Thursday, September 1, 2011

STAR WARS: EPISODE 1.25

Following the delivery of Episode I, several different literary pieces fill in gaps in the timeline.

I say gaps, as opposed to "the gap" for a very specific reason, that I'll get to below. The main driving narrative force in terms of the literature between Episode I and II is the Jedi Quest series. This series is the Anakin analogue of the Jedi Apprentice series (mentioned in this post) as it attempts to chart the growth of the character from Phantom Menace to Attack of the Clones. Somewhat in line with this is Allen Dean Foster's prequel novel, The Approaching Storm.

I write "attempts to" for the same reason the post is titled Episode 1.25, in that it provides what appears to be a quarter of the necessary development to describe how Anakin goes from being the character portrayed by Jake Lloyd to the perpetually angry, brooding, poorly contained mess portrayed by Hayden Christensen (again, not blaming Christensen, I honestly believe he acted as he was directed to, and that serves its purpose in what the films actually are, honestly). None of the books ever get to a point where they accurately justify the change from Lloyd's precocious kid to Christensen's angsty (and eventually haunted) teen; it does a little of the ground work, but there's a lot left to the imagination to get the reader all the way. Later developments seem to work better, especially the Clone Wars TV show, which helps to humanize Anakin as a character by giving him his own Padawan--but I'll address that later when we get there.

I often wonder if the reason for this is that no one writing the material knew how Anakin would turn out, or how he would be portrayed. There seems to be a consensus in the books that Anakin, in the intermediary phase, is troubled and sometimes even acts out of a sense of distorted justice (in one of the kids' books Anakin murders a slaver after capturing him alone and later claims self defense). However, this may have more to do with the fact that the writers knew the character must eventually become Darth Vader, rather than any prescient knowledge about the direction the character in the films might take.

It's a moot point, since there hasn't been much elaborated on about the Anakin character in this time period since. The other, more interesting books in this time period have to do with a sort of retroactive continuity problem. At the same time as the first few prequels were in development, New Jedi Order, a series set decades after the original Star War movie (and some fifty years after Episode I) involved an intergalactic invasion.

Two books deal slightly with this. Greg Bear's Rogue Planet deals pretty heavily with this, as the titular planet has come into contact with an advance team of the invaders (though never named explicitly) and Timothy Zahn's Outbound Flight suggests that there is perhaps some prescient knowledge of the invasion, perhaps by some Jedi, and perhaps even by Darth Sidious/Chancelor Palpatine; which would make his reasons for conquest and galactic consolidation a bit more sensible if he knew that his pond might be threatened. The Zahn book also sets up early encounters with the character who would be Grand Admiral Thrawn in the later books (a sort of alien Sherlock Holmes whose shadow looms--I think unfortunately--over the literary legacy).

This is interesting to me, as it exerts the express need for a unified continuity so strongly, that it's necessary to go back in the timeline and exert force upon it in order to conform later events. Quite frankly, it's bizarre, since the Star Wars universe is supposed to have thousands, perhaps millions of inhabitable systems, and yet every character seems to know that Tatooine is a dusty backwater--when the impression I always got from the films was that Tatooine was Tatooine because it was off of everyone's radar. Sure, have characters reference notable things, like the Kessel run, or Coruscant, but does everyone have to know about gas mining operations on Bespin? That just seems silly. In a universe that big, it should be okay that no one's every heard a peep from Thrawn, The Yuzong Vhong, or any number of other strange threats.

The reason, of course, is that people will pay to get what they've seen before. No matter how much I think Luke Skywalker's relationship with Mara Jade (another Zahn invention) is out of character and dumb, it's what people apparently are willing to pay for. I realize that I'm going off on a tangent full of names people are unlikely to know if they aren't avid Star Wars fiction readers, and for that I apologize.

More importantly, I'd say that the Star Wars fiction of this time period is uneven and unfortunately spaced. The films, by nature, depict the primary events in the Star Wars universe; which leaves a strange ten year gap between Episode I and II, that unfortunately the nature of Anakin's character in one and then the other, indicate that actually, not much really happened. Trying to fill those gaps must have been a really difficult proposition for all the writers involved. At least The Clone Wars have a war to fall back on.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and its Problem Children

The Phantom Menace lives in a strange kind of infamy already; and if you're reading this, you've almost certainly seen it. I'm not going to use this space to review the film, as there are adequate resources out there that seek to explain what many fans of the original films find lacking in prequels, and the first film in particular. Also I don't think it's horrendous the way many fans do. It's my least favorite, certainly, but it's not all the horror that its made out to be.

What I'm more interested in here is the difficulty and apparent method of the adaptation of the source material, its implications for the existing Star Wars literary tradition, and the way in which those factors change how and what Star Wars means.

My first exposure to The Phantom Menace narrative was perhaps a few weeks in advance of the film. Lucas Books released a semi-finalized version of the screenplay with storyboards inset as an "Illustrated Screenplay." Shortly after the film was released, this version of the screenplay was discontinued and a corrected version, without the storyboards, replaced it. I still have the original.

The Phantom Menace itself, in screenplay form, borrows elements of the original rough draft that George Lucas wrote for the first Star Wars; most specifically set dressing: A silver spaceship, battlefield decisions of the enemies dictated by commerce, multiple giant floating battlestations, etc. The script contains all the things that people have found objectionable, Jar-Jar, a precocious young Anakin, midichlorians, virgin birth, but it's also much more forgivingon the page the beats all follow a certain pattern that seems like it would make a viably engaging, entertaining, possibly even inteligent, tentpole film. A number of the scenes I found most engaging in the script were either left on the cutting room floor, or excised before shooting actually began.

One possible reason for them not being present was that, according to rumor, a significant portion of the film was shot out of focus, and this was not discovered until serious work on the edit began. This may account for certain oddities in the construction of some scenes in the film, and it has been suggested that this is what spurred George Lucas to push the technology to shoot the remaining films entirely digitally, since digital video production allows for immediate playback of the captured material. Some of the missing scenes must have been shot, since they appeared in other licensed media (a shot reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, of young Obi Wan Kenobi's face emerging from a muddy lake appeared in the videogame).


Terry Brooks' novel adaptation seems like it was probably based, in tandem, on this version of the screenplay and a post-production workprint of the film. Brooks' adaptation contains many of the same scenes and material cut from the finished product that are present in the screenplay (and some other material clearly made up to fill in backstory) but the description and dialogue presentation suggest that Brooks was working off the line readings and visuals present in the actual film. This is problematic, as the film is unfortunately lesser than the screenplay, and Brooks' adaptation reflects this, particularly in the depiction of Jar-Jar and Anakin.

If I had to pin down one thing that annoys me about Jar Jar, it's the character's vocal delivery. Divorced from the voice, I can take Jar Jar just fine. I feel like this is similar to the problem of the Raiden character from the Metal Gear Solid video game series.

With Metal Gear Solid 2, focus testing amongst Japanese girls led the series creators to try a new main character who was young and handsomely pretty, Raiden (Jack). However, the Japanese version of the character was given a low voice that managed to imply an inherent masculinity that offset the youth, melancholy, and frustration of his character. Based on the character's look and dialogue, the American localization team gave Raiden a high-pitched, whiny, wishy-washy characterization that alienated fans from the character and the series. For me, just so Jar Jar.

This problem extends from Jar Jar (who's voice makes his sensible pidgin English in the script difficult to follow) to Anakin (Jake Lloyd's unfortunate literal readings of lines like "Yippee!" and "Now that's podracing!" are film momentum killers). In the storyboards, Anakin is implied to be a kid version of Han Solo, confident and brash, but this fails to appear in the finished film; Anakin is instead whiny and earnest, an unattractive combination of traits his older incarnation shares. Not that I'm bashing Ahmed Best, Jake Lloyd or Hayden Christensen here, since I think they were kind of thrown to the wolves. Nowhere more is it clear that something went wrong for the direction received by the actors than the fact that Liam Neeson refused to return for the next two films, despite the fact that his character Qui Gon Jin was clearly meant to show up in the final act of Episode III as a ghost to teach Yoda and Obi Wan how to come back from death.

