Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sith blogging

It has to be done. Apologies in advance.

Episode IV and Episode III are not quite bookends in my life, but they're not far off. I was eleven when Star Wars came out, back before it was a franchise; my son is eight now, and saw Revenge of the Sith with me tonight. I told him afterward how much I wanted to be eight, or eleven, again, so that I could see this "episode" with the same easy suspension of disbelief that I'd been able to conjure up for the first/fourth "episode." (Obviously I didn't tell him the last clause of that sentence.)

Some random thoughts first:

  • It's surprising how many worlds in that galaxy far, far away can sustain abundant life without so much as an acre of arable land.
  • Hayden Christensen's eyebrows must have won him the role of Anakin. The eyebrows go a long way toward the whole "journey to the Dark Side" thing. And he's cute too, which helps in the tragedian sense.
  • Padme must have had a line on some incredible skin care products; not only has she not aged a day since she first met Anakin back when he was, what, seven years old [Update: nine] - but even when confronted with the knowledge that her beloved husband has embraced Evil, her lip gloss is noteworthily perfect.
  • Pregnant women long ago and far, far away obviously carried their unborn children either in a space warp of some kind or in checked luggage, based on Padme's delivery of twins the size of two-month-olds after having had such a tiny belly just the previous day that, from a distance, I thought the continuity people had messed up and forgotten to fit her with a belly at all. She was mighty light on her feet at that point, too.
  • If I were a Jedi, I think I would have led the charge to change the uniform. Flowing robes look cool but would undoubtedly twist around your lightsaber arm or flop over your face at the wrong moment in a pitched acrobatic battle.
  • But they do look cool, and on just about everyone. I want a cloak just like Obi-Wan's and Anakin's. The fabric, sadly, doesn't seem to hold up as well as the alloys that went into C3PO and R2D2, based on Ben Kenobi's disreputable appearance on Tatooine some eighteen years later. Possibly, though, he had to scrub it on rocks, which would take a toll on even the sturdiest material. [Update: And, come to think of it, Tatooine took a heck of a toll on Kenobi himself, didn't it?]
  • Everyone seemed really to enjoy hand-to-hand combat in this movie; every lightsaber battle involved smiles and laughter - admittedly a lot of it sinister, but Kenobi's grins caught the light in each fight scene I can recall.
  • Sword-fighting is hot, especially if you're good at it. Think of Inigo Montoya, of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans (who also showed the S.A. factor of long rifles), of Carey Elwes in both Princess Bride and, more so believe it or not, Robin Hood: Men In Tights. (Don't take my word for it - watch him.) Anakin and Obi-Wan, being the best sword-fighters in the piece (since the older Force-users tend to do more "send the Force toward the opponent with a rigid claw-like hand" maneuvers), clearly had training in both grace and deportment, and also in exhibiting an economy of movement bespeaking Utter Confidence and Total Competence. Whoo-ee!
  • Was that really Jimmy Smits? Huh. Jimmy Smits. Whaddaya know.
  • Mark Hamill wasn't all that bad, on balance - better in V than in IV, kind of odd in VI. Carrie Fisher was fine once she lost the accent with which she did the first fifteen minutes of IV. Hayden Christensen seemed to improve over the course of III's two hours, I think primarily because he had fewer quips and more eyebrow-work to deliver toward the end.

On to the substance of my comments: The first half hour or so of Sith had me alternately rolling my eyes and laughing out loud, but at some point after that I got in touch with my Greek tragedy side and realized that there was actually something very classical about this movie. (I'll resist calling it a "film" - Star Wars, never to be known as A New Hope no matter what kids today think, wasn't a "film" and no other movie in the series ought to claim that moniker lest it be seen as a social climber.) Here I shall announce -


...although anyone who cares at all can figure out the way things have to happen in III in order to make IV, V, and VI possible. So. Greek tragedy. There is a love affair, destined to end in death: the "best" possible death, too, for a tragedy - death in childbirth. There is a flawed hero, his pride and impetuousness destined to lead to his downfall. There is a prophecy, destined to be fulfilled by the flawed hero, who does eventually fulfill it but not... just... yet. There are demigods whose behavior is more noble than that of the gods, who - in this version - are almost all amoral and sinister. There is a terrible bargain, which draws our hero down the slippery slope of evil, his pride allowing him to believe that he'll be able to stop before he falls into the pit at its end.

Folks, it wasn't bad.

