Wednesday, January 13, 2016

854. David Bowie Memories

The death of David Bowie has led to a raft of stories exploring his impact on our culture.  I must confess, a lot of the time I didn't really know what exactly his impact was, because he was one of those music acts who kind of became more famous for his persona than his music. 

But he's got some famous music out there, such as:

That's "Space Oddity," his first and most famous hit.  It's one of those songs you probably heard a lot growing up, and maybe never found out who did it.  But there you are, a bona fide David Bowie classic.  Probably the obvious source for the quirkiness of his later career.  Imagine if the Beatles started out as Sgt. Pepper's...

"Life on Mars," which I'm most familiar with from the short-lived Jason O'Mara TV show (which itself was an adaptation of an earlier BBC series) of the same name.  The song recurred and was an anthem in more than one way.  So I'll always have that among my treasured memories.  I loved that show.

"Under Pressure," which he did with Queen.  I discovered this song from the soundtrack to the John Cusack classic Grosse Pointe Blank, and it's long been a favorite of mine (the soundtrack, this song in particular, both).

As an actor, my personal Bowie moment is his performance as Nikola Tesla in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.  Great movie, so I'll always have that from him as well.

That's all I can say definitively about David Bowie's work in my life.  I had to look up "Space Oddity" to find that out, which in turned reminded me about "Life on Mars."  But still, it's sad to see the legend go.  Could be very interesting to see how the culture keeps his memory alive.  Personally, I'd love a Bowie biopic, maybe from someone like Charlie Kaufman, who could really make his more interesting personality quirks pop.

It's also worth noting that Bowie is the father of the brilliant director Duncan Jones, who's given us two great films already, Moon (2009) and Source Code (2011), and hopefully many more to come.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

853. The Force Awakens - Refuting the Naysayers Continues

Here's a guy who seems to make a pretty strong argument to not take The Force Awakens seriously.

The first and most obvious mistake this guy makes is assuming the original trilogy was about the fall of the Empire and return of the Republic, rather than the story of Darth Vader's improbable redemption at the hands of his son Luke Skywalker. Little wonder that he fails to understand what the First Order is or why it's significant that Han Solo is killed by his own son.

To wit: The Republic exists in The Force Awakens. The First Order is the remnant of the Imperial military, the muscle the Emperor massed over the years to consolidate his rule, why he was able to officially dissolve the Senate only by the time of A New Hope.  Which is to say, even with his iron grip, he still needed help to effect complete control. Hence, a reliance on big guns like the Death Star and its successors. Also, that's why he needed lackeys like Vader at all. "Unlimited power!" Because even the most powerful Sith, or Jedi for that matter, is still just one person, and therefore limited. Gaining a powerful new apprentice gives Palpatine renewed power, "unlimited" power, just another dude he was able to manipulate to stick around.

Anyway, then we reach the relevancy of Kylo Ren and the significance of his relationship, or lack thereof, with Han Solo. Snoke's power over Ren exists entirely in the boy's lack of emotional control. This is always the downfall of a Force practitioner. It nearly ruined Luke, and obviously it did ruin his father. The Sith thrive on emotion, but even they must control it. Ren killing his father severs a level of emotional turmoil he's had difficulty reconciling with his own perception of his future, and obviously Snoke's as well. Snoke thinks this is for the better. But is it? Without this anchor to what led him to Snoke, Ren is actually closer to redemption than corruption.

As for recurring the Death Star element at all, this is basic military tactics. For almost as long as we've had atomic weapons, we've been trying to get rid of them. But we haven't. They're a permanent weapon of our modern arsenal. They loom constantly. Whether you consider the Death Star as a metaphor or not, it makes perfect in-universe sense to keep building the big gun of the Star Wars arsenal over and over again, just as the Sith keep resurfacing.

The problem with guys like this is that they think they're outsmarting what's already about as smart a Star Wars story as there's ever been.  But ironically, Star Wars was never really about being smart, but about its emotional impact.  It's an adventure that seeks to deepen what adventure stories tend to accomplish.  George Lucas always wanted a complicated story.  He didn't always have the exact details in mind that we've grown to love in the original films, and the most famous examples are the big reveals of Empire Strikes Back (Vader is Luke's father!) and Return of the Jedi (Luke and Leia are siblings!), as any fan who ever read Splinter of the Mind's Eye will have known.  The genius of A New Hope was how Luke is immediately presented as an orphan with an interesting backstory.  That about sums up Harry Potter, too, right?  That's exactly why Harry became so popular, because in seven books and eight films, we find out what made his backstory so interesting, and how it all leads to defeating what otherwise might have been a scary but ultimately generic villain. 

