Friday, December 22, 2017

The Favor that "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Just Did for Me

This is my movie critique for "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" and by now I shouldn't have to even offer a spoiler warning. I'm sure everybody has seen it by now (May The Hype Be With You!). Before I get into the details, I will say that the following is after a few days of reflection following seeing the film, and much deliberation with those also that saw it to make sure I did, indeed, see the same movie that they did. The short version is: the more I reflect on it, the less impressed I am. My initial reaction may not have been "thumbs up," but the thumb keeps rotating vertically downward the more I think about it.

Let me launch my remarks by explaining the enigmatic title of this rant. You see...I love good stories. I've immersed myself in good stories all my life; not just Star Wars. As a father, I created elaborate myths for my children as bedtime stories, and as an anthropologist I recognize the potent influence that "sacred myths" carry in cultures around the globe. Star Wars was among the important stories of my youth, and my elation knowing that the films would be continued probably mirrors that of other adults who also sat in wonder back in late 70's/early 80's as the original trilogy unfolded on the screen before us. Beyond the movies though, I became a fan of the novels published for the Star Wars universe. The hundred or so volumes that I have in my collection isn't even complete! I'm still searching online and in used books stores to find both hardcover and paperback novels of stories dating to 15-17 years BBY (Before the Battle of Yavin; I know...I should give nerd warnings, at least). As with many things though, certain tales have something of a "shelf life." Keep them going too long, and nostalgia will likely keep up personal interest far beyond the tale's ability to remain compelling. When that happens, a disillusioning effect can set in which threatens to delegitimize the story that once so occupied your interest. To preserve the early affection for the story, something has to help you drop the interest in the present. In this way, SW-TLJ may have helped preserve for me the love I had for the old story, but not giving a damn where it goes from here. 

Rian Johnson, the director for this latest installment, appears to have been singularly interested in so breaking with the very saga that this film is supposed to fit into, that it breaks ties with nearly all of epic myth it was supposed to advance. Mind you, Johnson is under no obligation to follow any of the "fan theories" that have arisen since J. J. Abrams' "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" regarding Rey's parentage, Snoke's origins, Luke Skywalker's future, or where in blazes Maz Kanata found his lightsaber. He IS, however, supposed to realize that, as a director of a Star Wars film, he is the most recent steward of a saga that came before him and needs to outlast him. Johnson seems to have been vaguely aware of this responsibility and defiantly flipped it the bird (or Porg). I will offer some observations to support this as the film unfolded:

I do not agree with those that critique the humor in the opening battle scene. I did not find it out of place. On the contrary, the intensity of the film - I think - called for those moments of levy where they could be found. It Poe/Hux call supported the character of Poe as a hotshot pilot that is in need of learning the serious burden of leadership. One could imagine him smiling defiantly as, after requesting a triumphant flyby, is told from the tower "Negative ghost rider, the pattern is full." Visually, TLJ is stunning. Johnson can be commended for action scenes both with hand-to-hand combat and with flying machines. His color palette is inspiring and each shot could be framed as a poster. For me, the technical aspects are all laudable. But this is not a mere special effects film. It's SUPPOSED to be a mythic tale, a very human story, that merely used special effects to tell the story in a mythological universe (A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...).

Where I begin to take issue with Johnson is his treatment of nearly all of the characters, and the way their stories were SUPPOSED to fit in an ongoing saga. Luke Skywalker, as designed my Johnson, is unrecognizable from the optimistic new Jedi was left back in "Episode VI: Return of the Jedi."Apparently the turning of his student to the dark side has transformed him into a pessimistic old curmudgeon with no appetite to make a difference in the galaxy anymore. The beloved character that every fan was anticipating seeing since Abrams' TFA has turned into a nasty jerk growling "Get off my lawn!" to the bright-eyed and bushy tailed Rey showing up with his old lightsaber. Luke never appears to escape this attitude either. Though he eventually agrees to train Rey, his tepid and non-committal approach leaves the audience non-plussed by the Yoda cameo (we're CGIing puppeteering now? Johnson! You're killing me!). His decision to astral-project a final battle appearance makes more sense when you see that he'd never recover the gumption to actually leave his little haven and personally show up to act like he cares anymore. Johnson has invented some other "Luke" that is so divorced from the "Luke" of the novels and previous films that Lucasfilm should sue him for copyright infringement.

