Friday, May 20, 2005

The Ultimate Riddle

Frank Gorshin 1933-2005 Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Evaluating Disney: 1932

After recovering from the loss of Ub Iwerks the year before, the new team of Disney animators were now taking off in a direction that, if familiar, was experimental. Disney made the stride into color this year after being shown a test of the three-strip color process from Technicolor. Ub had beaten Walt to color in 1931 with the first Flip the Frog cartoon, but had used the old two-strip process that was limited to the reds and greens of the spectrum. Walt had never liked this method, and so bided his time until someone improved the process. After the technology caught up with him, his artists created a whole pallette of special colors that launched Disney cartoons ahead of all the other animation of the time. However, the expense of the process limited Walt to its use--Mickey Mouse, for example, would not appear in color for several years. But for now, making the leap was groundbreaking enough.

1/16: The Bird Store
This Silly Symphony is surprisingly sparse. It merely depicts varieties of birds singing in a shop, and then fighting off a cat. The second half is infinitely better than the first, but seeing the imaginitive exotic birds is pretty neat. Wilfred Jackson directed.

1/28: The Duck Hunt
Bert Gillett peppers this short with a lot more jokes about Pluto's fleas, but these are some of the funniest sight gags; at one point, Mickey and Pluto start marching, and the fleas all follow like an infantry brigade. The ducks, like all of Mickey's animal nemeses, are total bastards. This recalls one of my favorite Mickey cartoons, Fishin' Around, but is very much its own short.

2/11: The Grocery Boy
Boy, wouldn't it be great if cooking were as easy as it always looks in cartoons? Wilfred Jackson's direction always flows better than anyone else's of the time, and the chase scene is a beaut. Great gag where a statue of Napoleon falls on Mickey's head.

3/32: The Mad Dog
Pluto swallows some soap, and the resulting foam makes everyone think he's rabid. There's a gag in here with a duck playing a stereotypical Chinaman walking out of a laundry and running in terror from Pluto--yes, it's racist and thoughtless, but it's also very funny. It just was, it was so over the top. Pegleg Pete plays the dog catcher who nearly shoots Pluto. I am a little tired of Bert Gillett's humor around Pluto's fleas, though--I mean, I know Mickey and Pluto are poor, but find some new gags. It's starting to make me think of Pluto as somehow diseased and unclean. This is also the first time that Pluto appears in a design more like the modern version of Pluto; he's become much more of a casual, rambunctious dog, and not like the deliberate troublemaker he was originally in cartoons like The Moose Hunt.

4/15: Barnyard Olympics
I didn't think it was possible, but I'm glad to be back in the barnyard; it gives Wilfred Jackson a chance to pull out some of the fun barnyard character designs--the old goat, the fat pig, the silly weiner dog. Horace Horsecollar is sadly missing, though. Mickey competes at track and field along with a cheating Pete (minus pegleg and usual fatness). Lots of great visual gags, and some beautiful animation flourishes. One of the best of the Mickey Mouse cartoons.

5/25: Mickey's Revue
Another one of those cartoons with Mickey conducting an orchestra and putting on a show. I can only assume that at the time it was a reliable standby, but it's really worn thin by this time (despite Wilfred Jackson's direction). Still, it's nice to see Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar back in the show. Also, this cartoon marks the introduction of a new character named Dippy Dawg, an old hound dog with an obnoxious laugh provided by the great Pinto Colvig. This character would almost immediately be redesigned to become Goofy, one of Disney's most beloved characters. But otherwise, it's not really very special. And also, the soft-shoeing basset hounds are dead-eyed and creepy.

7/9: The Musical Farmer
Wilfred Jackson puts some nice flourishes into what begins as a remake of The Plowboy and becomes a weird thing with a chicken laying a giant egg. It's alright, but doesn't hold the attention for too long.

7/9: The Bears and Bees
A Silly Symphony about two bears looking for food. The bears look basically like Mickey Mouse, only without pants. Nice animation, again directed by Jackson.

7/18: Mickey in Arabia
Why are the Arabs all drawn like black cannibals out of a Bray cartoon? Otherwise, though, this is a fun effort, one of those wear Pete (here a sultan) kidnaps Minnie and has to be rescued by Mickey. It's a cute cartoon, with a neat, hilarious camel who gets drunk and a lot of background detail. Quick observation: if cartoons of the 1930s are to be believed, everything in Arabia has a cutthroat with a sword waiting inside of it...

7/30: Just Dogs
This Silly Symphony stars Pluto as one of many dogs at the pound. When a small little puppy (very cute, very well animated) escapes and frees the other dogs, he and Pluto run around together (even though Pluto hates the puppy), and the two end up finding a bone together that the other dogs fight with them for. A lot of this sequence was repeated in Lady and the Tramp in 1955. The ending is very sweet. Take a look at a model sheet for that cute puppy.

7/30: Flowers and Trees
The first Disney cartoon--a Silly Symphony--to feature color animation. Disney signed a two-year contract with Technicolor for the exclusive rights to their new three-strip process so that no other animator would get ahold of it, and then went about devising a new kind of ink that would stick better without chipping or peeling. The shooting process was laborious, not quick, and besides that Flowers and Trees had already been produced (though not released) in black and white, and would now need to be redrawn in color. Bert Gillett directed the cartoon with some assistance from one of the great animators of all time, Dave Hand. Though other cartoons had featured color, Disney's colors were much more vibrant, and used much more creatively. The short tells the story of trees and flowers who are attacked by a hollowed-out old tree, who sets the forest on fire. The reds and oranges used in the fire flicker and move of their own accord, mesmerizing to watch. Disney had, typically, not just made the technical advance, but justified its use creatively, rather than just using it use it. And the cartoon itself tells a fun story with great music use (especially the bits from Erlkonig) that would have been enjoyable without the color.

From this point on, the Silly Symphonies made the shift to color. It was an expense that could not be paid indiscriminantly, and the Mickey Mouse cartoons were so popular that they didn't need the extra draw.

8/13: Mickey's Nightmare
Mickey dreams that Minnie proposes to him, and then the stork delivers what can only be described as an armada of baby mice who proceed to tear up the house. There's some good gags and nice animation (great shading, especially in the first scene), but it's a little bit of a retread of Mickey's Orphans. There's an hilarious moment when the stork delivers the first baby and shakes hands with Mickey; after the entire horde descends on the house, Pluto offers to shake Mickey's hand, and he slaps it away in disgust.

8/20: Trader Mickey
This parody of Trader Horn has probably the strongest use of racial stereotyping in any Disney cartoon. Mickey and Pluto are captured by African cannibals who plan to cook them, but when they go through his goods, they find--no points for guessing--musical instruments. A wild jam session ensues, set to "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." It almost overdoes it on the stereotyping; the cannibal king has a laugh that must be Pinto Colvig's Goofy laugh. He also finds a girdle and wears it as though it were a crown. Some good sight gags, great animation--this is the first Disney cartoon directed by Dave Hand. Yes, the caricatures are pretty strong, but it's undeniably toe-tapping and one of the best cartoons of all time.

9/10: King Neptune
A bizarre Silly Symphony directed by Bert Gillett. Bare-breasted (really) mermaids frolic around with King Neptune (who comes off a little like a pervy uncle), and then one of them gets caught by pirates who basically spend the rest of the cartoon trying to rape her. As I said, bizarre. Interesting animation, especially in the scenes with the mermaids doing their water dance, but otherwise...

9/17: The Whoopee Party
More fluid gags from Wilfred Jackson. Mickey, Minnie, Clarabelle, Horace, and for the first time as himself, Goofy, throw a wild party where even the furniture joins in the dancing and the house itself rocks on its foundations (even the cops who come to raid the place can't resist those hot beats). It veers close to routine a couple of times, but it's all so fast and weird that there's not time to get bored with it. It kind of plays like one of those alcohol parties from the prohibition days, though.

10/1: Bugs in Love
This is the last Silly Symphony made in black and white; it tells the story of a bunch of froliocking bugs who are interrupted by the arrival of a hobo crow. It's basically a remake of The Spider and the Fly, but its still cute, and the "battle scene" has some neat animation.

10/15: Touchdown Mickey
Easily the equal of Barnyard Olympics for pacing, excitement, and hilarity. Mickey and his barnyard friends (including that great silly weiner dog) are Mickey's Manglers, a football team fighting out the last quarter of the game against the Alley Cats, a team of, naturally, big Pete-like cats. Goofy plays the announcer--I swear that guy is always high on glue fumes or something. One of the best, directed by Wilfred Jackson.

