Late Gen-X Nostalgia

Last Gen-X American Movie Review: Han Solo Writes the Google Memo

Watching The Last Jedi in the theater a few weeks back, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back, which Last Jedi resembles, in a very long time. I last recall watching it at a friend’s house in the summer of 2000, but we talked about women through the whole thing and may have even switched it off before the end. That means it may’ve been twenty years since I last paid attention to it, which would’ve been the special edition in the theater. So we’re looking at about half a lifetime.

Which is odd because Empire is widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars movies. Really, how could I have seen every single prequel and sequel since and not revisit Empire? Yes, it’s a heavier film and not self-contained, but I’d rather not die knowing that I’d seen Jar-Jar more recently in the last two decades than, say, the carbon-freezing chamber. So, I put that particular affair in order.

So does Empire live up to its reputation after a jaded adult viewing?

Rather than answer with a 5,000-word essay, here are bulleted observations.

  • Empire begins with the following loose ends from Star Wars: (1) Darth Vader is alive and evil, (2) the Empire is still around, (3) Luke hasn’t been trained as a Jedi, (4) Leia is a single female character in a movie full of boys, and (5) we don’t know that Han has paid his debts to Jabba the Hutt, but it’s implied that he was able to.
  • The opening crawl says Luke is the leader of the rebellion. He’s not; the crawl lies.
  • Luke finishes scanning for lifeforms from his tauntaun and then is attacked by a lifeform.
  • For the theologians out there: Are Force ghosts one with the Force, or are they partly themselves and partly the Force? In other words, are Force ghosts homoousios or homoiousios to the Force? If they’re the same as the Force, then the Force on its own starts the plot in Empire, which is pretty cool.
  • Han has formally joined the rebellion, which is out of character. It would be more believable if he were just making cargo runs for it.
  • Han wants to pay off his debts, which is a fine motivation for his character, but it doesn’t make much sense. If the rebels can’t deter bounty hunters from capturing or killing Han, then they can’t be very threatening to the Empire.
  • What’s Leia’s job? She isn’t in charge of the rebellion because Han gives his notice to General Rieekan, not her. (Or is Han really that misogynistic?)
  • Leia’s only role in Empire is to be Han’s love interest. She only affects the plot at the end when her unearned Force powers give her a vision of Luke dangling from a Cloud City antenna. Aside from that, if she weren’t in the movie, most of Empire would have turned out the way it did (except Lando may not’ve bothered sticking his neck out for just Chewbacca and C-3PO). I don’t think movies need to pass the Bechdel test to have good female characters, but Leia is a central character and plays less of a role in Empire than any other Star Wars film.
  • Moreover, the overall Star Wars narrative is about the rebellion defeating the Empire, and the rebellion is Leia’s setting, so under-developing her is a big mistake.
  • Very little of Han’s and Leia’s arguing is romantic witty banter. At one point Han manipulatively ropes Luke in to his attacks on Leia, “I must’ve hit her close to the mark to get her all riled up, huh, kid?” High five, bro! She should’ve sent him to the front lines to face the AT-AT walkers. #MeToo
  • If Leia had been developed as the alliance’s leader, then Empire could’ve gone with the more plausible odd-couple romance. “What’s this piece of junk doing in my hanger, Solo?” she yells. Works much better and stays true to Star Wars‘ tendency towards sexually tilted dialogue.
  • Leia is my favorite character in Empire. She’s more Han-like than Biff Tannen Han. She gets some of the best character beats and sarcastic lines in the movie. “Would it help if I got out and pushed?” she asks Han when he can’t start the Millennium Falcon‘s engine. When its hyperdrive stalls, Han panics, but Leia just rolls her eyes—which is all she can do—asking, “Still no lightspeed?” When Vader puts Han into carbon freeze, she never turns away. My favorite beat happens before Han is frozen. The camera looks at Vader but then it cuts for a second to Leia, who glares at him with a look on her face saying, “I will fuck you up for this.”
  • What is Leia princess of? Alderaan’s new asteroid belt? She saw it blown up in front of her face and it never comes up again. Maybe she feels guilty? What a wasted opportunity to explore the character.
  • It’s too bad Leia forgets that planetary bases are easy targets for the Empire/First Order. Would’ve forced Disney to get creative with Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Even in Return of the Jedi the rebels operate from a mobile fleet. Dumbasses.
  • Giving the three protagonists privileges to do as they please and abandon the rebellion at their convenience works when you’re a kid but doesn’t make much logical sense, hence Empire‘s backgrounding of Leia.
