Saturday, 13 January 2018

What the Urge to Create is Fueled By (According to G.K. Chesterton)

    "Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I have often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of our modern world. I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it.
     The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself."
    And I remember as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell" [Insane Asylum]. I said to him "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."
    He said mildly that there were a good number of men after all who believed in themselves and were not in lunatic asylums.
    "Yes, there are" I retorted, "and you of all people ought to know them. That drunken poet from who you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consider your business sense instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote [a self-proclaimed religious prophetess of the Victorian era]: the man who has it has "Hanwell" written on his face as it is written on that omnibus."
    And to this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?"
    After a long pause I replied "I will go home and write a book in answer to that question." This is the book that I have written in answer to it."
-G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy"
And yet, sometimes it's healthy to pursue madness.  Because there is a form of grey, ground-down, deathly sanity that is far worse than any madness.  Better to let that madness coalesce into some shareable, forwardable, downloadable, streamable form and spread it to the world. 

(But to be fair, Chesterton wouldn't have called that madness, really.  He was a fan of expression and creativity. I just felt for those untalented hacks who believed in their own work and yearned to share it with an uncaring world.  Because I used to and I miss that.)

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Why I Liked the Individual Bits that made up "The Last Jedi," but Hated the Movie Pretty Hard

needless to say, SPOILERS.

This isn't a blog post.  It's a copied and pasted Facebook comment that seemed to keep growing:

The Last Jedi was FULL of really fun bits which all added up to inconsequential nothing or transparent and pointless stalling to fill out the time, and often felt like nothing less than a targeted attack upon/dismantling/strip-mining/fracking of the original movies. It felt like it was always rushed in presenting things that ultimately didn't matter anyway. Many of the scenes could simply have been cut with no effect whatsoever on what passed for an overall story or direction. There was nothing holding the characters back from enacting the space climax scene at some point before the movie had started/before all the casualties became necessary.

The main thing that many viewers felt, without even going all analytical on it, is the fact that movies of this kind are built on dramatic setups, followed (sometimes in the next film) by satisfying, climactic payoffsThe Last Jedi started by rubbing the viewers' noses in the fact that it was going to be built around a large number of dramatic setups, including ones brought forward from the previous movie... followed by a series of jumbled letdowns. You could almost hear the sound of a balloon deflating with each one.  And sometimes, rather than a hugely disappointing payoff, there was just a whole lot of nothing.  No payoff at all.  

Now, that's just bad storytelling. Subverts expectations, alright.  By not delivering on a promise, thereby pissing viewers off and leaving them feeling tricked and misled.  And by a bad storyteller, not by a genuinely innovative, creative or clever spinner of space yarns.  One whose story somehow made less sense than The Phantom Menace.

Worst failing of all, Rey, the film's protagonist, is lovely and charming and well acted, but the characterization is boring as hell.  At least we knew little Jake Lloyd was going to grow up to be Darth Vader.  Rey seems like she'll never grow to become anything, neither bad nor good.   She seems to think she is Mary Poppins, already perfectly perfect in every way.

Writing 101: Rey needs conflict.  She needs to at least have the risk of maybe losing.  At some point.  She needs to have to try again after failing, for example, having a hand cut off.  (almost every interesting Star Wars character is improved by having a hand cut off.)  

What Rey does not need is to be tediously right all the time about everything, and beat everyone at everything all the time. She can beat Kylo Ren at light saber duelling.  She is wiser than Luke or Yoda and doesn't actually need either of them.  She doesn't need jedi lessons.  When the time comes, it seems she ought to be the one training Luke.  (I know, in the age of millennial falcons, she's "just special" like all girls are special, and her gender is supposed to be deeply empowering, all on its own.  Like Jonathan Pageau points out, she's the best at everything, from the beginning, and better than all the guys, just because she just is.  She came like that. No lessons need to be learned. She simply needs to be freed and she'll empower herself, once toxic male Fynn stops grabbing her by the hand and trying to save her, not seeing her unique value and the fact that she never needs to be saved. (Not like him, Kylo, Luke and the other dudes).  Success at no cost. No austere Jedi lifestyle here. Just free, inborn empowerment. The millennial dream.  What an important lesson for girls!) 