11/12: The Wayward Canary
Mickey buys Minnie a cage full of canaries, and they trash the house. I'm tired of this routine by now. Oddly, Mickey has a lighter with a backwards-swastika design on it. This is from the period when United Artists were distributing Disney cartoons; there's a scene where the canaries accidentally trash autographed pictures of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

11/12: The Klondike Kid
Basically, it's the same thing as The Gallopin' Gaucho, only in Alaska instead of Mexico. But this old routine is so well executed here that new life is breathed into it. There's some great gags--especially the Oswald-like bunny that Pluto chases around, and the destruction of a log cabin. There's also some good lighting tricks here, like the flashing when Pegleg Pete bursts into a lodge, grabs Minnie, douses the lights, and starts blasting away with his six-guns. Art Babbit, a great animator, worked on this Bert Gillett-directed cartoon that stands as one of the most fun of Mickey's adventures.

11/18: Parade of the Award Nominees
This was a special cartoon produced for the 1932 Academy Awards showing Mickey leading the acting nominees (the animation of the backgrounds is that same tracking shot from Mother Goose Melodies). It's cute, with a lot of celebrity caricatures. Even though it was not released to the public, this is the first time Mickey Mouse appears in color. Notably, he is wearing green shorts and not red, as would become his trademark.

11/19: Babes in the Woods
This vibrantly colorful Silly Symphony mixes the fairy tales Babes in the Woods with Hansel and Gretel, as two children befriend elves and are kidnapped by a witch with a candy house who wants to turn them into creatures. She has been changing children into spiders, lizards, bats, and cats, etc. The transformation of the little boy into a spider is especially hard and scary, almost vomit-inducing in its sheer horror. And the witch is defeated by being cruelly turned into a rock. It starts off twee and silly, but it gets dark fast and stays that way, even when the elves and children dance in a ring around the murdered witch in gleeful celebration. Strong, excellent stuff.

12/10: Santa's Workshop
A classic Silly Symphonies cartoon with Santa and his elves making toys. Not much to it, but it's cheerful and has its heartwarming moments.

12/17: Mickey's Good Deed
Mickey sells Pluto to a spoiled rich pig (who proceeds to torture him cruelly) to make money to give some kittens a merry Christmas. It's a very sweet short--even though Mickey's cello (which he has been using to panhandle) is destroyed, he and Pluto make Christmas happy for some kids and still get something to eat in the end. Remembering that this cartoon was made during the Great Depression, and it has a hopeful tinge to it that is brave rather than pandering.

Disney ended 1932 on top once again, and even if some of the gags were getting tired, the shorts were getting more and more inventive. The Silly Symphonies would become more epic, more of a training ground for working out animation problems, and Mickey Mouse was doing just fine--he was much more of a sweet, honest guy just looking to have fun, romance his gal, and do something nice for folks, rather than the malicious little brat of a few years earlier. Features lay ahead; for now, the Walt Disney Studios were content to look for opportunities to innovate within their chosen form.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Star Wars Ruminations: Please Be Over

Well, I was going to watch Episode II last night just to make today's post sound thought-out, but the movie is so stuffed with filler and boredom that I can't even bear the thought of watching it again. It's no big secret that it's the worst of the saga, so I'm not even going to bother. I do have a couple of observations to mention, though they're hardly original.

1. Have you ever noticed that you could easily take Episode I and Episode II and consolidate them into one fairly good two-and-a-half-hour movie?

2. If George Lucas wanted to examine Anakin Skywalker's youth, why didn't he do it in a way that the audience could sympathize with? I don't care about him as a kid, and as a whiny teenager he's totally unlikeable. The audience grows impatient because Anakin is held at such an emotional distance for two films that they don't know why it's such a tragedy that he becomes evil. The kid was always a rotten little puke. No wonder Obi-Wan doesn't like him.

3. Okay, why is Lucas interested in telling the history of the Axis powers? The fall of a weak republic led by an ineffectual chancellor who is removed in favor of an ambitious man who is given special powers to make war and controls his subjects with stormtroopers is Nazi Germany in a nutshell, and the idea of the empire establishing itself and killing all the Jedi is basically the end of feudalism in Japan and the reestablishment of empire that led to the slaughter of the samurai.

4. What's interesting to me is that George Lucas seems to be firmly on the side of fascist dictatorship rather than democracy or self-expression. The original trilogy struck a chord with people because it championed youthful rebellion against the established order. This new trilogy, made later, shows a thematic element of warning--don't speak out, because you cannot win. And I know that, chronologically, they take place earlier. But realistically, they're being made now, but a guy who has become the very establishment he used to hate, and now seems to hate the idea that he could be toppled from his position.

5. Just because you can put something in every corner of the frame doesn't really mean that you should. The most distracting element of the prequels turned out to be the special effects of Coruscant. I could never pay attention to anything that was going on because of all the movement going on outside of the windows--it just naturally attracts the eye. As Terry Gilliam said, it's the first movie that takes place completely in the background.

6. Yoda was much better as a puppet. I like that the actors had to look at Yoda, to relate to this puppet as a person, a character, not something they had to make up in their heads. The digital form is as cold as his emotional reasoning has become in the prequels. Also, you don't need to do Artoo Detoo in CG, either. The reason The Lord of the Rings created such a believable world is because Peter Jackson combined real locations, models, puppets, and computers. Too much in Star Wars does not physically exist, and it feels more like a cartoon. Coupled with the lack of emotional depth, it makes for a very boring viewing experience.

7. I still like Jar Jar Binks. Sorry Star Wars geeks, it can't be serious all the time.

8. After two movies of filler, can this please be the last Star Wars for another 16 years?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Star Wars Ruminations: Episode I

After a 16-year wait, during which time many of my fellow skeptics were happy to give up on the idea of a prequel trilogy and enjoy what we had, there came the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This new film was much maligned, but for reasons that were often unclear to me. The popular line now seems to be to hate anything that’s new and especially if its something children will enjoy, and most people I talked to were never really able to explain clearly to me why they hated the movie. I, for one, quite enjoyed it. And more importantly, it made sense to me.

Two storylines occupy us this time around: the first involves the wise Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice, Obi-Wan Kenobi, finding the boy Anakin Skywalker, who will go on to become Darth Vader. The other storyline, less obvious at first, involves Palpatine, a senator from the planet Naboo, secretly taking control of the Senate to support his rise to power as the Emperor. This is a darker trilogy, one that chronicles the rise of two of the galaxy’s greatest evils; and one that is much more fun to watch if you already know the outcome of the story by having seen episodes IV-VI. Somehow, this installment actually makes more sense than the more fun, though less thoughtful, films that preceded it.

I. Interplanetary Commerce
Episode I opens with a word crawl informing us that the planet Naboo is involved with a Trade Federation of the Galactic Republic in a dispute over the taxation of trade routes. But this will not be the main part of the story; this is the device that sets the action in motion. Perfectly okay with me; after all, the Trojan War began the same way, and beautiful Helen was only the excuse the Achaeans used to take Troy and its position of sea power. I’m also satisfied to see that the Republic runs on some sort of commerce. Not only that, but the Trade Federation, run by a race called the Nemoidians, is within its legal rights to blockade a planet until the dispute is dissolved.

Naboo itself is ruled by a 14 year-old queen named Amidala, whom we know will become the mother of Luke and Leia. Though ruled by royalty, Naboo is a part of the Republic, represented by Palpatine in the Senate. The exact details with the Trade Federation are dim at best, but this world is only important because it is the world where not only Amidala (and Artoo Detoo) come from, but also where Palpatine comes from, and the one he can use to reach his goal.

II. Conspiracy and Corruption
The Trade Federation is at the center of a conspiracy orchestrated by Palpatine himself. He will, of course, one day make himself Emperor, but as we meet him here he is trying to assert control over the Senate. Rather than overtly seize power, Palpatine uses the Trade Federation, in the guise of Darth Sidious, to blockade Naboo. By doing so, he creates a groundswell of support for Naboo in the Senate, one that will force the ineffective Chancellor Vallorum to be removed from office, preferably to be replaced with Palpatine. He hides his ambitions well, and tries to have Queen Amidala killed; she will be of good use as a martyr.