  • Otherwise, Empire‘s beginning is solid. Lots of attention to detail as to how the rebel base works and the rebels’ contingency for evacuating it.
  • Han teaches us that nothing proves you’re an alpha ape by bullying a protocol droid.
  • C-3PO, for his part, is also inconsistent, suffering disrespect when he’s helpful and trivializing the other characters’ suffering when he’s not.
  • Han makes several decisions to advance the plot, of the rabbit-out-of-a-hat variety. They work for his character, but somewhat stunt the B plot.
  • Luke makes three decisions: (1) “borrowing” the Alliance’s X-wing to go to Dagobah, (2) abandoning his training to rescue his friends (Empire‘s fulcrum), and (3) choosing to fight Vader when he could try to escape.
  • Luke’s vision of his friends’ suffering on Cloud City is remarkable because it means the Force plays an active role in the narrative. We can rightly ask what the Force’s agenda is. (It also helpfully gives Luke the coordinates to Bespin.)
  • Vader’s seclusion pod is my favorite representation of Empire‘s theme of pockets of safety in a hostile universe. Unfortunately, this theme doesn’t really reflect the characters’ inner challenges.
  • Vader’s executions are fun, especially Admiral Ozzel’s, but in no way do they correspond to the victims’ merits:
    • Vader kills Admiral Ozzel for his exculpatory incompetence: Ozzel disobeys Vader by bringing the fleet in too close to the rebel base, even though the rebels are already alerted by the probe droid. More rebels would’ve escaped if Ozzel had followed orders.
    • Captain Needa is killed for his inculpatory competence: He wasn’t responsible for “losing” the Millennium Falcon.
    • Vader spares Admiral Piet for his inculpatory incompetence: Piet was supposed to disable the Millennium Falcon‘s hyperdrive and didn’t do a sufficient job.
  • How much time elapses in Empire? It feels like no more than a few days, which can explain why Luke gets steamrolled by Vader. However, there could be a big time gap between the Millennium Falcon heading to Bespin and Luke having his vision of its fate, but it’s not specified and impliedly contradicted when Lando says, “They [the Empire] arrived here just before you did.”
  • When Han lands the Millennium Falcon to the back of the star destroyer, I yelped, “Wait, that actually works??”
  • I love the (original) matte-painting backgrounds for Cloud City. They are way retro.
  • Timing error: Luke leaves Dagobah after the Millennium Falcon arrives at Bespin. It looks like it takes minutes for him to get there. On top of that, the narrative cuts to him approaching Cloud City twice. It messes up the pacing.
  • Why is Lando developed—and better than Leia? He could’ve just turned the protagonists over to the Vader right after they landed on Cloud City. He doesn’t help his case by rubbing his “deal” with the Empire in the protagonists’ faces right before handing them to Vader. He could’ve been shot by a stormtrooper and it wouldn’t’ve made a difference.
  • Boba Fett is only named in the credits, and just whom does he work for? If the Empire hired him, why does he get to take Han to Jabba the Hutt for a second reward? Why would the Empire bother handing Han over? Why does he shoot at Luke when Luke arrives? Not his monkeys. Whatever.
  • Cloud City’s dizzying interior is so cool. The agoraphobia really amplifies the tension.
  • Darth Vader’s plan for capturing Luke is not fully formed at the beginning of Empire but becomes more coherent over time. It might be lazy, and it’s common for adventure stories written from the protagonists’ perspectives to idiot-plot (or super-mastermind-plot) the villains. I think Vader’s incoherent plan in Empire works because it’s ambiguous, but it’s close.
  • I could write an essay on the consequences of making the Emperor a Jedi.
  • Vader has nothing to tempt Luke with to turn him to the dark side, which is a pretty glaring problem in Empire‘s A plot. If I were Vader, I’d scheme to put Luke in a situation where he has to tap the dark side to escape or die. Instead, it’s “Join me or die,” so Luke chooses to die. The end.
  • Why does Vader offer to rule the galaxy with Luke after he tries to freeze him and mutilates him? He’s not persuasive. It’s almost like Empire is looking for an excuse for Vader to not kill Luke.
  • Luke survives his plunge into the chasm, which is a neat death-rebirth trope, but it beggars belief.
  • Why does the Millennium Falcon fly toward the super star destroyer before R2D2 fixes its hyperdrive? The visual effect is awesome, but it sure looks like the movie doesn’t think we’ll buy Force telepathy at a distance but won’t object to Lando’s stupid piloting.
  • Amazing that Vader doesn’t give up on capturing Luke by the time the Millennium Falcon rescues him. Way more trouble than he’s worth.
  • Once they’re safe, why does anyone still trust Lando, let alone allow him to take over for Han?
  • Finally, it’s so sad that Leia ends the movie grinning over the phone with Chewbacca and not holstering blasters.
  • Empire is the only non-prequel to date in which the characters don’t infiltrate an Imperial base or impersonate Imperial soldiers.
  • I don’t think stormtroopers have any lines in Empire.

