Happy Birthday, Empire

In honor of the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, I’d like to contribute one of my most popular posts from days of yore.

I wish I could quit you, Lord Vader.

So, Darth Vader is looking for Luke Skywalker. He doesn’t have a chance of finding him (in spite of being able to sense his presence a galaxy away when the plot demands it), but he can, theoretically, find Luke’s friends Han and Leia (and Chewbacca, of course). Han, Leia, Chewbacca (and C-3PO, you know, the robot that Darth Vader built when he was 9 years old) are in Han’s ship the Millenium Falcon. The Millenium Falcon is a fast ship with many tricks up its proverbial sleeves, so it’s very difficult to catch. To catch the Millenium Falcon, Darth Vader can’t rely on his ill-informed, bumbling Imperial forces — he must turn to bounty hunters. “We don’t need that scum,” mutters Imperial Guy under his breath when he sees the dregs of the universe cluttering up his Star Destroyer.

So, the official Imperial stance on bounty hunters is: we don’t like you. So it seems that Vader has taken it upon himself to hire the bounty hunters himself, in spite of his officers’ disapproval. Who knows, maybe the bounty he’s offering is out of his own pocket.  Point is, Vader has a much different opinion of bounty hunters than the Empire does.

Many bounty hunters apply for the job; only one can catch the wily Han Solo and friends. Scaly reptile in yellow flight-suit Bossk can’t hack it, half-droid-half-insect 4-LOM is a failure, stubby whatsit Zuckuss hasn’t a clue, renegade assassin droid IG-88 couldn’t find his ass with both hands, a map and a flashlight. Only master bounty hunter Boba Fett has what it takes to track down and capture Han Solo in his super-wily Millenium Falcon.

Here’s my question — what’s up with Darth Vader and Boba Fett?

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Some thoughts on Clone Wars

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I took my kids Sam (7) and Kit (5) to see The Clone Wars. I’ve been reading so much invective directed against this movie, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Online voices are torn: some people seem to hate it, some people seem to merely dislike it, some people feel it is a monstrous act of betrayal. My favorite, a hysterical non-review by “Moriarty” at Ain’t-It-Cool-News, is so full of hurt and anger that it goes so far as to insist that the reviewer will never write about Star Wars ever again — You hear him? Never!  Take that, George Lucas!  Moriarty shuts the Iron Door.

I went in fully braced for an atrocity, a soul-scorching, childish, grating, dead-end cinematic nightmare.

Sorry haters — it’s actually not bad. It’s actually pretty good.

I’m still kind of stunned by the notion that, somehow, the “newer” Star Wars adventures somehow invalidate the “older” ones. Fans old enough to remember the releases of the originals seem to get more and more incensed with every new release. I understand if a movie doesn’t live up to your expectations, I even understand your anger if a movie betrays your understanding of the “deal” you’ve made with the filmmakers, as long as you understand that that deal exists only in your imagination. But the kind of anger I’ve seen directed at The Clone Wars just goes way beyond that. It’s as though George Lucas, while slowly eroding the dignity of his cinematic accomplishment, was also slowly eroding the dignity of his audience.

Well, I think neither is true. The movies — the six movies — are what they are. The Clone Wars isn’t pretending to be Episode II & 1/2, it’s its own thing. It makes that clear right off the bat: the music is different, the introduction is spoken instead of written, and the characters have been dramatically re-designed. This is all intentional, and the result, while less grand, less “important,” is more colloquial and human-scaled. (I’m a little baffled by the fans who think the Genndy Tartakovsky Clone Wars shorts are somehow “better” than Episodes I-III — they strike me as very much Genndy Tartakovsky shorts — jaw-dropping fights, no plot, and The Clone Wars kicks their ass around the block.)

