MyAmericanFuture

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

May 25, 2017: Star Wars Studying: Yoda, Luke, and Love



[May 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars film (it wasn’t titled A New Hope at that point!). So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. Share your own different points of view for a force-full crowd-sourced weekend post, my fellow padawan learners!]
On what the wisest Jedi Master got very wrong, and why the opposite lesson matters so much.
As the dutiful father to two Star Wars-obsessed sons, I’ve now watched the prequel trilogy many more times than I would have ever chosen to on my own (once was more than enough, to be honest). If I had to pin down the precise scene that epitomizes the failings of those three films, I would point not to obvious choices like Jar Jar Binks or “I don’t like sand” (although yes and yes), but instead to this weighty conversation between Yoda and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) in Revenge of the Sith. For one thing, this CGI-version of Yoda looks infinitely less real than did the original trilogy’s puppet; I know we’re talking about a puppet green alien, but the scene is meant to be hugely emotional, and the feel of the characters matters. But more importantly, Yoda’s response to and advice for Anakin in this scene are uniformly terrible; this young man is terrified of losing a loved one, and Yoda tells him that the way of the Force and Jedi mean he should be happy if those he loves dies. Even if that’s officially true, Yoda should be able to sense how much it’s the opposite of what Anakin needs to hear at this moment; that he can’t makes me second-guess his role as Jedi Master and teacher to Luke in the original trilogy as well (and thus, yes, slightly ruins my childhood).
But the thing is, Yoda isn’t just wrong here about human nature or what the immensely powerful and deeply frightened young man sitting before him desperately needs; he’s also wrong about the Force and the Jedi. My evidence? None other than Luke Skywalker, and the most important actions in the entire series to date: those that result in turning Darth Vader back to the light side, destroying the Emperor, and helping save the universe. Luke took all those actions because he still loved his father and sensed the reciprocal love in him (despite Yoda’s assertion that Jedi aren’t supposed to love), and because he didn’t want to let his father (or his sister Leia, friend Han, and other loved ones) die without trying to save him. And Darth responded in kind for the same reasons: he did in fact still love his son, and didn’t want to let him die when the Emperor was on the brink of killing him. All of these most heroic actions are driven by precisely the kinds of deep and defining emotions that Yoda had argued are antithetical to the Jedi Order—and yet who could possibly argue with Luke when he says, amidst that final confrontation with the Emperor and shortly before his father saves him, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me”?
My point here isn’t just to argue with Yoda or display the silliness of the prequels (although if you watch them as much as I have, you’ll understand both impulses, I assure you). No, my point is that the Force itself, as portrayed by the original trilogy (and almost entirely misunderstood by the prequels), is quite literally love. That might seem mushy or reductive, but I think it’s actually a great lens through which to analyze what motivates some of the most vital and heroic characters in epic fantasy stories: Sam’s love for Frodo; Severus Snape’s love for Lily (Evans) Potter; Willow Ufgood’s love for Elora Danan; and the list goes on. On the one hand, this recurring storytelling thread grounds and humanizes these fantastic stories, linking them to one of the most shared and universal elements of our humanity. But at the same time, the thread elevates love, making it into a force that can change and shape and save worlds, can defeat the most powerful evils. Seen in this light, the ubiquitous family relationships between so many characters in the Star Wars universe aren’t just coincidence or storytelling shorthand; they’re a symbolic reflection of the love that links us to one another, that “surrounds us, and penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.” A lesson Yoda, like all of us, could stand to learn.
Last StarWarsStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

