Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Dough of Skywalker

I don't know that there was ever a time in my formative years that I considered myself to be a "Star Wars fan". I mean, I enjoyed the original trilogy well enough as a kid, but I always fancied myself a Star Trek person rather than a Star Wars person. I don't think it's that much revisionist history to say that I actually wasn't a big fan of Star Wars, even though there were a few years in the early 1990s in which I read almost all of the Expanded Universe novels (alongside the monthly paperback releases of Star Trek novels, which occasionally verged into more salacious territory than the Star Wars books).

As a result of friendship with a couple of rabid Star Wars fans in my life at the time, I watched The Phantom Menace in theatres a second time (I fell asleep the first time), but the experience of that movie, even as a teenage viewer, was enough to turn me off of the franchise almost entirely. (Though, to be fair, I was ignoring Star Trek and most of pop culture at that point as well; it's a long story.)  I skipped the next two entries in the prequel trilogy, and by the time that trilogy ended, I saw myself as an outsider to the fandom of the franchise; to this day, I have still not watched either Episode II or III, and I have no intention of doing so.

All this is to say that when Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October 2012, I was mostly indifferent to the franchise, though I was curious as to where the series might go. And as they started announcing various plans to erase the canon of the Expanded Universe that had developed over the previous two decades and to bring back the principal characters of the original trilogy - all of whom were alive and still acting at the time - in the new series of movies, I started to become more nominally enthusiastic - even excited at times - about the possibilities of the revival.

The past four years of the revival of the franchise have provided a lot of entertainment - highs and lows - and more than a little fatigue, even, it seems, for devoted fans; after all, it has been an eventful half-decade for this entity that is arguably the most beloved intellectual property of all time, but that perhaps tried to do too much too quickly too soon and, it could be argued, squandered a lot of good will along the way.

With this context in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take some time to think about where the franchise and my fandom are at in the days before the finality of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, which will shape the ways in which the entire series is viewed; think of this as a final snapshot of my view of Star Wars before it is permanently altered before The Rise (hence the pun in the title).

Reflecting on the recent revival of Star Wars


I was effusive in my praise for The Force Awakens when it was released, as I think it accomplished the challenging task of honoring the original trilogy while introducing a new group of iconic characters and ideas, and above all, it made me realize that I could enjoy Star Wars again. I remain enthralled by what it accomplished - even if it was at times an almost shot-for-shot remake of the first movie - as it started something new while honouring what had been.

But after The Force Awakens, I have enjoyed each subsequent movie less than its predecessor. Rogue One was a great idea for a movie and what should have been a great war movie that seems to have gotten muddled from corporate interventions resulting in reshoots - although I maintain that the final half-hour - the actual "war" part - is as exciting and dynamic as any action sequence in the franchise.

Solo was narratively and tonally a dud, as well as proof that simply releasing a movie with “Star Wars” in the title would not be enough to guarantee success. It turned out that viewers didn't really care about Han Solo's background or need an explanation of the Kessel run and they didn't need Han to be a rogue with a heart of gold and a lost love; they actually needed him either to remain steeped in mystery or to be truly developed as a full character over time in the way that, say, a TV show on a streaming service could do.

If anything, fans needed a young Lando movie, as Donald Glover (and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37) seemed to be the only one to get the comic tongue-in-cheek tone that the movie should have had - and likely would have had under released writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as opposed to the semi-serious tone that seems to unfortunately be embraced as the base for the series at this point.

That leaves the previous entry in the Skywalker Saga, the much-maligned The Last Jedi, which I think deserves a bit more analysis at this point heading into The Rise of Skywalker - particularly since I neglected to write anything when it was released two years ago. (For the record, I have yet to watch The Mandalorian, though I suspect that the fact that I have heard it described as "Justified with blasters"  means that I will enjoy it greatly when I finally get around to binge-watching it.)

The Last Jedi


I always intended to write out my thoughts about The Last Jedi after I rewatched it, which I assumed would have been within a couple weeks of my initial viewing upon its release. I figured that it probably wasn't going to be fair to judge it on a first viewing, so I was going to do the responsible thing and see it again to really form my opinion. Then, after watching it, I as so baffled by it and generally non-enthused by what it did that I just didn't watch it again...until this past weekend, in order to prepare for The Rise of Skywalker.

I realized in my rewatching of TLJ that I had perhaps been somewhat unfairly remembering it as worse than it was, as often happens when you rely on one viewing of a movie for your reference; while it might not be the "hot garbage" I have been known to use as shorthand in reference to TLJ, I do now recognize that a number of my criticisms were well-founded. It's just kind of a messy mish-mash of ideas, and it just doesn't really work as a result. [Obligatory spoiler warning for The Last Jedi - but why are you even reading a post like this if you haven't seen it?]