The older fans think that Episodes I-III are bad enough, but The Clone Wars is just gratuitous salt in the wound. Well, I don’t know how to break it to those folks, but Sam has seen all six movies many times, and his favorite is Revenge of the Sith, followed by Attack of the Clones, followed by followed by Return of the Jedi. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back don’t even make the list. Sam talks about Anakin Skywalker all the time, the battle on Mustafar and the slaughter of the Sandpeople and the fight in the droid factory and the arena on Geonosis. He reads Clone Wars Adventures and counts the animated shorts as canon. That is Star Wars to my 7-year-old, and The Clone Wars was an absolute feast for him, all Anakin and droid battles and crashing spaceships and well-staged, bloodless carnage. He watched The Clone Wars with a look on his face like he was worried that he was never going to remember all the cool stuff he was seeing. Both he and Kit loved the battle droids and their charming stupidity, they both loved Stinky the Hutt and felt genuine concern for his health. (Sam even checked with me afterwards to make sure if he had an accurate understanding of the “ticking clock” concept: he said “When Anakin had the Huttlet, and it was getting sicker and sicker, didn’t that make it more dramatic, because you didn’t know if they were going to make it back to Tatooine in time to save him?”) They’re too young to get the joke of a Hutt who sounds like Truman Capote (both of them thought Ziro the Hutt was a female, but they cheerfully went along with it when they found out he was not). I’ve read reviews by people disgusted by the idea of a stereotypical gay Hutt, or disgusted at the idea of a stereotypical black Hutt, or a stereotypical “Mammy” Hutt, all of which only proves to me that the joke went over these folks’ heads.

And both my kids love Asoka, the girl Jedi who acts as Anakin’s protege and foil. And you know what? I love her too — she’s a great character, the teenage girl who seems to be the only person in the galaxy who doesn’t seem that impressed with Anakin Skywalker. She gets a lot of screen time, she’s a girl of action, she’s smart and funny and she doesn’t take shit from anyone, much less Anakin. (Okay, she’s stuck holding the baby for a stretch, but credit where credit is due — she’s a huge improvement over the whining, helpless Padme of Sith.)

I’m also really impressed with the look of the thing. Sure, it looks cheap — we’re not talking about Wall-E here — we’re not even talking about Kung-Fu Panda, but the animators have taken the limitations of their budget and turned it into an asset. They do exactly what animators on a budget should do, they lean into their limitations, they make the characters look like they’ve been carved out of wood and then painted with some kind of sticky, quick-drying paint, which makes them both strongly stylized and minutely detailed. Take, for example, the lipstick on Asajj Ventress — she’s got these cruel black lips, but in close-ups we can actually see that her lipstick isn’t applied evenly: it gets caught in the creases of her mouth and, here and there, doesn’t actually make it out to the edges of her lips. Similarly, Asoka’s face paint looks like it’s been applied in layers over a period of time — she’s got streaks and splotches here and there, and in other places her salmon-colored skin shows through.

If there is a complaint to be made, it’s that, for a feature film, there’s a lot of plot but nothing of consequence. Nobody important dies, there are no dramatic reveals or reversals, we don’t find out that Anakin is really a woman or that his father is really a B’omarr Monk. Essentially, it’s a lot of busywork, a bunch of “plot,” at the end of which everyone goes back to doing what they were doing when the movie started. And, as the movie is mostly plot, let me hasten to add that the plot is well-executed, well-paced, and fun to watch.

What The Clone Wars resembles is a pilot for a TV show, which it is, which is bad news for your feature-film dollar. But what it also resembles is my son’s home-made Star Wars movies, where he lines up the characters and then just lets them have at each other, with titanic battles and shifting alliances and dramatic duels and last-minute rescues and jaws-of-defeat victories. The older fans are outraged that Star Wars keeps getting diminished, but to my eyes The Clone Wars really is a new beginning, a redefinition for a different medium.

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Some photos I took of Sam’s Star Wars toy collection.

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Disneyland report ’08

My apologies to my readers who wait with bated breath for my analysis of The Color Purple.  My son Sam (6) had a day off from school, and my daughter Kit (5) has a school that consists primarily of her being out of the house for four hours, so my wife and I decided to take them to Disneyland.

Sam actually didn’t know that he did not have school and Kit isn’t old enough to notice that big a difference between Sunday and Monday, so we decided to spring it on them as a surprise.  We went about the morning as though it was a normal school day, packed the two of them into the car and then didn’t take them to school.  It took Sam until we got to Interstate 10 to notice something strange was going on.  We tried to stall as long as possible, but it didn’t take him long to put together that we were going to Disneyland, at which point the metaphorical cat was out of its metaphorical bag.