Again, not to bash Terry Brooks either (I've never been a huge fan, though I read a number of his Shannara and Landover books as a kid) but The Phantom Menace is probably the worst of the Star Wars novels I've read. It feels like it's no fault of Brooks', more like he was trying to present an accurate portrayal of the film and script materials he had access to. Rather than go on about that, I'd like to address what The Phantom Menace means in regards to the Star Wars literary series as a whole.

The Phantom Menace arrived at the same time as the Star Wars literary series was being brought into line. For almost a decade Star Wars fiction had been allowed to run rampant (something I'll get to once I get past the original films and into Timothy Zahn territory) with the storylines sometimes running at cross purposes. Children's, teen, and adult novels were all supposed to co-exist in the same universe, despite having completely different conventions, expectations, and levels of literary maturity. Characters named to be marketable to children were having to be shoehorned as side characters into adult novels, when it was clear that no overarching plan was set for the further development of the literary legacy. A more unified storyline, with a specific arc (The New Jedi Order) had been planned and was being implemented furthuring the Star Wars legacy with stories about the Solos, Luke Skywalker, and a new set of Jedi Knights.

The Phantom Menace introduced a series of wrenches into the works. In particular these had the most to do with The Jedi and Sith organizations. Sith were suddenly relegated to 2, no more no less. Whole book series had been devoted to remnants of Sith cultures, with rival Sith academies to Luke's new Jedi Academy, with scores of Sith coming out of the woodworks as regular villains. Other major revelations: Jedi don't marry or form emotional attachments, the force is regulated by mitochondria-like organisms within the bloodstream, individual Jedi's take Padawan (the term Padawan appears in the 2nd draft of the original Star Wars screenplay, if I recall correctly) apprentices, R2D2 and C-3PO are involved, and Darth Vader was once a little slave kid who really missed his mom. The editors would spend the next decade scrambling to figure out a way to square the circle Lucas had made of the series with the new films.

Some of the material in the prequels even directly contradicts material in episode 4. One of the standard writers for the Star Wars kids' books, Ryder Windham, even wrote a pair of books almost completely dedicated to clearing up these discrepancies showing the lives of both Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader told from their perspectives. These books contain such justifications as having Obi Wan Kenobi's ghost teach a dying Anakin Skywalker how to come back as a spirit, in the period where he hangs between life and death after he stops breathing on the Death Star; Darth Vader recognizing the Lars' (Luke's aunt and uncle) as he orders their deaths; some of what Obi Wan tells Luke in his home is described as the old wizard lying slyly; Darth Vader recognizing C-3PO's blasted carcass in cloud city, and personally making sure it's returned to Chewbacca; etc.

A justification for any sort of fandom can always be reached by its fans, but when the material is actually written down in something like a list, you can actually see where it stretches credulity past the point of reasonable suspension of disbelief. And we're talking about Star Wars here, it's generally not hard to suspend disbelief in something Star Wars related.

However, as weird and unworkable as some of it seems, it does make for awfully interesting reading on an academic level, and that's something I'll get to with the next piece I write about, which will most likely center on material between The Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

My goal is to publish at least one of these a week. Hopefully I'll be able to update regularly without difficulty.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Can A Feminist Action Genre Work?

There's been a lot written about Joss Whedon and feminism on the web, or rather the lack of feminism in his work. It's interesting beyond the examination of personal disappointment and outrage for a few reasons; one is the nature of the specific backlash against Whedon himself, another is that there is rarely an attempt to put his work into broader context, as well as the fundamental question of what a feminist action genre might look like.

The question of feminist action is one that's been on my mind for a while, especially in the wake of Sucker Punch. There have been a few positive reviews of Sucker Punch which allege that we are supposed to be made terribly uncomfortable by the action scene fantasies that lead character Baby Doll retreats into when she dances, alleging that the action set-pieces are where she goes internally while being metaphorically raped, and that we are supposed to squirm at the implication. I should note that the positive reviews I read were written by men, and while I imagine there are some women who enjoyed the movie, I have yet to read a review by one. To that sentiment, I have to say that if that's the case, if we are meant to squirm, then Sucker Punch is an unmitigated failure, since the action sequences glorify this escapism over reality, which is explained, sarcastically, in more depth by Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media here.

Then this week I saw Hanna, which I did not like much at all. Hanna has only one likable female character, Rachel, the mother of the traveling family, played by Olivia Williams. An aging hippy tied to a family life that inhibits her personal growth and dreams, Rachel wistfully projects her own wants and desires on the titular adolescent character in a few shared scenes. Hanna, on the other hand, is a blank slate, Torvald Helmer's ideal doll from A Doll's House made lethal, framed and shaped by her father Erik without any fundamental will of her own, who acts mainly as a foil for other characters. He plays her against Cate Blanchet's smirkingly evil wicked CIA stepmother/witch: grotesque, nasty, vicious and completely unsympathetic; a woman only as destroyer. Most annoying of all to me is that following a scene where Hanna puts a boy in a headlock for trying to kiss her, she plants a chaste kiss on the mouth of her new female friend while the two of them hide under the covers. If there aren't supposed to be some sapphic undertones there, to the delightful squee of male nerds everywhere, the filmmakers drastically fucked up; I sat in the theatre rolling my eyes. And yet, when I was writing my review, I saw several articles online that framed Hanna as a feminist film.

The question is, can there even be a feminist action film, or action TV show, as we know it? The action film (and TV show by extension) as it exists now is a version of a male fantasy that has been constantly refined as a narrative for thousands of years of recorded storytelling. In that time, especially in The West, tales of female empowerment have been consistently censored out of the overarching cultural narrative. If there is a standard archetypal female empowerment narrative, we have lost it. In that sense, it makes sense that culturally, our attempts to create a narrative of female empowerment borrow the tropes of male empowerment, and slap a female onto the same story. The fact that there is a collision between the idea of female empowerment and the hetero male fantasy is hardly surprising.

Doubtful? If you're a straight man, have you ever fantasized about being Edward from Twilight? Didn't think so. I bet you've fantasized about being Han Solo, or maybe even (gasp!) Duke Nukem, though. Where are the women in action movies that women want to be?

Hollywood is profoundly male dominated, so much so that there was a critical lament at the box-office failure of Punisher War Zone (directed by a woman, Lexi Alexander, and an extremely masculine film that hewed close to its ridiculous source material in a very, very satisfying way) because it was felt by film critics that the industry would take this as an indication that women had the inability to perform the job satisfactorily, and would be less likely to hire them. Even Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar win, regardless of the excellence of The Hurt Locker, can be seen as the industry choosing to throw a bone to a vocal minority group in order to placate them about inequality in the workplace. With this kind of attitude dominating the marketplace, it's not surprising that many gimmicky attempts to capture the female market are simply male oriented films with female characters plopped on top of them (consider the upcoming Judd Apatow produced, Mike Feig directed Bridesmaids, which essentially looks like a male gross-out comedy with the men replaced by women).

Into this mix comes Joss Whedon. Whedon is a third generation TV writer, which explains a good deal about his prejudices and strengths within the format. His grandfather wrote for Leave it To Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show, and his father was head writer on The Electric Company, and wrote for Alice and The Golden Girls. Before shooting to fame with the Buffy TV show, Whedon was story editor on Roseanne (a show I've always thought was less of a sitcom and more of an unwatchable self deceiving examination of horrible domestic strife) who left the show when he found success as a screen writer (Buffy movie) and script doctor (Toy Story, X-Men, etc.), then the Buffy show.