So, the verdict:

The Empire Strikes Back starts strong; its first act on Hoth is a tight, coherent tactical battle between Vader and Reeikan. But after Luke has his Force vision on Dagobah, the movie’s plot holes, timing errors, character problems, and multiple deus ex machina mechanics multiply to drag it down considerably. To be sure, Empire‘s third act is superbly executed and is visually stunning compared to Star Wars, and the Millennium Falcon‘s escape is probably my favorite scene in any Star Wars movie, notwithstanding the bizarre flaws noted above.

However, I’m not one to take fan consensus as truth. Empire badly needs a reason to tempt Luke to the dark side, and its failure to develop Leia is just malpractice. Maybe an intelligent reviewer can make the contrary case and explain to me what my plain, non-allegorical approach misses, but the emotional impact of Empire‘s plot reveals aren’t sufficient to carry it. For these reasons I now believe the original Star Wars is the better movie of the two.

5 Ways the Rebel Alliance Can Win Back Working Class Whites

Or…

Last Gen X American Theater Review: Star Wars: Rogue One

And oh, my, spoilers!

I don’t mean to review only Star Wars movies, but here we are. The question Rogue One raises is: Is it better than Return of the Jedi? As I write this I can’t answer, but to be clear, Rogue One is certainly better than its immediate predecessor, The Force Awakens. At the risk of digressing, that film belonged more to the J.J. Abrams nostalgia subgenre, and its relevant comparators are 8mm or the Star Trek movies. I wasn’t a fan of those, nor the subgenre at all, really, but Force Awakens is Abrams’ best contribution to it thus far. Aside from its execution, it also may have done what was necessary to resuscitate Star Wars after the odious yet painfully quotable prequels.

Yet when I saw it, I thought The Force Awakens calcified the franchise. Star Wars would never amount to more than anxious Jedi, lightsaber fights, Death Star-ers, and sidestepping the ethical question of whether the galaxy would be better off if it summarily executed the entire Skywalker hero/war-criminal family. Take that, midichlorians!!

Rogue One, though, resists the decline. It’s the first contribution since Phantom Menace to feature a novel plot—and yes, all the prequels had plots, just the same one: Palpatine manipulates people to get what he wants. He just wasn’t the central character, which is one of many reasons those movies were so awful. None of this is to say that Rogue One‘s plot is remarkably different from the original’s: “A group of galactic outcasts combines to steal the Death Star’s plans and martyrs itself while doing so” isn’t far from the same crew rescuing the princess and blowing up the Death Star. Unfortunately, I struggle to give Rogue One a final assessment, so I’ll trudge through the bits I liked, didn’t like, or noticed.

Genre

In its third act, Rogue One becomes a heist movie. Unlike a good heist movie, however, it neglects the genre’s most memorable trope: the walkthrough montage. Just after the scene where the main characters case the target, your Ocean’s Elevenses of the world invariably contain a scene where the crack team of specialists learn the exact sequence of breaking into the target and stealing the MacGuffin. Usually the montage uses a model mixed with shots of the actual location.

The walkthrough montage performs a few narrative tasks. One, it sets up the audience’s expectations of how the heist will go with the tacit promise that the story will throw a wrench into the protagonists’ plans, forcing them to adapt. The heist characters’ (or at least their leaders’) stand-out qualities are not their thievery but their resilience or their ability to see n moves ahead of the antagonists. Without the walkthrough montage, the story can capriciously throw any obstacle it wants at the characters, and their success doesn’t feel earned. This is exactly what happens in Rogue One when Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, and K-2SO enter the Imperial data storage center on Scarif. In typical Star Wars droid fashion K-2SO gives the odds of their success, but without a reference point, it doesn’t mean anything to the audience.

