Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I Was So Wrong About Lucas

Chris Davis just dropped me a line (old friends are working their way out of the woodwork, these days) and reminded me of this letter that established my ultimate geek credentials. Sadly, I was totally wrong about Lucas. I like my letter better than his new trilogy. But it belongs with that old Brett Favre post as an identity-confirming document.

September 2, 1999

Dear Charles,

Thank you so much for your letter! It was so nice to get one so soon after arrival. The trip to Ohio was largely uneventful and Cincinnati was far better than I expected. It turns out to be a rather artificial upper-class suburb with good customer service. The soy sauce is on the supermarket aisle marked "Mexican," but on the whole I can make do. As you predicted, there do seem to be a few used bookstores that look promising from the outside. Columbus truly mortified me, but I can make do with Cincinnati. We will see what temp salaries are available in the coming week.

I am drinking a creamy pint of Guinness. I love Guinness.

Okay, Star Wars. Well, I guess that I have to warn you that I am an unabashed Star Wars fan. Charles, on this topic, I am shamelessly partisan. I'm a little younger than you, so for me, Star Wars has been a formative experience. Star Wars was quite literally the first movie I ever saw. So, there will never likely be a Star Wars movie bad enough for me to dislike it. The saga is just too close to my core for it to happen. Not to say that it's impossible for it to get bad enough. Rather, it's just unlikely.

That aside, it surely wasn't the best of the bunch. But it did have some redeeming value for a die-hard Star Wars fan. To appreciate the better points of the movie, you have to see it in context. Like Star Wars, it's a first movie. But unlike Star Wars, Lucas knew that he would be able to make the sequels to The Phantom Menace. This makes a lot of difference in the comparative quality of the two films. You see, Lucas wrote the whole episode IV-VI storyline in a single sitting, realized that he had too much and then raided all three to make a single condensed story. In my own opinion, that is why there is a Death Star in both Star Wars and in The Return of the Jedi — when he was able to go on, he probably went on with a lot of his original script.

The Phantom Menace was written under very different circumstances. Lucas knew that there would be sequels, so he didn't replicate his original formula for Star Wars, which works well as a stand-alone movie (in my opinion). Rather, he fused a sort of James Clavell writing technique with a lot of glitz. I think you told me once that you had read some Clavell. Well, Clavell, while definitely fitting into the category that I think you once labeled as "throw away" can be a fascinating storyteller. But it takes him time to get warmed up. The first hundred pages are always hideously dry. But once he gets started, he can twist and plot with the best of them. Well, Phantom Menace is written in much the same vein. Lucas spends the time setting up very clever clues that will come in handy in the next two. I personally find the clues fascinating. What he doesn't do is give the first story the ability to stand independently. It will depend on its sequels. He tries to make it a saleable movie by going all Hollywood all over it: great action scenes, special effects and tremendous fight choreography. And it worked, to a certain extent. For those who were not bitter that this movie was going to make millions no matter what simply because it was a Star Wars movie, it was a good summer flick.

But it was a veritable mine of plot clues for the die-hard fan, which is where I had great fun. There's a lot going on beneath the surface of this movie. First, there is the issue of the Clone Wars, which are coming up. Remember Leia's holographic line in Star Wars, "General Kenobi, you served my father in the Clone Wars, now help me..."? Well, one can't help but notice that Queen Amidala is cloned. She doesn't refer to the girl who looks like her as her twin sister, so it seems likely that the woman who looks just like her is a clone.

This brings about some interesting possibilities. First, the ability to manipulate the Force has been made genetic. Now, at first, I balked at this because it tended to undermine the mystical nature of the world. It fits under Schiller's old rubric of disenchanting the world — there is nothing that science cannot explain. I've never been fond of that in life or in fiction. However, the possibilities of cloning, if the Clone Wars are done well (which, I admit is still an "if") are irresistible. Anakin is the galaxy's highest concentration of mitocholians. This means that he has become the ultimate weapon. Imagine churning out armies of Anakins trained in your very own ideology... To Palpatine, our megalomaniacal soon-to-be-Emperor, the possibilities are irresistible. He who controls Anakin (or at least his only good tissue sample) controls the galaxy. Assuming of course, that you can control Anakin. But, this is Palpatine we're dealing with. You know how well he thinks he controls people. In all fairness, later events do seem to bear his assumptions out.