Tragically, the passing of Carrie Fisher meant her presence in the next episode of the saga should not be expected, barring some CGI magic. But of course, Johnson can't ethically do that since her death is so recent. She's not Peter Cushing, having been dead for enough years that reprising his role for "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" via CGI magic was within acceptable limits. Nor is Leah as minor a character in the saga as was Gran Moff Tarkin. You simply cannot CGI Carrie Fisher into the next episode with any ethical immunity. Therefore, it behooved Rian Johnson to offer her character a fitting death in this episode, which was entirely possible considering the editing and reshoots that were possible with nearly a year between Fisher's death and the film's release. It's not rocket science! The actress portraying Leah has died, so the character of Leah has to in THIS film! You merely needed to make it unfold in a manner that would offer the character the fitting, epic, and emotionally weighty end that it deserved. Instead she was blown into space so that in an odd "Mary Poppins" move, she could fly back into the vessel to be preserved for the future...a future that Carrie Fisher cannot participate in! Johnson dropped the ball on the Leah narrative as well.

In this sense he did exactly the wrong things. He killed off Luke, and kept Leah alive. I'll not try to dictate to Johnson what he SHOULD have done with Luke for the next installment, but the simple fact is that Mark Hamill is available for another episode and Carrie Fisher is not. Do the math! If it was necessary to kill off another original cast member to give it the necessary weight, it's pretty obvious where you have to go.

Rey represents one of the flattest characters ever to appear in Star Wars films (at least for this movie). She experiences nearly no growth or character arc whatsoever. Rey brushes close to the "dark side," but never once appears tempted by it. We're never - even once - on the edge of our seats wondering if she'll remain a good girl. The "force connection" between her and Kylo makes for what you think might be a budding love interest, but is ridiculously quick to emerge following their lightsaber fight at the end of TFA. Suddenly she's so certain she can win him back to the good side by batting her eyes and asking nice? The patronizing insult to fans doesn't stop there though. The entire film is predicated on the notion that the resistance vessel can stay just out of range for the First Order armada in a slow-motion chase scene that culminates in a ground battle.

About this ground battle... In 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back" this identical battle, with Imperial walkers spearheading a ground assault was explained by a Rebel "shield strong enough to withstand any  bombardment." In TLJ, no such explanation is given. Instead of snow, it's a planet covered in salt with red dirt underneath so the speeders kick up red dust in their wake. It's visually cool-looking, but has no reason to occur. Johnson appears to have a low opinion of the viewing audience, supposing they will be so wow'ed by the visual that they'll ignore all the other problems. Speaking of rip-off's from previous episodes: Kylo killing Snoke is a ripoff of Vader killing Palpentine also. But in this case, we really didn't care. If this is supposed to be a new trilogy, that's something you save for the third episode in the three.

Too much was resolved, and not enough remained to keep us interested. In 1980, I walked out of SW "The Empire Strikes Back" with a feverish need to see the next film, for which I would have to wait three years. Darth Vader had just revealed he was Luke's father, Han was frozen in carbonite and needed rescue, plus we were still awaiting an in-person appearance of the Emperor. At the end of TLJ, I find I have no anticipation of the next one. NONE! Snoke is dead. Kylo is still the bad guy. Rey lifts rocks with the Force now (apparently without needing significant Jedi training), Luke is dead (and so is Carrie Fisher), but Leah is not. Bottom line? I really don't care what happens next now. Rian Johnson set out to make something unique, and he has done that. He's made a Star Wars movie that sucks the anticipation out of the space between films.

In this way this film did me the favor of letting it go. My Star Wars film fandom now is set aside to my childhood wonders of yesteryear. As an adult, that needed to happen at some point. I don't deny it. I still enjoy the novels, because those writers can still spin a good yarn; all within the SW universe. The Star Wars movies, however, are now something I can live without. Other films will emerge that tell the great stories...the ones that really make me think about the grand themes of tragedy, loss, victory, sacrifice, redemption, and the like. I needed to the let the Star Wars film go, and Rian Johnson did me that favor. It was a tragic favor - a sad favor, but a useful one nonetheless.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Does the Constitution Protect "Hate Speech?"

When discussing the idea of "hate speech" the terms get more tricky that many are willing to admit. It's one of those terms that everyone thinks everyone else knows what it means so it can be used without qualification. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The meaning remains a moving target, so its use is less unhelpful to a decent conversation than many are also willing to admit. What exactly do you mean when you label something "hate speech," and to what it end have you chosen to label it that?