The absence of a walkthrough montage also, I suspect, relates to criticisms of the Star Wars universe’s data formats. Superficially, I’m less persuaded that it’s a problem: Star Wars straddles the digital revolution, so it’s saddled with a legacy of computer anachronisms. Asking for consistency in formats is like asking why the characters in Seinfeld don’t avoid all their follies with cell phones. I’m more impressed that Rogue One manages to be a Star Wars prequel without looking outdated in the ways the original subtly does. Thus, we’re left with a sequence where the characters make it to a weird-looking data tower without facing much resistance until later. It’s only after their claw crane busts that they must adapt—and that’s also when they start switching data formats.

Characters

Two, the walkthrough montage also summarizes the characters’ special skills, and while I liked the characters in Rogue One quite a bit, they weren’t all suited to breaking into secure Imperial installations. The movie could have done more to explain their motivations for participating in what appeared to be a suicide mission—since that was the point of the movie—similar to The Magnificent Seven. Instead, the final act of the movie devolves to action fare: Each character must perform some trivial mechanical task to complete the mission. One of them is even the Back to the Future cable-caught-on-a-stick gimmick. As with most Star Wars movies, multiple subplots converged at the ending, but they weren’t too interesting on their own until the characters died. It worked, but once I noticed the action gimmicks were happening, I felt a little bored.

Indeed, The Magnificent Seven comparison is apt because my favorite character was Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe, who was essentially Zatoichi in a Star Wars movie. On top of that, he did what I thought Disney was too timid to do: Broaden the Force beyond monotone Jedis and lightsaber fights. Îmwe devoutly believes in the Force, but he fights with … something other than a lightsaber. He doesn’t telekinetically chuck people around, and in his bespoke action sequence he must walk to a switch and pull it by hand. Wow! Îmwe lives in a Star Wars universe where doubting the Force is possible—a point I hammered in my review of the original. It’s not hard to believe in the Force when it makes you obviously superhuman.

Beyond Îmwe, I appreciated the cast’s diversity. Rogue One made it seem so normal that I didn’t really ponder it until after it ended. I was like, “Cassian has an accent. Eh. That’s Star Wars for you. At least he’s not another Imperial officer from Britain.” I also note that the other movie to address non-whiteness this winter was Hidden Figures, two films from very different genres. (I liked that one too, but I have nothing to say about it that others can’t better.)

Martyrdom, Not Marveldom

It’s said that Disney sees Star Wars as a money-maker like the Marvel-verse. The Marvel-verse, though, is pretty conventional, even if another 2016 movie, Dr. Strange, was tons of fun. The plots are driven by earth-hungry monsters and a bunch of ancient, supernatural MacGuffins. I don’t see it breaking its mold ever. Rogue One, by contrast, does. The Star Wars universe is sufficiently established to give us heroic characters and then kill them dead. These are the martyrs of the rebellion, we recite their names after Luke Skywalker gets his medal a short time later.

My hope is that Disney explores the Star Wars universe with more narrative experiments like Rogue One. I’m not asking for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Jedi, but Rogue One took risks that show there’s more to explore in Star Wars than lightsaber fights.

Other Good Stuff

Rogue One also delivers a few nuggets that don’t fit in the above. One is the Death Star. I liked how the movie subtly explained that its world-destroying weapon is essentially a bunch of lightsabers strung together. The Empire scientifically explores the faith of the Jedi, only to weaponize it. It’s a good parallel to the Oppenheimer-nuclear-bomb commentary the movie makes. I delighted to see Tarkin again, CGIed as he was, and voiced with appropriate rolling r’s. But boy do I wish they hired Wayne Pygram like in the prequels. What a waste. Tarkin’s line about not using the Death Star to make a manifesto is an excellent contrast to later blowing up Alderaan as “an effective demonstration.” Speaking of Alderaan, Jimmy Smits was similarly a welcome sight, even if it normalizes the prequels. “I must go to Alderaan (to get blown up).” (Hey, it’s not like he saw it coming.)

