Saturday, February 22, 2014

50 Shades of Smartass: Chapter 16

We're going to dive deep into the abuse in this chapter. This chapter, more than any other so far, is a confusing morass of consent issues where rape is eroticized, abuse is romanticized, and the English language is kicked into submission and left for dead. Also, there's spanking.

Here, check out the opening paragraph: "Slowly the outside world invades my senses, and oh my, what an invasion. I am floating, my limbs soft and languid, utterly spent. I’m lying on top of him, my head on his chest, and he smells divine: fresh, laundered linen and some expensive body wash, and the best, most seductive scent on the planet… Christian. I don’t want to move, I want to breathe this elixir for eternity."

That's prose so purple that even Prince is getting bored with it.

Let's get through this part:

:: You know, for a guy who doesn't like the closeness of sleeping with another person, Christian sure sleeps with Anastasia a lot. Apparently, they were both knocked out by the strong orgasms of Christian's magic penis. (It's still evening.)

:: He still doesn't like to be touched. Why? "Because I’m fifty shades of fucked-up, Anastasia." Also "I had a very tough introduction to life. I don’t want to burden you with the details. Just don’t." Ana is desperate to know the story of Christian's early life, which is unusual given that her interest in other people so far has been forced, arbitrary, or non-existent. I still say her fascination with Christian is purely rooted in her narcissism. Given the way she treats family and friend connections like a terrible burden, you know.

:: Christian is all business again, asking about when Ana is due to start her period. He needs to know because he hates wearing condoms. He tells her more or less that contraception is her responsibility, and agrees to set her up with his doctor. The message being, of course, that contraception is always the woman's responsibility, because he just doesn't want to wear condoms because it ruins his fantasy. Also, does it creep anyone else out that now Christian's picking out Ana's doctor, too? Like, you know the doctor's going to report back to him about everything she says and does, right? Because this is that kind of shitty book?

:: Remember how, in the last chapter, I pointed out that Christian was basically feeding Ana alcohol? He was always refilling her glass and occasionally even ordering her to drink while they were supposed to be negotiating the contract. Well, here he admits he did it on purpose because "you overthink everything and you're reticent." He follows that up with "This will only work if we're honest with each other."

I actually laughed out loud when he said that, because I'm not sure a man who gets you drunk so you'll agree to his insane contract and then, technically, date rapes you is a man who values honesty. Certainly he doesn't value integrity.

But hey, she came, so she must have wanted it, because orgasm = consent, right? (Note: no. No, it doesn't.)

Anyway, Ana doesn't have a moment to think about the ethics of getting your date drunk so she'll fuck you, because she's still horny and Christian has to go, but he does stop to have some of EL James' thudding, dull flirty banter about how great it would be if Christian could just kidnap her, hold her against her will, and engage in a total power exchange (read: make her his total slave).

Ana rolls her eyes at that. Uh oh.

"What did I say I would do if you rolled your eyes at me again?"

I'd like to point out here that she still hasn't actually signed his contract, something which she points out and he completely ignores because consent and honesty are so fucking important.

"I told you what I’d do. I’m a man of my word. I’m going to spank you, and then I’m going to fuck you very quick and very hard. Looks like we’ll need that condom after all."

There is a long buildup to the actual spanking, during which Ana is excited, but also feels afraid and manipulated. She's nervous and scared, and understandably so, because she's never done this before, and because she thinks if she doesn't go through with it, it will be the end of their relationship. She's really internalized some of his manipulative shit, because he didn't even imply that their future hinges on this, but she's clearly worried that it does.

She says she's turned on, but she also says she's afraid. She keeps using words like that through this whole scene. "Afraid." She characterizes it as "demeaning and scary and hot." She keeps talking about how much it hurts, how she wants to beg him to stop. She never characterizes it as play or spanking--she keeps telling us that he's hitting her. "Holy fuck, it hurts."

Christian really draws this out, too, and I kind of imagine him all sneering and sweaty while he's ordering her around and spanking her. It's perverse, and not in a fun way. He even tells her that if she keeps struggling, he'll spank her longer.

You shouldn't be afraid of your partner, okay? I mean... look, fear can be a great element of BDSM play, but in the same way that fear is a fun part of seeing a horror movie or riding a roller coaster. In the back of your mind, you know you won't get seriously hurt. But Anastasia is nearing panic here, and that's not good. And she doesn't mention liking this at any point. She's scared, but she's also turned on, and it's confusing to her. This isn't erotic or romantic, but this book... I've been giving this book shit for trying to romanticize abuse, but I haven't been giving it nearly enough shit for normalizing, even idealizing abusive behavior.