Whedon's Buffy pioneered many great ideas in television, helping to make the seasonal narrative arc a standard part of dramatic television, raising the bar on character driven storytelling, and crafting a strong self-contained fantasy and science fiction narrative that wasn't hoaky, much in the way that X-Files had done for horror. Additionally, Buffy's narrative presented a female protagonist who was physically more capable than her (largely male) opponents, creating a female superhero who wasn't wrapped in spandex, secondary to male counterparts, or ostensibly a lesbian (characters like Xena, and even Kima from The Wire, don't do a lot of favors here, aside from implying that lesbians are badass). In many ways Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a huge step forward, that helps make it possible for us to have conversations about it not being feminist.

There is also the question of how much of this is by Whedon's design, and how much was studio interference. In the lead up to his recent Dollhouse, FOX rejected two pilots, which likely meant a massive restructuring of the narrative. I'm not excusing Whedon (the dude seems to have as much of an obsession with prostitutes as William Vollman, something commented on internally in the DVD-only finale of Dollhouse season 1, "Epitaph 1") but it does raise the question of whether or not something that was actually more female empowering could get on the air.

That Buffy has been held up as a paragon of female empowerment is why I think it, and Whedon in particular, get slammed so hard by a backlash. It's more difficult to be irately angry at Zack Snyder for making Sucker Punch, since he made the homoerotic beef-fest 300, and the superhero sex-fantasy version of Watchmen; his pedigree doesn't scream female empowerment. However, when Whedon says that he's a feminist, and super-powered or empowered chicks are his thing, it's a whole lot easier to be critical when they are revealed as either completely emotionally fragile (Buffy) prostitutes (Inara, everyone in the Dollhouse) psychotic lunatics (Evil Willow, Faith) or just plain psychologically broken (Fred/Illyria, River, everyone in the Dollhouse).

This is not to say that I don't like a good psychologically broken character. My favorite movie is Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time, which features the idea that the only way one could become a super-powered martial artist is by being fundamentally psychologically flawed. Similarly, one of my favorite TV shows ever is the delightfully non-linear Boogiepop Phantom, whose character Kirima Nagi (a sort of anime analogue to Buffy) remains focussed solely on the supernatural goings on surrounding the death of her father, she doesn't have time for love. She's also a bit of a psychopath, but I never feel like she's exploited or weak as a character. Maybe I'll accept a feminist action genre if I begin to find all the men in it are annoyingly unrealistic fantasies (see Edward again) or if they are just put there to be female conquests (it pretty much worked in Waitress, why not an action film?) though technically that wouldn't be feminist either. The second half of Tarrantino's Death Proof does pretty well, but is completely marred by how much delight the first half takes in villain Stuntman Mike severing limbs and scraping faces off of the film's female protagonists with his car.

But so far, if there is a feminist action film or TV show that totally rocks it, I haven't seen it yet. While we ate delicious Philly-Cheesesteak sandwiches after the movie, I addressed my concerns about Sucker Punch to my girlfriend (the totally awesome Corinne) who turned to me without any disappointment and said, "yeah, but that's every movie."

Let me know if you have some recommendations.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Hanna

Today I saw Joe Wright's Hanna. Hanna is about a girl (Saoirse Ronan) raised by her ex-CIA agent father (Erik Bana) in a arctic woodland, where he trains her as an assassin until the day when the two will re-emerge by sending her on a mission to kill a woman high up on the CIA ladder, Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett) with ties to their history. Hanna's father reads the Encyclopedia to her as a bedtime story, and Hanna's treasured possession is a book of Grimm's fairy tales with a photo-booth strip of pictures of her deceased pregnant mother used as a bookmark. The juxtaposition of Hanna's ignorance about the modern world, the Grimm's fairy tale, and her fight for survival (in a post-card she sends to her father after a vicious action sequence, Hanna writes "The witch is dead.") is clearly meant to frame the story as a modern fable replete with the viciousness, uncanny nature, and wonder, of the tales the Grimm brothers collected.

On paper, Hanna works very well, watching it I could read a razor edged script behind the film that combined action-thriller with Grimm marchen, where a ride-along in the van of a vacationing hippy British family is analogous to a trail of breadcrumbs. However, pretty much immediately I recognized that Hanna was the kind of movie that would appeal to a certain set of movie-going audience, to whom it would be the coolest thing ever. Fans of low gurgly bass music used to denote ominous portents and driving synth beats against which shots of characters running are spastically intercut will think this is the greatest movie ever; Hanna is designed as a kind of nouveau-cool low-fi techno adventure, constructed to hit specific beats that are meant to be poignant, badass, grotesque, and ultimately ironically sarcastic about it's own meaning. To everyone else, and this includes me, Hanna betrays a kind of filmic soullessness, in which the execution of the narrative within this construction of beats works against it in order to destroy nuance and character integrity.

Perhaps if the theme of the Grimm fairy tales had been a bit tighter, or if Hanna had used them in anything other than a vague portent; no specific tale or story is ever mentioned; or perhaps if I hadn't already seen a film that used that device in a way that I like, I might have warmed more to the film. I'm quite fond of the Mamoru Oshii penned, Hiroyuki Okiura directed animated feature Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, which uses the Grimm version of Little Red Riding Hood against its tale of police corruption and underground terrorism. It's a bad sign for Hanna, that I began to think of this when I got bored halfway through the film. Jin-Roh is long and slow, but it never bores me the way Hanna did. I actually started wishing I'd seen the critically panned Your Highness instead.

While I'd have to get out a stopwatch to really see if it was, Hanna feels like it's cut in an almost metric way, like none of the scenes were allowed an adequate time to breath because they were cut to fit a specific timetable determined before the film was shot. It's as if the character development needed to show Hanna's growth as a character is always just around the corner of a scene, but is pinched off because it doesn't fit the specific beat the film is aiming for. Or that Marissa Weigler's obsessive teeth cleaning to the point of intentionally squirm-inducing bloodiness is handled in a way that recalls David Lynch on mood stabilizers; it never reaches a level that's grotesque enough to be interesting, as if they needed just a few more moments of that cut of blood gushing around the gums to make me feel something, anything.

Similarly, the fights never quite reach any sense of consequence after Hanna escapes from an underground bunker in the film's beginning, because Hanna and her father are quickly revealed to be functionally invincible. This is especially hard to take in a sequence in which Hanna knife fights some guys in a maze of shipping containers. Much smaller than the men she's confronting, Hanna is shown taking them on directly, as if she could match them blow for blow, against men who are probably twice her body weight. It defies believability and feels like lazy filmmaking. At least in Kick Ass the badass preteen character was an agile ninja, even if she was played for comedy.

The point that I became the most upset with Hanna was its ending, which was a call-back to the opening scene of the film. This a technique that can certainly work (Fight Club comes to mind) but in Hanna, rather than being poignant or clever it just comes off as trying to be intentionally ironic; sarcastically slapping the audience in the face with it's own sense of pretentious cleverness. In short, I didn't like it, and it ruined what goodwill I had for the movie up until that point.

If I were to give Hanna a letter grade I would give it a straight C, which is the worst grade I can give a movie. F's and D's make interesting or shockingly funny failures, and a A or a B is an actual good movie. Hanna is the kind of movie that makes me angry for wasting my time with pretentious mediocrity.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NEW PLAY: HAMLET REX

I've started work on a new play, a sequel to Hamlet. Here's the first part of the opening monologue, by the Steward of Norway, presiding over the funeral of Fortinbras (who invades at the end of the original play).

STEWARD
Death in its myriad virulent forms
casts itself upon the state of Denmark.
In grave misfortune we find Elsinore
again beset by regency's fell end,
taken amidst the restoration of faith
in monarchic rule, the government
now thrust back to chaos; to wit:
In death, here lies my young lord Fortinbras,
of late the recent lord of both Norway,
by birth, and the Danes, by right of conquest.
His end unprecedented by augur
or infirmity prior existing;
fallen in mystery that leaves both states
without benefit of a reigning King.