Other Not-So-Good Stuff

How big is the Star Wars galaxy? It’s like Jeddah, Eadu, Scarif, Yavin IV, Alderaan, and Tatooine, are all only several hours from one another. It’s a J.J. Abrams-ish flaw in a non-Abrams movie. A little down time for the characters helps extend the scope of the universe and make it more realistic. Secondly, the admiral in charge of the rebels was another Mon Calamari. Was this supposed to be a riff on Return of the Jedi, or are we really too stupid to follow a Star Wars space battle if it’s not exposited by an Admiral Akbar lookalike?

So Why Not Return of the Jedi?

As I wrote upfront, I’m weighing Rogue One against Return of the Jedi, which has until now kept its place as the third best Star Wars movie. Here’s a brief synopsis of why that movie deserves a bumping. One, Jedi‘s second Death Star is a cop out. Totally uninspired. Two, “A certain point of view?” shamelessly retcons the first movie’s insistence that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father to rationalize the reveal in Empire Strikes Back that I don’t find that interesting. Three, the case against the Ewoks has long been established. It’s also the beginning of the end of George Lucas as a serious storyteller and not a panderer to children. Want to know why the prequels suck? Look into Wicket’s eyes and tell me you don’t see Jar Jar Binks’ zygote.

The scenes with Luke, Vader, and the emperor shoulder Jedi‘s ending. (The space battle and Endor scenes don’t do much.) Its lesson is that all crimes against humanity (or sentient beings or whatever) can be forgiven if you really, really, love daddy and he’s an evil Jedi. I do like how the lightsaber fight contrasts with the one at the end of Empire Strikes Back. There, Vader was in control, testing Luke. In Jedi, Luke was in control (mostly), baffling Vader by refusing to fight. Although there isn’t much that could be done to fix those scenes, at least the movie could have ended with a political victory over the Empire than another military one. There isn’t a point where the masses of the core planets rise up on their own and dismantle the Empire.

Rogue One is rough around the edges, and it frustrates me because I grew up with Return of the Jedi and if it is to be supplanted, I want it to be an easy call. Rogue One has a scattered start, and the middle scene on Eadu doesn’t make much sense other than to deepen the characters. It picks up in the last act on Scarif and ends better than it begins. I’m not sure the Death Star-Manhattan Project relationship works well because Galen Erso isn’t a major character and is killed at the halfway point anyway. It’s either an overexpanded theme or an underexpanded plotline. Finally, while I’ve praised Rogue One for taking risks, I don’t enjoy martyrdom parables. The ending was a bit intense for me.

So … Rogue One wins. It gives me hope about the Star Wars franchise. I recognize that we still have this new Rey-Darth Emo plot arc that doesn’t inspire me much, and Rogue One‘s risks might be misunderstood and squandered by future Star Wars filmmakers, but at least we know they can make Star Wars films that are on par with the originals.

Let’s hope they do so.

NO BUBBLE, JUST ROCK!!! VOL. 16

Mellow is the Bubble

I’ve been putting in more overtime at the office, but that gives me a chance to listen to music!

Here’s Peach Kelli Pop, our space explorers:

And Skylar Gudasz covering Big Star:

At the end, if you look carefully you just might see the last gen x American as the camera pans right. I even contributed a whistle.

Gudasz’s original stuff is quite good too.

Last Gen X American Theater Review: Star Wars

I saw Star Wars last weekend. Not Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I mean Star Wars, the original. As in, the opening crawl included neither “Episode IV,” nor, “A New Hope,” just “STAR WARS” and then text, signifying that this was indeed the 1977 version. Sometime in the mid-2000s, Lucasfilm caved and offered a limited edition of the original three Star Wars movies, which included bonus DVDs of the un-CGI-ed movies I grew up with—in widescreen. I haven’t so much as tested the “Special Edition” discs.

I think I’ve seen Star Wars twice in the last decade, with the last time being the uncut version (29:22!), so with some time to let it rest in my mind, and watching it with someone who’d never seen it before, I approached the movie with as fresh a mind as I could. I’m certain I watched it scores of times since childhood (once dubbed in Japanese, which was awesome), so I’m definitely unprejudiced. Here are my thoughts:

Luke Skywalker:

Luke wasn’t as whiny as I remember, but he didn’t have much of an arc. Sure he goes on the hero’s journey, but he’s never given an opportunity to opt out. Either he runs off with Ben Kenobi on a swashbuckling adventure, or he sweeps his relatives’ charred corpses into the ditch and becomes a moisture farmer. It’s not much of a choice: “Steinbeck in Space” would’ve been a hard sell.