She hasn't consented to this. She even tried to protest. She's afraid of what's going to happen next. How is this erotic? It isn't! It's uncomfortable to read. This isn't romantic; he's punishing her because she's displeased him.

And then, he sexually assaults her.

She even says the word; when Christian stops spanking her, he puts two fingers inside of her and "I gasp, this new assault breaking through the numbness around my brain."

She's very wet. "Feel this. See how much your body likes this, Anastasia. You’re soaking just for me."

No, no, no, no, no, no, NO. Just because her body is having a physical response to sexual stimulation does not mean that she wants it. And I'm still not hearing a consent here.

"And he’s inside me, quickly filling me, I moan loudly. He moves, pounding into me, a fast, intense pace against my sore behind. The feeling is beyond exquisite, raw and debasing and mind-blowing. My senses are ravaged, disconnected, solely concentrating on what he’s doing to me. How he’s making me feel, that familiar pull deep in my belly, tightening, quickening. NO… and my traitorous body explodes in an intense, body-shattering orgasm."

"'Oh, baby,' he breathes. 'Welcome to my world.'"

Gross.

:: In the aftermath, Ana feels confused by the way her body reacted and tells us "I can’t say that I enjoyed the experience. In fact, I would still go a long way to avoid it, but now... I have this safe, weird, bathed in afterglow, sated feeling. I put my head in my hands. I just don't understand." And she can't bring herself to look Christian in the eye.

He puts baby oil on her smarting ass. Aftercare is a very important part of the trust relationship that's integral to BDSM, so I get that, but what would be more important here is to sit and have a talk about how Ana is feeling about what just happened. Instead, he just leaves, which I think a lot of BDSM aficionados would consider an abandonment. You just don't do that. It's abusive and unfair. She's not a real sub; she's never done this before. And he's going to just do it and leave? What happened to honesty and trust?

Of course, I really feel like we're in the wake of a rape, here, so maybe those concerns are moot.

:: After Christian leaves and Ana's alone in her apartment, things get really depressing. She can't even cry at first. She says that she feels very uncomfortable in her own home, a place where she's only ever felt comfortable before. She seems embarrassed and is deeply confused. She feels lonely and numb. Ana calls her mother because she needs to hear a familiar, comforting voice, and that's when she starts crying heavily. (Her mom, by the way, actually gives her some really good advice, even though Ana is very vague about why she feels so bad.)

Look, the only word that I think accurately describes how Ana feels in this passage is violated.

Remember, fans of the book call this thing erotic and romantic. So why am I so depressed right now? Probably because I just lived through someone's emotional, physical and mental trauma.

It's worth noting here, too, that Ana is taken aback when her mother tells her not to be with someone unless she's sure they're worthy of her. Ana literally cannot process the idea of someone being worthy of her. "I always wonder whether I am worthy of him." I recognize that schema, for sure. That kind of mentality is very hard to combat. But I kind of hate how her self-worth issues only serve, in the context of the book, to make her even more the perfect victim for Christian Grey, and that we're supposed to take that as some kind of destined romantic pairing.

:: As an aside, I'd like to add that I'm very sure that I despise Kate Kavanaugh. She's like this little pronoid monster that washes in and just fucks things up because she has no respect for anyone. She comes in and sees Ana crying and is all "Has that obscenely rich fucker upset you again?" It's like her whole function in this plot is to just remind the reader that Christian is objectively rich and handsome and desirable. Even when Kate's mad at him, she's referencing his wealth or how "devastatingly handsome" he is. Shut up. Your friend has a real problem, here.

:: "All the warning signs were there, I was just too clueless and too enamored to notice." Finally: a breakthrough. Not that it changes anything with this book--Ana's stuck in a book written by a woman who thinks abusive behavior is romantic, so all of Ana's decisions will inevitably reflect that... wow, just imagine a metatextual version of this book where Ana realizes she's in this terrible, abusive relationship and makes all of these counter-intuitive decisions and doesn't understand why she's making them, until she finally manages to discover that she's being forced to follow the grand design of a shitty fanfic writer who thinks sexual assault is really, really hot. Anyway, it's nice and surprising to have that one moment of clarity. Too bad she can't run for her life.

Isn't it just bizarre how this novel keeps emphasizing how fucked up this relationship is? It's always telling us how fucked up this is, what a controlling asshole Christian is, and then expects us to accept him as a romantic ideal.

