Sunday, July 25, 2010

In Defense of the Star Wars Prequels

July 9th marked the wooden anniversary for the Japanese premiere of the final installment in the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. With that in mind, read on and return with me to the annals of discord that erupted during the years 1999-2005, and beyond.

In the aftermath of George Lucas's latest venture into box office supremacy, the world now finds itself with the freedom to view the entire Star Wars Saga as its creator would have it. Though, for a number of people, the prequels have marred the overall cinematic appeal of the Star Wars franchise often to an unforgivable extent—chock full of things that "shouldn't have been." But why is that exactly? It’s all still Star Wars isn't it? I'm almost disinclined to say anything further on the subject—as each person is entitled to their own opinion—but in regards to much of what is decried about the Star Wars prequels, it's not a matter of opinion, it’s a psychological condition. I call it "myopic vanity."

(Though, before I go on, I should define my terms a little bit. Myopic describes something or someone characterized by shortsightedness, or a lack of tolerance. Vanity can be defined as excessive pride in one's appearance or accomplishments, in this case one's overriding concept of the Star Wars' universe and the characters in it. Synonyms for vanity include conceit and egotism. Bear these in mind as you read the following.)

To start with, let's say it's a given that the prequels have somehow let down the original trilogy, which is really what the entire debate is about—comparing Episodes I, II, and III with Episodes IV, V, and VI. Now, if we were prudent about this we'd realize that the great crime here in comparing the prequels with the originals is that one is supposed to do everything the other did and in exactly the same way. This is true of a lot of things—the need for instant gratification. If it's not exactly the way we thought it was going to be, i.e. the prequels being like the originals, then we're disappointed. That seems a ruefully egotistic way to be. If we want to enjoy the original trilogy then we should sit down and enjoy the original trilogy; we shouldn't superimpose the same concept that we have of the classic trilogy onto the prequels and expect it to gratify us in the same way (that's almost masochistic). So it would seem the first step we need to take in reaffirming our like of the Saga as a whole is to properly relate the two trilogies to one another. The two trilogies serve to complement each other not compete with each other.

"How do they relate then, Mr. Know-It-All?" you ask. Well, the prequels exist successively to give greater meaning to the original trilogy. After all, they did start with Episode IV where the story really comes to a head, now didn't they? To take a different vein (pun intended) let’s compare the Saga with the Bible (*groan!* I know, but humor me). The prequels are to the Old Testament as the originals are to the New Testament. Any of them can be taken on their own, but this doesn't mean that the Gospels don’t benefit from having the Hebrew Bible there in order to set the stage and create a history of events whereupon a fuller story unfolds. In terms of Star Wars, the prequels do just that.

Now to some specific points.

Jar Jar Binks. Simply reading his name off the screen is enough to remind you of everything you may hate about this character. What's not to like about the Dennis Rodman of the Star Wars universe?! Well you're almost right, but consider C-3P0 for a moment. There's very little separating these two. They both speak a little oddly, both walk in a seemingly difficult manner, both stand out in a crowd, and both can garner the enmity of their surrounding fellows when situations are just right, (Jar Jar Binks with most; C-3P0 with R2-D2, Han Solo, and Leia betimes). Jar Jar's greatest fault is the fact that he is a poser (who ironically exists previous to everyone's favorite "Goldenrod," given the Saga’s canonical timeline), fulfilling C-3P0's narrative caste during his absence in the prequels. Through it all we like C-3P0 lightyears more than we do Jar Jar Binks, but I think few of us have come to dislike Jar Jar for any good reason other than to be conceited with our sensibilities. I'd wager that if Jar Jar had appeared in the original trilogy and C-3P0 had come stumbling on to the screen in Episode I, we all would have hated the slightly queer droid notwithstanding.