Part of my problem is that the movie builds up to Luke rejecting Uncle Owen’s libertarian isolationism, but Luke is cheated of that moment. It would’ve more exciting if, rather than being murdered, his aunt and uncle cooperate with the Empire to recover the droids. Uncle Owen may’ve figured the droids weren’t worth his life. He would try to convince Luke to give the droids to the stormtroopers and Luke would’ve said no, perhaps knowing that his decision would doom his relatives.

It’s dark, but Star Wars paints Luke as released when Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed, like lifting a great weight from him. He never pins a stormtrooper down and blaster-rifle-butts his face in screaming, “You killed my family, you bastards!” That would’ve even offered a motivation for him to experiment with the dark side of the Force.

Imperial Savagery:

Relatedly, Star Wars depicts the Empire as alternately incompetent and downright savage—off screen. Luke asks why the Empire would want to murder Jawas, but simply answering, “It’s the droids, dummy,” isn’t good enough. Sometimes people will answer your questions without needing to shoot them or even threaten them beyond showing up with a platoon of stormtroopers. They get the hint. The Jawas had no reason to resist the Empire either. They didn’t have the droids and they’d already been paid. It’s not like they owed customer confidentiality to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

As stated earlier, Luke’s relatives didn’t need to resist the Empire either. The stormtroopers had every reason to give them the, “Sir, can you call your nephew and tell him to bring those droids right back here? He’ll be in deep trouble if he doesn’t” treatment. Sure, the scene of Luke returning to his burning home is iconic and superbly executed, but it’s the easy way out for the character.

So, did the Empire kill every single person they came across on Tatooine who so much as looked at R2D2? I think not. Just when it was convenient.

Han Solo:

I chuckled when he shot Greedo. First. It was a great scene to establish the character. However, this time around I found him bizarrely reckless. His fearlessness is endearing, but he runs after some stormtroopers in the Death Star for absolutely no reason. Luke rightly cries, “Where are you going?” He also fires his blaster needlessly at times, e.g. at the trash compactor monster. It’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. At least he has more of an arc than Luke because he decides to go back and join the attack on the Death Star, but it isn’t particularly deep.

The Death Star:

Watching the Death Star scenes, both the interior and the final attack, a wondered, “Just how big is it?” I’d always thought it was colossal, crammed with military arsenals for all kinds of operations and hundreds of thousands of stormtroopers. Like, mind-boggling overkill in every dimension. Watching it this time, though, I think it’s either much smaller than I imagined (or its size varies depending on the plot). I’ve always been mesmerized by its surreal, endless shafts, and vertical lighting that emphasizes them, but nevertheless the characters have no difficulty whatsoever navigating it.

Maybe that’s a case of the saying I’m told is attributed to Aristotle, “It’s better to make the impossible plausible than the implausible plausible.” I can believe in a moon-sized space station that can blow up planets, but I can’t believe the protagonists can run around inside like it’s not the Minotaur’s maze. On the other hand, Star Wars is a heroic epic, and perhaps the genre enables heroes to wander around the Death Star. I’m confident that a movie made today with a location like the Death Star would not work without more explanation of how the characters can move around so brashly. Now, I’m wondering how big it was in Lucas’ head. In my mind, it’s now much smaller in size and scope.

Additionally, the trash compactor monster bit was much sillier this time around. Then again, the Death Star’s interior is a different universe than the rest of the movie.

The Force:

The other thing we have to accept is how much subtler the Force is in Star Wars than its successors. Only when Darth Vader chokes the Death Star’s commander do we have any reason to believe that the Force permits telekinesis, but even that appears as a kind of magic or spooky mind control rather than physical action.

To be honest, I prefer this Force to what comes after. Once Luke uses Force telekinesis to pull his lightsaber to him from the snow in The Empire Strikes Back, the nature of the Force goes downhill, becoming an object of manipulation available to the chosen few. But in Star Wars there’s a possibility that if you believe in the Force, you can tap it to a degree, yet it just happens that no one believes in it. Now it’s just a vehicle for video game power-ups.