But meanwhile in movieland, the character is crying out for some depth.  Not just an empty McGuffin.  Right now she's failing to keep up with Watto and Boss Nass for depth.  In fact, she's tied for last place with Bossk, IG88 and Salacious Crumb.  At this point her parents might as well be Female Rebel Soldier #3 and Bespin City's Lobot for how much we're able to care about them.  It doesn't matter.  The "Rey's parents" thing is as boring and pointless and misleading as everything else.  The fact that we're supposed to care about a backstory that's being withheld years longer even than "Who is Luke's father?" is ruined  by the fact that the movie isn't explained by, and does not require its characters to have backstories.  It's too busy whizzing around in CG space, in a terrible mad rush to tell us... nothing much of anything at all.

In a good movie, like Empire, the Empire strikes back... and wins.  And the hero fails.  In this movie?  The New Order strikes back.  And... boringly, fails.  After all the buildup, Snoke fails.  Kylo Ren fails. Luke fails. Poe fails. Finn fails. You know who doesn't fail?  The hero.  Rey. And, even more boringly, she doesn't really win either. She just... nothings. The Vice Admiral wins hugely, overshadowing Luke's shadowplay, by topping him for being right and being a martyr and saving everyone.  Now why didn't she tell Poe she was going to do it, and do it before the film started?

In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope was a movie full of subverted tropes and unexpected reversals and innovated gender roles, especially for its time. But the Gen Xer one-trick pony's only trick is to reverse or flip expectations. And that's it. The troll, pirate, vampire, robot, witch, serial killer or demon is actually a supa cool brooding anti-hero you'll be cheering for. The charming prince, noble knight, helpful priest, heroic vampire-hunter, hero, cop or military general is actually... the Bad Guy! (this was surprising for the first decade or so. Until it became Every Time.) And all of the 2 dimensional characters' genders could be inverted without changing anything else about the characters whatsoever. 

Post modernism. It's all about flipping everything.  Mother Knows Best in Tim the Toolman Taylor's house.  The reptilian ninjas from the New York sewers are pizza-scarfing saviours rather than the terrifying unnatural threat. The werewolf plays basketball. Starsky and Hutch are buffoons. Charlie Brown and friends swear and fart instead of being sweet and telling the true meaning of Christmas (South Park). Give it a try: think of something pre-90s, and turn everything on its head.  Dorothy is actually the villain of Oz, and the "witch" is the hero. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a fair ruler with a dangerous outlaw bandit to contend with, troubling his woods.  Tarzan is an African tribeswoman descended from a line of female chiefs, but who is shipwrecked in England where she needs to run a corporation. The Hardy Girls are sisters who narrowly escape being caught smuggling counterfeiting plates.

George Lucas was ahead of his time doing this "subverted expectations" stuff in the 70s, when The Princess Bride and Shrek and Spawn, Twilight, Dexter and Deadpool wouldn't hit the screen for a decade or so. He was at least fifteen years ahead of most of his peers in the industry. He was doing Oedipus instead of Prince Charming. Luke was in danger of killing his father and marrying his sister (and the prophet/oracle figure wasn't warning him, even though it hadn't happened yet and Obiwan and Yoda both knew. Weird.)  Now, a Gen Xer is going to feel all edgy "flipping" all of that.  Flipping Oedipus.

But: If you try to flip Star Wars: A New Hope and the next two movies upside down, you simply turn it back right-side-up again, back to a much more traditional fairy tale. You get more old-fashioned female characters. One-dimensional male heroes and villains. Galactic senators are all males again. The Empire isn't a racist and sexist tyranny anymore, but has become an oddly diverse, equal opportunity group of space Nazis.
Vader is secretly Luke's evil uncle, who killed Anakin Skywalker (Luke's father and the rightful king). Greedo shoots first, and Luke gets shanghaied off Tatooine to slave away aboard the Colonial Falcon, under the shifty pirate bootlegger Han Solo and his bestial first mate, Chewbacca, who wields a space whip. Luke has to kill the treacherous Han Solo and does, defeating his henchman Chewbacca first, to escape and continue his adventure to kill his evil uncle Vader, and marry the princess. R2D2 doesn't understand anything and therefore needs everything explained to him by the smarter, sensible C3P0, which is all supposed to be very cute.  The witch/Emperor is female again, and merely assists King Vader rather than being his superior. The wise woman/oracle isn't Yoda anymore. The princess doesn't use a weapon and doesn't run the war anymore. Alderaan is saved in the last act. The Rebellion is run by a man again, instead of the venerable Mon Mothma. Luke is secretly a prince, and gets the girl (Leia) in the end, and she isn't his sister. Luke has to kill Vader in a light saber battle, and does.   Jabba is an empress/madam/evil queen/female trader.  The helpless Ewoks need to be saved from the Empire entirely, rather than just being helped out a bit. 