Blake Peterson, copyright 2011.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Importance of Twilight

On my days off this week, Corinne (my girlfriend) and I saw two Alex Pettyfer movies, I Am Number Four, and Beastly. Pettyfer seems to be being corporately positioned like a sunny alternative to Robert Pattinson, with a similar lean, handsome look, but with a pair of blond tresses instead of Pattinson's broody pseudo-goth eternal muss. Both films owe an incredible amount to Twilight, whose out-of-control teenage-romance narrative uses fantasy elements to craft a purely escapist metaphor for properly sanctioned female teenage sexuality in America. I'll get back to that later.

I Am Number Four re-stages the vampires for aliens, which allows the narrative to recall Star Wars, but keep its semi-tragic forbidden love story. It reaches the crescendo of silliness when Timothy Olyphant (as Pettyfer's alien guardian and defacto surrogate dad) tells him "We don't love like the humans, for us it's forever." As laughable as this kind of line can seem from an adult perspective, for teens experiencing the first pangs of love, it rings true, since the intensity of the emotion seems unmatchable; how could it not last forever when it feels so strong? For Twilight, this same sort of endless desire is codified as the love the vampires of the Cullen family share.

Beastly was the more successful of the pair, borrowing elements, rather than aping the narrative of Twilight whole (both were adapted from teen novels). Beastly recasts Beauty and the Beast for the Twilight milieu, Pettyfer plays a vain, cruel, shallow teen, who is cursed by a witch (played a bit too snidely by Mary Kate Olsen) to be "ugly" which results in a very carefully calculated scarification of his face, that nevertheless leaves him with a symmetrical, strikingly fascinating (but I wouldn't say ugly) visage. His face is the focus of much of the film, and from Twilight it borrows sparkles, with gleaming metal inset into the scars, and gorgeous henna-like tattoos of trees and branches. His frustration, which causes him to lash out in socially appropriate small bursts of violence, his salvation of the heroine from thugs and subsequent semi-misogynistic protection of her, and his sparkly other-worldy beautiful nature in his "Beastly" form are all taken directly from the Twilight playbook.

Twilight is big business, the books were a smash success, the films are colossal (with the film stars actually being in physical danger from mobs of fans) so it's no wonder that Hollywood should try and ape its success (I Am Number Four was produced by Michael Bay). What is surprising to me is the hefty scorn and critical rejection of both the Twilight books and films. This is particularly mystifying considering the generally successful critical reception of the later Harry Potter books (the last of which falls into a realm of pure masculine escapism). This begs the question, is overly harsh criticism of Twilight fundamentally sexist?

The Twilight films are not particularly made well, but they're not particularly poorly made either (though they do clearly have some poor decisions woven throughout). The first book heavily disappointed me, and I found all kinds of reasons to justify my disappointment, but in retrospect, it was not for those reasons that I was disappointed, but that the narrative was so well constructed before the supernatural elements were introduced--Bella Swan's initial experience of Forks is not only a great examination of teen angst, but also a pretty dead-on description of the town (outside of which my brother was married in July 2006, before the Twilight phenomenon made the town super famous)--and following that initial section, the sense of character and realism took a dive into what seemed to be an infantile romantic fantasy.

It makes sense, fantasy and escapism are primary stress responses that are endemic to childhood; who as a child didn't spend time in school imagining they were somewhere else to stave off boredom? There's an academic perception that escapism is negative thing, though there shouldn't necessarily be one; fantasy can be helpful, provided that it isn't forced to take the place of reality. The majority of Hollywood blockbusters, good or bad, are basically adolescent male escapist fantasies (and those that aren't are usually adult male escapist fantasies). Twilight just happens to be an example of a female escapist fantasy that hits a certain number of specific socially expected norms; to a target audience that has grown up with a Bush-mandated abstinence-only sex education Twilight's conservative fantasy of lust and restraint, longing and desire may just fit the bill. This may also explain why the demographic that has gone crazy for Twilight has been not only pre-teen and early teenage girls, but also their grandmothers, who may have grown up with more sexually conservative mores.

Twilight as a franchise is not any worse, than, say, the new Star Wars films, which were given a hefty amount of critical acceptance; I believe mostly because the audience that grew up with the original trilogy now makes up the vast majority of critics. Yet, looking back, the fan and critical favorite, The Empire Strikes Back, was the worst reviewed film of the original trilogy. Twilight, it seems to me, is set to inhabit a similar place in the history of film and literature (a place also shared by Harry Potter) as an escapist fantasy that defines a specific target demographic that will eventually outgrow the sentiment of the books and films, but not the nostalgia for those titles.

That Twilight's popularity has drastically changed the face of teen pop culture is assured in how it's currently aping it, teen fiction shelves in bookstores are flooded with bloodsucker tales, television as well (from HBOs True Blood, to network TV's Vampire Diaries, and so on) and whole spoof films and satirical parodies have been shot and written specifically targeting the franchise. This may seem like a dumb fad, and perhaps it is, but it does not negate the importance of what Twilight represents, which is a female genre-geek demographic that is built specifically for women. Perhaps Twilight gets so much hate specifically because it infringes on masculine genre territory (and specifically genres that have in the past been primarily male-driven). That Anne Rice, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Laurel K. Hamilton may have opened the doors for this Twilight to exist is immaterial, since each of those is built upon male fantasy structures, whereas Twilight reinvents the fantasy to apply specifically to a female (if unthinkingly self-repressing) audience.

That it specifically targets the social expectation, a remainder of a bygone era, of female submission to male protection, actually plays into existing cultural norms. Twilight as narrative is actually strengthened as a contemporary meme by it's female lead being physically and emotionally weak, as this conforms to negative and repressive social expectations and prejudices. Moreover, the way the narrative continuously develops, especially in the final book, to alleviate expected pressures of reality within a male dominated culture (heroine Bella's child with Edward is an empathic superbeing she does not actually have to take care of, she is immune to the hunger for human blood that dominates new vampires, the other member of her love triangle is destined to protect and care for her superbaby, her vampire talent is the ability not to be affected by vampire abilities, etc.) allows the reader to have their cake and eat it too. Bella can be both perfect wife, mother, and will live forever as a teenage beauty whose lustre will never fade. In this sense she can perfectly straddle traditional values (by having the difficulty of them eradicated via supernatural means) and be a modern independent woman, since the difficulties of that a traditional life are immaterial.

This is not that much different from, say the frustrations of masculine life being eradicated by an all-powerful energy field that makes the physically impossible possible, and increases empathy through a pantheistic telepathy; e.g. The Force. Or that masculine power fantasies, in opposition to those in Twilight (the final confrontation ends with the enemies leaving, having been heavily intimidated, without a single drop of blood spilled) often involved an increased capacity for extreme violence, and violence as the primary solution to problems (though almost never instigated by the hero, always ended, so as to be justified).

To put it short, let's cut Twilight a break. It's no dumber, smarter, better or worse, than half the crap we consume regularly. It's just different. That shouldn't be a bad thing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Poem: My Brains

My Brains
A poetic anomaly by me
Blake Peterson
Who has once
masqueraded as the Toddlander,
The Sinclaira Sinclair,
And whips wibbltople to the doggerel dan.
Is it comperable to say that robotic doggy del elk mens
are of the opinionation
that monkeys eat the spice
melange
in that whoodo
robotic way?

Ques quiille y as dou?
Or some such thing that might be
said
when the nonononnny comes
to the ra-ta-ta
Or that's what the wordsmith
spake
upon Shittington-Smythe's
terrible name;

Who robotics robotocs rotobacks
tobaccoracks in the cerandian
winter of blueselzbum trees
and kilframa jamma knites?