Qui-Gon Jinn. Not a name that usually comes up when listing qualms over the prequels, but if we’re going to examine new ways to approach the most controversial of characters, why not do the same for the polar opposite. I mean, isn’t it popular to be drawn toward calm, independent do-gooders, who are stern and not without a compassionate streak for the tweaked among us (here’s looking at you, Jar Jar!)? Well, first off, Jinn is an unabashed iconoclast. But he is also a model mentor, and realizes better than anyone the truer nature of things. In Episode I, Jinn says to Obi-Wan, “Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs.” In the present. Obi-Wan replies, “But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.” Throughout the film (and indeed, the prequels) the Jedi are overly concerned about the future in the form of a Sith resurgence, and maintaining the status quo. The Sith are overly concerned about the past and the wrongs the Jedi dealt them, and perpetuating their line. But neither can see the Force for the midi-chlorians. Not until Episode V does someone else even begin to speak of such things, “All his life has he looked away—to the future…” Yoda complains, lamenting about Luke in the midst of a Jedi-fueled rebuke. And how was Yoda reminded of this viewpoint? Episode III tells us it was Qui-Gon Jinn, who previously cautioned a young Obi-Wan against being too forward thinking by responding, “But not at the expense of the moment. Be mindful of the living Force.…” Here Jinn preaches balance, not to live too much in the past or the future. It’s not surprising then that balance is the focal point of his quest. Further illustrating his narrative reach is his position within the Jedi Order: not on the Council, but clearly not an outsider, Jinn occupies a theoretical middle ground, or a balance point, if you will. Thus, Qui-Gon Jinn-the-prophet’s narrative reach can be felt throughout the Saga, contrary to any vain stabs at downplaying his importance in comparison to the froglike-charm of Yoda, or the cowboy-cool of Han Solo.

Another thing that I've heard come up numerous times in regards to the prequels is the mishandled portrayal of Anakin. In The Phantom Menace we see Anakin as a child saying things like "Whoa!" and "Yippee!" as the story progresses, and suddenly we get a mental image of a giant piece of cheddar or a hunk of Swiss—not to mention that the boy comes off a bit too carefree and innocent to have ever developed into such a sinister figure as Darth Vader, right? Of course, our shortsighted conceits get the better of us, and we realize that not a single, solitary one of us as a child would have ever acted like that, and certainly no one else did either! How exactly are children supposed to act anyway? And as for Anakin's youth not adding up to shape a person into someone like Darth Vader, wouldn't we expect that for Anakin to make such a drastic change in his life—as we can tell is obviously the case simply by looking at Vader—it would follow that he'd develop from a childhood of stark contrast. When we live life at an extreme that's often because we've experienced life at the opposite end first. I don't know too many individuals who came out of the womb hating life only to hate it up until the point of their redemption. And remember, this is visual narrative—it makes for compelling storytelling to have your hero, however distorted he may become, emerge from unassuming circumstances. Anakin's story is the story of how a good person turns to evil, not necessarily why—which in and of itself is at the core logic of the nature of evil.

There is also a minor point to consider as an interlude between the two halves of Anakin's examination: movie titles. I remember there was some amount of negative hype about the title of Episode II, Attack of the Clones, and how it was campy, comical, or merely a poor choice. Again, our egotistic tunnel-vision gets in the way. Let's think then, what is the designation of the Star Wars movie that is commonly regarded as the best of the bunch? The Empire Strikes Back. Now let's compare the two titles, shall we? Both of the titles contain aggressive verbs, "Attack" and "Strikes," and presumably we like the latter word better, even though we're not apt to use either one of them in common speech unless we're a member of the military or watching baseball. The two subjects of the sentence, "Clones" and "Empire," are neither of them overtly objectionable and refer to the major impetus of their respective films. So what if we switched the verbs: "Strike of the Clones" and "The Empire Attacks Back"—suddenly the clones seem to be boycotting something and the Empire seems kind of childish. Of course, both titles are supposed to hearken back to the adventure serials of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s (a la Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Radar Men From The Moon), from which the Star Wars movies were partly inspired. My argument then is not that the titles are the greatest movie titles EVER—they're fine as they are—but why not accept "Attack of the Clones," which is an accurate title given what happens in the movie, when we have no problems with the naming of "The Empire Strikes Back?"