If you "flip" Oedipus, you get the story of a young woman who is killed by her mother and whose father doesn't, therefore, marry her.  (Or something else that doesn't work. That is trying way too hard to be clever, but lacks the gears to get up that hill.) 

Not terribly helpful if you want to make the true threat to the Resistance/Rebellion Lite the evil "toxic masculinity" (toxic Star Wars masculinity: running around with sabers and blasters, flying too fast, risking your life and disobeying the overcautious, controlling older adult figures who don't get it, which one would recognize from any other Disney movie, and, say, Harry Potter).  

Here, for your edification are two articles celebrating 2017's use of nerd properties to throw a preachy, tedious spotlight on toxic masculinity: First, second.

And... if you flip things, it's not a star war anymore. It's fleeing refugees and suicide bombers, rather than rebel soldiers with military attacks. Rey doesn't get to be "Commander Rey."
Vice Admiral Holdo can't be bothered with boots, medals or a uniform with insignia. Star Wars becomes Star Trek, with mostly talking/arguing, and insoluble ethical dilemmas.  Kirk/Vice Admiral Holdo opts for not sending out a fighter craft with the hopes of the movement resting on the shoulders of one lone hero, but instead, prefers to do things like sacrifice the Rebel base ship Enterprise, set on self-destruct, to blow up the enemy ship/threat to the Federation.  In Star Trek, this threat is usually the work of less evolved, testosterone-poisoned neanderthal aliens who can't stop raging long enough to sit down and talk/work things out. Beings who haven't been told that the future, and the past in a galaxy long long ago and far, far away, are alike female.  After saving everyone, Spock/Luke/Holdo dies, with the possibility of appearing in the next movie anyway. Star Wars III: The Search for Luke. (Put a Gen Xer on the job of jawa-ing the movies and Kirk sacrifices his life for 3 minutes instead of Spock dying for real, and instead of Leia being shot with a stun blaster by a stormtrooper while talking with R2D2, Leia shoots her best rebel soldier in the head with a stun blaster and R2D2 doesn't have anything much to say about anything at all.  What a twist!)

So, Star Wars, it turns out, is beyond the scope of a Gen Xer's hack job. Especially one with all of Kylo Ren's understanding of and respect for the past.  Jawas don't build new droids. You can't just flip everything, guys. Can't just jumble the pieces and put your Star Wars Lego minifig's heads on random bodies and  subtly change the spaceships' shapes a bit with a few pieces swapped out here or there, or some new colours.  You have to make something.  You'd need to actually bring in something new. You'd actually need to know something about human history, psychology, philosophy, religion, Jung, fairy tales and ancient myth, and then subvert or flip that newly-acquired source material, not try to flip the already-flipped Star Wars rehash of mythology that you inherited.   You'd need to be capable of doing Star Wars again, yourself, rather than just recycling it.  You'd need to be able to create. To invent more Star Wars.  (Like they did somewhat in the two computer-generated cartoon series, which are both far less derivative than the big budget Hollywood sound and fury signifying nothing shows.)

The best symbolism in The Last Jedi is when Anakin/Luke's light sabre from A New Hope is being fought over by "I'm searching for hope, insight and spiritualism" and her opponent "the past must DIE... just 'cuz" and that saber represents Star Wars: A New Hope itself.  And between the two of them, they tear it in half so it doesn't work anymore. That torch that Luke churlishly tossed over his shoulder instead of passing it to Rey.  Just as the new guys have done with the franchise. The past must be chucked over one's shoulder. It's 2017.  And that stuff's toxic and old.

Oedipus is very old, yes.

The best-written, complex, unmuddled character of The Last Jedi was the erstwhile Ben Solo, Han's very own all-too-millennial falcon. In a movie that came out in 2017, even Han Solo and Leia Organa were naturally going to have spawned a lazy, whiny, conflicted, angry baby with no respect for the past, and a cynical, pragmatic (yet somehow naive, starry-eyed) nihilism to offer the world in lieu of hope. He's a destructive, angry victim, mirror to Poe's quipping, privileged competence. Kylo's pain isn't the loss of his mother, or having no father; it's his sketchy uncle/Jedi camp counsellor coming in and being inappropriate at night when he's sleeping, unsheathing his... saber. #kylotoo

And it's people who are my age who are to blame for Hollywood right now. The movies. The scandals. The complicitness with sexual exploitation. The cover ups of same. The hypocrisy regarding it. The backlash to it. The backlash to the backlash. We-a culpa.