Which brings us to Palpatine's motivations. What exactly is it that he wants? After all, it's rather odd that the Senator from Naboo would want the Trade Federation to swallow his homeworld. That's treachery par excellence, and okay, it's par for the course for the character we know to be the Emperor, but what does he hope to gain from the liquidation of his political power base? What does the Trade Federation have that would tempt him to sell the constituency that keeps him in power? Knowing Palpatine's overweening ambition, we know this isn't a simple Trade Federation bribe to a corrupt official to betray his people for short-term gain. Moreover, the Trade Federation Viceroy and his adjutant tell us that Darth Sidious cut a deal with them, not vice versa. Palpatine has something waiting in the wings.

My writing partner, Briggs, thinks that the Trade Federation has the capacity to exploit Naboo's very hidden technology. Naboo is a small, pretty and peaceful world with few weapons. It's clearly not a mover and shaker in the Republic. But they do have this little technology that they developed on the side that keeps the Queen intact — cloning. Well, Palpatine sees that they lack vision and the one think that rankles him more than anything is a lack of vision, because it's the one attribute on which he prides himself the most. Palpatine will show them the true value of this technology.

But Palpatine is a politician. He doesn't know anything about technology. But, the Trade Federation, already interested in creating mass armies, does. But, the Trade Federation is just a bunch of merchants looking to turn a quick profit and have only created these armies for the purpose of extortion. They, too, lack vision. He will show them too the true nature of their resources. In exchange for the paltry payment of Naboo on a silver platter, the Trade Federation will develop this technology for him. The rumor is that there are already carbon copies of Darth Maul that are on ice for Episode II.

The thing to remember is that while Lucas always casts his movies as if they were about the good guy (in this case Anakin and Obi-Wan) the movie is really about the bad guy. Lucas is better at anti-heroes than at heroes. After all, his own philosophy of heroism is "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naturally they became heroes." Well, realistically, how appealing is that? Yes, it has sales appeal because you, the viewer, can also be a hero under this logic. But the problem with the approach is that it means the heroes will never be truly extraordinary. Villains, on the other hand, are unique individuals — aberrations. But, since the common man is not supposed to identify with the villains, the villains can have talent. That's why Darth Vader and the Emperor have always been more appealing than Luke and, to some extent, even Han Solo. The extent to which Solo is appealing is that he is, in the world of Princess Leia "a scoundrel." This trilogy is cast as the downfall of Anakin, but, frankly, my bet is that it will come off as the triumph of Palpatine.

All this brings us back to Palpatine, the Phantom Menace hatching out phantom menaces (the word "phantom" also meaning "copy" or "clone" as well as "hidden" or "ghostly"). Palpatine's genius is Roman. He is a short-term opportunist driven to imperial expansion by dreams of personal glory. But Gretchen North was very shrewd to point out that the Republic is very German and Palpatine's rise to power much more mirrors Hitler than it does Caesar or Augustus. Note the fact that the leader of the Republic, referred to as "The President" in Lucas' own novelization of Star Wars (which is worth a read in its own right) is now referred to as "The Supreme Chancellor." I don't know enough about the rise of Nazi Germany and the fall of the Weimar Republic yet (but I'm more interested than ever, now, and I was pretty interested before), but Gretchen tells me that it was achieved through legal maneuver. Palpatine will rise the same way. Remember Darth Sidious' dark response to the Trade Federation Viceroy's question, "Is that legal?"'

"I will make it legal," Sidious responds.

But like all megalomaniacs, Palpatine's virtuoso strengths are countered by powerful weaknesses. As Luke points out, he is overconfident. My choir teacher, Mrs. Herbold, once said that you need ego, or you'll never get the guts to get on stage. But once you're on stage, you have suppress your ego utterly, because it will do nothing but interfere with your good judgment.

