Star Wars: An Unsolicted Screed

Today’s thoughts are on Star Wars. Full disclosure: I have seen a total of two Star Wars movies, this year’s The Last Jedi and last year’s Rogue One, so I’m coming into this with as a novice who is not nostalgic about the series. I am not qualified to comment on the Star Wars universe or the sprawling generations of characters it entails. This is also a randomized collection of thoughts and impressions about the movie; I’m not trying to make a definitive statement about its artistic value, narrative quality, or any other aspect. This is just me talking about the stand-alone movie I saw last night.

THIS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Rey: This is an unmoored character. We never really nail down where she comes from or what she’s doing. There’s some dialogue chatter about her parents selling her off, but there’s a big gap between that statement and how she ended up a Jedi trainee in the Resistance. What makes her so passionate about this? Why doesn’t she align her loyalty with the Empire? They’re the ones with power, which is what an unempowered kid from nowhere wants. She seems pretty evenly split between Dark and Force anyway, so why not break for the more advantageous choice? Luke had a good line of questioning when persisted with the question, “Why are *you* here?” It’s probably the most interesting question of the whole movie, but it never gets answered.

Speaking of Dark and Force…what’s up with the psychic connection between her and Kylo? I at first assumed they were supposed to be separated siblings, a la Luke and Leia, then maybe potential lovers, but I guess they just share a vibe or something? Have they ever even met in person? Do they know who the other is? Snoke was playing them off each other in order to do…something?

Mediation is so easy for Rey! She plops down into the lotus pose and “reaches out with her feelings” and—bazinga!—she starts seeing the Force and all that it entails. As someone who has tried meditating at great length…I call bullshit. Even a talented Jedi novitiate is going to struggle to learn this skill.

Cliffs: There are so many cliffs in this movie! People are constantly plunging off them, scaling up them, spearfishing from them, staging great battles in front of them…Wowzers, that’s a lot of cliffs. Vertical space is a huge visual theme. The bomber ships are vertically elongated, the cliffs are everywhere, the cameras shoot the spaceships framed against the planets to emphasize the long fall down, the sense of dropping off into space (which on earth is a falling/gravity experience)…vertigo must be a real problem for these folks. Am I seeing too deeply into this to wonder if the sharp drop-offs represent the light/dark, good/evil binary of the whole series?

Alien creatures: I will grant that this is a fantasy universe where earth laws do not apply. But I want to know more about some of these animals. Luke milks a sea monster. Aren’t sea monsters reptiles? Also, why does it come to shore to be milked? Is this a tame/domesticated livestock species? The crystal critters are glass-furred foxes. Cool!!!

The Fatheirs are cool-looking, somewhere between a rabbit and okapi. I mostly wanted to see their feet. The filmmakers didn’t show us if they have paws or hoofs, which I want to know. The Fatheirs are also a nice example of the filmmakers dropping stories after the bare minimum of resolution. The Fatheirs are released from the stable and turned loose on the wild grasslands (near a cliff!!!). In reality, these valuable racing creatures are not going to just “go free” as Rose tells them to. They’ll be rounded up ASAP and returned to their stalls in time for the next race. Just as Rey doesn’t get a fleshed-out backstory (yet, anyway), these creatures don’t get a plausible ending. Also, the scientist/total jerk in me has to say that any racing animal will not have such a brachiocephalic/foreshortened face. Pugs don’t run because they can’t breathe. Greyhounds run because they can. The difference is in respiratory anatomy like roomy sinuses.

The porgs are cute. They remind me a lot of the chickens in the Muppet series. They don’t talk or really do anything other than occupy space. The bid for merchandising is a little too heavy-handed for my taste, but if they can spur action to protect habitat for actual earth species like puffins…I’m all for it! Bring on the porgs!

There are many anthropomorphic beings that interact with humans as rivals and equals. They come in hugely diverse morphologies. The scientist/total jerk in me demands to know what’s up with this! Form follows function. If each of these entities looks the way they do because of the functions they need to perform…their functions would be dramatically different than those of the garden-variety humans that they’re interacting with. For instance…large ears are for gathering sound or dispersing heat. Absent those demands, a species will not invest energy in developing large ears. Unless they’re for a mating display, in which case all bets are off.

Puppets: (!) I love puppets! And this movie has them! There’s a cameo by Yoda (the incomparable Frank Oz!) and several other of the alien creatures are rendered in old-fashioned, hand-operated puppets, or at least, CGI renderings that look real to my eyes. In the constant onslaught of CGI workmanship, it’s refreshing to have a bit of manual magic to cleanse the palate and brighten the mind. (Aside: puppets and drag queens have a lot in common. Both are known to not be what they present as, but we all want and choose to believe in them anyway. The spirit of that belief brings them to life.)