The other part about Anakin which rubbed people the wrong way has been his portrayal as a young adult and his relationship with Padmé Amidala. Much of what can be said in defense of Anakin as a young adult has already been touched upon in regards to his childhood, but without a doubt the best way for any of us to accept Anakin's "whiny" behavior in Episodes II and III is to recognize that deep down he is a weak person. That's right. The fellow who goes on to become Darth Vader, whom we all tend to guard with an aura of sacred "badassery," is a weak, flawed and ultimately needy individual—probably a lot like some of us. Someone who strives so very desperately for power and control over one's life, and often others', is bound to be weak at heart, needing that power as a crutch. He is flawed in that he allows his insecurities to dictate his outcome (likewise, Padmé is also insecure, though she manages it better than he behind her political career). That being said, Anakin's design as a flawed hero is a masterstroke, though it’s definitely not a novel idea. Of course, we'd rather kid ourselves about the whole thing and pretend Anakin was supposed to have a five-o'clock shadow, smoked and spit a lot, and was a cool, smooth sexual maestro 24/7.

Subsequently, his awkwardness at courting the fair senator can easily be explained. Anakin was an only child with no father figure, and as a slave came into contact with only one other female during his formative years: his mother Shmi. At one point he meets a beautiful young girl for whom he nurses an unhealthy infatuation. He is later accepted into the Jedi Order where intimate love is not expressed nor encouraged, meanwhile being pressured by all his male counterparts to pursue a coming-of-age ideal that he can never fulfill: that of the "Chosen One." His mentor struggles with honing Anakin's emotions, but instead young Skywalker resigns himself to keeping the most important of those—love—hidden. And perhaps the greatest influence is the confusion, albeit through warm fatherly support, that Chancellor Palpatine provides which ultimately causes Anakin to make rash decisions (to say nothing of the corrupting effects that the dark side is said to have on force-users). And yet we fault the movie for showing Anakin in a "creepy" light when it comes to romance. Incredibly, this is all a product of our failure to look around. We have become spoiled on seeing smooth operators who have all the right moves to get the ladies on the silver screen, and we project on to everything else that that's the way it's supposed to be. If we were truly honest with ourselves, however, we'd come to realize that a hip, polished approach to love is generally more fake than anything you'll see in Star Wars.

And then there are those flailing conversations about how General Grievous "sucked" in Episode III. Now, if you haven't seen the Clone Wars cartoon mini-series then this won’t be relevant to your enjoyment of the prequels at all, (scroll down at will). The complaint stems from the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi defeats the supposedly formidable Grievous without much difficulty, and single-handedly at that, whereas in the animated shorts he appears to be nigh-invincible even against multiple Jedi. So, let's consider what Grievous does in the fights where he appears scary-ga-nasty and figure out why that is. In the first ever on-screen instance in which we see Grievous (this being at the end of Clone Wars Volume 1), the Jedi are fleeing a losing battle during which the forces under their command were overmatched by Grievous's vast army and stinging strategy. Already the Jedi are suffering from fatigue and low morale, and on the verge of what seems like a suicidal last stand. In their minds they've already lost. Grievous then has his army surround the place where the Jedi are hiding, rather than blast them to pieces, and methodically goes about further demoralizing them with his nightmarish words and the echoing sounds of his heavy footsteps. When he finally does attack, wildly throwing himself at the beleaguered Jedi, he uses ambush tactics and unorthodox techniques to whittle away at them. Everything Grievous has done up to this point has helped to shape the coming battle with the Jedi, essentially making him out to be a much greater threat in the minds of his enemies than he truly is. To be sure though, he is no push over with his cyborg body and four arms wielding lightsabers. Yet our vanity causes us to stumble on the fact that someone "so badass" could possibly be taken down so easily. I mean, come on, you saw him take out like 50,000 Jedi right?! He could totally do that again anytime he wanted! Ultimately, the fight with Obi-Wan proves different. Kenobi turns the tables and employs the same brash tactics against Grievous that Grievous had used against other Jedi in the past. Here the Jedi benefit from hindsight. If Obi-Wan prevents Grievous from shaping the battlefield beforehand, i.e. by getting under Grievous' skin, the odds are even. Obi-Wan slices off two of Grievous's arms (something other Jedi may have considered doing but never had the confidence nor experienced the circumstances in which Grievous would make a mistake in order for them to do so), forces him to flee, and later blasts him to death. As it is, Grievous wasn't able to heed Dooku's advice against Master Kenobi (as taken from Clone Wars Volume 2): "You must have fear, surprise, and intimidation … you must break them [the Jedi] before you engage them.…" Even still, Obi-Wan, who it should be noted is a vaunted Jedi Master at this time, with numerous victories under his belt, takes his lumps in what some would classify a "lucky" victory.