We got to the gate at 10:00 on the dot, ie at the exact same time as everyone else.  It was surprisingly crowded, I thought, for a Monday morning in April.  I have memories of going on a Tuesday afternoon in February of 1996 and the place was almost deserted — there were no lines for anything and I was able to see absolutely everything I wanted to, including the robot Abraham Lincoln, by late afternoon.  At which point I shrugged and said “Well, I guess I’m kind of done with this place until I have a couple of kids.”  Hence yesterday.

Sam was keen on seeing only two things — the Indiana Jones Adventure ride and Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed simulator ride.  He was a little anxious about the rides themselves — he dislikes roller coasters — but he wanted very badly to visit the gift shops associated with the rides to gather props and costume pieces.  Kit, on the other hand, likes the Teacups, and generally would be happy to spend the whole day in the pink section of the map.

(Sam had just attended a Star Wars themed birthday party over the weekend where Obi-Wan, Anakin, Boba Fett, Darth Vader and Darth Sidious had all shown up and done bits with the kids.  Sam had worn his elaborate Darth Vader costume and is very much into dressing up, or “cosplay” as the older set refers to it.)

The Indiana Jones Adventure was the longest wait of the day — 50 minutes before we got on the ride — and Sam loved, loved, loved absolutely everything about it, right up until the point where he actually had to get into the oversize Jeep that takes you through the experience.  I see his point — the wait for the ride is, by a long measure, the most elaborate, detailed and atmospheric I’ve ever experienced, and in the middle of Disneyland that’s saying a lot.  There are caves, booby-traps, an ancient temple, a newsreel, period music and all sorts of mood-enhancing foofaraw to get visitors hyped on the experience.  The ride itself is rattlingly, shudderingly violent in the way it whips you around in your seat and parades you past a host of scares, thrills and spectacles — far too much to absorb in one go-around — and Sam spent the three-minute experience clutching my arm, with his face buried in my elbow.  He was very precise in his assessment of the experience; he didn’t mind the scares — he likes being scared — but he cannot abide the “jerking around.”  Indeed, I would agree with him.  The Indiana Jones Adventure is an incredible ride, but the violence inflicted on my physical body is considerable.

(I now wonder if Sam’s love of being scared and his disdain for being “jerked around” explains his love of Jurassic Park and his indifference toward E.T.)

While Sam was being terrified on the dark, violent, genuinely frightening Indiana Jones Adventure, Kit was being terrified on the sunny, cheesy, outdated Jungle Cruise, the benign, walk-through Tarzan Treehouse and the utterly laid-back Storybook Land Cruise.  Kit, it should be noted, does not like getting scared.

After Indiana Jones, Sam wanted to proceed directly to Star Tours, but my wife and I had made the decision to not split up the day in boy/boy-girl/girl adventures, and we met up on Tom Sawyer Island, or, as it’s now known, “Pirate’s Lair.”  The whole way, Sam was insistent almost to the point of complaining (Why can’t we do Star Tours and then meet Mom and Kit?  Why do we have to go to the island?  Why can’t Mom and Kit come to us? etc.), then, the second we got to the island, he saw there was a treehouse and a complex network of caves, bridges and shipwrecks and we didn’t see either kid for about two hours as they went exploring. 

I was a little dismayed at the half-hearted conversion of Tom Sawyer Island into Pirate’s Lair.  A lot of the structures are the same, with only tiny emendations to change the island from the Mississippi to the Caribbean.  The treetrunk of the treehouse still has “Tom + Becky” carved in it and the island is littered with an utterly anachronistic Indian Village, a river raft, a moose and a derailed coal train.  It’s almost as though the Disney folk were hedging their bets, worried that this whole “Pirate” fad will blow over at any time and they’ll have to change the island back to Twainland.

(On the way back from Pirate’s Lair we ran into Jack Sparrow, who, when addressed by that name by a park visitor, resentfully murmured “Captain Jack Sparrow,” in a completely convincing Depp-like drawl, his delivery pitched at a volume no one but me could actually hear.  This forced me to realize, yet again, that for all its faults, Disneyland is a demon for details.)