May 24, 2017: Star Wars Studying: Rogue One, Diversity, and War



[May 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars film (it wasn’t titled A New Hope at that point!). So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. Share your own different points of view for a force-full crowd-sourced weekend post, my fellow padawan learners!]
On two ways the newest Star Wars film pushed the envelope for the series.
In many ways, the diverse characters and casting for last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) seem to parallel and extend what I said in yesterday’s post about The Force Awakens (2015). Both films feature a strong female protagonist, with Rogue’s Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) helping Force’s Rey (Daisy Ridley) bring the series into a new millennium of equal opportunity gender heroism. Both surround that lead actor with impressively multi-national and –ethnic supporting casts, with Rogue spotlighting Pakistani British actor and rapper Riz Ahmed, Mexican actor and director Diego Luna, Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen, and Chinese actor and director Wen Jiang. And both have inspired similarly aggrieved reactions from sexist and white supremacist Star Wars “fans,” although it seems to me that the critiques of Rogue One were less prominent or loud than the prior year’s had been; perhaps the bigots have resigned themselves to the fact that this 21st century version of Star Wars is going to reflect the diverse global society in and for which it’s being created (although we’ll see how they handle an Asian American actress playing The Last Jedi’s “biggest new part”).
Yet I would argue that in one important respect Rogue One’s diversity differed from, or at the very least significantly deepened, that of Force Awakens. For whatever reason, both of the main actors in Force Awakens (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) didn’t use their natural English accents in the film, rendering their characters somewhat less diverse (or at least more ethnically neutral, let’s say) than the actors behind them. Whereas in Rogue One, Luna, Yen, and Jiang all speak English with their natural accents, opening up a window into a Star Wars universe where characters don’t just look ethnically different (although even there Rogue presents fuller diversity than any Star Wars film before it), they also sound it, at least suggesting a multi-lingual side to that universe. That might sound like a small or insignificant change, but to argue otherwise I would highlight this amazing story, shared by Luna himself on his Twitter account, of a Mexican American young woman who brought her Mexican immigrant father to see the film and then wrote about the experience on tumblr. Or I could share Luna’s own perspective on why it was important to keep his accent for the character, as a critical element to the diverse identity and universe he reflects. For those and other reasons, the accents in Rogue One represent a new side to the series, and they matter.
[SERIOUS SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] In a different but not unrelated way, I believe that Rogue One’s shifts in genre and tone from all other Star Wars films also matter. Of course “war” has been a part of the series all along, but one modified by “star,” producing a space opera or Flash Gordon serial version of war. Of course major characters/heroes have died throughout the films, but generally those deaths were of older characters whose time had come (Obi Wan, Yoda, Darth Vader/Anakin, Qui Gon), and whose deaths were thus not particularly traumatic for young audiences (Padmé being a definite exception, and Mace Windu at least a partial one; Revenge of the Sith is a pretty bleak film). Rogue One is a much grittier kind of war film, however—from the “suicide mission” sub-genre of war films, no less—and the uniformly tragic fates of all of its major heroic characters reflects that distinct genre and tone. I don’t mean to suggest that the other Star Wars films don’t have sad or dark elements, but I think it’s also telling that their young protagonists all survive; that none of Rogue One’s do is, to my mind, the precise reason why my sons have said that they love the film but “it’s really sad” (not something they’ve ever sad of any other Star Wars film, even Sith). As a result, Rogue One has brought the Star Wars universe and its audiences, perhaps especially its youthful audiences, into a very different universe and vision of war, just one more way this newest film has profoundly changed the series.
Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

May 23, 2017: Star Wars Studying: The Force Awakens and Marketing



[May 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars film (it wasn’t titled A New Hope at that point!). So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. Share your own different points of view for a force-full crowd-sourced weekend post, my fellow padawan learners!]
Two of the things this AmericanStudier loves most about the first film in the new Star Wars trilogy, and one that worries me a bit.
I initially wrote about the “transnational force” at the heart of the Star Wars saga more than five years ago in this space, long before John Boyega and Daisy Ridley had been cast as the leads in a new trilogy (and Lupita Nyongo’o had been cast in a role that, without spoiling too much, could be called the Yoda of that new series). I stand by my argument that the films have always been cross-cultural in important ways; but at the same time, there’s no disputing that the world of the original trilogy was extremely white (smooth-talking space pirate Lando Calrissian notwithstanding). Moreover, while Carrie Fisher’s Leia was certainly an impressive heroine in many ways, she was also, quite literally, the clichéd princess in need of rescue whose plea for help set the entire first film and trilogy in motion. So to sit next to my 10 and 8 year old sons in December 2015 while they watched a Star Wars movie in which Boyega and Ridley were the unquestionable, kickass, and entirely equal leads was, to put it mildly, a wonderful experience for this AmericanStudier. Take that, haters!
I watched The Force Awakens that first time with not only my sons, but also my Mom and Dad, and that multi-generational viewing experience was just as inspiring. While once again trying to avoid spoilers (for the three people who haven’t yet seen Force Awakens—get on it before December, folks!), I’ll note that the new film is deeply and powerfully focused on the relationships between the past and the future, including an emphasis on family bonds but also and most centrally through its pitch-perfect balance (in casting and character arcs, script and storytelling, plot and action, and much else) of the familiar and the new, of callbacks to the original films and fresh directions for the saga. In a world where my boys’ favorite toys (the Skylanders) were both created within the last ten years and utilize an innovative gaming technology I could never have imagined as a kid (and which has spun off into app games that they play on an iPad, about every detail of which ditto), to have a cultural text that can so fully and successfully unite 1977 and 2017 is nothing short of incredible. To paraphrase E.B. White’s great “Once More to the Lake,” I wasn’t entirely sure, sitting in that theater, whether I was myself, my sons, or my parents—and that’s a feeling we should all get to experience!
My only problem with that Force Awakens theatrical experience had nothing to do with the film itself, and yet represents the one thing about it and Star Wars in 2017 that worries me. Before the movie began, there was the usual 10 minutes of commercials (before the usual 15 minutes of trailers), and I would say that about 9 of those advertising minutes featured Star Wars tie-ins. It felt at the time (and again this past December when Rogue One was released) like a roughly similar percentage of the TV and radio ads I encountered were part of the film’s merchandising empire. Star Wars has always had its share of associated products (writes the AmericanStudier who literally had a deal with a local store’s toy department to get a call every time a new Ewok figure was released), but it feels to me that Lucasfilm’s purchase by Disney has amplified those commercial and marketing campaigns many times over. I want to be clear that I’m extremely grateful that the company has made this new series of films (and all those aforementioned positive effects) possible. But I do worry that this all-out marketing blitz has the potential to make Star Wars into just another product, rather than the cross-cultural, multi-generational story that has endured so potently for nearly half a century.
Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?