"Control, control! You must learn control!" chides Yoda.

You see, Master Yoda will be the first to tell you that the future is murky and hard to predict. But not Palpatine. "I have foreseen it," he whispers, sure of his own clairvoyance. But the Emperor is not particularly clairvoyant. He's dead wrong in Return of the Jedi. You see, Palpatine has the nasty habit of filling in the gaps in his vision with what he wants to see. During the period in which he is on the rise, Palpatine has no equal. That seems rather clear in looking at Lucas' ridiculous Senate. Moreover, the Jedi are refined and elegant. Remember Obi-Wan's line about "a more elegant weapon for a more elegant age." This is the height of the Republic and Couruscant is the bright center of the galaxy — the capital of a more elegant age. The Jedi in their gilded council chamber are no match for Palpatine. This is an age that, because of its refinement, is vulnerable to one thing alone: ruthlessness. There is no good man ruthless enough in all the Republic to counter Senator Palpatine. It's not that Palpatine is so gifted. Rather, it's that there is no one in that era who is able to stop him. His ludicrous Death Star plans to control the galaxy and the lack of security to defend these vital weapons show just how overconfident he can be. A shrewder imperial mind (a mind like Augustus') would have put his faith in a strong governing apparatus and disciplined military. It's cheaper, more effective and less risky.

But megalomaniacal villains need plans with flair and Augustus' approach is just too practical. It may work, but Augustus' genius is too understated to have any appeal to a Palpatine. After all, Julius is the one that we really remember, despite his errors. Think back to Gaul: the province revolted, a revolt that Julius had no other option but put down with brute force. He still didn't garrison the province afterward. What kept it from revolting again? Pure dumb luck that Julius had managed to terrify the Gauls into compliance. The province wasn't properly nailed down until the reign of Augustus. The fact often slips by unnoticed, but Caesar was a showboat. He made mistakes. There were sixty assassins involved in the plot to murder him (that's LX, folks). Yet Caesar never suspected. Imperial Rome was always abuzz with assassination rumors. Given the fact that some knowledge of this had to be out there, how on top of things was Caesar really? All success is a combination of luck and talent. Well, Julius had some talent, but he had very healthy doses of luck. The luck made him a demigod instead of a forgotten consul. Who remembers Crassus, Pompey and Sulla?

Megalomaniacs care more about their fame than anything else. They want their brilliance commemorated. I remember my ex-roomie (now seminarian) Mark showing me a Batman comic where the villain, as always, leaves Batman to die in some complex trap. Batman, who frequently gets caught, manages to wiggle out. The villain, who is then captured, bemoans the fact that he simply didn't shoot Batman dead when he had the chance. "Why do I have to have such flair?" the villain wailed. But the only reason that Batman is alive is that all his opponents are megalomaniacs who make mistakes. I'm not a Batman fan so my facts may be wrong, but the one who actually gets him, Bane, is the only one who isn't a megalomaniac. I'm made to understand that he takes the easy kill. Batman is sloppy and is used to taking advantage of gargantuan mistakes. Bane gets Batman because he doesn't make any.

Well, Palpatine has his overweening overconfidence to contend with. Note that he underestimates Amidala at every turn. Darth Sidious dismisses Amidala as a guileless child who can be easily controlled. She disappoints him. Moreover, there is some question in my mind about whether or not Palpatine's machinations were aimed at rising to the Supreme Chancellorship. Briggs and I contend on this point. Briggs thinks he planned it. I think that it was short-sighted opportunism in the finest Roman style. As George Washington Plunkitt would say, "He saw his opportunities and he took 'em." It would be too cruel if, after all, what he really lacked was vision. He just sees the present and not the future.

My guess is that he was plotting to take control of the Republic by force. To do that, he needed to crush the Jedi, not become Grand Chancellor. If one apprentice dies, he has number two waiting on ice. There can be only two, but Palpatine is prepared and won't let setbacks upset his plan. This much, he planned.