Of course the inherent problem of a gibberish poem
is the fundamental breakdown between
reasonable discourse and
fligammaflam or gabbrioleis contuniflam;
Adjornifaq in the zoolian
bijornies.
Or rather stop attempting
lucid dreams
and submit to wholesome
nightmarish experience
in the range
of an expansion;
lacking in exactitude,
but superlative in gesture,
idle memory, expression,
and perfect referendum on
terrifying wistful willful
underminding oneness.

That is to say,
we may as well
flimflamagram
in dreams as
we might try to
control them,
for all the
good it
does
in

. . . yaaaaah . . .

Woke up. What was I saying?

02/21/11

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sanctum, 3D, and Critical Problems

Today I saw James Cameron's Sanctum, a 3D movie using the Cameron/Pace system created for Avatar. There's been a lot of speculation that the movie was primarily meant as tech demo for the underwater sections of Cameron's upcoming Avatar sequels, which are supposed to focus on Avatar's oceans. These claims are bolstered by the fact that the movie was written and produced by one of the producers of Cameron's Imax 3D documentaries, Aliens of the Deep and Ghosts of the Abyss.

I've often told people that Rambo II seems to be the quintessential Cameron film (Cameron is credited as one of the writers) and an almost perfect example of eighties action film formula; it simplifies Rambo as a character by giving him a self-justified battle against a universally evil enemy, humanizes him through mortal loss of his sympathetic companion, and has an action beat every 10-15 pages. True Lies also follows a similar model, but spikes its action cocktail with a fair amount of winking at itself, which itself became a major leitmotif of 90's action films (at least until the end of the decade, when the sudden influx of martial arts film-styles from Hong Kong replaced ham-fisted action sequences with the impressive visual choreography, and strange earnest enthusiasm, that dominated the 00's).

But aside from questions of the legitimacy of the movie's motivation (with a reported 30 million dollar budget that's probably not outside of what Cameron, who's Titanic and Avatar films had extravagant budgets, might consider appropriate for a tech demo) Sanctum highlights an interesting set of issues involved with the critique of 3D films. Specifically, 3D films, as a format, must necessarily push the use of frame filling effects in order to exploit the ability to directly experience space. This is vastly different discipline than traditional film lighting, smoke, or other effects, which are used to create the illusion of 3D space. It must do this because the 3D effects of 3D films, unless the 3D is accentuated, eventually fades; the psychological impact of 3D stops being impressive when the audience eventually stops noticing it. This means that in order to accentuate the use of 3D, a whole different language of 3D volume must be applied.

Water effects turn out to be particularly good looking, because of their physical volume. Different streams, mist, rain, all have a particularly strong look in 3D as they fill the volume of space. Enclosed spaces, partial reflections, glass, and bodies of translucent water allow the expression of depth within volume. These are, on a fundamental level, visuals that are more strongly associated with genre; probably the most with horror. Similarly there are problems with the 3D at the edge of the frame with extreme foreground material, or with over-the-shoulder shots, which are a staple of expository or character driven scenes. This makes traditional composition of dialogue scenes a problem.

In short, this means that 3D, as a format, is driven towards genre, until filmic language changes in order to accommodate these issues. And unfortunately, since the experimentation necessary to get positive 3D effects often is the primary focus of the genre filmmakers working with it, 3D films will most likely continue to be relegated to B-cinema, until that language becomes more sophisticated. This relegates 3D to subject material that critics will deride as gimmicky and stupid, much in the way that they now deride video game films; and once derided both comic book films and television as being stupid and worthless.

This is most likely because critics have always been terrified of things that threaten their livelihood. Video games are a new, extremely popular medium that the film community has, in the past, seen as a threat to film revenues. A healthy film industry allows for critics to make a living off of providing their opinions on creative material. Similarly, 3D requires adjustments to the visual language of film in order to function properly, that is a visual language that critics trained to study two dimensional film have no experience with. Without that training to fall back on, there is a void where normally they have a wealth of theoretical knowledge. It's far easier to deride something new than to put oneself out there at the risk of one's ideas being incorrect; with a different language necessary for 3D film to be successful, critics will have to create ways of describing that language. Those critics who do not adapt, may become marginalized, and may no longer be employable if 3D becomes prevalent.
Personally, I think that 3D's popularity will expand, but not due to films, but 3D videogames (like the upcoming autostereoscopic Nintendo 3DS) and 3D television, once glasses are no longer necessary (5-20 years) since the focal distance of handheld videogames and television are things that people in commercial cultures have already been trained to see.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Star Wars: Jedi Apprentice and Cloak of Deception

It's been a while since I wrote one of these and the material isn't completely fresh in my head, but I can still very much remember where I was going with this. So:

So far, the best material, chronologically, in the Star Wars Expanded Universe that I've read are the Jedi Apprentice books. The first was written by Dave Wolverton (who also wrote the stand-alone adventure, The Courtship of Princess Leia, one of my favorites because he was the first Star Wars writer I read who really "got" the force) and the other 20 or so by Jude Watson, who seems to be one of Lucas Books' go to writers for children's fiction.

Going into the Jedi Apprentice books, I had been expecting really hackneyed writing; children's book adaptations of commercial material are almost always garbage, much in the way that adult novelizations of films, comics, or other media generally fall completely short as well. Jedi Apprentice surprised me in this regard, perhaps owing much to the fact that it wasn't just a straight adaptation, but basically an opportunity for an author to fill in the character histories of Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jin.

The relationship of Obi Wan and Qui Gon is at the heart of the series, but it also does quite a bit of conditioning. The initial conflict within the series is Qui Gon's refusal to take Obi Wan as his apprentice, due to his feelings of betrayal that his previous apprentice (the portentously named "Xanatos") had turned to the dark side. This event foreshadows Annakin's turn to the dark side decades later, and plants the seed of an idea that Jedi turning bad is not an isolated event. In a sense, it cushions the reader for elements within the film which might otherwise seem incongruous.

Similarly, in the series, both Obi Wan and Qui Gon fall in love with women within the Jedi order itself. Again, this foreshadows the events of the films and indicates that Jedi are not emotionless drones or emotionally perfectly centered monks. However, the books go to lengths to show both Obi Wan and Qui Gon going to lengths to conquer these feelings in order to continue to discharge their duties as Jedi Knights.

These events, and one in which Obi Wan briefly leaves the Jedi order, serve the function of normalizing Annakin's actions in the films that follow them in the narrative. At each of these events, it shows the human reactions--if terribly emotionally repressed in the case of Qui Gon, generally--of the Jedi, allowing them the burden of empathy, which is largely absent in the films' depictions of the Jedi order, which show them much as service oriented monks without much in the way of emotional conflicts.

However, what makes the series work is the focus, outside of its relation to the films, on the relationship between Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jin. The most poignant part of each narrative arc is a focus the Master and Apprentice' synchronicity in action when the two of them are emotionally in balance; this corresponds virtually directly to the functionality of the filial relationship that develops between them. When Qui Gon's orders are wise, when he listens to Obi Wan and is aware of his feelings/when Obi Wan is mindful of his master's orders and feels confidence in Qui Gon's trust, the relationship is one of mutual pride and respect. At those points both of them access the force in tandem and act as a unit, rather than individuals, strengthening their ability to carry out their missions. Outside of combat scenes this is related as a growing and evolving father/son relationship that actually becomes emotionally powerful on the page. The last thing I expected when reading a Star Wars children's book series was to find myself close to tears, but it happened several times.

Unfortunately, this relationship does not survive outside of the series. Obi Wan and Qui Gon are shown at odds in The Phantom Menace, with Qui Gon exasperated by his straight-laced apprentice, as Obi Wan is by his master's inability to see that by toeing the line, he could attain a more influential position within the order.