Though Amidala thwarts him and makes her way to Naboo with the help of the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi, even evading his servant Darth Maul on Tattooine, he quickly uses it to his advantage by complaining to the queen about the bureaucrats who bend the ear of the chancellor. By overplaying Vallorum’s lack of decisiveness, he maneuvers her into calling for a vote of no confidence in the chancellor and having him removed from office; Palpatine is voted his replacement.

This is the real focus of Episode I, and the rest is about putting Anakin Skywalker in the right place at the right time. Palpatine shows himself to be a very cunning and effective politician, and shows how easily he can cut through the correct avenues to put himself in power. To date this is the most political thinking Lucas has shown in Star Wars.

But the use of Darth Maul troubles me a little; though he provides distraction for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan in the hopes of martyring Amidala, why expose the motives or existence of the Sith so early? Sure, Palpatine will gain the sympathy of the Jedi if they die in the defense of Naboo, but it seems risky to me.

One other interesting aspect is the idea that Sith Lords do not use their own names. As Anakin Skywalker was Darth Vader, here Palpatine is Darth Sidious. Of course, Palpatine couldn’t reveal his true identity for fear of being found out, but it at least goes towards proving that "Darth" is a title, not a name. The name Sidious is a rather uncreative play on the word "insidious." Lucas loves to use adjectives as names...

III. The Jedi and Their Messiah
George Lucas seems to have read Dune again recently. On this sand world, a future messiah is also born, only to become a podracing slave. But this birth is parthenogenesis; Anakin has no father. Speaking to the boy’s mother, Shmi, Qui-Gon asks the identity of Annakin’s father, only to be answered with, "There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth to him, I raised him; I can’t explain how."

Well, the explanation is a rather convoluted and distasteful one. It seems that not just anyone can hear the Force; only people with a high midichlorian count in their blood. Midichlorians, apparently, are a symbiotic, possibly sentient gene in the bloodstream, and the higher the count, the easier it is to use hear the Force and act with it. Anakin, we are told, has the highest count of any Jedi who ever lived. Higher than Yoda, even. So high that Qui-Gon suspects that the midichlorians themselves conceived the boy. The master Jedi describes Anakin as a vergence, something in the process of becoming something else.

Yoda, head of the Jedi Council, and Mace Windu, who acts as some sort of second (an archbishop to the Jedi pope, I guess), are informed that Qui-Gon believes the boy to be foretold by a prophecy (frustratingly unmentioned to us in the film). Anakin may be the one to bring balance to the Force. A messiah, I guess. And not just any, but one of incredibly pure blood--thanks to Lucas’s midichlorians, the Jedi have become less like highly trained samurai, and more like a master race. Born with a natural genetic enhancement, the pure Jedi are even held above the Republic itself. A chilling testament, or a colossal lapse of taste? Apparently, it's a lot less zen than we thought--not just anyone can use the Force (which was a hopeful, optimistic idea), but only those with a genetic predisposition. Thanks for nothing.

The Jedi Council shows a very warped sense of judgment when they refuse to entertain the idea that the boy is the Chosen One. First off, Anakin is too old to train (at 9--as if Luke is a better candidate at 20). The Council seems to resent the fact that Anakin was born a poor slave on an outer rim planet, and that they couldn’t pick him up through their own Force sensitivity.

Secondly, the boy is afraid, and that makes him dangerous. This makes no sense at all to me. Any nine-year-old, away from his mother for the first time and just becoming aware of how vast the galaxy is, would understandably be afraid. According to Yoda, the perfectly natural fear of a child will lead to anger, and then to hate, and then to suffering. Besides the fact that this only makes sense on a basic level of immature reasoning, Yoda’s argument is flawed. What’s the alternative? To send Anakin out into the world with incredible powers (potentially the most powerful Jedi ever) that he does not understand and cannot control? Won’t this lead to confusion, frustration, anger, etc? Possibly to become a creature of the Dark Side out of a natural, lingering resentment. Why is the Jedi Council so high-handed and hard-assed with everything.

Yoda and Mace Windu also show their arrogance and unreason when Qui-Gon informs them of his earlier encounter with Darth Maul on Tattooine. Qui-Gon is sure that he was a Sith Lord, and that the Council should investigate the return, after a millennia, of this ancient and evil order. Their response? They do not believe that the Sith could have returned without having detected it. Well, look at the empirical evidence: what other Force-using, lightsaber-wielding, Jedi-killing beings do you know?

Not only do the Jedi not practice compassion and tolerance, they show bad judgment, arrogance, and an unwillingness to accept ideas that they do not originate. Yoda seems offended that anyone would question him, and Mace Windu acts as though it is an inconvenience to even see the boy. The entire system is flawed with unreason, but who has the power to argue with the master race?

In the end, perhaps out of respect for Qui-Gon’s dying wish, Obi-Wan agrees to train Anakin. Yoda, bestowing the rank of Jedi Knight on Obi-Wan, begrudgingly agrees, warning: "Grave danger I fear in his training." So, why not help Obi-Wan by taking an active role in the boy’s training, rather than just fobbing it off on some kid who just graduated from Jedi school?

One other note; Obi-Wan kills Darth Maul in a way that can easily be described as hateful and angry, and purely out of revenge for his murdered master. Does he then become evil? No. Sometimes, vengeance is okay.

IV. Other Points of Science
Much has been made of the force field used by the Gungans during the battle of Naboo. Why can the battle droids pass through the field physically, while it blocks their blaster fire? It’s an energy shield. It appears designed to keep out energy of certain frequencies, not physical objects. The battle droids might as well use rocks.

This is the same time of principle a cell phone works on, or any kind of bandwidth or radio device. You can block out other frequencies, but you can also walk through it, or take it behind a building or indoors. The domes of Gunga City, which an object can pass through but not water, are less prone to explanation, but these are fantasy movies, right?

Another energy field called into question occurs in the bowels of the palace, as Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul are separated by sudden bursts of energy that seem to connect power transformers together for short periods of time. This appears to be the power source of the palace, if not the entire city. This is actually a rare moment of science: it’s basically an alternating current. Whatever kind of battery, or nuclear fission, or power coil is providing energy to the palace, it only seems to require short bursts of energy rather than a direct flow of power. This is most likely a way of keeping the system from shorting out or overheating, or possibly distributing power to separate areas. In this one, some of the science makes sense. The funny part is that this seems to be a segment of fanboy contention: "What is all that pink stuff?" They should be asking completely different questions.

Still, the old climatic questions linger. How can these planets support worldwide climate conditions? Yes, I know we only see one part of a large planet, but we are informed, for example, that Tattooine (a landscape I’m becoming quite bored with) is one large desert. Each planet has one characteristic, and on Naboo, it’s swamp and forest. With the advance of digital effects, George Lucas is able to give the planet a much more realistic biota than we have ever seen before in Star Wars, including the Gungans themselves, a semi-intelligent race of amphibious bipeds that look like a cross between frogs and hadrosaurs.

Another question about Naboo: how can Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan travel through the core of the plant and come out on the other side? This negates everything we know about the construction of planets, which contain ultra-hot, gaseous cores. And, actually, I have another one: what are the ruins of giant statues we see on the battlefield plains? They give this world a realistic, ancient feel, and are an interesting placement; they resemble some of the early Hindu and Vedic temples in the Indus Valley and Sri Lanka. More about this, please.

I still don’t buy Tattooine as a plausible environment. As Qui-Gon walks through a city, he describes it as being inhabited by aliens, moisture farmers, and a few indigenous tribes (I assume he means Sand People). My questions are the same. Why did people go there in the first place? Why did people choose to settle a world where moisture has to be farmed out of the ground? How can life be indigenous to a world where nothing grows? Without plants, how can a breathable atmosphere even exist?

Coruscant is a world where the entire planet is made up of one city, presumably very ancient. It is the one place where any form of news dissemination seems to exist, as evidenced by floating camera devices in the Senate chamber. I would love to know what kind of power everything runs on; combustible fossil fuel engines would create a layer of pollution so thick, as practiced on this level, that would choke all life on the planet.

As for the battle droids, it makes economical sense to mass produce them and program them all from one remote central processing unit, but they are so flimsy and stupid that one wonders why Lucas even bothered with them.