(Oddly, this visit was, for me, one of discovery — almost every attraction we hit was brand-new to me, even though it had been sitting there in plain sight for 54 years.)

Once off Pirate’s Lair (highlight for adults — real baby ducks) Sam and I split off again to see Star Tours while Kit and Mom headed for the Teacups and the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire.  The wait at Star Tours wasn’t very long, and as usual there’s plenty of atmosphere to soak up, but as the ride itself approached I began to get apprehensive on Sam’s behalf.  Sam understands what a simulator is, but the signs warned that Star Tours is a “turbulent” ride — meaning, you get jerked around a lot.  I tried to explain this to Sam, who was confident he’d be okay.  In the case of Star Tours, he was willing to get jerked around since there was no actual forward motion involved.  Somehow the combination of the two is the thing that sets him on edge.

In the end, Sam made it through a good portion of Star Tours with his eyes open, then enthusiastically made a beeline for the gift shop.  He had been given a special Disney Allowance of $20 and spent it on a special Star Tours blaster rifle.  When he found out there was a separate entrance to the shop, he said, rather in the manner of a man who has just realized he has been duped, “Wait a minute — you mean I could have made it to the gift shop without having to go on the ride?”

(A note on Star Tours: the signs out front mention that it’s a collaboration between Disney and Lucas, and the experience confirms that — and points out how uneasy a fit those two sensibilities are.  Cool Lucas-type design sits right next to cloying, Disney-type design, with big-eyed wisecracking droids and production values that only help remind the guest that Star Wars is a very cool movie indeed, while The Black Hole is deeply uncool.)

Hard upon Star Tours was the Jedi Training Academy, held at the Tomorrowland Terrace, an interactive stage show where kids can train with lightsabers — provided they are picked from the crowd by the Jedi teaching the class.  We got there early to get a good seat, and once the show started things got overwhelming very quickly.  The actor playing the Jedi Master was convincing, dynamic and in complete control of his difficult situation — organizing, inspiring and directing a group of small children in a rather complicated game, with a dramatic arc, that had to be wrapped up in 30 minutes. 

The process of selecting which children go up on stage was, we were told, up to the actor playing the Jedi Master, and Sam, for reasons still a little mysterious to me, didn’t want to press his case too emphatically.  As the Jedi Master selected kids from the crowd, everyone else jumped up and down and screamed while Sam subtly raised his hand.  I don’t know if it was his sense of manners, a fear of being chosen, or a belief in the justness of his cause that kept him from speaking up, but in the end he was chosen and took his place on stage.  Each youngling was given a training robe and a “training lightsaber” (ie, a plastic toy just like the ones they have at home) and the class was then led through a series of sword-fighting moves.  No sooner had they learned a simple five-step fight routine than Darth Vader showed up with Darth Maul to challenge the students to a fight.

The actors playing Vader and Maul were both very convincing, to the point where some of the kids started freaking out.  There was no attempt to softpedal the villains’ scariness, and the actor playing Maul was particularly aggressive in his attack.  When it came time to fight, some of the kids were overenthusiastic, others were terrified to the point of tears.  Sam tried to take the whole thing seriously but found that it all went too fast.  I also have the feeling that Sam’s emotions were clouded by the fact that he greatly prefers the dark side characters — if he could have, he would have joined Vader and taken over the galaxy.

In any case, Vader and Maul were defeated, the Stormtroopers were sent packing, and all the kids were pronounced Padawans, complete with diploma (but without the robes and lightsabers).  The diploma, interestingly, includes a political message, reminding the child that the Force must only be used in defense, never to attack.

Sam and I headed toward Fantasyland to hook up with Mom and Kit, who were investigating the Alice in Wonderland ride, King Arthur’s Carrousel and the Princess Faire show.  We stopped at Autopia, another ride I’d never been on, where Sam got to drive his own car.  He was a little too short to reach the pedal, but once he got the hang of it he delighted in swerving back and forth, trying to crash into stuff.  I said “So, wait — I thought you said you don’t like being jerked around,” to which Sam replied, giggling, “Yeah, but not when I’m the one doing the jerking.”  So the issue, finally, is not the jerking but the lack of control.