I was super keen on TLJ in advance of its release, mostly because it was being written and directed by Rian Johnson of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, “Ozymandias” - the single best episode of Breaking Bad, and now Knives Out. I’m still a fan of Johnson’s (especially after really enjoying Knives Out and recently rewatching Brick), so I remain mystified as to what happened with TLJ.

Maybe he was trying to do things that couldn’t be done in this kind of a mega-blockbuster, or maybe there were too many restrictions from Disney, or maybe his vision for the movie and/or franchise just did not work; I tend to lean toward a combination of the three, with more emphasis placed on corporate intervention as a culprit.

There are elements of the movie that work really well. The four new principal characters all deliver spirited performances, and the acting might be the best of any Star Wars movie so far (which is not exactly a high bar to clear, but it's still something to note). It is easily the most visually engrossing entry of the series, and it has several incredible indelible scenes: the initial bombing sequence; the escape from Cantobite; the throne room battle; the moment after a light-speed jump tears a ship apart; and the sand speeders at the end, to name several examples.

There are many aspects of the narrative that also work really well: the Kylo-Rey plotline; the Kylo-Luke conflict; Luke and the ending of the Jedi; even aspects of the Resistance chase. But when you actually try to diagram the plot, it becomes a lot more confusing and ultimately kind of pointless, leaving more questions than answers. Sure, Star Wars movies have always jumped between sets of characters and taken some shortcuts in narrative and/or character development,, but TLJ seemed to be even a bit more herky-jerky and disconnected than any previous movie in the series.

For example, as I rewatched the movie, I was really trying to understand the military structure of the Resistance, especially why Commander Poe Dameron seems to outrank General Leia at the beginning, while Admiral Ackbar and Vice-Admiral Holdo report to her? And why is Poe, even after being demoted to Captain, still calling the shots throughout most of the movie, despite committing treason and committing a mutiny and attempting an ill-fated plan that ultimately gets another significant portion of the remaining Resistance transports destroyed? It seems like he is probably personally responsible for three-quarters of the destruction of the Resistance fleet, and yet he’s a hero at the end? (Don’t get me wrong - I think Poe is a great character, but his plotline makes very little sense.)

Then, there’s the matter of that little side adventure and the three sequences of events in which Finn and Rose try to bring in a "master" codebreaker - the travel to and initial experience in Canto Bight, the escape from Canto Bight, and the attempt to get to the tracker on the First Order ship - that, while entertaining, have very little effect on the outcome of the plot. Sure, I get that Johnson was (maybe?) trying to make points about the nature of "real life" in the midst of the genre - after all, the "plan" usually doesn’t work IRL - but I had expected there to be something more than what actually happened, which was just that the plan doesn’t work and in fact puts the Resistance further in danger.

Perhaps the thief would turn out to be the real Master Codebreaker and he would use their capture as a way to disable the tracker and allow the Resistance to escape; or maybe he would turn out to be a double agent for the Resistance; or maybe he would die saving the life of one of those heroes; or anything, really, other than just disappearing after having sabotaged the Resistance. I get that Johnson was again seeming to attempt to make a point, but the "meh" ending to that character seemed to invalidate all of the time spent on that entire sequence of events.

And on that point, wouldn’t the First Order have been able to see that planet - the only planet to which the Resistance could escape? Wouldn’t they have had the intel to know that it had been a Rebel base in the past? And even if they did not know it for sure, wouldn’t they have been able to guess at the attempts of the Resistance - or are they really that obtuse and/or blinded by hubris?

Also, where is the rest of The Resistance, anyway? Why do they have everyone in such a confined space and not spread out throughout the galaxy? For that matter, how did they get to this point (other than "yada yada"ing everything that happened since TFA in the opening crawl)? Does this progression of events even make sense considering what happened in The Force Awakens? (You can probably guess my answer.)

And then there's the ending of The Last Jedi, in which the Resistance is reduced to the point at which everyone can fit on the Millennium Falcon. There's something to be said for cliffhangers to be resolved in the conclusion, and then there's just writing yourself into a teensy-tiny corner. I don't know why Johnson wrote it this way, and why Disney allowed it - perhaps this was their attempt at having stakes to the franchise? - but it ultimately seemed short-sighted at the time and has not aged well in the years since.