V. A Quick Bit on Aliens and Racism
The Gungan character Jar Jar Binks drew quite a firestorm, both from depressed fanboys who always seem to hate humor of any kind (the movies are made for kids, people), and people who thought he was a racial stereotype of blacks. Honestly, I don’t see it, and I think a society that constantly cries racism is oversensitive and, frankly, sick. I don’t see racism inherent in any of George Lucas’s work. Jar Jar Binks, like all of Star Wars, is simply an amalgam of many things the filmmaker has seen.

Though some were reminded of Stepin Fetchit, others an exaggerated Jamaican, and some even of the silly Southern hillbillies rampant in American 70s movies (making a huge comeback these days), the most obvious influence is Walt Disney’s Goofy. Like Goofy, he wears overalls and a vest, has a large snout, and long, floppy ears. He’s clumsy, he’s none too bright, and he’s a disruption on the narrative. As a special effect, he’s a glorious achievement, but he didn’t need to be in the background of every scene knocking something over.

Jar Jar’s voice was also a point of contention. What sounds like Roger Rabbit to me sounds like stereotypical Uncle Remus speech to others. Lucas needs to decide whether the accent is a linguistic form of the galaxy’s common speech, or just the inability to speak it. If so, what does the Gungan language sound like?

That name--Gungan--should also tell you something about the origins of the character. Lucas, a professed George Stevens fan, has put in something of Gunga Din, the character from the 1939 film adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem Gunga Din. Din was a foolish, clumsy, but patriotic native of Colonial India, who helped save three members of the British army who had stumbled onto a nest of Thuggees. And, simply, if you remove the letters "d" and "i," you're left with "Gunga--n." Yeah, it's not exactly an art here, folks.

The last influence is the greatest of silent film comedians, Buster Keaton. Some of the things Jar Jar does in the battle against the Federation droids are shot-for-shot out of the classic stunt comedies College (1928) and The General (1926).

Ahmed Best, a black performer with the group Stomp, played Jar Jar Binks, and he also denies any charges of racism. This has been used as a shield by some, saying that Jar Jar cannot be considered racist because a black actor played the character (as if Stepin Fetchit weren’t himself black). I think the argument is moot, and says a lot more about the people who need to see this kind of thing to have something to get indignant about.

The Nemoidians (Leonard Nimoy fathered an alien race?) can also be seen as Orientals. Lucas has been obviously influenced by Oriental culture, or at least Oriental movies, in the Star Wars saga. The Jedi (if not a Japanese word, then it sounds like one) are samurai, even teaching in the same manner. Names such as Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda, are Japanese. The Nemoidians are tall, green creatures who remind me of Fu Manchu, and have thick accents. Are they racist depictions? I don’t think so; more like a lack of creativity than a conscious statement about another culture (though Kevin Smith pointed out that they could easily represent fears about our current trade relations with the Chinese), and one that has influenced him so much – elements of Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress are rampant throughout all five movies, and Qui-Gon Jinn shares a lot of characteristics with Musashi Miyamoto. Lucas even wanted Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977.

The last "racist" alien is Watto, the owner of Anakin and a Toydarian (ouch, that's not too obvious--what's next, a "Tellyourfolkstobuymedian"?). A short, winged creature with a thick beard, he speaks in a thick accent in what some consider a Middle Eastern or Jewish accent (though no one seems to be able to pick an exact region). This last one may be reaching too far; Watto seems more like a parody of a junkyard owner or a used car dealer.

Damned if you do, damned it you don’t. Aliens speaking with thick accents in a language not their own is very realistic. But Lucas seems to have been plagued by a lack of imagination here, and paid the price in negative publicity. Of course, if everyone had spoken like a white guy, they’d be upset that Lucas wasn’t portraying linguistic diversity.

VI. Other Nagging Questions
Where do human beings begin in this galaxy? My theory is that human life began on Coruscant, and eventually spread out. The interrelation of technology seems to show a common ancestry on the part of human beings. Coruscant, as a planet-wide city, would suggest that humans built their world completely, then ventured into the stars while continuing to make improvements on their home planet. Notice the Naboo fighter ships; like the Rebellion’s X-Wing and Y-Wing fighters, they use an astromech droid (like Artoo Detoo) as an essential component. I think the Republic only evolved like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek--a result of interplanetary travel, rather than a cause of it.

And finally, as I keep asking the walls, why does Darth Vader overlook Tattooine in Episode IV? Why would he not remember it, or not care? How is it a good place to hide his son? And why, in Episode V, does he not recognize See Threepio as the droid he built as a child? For the most powerful Jedi who ever lived, you would expect a lot more (like the ability to recognize his own daughter).

To sum it up, Episode I satisfies a lot of small questions I had about the film’s universe. It doesn’t take a huge explanation; sometimes a simple throwaway shot will do. For example, in the background on Tattooine there is a man in a space suit with a closed helmet on. This says to me that, indeed, not everyone breathes the same air. Good enough.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by the horrible idea of a messiah and a master race (and worse, these are intertwined). I can only hope that Episode III will start to unravel the mysterious prophecy, and do away with the arrogant cowardice of the Jedi.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Star Wars Ruminations: Religion & Morals

Is the Force a religion? The short answer is, yes. It is even referred to as such by several people in Episode IV, and often (though never in further installments). It seems to be derived from Zen Buddhism, as in this description by Obi-Wan Kenobi (the first time that the Force is mentioned in the trilogy): "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together."

In other words, the Force is life itself, and the ability to commune deeply with the life around you. It is a way to manipulate and control the energy field in a seemingly supernatural way. Implied is the idea that, even though a Jedi commands it, anyone who wishes to study this power can learn to control it (or achieve Zen enlightenment). Beautiful, simple, direct.

But this religion is also a dead one, or at least commonly thought to be dead. When Darth Vader speaks at the council gathering on the Death Star, one official mentions his "sad devotion to that ancient religion," but the Force is clearly very potent. Vader chokes people to death with the wave of his hand. But an inconsistency is drawn between Obi-Wan’s use of mind control at Mos Eisley spaceport on Tattooine, and Darth Vader’s interrogation of Princess Leia.

One of the most famous scenes in Episode IV is Obi-Wan convincing a storm trooper "these aren’t the ‘droids you’re looking for" with a wave of his hand. Mind control is very possible with the Force. But Vader uses a robot with some kind of truth serum (he calls it a mind probe) to interrogate Leia. Why? Surely he possesses the same powers of mind control. With a wave of his hand, Vader can get her to reveal the location of the stolen data tapes, dispatch storm troopers to pick them up, hand them over to the Emperor and be in his undies before SportsCenter comes on. Presumably, the Emperor himself has these powers – why go through a costly civil war and the lengthy process of taking the Republic, when he could simply wave his hand and extract oaths of fealty? It doesn’t make sense.

Neither does building an entire space station to destroy entire planets. Can’t this be accomplished through the Force?

Or, as Randall pointed out on an episode of Clerks: The Animated Series, when a lightsaber extends, how does it know when to stop?

I will not be giving anything away to reveal that Leia is Vader’s daughter, though neither of them knows it yet. If this is true, and the Skywalker family is so strong in the force, why can’t either of them sense the truth? Leia, it is mentioned, is strong enough to resist the mind probe, but why can’t they recognize each other? She spends the bulk of the picture in his company. Vader only needs a moment with Luke to realize that the farm boy is his long-lost son.

The Force also allows people to see into the future, if they can. Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example, leaves Luke in the Death Star to turn off the tractor beam and enable escape, and tells him, "Your destiny lies along a different path than mine." Vader and Obi-Wan are able to feel the presence of one another on the Death Star, and they each know that it will lead to a conflict. Vader actively seeks it out, in fact, telling Tarkin not to send men to find Kenobi; "I must face him alone." But when they fight, Obi-Wan warns Vader "You cannot win… If you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Why couldn’t Vader imagine it? They’re both an equal level of Jedi (and, if anything, Vader seems more powerful). Vader does strike Obi-Wan down, and the old man dematerializes, which seems to come as a surprise to Vader. Luke will not only hear Obi-Wan’s voice at times, but will see him in a ghostly form and converse with him, as though, through death, Obi-Wan has evolved into another kind of creature, or become one with the Force. This is only marginally explained through Yoda.

Yoda is a great creation of character, cryptic liar though he is (see below). He warns us to beware of the Dark Side of the Force. In Episodes V and VI, he says, "Anger, fear, aggression; the Dark Side of the Force are they… once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny."