We found Mom and Kit at the Once Upon A Time shop in Fantasyland, where Kit was purchasing a Minnie Mouse As Princess doll.  I don’t know where Kit’s interest in Minnie Mouse comes from.  I don’t know where any child’s interest in Minnie Mouse comes from.  Or Mickey Mouse, for that matter.  They are barely represented in Disney fare except on the most superficial level, faces on corporate product.  As characters they barely register to me; they stand for nothing, personify no particular point of view.  Who looks at them and feels a deep sense of identification?

The kids were still going strong at this point, but Mom and Dad were about to drop, so we headed to the Rancho del Zocalo, the Mexican place in Frontierland.  The food was great, the line was short and there were plenty of places to sit, which is all one can ask of a Disney restaurant.  It was a big improvement over the last Disneyland dining experience my family had, where it was so crowded in New Orleans Square that we had to eat our clam chowder while perched on a wall on a major thoroughfare.

At one point, Kit was handed a sheet of temporary tattoos by a cast member who happened by, and at another point was handed a pair of Tinkerbell pins by another (“one to keep, and one to give”).  These encounters were random and unsolicited.  And again, one can find plenty of things to complain about in Disneyland, but the way they’ve got the guest’s experience figured out sets them far apart from any other theme park I’ve ever experienced.  I’ve been to great roller coaster parks like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, a park with no particular point of view, where guests are forced to wait for hours in the hot sun with nothing to do but stare at the people ahead of them in line.  There’s always something to look at while in line at Disneyland and the longest lines are always engineered in interesting ways that help build anticipation for the experience instead of emphasizing the length of the wait.  The time generally flies at Disneyland, and while the prices are steep, I can’t remember a time when I left feeling cheated.  Add to that random encounters with movie characters who hand out free stuff to your kids and I’m sorry, for a parent it’s all pretty awesome.  Yes I know, it’s a gesture designed by a behemoth corporation, intended solely to extract more money from the child’s parents, but I feel like that’s the society we live in, and if a corporation takes your money while teaching your children generosity and non-aggression, well, at least it’s something.

After dinner we happened upon the nearly deserted Sailing Ship Columbia, which was about six times more interesting than I expected it to be.  It’s outfitted like a genuine eighteenth-century merchant vessel and it, improbably, actually succeeded in giving one a vague impression of what lifeat sea on a ship like this, for years at a time, might have been like.

Then we headed over to New Orleans Square, where there was no line for the Haunted Mansion.  Kit had never been to the Haunted Mansion, and Sam has only been to it while it was re-dressed in Nightmare Before Christmas holiday mode, so we decided to go in.  Sam was underwhelmed, I was delighted (it was better than I remember it and has been subtly improved over the years), Mom was slightly disappointed (she remembered it being not so dark).  Kit, sadly, went in frightened and was reduced to whimpering apoplexy by the end.

To help Kit over her trauma, I took her for three or four (I lost count) rides on the no-line Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride.  The Winnie-the-Pooh ride, like many of the younger-skewing experiences, is weirder, more disturbing and more psychedelic than one would imagine.  But it did the trick and got Kit ready for the final events of the day, the Dumbo ride in Fantasyland and the Astro Orbiters in Tommorowland.  The difference between the two rides, as far as I can tell, is that they revolve in opposite directions, and Dumbo is three minutes long, while the Astro Orbiters are only a minute and a half.  Neither had lines worth worrying about, typical for the younger rides after sundown.

All in all, I think I saw more of the park than I have in any other single-day visit and didn’t even lay eyes on huge swaths of it.

Kit was asleep before we left the parking structure, Sam examined his Star Wars toys for a few minutes but was out before we got to the highway.

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Mace Windu for Chancellor

Say what you want about the Star Wars prequels, they are excellent tools for teaching a six-year-old boy about the basics of democracy.

Yesterday I was in a post office with my son Sam (6) and he saw a big cardboard standup for the HBO John Adams bio-pic, and he said “Who is that guy? I’m seeing this poster everywhere!” So I started to explain to him who John Adams was and what he did and what his role was in the formation of the United States, and that necessitated an explanation of monarchy vs. democracy, and at that point Sam chimed in and said “Yeah, like in Episode III, Chancellor Palpatine is supposed to be the leader of the Senate, where people are supposed to get together and talk about what’s best for everyone, but instead he’s just making everyone fight each other and sitting back and laughing at them all because he’s really controlling everything.” Then I blinked a few times and decided Sam didn’t need to know that much more about John Adams for a while.