Han can question the Force as “hokey religion” in Star Wars because it’s so unobvious, but once we see Jedis whisking stuff around, it’s difficult to be incredulous. I appreciate The Force Awakens‘ attempt to remind us of this “Force doubt” when Han confesses to Rey that it’s all true, but if Kenobi just yanked Han’s blaster from his holster in the original, the issue would’ve been moot. If Han is our window into the everyday person’s perspective of the galaxy, it’s strange that anyone would be incredulous or forget about the Force and the Jedi.

The Villains:

One reason I think Star Wars works so well is that it doesn’t end with the protagonists killing the ultimate villain, the emperor. In fact, the lead villain, Tarkin, isn’t killed in personal combat with any of the main characters. Only Princess Leia ever interacts with him—or Darth Vader for that matter. Most other movies would add a scene where the (male) protagonists meet the villains (whether they’re captured or not), learn their plans, and then conspire to foil them. However, Star Wars goes nowhere near that. Only Princess Leia conveys the villains’ plans to the male protagonists, and it doesn’t matter because she’s the one in charge of the rebellion. Han bails once he’s paid, and Luke was going to join the rebellion anyway. Luke wasn’t even tasked with leading the attack on the Death Star; he’s charged with supporting the experienced commanders and only attacks himself when they fail.

Meanwhile, Tarkin isn’t a portrayed as a Ming-the-Merciless warlord, he’s a ruthless general. His motivation is to serve autocracy, and he’s fine with that. He’s evil, but professional. More importantly, Darth Vader obeys him, which is more evidence of a weaker (and I think better) conception of the Force than in all the sequels.

Princess Leia:

…Is not really a damsel-in-distress character as I imagined, other than being a princess. She isn’t captured out of her incompetence. In fact, she’s almost as trigger-happy as Han. She initiates the plot by loading the Death Star plans into R2D2 and rescues the male protagonists by discovering the trash compactor. The biggest complaint against her is that she rushes to the rebel base on Yavin knowingly allowing the Empire to track her. The movie should’ve given her a chance to explain this decision. Again, to its credit, The Force Awakens hints at this omission when Han tells Finn and Rey that they need a clean ship because the Millennium Falcon is “hot.”

Leia’s problem is that she’s introduced at the tail end of her story in order to tell us about Luke’s journey to embracing his paternal origin as galactic actor rather than withdrawn moisture farmer. That’s Star Wars‘ gender problem. Disney will never make it, but a Princess Leia prequel could be quite good. We could see her become tough as nails as she’s forced to decide whether to sacrifice innocent civilians to free the galaxy. Leia Guevara would be overboard, but it could draw the character better than Star Wars does with Luke.

I still haven’t read Dune, but…

Rewatching Star Wars left me with a somber realization: No number of re-viewings will give me the experience of seeing Star Wars as a twelve-year-old in 1977. Perhaps the First Gen X American can write that one up, but everything I know about Star Wars‘ origins and proximate impact is second hand. What I did see was a well-paced reduction of baby-boomer icons: the wild west cowboys, Buck Rogers, and WWII air battles. I haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t seen Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, but I know they’re in there as well.

Cramming all this stuff together should fail for its cumbersomeness. Certainly the pacing, the editing (love the wipes), special effects that work with and not against the story, and undoubtedly the score lift it beyond just being good or entertaining.

Whether Star Wars endured because ’70s cinema was “boring” or “cynical,” redeemed the post-Vietnam American psyche, or arrived just in time for folks like me to rewatch it endlessly on VHS, I don’t know. But if a movie was going to become American pop-culture religion, there could’ve been worse candidates, and Star Wars itself could’ve been much worse.

Speaking of Grad PLUS Loans…

This weekend, the Times both accepted the Bennett hypothesis and chose not to condescend to us about the “paradox” of how underemployed law grads can refuse to work for people who can’t afford to pay them. That’s really remarkable. What more can I say?

Okay, one point, an emphasis. When I wrote that applying the gainful employment rule to all law schools would cause fifty to close in short order, I was clearly being conservative. $50,000 in discretionary income is a lot of money, even for law school graduates.

And since we’re on the topic of student lending, the Department of Education updated its student loan data through the 2014-2015 academic year. I’ve updated the Student Debt Data page accordingly.

The big findings are that (a) people are borrowing less money from the federal government:

Amount of Federal Loans Disbursed

…But (b), Grad PLUS borrowing hasn’t changed much in the last year.