Cinematography: There is some truly lovely cinematography in this movie. The heroine bombardier’s face framed against the grid of metal flooring, the salt flats battle unfolding in a lacework of scarlet lines, the repetition and motif of the iconic storm troopers abstract white shapes…it’s easy on the eyes. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of CGI; as a live-theater geek, I prefer to see magic conjured out of thin air rather than pixels. But the CGI work in this movie is its own art and the results are often breathtaking.

Kylo: This is another character that I might have more investment in if I were passionate about the series. He seems kind of whiny. If he’s got so much Force and is so deeply into the Dark, I’d think he’d exhibit more blunt-force (no pun intended) cruelty. Instead, he seems cowed by Snoke. I’d also like to see him do some combat with Snoke, not just mind-trick the light saber to “on” and slice Snoke in half. This is about as satisfying as prompting your Amazon Echo to evict an intruder. It’s cool, but it’s not viscerally satisfying. Where’s Spartacus when you need him?! However, this is also Adam Driver. I could watch him stand center stage and eat an apple for 60 minutes and find it riveting. So there’s that.

Snarky dialogue: I loved this part! I loved watching Mark Hamill eat a huge bowl of fun while making this movie. His character was once the crown prince of the universe and now he’s a washed-up old man whose dreams have died. Is it any wonder that he’s snarky and skeptical and little inclined to help? If these movies could use anything, it’s more levity. I’d love to see come some comic scenarios drawn from human awkwardness and *realness*, you know, character interactions. But maybe snarky dialogue is a good start. I especially enjoyed Oscar Isaac’s flyboy character needling the Empire general. Great character sketching in how the general responds and the fragility of technology playing into his understanding of what is happening. Also, I kept hearing his name as “Hugs” instead of “Hux” or whatever it was. Which made everything funnier. General Hugs.

The best line of the movie came from Kylo commanding that his men shoot down the Resistance ship. “Shoot that piece of junk out of the sky!” Because I’m sure he uses the four-letter word “junk” a lot.

Weird kiss: Finn and Rose have a weirdo kiss at the end—is a theme for Star Wars?

Hairstyles: Leia’s hair looks badass!!! Rey’s hair is an homage to previous Star Wars heroines. I’d love to see some weird dude hair going on. Oscar Isaac has plenty of it, so let’s start there. (Speaking of Oscar Isaac…I’ll take a slice of that for breakfast.) Also, Laura Dern, as the vice-admiral, has purple hair. She’s the only human who has non-natural hair coloring. Wat?? Why did they choose this, other than maybe to just have fun, in which case I’m all about it.

Diversity: This movie contains lots of characters who look different from each other. Yay! I particularly like seeing Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern being badass old ladies together. Their friendship is clearly long and dear. May their kind prosper and command many armies! The vice-admiral hyperspacing the ship into the Empire’s to destroy it was a totally awesome move, too. For further discussion: was there or was there not sexual tension between Larua Dern and Oscar Isacc’s characters? If I were a betting woman, I’d say that he totally wanted to bang her. I’d say she wouldn’t be entirely opposed to the idea. And I say go for it! It would have added an interesting human dimension to an otherwise power-dominated relationship.

Apropos of nothing, Laura Dern also played in Jurassic Park, another movie full of huge animatronic creatures.

Benicio Del Toro: He did a fine job in his role as an apolitical mercenary. This is the one character that made the most sense to me; after decades of conflict, he recognizes that there’s no longer a clear-cut good guy or bad guy, so he’s committed to every man for himself. Going back to diversity, I’d love to see his character be female. We see lots of female villains as *domestic* villains such as evil stepmothers, shrewish wives, sexual temptresses, etc. We rarely see a big, bold, complicated female character who makes mercenary choices for her own benefit, not that of any noble cause or personal love. Let’s make the next Captain Mal from Firefly or Del Toro’s DJ a woman!

Final Thoughts: After at least 40 years of fighting, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It’s never been explained to me why the Empire is so awful. The rulers have bad skin and wear a lot of black, but otherwise I don’t see any concrete evidence that their rule is any worse than that of whatever alternative the Republic is offering. There’s a good exploration of this here https://www.theringer.com/…/star-wars-the-last-jedi-militar…Again, why doesn’t Rey join the winning team, since the Dark and the Force all balance each other out in the end? Why doesn’t Kylo do what he’s good at and thrive in the Dark? What’s the ultimate policy difference between the two for the laymen on small planets?