Anyway, we were watching Revenge of the Sith the other day, and if you ever need to explain what is going on in this country right now to a six-year-old boy, you could certainly find worse teaching tools than this movie. All the players are there and the political delineations are as clear as could be. Palpatine is a corrupt, cynical politician scheming to become an emperor, starting a war to give himself expansive executive powers, controlling the Senate and the courts to make sure no one can oppose him, et cetera ad infinitum. This is not news, it’s pretty obvious that the movie is intended as a criticism of the Bush/Cheney doctrine.

And then, about 2/3 of the way through the movie, Sam, apropos of nothing, says “I think Mace Windu should be elected Chancellor.” Which kind of created a moment of clarity for me. Mace Windu (the “stoic” Jedi, according to starwars.com) is a wise, well-spoken, incorruptible warrior-priest, who sees (eventually) what Palpatine is and seeks to remove him from power. He fails, and dies, but Sam is correct — none of this would have happened if Mace Windu had been Chancellor. Which inspired me to make this:


click for larger view.

Inspiration here.

UPDATE: Sam just walked in, saw this entry on my computer, and said “That guy with ‘HOPE’ on him?  Is either Mace Windu or God.”

Oh, and honestly, I am going to do a post on 1941, and it honestly will be worth it.hitcounter

Star Wars Episode VII


Produced, written and directed by Sam Alcott (6). Edited by Todd Alcott. Performers: Sam Alcott and Todd Alcott.

This movie was created under the strict supervision of Sam. The shot list, scene order and camera placement were all his (with occasional input from me). When you hear me say a line of dialog, I am saying only and exactly what Sam has directed me to say. (In certain cases we had to do several takes of a scene because my voice was not right or I improvised too much with Sam’s dialog.) It was shot entirely on a Sony Cybershot, a digital camera designed to take still photos and short movies.

Sam has picked up the lingo of moviemakingvery quickly. He will ask if we’re rolling and understands the commands “Action,” “Cut” and “Pull back,” and soon I’m sure will be saying things like “Okay, now I want a steady tracking shot along this way, then push in close to here, then we’ll cut to a close-up of the girl’s face reacting.” He has an innate, if incomplete, understanding of cutting techniques and carries the whole movie inside his head. On occasions when I left out a scene I thought was confusing or dragged the narrative, he would see the gap immediately and instruct me to put it back in. As a result, I felt it would be best to insert some titles to help explain the action, which might not be immediately apparent to non-aficionados.

PLOT SYNOPSIS: General Grievous is planning some kind of attack on Kashyyyk.  The Clone Army arrive and foil his plans.  Grievous sends his troops to fight the clones but they fail (these scenes were not shot).  Grievous then attacks the Jedi himself, killing several of them.  The Clones then receive “Order 66″ from Darth Sidious, which causes them to attack the Jedi.  Yoda and Obi-Wan fight the Clones, and Obi-Wan  kills General Grievous and wipes out the remainder of his forces.  Then, for reasons that elude me, the ending of Episode III is recapitulated.

(I am being disingenuous — I know why the ending of Episode III is recapitulated — it’s Sam’s favorite part of the whole Star Wars saga, specifically the fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar.  The mining apparatus and volcanic surface of Mustafar are here represented by a credenza, a chair and a Disney Princess scooter (belonging to Sam’s little sister).

Sam was disappointed with the final cut only because he hadn’t thought his hands would be so visible in the shot. In his mind, the characters moved and acted the way they do in the movies. He instructed me to digitally remove his hands and body from the shots. When I explained that that is possible but cost-prohibitive, he said “But we could scan the movie into Photoshop and erase all the parts we don’t want.” When I told him that that would involve working on literally thousands of individual still frames, he relented. But I think the boy has a future.