Episode III had to do three things. First, it had to explain all the loose-hanging plot points from IV, V, and VI. Check. Second, it had to have a story of its own. Check, though it was a bit of a stretch at the beginning. Third, and most importantly, it had to provide a credible reason for Anakin's transformation into Vader, along with a believable sequence of events carrying him through it. By resorting to the classical approach, Lucas actually pulled it off: the combination of love, a prescient vision of death, and a deal with the Devil to hold that death at bay - well, it worked for Frank Herbert in the second of the Dune trilogy, though he forced his hero to be heroic rather than flawed, and allow his love to die. In fact, it works every time, as a concept.

As screenwriting and acting, maybe not so much. I haven't seen Episode II (but I will now, just to complete the cycle); I understand the "love affair" between Padme and Anakin is not exactly Romeo and Juliet, or even Maddy Hayes and whatsisname on "Moonlighting." Knowing that the suspension of disbelief over that plot device alone was a big problem for many watchers, I was predisposed not to believe it too readily in this movie - and Natalie and Hayden didn't give me a lot of reason to change my mind. Still. Once I made up my mind that the story alone, even if fairly woodenly written and played, was enough to catch my interest and even tug at my heart a bit, I was able to enjoy how very beautiful Hayden and Natalie are, how dead she was going to end up and how disfigured and inwardly destroyed he was going to end up, how fantastically Alec Guinness played the older, weary Obi-Wan, his wisdom hard-won from years in the desert - who knew, back in 1977, that he'd turn out to have been so impulsive as a young Jedi? Makes you see his exhortations to Luke to be calm, be patient, let go, in a whole new light.

All right then. I return to my first statement: I wish I could have been eleven while I watched this movie; I would have been more credulous, certainly, but also more forgiving. Those of us who grew up with Star Wars have expected each episode to grow up with us. When I was a pre-teen, Star Wars was just right: black and white, good and evil with the good guys always winning in the end, never ever by cheating. The Empire Strikes Back hit in the fullness of my teens, getting the hook in good and deep about scoundrels: my first marriage might owe something to that darn conflicted Han Solo. Return of the Jedi reached me as I was graduating from high school, blurring the lines between right and wrong but still ending happily (all too happily, with those foolish teddy bears. Oh well).

But Episode I didn't come about for another sixteen years. Lucas made the right decision as a moneymaker to address it to a new generation of fans, keeping some character and story continuity to appease us oldsters, but in essence, it was aimed at the teenage me instead of the wife-and-mother-and-career-woman me. Was it the right decision as a filmmaker? Who am I to say? Because here's the thing: for all my pretensions, I couldn't have written this screenplay. It may be unsubtle and, at base, classically derivative upon analysis, but I couldn't have conceived of this as a solution to the threefold problems I mentioned a few paragraphs up. As Yoda might (but wouldn't) put it, smart am I, but create something such as this, I could not.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Standing in the breach

Long time no blog... Blame my sister and her fiance, whose impending nuptials are taking a good chunk of my free time. I don't grudge them a minute - but it does get in the way of my timeliness!

The recent Newsweek faux pas (if that isn't too innocuous a term for a mistake resulting in seventeen or so deaths and hundreds of injuries) has revived the languishing Abu Ghraib fiasco and a general sense, in the media, of distrust for the American military. I'm late to the table, but it's time for me to say my say on those who stand in the breach for us.

The U.S. military is heir to the British, of course. To understand all the implications of this inheritance is far beyond me, but some things are obvious: the British military was and is synonymous with honor and duty. That's not to say there haven't been wartime atrocities committed by the British, or by Americans; but these two and their "relatives," at any rate, explicitly rejected that earlier, longstanding military inheritance of rape and spoils as the proper right of the victor. The world has followed suit, at least publicly - but we can see the vestiges of prior custom among UN peacekeepers, for instance.

In America, the military still makes men - and women, these days. Rude, haphazard teenagers undergo a scant few weeks of basic training and begin to metamorphose, if they make it through; they stand straight, their clothes and shoes and hair and bodies are clean and neat, they know when to look someone in the eye and when to keep eyes front, and they begin to learn about esprit. They begin to learn that they are responsible not only for themselves but for the well-being of their entire unit, and that their unit is responsible for completing its mission, on which may ride the fate of many more civilians who do not or cannot wear the uniform. They learn appropriate pride - not vanity but a knowledge of their own worth and the worth of the guy next to them and, as well, the worth of the ones who would be undefended if not for them. Some military people may secretly - or not so secretly - look down on civilians, but at the same time they realize that the right to live as you wish, the essence of American civilianhood, is unutterably precious and worth fighting for.