I also want lots more relationships in this movie. The human relationships are sparse. Surely, Leia knows that her son is the new villain…where’s the scene where we see her wrestle with that fact and her role in it coming to pass? Does she not have a qualm about destroying the Empire’s ships when it’s likely that this will kill her son? Since I don’t really understand why the two armies are fighting, I’d love to see how people are able to function and live out their lives and interactions under the constant state of war, a relatable scenario for Millennials around the world.

As a comedy writer, I would love to see a movie where Kylo and Leia are not estranged, yet neither understand what the other is up to, much like my text messages with my parents. Kylo sends a message update to his mom, who knows only that he’s away at college. She responds with news that she’s busy at work, but he doesn’t fully understand what her work is.

And finally, as an ever-and-always-serialized franchise member, this movie leaves me unsatisfied because it’s just another chunk of the middle (see the Ringer article). The Resistance/Republic can never win because then the series would have to end. Conquest is sexier than governance. Nobody is going to make a film about the Republic establishing the rule of law and a criminal justice system. #boring #noexplosions I want the narrative to make some ground and change. The end of the movie should have a new normal established and this fails to do that.

Unsolicited Screed on Wonder Woman

I watched Wonder Woman last night. I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. It was better than my expectations. The following are my thoughts on it, in no particular order. If you’re among my many friends who like superheroes, I’d love to hear your responses. (Caution: this may contain spoilers!)

*Wonder Woman never gets named. She is referred to as “Diana.” Will she get her name in later episodes?

*Diana actually wears quite a lot of clothes. This is a nice touch. Her battle garb covers her butt, boobs and midriff and we never see her in less than that. We do, however, get a full shot of a naked Chris Pine (Thanks, Ms. Jenkins!). This movie is clearly trying to be a female-power endeavor and that includes not dressing the heroine is skimpy lingerie and instead offering up a hefty slice of American beefcake.

*During the naked-Chris scene, he is asked if he is physically “typical.” He responds that he is “above average.” But he then proceeds to climb out of the bathtub, fulling shielding his genitalia with one hand. Either his paws are the size of Paul Bunyan’s, or maybe he’s more “average” than he admits.

*Diana’s footwear is a puzzle. She walks around in stiletto heels in the opening/closing scenes, which I understand is a bone thrown to the aesthetics of making a heroine be (modern-definition) sexy. But during battle she wears wedge-heeled boots. I expect that a goddess raised exclusively among Amazons would wear flats (having no need to conform to the male gaze’s concept of sexual appeal) or proper square-heeled riding boots, for galloping around on horses. Wedges are better than stilettos, but I still wouldn’t wear them on a long walk, much less in the trenches of battle.

*Diana is a badass Amazon warrior, but she’s also a total ingénue. The leading man, of course, falls in love with her. I get that this is a comic-book genre and a fantasy movie, and an origin story to boot, but I’m not crazy about this portrayal. Diana is made out to straddle the virgin/whore dichotomy that is so often imposed on women in real life. She’s a brutal warrior and a total innocent. She’s an adult woman with the complete naiveté of a child. She’s not really Wonder Woman…she’s Goddess Girl. Why can’t the heroine be a complete woman, a wholly-adult female? Why can’t the leading man fall for a woman who understands complexity because she has lived a complex life and understands that losses accompany gains?

Building on this, it’s pretty trite that the desirable man in the film is desirable because he has worldly experience and savvy. The desirable woman in the film is desirable exactly because she doesn’t. The man, yet again, gets to introduce his guileless ward to the Great World and eventually the adult plane of experiential sexuality. I’d love to see this role reversed. (This being said, I’m willing to cut the filmmakers some slack on this one, because it *is* an origin story. Even a badass Amazon warrior has to start somewhere, in life and love.)

*This is a movie about a female superhero. Yay! But it’s not actually all that female. The men in the movie get as much screen time as the women. This is considered “female-led,” when it’s really more like “gender-balanced.” Chris Pine spends a lot of time having his own dialogue and scenes without Diana around. The three amigos who help out with the finale’s raid are all men. The armies, of course, are entirely men, as are the generals, politicians and the major villains. In male-hero action movies, the women get a tiny fraction of the screen time and speaking roles that the men in this female-hero action movie do. However, there is a minor female villain, which I appreciate. It’s equally rare to see a skilled female villain (whose villainy is not somehow connected to sexual manipulation) as it is to see a powerful female hero.