There's perhaps another minor point that bothers probably 1 out of 4 people who watch the prequels: why are the Jedi unable to detect the Sith through the Force when the Sith's most powerful advocate, Darth Sidious, is so near them in the form of Palpatine? The simplest and perhaps most overlooked answer is that the ability of the Jedi to perceive things through the Force has diminished, as is stated by them in Episode I, offering the Dark Lord just enough of what he needs to get by. Though the problem with this explanation is its throw-away nature, its simplicity, and so too few people will be satisfied with the answer. Thusly, consider this. Using the Force, as depicted in the movies, requires a certain level of conscious will. Only when big, cataclysmic events occur (e.g. the Jedi purge in Ep. III, the destruction of Alderaan in Ep. IV) are tremors in the Force widely felt. Consequently, so long as Palpatine stays off the “Force radar” by not getting involved and casting no aspersions on himself, he keeps the Jedi effectively blind to his dealings. If we don't care for all this Force business though—which itself is a sign of vanity, considering that we're willing to accept all the other fantastical aspects of the Force save for this—suffice to say that Darth Sidious has perfected the trick of hiding in plain sight, and as a master strategist knows whom to cuddle up to, and whom to play against whom in an attempt to throw people off his scent, (all of which is evidenced through his role in the prequels).

In winding down, we find that probably the only thing remaining in our way of enjoying the prequels is the sometimes awkward acting. Now, I'm no theatre expert but even I can point out some places where the script or directing felt deflated or a particular mark wasn't hit to my liking. To combat this, I would suggest giving ourselves enough liberty to realize that this was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away! Since the movies are set in a different time and a different place we should approach it as such. The prequels are separated from the originals by 20-30 years. How were things different (strange, charming, off-putting, etc.) 20 or 30 years ago today? Thirty years before A New Hope came out was the burgeoning post-World War II era, a far cry from the cynical, free-love, acid rock era that preceded the 80s (and compare that with today). But does that make one any more valid than the other? Think about it in macro terms. If we thought about the manner in which different cultures throughout the world speak, look, and otherwise articulate themselves, I'm sure we'd find one or two that we thought were backward. But does that make us justified? Star Wars is grandiose; a grown-up fairy-tale; a space opera. It’s opera, for crying out loud! You don’t go to the opera expecting a football game (or a ballet recital, for that matter). For what it is, the acting is spot on. Star Wars is stylized melodrama with distinctive visuals, distinctive sounds, and distinctive portrayals that aim to deliver mythic themes wrapped in a more modern pulp-inspired spit and polish (say that five times fast!). After all, we shouldn't be vain enough to think that we're taking in a Shakespearean play—for that matter, the same people who dislike Star Wars prose may in fact hate Shakespeare!? (Did I mention there's room to be facetious here?) And lest we forget, the original Star Wars films were made in opposition to Hollywood at the time, when taut, strictly constructed "serious" dramas were the norm. Lucas's goal wasn't to make what's popular, but to create a new kind of popular. I'm certainly thankful Star Wars threw such aesthetic notions in reverse.