Another inheritance: in old Britain, the military was a conduit between classes. More surely than through education, assassination, religious vocation, or simple deceit, a patient man could improve his family's lot by joining the Navy. Perhaps he himself might never achieve the officer corps, but his son could have that chance. And an officer could interact socially with almost anyone.

In the United States, the military was also a conduit from social ignominy "upward." More: it was, and still is in some areas, an absolutely unparallelled conduit from the generational poverty and despair suffered by some Americans of color, to something much better: the knowledge and the power of self-determination. There's nothing like knowing you are the primary author of your destiny to raise you from perceived victimhood to self-reliance, and many, many Americans of all ethnicities, including the white underclass that gets no play in popular media, have first experienced that knowledge when they joined up, made it through boot, sewed on the first stripes they earned, and passed in review surrounded by their new family. Not every member of the military becomes an automatic success, either in the military itself or later in the civilian world - but if the world into which you were born took it as given that you'd die in the bed you were born in, no better off than the squalling baby you once were, the military offers a stunning alternative that rests almost entirely on your own commitment to it.

Unfortunately it's not available to everyone. Because the mission of the military isn't to be a social program but rather is a serious obligation of government recognized even by libertarians, the disabled can't participate in it, at least not so far. Possibly as we are able to automate more and more of the work of war, some forms of physical disability in some areas may become irrelevant. Mental disability never will: there's no such thing as cannon fodder in America's infantry.

Aside from the almost complete absence of serious illness and disability (both are probably less common among military dependents than in the general population, I'd wager, because at least one parent has passed stringent physical and mental testing - and anyone who doesn't think that boot camp constitutes mental testing has never seen boot camp), the military world is a microcosm of society, with the tails of the curve cut off. There are good people and bad people, but not many saints or sociopaths. There are very smart people and not-so-smart people, but few supergeniuses (they're too nonconformist to cope with the conformity a military structure requires) and no clearly developmentally disabled people. Some are fundamentalist in their faiths; some are lukewarm; some are outright atheists. Crimes are committed, some types perhaps in greater proportion than in the civilian community; I'm preaching rather than reporting research here, but intuitively it seems obvious that that can happen when you select for wolves and reject dogs: the base level of aggression is higher in the military than in the civvie world as a whole, though not higher than in some civilian sectors (teamsters, police officers, any inner city). So there's domestic violence, assault, rape, murder - but these violent crimes are not as common as you might think, because of the self-discipline that is the underlayment of all military members' lives, not to mention the swift and sure judgment that's waiting for anyone who's caught. Neither is a guarantee of self-control, but both are strong deterrents.

Military service tends to run in families. I myself am a barren twig in this regard: my father was career military, but I decided not to join up because I was uncertain about whether I too would be willing to go career. In my seventeen-year-old mind, I was half afraid of how different military life might be from military dependence, and half mindful of the un-recouped cost of my training if I decided not to reup after my six post-training years. All right, maybe I was more than half afraid... Regardless, I turned down my best chance to follow in my dad's footsteps, and it's about the closest thing I have to a regret now. I can't truly regret it, because a different life after high school would have meant, well, a different life after high school, basically - and I love my husband and my kids and wouldn't trade them for anything. But I have a wide patriotic streak that I've never put sufficiently on display because of that decision half my life ago. And I hate being labelled a chickenhawk, because the stinging truth of it is that the chance to serve my country was in a letter in my hand and I passed it by. If I had had a crystal ball -

Futile speculation. I can't imagine not having my kids, not being married to the non-military guy I chose.

Moving on. American journalism seems to run, if not in families, then in classes - or at least the process of becoming a journalist seems to have predictable and homogeneous results, one of which seems to me to be passive voice-abuse. But more to the point, journalists who succeed in garnering a place in a major media organization seem to start from the premise that the American military is tantamount to the Roman military: killing for salt, looting for profit, raping for fun, torturing out of ignorant spite. It's frankly weird. It's like comparing a brand-new laptop to an abacus: they share one function - arithmetic, or war; and one physical characteristic - being rectangular, or being human. Yet the journalistic trade seems not to understand the distinction.

THe Hugh Hewitt interview with Terry Moran of ABC speaks to this strangeness. As Moran himself says, "There is, Hugh, I agree with you, a deep anti-military bias in the media. One that begins from the premise that the military must be lying, and that American projection of power around the world must be wrong. I think that that is a hangover from Vietnam, and I think it's very dangerous." That's a telling admission, I think.