Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Academedia: WNTD - Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi

This is literally the last time that I will watch this motion picture in its entirety.  It can't be a blow by blow accounting because my mind wanders too easily as I watch it.  And this second viewing is already two times too many.


- Is this generation redefining heroism to make it more commensurate with a social experience largely governed by virtual engagement?  By clicktavism.  Is the online, screentime generation trying to comfort themselves that not engaging is a form of courageous sacrifice?  By turning his back and letting the universe figure it out on its own, Luke is a hero?  Is a parent that abandones a young child to fend for itself a hero?  Heroism for centuries has gone hand in hand with responsibility.  But this conception of heroism seems to run in the opposite direction: Luke is the hero that runs from the fire rather than risking the self to extinguish it (even though he arguably provided the match).  The idea is less interesting than the generation that would champion it and the cultural and social forces that can lead a person to argue that a thing was in fact the direct opposite of a thing.


- again, people wanting to have it both ways.  There are two problems there.  First, is Luke really just like everyone else - a person who lived an average life and was eventually beaten down by expectation?  Was Gandhi or Nelson Mandela?  No, these were people who, while not perfect, actually spent a lifetime considering good and evil.  The implications of giving people fish vs teaching people to fish. That's not mindless hero worship, that's just the reality of certain people who were in a certain place at a certain time.  It's not just a trope to be subverted.  It's a dynamic that has the potential to play out whenever one person of quality or skill is tested and rises above others.  MLK didn't choose his life - that life chose him. How many such people ended their lives in surrender and isolation?  None of them did and Luke isn't that person either.  Leia, Han, Chewie...everyone that he knows and loves would have to be dead before he could be that person.  He'd have to have literally nothing left worth fighting for.  Luke already faced the greatest test of his life.  He was in a room with Vader and the Emperor with the ultimate temptation...and he won.  He fought in war, watched friends die.  He risked it all and won.  But it's believable that after surviving that, Luke would be beaten down by life?  That losing his students would be some kind of unbearable tragedy breaking his faith in everything?  That would be like surviving Auschwitz, living your life and then committing suicide in your 90s.  The worst part is long past.  Nothing is ever going to be that bad again.

The second problem is:  well, what are they trying to say about heroism?  Is Luke right to abandon the fight or wrong?  Because it seems pretty clear that abandoning the fight didn't help and it seems equally clear that returning to the fight will end up being good.  Either Luke was wrong to turn his back on the galaxy or he was wrong to save the day and be the 'false' hope to millions that the story of "Skywalker standing against the First Order alone" will turn out to be.  So which one is it?  Is he a coward or a false idol?  The movie doesn't seem to know itself but it's trying to do everything in is power to say that he isn't either.  Because whichever one it is, here's the question: why wouldn't a Jedi master, one of the wisest and most responsible people of his generation, not be able to suss that out on his own?  The only way that it could be believable is if he wasn't Luke Skywalker and didn't face any of the things that we've already seen him face or do any of the things that we've already seen him do.

- When in the long history of the world did a human come to the conclusion that a bad thing that happened at the end of a long string of good things meant that we should in fact do nothing at all?  Who was it that failed at teaching a child how to read and in that failing decided not only not to learn how to teach reading, but also prevented the child from learning to read from others and went out of their way to burn every book that they ever saw?  That is literally Luke's philosophy in this story: not just that he was a bad Jedi, or that Kylo was a bad Jedi, but that the Jedi are bad.  That they are so bad that none should ever exist.  That one bad turn or mistake means that absolutely no good is to be had.  Disney would posit that all the good that Skywalker did in his life is either just as significant or vastly insignificant compared to his one decisive mistake: a moment of weakness against his student and nephew and its consequences.  And so instead of trying to do good things that might lead to bad things, or trying to undo bad things that result from good intentions, we should all just go and live in exile.  Someone else will clean up our mess.  That thinking is why there is a hole in the ozone layer.  That thinking will be the doom of our species.  It should not be championed or celebrated in any way.


- there is a way to make someone who runs from a fight into a hero.  If you turn your back on a battle that needn't be fought.  Or you run from one fight to face an even bigger or more important fight.