This dynamic of emotional imbalance continues into James Luceno's pre-Phantom Menace novel, Cloak of Deception, in which the Jedi pair foil an attempt on Chancellor Valorum's life orchestrated by Darth Sidious. Ironically, it's one of the best of the Star Wars books I've read by Luceno, whose writing is usually the most flat of Lucas Book's regular stable of writers, but the relationship sadly fails to carry over the development built up by Watson.

Okay! I've made it the Phantom Menace itself! So next time I'll write about that, including my thoughts on the script itself as a starting document and the apparent difficulty in adaptation, which will quickly bring us up to the Clone Wars after that, and all that implies.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lite BDSM in Fantasy Novels

Recently I've been taking a break from reading the Star Wars novels to read Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time books (though it's short the last novel of the series, being finished by Brandon Sanderson and most likely published later this year) and the whole thing brings to mind one weird aspect of fantasy and science fiction; the mild inclusion of BDSM material. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not against this stuff, and it certainly has a tradition going back to the unbound hyper-masculinity of Howard's Conan (which Jordan wrote several entries of in the nineteen-eighties, as I recall) and perhaps refined to it's most blatant masculine power-fantasy in the GOR series (reading one gave me the general idea).

See, women get spanked a lot in Jordan's Wheel of Time books, especially the further into the series it seems to go, generally by cruel or domineering women--sometimes (for comic effect) by men--but usually by women and explained as being part of different matriarchal structured cultures or subcultures within his created world. This is especially prominent in Jordan's Bene Gesserit-esque society of magic users, Aes Sedai. Jordan doesn't comment too much on the phenomenon throughout the books for the most part, simply that it happens a lot, generally between scenes. That is until some of the later volumes, when one of his female characters is captured and her bottom beaten nearly bloody several times a day (but magically healed by her captors between punishments) and must learn to "embrace the pain" to avoid being broken and maintain her dignity. She learns this from companions from another matriarchal society (the strangely tribal-but-not-indigenous Aiel) where honor is prized above mortality; in the Aiel society, doing wrong creates an obligation, and one should freely offer to submit themselves for punishment in order to meet that obligation to the person wronged.

This all has a real sado-masochistic flavor to it; particularly the "embracing the pain" section. Though you could argue that the dominance-submission metaphor of BDSM-style play runs throughout the whole series, since the use of magic of the book is divided into male and female powers. Saidar, the female power, can only be mastered by surrendering to it, and Saidin, the male power, must be wrestled into submission Maybe that's a bit broad. Still, women get spanked a lot.

And yes, it's specifically women. When the primary male character fails to meet his obligations, a group of women put a bag over his head and beat him up with their fists. An earlier sequence, in which he is captured by the Aes Sedai, results in him being regularly beaten in a similar way to the female protagonist. Upon escaping he enslaves the women who beat him (those whom he didn't kill in a fit of rage) and the event is used as a measure of showing how he comes to trust no one. The difference between the two makes for an interesting dynamic; men exist outside of the masochistic/submissive space, and forcing one into it drives the male protagonist out of balance. But when the female protagonist is forced into a similar situation, by surrendering to the physical pain, she blooms into a stronger character. She even reaches out to her captors to try and help them.

There is a similar dynamic in another fantasy book series, The Sword for Truth, by Terry Goodkind. In the first book, his hero Richard is captured by the villain (later revealed to be his own Darth-Vader-like absentee father) who places him in the care of his torturers, a group of dark-leather clad women who wield rods that inflict pain at will (that's magically at will, primarily). Somehow (I don't remember exactly) Richard kills his torturer in a pseudo mercy-killing in which it is revealed that the rods cause nearly unbearable pain to the bearer as well as the victim. He wears her rod after, and the other torturers become his private bodyguard; a group of leather clad dominatrix honor guard. He masters the pain, and in so doing masters them, asserting male dominance where the women have encroached.

These are some of the more blatant guys out there. David Eddings used to throw in a few moments to his fantasy books where his male characters would threaten to spank his female ones for failing to obey now and then, for comic effect; and Robert Heinlein didn't even really divorce the spanking references from sex that much in his later work.

What I often wonder is whether these guys even realize that this stuff is in there. Are these repressed sexual desires, or are they consciously putting this stuff in their otherwise Tolkien-esque fantasy novels? I'm sure there are people out there who would argue that the spanking references are due to the material being set in a pseudo medieval world, with appropriately harsher physical consequences. But these fantasy realms are distinctly modern creations, where magic often replaces ,modern technology. It also begs the question, why focus on the submission of women then, and not men? And in Jordan's case, why with women taking, and primarily doling out, the punishments? Is this linked to his use in later books of the term "pillow friends" for women in lesbian relationships (and yet not one mention of a male homosexual relationship in the entire series)?
Like I said, I'm not saying I mind. It's basically a fantasy epic with a few very male-hetero-oriented BDSM softcore elements, but I do wonder where the flipside is. Are there women out there writing Vampire books in which the domineering male master vampires spank the younger fledgling males? (To the exclusion of female vampires of course). Do they try to pass it off as an element of that world? Sure, Laurel K. Hamilton is essentially writing the vampire equivalent of GOR books, but are there some people out there writing this kind of pseudo BDSM stuff oriented towards women?

Maybe it's all in yaoi comics.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lost Tribe of the Sith

So yesterday I wrote about how the structure of the mythological background of Star Wars had to be changed because of the prequels edict that there are only ever two Sith, and that, in order to keep as much material as had already been created, an event was created 2,000 years before the films that reduced the number of Sith to two. Today I'm going to write a bit about the far reaching effects of that decision on the literary canon, and the attempt to circumvent it.

Most of the first, post-film Skywalker stories were not managed with any particular notes towards integration. Specifically, it seems, from reading one book to the next, that there is a distinct lack of a plan for how to move forward with the series. A good deal of these retain plots that are essentially retellings of the original Star Wars trilogy, but expanded in scale (virtually all of them have some sort of planet destroying technology that falls into the hands of remnants of the Imperial forces--more on that when I get to that section of the timeline). This lasted until 1999, with the 19 book series, New Jedi Order, which comprised one extensive storyline, which set the tone and style for the novels that follow.

As stated before, with the Sith rule of two, the idea that Sith lords can just pop up whenever its convenient for the authors to have a force villain became a serious problem. So a question that is generated is, how do you create a compelling set of villains to challenge the Jedi with what is essentially an injunction against the Sith?

The second of two series that "support" the Skywalker clan stories set in the Old Republic era is actually a serial novel by John Jackson Miller, Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith. Miller (a comic writer with experience writing material in both eras) , provides an "out" that allows for an army of Sith to reappear in the most recent series (set 41 years after the Star Wars Episode 4) by having a ship full of Sith warriors from that 5,000 year past era crash land on a resource scarce, but inhabitable, planet; where over the intervening millennia their numbers grow, and they remain unaware of the rule of two because of their isolation.

At the same time, Lost Tribe is fascinating for its structure, a multi-part serial novel released as a series of free e-books. This allows Miller to jump forward, decade by decade, generation to generation, without having to worry too extensively about disrupting narrative flow, since each piece is a self-contained chunk of the whole. It's also fascinating for it's sympathetic perspective towards it's Sith protagonists. Miller doesn't skirt the ruthlessness of his characters, but he also humanizes them by allowing glimpses of their motivations. The Sith in Lost Tribe are not the smirking, puppeteering villains like the films' Palpatine, nor the video game rage machine that is Darth Bane.

Instead Miller creates emotionally consistent identities for the characters, based on histories within the Sith Empire. A character whose past identity as a servant to the declining imperial masters of the Sith race allows him to provide context for the urgency of her sense of personal ambition within the culture of their new home. And the pragmatic nature that most of the survivors of the crash adopt, to ensure their continued survival, takes a startlingly rational precedence over villainy. I have no doubt that Bane, in the same circumstance would have some supernatural solution to being trapped on the planet, no doubt in the form of a dark side deus ex machina. Lost Tribe puts a surprisingly human face on the Sith, and to me, a welcome one.