*The Amazons live on a remote and isolated island. Their duty is to protect and save Humankind. How does that work out with them being on a remote and isolated island? Shouldn’t they be closer to the action? Also, Robin Wright is hot; always has been, always will be.

*The movie is set during World War I, which is an interesting choice. Modern enough to have pyrotechnics and airplanes, but just old enough that you can plausibly have the heroes galloping around on horseback, as an Amazon should do.

*Diana goes to a ball wearing a gauzy, wispy gown with a four-foot sword stuffed down the back of it, hilt reaching up between her flawless shoulder blades. The villain grabs her around the waist to hijack her into dancing. How does he not feel/comment on the sword? How does that unstructured dress hold up what must be 15 pounds of steel?

*The movie makes some bold choices. Diana kills a man by stabbing him through the heart after he’s pinned and subdued. Women don’t often get to do this kind of stuff in movies; usually, they’re reserved for binding wounds, dispensing wisdom, and occasionally allowing a beaten foe to keep his life because of her mercy. A bloody kill is a singular event. Also, the Chris Pine character blows up a plane, knowing that he will die inside of it, to protect many others. Another bold choice by the filmmakers. The love interest dies and the heroine lives ever after, in what appears to be a successful and well-adjusted life.

*Diana is considered brave by her companions because of her bold actions. But in the beginning she’s not brave; she’s ignorant. She doesn’t understand the possibility of failure or injury or grievous costs. It takes no courage to walk through a snake pit, if you have no clue that snakes are venomous.(She becomes more brave, in my opinion, as the movie progresses and she begins to see that her ideas about how the world works are wrong. She’s starting to grow up.)

*Eyeliner. It’s a girl’s best friend, even if you’re a goddess superhero.

*White people. We’re still front and center. There are a few people-of-color in minor supporting roles. One is the Native American buddy in the finale raid. His story of how he got to the Western Front is probably more interesting than Diana’s. (He’s not a regular soldier and the movie is set close to the era of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show that toured Europe. Could there be a connection?) He’s male, but he’s non-white, so I’ll give him a pass on shouldering a lead role if someone wants to write that story as a screenplay.

What are your thoughts, dear readers?

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Netflix can be a mindless sinkhole of pointless timesuck. I admit to watching hundreds of hours of repetitive and dim-wittedly-narrated nature “documentaries” that sounds like anthropomorphic action movies (“Leopard Fight Club!” “Race of Life!”). It can also prompt unusual discoveries and its algorithm might nudge you toward subsurface interests that you didn’t know that you even had (“Rupaul’s Drag Race,” “The Physics of Light”). This last week, Netflix queued me up to watch “One of Us,” a documentary about young adults attempting to leave an Ultra-Orthodox community of Hasidic Jews in New York City.

 I can’t say that my interest in deconversion from religion was exactly subsurface: it’s been a main theme of my life for several years. But just the fact that it’s been the main theme of my life for several years says a lot about the deep and pervasive root of religion in the lives us who were steeped in it from the cradle. While my own life has not been as rigidly-religious as the Hasidim to the outside observer, it was certainly the singular and consuming theme of my upbringing.

 I was raised in a fundamentalist Evangelical Christian home (think “19 Kids & Counting”). I was homeschooled from Kindergarten onward. My life was entirely contained by my parents’ house and the church that we attended, well, religiously. In practice, this meant that my life consisted of being home alone with my mother and sister all day every day, except when we went to church. I had few friends (kids that lived next door), but those faded out after elementary school, when children become adolescents and their lives become more focused on the wider world of burgeoning autonomy. I had no boys as friends; in fact, I did not have a conversation with a boy until I was in college. My parents closely controlled all the media influences that came into the house and the curriculum they chose to use in our schooling. Every input was carefully vetted to reinforce their worldview. Focus on the Family was a huge theme in print media and radio, as was Bob Jones University Press in homeschooling materials and recreational books.

As restrictive as this was, it was also deeply secure and comforting. I had people in my community (which was synonymous with my church) who had known me from infancy, who loved me, who sponsored my confirmation in the church, made meatballs for my high school graduation open house, bought dish towels and bakeware for my wedding shower, and eagerly anticipated a baby shower that (thankfully!) never arrived. In the same way, I was expected to teach Sunday School, help with vacation Bible school programs, and otherwise foster those who were younger than I. It was a multi-generational community providing a continual structure for the life-cycle events that mark every person’s journey across this planet.