In the last two years though, the number of Grad PLUS borrowers has grown (+2,540) while the total amount borrowed has fallen (-$140 million). It only amounts to about $500 per borrower, but who knows, maybe it’s due to fewer law students? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Finally, in the same week that I bought my first car I realized after years of listening that Galaxie 500’s “Blue Thunder” is about a man’s love for his car, and the Route 128 reference indicates it’s an homage to the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner.” (I’m terrible at discerning lyrics; it’s usually not what I listen for in music.) I really dig how “Blue Thunder” denies the listener the chorus until the very end.

I prefer the album version, but how could I not post an ’80s video?

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IfTashaYar’sRapeGangsHadaTransporter

…Is what I think about now whenever someone brings up the economics of Star Trek. For those unfamiliar, the title refers to a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Tasha Yar, who grew up on a politically collapsed colony populated by … rape gangs! Think Mad Max only ham-fisted. It’s also a reference to the 2007 combined tour of the bands Ifihadahifi and Replicator, “IfIHadARepliTour.” Yup, a show I never saw was so memorably named it stuck in my head for eight years.

Today’s “Economics of Star Trek” adventure appears courtesy of The New York Times, “A ‘Star Trek’ Future Might Be Closer Than We Think.” Reporting on the upcoming book Trekonomics– I know, I know, I hear you groaning in agony at your screens.

Okay, so the Times interviewed one of the authors and claimed:

When everything is free, said Mr. Saadia, objects will no longer be status symbols. Success will be measured in achievements, not in money: “You need to build up your reputation, you need to be a fantastic person, you need to be the captain.” People will work hard to reach those goals, even though they don’t need a paycheck to live.

Wrong. When you have teleporters—and set aside the obvious philosophical issues of voluntarily walking into a disintegrator beam so a duplicate of yourself can be incarnated somewhere else—you will have crime, mass terrorism, mayhem, and social collapse. Come on folks, show a little realism about human motivation.

So, now that we’ve dismissed the subject on the merits, we can pick it for less entertaining reasons. Let’s look at Star Trek without transporters. Would objects no longer be status symbols? Would people live to work and not work to live? Would we have … “post-scarcity”?

Hardly. We’d squabble over all the stuff that we can’t replicate, just like today. That’s the rub with productivity: There isn’t a whole lot of difference between mass-producing stuff cheaply versus for free. However, stuff that can’t be produced or easily substituted, i.e. positional goods, won’t disappear. This is precisely why I believe the concept is so important and write about it so frequently. Indeed, Trekonomics‘ author’s assertion that everyone needs to be the captain proves my point and discredits his: We can’t all be the captain. Someone will need to clean up replicator spills, so the future looks more like Red Dwarf than Star Trek.

Consequently, you’re going to need to produce something more substantial than menial labor to afford the location costs to live in San Francisco, Star Trek‘s preferred Earth location. But if the landowners of Trek can get everything they want for free, then we’re back to the robots-substituting-for-workers problem that I’ve addressed before.

And don’t waste your time arguing that people can always leave Earth for more space. That’s just kicking the can forward and ignoring the fact that even when land is free, poverty still exists in urban centers. Henry George observed this in the 1870s (and he cut his chops in San Francisco). At some point, “post-scarcity” stories only work if you tap location values. Nothing less will do.

Ultimately, “Economics of Star Trek” discussions raise two questions. One is concerned with filling the gaps created by the showrunners’ (mis)understandings of political economy, and the other is applying existing social science knowledge to the show. The first question disserves the show. It’s aspiration, not social theory. The second question, going by the author’s quotations, still needs work. We’re a long way from the characters chatting about how in the 21st century people actually believed consumption taxes were a good idea.

Oh, and since I’m talking about Ifihadahifi, here’s its Scott Walker protest song:

No Bubble, Just ROCK!!! Vol. 12

Mellow is the Bubble

I’m trying to cheer myself up after I was laid off from my one day on the job at J.D. Premium Loan LLC yesterday, and since I haven’t done a music post since October—goodness!—I feel I should cheer all of us up.

David Kilgour’s, “Today Is Gonna Be Mine,” is great song for getting yourself together before heading out to work.

…But I’m more partial to the Dirtbombs’ cover of “Fire in the Western World.”

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