I recently heard the question posed as to whether the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "protects hate speech." It's a question worth dissecting. The text of the 1st Amendment is:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Full disclosure: I am by no means a constitutional scholar or legally trained in any way. I only cite the 1st Amendment at the level of popular culture having to traffic in these terms as part of conversation. Just from my limited understanding though, a few clauses stand out that I'll discuss in the following paragraphs.

"CONGRESS shall make no law" suggests that this amendment is targeted at the limitations of government. It goes on to prohibit restricting the speech of its citizens. Interestingly, within the same clause is the restriction of government not to abridge the "freedom of the press." Certainly these are linked such that should one go away, the other is sure to follow. It would seem the authors were concerned that abridging speech or press is both a governmental temptation and tendency, such that disallowing that abridgment was the first of the amendments to the new Constitution. Absent from the clause is specificity concerning what types of speech or what outlets of the "press" are protected by this amendment. At the scholarly level, most likely untold volumes have been written on what restrictions can be left to the states since this amendment applies to the U.S. Congress, and I am by no means aware of all of those. This rudimentary review, though, is helpful for discussion.

In addition, "Congress shall make no law... abridging...the right of the people peaceably to assemble."  Of course, the operative term here is "peaceably." In fact, it's not just an operative term; it's a linchpin. When people no longer are "peaceably" assembling, then they're assembling NOT peaceably; meaning assembling in a manner that disturbs the peace, causing injury to person and property. Thus the big difference must be held forth of peaceable assemblies from non-peaceful assemblies. I'm digressing a little from the "hate speech" discussion, but I think the point is relevant to the conversation.

The "peaceably" qualifier appears to be the primary exception to the "free speech" protection. So long as a group assembles "peaceably" to express grievances (misguided or valid), Congress shall make no law to abridge that speech. Stepping away from the nuanced "weeds" of Federal vs State issues, and accepting that the 1st Amendment should serve as a guide to lower laws as well, it would seem that the abridging of peaceable speech by any legislative body holds dangers that the Constitutional writers sought to avoid. There is a way around that though: "hate speech."

The popular term of "hate speech" is nebulous enough to include both things that everyone can agree on and those things than no one can. Obviously it relates to more than speech that any one person hates. Even that is an argument that most don't employ. However, it seems that speech that is perceived as "promoting hate" can be labeled as "hate speech." Clearly I'd agree that speech in which someone actually says that they "hate" another because of color, country of origin, sex, religion, etc. can be labeled "hate speech," and is appropriately denounced as reprehensible. If only the term could be kept to that arena. Because the term has such potency, however, it has become an effective tool in attempts by some to silence those whose speech they simply don't like, or opposes their political philosophy. I've called this "power-shaming" in other writing.

The 1st Amendment, and by extension even lower legislative bodies, are restricted from abridging speech that peaceably assembles to air their grievances. Therefore the way around this, if dissatisfied with this protection regarding speech one does not like, is to ensure that those expressing such cannot peaceably assemble. This can be done by gathering where they do and making certain that the assembly is never peaceful. However, in doing so you run the risk of bringing greater attention to the speech you wish to restrict than they would have otherwise garnered, but the risk is worth the achievement by possibly attracting more support for the cause of restricting that speech. After all, if indeed the assembly is gathered to express speech that enough people hate, there will be little to no condemnation of the tactic needed to restrict the expression of "hate speech."

Thus the 1st Amendment can be made irrelevant to the question as to whether it "protects hate speech," since the "court of public opinion" will not pass judgment on those that can ensure that the assemblies for some speech is never peaceable. I consider it irrelevant whether I also hate the speech of some that assemble because I agree with the Founders that the dangers of restricting peaceably assembled speech are greater than speech itself. On the contrary, better to have "hate speech" addressed with competing speech that deconstructs and discredits it rather than to embolden it with delusions of "martyrdom." If "hate speech" is to mean anything more than "speech you hate" (which alarmingly and arbitrarily could include even MY speech), then the popular response should be to heed the warnings inherent in the 1st Amendment and overcome that speech with higher, more enlightened, more educated and better argued speech; not attempt restricting it in some "strong arm" fashion.

There is indeed some speech that I "hate" (i.e. prejudices based on racial categories), but I agree with the Constitutional writers that trying to silence it holds dangers we would rather not face either. Defeat them with your speech, for the first to result to force has lost the argument. I'm no pacifist. Meeting force with force has certainly been not only necessary, but a moral imperative throughout history. But when "hate speech" arises (1) make sure you know how to define the term, not assuming everyone knows what you mean, and (2) defeat the ideas in the manner it manifests (speech vs speech).