:: "She hands me a cup of wine. It won't taste as good as the Bolly." Why not just include a wink and your home address with all of these bizarre product placements?

:: Kate's brother Ethan may be moving in with the girls, which is good because "Ethan is a hoot." Does EL James know that the way kids talk has changed since she was in high school in the seventies?

:: Another pointless email exchange happens. Because Ana is never just honest about her feelings, she chooses to passive-aggressively fight him on how to dispose of her shitty Volkswagen. I really wish Ana would just actually tell him how she feels sometimes, because I'm getting tired of her talking around her feelings and then Christian crossing lines without even realizing he's doing it.

That's what happens here. She emails Christian that she doesn't like him right now "because you never stay with me." So he races back to her place and apologizes, but makes sure to clearly emphasize that all of this confusion she's feeling is her fault. He accepts that part of his role is to look after her needs, but he protests that he never would have left her if she hadn't told him she was okay.

Look, she does need to be more forthcoming about her feelings, that's true. But I don't want you to think I'm blaming the victim, here. She absolutely needs to be more honest at every stage instead of just throwing herself into this, hoping it works out, and that magically at the end he'll change and they'll just be a normal couple.

BUT, another part of his role is to foster her trust, nurture her growth, and talk honestly with her about what she's feeling every step of the way. And he's not done a single one of those things. Instead, he got her drunk, date raped her, beat her, and then raped her some more and left her alone. Romantic hero, everybody.

:: "I have fallen for someone who's so emotionally shut down, I will only get hurt--deep down I know this--someone who by his own admission is completely fucked up." Ana, focus on your feelings. Stop focusing on being so fascinated with why he is the way he is.

:: When she starts sobbing again, just before Christian returns, she says "the sluice gates open." I do not associate that phrase with crying. There's a Monty Python bit about Australian table wines, with one being described as being made for "those keen on regurgitation" because it "really opens the sluices at both ends." To be fair, EL James probably doesn't know that bit, it not being [classic British literature] or a simpering teenage romance about an abusive relationship, but it just grossed me out for a second with this horrible image.

:: Kate: "Grey--you're on my shit list and I'm watching you." Who the fuck even are you, Kate? Don't you have a bridge to scare children from under?

:: Now that Christian finally does have a talk with Ana about how the punishment made her feel, he's totally disingenuous about it and continues to try to manipulate her into taking some responsibility for what happened. He admits that he likes the control, and the whole thing is about power, but he's missing the point that a large part of the thrill of the power exchange is in the consent being given and the trust someone is placing in you that you will never go too far with them. He also tries to play it off as "It's the way I'm made." Lame.

Look, I firmly believe that fetishes don't have to make sense. If they did, they probably wouldn't be fetishes and we wouldn't be so fascinated with whatever ours are. EL James seems to believe that every fetish can be explained as an outgrowth of however we grew up. I don't like that Christian seems to feel a weird self-loathing about his fetishes and his need for control and his dislike of being touched. Two reasons. First, because it makes people who are into kink seem like they're actually psychologically or emotionally disturbed, which is not true for everyone. And second, because this characterization is apparently supposed to make Christian seem broken and sad and tragic and, most importantly, fixable with the love of an understanding woman. It's disgusting.

He does at least admit that he's having a hard time explaining all of this because he's never had to; he's always been with experienced people with similar kinks. But when she admits she felt confused, he immediately jumps in and points out "You were sexually aroused by it," which, sorry, just sounds like something a rapist would say. It's so leering and petty at the same time.

But then Ana's distracted by how wonderful it is that Christian's going to spend the night with her and sleep. Something he hates doing, but which he's done something like three times already. Holy cow. She says "holy cow" about five times in this chapter. Jesus.

So what did we learn in this chapter? Apparently we learned that if you physically respond to getting raped, that's consent and you wanted it (and apparently it also absolves your rapist of any responsibility). We also learned that birth control is the sole responsibility of the woman, and that sexual assault is romantic. Great messages, America. I don't like what it says about you that this book is so freaking popular.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #45

"The Terrible Traps of Egghead!" by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart & Don Heck
(July 1963)

It's only been seven issues since Ant-Man faced Egghead the first time in Tales to Astonish #38, but a lot's happened to the Marvel Universe since then. So, for the first adventure after last issue's retool, most of the first two pages are taken up with a recap of what happened the first time these two tangled. You could be forgiven for forgetting, honestly; it wasn't really that exciting. Egghead's big plan then was to turn the ants against Ant-Man, which didn't end up working out and didn't make for much of an exciting issue.