The Force Awakens opened a lot of narrative possibilities - too many, arguably - and then it seemed as though The Last Jedi wanted to operate in an entirely different narrative reality. The Last Jedi did not do much to resolve many of those open threads, and instead created more questions and problems than answers. I felt at the time - and after rewatching it, I still feel this way - that The Last Jedi was a mish-mash of ideas that probably should have been spread over two movies. I'm not sure how they would have done that, exactly, but it felt, well, forced (pun intended).

Speaking of which, although I have no problem with the new uses of the Force in The Last Jedi - Leia flying through space, Kylo and Rey being connected psychically, Luke's projection from across the galaxy - in regard to the integrity of the concept of the Force, I do wonder about them in regard to narrative progression. It really seems like Leia shouldn't have been put in the situation to have to use the Force in that manner, and that there were other choices that should have been made in her arc.

Also, what exactly happened with Rey in that chasm? Was it meant to be her temptation to the dark side? Was there something she discovered? And what was the point of that scene? It just kind of happens, and then...nothing - another narrative dead end, other than leading into the Kylo-Rey relationship that did result in an inspired choice in killing Snoke - even if I still think that they used that plotline one movie too early.

As you can tell, I thought that The Last Jedi was a misfire at best, and that it created significant narrative problems for the story arc of the new trilogy, as well as a few confusing and disingenuous character arcs (I like the idea of Luke's arc, but it is problematic at times, particularly as it marks a very significant character change without the true explanation of how it fully occurred). I think that even on rewatching TLJ that I wanted to like it more than I did and to be more sympathetic to its cause, but even as I have tried to parse it here, I have realized that it really was not very good.

Part of what I have found really frustrating, however, is that the narrative of disapproval of TLJ was co-opted by the internet trolls who criticized the movie for reasons for which it should not have been criticized - namely, the development of strong female characters and the changes in the use of the Force. I did not have a problem with either of those aspects of the movie - after all, Star Wars certainly needed more strong women, and the Force has always been kind of wishy-washy.

My criticisms of the movie are based in more legitimate concerns about character, conflict, and plot, and although I know I am not alone in those criticisms, I think that the voice of people like me who had defensible criticisms of the movie was lost in the morass of propaganda from the anti-Last Jedi community.

And now, it seems that the corporate entity of Star Wars is finally trying to distance themselves by essentially disavowing Johnson and TLJ altogether. There seems to be a full public embrace of J.J. Abrams from the cast, and an accompanying distancing from TLJ; sure, it seems mostly to be a brazen attempt to bring back those alienated fans, but still, it's notable that even the franchise itself is essentially ignoring The Last Jedi, other than having to wrap up any loose ends that it left and find a way out of its awkward ending.

Conclusion: Final Thoughts before The Rise of Skywalker


I am certainly less enthusiastic about The Rise of Skywalker before its release than I was about The Last Jedi mainly because TLJ was so disjointed and ineffective. But despite the relative failures of TLJ - and Star Wars in general - in the past few years, I'm still very interested to see how they resolve the conflicts of the series and how they "end" the Skywalker Saga.

I really have no idea how they will resolve the many hanging plots from TFA and TLJ, other than the fact that TROS is going to have a lot of plot - which has been echoed in the thoughts I have heard and read. I don't think that it's even really worth conjecturing about what might happen, since I have a feeling that there will be some attempts at subverting expectations even as those very expectations are further advanced through the story - that said, I have a feeling that there will be a few turns away from what was established in The Last Jedi (like Rey's parentage) and that good will be victorious in the end.

I am more than a little dubious about the choice to bring back Emperor Palpatine as the true source of evil; after all, it seemed as though part of the point of this new trilogy was that these patterns of power and evil and resistance and valour and freedom are not centered in one person, but in the nature of our very being, meaning that we keep repeating the history of these patterns. Therefore, it would seem that bringing back Palpatine would undercut that entire idea by having to have a Big Bad to mastermind behind it all; then again, there could be some turns and twists there, too.

Something else that has struck me in the whole course of this revival is that it has been very very fast - arguably too fast to allow for the kind of reflection that may have really helped make each entry better.  The pacing of the two previous trilogies left three years between releases, and the abbreviated release schedule of this trilogy left two years between releases. Sure, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were released in very quick succession, but those were less sequels than they were simultaneous stories that were divided into several movies (not that I saw the second or third Hobbit movie, anyway.

Despite the problems of The Last Jedi and the overall issues of the revival of the franchise, I am interested to see how they bring it all together, and whether Joseph Campbell would be proud. I'm sure it will be a little shaky and overstuffed and kind of a head-scratcher at times, but that's kind of the nature of Star Wars as a franchise. Patchwork, pastiche, homage - call it whatever you want, but the whole Star Wars franchise is kind of rickety and hokey and yet endearing and enjoyable, kind of like the Millennium Falcon.