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Star Wars: Episode VII — the treatment, part 1

My son Sam (6), if I haven’t mentioned it before, loves Star Wars. He’s watched all six of the movies numerous times (Episode III is his favorite, followed by Episode II), owns over a hundred action figures (many of them hand-me-downs from Dad) draws pictures of the characters every chance he gets, and has recently completed a movie (which Dad is now editing — it has, I’m afraid, many longueurs). It was inevitable that he would turn to writing scenarios for imaginary Star Wars stories. I don’t have the heart to tell him that he could probably make good money at doing this work.

Tonight’s bedtime conversation:

SAM: Dad?
DAD: Yes?
SAM: You know what would be better?
DAD: What would be better?
SAM: If, at the end of Episode IV (A New Hope, or Star Wars, to peopleover 30 years old), if instead of Luke Skywalker shooting a photon torpedo into the Death Star? If instead he shot down a TIE Fighter and the TIE Fighter crashed into the exhaust port instead and set off the chain reaction.
DAD: Yes. You are correct, that would be better.
SAM: And in Episode VI (that is, Return of the Jedi)?
DAD: Yes?
SAM: Well, actually, Episode VI is good the way it is.
DAD: You think so?
SAM: Yeah. Except –
DAD: Except?
SAM: It would be cool if, instead of the rebels blowing up the reactor in the middle of the Second Death Star? If, like a million Star Destroyers and Super Star Destroyers crashed into the Second Death Star.

I cannot tell you how much these little conversations make my heart burst with pride.


As a service to my loyal readers, allow me to offer a version of this story with proper spelling, punctuation, and a few small textual notes:

1)”As the second Death Star explodes, the Dark Trooper arrives in a TIE Fighter at a Battleship, with lots of Troopers. There is a menace named Darth Black.”

NOTES:

The “Dark Trooper” is a reference to the bad guy of the unplayably outdated video game Star Wars: Dark Forces. Sam has never played this video game, but he does have an action figure of the Dark Trooper, who looks like this:

By “Battleship” he is referring to a Star Destroyer. “Darth Black” is not a typo but a new character, a heretofore uncelebrated Sith lord.

Sam completed the first page of this story after school one day and was hugely excited by it, as was I.

SAM, pen in hand: What should I write next?

DAD: Well, what happens next? It’s the end of Episode VI, the second Death Star has just exploded, that’s a great beginning. Now I see you’ve got a Dark Trooper who survived the explosion. That’s also a great idea — the Empire has just collapsed, the Emperor is dead, but there are all these millions of soldiers who worked for him — what are they going to do? What are their loyalties? Are they being hunted by rebels, do they form their own army, what do they do? And here I see you’ve got a new character, this Darth Black — what does he want? What makes him a menace? And who’s saying he’s a menace? A menace to whom?

SAM, visibly distressed: Just tell me what to write…

And then, moments later, he was off again, no help needed from me.  And, as you will see, he utterly ignored every helpful suggestion I made, a decision that makes my heart sing.  (I have since learned that, when he wrote the first page, he didn’t actually know the meaning of the word “menace.”)

2) “As, waiting, Darth Black calls the Imperial Spy. All troopers are in position, and as the Imperial Spy sets up his troopers, a figure arrives in the distance.”

As the proud father, I note that Sam has already mastered the technique of always pitching a story in the present tense. I also note, with some interest, that he begins two pages in a row with the word “as.”

The geography of these scenes, however, is confusing, and doesn’t get better.  I think the Imperial Spy and Darth Black are on two different space ships, but I could be wrong.

The “Imperial Spy,” for those who don’t speak Star Wars, is this guy:

A minor character from Episode IV, without any proper dialogue, he has nonetheless captured Sam’s imagination. You never know what’s going to do it I guess.

3) “It was Qui-Gon Jin. The Imperial Spy saw his lightsaber was red. He went up to the Imperial Spy. He [stood] there. The Imperial Spy called Darth Black.”

Qui-Gon Jin, of course, died at the end of Episode I. His appearance here, therefore, counts as a major revelation. Close readers will note the color of his lightsaber — only Sith’s lightsabers are red.

