Tag: narrative

My previous column was all about the cultural importance of Star Wars as the quintessential modern myth. I even mentioned the need for myth in these troubled times, insinuating my desire for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to acknowledge, or comment on, the current political climate in some capacity. And so, having now watched it, I ask: how good was it, and how does it hold as a modern myth?

To begin, much of the progressivism from The Force Awakens is carried over here, and is given much more room to breathe in some instances, as in Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) excursion to Cantonica, a desert planet run by greedy, corporate, casino-obsessed profiteers who benefit from the galactic war between the First Order and the Resistance. As many reviews have been quick to point out, this arc is easy to bait as a digressing rambling point, though this is most attributable not to the narrative intentions of the arc, but rather the lackluster execution of these explorations which at times threaten to inspire a blatant indifference on the audience’s part. From the moment Rose begins telling her sob backstory, which then leads into a preachy animal-rights midnight exodus extravaganza, the narrative feels forced and progressive for the sake of being progressive—in short, it feels inauthentic.

I should stress that this lack of authenticity exists strictly on a formal level, by which I mean the film was admittedly doing some interesting things in theory. This includes the incorporation of Star Wars canon material previously unseen on the big screen (How did Luke get there?), the subversion of myth by questioning its authenticity, and the fabrication of a triadic collective protagonist (Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren). However, most reviews that have defended The Last Jedi have tended to rely on these novel narrative deviations to the Star Wars canon as sufficient evidence for the film’s artistic merit, the equivalent of arguing Pollock’s early works as redeemable insofar as they are “dense with mythology and Jungian archetypes” or that James Joyce is a genius on the basis that UlyssesLike many great works of literature…requires repeated reading and deep study fully to understand–and ultimately to enjoy–the many dimensions and layers.” All this is well and fine, but I would argue that the formal ramifications of a work of art (i.e. revolutionary or revisionist technique), or its utter abstruseness, are not enough to warrant—indeed, even measure—artistic merit. Hence, to defend The Last Jedi by way of uttering such generalizations as “The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties” is not enough; I mean, sure, but, where specifically do you see this being done well, and, more importantly, how are you measuring “well”?

I would narrow down my problems with this movie to one pivotal, overarching problem that effectively ruined all of the things that could have worked for the film: pacing. By this I mean not only the editing from one plot to another, but the consistent incorporation of “tonal distractions,” both of which, collectively, forbid any one point in the story to breathe and really come into its own. One result of this is that, unlike The Force Awakens, the film no longer feels character-based—the word “feels” is crucial here as the narrative was evidently attempting to darken and flesh out three of its main characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker. This sophistication had the potential to be the holy grail of the film’s engagement, but, whenever this character-building is at play, it is superfluously embroidered by these aforementioned tonal distractions, whether it’s Luke tricking Rey into “using the force” with a blade of grass, Kylo Ren being shirtless (but why?), or a Pog face-planting into a window during what should be a serious rescue scene on the planet Crait. It’s as if Robert Altman had been hired to write a Star Wars movie and immediately decided to Nashville the sh!+ out of it.

The thing is (and this gets to the heart of why I abhor Robert Altman films) the film medium is temporally built to sustain a well-chosen economy of narrative if it has any hopes of fabricating and sustaining any degree of emotional investment. Shows like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black have shown that the serial format is much more compatible with large ensemble casts because they are given the room to be explored in an organic and engaging way. When condensing these kaleidoscopic endeavors into a film, much of the emotional weight is lost in favor for what essentially amounts to “interesting ideas”: the philosophy underlying Luke’s cynicism, Rey’s development as a Jedi (we are given some “shocking” background story, but how does this affect her character? She’s still on the good side at the end [I almost wanted her to go to the dark side, just to shake things up]), or Kylo Ren’s inner conflict (which, again, amounts to nothing—he is still the “bad guy” at the end of the film).