Of course, when a Grand Chancellorship is handed to him on a silver platter, he isn't about to refuse because it wasn't in his master plan. He'll just take credit for dumb luck. Amidala is an inadvertent partner in his glory. She was never supposed to leave Naboo. But when she gets away, she does what Palpatine can't really do himself: vote no confidence in Valorum. After all, he can hardly get the sympathy vote if he gutted his predecessor. But when the noble queen does it, with her rousing performance of desperation, he can easily be the beneficiary. People are no longer voting for Palpatine, scheming Senator. They are voting for the Queen and the small world of Naboo. After this, Amidala is never supposed to leave Couruscant. Well she goes back and is then not killed as Palpatine intends. Instead, she frees the planet from the Trade Federation, who, contrary to the master plan, are now screwed. After all, they don't know that Sidious is Palpatine and admitting to being in league with Sith Lords is not a particularly good legal defense. And the Courts take longer than the Senate. If we know Palpatine, they're probably still tied up in litigation years after the Republic has been restored. So much for them. Now for our Irish wars.

Amidala has thrown quite a wrench into things. But Palpatine would do well in Washington, for he knows how to smile and wave. Rather than being fazed by the fact that his plan has been twisted, he settles on the inadvertent but utterly useful prize of the Grand Chancellorship. Okay, the Trade Federation and their technoskills are lost. Well, Palpatine will find someone new. Amidala has quite inadvertently made him Grand Chancellor. No matter she has been a loose cannon undermining his plans. He can use her to his advantage. Or rather, he can't use her to his advantage, because he can't control her. He simply is skilled enough to use the events in her wake to his advantage. This is short-sighted opportunism. Rather than being ticked off at his plan being foiled, he flies to Naboo to kiss babies and be seen with the daring heroes. Palpatine can now be the elder statesman who, is alliance with the brave young queen, will restore sanity to the Republic. Is there a more perfect hiding place from which to plot the downfall of the Jedi? The point that is most concealed by the triumph of his machinations is that he is unable, so far, to control Amidala. But that fact he has hidden even from himself.

There is a second level to this. Ever notice that Palpatine has a penchant for apprenticing guys who can't steal his limelight? Take Darth Maul. He has a tattooed face. Now, I don't think a guy with tattoos and horns can have much of a life outside being a sith lord. While you're at it, try imagining Darth Vader drinking a beer with his buddies after work. Palpatine, on the other hand, has quite an active secret life. The question is which life is the secret one? Who is the real man? Batman or Bruce Wayne? Superman or Clark Kent? Well, who is real? Darth Sidious or the Emperor?

Note that the name Darth Sidious is all but forgotten by the time of the original trilogy. The Emperor is known by the name Palpatine and referred to as "The Emperor." Darth Vader claims that the name "Anakin Skywalker," has no meaning for Darth Vader by The Return of the Jedi. He is Darth Vader, Lord of Sith. Moreover, while he offers to rule the galaxy with Luke as father and son, he seems more interested in the "father and son" part than he is in the "rule the galaxy" part. Vader sees himself as a Sith Lord and his son is a lifeline to the good, one that he has trouble cutting. But he doesn't seem to have much interest in politics.

Palpatine seems to be a political animal. But he seems to have recruited Darth Maul on the basis of getting revenge on the Jedi. How important is this grudge match to Palpatine personally? Granted, the Jedi are all but extinct at the start of the original trilogy. But is it all a means to getting power? Did he start as a Sith Lord and get seduced by politics or become a Sith Lord to advance in politics? I lean toward saying that Darth Sidious is a cover, whereas Palpatine is so arrogant that he must be himself above all. But what does this mean for the struggle of the Sith?