Removed from the Star Wars element, the first three entries of Lost Tribe could actually stand on their own as a science fiction story outside of the canon. Elements like their subjugation of the local populace under the guise of being their deities has precedent with the likes of real-world Enlightenment era explorers like Captain James Cook, deified by native Hawaiians, and eventually killed by the same.

Not coincidentally, a stand-alone Star Wars novel, Crosscurrent, deals with characters from the same era. In the Lost Tribe books, the ship is felled by a collision with another Sith ship. That other ship, however, in the resulting explosion is sent forward through time to the same era that the Sith from Lost Tribe eventually emerge. Now that one I haven't read, since most of it takes place during that later Skywalker era (41 or-so years after the films) and I'll be getting back to that, once I reach those books.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Darth Bane and a little history

last time I wrote about the history and the problems of the development of what can be called The Old Republic era of Star Wars literature. I suppose I should give some background to the universe itself. I've avoided writing too much about the plots of the books themselves to try to keep this blog from becoming a book report. So I'll try to give a bit of brief background on the story itself.

Though none of the comic, videogames, or literary material take place more than five thousand years before the films, they do sometimes contain references to a longer history. The Republic, with it's ties to the Jedi order go back 20,000 years before the films take place (though the first Jedi were apparently more of a group of philosophers than knights). Sometime during this timeframe a group of Jedi who broke from the order to pursue personal interests (dark side, yadayada) encountered a race of beings known as The Sith who had a natural force sensitivity. The rogue Jedi influenced the Sith, who became an entire race devoted to the dark side of the force. The Sith race eventually declined, but the title of Sith eventually became one that connoted with the specific teachings of the dark force masters of the race.

In terms of story construction, the Sith make a great, if at times xenophobic, set of villains in the comics--red skinned villains with face tentacles who've bred a vicious warrior caste--while in the novels the Sith are generally the human antecedents of the order, who are often depicted as specist supremacists who disparage and enslave other species.

In the comics and books, The Sith and Jedi fight for millenia in a series of wars in which both sides amass giant armies. This leads to some specific thematic problems with later portions of the series. When the series was opened up to be exploited in books and other media, there were a few constants that seemed to have been taken for granted within each of the different kinds of episodes.

One of the major problems with The Old Republic era books, and the franchise at large, is that it has one established antagonistic entity that works to define the series. The Sith. With a few notable exceptions (particularly the wildly tangential New Jedi Order series of books) The Sith, the masters of the dark side of the force, are the universal enemy of The Jedi. Books written after the series opened up feature pockets of force-villains--Sith trained or adjunct to the dark order--to challenge the Jedi. There numbers are many, and their societies dark and built on principles of self interest--their motivations unsurprisingly doctrinally Satanist; hedonism is their guide, and passion the source of their power. The problem arises with the Prequels.

Specifically, it's the primary of several continuity problems. Earlier drafts of the original Star Wars script feature a set of warriors above stormtroopers, Dark Knights of the Sith who were a better class of soldiers that the whiteclad moving targets. Eventually these were excised and the Sith were boiled down to Darth Vader as The Dark Lord of the Sith. This title only appears as descriptive text in the script, and is not spoken at any point during the original films. The Sith, then could easily be assumed to be Darth Vader and the Emperor, an order of dark Jedi. When building the structure of the books and comics that followed, it made sense to expand the mythology and increase the number of Sith to increase the threat. However, when the prequels came along, they set into stone the concept that there are never more than two Sith, a master and apprentice.

The books and other media are beholden first and foremost to the films. No doubt this revelation, and others like it, caused a certain amount of strain on the story developers of the extra material. It would be impossible, because of the importance of the films to both fans and the internal structure of the stories, to contradict this maxim. Yet to excise all the material that referenced Sith armies, Sith Academies, and a legendary Sith Empire would mean getting rid of almost all of the existing mythology they had worked to create. They had to create a bridge between their material and the films.

In literary terms, the bridge was the first of a series of books set two thousand years before the films. Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, the first of these books, picked a Sith as its protagonist, whose efforts not only kill off the remaining Sith army, but also creates the "rule of two," allowing for the Old Republic material to remain within canon, but with over a thousand years for the idea to become indelibly tied to the title of Sith (since Jedi patriarch Yoda's 900+ year lifespan allows him to have a casual knowledge of the concept of two Sith as being the standard). It's a remarkably clean hatchet job, all things considered.

The Darth Bane series is interesting for a number of reasons. It's author, Drew Karpyshyn, was the lead writer for the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic video game (and other critically lauded games, like the Mass Effect series). As someone responsible for helping develop the Star Wars legacy through games, Karpyshyn has an insider's eye to the franchise. This only leads, in the first book, to one almost embarrassing bald faced reference to the game, which stands in stark contrast to the tone of the rest of the book.

The books in some ways play out like video games, with their emphasis on combat and the development of aggressive, physically based powers, they are similar to the progression of a video game series. The second book, Rule of Two, features a sequence in which protagonist/antagonist Darth Bane achieves a symbiotic relationship with a pair of armored mollusks, whose grow to cover his whole body, feed off of his dark force energy, are virtually indestructible, and can induce a whirlwind of rage if he uses too much power. This set of specific attributes could almost define the mechanics for a game straight out of Sony's God of War series (with it's wrathful protagonist and godslayer Kratos).

The Darth Bane series performs it's basic function well, crafting and defining how the Sith were reduced from armies to just two practitioners of the dark arts. Bane as the antagonistic protagonist creates an interesting dynamic in the later two of the three current books in the series; Bane is presented almost as an unstoppable force--much like Garth Ennis' interpretation of Marvel Comics' The Punisher---the narrative ceases to be about the character, who has become an indestructible wave of maliciousness, and thus is forced to focus primarily on the figures around him who retain mortal qualifications. Essentially, until Darth Bane is killed off in some ridiculous and spectacular way, the series cannot be sustained by him, since his character development is marginal (except to develop newer, more extravagant force powers) so the narrative must follow characters opposing or adjacent to his interest, like his various apprentices or targets of his wrath.

One wonders what exactly his end will be since Karpyshyn will no doubt have to introduce a means of killing Bane that is as spectacular as the method through which he killed off the rest of the Sith. At the end of the first book, Bane joins the Sith on the planet Ruusan, where their army fights the forces of the Republic and the Jedi. Bane tricks the remaining Sith into joining together to create a "thought bomb," a sort of "force blackhole" that will suck in the souls of anyone within the vicinity with the power to use the force. Of course, they themselves are sucked into it as well. The Jedi general, one Hoth, leads a final charge of devoted martyrs against these Sith as a diversion, while the rest of the Jedi can escape the planet in the resulting blast. Afterward the planet turns cold, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that it's the same planet as the forbidding ice sphere from the opening of The Empire Strikes Back.

A bit of an ostentatious development? Yes indeed. It does make one wonder why it's necessary for to craft a reason for Hoth to experience an ice age beyond natural developments. Why not just let the planet be a cold but hospitable world?

Anyways, that's all for today, tomorrow, the Old Republic solution to too many Sith in the era after the films.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Star Wars - A little history: The Old Republic

If you look at the development of the Star Wars literary mythos, you actually have to go outside the books to get an accurate idea of the series' internal history. In the early 90's, it's clear that there was a moratorium on developing material related to The Clone Wars and Anakin Skywalker, so the possible stories that could be developed had to deal with material that was either after or during the timeframe of the original films, or so long before them that any changes wrought by what eventually became the prequels could be managed. Comic books plowed ahead with stories set five thousand years before the films, often under the nom de plume Knights of the Old Republic, and set the precedent in creating an expanded mythos for the overall series in developing a context for the generation of The Sith, the Jedi, and the developing universe that would eventually slowly transform to the familiar one of the films.