So whatever happens in The Rise of Skywalker, the movie will be more enjoyable if it's not taken too seriously and I know how to not take Star Wars too seriously, even if I did just write over 3,200 words before watching a movie. Whatever happens in the movie, I just have to remember the words of the great baker, Yoda: "dough or dough not; there is no try".

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The 10s: An Introduction

In the past few months, I have been increasingly keenly aware of the upcoming shift to a new decade and what that transition entails as a self-identifying pop culturally aware blogger: making "best of" lists. I know it's a bit cliché, and it's definitely overdone, but I do feel as though I need to present these lists as a way of creating a snapshot of what my past pop culture decade looks like at the end of the decade.

But as I have gone through this process, I have also spent a fair amount of time thinking about the process of making best of lists, as well as my permutations thereof over the past fifteen years of blogging. So I thought I would start with some reflections on the nature of making a best of list, especially at the end of the decade, and some of the ways in which this process has evolved for me in the time that I have been consuming and critiquing and commenting on various forms of media. (Leave it to me to write over two thousand words about the process of writing a best of list, right?)

On making "best of" lists


I used to make best of lists - or at least personal summaries - for each year in a variety of media: movies; music; television; video games; board games; and on occasion, books or authors or podcasts. I've stopped in recent years, however, mostly because I found it difficult to see/hear/play everything in a reasonable amount of time within the end of the year, and I always felt there were too many gaps in my list to justify publishing it. Then, by the time I would finally feel like I could compose a list that would be truly reflective of the year, it would be too late to post it, so I just would not post (even if the list was started or significantly underway).

Of course, there are other areas of tension in creating "best of" list for a year, other than actually experiencing all of the possibilities in time to publish a post. Perhaps foremost among those areas of tension is the difference between choosing the "best" entries in a given time period, and including personal favourites, whether out of a sense of personal advocacy, contrarianism, or some other strange compulsion.

Some critics just pick their own lists without regard for critical consensus, but I know I always felt like there could be a significant difference between movies I really liked and "the best movies of the year," usually in the sense that there are almost always movies that I really enjoy and appreciate but that I (or the wider critical world) would not likely list among the "best".

Maybe the best example I can think of is Pacific Rim in 2013, a refreshingly entertaining and original sci-fi blockbuster from Guillermo del Toro in which kaiju (giant monsters) attack Earth through a dimensional rift in the ocean, only to be defended by humans controlling giant robots called Jaegers in pairs of pilots who are connected through a psychic drift.

It's as wacky as it sounds, and it has emerged as one of my favourites of that year (and arguably my all-time favourite "guilty pleasure" movie); that said, even though it is very well shot, paced, scripted, and directed, I would struggle to justify as one of the ten best of that year; although, now that I think about it, the entire exercise of picking a "best of" list is about choosing the movies is as much about demonstrating that you are worthy as a critic. So maybe Pacific Rim - and other movies like it in my personal esteem - should merit more consideration after all; it's certainly an intriguing proposition as I create my lists that attempt to reflect an entire decade.

Making a decade list


As I entered this process, I found myself being both enthusiastic about the possibilities and cautious about all of the ways it could go wrong. I assumed that the tensions of making a year-end list would be compounded in doing a "best of the decade" list; after all, it seems as though the stakes should be higher with a longer period of time and more choices.

As an aside, some of you may note that I was blogging in 2009, when there was also an opportunity for a best of a decade list, so my experience from back then should surely be enough to have assuaged any trepidation or tentativeness I experienced in the past few months. Indeed, I wondered that myself, so I looked back and realized why this process felt somewhat fresh this time around: I did not actually write that much to review the previous decade.

I wrote exactly three posts at the conclusion of The Aughts: one that summarized each year of my life of that decade in haiku; one post on television that was woefully incomplete and rightfully criticized in the comments for several key omissions; and one on assorted influences - authors, filmmakers, musicians. Nothing about video games, books, movies, or music outside of those posts, even though I was blogging quite regularly at the time - so that makes this time around feel fresh and unfamiliar, which is, in fact, I think a positive thing to make this process even better than it otherwise might have been.

As I have been compiling my lists over the past couple of months, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much easier it seems to do this task for an entire decade than it does at the end of each year. Perhaps that's because there is more time and space to have clarity than there is at the conclusion of a year, or perhaps it's because it's easier to separate the highest quality entries - the ones that really stand out - when there's a larger scope. Maybe I'm just more confident in who I am as a critic, consumer, and evaluator of culture, which has made it easier; but whatever the reason, I have enjoyed this process more than I expected to.