 All this is just to say that a television program about people leaving a religious community resonated deeply with me. One line in particular, spoken by an 18-year-old man who had abandoned his earlocks but still wore a mainstream yarmulke, “I’m not ready to live a fully secular life.”

 I get that.

It’s taken me six years & counting to reach a point where my life is organically secular, and that’s on my good days. I stopped a religious practice when I was 29 and in the process of divorce. It was a conscious, cognitive, and logical effort. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity says that most people gradually drift away from their faith, one effortless step at a time, and that the person who abruptly quits the practice of religion because “he honestly does not believe it anymore is closer to God than ever.” If this is true, than God and I are cheek-by-jowl at this very moment.

 My divorce precipitated my rupture from faith, but my break with faith also precipitated the divorce. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. The divorce began when I realized in a single moment that I did not think that the miserable marriage I had never wanted was in any way sacred. But if marriage, a sacrament and pillar of the Church, was not sacred, than what was? If that piece was a lie, then how could all the others be true? The Jenga tower of my faith came crashing down.

 Faith was a habit that broke me, but I still struggled to break with it. It began with the choice to stop praying. I had been sending tiny thought-missiles up to God dozens of times a day since forever. It was a disciplined effort to NOT do that. It was a struggle to hold on to the logic of “I don’t believe that this act will change anything…so I will not do it, lest the illogic nudge me into delusion.”  I’m sure it sounds odd to someone who has not experienced this sort of engagement with the Almighty. The best comparison I can make is to an unwanted romantic breakup and the persistent thoughts that plague the mind. “Are they thinking about me? Did they ever care about me? Ha! This funny thing would make them laugh and I want to text it to them.” And so on. Disciplining the mind to quit the habit of framing your daily experience in terms of interacting with your beloved is exceedingly painful and arduous. So it is with quitting God. In the words of the band Storyhill, “You used to be hers, she used to be yours, and you saw everything that way.” It’s Goddamned hard to stop seeing everything that way.

I also quit church. I had been warned repeatedly of the perils of failing to attend church or otherwise “forsake the fellowship of believers,” and so I was expecting a sea change when I did. Shockingly, nothing happened. It was like Y2K all over again. Nevertheless, it was still hard to break the habit. I stopped attending for a week, then a month, then six months. I tried to go back. I sat in the pew, embraced by genuine and kind people, and listened to the pastor and couldn’t stop the drumbeat thought pounding through my head, “It’s not true. It’s not true. It’s not true.” I quit again. I went back again. I quit again. Anybody else see the parallels to addiction cessation?

I went back for Christmas. The service was beautiful. Christmas is the only service of the Church calendar that focuses on love and doesn’t say much about sin and failure, which are otherwise the cornerstones of doctrine. I lit my candle and breathed in the scent of evergreen wreaths and realized that whatever God might exist, he/she/it is NOT in the form of a personable being with human-like idiosyncrasies and an endpoint goal for anything. I blew out my candle and went home.

And yet…I still choke on the word “atheist.” I have the word “Israel,” Hebrew for “Wrestles with God,” tattooed on my back.  When pressed, I claim to be a “heartbroken agnostic.” I miss God and the church and the multi-generational community it engenders. I miss the feeling of purpose and place. The world is a big, cold, heartless place and I understand why so many people choose not to scrutinize their own faith. The rewards of belonging can easily outweigh the costly consequences of self-honesty. What’s the harm in a little benign self-delusion? It makes this ugly world a smidge easier to survive. It provides the social network we all so desperately crave in our hyper-connected/super-isolated modern world.

I guess the harm comes back to Christianity’s own doctrine: The truth shall set you free. You can philosophize a lot about the doctrines of Christianity and what they mean. But you can’t appraise them honestly and say that they are true. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Really? Because I sure as hell can’t. There have been many, many times in my life that I tried as hard as I could and prayed as fervently as I could for Christ to strengthen me…and I still failed. (So is that “God saying no” to my prayer? Maybe. But that argument can justify any outcome at any point.) “The Lord is my ever-present help in times of trouble.” Really? Because I’ve been in times of great trouble and no help arrived, either in the form of physical assistance and intervention, or a peaceful comfort for my soul. I could go on and on.

So Christianity may be a nurturing community, but its doctrinal promises are hollow.  People believe it because they want to believe it, not because it’s empirically compelling. The truth will set you free; but that freedom is cold and hard and lonely. The cold, hard truth. Is it any wonder that I still long for the God’s warm embrace?