Luke does neither of these things.

Gideon ultimately has to run to protect his family from himself.  But his cowardice is short term.  Over the long run he is the person who runs in order to build the hero that he himself couldn't be.

Luke explicitly does not do this.

But I guess everyone has their limits.  Apparently, the idea of Luke trivializing Rey's desire to help others even as his own sister and friends were in peril was a bridge too far for Johnson in the deconstruction of the Jedi.  Pity.  They didn't actually go all the way...


- to be clear: 9000 words of exposition for this movie is a little on the high end. people who like this movie only cared about Star Wars as a pop media phenomenon: the people who only care about Star Wars when it is in theaters.  People who don't actually cared about stories: read Star Wars stories, and appreciated Star Wars stories in all of its forms.  It's really that simple.  Machiavelli wrote that true political power was the ability to wield both secular and religious power over people - Moses, who was both the head of the army and the head of the church.  Now we have to appreciate that a lasting media product has to have both popular and informed appeal - it must be accessible to newcomers yet rigourous enough to satisfy long-time fans.  I feel that Marvel has done this well, GOT does this masterfully (especially in light of variance between books and TV) and Star Wars and cinematic Star Trek before it fail at it in pretty manifest ways.

- Burn the past is a seductive idea.  But what was the past like before it was the past?  Before it had the burden of knowing?  Wouldn't it have been this magical place that people imagine: a place without expectation?  And if it were that place and then became the place of expectation and burden that defined the present, doesn't that mean that to create an "end to the past" will just lead right back to the place that you are trying to escape?  There was once a time before the light side and the dark side.  And that time led to a time where there was light side and dark side.  If the light and dark should disappear, what will be different this time?  What will keep the natural process from proceeding naturally?  People who try to burn the past are the dumbest of all.  They are the ones that don't actually care about freedom and escaping the burdens of the past.  They just want life to be easier.  And they see ignorance as a pancea because ignorance makes many things easier.  For a time.  Not opening your eyes as you ride a bike can make riding very enjoyable.  You don't have to worry about hittiing anyone - everyone else has the responsibility of not hitting you.  It seems like a much easier less stressful type of riding.  Until you ride into something that won't move out of your path: a cliff's edge, a raised curb or a solid wall.  Ignorance is easy until its the hardest thing of all.  The only true way to escape the past - if that isn't anything other than a stupid delusion - is to know what has gone before, see how the terrain of history shifted people's thinking and decisions, read the terrain of the present and try and do something different.  But..that takes work.  And ignorance is so much...It is the quickest and easiest path of all.  And again, if Luke Skywalker can't be depended upon to teach this to one of his students, he would indeed be a failure as a teacher.  But the idea of all people, Luke Skywalker failing as a teacher to teach Kylo one of the most important lessons of his own life: that the past is a teacher rather than a prison, (or that Yoda would have to tell it to Luke in his 60s) runs counter to the character that Disney bought.

- It's fascinating to advocate for letting the past die, as if the past could somehow stop influencing the present.  Maybe if we could all forget.  Is this appeal - manifested in the burning of the Jedi tree and in Rey's lack of parentage and in Kylo's matri- and patricide - some sort of new thread that is meant to become the meta-narrative of this trilogy: a contrast to the redemptive arc of Anakin and the hero's journey of Luke that had gone before?  Or is it the shameless faux-auteur conceit of Disney to *wink-wink* make explicit to audiences that we aren't making Star Wars movies as they have been made and that the previous standards don't apply?  Now they seem daring and edgy as they make the series as appealing as possible to a younger generation of fans.  Problem is:  Star Wars only has fans because of the past - Disney wouldn't have spent a billion dollars just to buy a logo.  The bought a legacy -- yet they don't show any particular interest in the characters that created that legacy, doing all that they can to kill them off as quickly and ignobly as possible.  But at the same time that they are saying that the past must die, they deign to introduce us to the profoundly original tale of a ragtag rebellion fighting against a much larger authoritarian force led by unlikely heroes whose actions are all tied together through the mysterious working of the Force.  Untilled soil if ever there was.  So, in trying to chase two rabbits while saying they are only chasing one, they manage to actually catch neither.  And anyone that actually cares about stories and characters can feel all this as they sit there.  But to everyone else, Star Wars might as well be a music video: a meaningless assemblage of scenes notable only for its ability to stimulate the senses.