While The Last Jedi does not have a terribly high amount of plots and characters, it does incessantly move from one thing we are meant to be taking seriously to another, a system which amounts to the same thing: the dilution of the audience’s emotional investment. Sure, much of the frantic pacing works for the fresh new theme of “let the past die, look to the future” which may in fact be commenting on the generally pessimistic milieu of our times, and whose newness does manage to “keep the myth interesting, and hence relevant” as I mentioned in my last column. However, The Last Jedi is revisionism done wrong, in the vein of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where a lot of interesting things are going down without succeeding in making us care. This is in sharp contrast to the much more cogent (and also revisionist) The Dark Knight, or The Empire Strikes Back. Recall how much time we spend following Luke’s training with Yoda in Episode V, or Rey the scavenger-for-parts at the beginning of The Force Awakens. These are some of my favorite moments in the franchise, and the reason they work is because we’re there for a while, to the point where the depicted world begins to feel organic, our own—thus paving the way for emotional investment.

If anything, The Last Jedi has compelled me to familiarize myself to a much greater extent with the Star Wars canon. Through my current efforts to understand just what in the world was happening in the film, I might eventually be able to tame my currently lashing and thrashing response to such a degree that the film may not appear as messy and improvised as it does now. Who knows, a year from now—maybe less—I may even like it.

The new Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer has been out for months now, and fans—old and new alike—are still raving about it, once more submerging themselves in that paroxysm of fervent fan-boy anticipation, pre-packaged with every preview of the upcoming chapter which instantaneously dominates the masses, spreading like wildfire the moment they hit YouTube. “What this trailer did,” said Jeremy Jahns, popular YouTube movie reviewer, “is what Star Wars trailers do, and that’s put Star Wars at the forefront—like yeah, this is happening.”

One person who’s probably less excited about the upcoming film is Star Wars creator himself, George Lucas, who gave up creative rights to the Star Wars universe after selling the franchise to Disney in 2012 for a whopping 4.05 billion USD. In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, when asked how he felt about Episode VII: The Force Awakens (the first installment of the reboot trilogy) Lucas said: “We call it space opera but it’s actually a soap opera. And it’s all about family problems—it’s not about spaceships…They decided they were gonna go do their own thing…They wanted to make a retro movie—I don’t like that. I like…Every movie I make I work very hard to make them different. I make them completely different: with different planets, different spaceships—yenno, to make it new.

I disagree with Lucas’ judgement of Disney’s “nostalgia” approach and maintain that, in order for the reboot to have had the same initial impression of awe-inspiring proportions on the new generation as A New Hope (’77) had on the old, it had to retain as much of its mythic dimensions as possible—which, in order to accomplish, adopting the nostalgia approach was clearly the most surefire way to go. Whatever backlash The Force Awakens (2015) might have received in regards to its “uninteresting” and “boring” semblance to the original fails to recognize what it is that makes Star Wars so compelling a cultural force: that is, its function as myth, which, by its very nature, must remain as little changed as possible if it is to remain relevant.

Here it is important to distinguish between myth and narrative, for the latter is merely the particular (and always varying) mediation of the former (which is always the same). Put another way, a narrative, or an individual story, is simply a representation of a kind of “master story” that pre-exists in the audience’s mind long before they sit down to watch The Force Awakens for the first time—assuming, of course, the audience has lived long enough to have acquired a fairly confident intuition in regards to what constitutes this so-called “master story” that is myth.

“Myth” comes from the Greek word “mythos,” meaning “story.” It is from this definition that our understanding of myth must necessarily arise, for most theories of myth begin from the accepted idea of myth as a kind of “canon of story.” Here it is noteworthy that the medium of the story is not signified, for it would be erroneous to confine myth to a single art form (i.e. myth as the literary canon). Consider, for example, how ancient cave paintings are fraught with narrative imagery, from the dancing scenes of Serra de Capivera, Piauí, Brazil (28,000 to 6,000 BC) to the enigmatic beings and animals of Kadaku, Northern Territory, Australia (26,000 BC); after all, the story “I saw a kangaroo” is still a story, though, to us, not a particularly interesting one (insofar as it is not all that sophisticated).