Now, just imagine if Empire Strikes Back hadn't had that big ending.  Would anyone really care about Star Wars today?  Plenty of really popular movies have leveled off to exist in the social morass. They still count for something, but in far more limited ways than when they first debuted.  That could just as easily have been the fate of Star Wars, too.  Yet the story was deepened, with one scene.  One scene!  The rest of the movie is fine, really, but without that one scene, the whole thing looks pretty weightless.  And the thing about The Force Awakens is that it doesn't hinge on one scene.  The whole thing seeks to deepen the story.

The problem is that the prequels did, too.  And fans now think of deepening the story as weakening it.  I think that's insane, I really do.  But that's about where most people are in their consumption of popular entertainment.  They actually crave the superficial.  They like disposable, the shiny baubles that are fun to enjoy and then pass along to the annals of history.  What makes Star Wars so different is that it changed the rules.  We ended up caring too much.  And now we don't know what to think of it anymore.  For most people, it's the happy memories, something that helped build something, that in the books and comics became exactly the disposable landscape they're most familiar with otherwise enjoying.  They don't need to think too much about it.

Now Star Wars is asking them to think again.  For some fans, that's just unacceptable.  Too bad for them.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

852. The Force Awakens - Something Old, Something New

As The Force Awakens settles into being a known commodity, the positive reaction that first greeted it has started to give way to more criticism.  One of the loudest voices is Star Wars creator George Lucas, who has begun to call the new film an act of nostalgia.

I'm not here to denounce Lucas's opinion as irrelevant.  As I've said countless times in the past, I love the prequels, unabashedly.  Where others see creative decisions ranging from just plain bad to offensive, I see artistic achievements of unparalleled achievement.  They are, to me, unquestioned elevations in Lucas's talents as a filmmaker.

His biggest problem with The Force Awakens probably stems from what he himself would have done, as he's noted would have been different from what he had done with the previous six films.  The major appeal of The Force Awakens is that it is an act of nostalgia, for the most part.  This was almost entirely necessary to get positive buzz back into the saga.  The dramatic departures of the prequels, if nothing else, certainly succeeded in presenting something that felt totally different from the original trilogy, which fans loved so much because it was raw and dirty.  The prequels are often accused of featuring wooden acting.  At the very least, they featured an era with far more rigged rules of conduct than the originals.  I would argue that the whole point of the prequels was about breaking loose from restrictions that had calcified.  Anakin Skywalker is attracted to Palpatine's vision because it offers him a limitless existence.  Fans abhor Jar Jar Binks because he seems too loose.  The prequels are all about extremes.

J.J. Abrams realized, somewhere along the way, that there had to be balance.  He didn't necessarily steal everything he created wholesale from the originals.  Instead, he built on them.  His Star Wars is deliberately more lived-in than even the original films.  For me, that creates an experience that is arguably better than any Star Wars to date.  He creates a landscape where the known and the unknown work in tandem, among the characters and among the fans.  There's a reason why so much of the action looks familiar.  Too often fans tend to great this sort of thing as a rip-off (Star Trek fans in particular, alas).  But the more deeper the material, the richer the experience.

I would argue that The Force Awakens succeeds because of this, because of its deep awareness, which makes it rich, which makes it feel so familiar.  But it's also new, because it wisely builds on the old material to tell a new story, one that may look predictable at this point, but uses the idea Lucas originally had in the prequels, to continue the saga, to see where the story goes next.  In virtually all of the old spinoff books and comics, the writers lost sight of what made Star Wars special.  It wasn't merely the mechanics, but the storytelling itself.  There's a reason why Darth Vader revealing the truth of his identity to Luke Skywalker was so important, why The Empire Strikes Back has long held its place as the most popular film among the fans, because it was the first time the story was deepened.

The prequels told us a story we already knew: that Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  As Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy attests, fans are impatient when they already know how the story ends.  For the first time in thirty years, Star Wars fans don't.  That's why The Force Awakens succeeds.  Well, that and impressive filmmaking.

When George Lucas first created Star Wars, he had a totally different vision than what ultimately came about.  Allowing the story to breathe turned out to be a very good thing.  We're seeing that again.


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