In this one, we catch up with Egghead in a flophouse, still muttering to himself about the ants, but he's finally snapped out of what I can only assume is a seven-month-long fugue state by hearing two disreputable characters called Ape and Twister talking about their own defeat by Ant-Man. Egghead is immediately filled with a need for revenge, and hearing about Ant-Man's new partner, the Wasp, is the key--he plans to kidnap her and use her as bait to maneuver Ant-Man to destruction.

The plan? First, scramble the electronic messages the ants send to Ant-Man (the same thing he did last time). Then, establish an identity as an insect expert, apparently for the sole purpose of giving a lecture at a zoo, so he can gain access to the reptile house. And finally, steal the Middleton Diamond and hide it inside a wasp's nest inside the reptile house. See, Egghead is giving a lecture on wasps, so how could the Wasp resist coming? And, of course, because she's a girl, or something, she'll see the sparkly jewel inside and decide to investigate further. This being an Ant-Man story, it works. The Wasp is trapped inside the phony wasp's nest and sends out a distress call to Ant-Man.

The endgame here is that Ant-Man is supposed to get trapped in a terrarium with a lizard that will eat him. It doesn't work. Then Egghead releases an anteater. Great idea, but that doesn't work. He fends off Ape and Twister, frees the Wasp, and they recover the diamond, but Egghead escapes to mildly irritate Ant-Man another day. And I'm sure that day is coming, yeesh.

Stray note: only that I dig Don Heck's work in this issue, inking his own pencils. I always think of it as looking like an international spy thriller from the time period, with little Atomic Age touches. It looks great; this is one of those occasions where a book that keeps trading off artists finally finds the right look. The stories still aren't top notch, and the dense story means there are a lot of small panels here, but I love Heck's style.

Lame issue, though. The next one is better.

But first, next Marvels: the FF are back from the micro-world, but so is Doctor Doom!

Right Now

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #43

"Iron Man Versus Kala, Queen of the Netherworld!" by Stan Lee, Robert Bernstein, Jack Kirby & Don Heck
(July 1963)

In his short existence, Iron Man has scared off an alien invasion. He's matched wits with a super genius. He's faced Soviet spies. What's left? Well, in these early days of the Marvel Universe, if they're not going to give Tony a true archenemy, the only things left to do are go back in time (as he will next issue) or get caught up with a would-be conqueror in either another dimension or an underground kingdom. Tony Stark, welcome to your filler underground kingdom issue! Hey, even the Hulk had one.

This one is the Netherworld, ruled by Kala. They're descendants of lost Atlantis and they're gearing up to attack to surface, so they've kidnapped Tony Stark and a bunch of scientists to help make weapons. Basically, Tony just goes into the lab, works all night, creates another fully equipped and armed Iron Man suit, and then attacks the Netherworlders and defeats them.

In the story's big, insulting climax, Iron Man flies Kala to the surface and shows her that the difference in atmosphere has aged her rapidly and turns her into an old hag. He mentions that everyone who comes up to the surface after a life spent in the Netherworld would rapidly age the same way, but Kala really decides not to invade because she doesn't want to lose her beauty. So, it's the old sexist appeal to a woman's supposed natural vanity.

Jeez.

Underground again, she becomes young and beautiful once more, which is totally scientifically accurate, and then she predictably asks Iron Man to stay and be her husband and rule. Iron Man instead pawns her off on her general, Baxu, who has been on the sidelines obviously in love with her for the whole story. So not only are we not getting invaded, but Kala's been tamed and is getting a husband to lord over her. Happy ending! I guess!

Notes:

:: In this issue, Iron Man stops an out-of-control wind tunnel by cartwheeling really fast to create, I don't know, a counter vortex or something. He also uses a pellet containing "concentrated chemical crystals" to turn fire into ice, and does the above trick of creating confusing duplicates of himself with tiny mirror projectors for a standoff that is more or less pointless. It's like reading Popular Mechanics in the 1930s, only if the editors had stipulated that nothing needs to sound remotely plausible.

:: There are a couple of occasions where Tony has to come up with some BS story as to why Iron Man is around. The movies really made the right choice by just having Tony ditch that secret identity jazz. "It so happens Iron Man is visiting me..." Sheesh. And several times in one story? Come on, stop it.

:: Tony, stop smoking.

You're a heart patient, dude. This is not helping.