Yoda also fleshes out the concept of the Force more eloquently than Obi-Wan did: "…My ally is the Force; and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us, and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you, here, between you, me, the tree, the rock. Everywhere. Yes, even between the land and the ship."

Luke’s X-Wing fighter has fallen into the mud, and Yoda misses a real teaching opportunity here. He has been quick to tell Luke that the Dark Side comes to easily, but then Yoda picks the ship out of the mud for him, rather than making Luke do it. What he should do is pick the ship up to show Luke the possibility, hold it in the air for a moment, and then drop it again. When Luke can take the ship out himself, then we’ll see that some of that Jedi training is getting through.

When Luke hies over to Bespin to save his friends from Vader, the real test comes, and he passes this one. He failed three times on Dagobah: the first time is when he meets Yoda, and casually judges him by his appearance; the second is in the cave, when Luke takes in "only what you bring with you" – his worst fear, that he will become like Vader; and the third is his failure to believe that he has the power to pull his ship out of the mud. I like all of this; failing a test is just as important as passing one, it shows you what part of your learning you need to do better at, and where your faults can be improved. It makes Luke ring true as a character; he’s flawed, but he’s trying to do better.

When it truly counts, he passes the next by failing to turn to Vader’s will. Darth Vader fills the confrontation on Bespin with tantalizing clues about the Force that are never really answered – "Release your anger; only your hatred can destroy me." We are never told exactly what will happen to him if he does. Will he become Vader? Would Vader want this to happen at the cost of his own life?

Luke passes the test by not turning to evil, even when he loses his own hand. Vader tempts Luke with his desire to help people: "You do not realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. Together we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy."

At what cost, one wonders? Presumably, Luke would become Vader’s right-hand man, just as evil and destructive as Vader. He is smart to tempt Luke with reason, even though Vader could only bring order to the galaxy by crushing it.

It is when Vader reveals his true identity, Luke’s father, that Luke stops resisting the dark lord. Vader tempts Luke again, this time with his missing paternal bond, and that old stand-by, power: "You can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we will rule the galaxy as father and son."

Luke chooses to die rather than live as the son of Vader; he is saved, of course, to recover, but perhaps he has as many questions as I do. What is this destiny everyone keeps referring to? How can Vader betray the Emperor? Is this why Yoda tried to stop Luke, and why did Obi-Wan lie about his father? Why, indeed.

After making such a big deal about Luke rushing off with incomplete training, when Luke returns in Episode VI Yoda tells him that he has nothing more to learn. He has to face Vader; "Only then, a Jedi will you be." Was this yet another lie? A trick to make Luke stay and not face Vader so early? Yoda’s cryptic parting message is typical; only now, long after Luke needed answers, does he get them: "Do not underestimate the power of the Emperor, or suffer your father’s fate you will. Luke, when gone am I, the last of the Jedi you will be. The Force runs strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned. There is another Skywalker."

Yoda dissolves, as Obi-Wan did two episodes ago, which makes one wonder if he truly died or not. He says he will become "one with the Force," which is another interesting clue that is never explained. The other Skywalker, of course, is Leia Organa, though even Darth Vader couldn’t sense it. Obi-Wan steps out of the shadows once again to confirm it himself, and explains his lies (and why Lucas can only resolve a complex love triangle with this kind of device). Leia is Luke’s twin, you see, and now she is in danger, too.

When Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance and volunteers to join Han Solo on a mission to Endor, he senses Vader’s presence. Vader senses him, too (but not his daughter), and goes to Endor to wait. Here, their confrontation becomes interesting. Vader cannot disobey the Emperor (suddenly, I might add – he did want to betray him earlier), but he wants to accept Luke as his son. Luke has lost his first lightsaber, and constructed a second. Why was Anakin’s lightsaber left behind in the first place? So Vader could get a new, red-bladed, "evil" style of sword?

Questions of all kinds about the nature of the Force remain, even after the conclusion (hey, folks, I don’t have answers, so I’m doing the best I can.)

Those who accuse George Lucas of drawing a black and white picture where all people are only good or evil don’t mention the conflicted nature of Darth Vader. He is, we discover, the father of Luke Skywalker, formerly named Anakin Skywalker. His title, Darth (which is, we discover in Episode I, a title), seems to be short for "Dark Lord of the Sith", but also a simple skewing of the word "dark". In fact, Lucas once went as far to mention that "Darth Vader" was simply meant to recall "Dark Father" (though no one I have seen has pointed out that the German dunkel means "dark" and Vater means "father" – Dunkelvater would be a literal translation; this is the one point where a linguistic scheme seems to have been thought of).

Interestingly, Darth Vader is totally subservient. He is not in command of the Empire, the Emperor is. Though he is the Emperor’s servant, and therefore carries a tremendous balance of power, we see Grand Moff Tarkin order him around in Episode IV.

Vader is also prone to mistakes. He is unable to recognize Princess Leia as his daughter on two separate occasions in two separate movies. Lucas seems to be using the biblical idea that evil can never see its own mistakes, nor can it adequately defend against good, because it is so wrapped up in itself that it can not imagine what it would be like to be good. Like Sauron, Vader is so wrapped up in evil that he can’t see what is going on in front of him.

In Episode V, Darth Vader becomes even more driven. He is now only looking for Luke Skywalker, and if he happens to catch the Rebel Alliance along the way, that’s great. He’s killing his own men right and left in order to find Luke, but how far is unrealistic?

Personally, I would say that pushing a small fleet of large Star Destroyers into an asteroid field to chase a tiny ship with some of Luke’s friends onboard qualifies. Why would Vader be so reckless in his planning? Why doesn’t he just trust that the Force will place Skywalker in his hands soon enough, as the Emperor tells him? Vader is letting personal vendetta cloud his judgment, which is a mistake he earlier didn’t seem inclined to make (although this is the same man who was taken by surprise in Episode IV’s dogfight, when a ship the Empire was tracking all along overtakes Vader’s Force sensitivity and knocks him away from the action).

The Emperor displays great foolishness when he tells Vader that Luke is powerful enough to destroy them both, and then allows Vader to attempt to turn him to the Dark Side. It is obvious that Vader is not as powerful as the Emperor, but if Luke were more powerful, why would the Emperor allow that kind of competition to exist? (Of course, the Emperor’s community with the Force doesn’t even allow him to see that there are two Jedi that escaped his death squads.) This is only marginally answered (cryptically, of course) in Episode VI.

Interestingly, Vader honors one deal with someone else in the course of the films (and this guy doesn’t even honor the Emperor, as we will see). The deal with Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who will be given Han Solo’s body to take to Jabba the Hutt. The fact that Vader would even use bounty hunters seems to go against his position as a sort of Imperial defender of the faith. Why choose this deal to honor? Why not use Boba Fett to bring Jabba’s crime organization under his control? Once again, why is the Empire allowing a criminal ring it obviously knows about to exist, without either crushing it or absorbing it to gain illegal funds (which no Empire is above, though I wonder again what the money is for). Once again, political thinking seems to be beyond George Lucas’s abilities.

"Oft evil will shall evil mar," says Theoden in The Lord of the Rings, and Lucas seems to be setting up something along those lines. When Darth Vader admits to Luke that they are father and son, he also tempts Luke with the fact that he is powerful enough to kill the Emperor. Is the Emperor, too, so wrapped up in his own evil that he cannot feel the lust for power and the coming betrayal in Vader’s heart? Does he stupidly assume that all of his men are blindingly loyal? Of course he does, because no one in the galaxy seems to have a free will of his or her own. Who wouldn’t love being evil? Why bother to check loyalties in the hearts of ordinary people, who often act on whims?

But Darth Vader has suddenly become a wild card. He loses his prize and will have to face the Emperor; surprisingly, he allows the failure of his men to stand, not killing Admiral Piett as the admiral expects (and rightly so; this evil cyborg that Lucas wants us to feel sorry for in the end has stupidly murdered several of his underlings in this episode).

In the end, of course, none of this is the fault of Darth Vader. Not really. Even though he is portrayed as the source of all evil in the galaxy, he’s really a puppet, and the Emperor is pulling the strings.

Anything that happens in Episode VI that is interesting revolves around this. The Emperor finally appears, at a new Death Star, to guide Vader’s confrontation with Luke. He knows that Luke will seek Vader out, "and when he does you must bring him before me… Only together can we turn him to the Dark Side of the Force."