Whether you're indifferent, seething, giddy, or simply nodding your head a bit after having read this, my hope is that I've moved you in some small way, the prequels aside, regarding how our vanity and myopic views can keep us blind from enjoying what's around us. Being vain about the things around us can make us bitter and ruin relationships. For my money, I like the original trilogy a slice better than the prequels. And though I'd give the original trilogy by itself a solid "A", and the prequels alone would garner a gentleman's "B", together the two trilogies add up to make a complete saga that's nothing short of "A+". In the end, the world of Star Wars has been made a richer and better place, as a whole, because of the prequels.

Addendum (Posted 11/25/15): One final note on this subject, and dove-tailing nicely with the last paragraph above. Consider for a moment the creative ventures related to Star Wars that followed both the original trilogy and prequel trilogy, respectively. On the originals' side, we were gifted with the Star Wars Holiday Special, two made-for-TV Ewoks films, and the short-lived Star Wars: Droids cartoon series. All Star Wars, all highly forgettable, and all inspired from the originals. Compare those against the aforementioned Clone Wars mini-series, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars film and series, and Star Wars Rebels, birthed from events and characters set forth in the prequels. It doesn't take even a careful comparison to see that the prequels have done better for the brand following their release than the originals. In fact, I dare say we wouldn't be looking forward to enjoying Episodes VII, VIII, and IX if not for the prequels. 'Nuff said.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kanchou

Before and shortly after arriving in Japan, I was told about various peculiar Japanese, err..."customs," and to expect that I could be the subject of more than a few of them. The story that follows is true.

While in the school gym playing basketball one day, a couple Japanese second graders saw me dribbling the ball between my legs and were thoroughly gobsmacked. Of course, they immediately wanted to know if I could dunk, but even on an eight-foot hoop I'm a little undersized for such theatrics. I can dribble circles around second graders though! Soon there were a few more students joining the fray, and by fray I mean wild clusterf#@k of baying mouths and swinging arms as the grade-schoolers set about trying to steal the ball from me. It bears repeating that there were six or seven of them and only one of me, and their knowledge of what constituted a foul could often be interpreted as anything short of striking the body. (I guess you can take the kid out of the karate, but you can't take the karate out of the kid.) As their efforts continued to prove fruitless, a few of them would cling to my legs as a means of slowing my foot-speed. Some would tug at my shirt, or fetch HulaHoops to throw in front of me or to use as a giant collar for capture purposes. Each time it got out of hand I'd stop the play and remind them of what is and isn't acceptable. I shouldn't have encouraged them so. Finally, they cornered me at one end of the gym and I sat down on some steps leading up to the stage behind us. I took the ball in both hands, holding it tight—a nonverbal challenge inviting them to try and strip it from me. Three, four, five, even all of them tugging and pounding on the ball wouldn't reward them with its freedom. The weight of their overeager bodies pressed me into a diagonal position lying on the steps, and I think a few more students who hadn't been playing "basketball keep-away" suddenly joined in when they saw it had become "gang-pile on Eigo-sensei". Now it was ON! There was no way I was letting these little kids beat me! Then...AHHHaHa! For the onomatopoeically-impaired, that's sudden alarm followed by wounded laughter. I had been kanchou'ed! With that, the ball was put away, and the students learned exactly how far they could take things before our game was brought to an end.

A few months later, I'm strolling down the hallway and a group of third graders notice me coming toward them. (Virtually every time I'm seen by grade school kids in the hallways, their inevitable response is, "O! Ransu-sensei!" like they've spotted an animal in the wild or their favorite TV show just came on.) I catch up to the kids and they sort of just stare at me as I pass. I suddenly stop walking and hold perfectly still. I can hear them jolt behind me, "E?" One of them comes around to check my face and is amazed to find me holding still, not even blinking. They chatter amongst themselves, unsure of what to do. The hardest part is keeping from smiling as I notice them prod my arm then move it to a new position, still frozen in space, and then gasp collectively. Then it's my turn to gasp, only privately and not without a sting of embarrassment. Kanchou'ed again! I turned around and grabbed the little squirt to deliver a gentle swat on the bee-hind, turn about (well, sort of) being fair play!