:: Not really related, but speaking of Marvel: have you seen the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer? Fucking awesome.

So, another forgettable issue for this nascent hero. There's a retool coming, similar to Ant-Man's, which will give this series a little more value, but for now, it's not one I look forward to reading.

Next Marvels: the return of Ant-Man's greatest villain.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

F Is for Fun

Which is what this beautiful pangolin is having in the mud. I adore pangolins, and I just saw this video today (World Pangolin Day was Saturday), so rather than write another long post about my anxiety, I thought I'd share one beautiful minute.



ABC Wednesday

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)
And not, as I've been saying in my head, Inside Llewelyn Davies. I found this film very profoundly depressing when I saw it. I just felt kind of hopeless after seeing it. Now, saying that, I think it's a very good movie. The Coen Brothers are feeling something here... I think it's sort of a revisiting of the same subject matter they explored twenty years ago in Barton Fink: making art for money, and just how futile that can be. The difference between this film and that film is that they clearly don't find compromise, power brokers, and the feeling that the forces of the universe are lined up against you funny anymore. I don't think they make the point here as forcefully or as interestingly as they did in A Simple Man, but Oscar Isaac is excellent in the lead, and the music is great. I liked John Goodman's weird performance, and I'd really like to see Adam Driver in more movies. I just found the drift of Llewyn's life a bit too familiar, is I think my problem. ***1/2

MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936)
Gary Cooper plays a hayseed who inherits a bunch of money and doesn't want it, so everyone thinks he's crazy. I'm too cynical for this one. I found Capra's "common people know everything and you city folk have become too disconnected" attitude pretty pandering. It's pandering so thin and hard that the mechanics are just insultingly obvious. Long, boring, and obvious. I know it's a classic, I just don't care. **

THE GIRL HE MET ONLINE (2014)
Soft core porn movie, just missing the sex. This Lifetime flick about an emotionally disturbed girl who meets a guy online and then things happen is just like watching softcore porn, with Xanax-ed out leads acting in a bad-yet-subdued way, sleepwalking through a threadbare plot that leads nowhere. I kept expecting it to turn into a porno. Yvonne Zima is pretty as hell, but the movie and everyone involved are so detached from their story that you wonder why anyone bothered. *1/2

BERKELEY SQUARE (1933)
Excellent example in how you can make 90 minutes feel like 9 hours. Stagey, boring flick where Leslie Howard time travels to 1784, apparently just by wanting to really bad, and then mopes around for a while before returning home. I honestly had already forgotten it until I saw it on my list for today. I hate it when Leslie Howard is wasted. I know he played the role on stage, and I wonder if it was more alive there. This film is inert. *1/2

A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984)
David Lean's final film--based on EM Forster's beautiful novel--is gorgeous to look at. He fills it with an emotional resonance to match. I loved this movie about British India and the way people connect and don't connect. Victor Banerjee is excellent as an Indian doctor accused of terrible crime, and who sees what the accusation reveals about the nature of people. Peggy Ashcroft is very good as the most interesting character in the piece, Mrs. Moore. I think the one place where the film falters is in casting Judy Davis in the lead, and only because I found her performance a little too contemporary. Otherwise, perfect. ****

THIRD WHEEL (2014)
A Valentine's Mickey Mouse short, with Mickey and Minnie trying to enjoy a romantic dinner, and an oblivious Goofy tagging along. I saw Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow in the background, which made me happy, but they were sitting apart, which made me sad. This one's heavier on the grossout humor, but I dug it, as I dig all of these. ****

NON-STOP (2013)
Idiotic, pointless Lifetime movie about... oh, who fucking cares? Another one where all of the actors, including star Lacey Chabert, seemed all doped up and disengaged. Seriously, why not just make porn, Lifetime? These are totally those badly-made quickies you see on HBO Zone at 2 in the morning, but without the nudity and fucking that makes those things... well, not worth watching, exactly, but... oh, who fucking cares? Betsy Russell, my love, you deserve better. *

BABETTE'S FEAST (1987)
I honestly didn't expect to like this film as much as I did. It's a fairly simple story--two elderly, pious Danish sisters take in a French refugee (Babette), who cooks for them. One day, Babette wins the lottery, and wants to use her money to cook a real French dinner as a thank-you for the sisters and their friends. The bulk of the film is the preparation and eating of the meal, but the fascination of it is the way these pious people try to refrain from commenting on the earthly pleasures of their meal. However, as the courses go on, their defenses come down and they're lifted spiritually by the rich enjoyment they share; old hurts are forgiven, old loves are rekindled, and wrongs are redeemed. This is a film about community, about giving, and about receiving. It's one of the most affirming films I've ever seen. I liked it very, very much. ****