What is "hate speech?" No one - and everyone - knows, but it cannot merely mean speech that you hate, or speech that you don't want spoken. The definition is too fluid. Therefore the 1st Amendment has to protect it, so long as it can peaceably assemble. The government does NOT have to endorse it, but it cannot abridge it. The arguments that allowance makes government complicit in it must be discarded as transparently immature. Is there speech that I hate that is popularly defined as "hate speech?" Of course. But I'd hate the government more that was in the business of abridging speech it deemed unprotected based on movable categories.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Power-shaming and other weaknesses

The American cultural phenomenon of feeling perpetually insecure, and needing validation from others has become so commonplace as to rise to proverbial status. We're a nation wherein the most vocal need the most approval. Since they seem unable to self-validate, the strategy for gaining feelings of significance is too shame others over "low-hanging fruit" topics wherein the shamed will do backflips for absolution.

Polarizing events often generate binary thinking wherein someone must be vocally against it or else suffer the "power-shaming" of seeming for it. Seldom is this more visible that events concerning racial tensions that still exist. The many reasons for those tensions' perpetuity can be debated at another time, but among those is most certainly that: Those that benefit from power-shaming have no interest in seeing racial strife ever subside.

There is power to be gained and maintained in shaming others over matters they will labor tirelessly to escape shame over. Those that know me know that I am no fan of Donald Trump, and I have decried his "Trumpkin" followers on many occasions; however, following the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. news commentators have echoed repeatedly the dissatisfaction with Trump's denunciation of the "white lives matter" groups (I'm summarizing all the racist groups that gathered to protest the removal of a statue to Robert E. Lee). As much as I have been a critic of POTUS, I must sympathize with him in this regard. The power-shamers smell "blood in the water" now, and will never be satisfied with any level of denunciation he speaks against WLM groups. I've learned that the power-shamers have no vested interest in ever granting absolution and declaring you contrite enough to be forgiven for someone else's sins. Quite the contrary, Democrats, Republicans, and political activists yearning to gain advantage will continue nibbling away like mythic Piranha in a jungle river.

I see this on social media where binary thinking manifests in demands for greater and louder condemnations of something bad, or else risk being labeled as tolerating that bad thing. The "if you're not for us, you're against us" message was most on display during the 2016 election where Trumpkins on social media were demanding loyalty to Captain Hairdo or risk being labeled a "Hillary supporter." The assertion that any vote not for Trump was a vote for Clinton was heard with such rapid-fire regularity as to become something I never thought I'd ever experience: actual political disagreement with my own father(!). To be fair, my father is no Trumpkin (not in the crude, rally attendee sense), but that binary thinking of "it's either A or B...nothing else" invaded our discussions at the time and I really disliked it.

Now comes the binary thinking as part of the power-shamers' arsenal. You're either AGAINST allowing such WLM groups their free speech rights, or you're for them in some unspoken way. I even read some suggest that "free speech" is a white man's invention, as though "liberty" is just a white-privilege code term for condoning oppression. Full disclosure: one of my favorite archaeologists was made famous killing Nazis, and I'm prone to feel satisfied doing the same. BUT I also realize that the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a messy thing, and "liberty" means that people can do and say things you don't like. That government empowered to restrict speech I DON'T like today may use that power to restrict speech I DO like tomorrow.

But those that seek power by shaming others cannot be bothered with discussions of the value of liberty regarding "free speech" or freedom of assembly. The good that is maintained by enforcing the 1st Amendment (even when it allows speech we find horrific) outweighs the evil spewed by those saying things we hate. Thus the power-shamers MUST be ignored. They have little concept of liberty and freedom, having never matured in their thinking to the level of appreciating what can transpire in its absence. I once told someone at an inner city college "I don't subscribe to white guilt theory." The horror on their face was telling. I had taken away their power to manipulate me into jumping through hoops seeking absolution that they will never grant.

Regarding the WLM groups in Charlottesville, their freedom of speech and freedom of assembly can be defended while denouncing what they assemble to say. This will not be enough for the power-shamers, who essentially have become the new "bullies" that want to dominate the playground. Unwillingness to play their game just seems to hasten their aneurism, but I'll just sit back, light up the cigar and watch the fireworks anyway.