- I haven't even mentioned Rey.  Because what is she fighting for?  People that she met yesterday?  To join a fight that she previously didn't even know was happening?  She's this cipher.  Luke is the kid watching the two suns set, 'always looking to the horizon' as Yoda said.  Leia is the politician's child, looking for angles, quiet desperation, fighting smart, keeping up appearances.  Leia was the resistance; Luke wanted to join the resistance. Who is Rey? They are so afraid of boxing themselves in by clarifying what she is that, two movies in, she ends up being nothing at all.

And maybe that's the greatest flaw of these two movies: any effort at deconstructing heroism while at the same time establishing a hero would have to have the most vanilla hero of all.  Otherwise there would be a strong possibility of contradicting yourself, of rehashing old patterns. And what else is Rey but the safest possible hero?  A hero that couldn't possibly be less interesting or more focus-group tested.  How can anyone that says Luke is made more interesting by being made 'imperfect' turn around and be satisfied with Rey?  She's a person without any history, seemingly without any desires or flaws.  Does she want to be normal?  Does she want to be special?  What does she believe in?  All we know about her is that she wants to help. She's pure, effortless, uncomplicated goodness.  Luke was pulled by the desire for more...pushed by the death of his adopted parents.  His flaw was his impetuousness, his urgency, his lack of faith in the possibilities of the Force.  His desire for more - more adventure, more freedom, more power - was the fundamental temptation that could lead him to the dark side.  What is Rey's?  Her lost family?  The need to belong?  There's no proof of that.  People who have a need to belong create a family where ever they can: look for community in anything.  Rey lives on a desert world and doesn't care enough about anyone on that whole planet to even think twice about leaving without so much as a word to anyone - no problem there.  Suddenly she effortlessly controls the forces of nature itself - no problem there.  Suddenly she can wield a lightsaber and beat Luke's best student - no problem there.  She can't be a typical hero so in crafting a character that consciously avoids any aspects of the hero's journey, all that you're left with is someone who is uber-powerful, uber-capable, and can only possibly have problems of her own making. Which makes her desire for training from Luke seem reductive when she has already defeated Kylo and fights him a second time to a draw.  She doesn't need anyone and it couldn't be more clear that she doesn't.

She meets this guy and they are sewn together at the hip - why not?  But as sewn together as they are, it's strictly platonic, comfortably at a distance, as if she was created solely on the basis of passing the Bechdel test.   Oh, am I talking about Kylo or Finn?  Who knows?  Who cares?  No one is going to tell me that Jennie Snyder Urman or Patty Jenkins or Shonda Rhimes or Tina Fey couldn't write a more interesting female lead than Rey. There's just nothing there.

- Two crappy heroes: one uncharacteristically bad and the other uncompromisingly flawless.  You'd think the older more experienced hero would be level-headed and have heroing down and the younger one would be overconfident in the face of effortless skill and have some lessons to learn.  But that would make too much sense so let's try something different.  Why even bother?  Interestingly, what they were trying to do has already been done and better in the relationship between Laura and Wolverine in Logan: the broken down hero and the younger model that still believed.   Disney did not accomplish the feat of turning Luke Skywalker into Old man Logan.  Jesus, even Logan, broken down and slowly dying, was still protecting the Professor.  How did a killing machine like the Wolverine age more gracefully than Luke Skywalker?

I'm not going to waste a second on Poe or Finn: that's just deliberate provocation.  The long and short of it is: Disney can't make Star Wars smart just as George Lucas couldn't make Star Wars human.  Honestly for all the hope talk that goes into the average SW movie, my only hope is Pixar.  If their braintrust could be given a chance - separate from the nonsense of TFA and TLJ - I would pay for that.  But I won't be paying for more of this.