COUSIN COUSINE (1975)
Looking at the films made over the past thirty years, does it ever seem possible to you that there was a time when audiences liked sex and celebrated it? After decades of slick naughtiness and obsessed taboos and furtive, stolen moments that lead to guilt and darkness, it is nice to occasionally see something from the seventies and remember that there was actually a time when the movies gloried in real sex, and the real joys that come from it. And not only sex, but romance. I really, really enjoyed this movie about two distant cousins who meet, fall in love, and savor their unexpected relationship. Even in the midst of problems with their respective spouses, it's so refreshing to see a movie where love builds up the people sharing it rather than occurring in spite of obstacles or with great guilt attached or whatever. This movie's just so in love with life that I found it impossible not to like. ***1/2

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Making of Return of the Jedi

Rinzler does not disappoint with his third book about the making of the Star Wars films. This is probably the Star Wars movie I've read the most about the production of, mostly because when the film came out I was 6 and was paying a lot more attention to movies and how they were made. I saw the Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi special so many times as a kid; we had recorded it when it was on TV, and I used to watch it over and over, dreaming of having the jobs those guys had.

But what I've most read about in regards to this one was the creatures, particularly in Jabba's palace. And the book doesn't skimp on any of that. But here are some other things that struck me in the book:

:: This is the least popular of the Original Trilogy, and I think this book helped me to understand why a little better. (No, the answer is not "Ewoks," they're just a scapegoat--and no, if you're my age, you didn't "always" hate the Ewoks. You either got to the point where you didn't like them anymore, or someone made you feel bad about liking them when you got older.) The real answer is that so much of the character development is gone. Han, Leia and Lando are basically just sort of there but don't really have any growth. I'll talk a bit more about that. But it's harder to relate to the people in this one--with the exception of Luke, who has some of his best scenes. I'm not sure why it ended up so bloodless in terms of growth, but it is interesting that George Lucas saw this one as more or less an attempt to redo Star Wars the way he would have done it if he'd had better technology available in the late seventies. George really had to create the process of making these kinds of films from the ground up.

:: As far as the Ewoks go, 31 years of incessant whining about them has really gotten old. They're not for everyone, but let it go. Some of the people working on the film didn't like them, either, which is not surprising. It was interesting to see some of the treatment and draft summaries: the Ewoks (or "Ewaks," at first) were always there. George Lucas gets some stupid flack for having once planned to use Wookiees for the finale (way back in his earliest drafts of the first film), but instead going with the Ewoks. (Interestingly, he also had Yussems in his early drafts, who were in Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye novel, itself conceived as a possible low-budget sequel to Star Wars in case the first film underperformed; it was written with the idea of reusing props and costumes that had already been made. Yussems were sort of Wookiee-lite.)

Anyway, the flack. "They're just to sell toys!" is the usual complaint, as if Lucasfilm weren't already selling toys and as if they wouldn't have just sold Wookiee toys instead of Ewoks. (George Lucas himself, in the book, dismisses that claim, saying that a teddy bear is a stupid thing to try and cash in on, since there are so many teddy bears and basically everyone already has one, so there's nothing proprietary or creative about it.)

What I like about the Ewoks is that they already go all the way back to what George Lucas was writing in 1973, when he wanted a primitive people with no technology to ultimately be instrumental in destroying the Empire (George's Vietnam War allegory again). The reason he didn't use Wookiees was that we'd already gotten so used to seeing Chewbacca shoot guns and pilot ships and perform complex mechanical repairs that he thought non-technological Wookiees would seem unbelievable and didn't sell the point he was making.

:: That said, George Lucas didn't like the Ewok celebration song at the end of the picture. I love you, George, but you are wrong, wrong, wrong. That New Age piece at the end of the Special Edition is a poor replacement.

:: Honestly, the original drafts of the screenplay almost sound like a better story. I hate saying that and won't bother dwelling on it, because I like Jedi and don't want to spend decades pathetically whining over what the film isn't. But I do like the cross-cutting action in the earlier drafts, which also turn Leia into a much more proactive character and give Lando and Han more to do. Vader also comes across more interestingly, not having abandoned his intent to kill the Emperor and take his place, and the drafts give him Grand Moff Jerjerrod to play off of as a foil. There's also a lot with Force ghost versions of Ben Kenobi and Yoda, including their involvement in staving off the Emperor, which feels much more like the dynamic of the Prequels and of The Clone Wars series.