So, what's a kanchou? It's the Japanese equivalent of a wedgie, but in the same ballpark as a corndog or a tity-twister in America. Your basic juvenile mischief often associated with horsing around or physical play. They're not administered with maliciousness, though they're also not accepted in public settings and polite society. Reasonably enough, the students haven't made a habit of this, and it seems only the very young would make the mistake of pulling this prank on someone they didn't know all that well.

So far so good, Japan! ;)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Most Dangerous Game - Japanese Edition!

I'm being hunted for sport!

There are places in Japan where someone like me takes his life into his hands each and every time he ventures into such places. Visible heat waves waft up from the ground in these locations. Scorched earth. Pockmarked here and there. The smell of tar and hot rubber never far away. Tons of rolling steel parade about the circus. Fleshy loads encased within. Noxious fumes lifting into the air. It is a place of decisive action and deliberation. Of careful calculation and consternation. Near to bursting by day. A vacant landscape by night.

Parking lots, of course. The Japanese variety. You go first!

Called chuushajou in Japanese, I am convinced these are the most dangerous places in all of Japan. On two separate occasions, drivers here in Oirase Town have very nearly pancaked me in the parking lot. I don't know what else to call it except attempted manslaughter. Can Japanese people see out of their car windows?

Both times this occurred I was moving across the Universe parking lot next door to my apartment. It's a small lot that can hold maybe 70 to 80 vehicles at a time. The first time, I was walking through the lot on my way into the store. I had already been told about the unforeseen dangers of the Japanese parking lot by my fellow ALT, Ruairi, and so knew to be on my toes, but I knew where I was going and it wasn't far away so I didn't bother to fire a flare off before entering the danger zone (cue Kenny Loggins!). Then it almost hit me. Like a vehicular ninja, this minivan backs out toward me like he is coming off starter blocks. My only recourse was to turn on one heel and spin backward (Reflex save) in the direction I was heading to avoid that face-on-fiberglass feel. I swear, the driver had nooo idea I was there, just kept on rolling out of the stall and on his merry way like nothing happened. And nothing did happen, I suppose. (But this guy must have been a rebel or something, because he actually backed out of a car stall, something most Japanese drivers are loath to do as they much prefer to back in—making the prospect of walking behind a stall no less dangerous.)

Rule the First: You have to watch out for them, they don't watch out for you.

The other time I wasn't even technically in the parking lot, more like on the periphery. I was returning home from the office, and each day I have to walk in front of two entrances to the Universe parking lot as I proceed to my apartment. Ahead of me I can see some slow moving traffic flowing into and out of the lot, so I wait for a break in the traffic large enough for me to cross. (And surface streets are downright narrow in Oirase, two-way width rarely approaching anything greater than single lane.) Ah, there we go, plenty of room. I'm clearly moving now, in plain sight, and everyone has passed so no one is waiting on me as I cross. Then it comes out of no where. Well, that's not true. I saw the oncoming car plainly enough, but apparently she didn't see me. WA-DUMP! No, I hadn't just bounced off the hood of the car, but I did hear something thump around inside the driver's trunk as she was forced to press on the brakes. I thought I heard her mutter an apology (or maybe a mild rebuke) as I calmly continued on my way, not exactly resigned to my inevitable fate but too coolly disinterested to stop and gesticulate in alarm. I just queried an eyebrow in her direction and ambled on (though it might have been because I pooped).

Rule the Last: When in or near a Japanese parking lot, drivers behave like ghosts from Super Mario World—they only move toward you if you're not looking.

Needless to say, you roll the dice each and every time you step onto a Japanese parking lot.

Sunday, July 4, 2010