Moreover, according to Yoda, there can be only two Sith, but how seriously does Palpatine take this? He's apparently cloning Darth Maul. Moreover, there is the curious conversation between the Emperor and Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, where the Emperor wants Luke killed and Vader says if he can be turned, he could be a powerful ally. Well, if there can be only two, that conversation is fraught with danger. If Luke joins the fold, one of them has to be dead (my gut instinct says that Sith Lords don't just celebrate a triumph and retire to the farm). Unless, of course, Palpatine isn't all that committed to the "Sith Lord Code" or whatever it is that makes Yoda think that there can be only two. But, whatever his commitment to the Sith religion and its tenets, Palpatine uses it to control his apprentices. Darth Maul is much more interested in revealing himself to the Jedi and getting revenge than he is in any political machinations. Darth Vader serves his master faithfully, but seems to have little political agenda of his own. There's room for a lot of interesting development in there.

When talking about a different movie, Tricia has told me that what I described to her was a lot more interesting than the movie she saw. I would guess my closeness to the topic in both this and that case might gives me an insight into both movies that less nerdy people might not have. This, in turn, lets me fill in a lot of blanks and make up for the filmmaker's deficiencies. I could be making the movie better than it is. That may well be true. But Star Wars is supposed to be mythology for our times and mythology is supposed to be a basic form from which one draws a multitude of meanings. To that extent, Lucas remains successful.

The other thing I guess I should address is your concern with plot inconsistency in that Obi Wan, Yoda et al. are unable to sense the presence of Palpatine, an evil Jedi, when the other movies are full of Jedi detecting each other's presence. I could try to develop some hole-filling argument like "The Sith have been hiding for a long while and probably know how to disguise themselves, whereas Jedi are more forthright and never do this," or some such rot. But doing so seems superfluous in a number of ways.

First, science fiction is only science fiction. It isn't, after all, the music drama of Richard Wagner. I pretty much think I got my seven bucks worth of stimulation out of the film. The original Star Wars had plot inconsistencies as well, so this is hardly surprising. It is unfortunate that science fiction is so closely tied with realism. Of course, that is the challenge: to create a realistic artificial world. But on the other hand, while much of the form is realistic, the actual endeavor of making Star Wars movies is romantic: telling a great mythological story in an entirely imaginary world.

To a certain extent, I think it is appropriate to judge Star Wars movies by the standards of romanticism, rather than realism. For example, Wagner's Ring remains one of the masterworks of romanticism and has quite a few plot inconsistencies. The thing is that The Ring is still a triumphant work. To sit and pick at plot tangles instead of throwing one's self into the maelstrom of sublime emotional conflict and deep meanings would be, in my opinion, pedantry of the worst sort. You'd be missing the point and, with it, quite an experience. While Star Wars movies are, in sum total, merely works of science fiction and can hardly compare to the music drama of Wagner, I still love science fiction and believe that it need not limit itself to the strictures of realism to be a good and fun story. Lucas created very black and white characters because he believes that film these days strives for too much realism, too much gray in its techniques and morality. Well, damn it, I personally miss the good guys winning and the bad guys losing and fuck realism. Realism has no potential to be grand and larger than life and we all need that now and then. I like a little romanticism. If that means bearing with the occasional plot hole, I'll live with it. That particular plot hole isn't so glaring that it ruins it for me.

I guess while I'll have to confess that this installment isn't nearly as good as the others, I did get a heck of a lot of fun out of it and I really can't wait to see what comes next. The next movies are supposed to get very dark and as I always believed that Empire was the best of the bunch (which makes sense, it's Vader's movie and I've always believed that Lucas does villains better than heroes) so I'm excited about the next two. I'm pretty sure that the James Clavell "first hundred pages" effect will be gone and I think they'll be pretty exciting. But I confess that I grew up on this stuff and am sentimental about it.

Commend me to your wife. While you said you may not get the chance to write again soon, I hope you do, because it was truly stimulating. Take care!

Your pal,


P.S. September 5, 1999. I forgot to mention that I think Jar-Jar Binx should die quickly at the top of the second movie so that it doesn't really do much to disrupt the flow of subsequent events and that we start the growth of a tragedy in a light-hearted and comic note.


StLee said...

"So, I threw the Senate at him, the whole senate, true story...

Cuphound said...

Very, very cute. I had quite a chuckle.

I can't believe that someone is actually digging through this blog.

I'm deeply honored, Shawn.