These drafts also bring back the idea of a city planet (here called Had Abbadon) and has turned his lava planet idea into a throne room for the Emperor made of rock and lava. He tried to get those into Empire and didn't, and didn't succeed here, either, but filed them away for the Prequels.

:: The story notes are also fascinating. Lawrence Kasdan (who also wanted to drop the Ewoks) agreed with Harrison Ford that Han Solo should have a sacrificial, heroic death--and if not him, then Lando Calrissian--, but George Lucas just wouldn't have it. He wanted his fairy tale to have a happily ever after for everyone, hated it when characters died in adventure movies, and felt it would alienate the audience.

Also, once again George Lucas files these things away for later use. He wanted to see celebrations of the Empire's fall across the galaxy, not just on Endor, which he did in the Special Edition. And also, when Ben and Yoda were still in the climactic fight with the Emperor, he talks about how, as part of the living Force, they can cloud the Emperor's mind and his ability to access the Force, which is something he touched on in the Prequels, when Mace Windu and Yoda discuss how the Jedi have been less and less able to use the Force.

Another great bit is Lucas on who the Emperor is: "...he was a politician. Richard M. Nixon was his name." He proceeds to tell Kasdan basically the entire last act of Revenge of the Sith.

And one more bit I liked: Lucas shocks Kasdan by telling him that the Force is like yoga or karate, that everyone can use it if they take the time to train and pursue it. He also says Yoda is a teacher and that he and the Emperor, though skilled in the Force, are not actual Jedi.

:: Richard Marquand, who directed the film, doesn't necessarily come out of this looking great. The book is respectful, and most people who talk about him are pretty tactful or diplomatic, but there are hints of tension that I kind of wish the book had made clearer.

I think it didn't help that Marquand came in expecting more control and changing the entire look and feel of the series. He was vocal about not liking Empire's costumes, considering some things from that film mistakes (like Vader being able to hold a lightsaber with one hand), and criticizing the way that film was lit.

Before filming, Irvin Kershner apparently told Marquand that George Lucas would leave him alone more than any producer he'd ever work with. But this certainly wasn't the case here. Mark Hamill says that Lucas acted on the film as more of a second-unit director, but others just outright say he was basically directing from over Marquand's shoulder. Norman Reynolds and Howard Kazanjian talk around it, but Robert Watts comes right out and says "Richard couldn't grasp it and George was concerned, so he never left." Part of the appeal for Lucas seemed to be that he could leave the directing in someone else's hands so he wouldn't have to do it himself, but the consensus seems to be that Marquand was probably out of his depth and didn't quite understand what George wanted. (It's worth noting that Lucas seemed to feel Marquand's original cut of the film was disastrous and re-edited the entire film, though he certainly would have done that, anyway. It just seems like he had his own idea of Star Wars and it didn't always line up with George's ideas.)

(And yeah, George's first choice was David Lynch. I'm not sure how that would've gone. I think what George really wanted was a team of second unit directors who would get him his shots. Looking at the visuals on Dune, maybe he would've gotten it, since Dune and Jedi have similar looks. But I can't really speculate as to whether or not Lynch would've chafed under the arrangement as Marquand seems to have.)

Carrie Fisher seemed to feel that Marquand's problem was that he never became part of the group, and tried to assert himself rather than ingratiate himself, so things were uncomfortable and occasionally tense. Some felt he was assertive to save face, trying to make George's ideas sound like his own.

:: Marquand seems to have had an especially contentious time with Carrie Fisher, who seems adrift, and not just because of her admitted drug use at the time. It probably says a lot about his approach to the character that he defined Princess Leia as "this perfect little doll-like creature" in the first film and didn't like what a bitch she was in the second. He wanted to soften her up, something Fisher was initially excited about because she wanted to have an emotional response to the destruction of her home planet, something that resonated. Instead, she says she had a lot of difficulty even finding the character in the third film because there was nothing to play. She was especially confused as to why she was so silent with Jabba the Hutt when she had been so defiant with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader.

She also had problems with the secrecy about key plot points. For example, she and Mark Hamill were given their script for the scene where Luke reveals that he and Leia are siblings immediately before shooting it. Where she would've liked to have workshopped it on the set as actors, the way they had done with Kershner on Empire, they simply had to shoot it and move on, and as a result she admits that she's not very good in that scene. (She also says that she's "not much of an actress" and that the long hours in Jabba's palace made her decide to chuck acting and become a writer.)