The hole in the Emperor’s planning becomes clear to the audience when Darth Vader asks to go to Endor because he has sensed Luke’s presence there. "My son is with them," he says, referring to Luke as his son to another person for the first time. "I have sensed him."

"Strange that I have not," the Emperor admits (showing his flaws to an underling, which is never a good thing to do). "I wonder if your feelings on this matter are clear." This is another stray line of dialogue that opens up questions. Is Vader somehow able to hide Luke from the Emperor? This would go a long way towards answering his own inability to sense Leia as his daughter the several times they are together.

When Luke turns himself in to Vader on Endor, the confrontation is tense and laced with paternal overtones. Luke has accepted that Vader is his father, but hopes he can save him. Luke has, in a way, started down the road to the Dark Side. Like his father, he dresses all in black, and he already has one cybernetic attachment. His desire to help people has finally manifested itself towards one of the chief evils of the galaxy, which is also his father. Luke may feel it calling him; he is the Scion of the Dark Side.

When Luke tells Vader that he can feel conflict inside the dark one, Vader says, "It is too late for me." He makes several statements implying that he is more of a slave to the Dark Side than a willing disciple (even if he is a Sith Lord). The stage is now set for the final act.

But some things in this trilogy smell rotten. Why is there so much lying going on? Luke is lied to right off the bat when he is told that his father died. He’s lied to again when he asks his Uncle Owen about Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his uncle calls him "just a crazy old man." Obviously, Owen knows better.

Obi-Wan is, of course, the biggest liar of them all. He talks in a manner that implies that he has been keeping an eye on Luke for some time. Obi-Wan is vitally important to the saga, but he lies right off the bat to Luke when he looks at Artoo Detoo and says, "I don’t seem to remember ever owning a ‘droid." So we see someone who casually lies.

The lie that Obi-Wan tells Luke drives the whole trilogy, however, and this is where I get hung up. Kenobi tells Luke that, "A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi. He betrayed and murdered your father."

Yoda seems to be keeping an eye on Luke as well. He knew Annakin, of course ("Powerful Jedi he was"), but doubts Luke’s ability to train as a Jedi. "Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing… You are reckless." But if Luke is so damn powerful, why not train him? What is the alternative: send him out into the world to be picked up by Vader and turned into a more powerful hammerer of worlds?

This culminates in Luke’s vision of the future; training on Dagobah, he sees Han and Leia being tortured by Imperial forces. Luke knows, before it happens, that Vader is going to use them to capture him; when this does happen, we see that Han is never even asked any questions, only tortured so that Luke will come to save him. What I will never understand is Yoda trying to talk Luke out of going; Obi-Wan even backs his old master up, as though Luke’s loyalty and concern for his friends and his sense of responsibility make him a bad guy, instead of a hero. I understand that Luke may be vulnerable without the completion of his training, but his sense of responsibility can’t be questioned. He knows that Vader is only trying to get to him – if he can help, he’d better do it. Sacrificing friends seems like a high price to pay, even "if you honor what they fight for," as Yoda says.

But why are Yoda and Obi-Wan lying to Luke about his father? Did they think that the news would be easier for him to hear from Darth Vader? One of Luke’s reactions to this news is, "Ben, why didn’t you tell me?" Well, why didn’t he?

This question lingers until Episode VI, when Yoda is dying. Yoda confirms Luke’s parentage before his death, and Obi-Wan comes clean to Luke, even telling Luke he is right when he guesses the Leia is the "other Skywalker" Yoda mentioned. But I cannot forgive Obi-Wan for this one: "Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view."

This is his answer to Luke’s question, "Why didn’t you tell me the truth?", and it is a pathetic one. Obi-Wan and Yoda must have had a concerted reason for lying to Luke, an actual plan. Lucas never comes clean about it, though, so why should the Jedi?

This is all a shuck, a big disappointment, because it seems as though Obi-Wan and Yoda have been acting in their own interests, not Luke’s. The two of them made some mistake a long time ago with Annakin, and he became the most evil thing in the galaxy. So, they stole his kids and hid them, and waited for Luke to grow powerful. They didn’t tell him the significance of his lineage in the hopes that Luke wouldn’t say, as he does to Obi-Wan now, "I can’t kill my own father." See, they could never have gained redemption/revenge if Luke’s moral qualms were given their due. So, they lied to him so that they could brainwash him into killing his own father. Convenient. And chilling.

So now Vader and the Emperor face Luke in an observation room on the Death Star, where the Emperor can watch the final rebel defeat (but can’t sense the victory taking place on the forest moon – like Sauron and Hobbits, the Emperor has overlooked the Ewoks and the Empire is paying the price). Dramatically, these scenes are very interesting, but they don’t make much sense.

The Emperor taunts Luke constantly, almost begging Luke to kill him: "I can feel your anger. I am defenseless; take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey toward the Dark Side will be complete."

How? This is the one scene that can spell defeat or victory, which will make this entire storyline work. It all hinges on Luke’s choice. Fight or not? But there is a lot that is left unexplained and unclear.

What exactly is the Emperor’s ultimate goal? Why does he want Luke to kill him? Is there some way that the Emperor can overtake Luke, gain his youth and his power? This would make some sense out of the Emperor’s taunts.

Will he become one with the Force, as Obi-Wan did? Will that make him some kind of god, making him unstoppable? Where are Obi-Wan and Yoda, anyway? Why can’t they interfere? This is really their fight, after all – they tried desperately to turn Luke into a gun and point him at the Emperor by hiding the truth from him in the first place. Back in Episode IV, Obi-Wan told Vader, "If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine." We have yet to see any proof of this boastful claim.

Luke finally does react, but Vader defends the Emperor. Or is he really saving Luke from becoming evil? The Emperor wants Luke to use his powers aggressively, to become evil. But when he tries to do it, Vader stops him. He continues to fight Luke, forcing him to defend himself, which, according to Yoda, is all a Jedi is really supposed to use it for, anyway. What would happen if Vader did kill Luke? Would the Emperor be deprived of his prize? Would Luke somehow win this battle by dying passively and not fighting?

I understand what Lucas is saying on a purely basic level, which is that it is bad to kill, even in self-defense. That you cannot kill someone without becoming them on some level. But the larger ramifications of his philosophy seem too morally ambiguous. How does anger make you evil? How can being angry at the crimes of Hitler make you want to join the S.S.? How can being angry at Osama bin Laden make you want to become an Islamic terrorist, rather than defend the women of Afghanistan from the tyranny of the Taliban? The Taliban pissed me off for years with their policies and restrictions; since they took power, in fact. Am I now going to join the fundamentalists who attacked America because my anger is making me evil?

For that matter, how does fear make you evil? It can cloud judgment, but it can also keep you sharp in a crisis. It can give you some sense of boundary. It forces you to reassess your abilities, and hone yourself. Negative feelings can be used to some good, after all. George Lucas’s central idea loses focus at this point in the trilogy.

Luke, after all, seems to be doing well with his anger here. He’s ridding the galaxy of an evil despot and his lapdog. Luke could easily kill the Emperor and Vader, and spend the rest of his life sorting it out for himself, having securely saved the galaxy from evil. And here is where Lucas loses me completely. Even to save millions upon millions of innocent people, it matters more to Lucas that Luke not use his anger to save them. What should he use, his love? Should Luke hug Vader and use the Force to heal him of his cyborg half? Should he cast the demons out of the Emperor and show him the light? It would seem to be the only way Luke can win this confrontation.

But Lucas cops out on this, too, and has someone else do it for him. In the end, Luke is not a villain or a hero, but a bystander. When Luke becomes angry at Vader’s threat that he will turn the daughter he didn’t know about until right goddamn now, he lashes out at Vader, taking his hand in selfish retribution. Luke is defending the galaxy, and his sister. But he stops short of killing Vader, and throws aside his weapon. And when the Emperor tries to kill him, Vader suddenly turns and saves his son from death, killing the Emperor himself, and paying for it with his life.

This is the only time in the trilogy where free will is truly exercised. Predictable as it is, a part of my spirit leaps when Vader makes the choice. The Emperor tells Luke at their first meeting that "everything that has transpired has been according to my design," which makes the entire matter of rebellion against the Empire meaningless. It all rests on Luke’s shoulders, and the unpredictable factor of Vader’s change of heart. And Vader does have a change of heart.