The earliest of these comics maintained a much more rustic look, perhaps suggesting how the space-west feel of the films could have developed out of a space-frontier setting. Video games (also under the Knights of the Old Republic title) later refined the look to a much more contemporary space-age aesthetic. And now, the most recent game set during that same five thousand year bridge, Star Wars:The Old Republic, has much the same visual aesthetic as The Clone Wars TV show. while perhaps this suggests a disappointingly static universe (5,000 years with very little in the way of aesthetic or technological development!) it makes sense from a marketing perspective, since the game is more likely to be able to cash in on a crossover market from the popular TV show.

On an operational level, the literary works set during this era seem to be divided between two basic, sometimes conflicting, objectives. Books that expand and support the video game, and books that expand and support the Skywalker-led series thousands of years later.

With the new game being released, the material developed for the former function must perform several tasks. First, it must work as an independent, stand alone narrative that is recognizable as part of the Star Wars brand. Second, it must not infringe upon the developing narrative of the video game itself, lest it draw interest from people who are interested in playing the game. Third and most importantly, it must draw the interest of fans of the franchise to the experience of the game itself, and plant the suggestion that the player of the game will have an experience possibly more exciting that the narrative of the book itself.

When I started this project, only one book was available that completely fit that first function, Star Wars The Old Republic: Deadly Alliance (set a little less than 4,000 years before the films). Alliance has a difficult task, and was written by Sean Williams, whose most prominent other books in the franchise are adaptations of the Force Unleashed video games (much heralded as a bridge between the prequels and original trilogy). Williams job with Alliance is a thankless one. The book is designed as flavor text for the video game--with the eight lead characters all fitting the eight primary character classes from the video game (starting templates the video game player can choose for their character). That's not exactly a new concept, though, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragonlance series of books were created in tandem with the release of the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons (known then as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) and created the book's characters using the game's rules for character creation.

It's problematic here because, unlike Weis and Hickman's Dragonlance, which wasn't beholden to any specific narrative (since creating the narrative of a Dungeons and Dragons game is a part of the process) Williams' plot is beholden to the story of the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic video game, but also cannot preempt it. It's pretty clear that this is the case, since a major percentage of the story involves, and takes place on or near, a resource rich planet in uncharted space where a threat to the galaxy must be stopped before it spreads beyond the solar system. This carefully manages and keeps the story separated from the major conflict of the videogame. Another problem inherent to Alliance is the necessity that the character classes maintain equilibrium; hence the Fatal Alliance of the title; it eschews a direct conflict between the character classes by forcing them to work together towards a single goal (in spite of the fact that the Sith lord and Jedi Master characters should reasonably have been able to immediately neutralize any other character in the novel). Alliance definitely suffers from being both tied to, but unable to directly act within, the narrative of its source material.

Much more interesting, for our purposes, are the novels that act in support of the larger Skywalker family driven narrative. I'll get to those with my next post.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Most Girlfriend-Stealing-Est Movie Ever

A brief break from Star Wars, while I finish reading some more of the Old Republic material:

One of my geek friends once told me a story about how he "lost" his girlfriend to her close male friend, with whom she had only, up until that time, had a platonic friendship. His story began, "The Princess Bride is the most girlfriend-stealing-est movie ever made."
Apparently my friend's friend had been in a relationship with a young woman who had maintained a friendship with a close male friend. That male friend and her did many things together outside of the relationship. My friend told me he didn't like it but that he let it ride because he didn't want to be a dick about it. He then went on to tell me a story about how the young male friend in question had seduced his girlfriend away from him by showing her The Princess Bride, which she had never seen before.
He then proceded to tell me the story of other men he knew whose girlfriends had been stolen from them while watching The Princess Bride, always by the close, longterm male friend. He explained that the narrative itself was the catalyst these men used, as if they were serial "Girlfriend stealers," in order to make the transition. In the film Princess Buttercup is a woman chosen for her exquisite beauty (it should be noted that in the book, she's not very intelligent, something glossed over in the film) by a fellow (Prince Humperdink) who is essentially Prince Charming. Then Prince Charming turns out to have some nasty qualities after all (and is played in the film almost in the Hollywood tradition of a homosexual villain) and she is rescued by her the former farmboy-turned pirate, Wesley, who has braved all for true love.
My friend explained that the film had unfairly placed him in the role of Humperdink, and the male friend in the role of Wesley, and that others he knew had fallen victim to the same experience. He seemed to imply that his ex-girlfriend's mind had been changed, that in light of the film she had looked at him and seen only the things she didn't like (as Humperdink) and that the friend was her true prince. Within a few weeks, the storyteller's girlfriend had dumped him for her old friend. I checked around a bit, and a few other guys I knew confirmed that they knew people with the same experience, and the phenomenon of The Princess Bride being The Most Girlfriend-Stealing-Est Movie Ever Made stood as a standard within that small group of geek friends.
There's one major problem with this story: It's total misogynistic bullshit. And it's endemic of the gender relation problems of the men of masculine geek culture.
When I told my girlfriend the story she laughed, and her explanation of why opened my eyes. She explained that the story, and the versions of the story I heard from others, remove all culpability from the woman who was "stolen." It denied that the girlfriend played any part in the end of the relationship.
In the story, as in the film, the woman is depicted as a living doll or puppet, whose actions are driven by her platonic male friend, who is cast by the ex-boyfriend as a kind of evil magician or vizier whose devious ways ultimately change her mind with the final spell of The Princess Bride. In these stories, the woman has no individual will; and her identity only matters in the sense that it establishes a sense of status for the men telling the story. This begs the question, if they thought of their girlfriend as a person and respected her intellectual capacity to make her own decisions, would she have left?
The idea that you can "steal" a girlfriend removes all question of her choice from the matter. This is a specific problem in a lot of masculin geek culture, which both idealizes the iconic idea of women, and denigrates a woman's intellectual capability. Much of this has to do, almost certainly, with the insular nature of male geek culture, its obsession with masculinity, and its passive aggressive anger at women for their disinterest in that culture (which honestly, may be due in part more to the "boys club" attitude of the participants than anything about the content of their interest).
The "girlfriend-stealer" is an amazing myth because of this, because it paints the woman's empathetic male friend as the villain. The storyteller does not even allow the woman enough free will within the story to allow himself to be angry at her for choosing someone else! Rather, in the perspective of the ex-boyfriend, it is the villainous male friend, who was devious enough to continue the friendship with the girlfriend after her needs had been fulfilled through her emotional satisfaction (and implied sexual satisfaction) indicated by the entrance into a relationship with the storyteller.
The psychological implications of the story are myriad. It implies that the storyteller equates sexual exclusivity with his partner's emotional satisfaction; it is implicit in the story that he feels threatened that she is still sees her old male friend (who in these stories is often described as seeming weak, socially inept, or overly sensitive) and the interaction between them as a threat to his masculinity; that empathy and sensitivity to his partner are explicitly behaviors belonging to the courtship phase of the relationship; and of course that the woman (and all women by extension) can reasonably be objectified so as to be thought of as being possibly stolen or taken from other men.
The Princess Bride itself is incidental, and only present as an icon because of its cult status. The timing of the viewing in these stories is anecdotal, perhaps apocryphally adjusted, and secondary to the overal problem of the relationship coming to an end because of an inability between participants to meet each other's needs. One could easily make the same claim if the friend and girlfriend had read Jane Austen's Emma, or seen a Shakespearian comedy together, or shared the experience of any piece of media in which a character realizes their romantic intentions were misaligned. Even if--and I severely doubt--it were actually the case that the film's story did act as a catalyst that helped the girlfriend to change her mind about her relationship, the fact is that the dissatisfaction with her current relationship situation would have to be present, and the choice, as it always was, would be hers to make, and could not be externally forced on her.