazis.

Most of the people reading this are going to be both frightened and emboldened by this election. Good. Chase that feeling. Use it to fuel your activism in politics, social justice, charity. But don’t let it fade at the first sign of success. Donald Trump is set to enact a ton of disastrous changes. And then, sometime after–maybe 2018, maybe 2020, maybe later–the Democrats will have a great resurgence and you’ll feel your worry and fear start to dissipate. Don’t let it. Hold on to it. Don’t live in a constant of trauma–enjoy the world, enjoy art, music, family–but don’t ever forget that we’re mere votes away from a hard turn toward nationalistic theocracy.


Fascists and morons alike call us social justice warriors. Wear it as a badge of honor, but realize that the war is never over.

Will I “Give Trump a Chance?” Sure. Here It Is.

Over the weekend, liberal and conservative pundits alike were falling over themselves to implore us to give President-Elect a chance. A chance to do what, exactly, is terrifying to think about. But let’s assume the best. Let’s say we do give Mr. Trump a chance to prove himself. What would that look like?

Here’s a list of actions Trump could take before his oath of office to prove that he’s serious about governing as a president for all the people. Note that this is not all-inclusive, and there are still pages of policy proposals that I’d vociferously oppose him. These are just the issues that go above-and-beyond mere political disagreement.

  • Validate the ongoing protests with something like, “I respect their right to organize and their passion for our country’s future. I am their president too, and I hope to earn their trust in the coming years.”
  • Confirm that his stupid fucking wall was a pipe dream, and that any border enforcement will be much more reasonable.
  • Repudiate his running mate and confirm that LGBT rights will be protected in a Trump administration.
  • Revoke his promise to ban and/or register Muslims on the basis of their religion or nationality. Confirm that, while we will “extreme vet” anyone who enters regardless of origin, everybody who wants to come here will have the opportunity no matter their race or religion.
  • Unequivocally condemn the acts of violence and hatred against Jews, Muslims, women, gays and racial minorities that have occurred since his election.
  • Confirm that the US will remain a staunch ally to NATO, and that a Trump administration will categorically oppose the use of nuclear weapons.
  • Promise that, under a Trump administration, torture of enemy combatants will never occur.
  • Promise that not a single person will lose health coverage as a result of ACA change or repeal.
  • Assure us that he will accept the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server and apologize for the abhorrent threat to jail her.
  • Apologize for demonizing journalists and ensure an open a free press.
  • Follow up on his campaign promise to disallow lobbyists in a Trump White House.
  • Take back his call for a nationwide stop-and-frisk.
Why, as an opponent of Trump and everything he stands for, am I comfortable giving him this chance, especially given that most of them are highly reasonable requests that every other Republican candidate would have no issue fulfilling? Because he’ll never accomplish a single line of it. In fact, he’s already gone against several of them. He told hate criminals to “stop it,” but only along with the caveat that he didn’t think any of it was actually happening. He condemned the protests against him before offering a milquetoast walkback. He’s already hired several lobbyists on his transition team and defended the move because ‘gradual steps are needed.’ And worst of all, he’s hired Steve Bannon, a literal white supremacist, to be his chief adviser.
In the first seven days since the election, he’s already proved himself to be every bit as vile as his campaign. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already given Trump his chance. Fascists don’t get a second one.

White Liberals Need to Listen — But Not to Other White People

Over the past few days, I’ve been hearing two sentiments repeated among my liberal friends — most of them white.
“I’m disappointed. I knew there were racists and xenophobes. I just never thought it was a majority.”
and
“We should have listened more to the other side.”
The people espousing these ideas mean well, and I envy their optimism. Truly. I do not intend to condescend. My pessimism is not a virtue. Faith in humanity is never a bad thing.
But the frustration is that we have been told, time and time again, about this doom, this cataclysm, this sleeping giant of horrific xenophobia that exists outside of any single man. And many of us chose not to listen. It was not Trump’s fanatical brownshirts that we failed to listen to. It was people of color who have been warning for months, years about the vile, seedy underbelly of white America.
When people of color said Black Lives Matter, at once the most innocuous and the most radical statement one could imagine, we nodded and threw up our thumbs. And when our friends and neighbors said, “no no, ALL lives matter,” we sighed and shook our heads and walked away. We called it by its cute little euphemism, white privilege, and failed to see it for what it was: white supremacy.
People of color told us America continues to thrive on an ever-present system of racism. We vociferously agreed, yes, goddamn that fucking system, man! The system sucks! But people are good, in general! People are kind, people are generous, people love their neighbors.
The system is people. It’s not a nebulous, amorphous blob of artifacts from the Jim Crow era. It’s individuals making bigoted comments to their white coworkers. It’s individuals ignoring it because they don’t want to make waves. It’s individuals making the choice every single day to engage in white supremacy even at a micro level.

When Ruth Bader Fucking Ginsberg, progressive champion and hero of civil rights, called Colin Kaepernick stupid and disrespectful because he doesn’t want to celebrate a country that is literally murdering his brothers and sisters, we should have seen a problem.
White pundits and politicians, all of whom promised Donald Trump would never take the White House, are telling us that this election is about economic anxiety, even though the median Trump voter makes nearly twenty thousand dollars more than the median Clinton voter.
People of color, who are the only reason Trump failed to win the popular vote, are telling us this election was about something else entirely.
I don’t have the solution for electoral success going forward. But I know the first step. Listen.

Craymer vs. Craymer: A Podcast about Politics, Pop Culture and Philosophy

Hey everyone, hold on to your butts! If you just can’t get enough of my musings, you can head over to craymershow.xyz and check out my new-ish podcast, Craymer vs. Craymer! It’s a discussion show I run with my cohost, White Locke, It’s generally half-comedy (we make fun of stupid startups and listicles) and serious topics–things like moral colonialism and the drug war.

You can check it out at the website above, or via iTunes! If you do use the latter, please leave us a review, and if you enjoy it, tell your friends! If you have a topic suggestion or comment, you can also contact us at craymershow@gmail.com.

That’s it for me this week. Have a good Monday!