But Lucas takes it too far once again, asking us to forgive Vader for his crimes. But Vader, slave or no, has carried out the murder of the population of Earth a hundred times over. I can’t feel sorry for Vader, slayer of worlds. There is no blame placed on Vader, no culpability – he is not accountable for what he has done, because the Emperor enslaved him and made him do it. Doesn’t wash. Not with me.

In the end, we see that Anakin is somehow able to appear as himself again, celebrating with Obi-Wan and Yoda, when the three have done nothing worth celebrating. These three unleashed this evil on the galaxy, and these three did nothing to fix the problem once it was there, except through deceit and violence. Which message does George Lucas want us to embrace?

Lucas’s Star Wars universe is a depressing place to live in if you aren’t a demigod. There’s no TV, no books, and no entertainment industry. Heck, there isn’t even a means of disseminating information via a news program or newspaper. Your identity barely matters, and neither does what you want out of life. Like Homer’s spear-carriers in the Iliad, your job is not to speak up and change things; your job is to pick a side in a civil war between two members of the same genetically superior royal family.

However, you will not be responsible for your actions at all. As Darth Vader is really not to blame for all of those deaths, neither is Lando Calrissian to blame for betraying Han to the Empire. There is no culpability, because he was forced (Vader arrived before Han) and he was only acting to save his people. He can stand up for his friend after Vader is gone, but not before. As Han Solo says (sarcastically), "You’re a real hero."

You will also never die, not if you’re a good guy. After all, Han Solo foreshadows his own death when he looks at the Millennium Falcon and says, "I have a funny kind of feeling, like I’m never going to see her again." Dramatically, he has only been saved to do one last deed. But he is a good guy, so he won’t die. Only nameless extras die for their beliefs. Lando Calrissian, after he is redeemed by saving Han from Jabba the Hutt, lives a long life, too, even when there has stopped being a dramatic need for him in the story.

We have seen in countless wars and crises how the individual can make the difference between defeat and victory, between life and death. Whether anger drove them to survive or not, we remember them as heroes. We marvel at the feats the individual can accomplish if he tries. George Lucas does not seem to have any faith in the individual at all; he longs for despotism, either for good or for evil. What will the Alliance do now? The Republic seems to have suffered from hearing too many people’s opinions. The Empire only failed for lack of imagination. Who will rule now that the forces of good have killed enough people to call it a victory? And will Luke serve them as another Vader?

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Star Wars Ruminations: Genre

They’ve been called the greatest science fiction movies ever made. But the label "science fiction" has been misapplied. I am often asked why I feel this way; they take place in space, after all. Space ships, robots, several planets – how can this not be science fiction?

The answer, simply, is because science fiction is a literature of ideas. This is not to say that there are no ideas in fantasy per se, or in any other genre of fiction. Indeed, the complete absence of ideas in any story is just bad storytelling. But fantasy tends to follow an established pattern, laid down long ago by unknown poets and handed down orally for many years. Joseph Campbell wrote down this pattern and claimed it as his own in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but missed the point entirely. Campbell failed to see the darker side of this pattern, and so has Lucas – that it was often appropriated by despots to show their right to rule and subjugate. What makes Star Wars fantasy is that very pattern.

In the simplest synopsis, the Star Wars trilogy tells the story of a farmer who finds out that he can perform magic. The farm boy goes to a wizard, one who knew the boy’s father, and learns to control his magic. He also inherits a magic sword that was owned by his father (this father having been killed in an earlier war by an evil lord). With the help of some companions who point out the farm boy’s flaws but have skills of their own, the farm boy penetrates an evil fortress and rescues a princess from the dark lord who killed his father, but at the cost of the wizard’s life. The farm boy then goes to another mage, the one who trained the first wizard, and hones his skills, before facing the dark lord himself. The dark lord, however, is the boy’s father, and the first confrontation ends in a draw. Through the loyalty of his friends, though, the boy faces his father, and frees him from his own evil master.

A classic fantasy pattern, called the Quest Hero by W.H. Auden, and popularized in America by Arthurian myths and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and endlessly repeated by others. Is this a pattern that can be called science fiction? No, because science fiction would require challenges to be met with logical questions that appear realistic and scientific. It would require science to drive the story.

What, indeed, is the political structure of the Star Wars universe? The villains in the story are a Galactic Empire (similar to the one in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, with fascist leanings), and the heroes are referred to as a Rebel Alliance. The opening word scrawl to Episode IV begins with the words: "It is a time of civil war." From these words, it would seem safe to assume that this Galactic Empire has been in power for some time, and that the rebels have broken out from inside and are attempting to overthrow it. If the Empire were just taking over an older government, the rebels would be resistance fighters, not rebels.

Indeed, this loose political background is filled in by countless original novels and comic books, which I have not the strength to delve into. But the Republic has either been overthrown or is in the process of being overthrown (similar to Roman history or to Weimar Germany) to be replaced with an Empire by Palpatine, a former senator of the Republic and a Dark Lord of the Sith, the evil flipside to the Jedi Knights.

The Jedi, of course, are a cross between monks, druids and samurai. They keep peace in the galaxy, but don’t seem to owe fealty to the Republic itself. The Empire has hunted down and killed all the Jedi, or so they believe, with the exception of Darth Vader, the servant of the Emperor. By Episode IV’s beginning, the Jedi are not only considered extinct, but "ancient" (word specifically used several times). Many scoff at their ways. Grand Moff Tarkin tells Vader, "You, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion."

Early on in Episode IV, Darth Vader and an Imperial Star Destroyer (the Empire has at least been around long enough to build its own characteristic navy) capture a blockade-runner with Princess Leia Organa on board. She is suspected of carrying architectural plans to the Death Star (more on this later) to her rebel cohorts, though she insists she is on a diplomatic mission representing the Senate. Vader asks her, "If this is a diplomatic ship, where is the ambassador?" Princess Leia, then, must come from a non-conquered world (Alderaan) negotiating with the Empire. This, at least, makes sense.

Vader also covers up the kidnapping of Leia (he is warned that her capture "could generate sympathy in the Senate"), and says to the captain of the Star Destroyer, "There will be no one to stop us this time." This tantalizing bit of information is never touched upon again, unfortunately, and we are left to wonder how powerful Vader is, and just how powerful the Empire is at this point.

I also have questions about institutions, and whether or not the Empire controls them. Early on, we learn that our hero, Luke Skywalker, wants to submit an application to an unnamed academy so that he can become a pilot. A pilot for whom? There is no way that an institution involving the process of application and acceptance can exist for the rebels, so that would make Luke an Imperial pilot. But Luke later confesses to Obi-Wan that he hates the Empire. So where is he going?

When we get our first scenes on the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin announces that the Senate has been dissolved completely by the Emperor, and that "the last remnants of the old Republic have been swept away." When his staff wonders how the Emperor will keep order without it, Tarkin announces that the regional governors have control over their territories, and that fear will keep the rest in line.

Unfortunately, this wondering stops here, as the actual politics are simplified into a mere struggle between good and evil in Episodes V and VI. I wonder if a science fiction writer could have saved this tempting political thought, and made it into a thoughtful struggle, rather than a simple one?

One reason that the trilogy may seem like SF is that George Lucas has appropriated SF’s beloved symbols (and get credited for originality) – among them, robots. Here, he calls all robots ‘droids, short for androids (though the word, derived from the Greek andros, meaning "man", specifically implies to a robot in the image of man). But his robots are far removed from Asmiov’s Laws of Robotics. Lucas’s robots can think, reason, feel, argue, fear, act cowardly, and even feel pain.

But these are only the trappings of science fiction, and the Death Star fits firmly into the fantasy tradition. It is the impregnable fortress of all adventure fantasy, the one from which all evil flows. Like Barad-dur in The Lord of the Rings, the Dark Tower in Stephen King’s The Gunslinger (itself derived from the Dark Tower of T.S. Eliot and the older poem The Song of Roland), it must be penetrated and destroyed. But the Death Star is a space station the size of a planet. How long has this been under construction? And how much time passes before the next one is two-thirds completed in Episode VI?

Here are some quick questions about the Death Star that I do not have the answer to:
* What is the power source of the station, and how long can its charge last?
* What kind of weapon has the power to destroy an entire planet?
* Corollary question: how is it possible to power a fully operational space station as well as a weapon of mass destruction without running out of resources?
* Further corollary: with that much energy humming around, how can people live in it?

Speaking of which, there is that scene in Episode IV with the garbage compacter.