What is interesting is that such geographically disparate populations, who would have had no physical means of contact with one another, should engage in the same activity (which is not necessary for biological survival) with the same level of behavioral predictability of birds from separate continents—all of whom seem to instinctively grasp the concept of “nest-building” as pivotal for their offspring’s protection. What is it, then, that prompts what appears to be a primordially entrenched instinct of human nature? What is the point of saying, “I saw a kangaroo”?

The answer to this can be arrived at by emphasizing the two subjects of the sentence and studying the resulting truth-values derived thereof. For if the emphasis is placed on “a kangaroo,” then one extracts an empirical value tantamount to the scientist’s collected data. Here, the sentence derives significance from its illumination of some perceived aspect (in this case, the “kangaroo”) of the world, that is, of reality. On the other hand, if one places the emphasis on “I saw,” a second meaning is discovered, this time signifying the presence of “I,” that is, the storyteller. This too can be perceived as empirical but, more notably, as humanistic, for the manifested will to engage in an activity that will record the existence of oneself at a given time is a behavior unique to the human species.

What results from this innocuously curios act of paint-on-wall, then, is the radical evolutionary leap towards self-reflexivity, whereby an innate curiosity is cognitively mastered through creativity. Of course, this process has long been practiced by humans, but early-on it was strictly in the material sense, and motivated by survival at that. With the emergence of art, however, the human’s cognitive faculties began to operate within a more fundamentally psychological dimension, one motivated not by survival, but the acquirement of knowledge, especially as this knowledge relates to the human being. In other words, cave painting illustrates a primordial desire to understand reality–that is, the universe–and humanity’s place in it.

The primary questions which myth asks, then, are: What is the nature of reality, and why am I a part of it?

The narrative patterns that emerge from humanity’s collective efforts to answer these questions is myth. These patterns can be found not only in paintings (depictions of animals, hunting scenes), but also, more complexly, in the literary tradition. Herein lies my previous need to distinguish the “storytelling” canon from the “literary” one, since the literary, by its very nature, allows for a more immediate and elaborate representation of stories. We can count in these patterns, among others, creation stories, Campbell’s “monomyths,” earth/water mothers, etc. Most of us brought up with a classical education which included a relatively similar rubric of books are no longer surprised to find that the narrative elements of the Bible can be found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, can be found in the Popol Vuh, Homer, Shakespeare, Faulkner—you get the idea.

The last author mentioned beautifully described this intrinsic human need for myth during his Banquet Speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1949. Having discussed the paranoia bred by the Cold War, and the consequent nihilism of that milieu, he insisted that Man must remind Himself of “the old virtues and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice…[otherwise] His griefs grieve in no universal bones.”

All the “universal truths” Faulkner mentioned are major narrative forces of George Lucas’ epic saga: Anakin’s pride leading up to his metamorphosis into Darth Vader (The Revenge of the Sith, 2005), only for him to express compassion and pity in his final moments (The Return of the Jedi, 1983); the honor and love between friends that keeps the pack together through all manner of adversities (as in, say, Leia’s rescuing of Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, 1980); and, more recently, the sacrificial deaths from all of Rogue One’s (2016) major characters. Thus, The Last Jedi will be the latest installment of what can safely be called one of modernity’s greatest myths, for its treatment of these perennial themes has given it a universal appeal and, consequently, a formidable staying power worthy of mythic status.

In light of all this, the Reader (especially if they do not consider themselves a fan—on any level) may begin to appreciate the magnitude of cultural significance The Last Jedi is bound to have come this Christmas. Its inception into cinemas this December will call upon (as the best mythic tales often do) a mass gathering of people who will expect to be awed and moved and shocked and, on top of all these things, reminded of these universal truths, thereby permeating, if at least for a moment, a sense of solidarity among the masses which the cynical media eye will have us believe is practically nonexistent in modern times.

Too sentimental? Perhaps. Let’s just hope the film isn’t (i.e. don’t kill Rei yet, by far my favorite Star Wars character ever!).

P.S. You can watch the trailer here, for those of you who (for whatever reason) haven’t seen it yet.