I think I also care less now than I have in the past about being "right" or about understanding or mirroring the general consensus of what's "best". My lists now seem to be more descriptive than prescriptive, meaning that I have learned to work within the boundaries I have set according to what I have experienced, rather than trying to experience everything. These lists are not authoritative, and nor should they be treated as such; they are my choices based on what I have experienced over the past decade. Of course, I still feel the need to qualify my choices sometimes and to create lists of things I should have experienced and runners-up and honourable mentions, but overall, I have still enjoyed the entire exercise.

Thinking about my lists


As I started going through my annual best of lists and the various lists of media I have taken in over the past decade, I found myself gravitating back to the usual suspects: video games; board games; television; music; movies; and books/podcasts. Most of those were fairly easy to compose for various reasons, but there were a couple that proved to be more challenging.

The areas that proved to be easier had a variety of reasons for the comparative simplicity, even compared to a decade earlier. In some of those areas - music, for example - I have far less interest than I once did (say, in that previous decade), which lowers the stakes for me overall in creating a list. For some - video games, for example - I have long since given up being an "expert" in the field, and I have self-limited my areas of exposure and expertise to specific niches or styles, which again removes any temptation to be authoritative.

Media like television, music, and books/podcasts are now so fractured that it is almost impossible to be "prescriptive" in choices, so all I can do is talk about what I have experienced and why I enjoyed and/or appreciated those things without nearly as much worry of missing out. (By the way, maybe that phenomenon of being nervous of omissions be called "FOMOOBOL" - "fear of missing out on best of lists".) There were two areas, however, that I found challenging this time around: movies and board games.

In regard to movies, even though my general movie-watching activity has significantly decreased from the beginning of the decade (maybe by as much as half), my interest in movies is still high, and I still have a significant base of information and interest from which to draw, so I still feel some "requirement" to be more authoritative in making my choices. In addition, there seems to be more consensus about movies than in other areas, and so I feel that it is more challenging to make a list that is accurate and that reflects the best of the decade, even though it is personalized.

Board games are a different story, as they are the form of media into which I have put the most energy, effort, and money over the past decade. Sure, I played board games before the start of the decade, but it wasn't until the end of 2010 that I started to track my collection and my plays on BoardGameGeek, in doing so becoming a lot more invested in board games as an intentional hobby and not just a pastime.

I have had more exposure to board games than any other form of media in the past decade, so it's hard to sort through what I think are the "best" games. In addition, I feel a lot more internal pressure to be an "expert" in the field, and so I know that I give more weight to my own choices in that area, even if my experiences far exceed the game-playing of most people who profess to like board games.

I think I have managed to come to some resolution in each of those areas, and if nothing else, I can rest in the impermanence of the nature of this medium as a way to amend any possible omissions; after all, I can always post an updated list in any of these areas at any time in the future. My goal, then, with all of these lists, whatever the medium of choice, is to give a picture of what I thought at this time, not for all time.

Conclusion


In my relatively recent return from my general absence from blogging over the past two years, I have learned that it is better to provide a snapshot than it is to not write at all, so I have been learning that any pressure that I feel in regard to this "Best of the Decade" exercise is internal and ultimately meaningless. Any lists that I generate are my best guesses at this point, and it is entirely possible - even likely - that these lists will change, even in the next few months.

My goal in this series is to provide a snapshot of the kinds of things I have been enjoying over the past decade, and, where I can, to point out the gaps that I know are there. I'm not making a career out of any of this consumption or criticism (at this point in my life, anyway), and my reputation is not at stake; I just get to share about people and artists and thinkers and games and shows that I enjoyed.

I am certain that, despite the general level of care and attention that I give to these lists, that I will forget things or have regrets or otherwise miss the mark several times, but that's not the point; the point is to get these lists out there in whatever form they exist as a time capsule for the past decade at this point at the end of the decade.

This is one of the best parts of blogging - its malleability and permanent impermanence, as I can always return to these lists and update them in the future, or at least admit where my gaps might be revealed in the future (or in the present, as it may be).

Over the next couple of months between now and the end of January (I hope), my goal is to make these lists public in whatever form they exist with whatever issues exist in their midst. It's more important that I contribute to the greater conversation in whatever way I can at this point than to miss out like I did back in 2009, as I really wish that I had published those lists even with their imperfections. I hope you enjoy these upcoming "best of" lists from the 10s; I know I have enjoyed reliving the highlights of the past decade as I have compiled them, and I look forward to being part of the greater cultural conversation moving into the 2020s.

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