She also says that Marquand "kowtowed" to Harrison Ford, because he was a movie star and Marquand either respected him or was intimidated by him, "but he certainly didn't respect, as far as I could tell, too many other people." She implies, too, that Ford didn't care for the way Marquand treated the other actors (though Marquand and Mark Hamill got along splendidly).

:: The actors are pretty upfront about being more cynical with the making of this flick. Mark Hamill called the script "a letdown." He went onstage to star in Amadeus specifically to be challenged as an actor, and says that Jedi is the film that made him more interested in the craft and less interested in being so career-minded as an actor.

:: I'm glad this book confirmed there were issues with the Yoda puppet, including the misplacement of the eyes. He's always seemed so off to me. The Yoda puppet seemed even more terribly off in The Phantom Menace. It's a bit of a letdown because those scenes with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back are my favorite in all of the films. (And I've said it before, but I did not mind the puppet being replaced with CGI in the Phantom re-release.)

:: After the previous two books, I talked about how the films changed the way movies are made. With this one, Lucasfilm started changing the way films were exhibited, as THX sound was developed. I remember as a kid hearing Lucas talking about digital distribution, which is only now poised to become the norm in theaters. I remember when I first heard him talk about digital streaming as far back as 1990. The man's always been ahead of his time, and I admire the way he forges ahead and creates a culture of being able to make these kinds of movies just because he wants to see them.

:: As to the matter of the nine films we were "promised," it's amazing how quickly everyone got burnt out on this one, which was released to mixed reviews but huge box office. (We saw it 13 times.) George Lucas, going through a divorce during postproduction and rather disenchanted with the whole thing, talked about retiring or closing down for a while to recharge. He almost seemed regretful about spending a decade on the films, having to sacrifice his personal life and, at the end, his marriage. At the time, he was saying any future Star Wars films, which he knew then would be prequels about Anakin Skywalker's boyhood, would probably happen in "about five years." He was also adamant that they would be someone else's vision, and not his, unless making them was easier somehow. And enter digital effects...

And now here we are, 31 years since Jedi, and JJ Abrams is making three more Star Wars films for the internet to bitch about. When I was in high school, and people had mainly forgotten about Star Wars and it seemed like a relic of the past, I would sometimes remember the brief period of time when I was in the Official Fan Club and people were speculating about how Episode I was just a few years away. It seemed like a pipe dream after a while. So much so that, even after the Special Editions, when Lucasfilm announced it was actually making it, I couldn't quite believe it.

I hope Rinzler's not done with Lucasfilm. Honestly, I'd love to read a book about the making of the Special Editions, just because I'd love to get more of an idea of how George's relationship with the movies themselves evolved and what went into some of the decisions. I would love to read that book.

Monday, February 17, 2014

And Now You Know the Rest of the Story

Kristen Bell (and Veronica Mars) Mondays




Rob Thomas: "That's right: ten years after Veronica Mars first appeared on television, and eight years after getting canceled, we've finally landed the cover story in Entertainment Weekly."

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Song of the Week: "16 Toneladas"

I first heard this samba cover of the Tennessee Ernie Ford song a month or two ago, and was kind of surprised to hear it in Heineken's big, not really that funny Super Bowl commercial. Weird that a song about the almost hopeless unfairness of backbreaking labor is in a song about how fun and awesome beer is. That's American commercials for you. Noriel Vilela, 1968.

John Henson 1965-2014

I was very saddened to learn that John Henson, Jim and Jane Henson's son, died on Friday of a sudden, massive heart attack. He was only 48 years old. John performed with the Muppets, taking over the role of Sweetums for over a decade after Richard Hunt became physically unable to, appearing as the character in Muppet Treasure Island and last appearing in The Muppets Wizard of Oz. He also appeared, way back, in one of Jim Henson's "Numerosity" films for Sesame Street, and performed in the Coca-Cola Polar Bear suit that the Jim Henson Company built for promo appearances.

In Brian Jay Jones' Jim Henson: The Biography, John was described as the most spiritual and ethereal of Jim's children, and recounts the time when he was moved to tears by "The Rainbow Connection" at the premiere of The Muppet Movie. There's also a moving story about how John was the one who tried to find a place to scatter his father's ashes, a difficult task that ended when he suddenly tuned it with clarity on a hill in New Mexico that his father had once expressed a spiritual connection to.

John left two daughters and a wife. I'm very sorry for their loss.