Some sort of creature attacks Luke, but how did it get there? The Death Star is supposed to be new. Someone would have had to put it there, but why? What does it eat? It attacks Luke, so it apparently thinks that flesh is a tasty dish, but how does it ever get it? How did it acquire the taste?

Another total waste of the Death Star’s capabilities occurs late in Episode IV. Putting a homing device on the Millennium Falcon, Grand Moff Tarkin allows the ship to escape and unwittingly lead the Empire to the moon of Yavin IV. Setting the space station in motion (a lot of energy, I imagine), the Death Star comes up on Yavin, and Tarkin orders his underlings to orbit the planet and follow the moon until they catch it, allowing the Death Star to destroy the base. But why waste the energy? In a few hours, the moon will have completed half a revolution around the planet, it will be in sight of the Death Star, and the moon will be destroyed. This orbit is a waste of time and energy.

"But," you say, "the rebels are attacking the Death Star, so waiting would be a terrible mistake on Tarkin’s part." I absolutely agree. A smarter designer wouldn’t have made a space station so hard to defend against small ships. Apparently there is no David and Goliath parable in this galaxy.

When the second Death Star is being built, people stupidly inhabit it during construction. It is being protected by a force field stationed on the nearby moon of Endor. My question, then, is why expose more than rudimentary forces and a few thousand contractors to a station being built in space? If that force field shorts out, we’re talking a lot of potential death. Why does the Emperor go and live on it for a few days? Would you go out to sea in a barge that hasn’t been completed?

And when the force field suddenly does get destroyed, allowing the Millennium Falcon and several small fighters to enter it, why doesn’t everyone else get sucked out? Foreign objects can enter it, so logically we should assume that everyone inside should be pulled into space like ants in a vacuum cleaner.

The Imperial machinery is somewhat ludicrous, anyway. Gigantic walkers against small, zippy little planes? Speeder bikes? Why would you use those damn speeder bikes on a world that is one giant forest? Did Darth Vader read the script and decide it looked really cool, so what the hell? A lot of time, money, material, and manpower are wasted by the Empire on designs and weaponry that are inherently flawed, and can’t be of any realistic use to them. Fear seems to be their only real weapon, as the main (and again, only, except for some ineffective gun towers) weapon on the second Death Star can’t be realistically aimed at a small fighter. Lando can freak out all he wants, but all he has to do is steer away from the damn thing and he’s in the clear.

The worlds that we see in the story (there are five important ones – Tattooine, Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin, and Endor) are not complex and not very well thought out. Not a one of them makes sense from a science fictional standpoint.

Let’s start with Tattooine. The planet lies on the outer rim territories, away from the Empire. It orbits a twin star (two suns). But two suns would probably increase the gravity on this planet, making all life move at a snail’s pace, and be very low to the ground. The planet is one giant desert. How is this possible? And if there is only desert, how does the planet support life in the first place? There is native life –at a safe guess, the Hutts, womp rats, ronto beasts, rankors, sarlaacs, and banthas all seem to be native to Tattooine. Implied as well are the Jawas and the Tusken Raiders (Sandpeople). But what do they eat (and no answering "each other")? It may be a safe assumption that the Raiders are human settlers who are either criminals or "went native", and became pirates. To what purpose? What could there possibly be to steal? The Jawas are also creatures that live on scavenging, but if they truly are native to the planet, where do they get their materials? How did they build their Sandcrawler?

The question this all leads into is: what brought human beings to a worldwide desert in the first place? What was there that humans wanted? Owen Lars and Luke Skywalker are moisture farmers. Why would humans want to live on a world where the moisture has to be farmed in the first place?

Tattooine is also unrealistic in its setting as a world where many alien species meet. Languages must not be very difficult, because out of the dozens of separate species seen in Mos Eisley alone, only Luke seems to have problems understanding anyone. See Threepio is proficient in "over six million forms of communication" – every one of them might be used in this scene. Most of these aliens are bounty hunters, dealing with one or another of the Hutt crime organizations (Jabba is the local crimelord). This is presumably because Tattooine is in the outer rim territories, and there is no Imperial presence there. But why would the Empire allow a crime organization to exist anywhere in the galaxy? Like our own IRS, don’t they want a cut of this action?

Interestingly, too, the aliens all seem to breathe the same air. Breathable air seems to surround every single planet in the galaxy.

Another technical gaffe in this scene – Han refers to the Millennium Falcon as "the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs," but a parsec is a unit of distance, not time.

As a quick aside, how does the monetary system work in this galaxy? What is the currency in this world, Republic or Imperial? There seems to be no real form of dramatic entertainment, or any sort of valued artifacts. When bounty hunters attempt to accumulate wealth, what do they plan to spend the money on?

Episode V takes us to the world of Hoth, in the Hoth system (Lucas can’t seem to decide if his star systems are named for stars or planets). I’m perfectly willing to accept a small world of ice and snow if it is far enough away from the sun and small enough, but every world here is the same damn size, and Hoth looks about as sunny as southern Canada. My question is the same as Tattooine’s – how does it support life? There are tauntauns (which are lizards) and wampas here, but what do they eat? How do they survive (as we see, the tauntauns will freeze to death if the cold is bad enough)? Does a world that big not have any equatorial regions where the temperatures change? If so, why build your base so far north? None of the equipment seems to work well in the extreme cold anyway, unless the plot immediately requires it.

The giant worm that the Millennium Falcon flies into is just stupid – it lives in an asteroid, what could it possibly eat (or, for that matter, breathe)?

Dagobah is a world with a complex ecosphere, which makes it even more problematic. How does a world that large maintain constant swamp cover? We see lightning there, so we know that there are weather patterns – but can they stay moist and humid enough all year long to allow a planet-wide swamp to exist? Wouldn't that cause severe weather, or are there simply no cold fronts? But then, wouldn't that cause all life on the planet to bake under the humidity? There are no polar regions, no equatorial regions, no temperature variations, no seasons? This is a bigger amazement than all the Imperial Walkers you can get to dance on the head of a pin! Why isn’t this kind of geological/meteorological phenomenon being studied as the answer to terraforming concerns? It sure would help those poor moisture farmers on Tattooine.

We return to Tattooine in Episode VI. Again, we see more aliens here than may even be possible in a pocket universe, much less one galaxy. Good-looking aliens, though – Lucas at least wants his world to look and feel real, so he gives us authentic-looking aliens (as authentic as you can call an alien), far removed from humanity (unlike Star Trek make-up artist Michael Westmore, who seems to think all aliens look like humans with skin rashes on their foreheads – someone get this guy back on welfare where God intended and hire Tom Savini or Rob Bottin).

At Jabba’s palace, we see Han Solo as we last saw him in Episode V, encased in carbonite. Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, and Luke have spent some time (how much time exactly does pass between episodes?) working on a complex plan to save Han. Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, is able to do so, but what, exactly, is carbonite? Is it anything like carbon? If so, how could Han survive? "Hibernation sickness" at least has the sound of something like science fiction, but I wonder if he shouldn’t be dead.

It is also worth noting that, despite glaring ecological questions on Tattooine as discussed earlier, it is only here in this Episode, and later on Endor, that Lucas attempts to create a realistic linguistic scheme – although the making-of special From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga reveals that the Ewok language is mostly a mix of Hindi, Farsi, Taiwanese, and tribal African dialects (possibly thrown in at random rather than structured). Since many of Lucas’s name are stolen from other sources or taken from religious traditions, and even seem to be made by throwing Scrabble pieces on the floor and seeing what nonsense can be pronounced, this pathetic attempt by Lucas at verisimilitude is almost refreshing.

I like the Max Reebo band at Jabba’s palace, with the dancers and long-lipped Sy Snootles as the lead singer; it’s the only thing in the saga that makes it look like there is actual entertainment to be found in the galaxy. Everyone is so serious; it’s nice to see some beings relax and enjoy their lives.

Endor I can believe, because it is a moon. A moon-wide forest system is a little more realistic than Tattooine. Even though the special effects technicians make it look as big as a damn planet, it makes some sense. I believe the Ewoks, too, as a primitive species of, well, teddy bear. Though their cuteness is exploited for effect, they are actually more believable than a lot of the creatures on display. And, even though their language is a mixture of what Lucas thinks sounds exotic (and, insultingly, primitive), the fact that theirs is comparatively advanced bodes well for their culture.