At this point, I had to ask what Darth Black looked like. Sam replied that Darth Black was the brother of Darth Maul, had the same horns growing out of his head, and had black skin. I imagine him having the same kind of wild face-decoration as Darth Maul (that is, I think it’s a decoration) but in a kind of black-on-black pattern instead of red-on-black, which, I’ve got to admit, is a whole lot more cool.

4) “Suddenly Rebels [a]re surrounding the two figures [by which I think he means Qui-Gon and the Imperial Spy]. They [take] out their guns. Suddenly, Qui-Gon jump[s] up in the air and kill[s] all the rebels. He [is] a good fighter. He [Darth Black] [is] impressed.”

I have to say, for a six-year-old, having the red lightsaber pay off with a stunning plot twist of Qui-Gon turning out to be evil, is truly inspired.

5) “Darth Black heard about the Jedi [that is, had heard of Qui-Gon Jin, and, by extension, knows that he is supposed to be dead]. He calls him over [calls who, and from where, is unclear]. The Imperial Spy got in his ship. The Jedi [Qui-Gon] snuck in after him. He flew to the battleship [the same battleship as the Dark Trooper?]. He got out. The Jedi snuck out too. He [the Jedi, Qui-Gon] explored. Someone saw him. He [the someone? The Imperial Spy?] [brought] him to Darth Black.”

6)”Darth Black ask[s] where they found him [that is, Qui-Gon]. ‘He was walking around’ [replies someone]. ‘Maybe he [is] the bad Jedi I['ve] heard about’ [says Darth Black]. ‘What Jedi?’ [asks the someone]. The Imperial Spy walk[s] past. He [sees them talking] [that is, he saw Darth Black talking to the someone]. Suddenly a ship arrived in the distance.”

Again, I’m a little confused about who Darth Black is talking to and what role the Imperial Spy plays in all this, but this much is clear: Qui-Gon Jin is alive, and evil, and he’s looking to join the ranks of a Sith lord who has, somehow, survived the collapse of the Empire. If you’ve got a better idea for Episode VII, I want to hear it.


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Further thoughts on Return of the Jedi

In the past, I’ve discussed Return of the Jedi and compared its plot to the plot of The Empire Strikes Back.  I thought I was done with it, but it turns out the movie has more to offer than I have previously noticed, probably because I in the past I have spent too much of the running time looking at the seams on the backs of the Ewok costumes.

The other day, my son Sam (6) requested to watch it again and kept marveling at how swiftly it moved. No sooner had the good guys escaped from Tatooine than Sam exclaimed “Wow! The movie’s already at the ending!” What he was picking up on was the trifurcated nature of ROTJ‘s plot: it’s a 40-minute movie about the rescue of Han Solo, then its a 40-minute movie about the good guys’ adventures with the Ewoks, then it’s a 40-minute movie about the two-pronged attack on the forces of the Empire. Each one of these featurettes is tight, entertaining and beautiful to behold and no, I’d have to say that, taken as a whole, ROTJ is not a chore to sit through.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are a couple of large plot problems. The first is that Luke has only one goal: to become a Jedi by confronting Vader. It takes him 80 minutes to get around to addressing this goal. Yoda tells him, to his face, “You must confront Vader,” to which the logical response should be “All right, which way is he?” But instead Luke comes bounding into the Death Star Destruction Briefing Room and says “Hey, who’s going down to the Ewok planet? Can I come too?” The other major plot problem is that the Emperor keeps claiming that his plan is going exactly as he imagined, when he obviously is making all this up as he goes along.

Sample conversation:

EMPEROR: The rebels have landed on the moon of Endor, exactly as I have planned.
VADER: Yes, your majesty. My son is with them.
EMPEROR: He is? How do you know?
VADER: I have felt his presence.
EMPEROR: Really? I haven’t.
VADER: If you want, I’ll go fetch him and bring him here.
EMPEROR: Yes, that’s a good idea. Exactly as I have planned.

The Emperor has only one goal: lure Luke to the Death Star so that he can turn him to the dark side. This is, in fact, the only reason he has for building the second Death Star. Because, let’s face it, “Second Death Star” is the lamest idea imaginable. The first massive, impregnable Death Star got blown up by a rebel hotshot, what star-system is going to tremble at the thought of a second Death Star, one that’s still under construction? So the Emperor isn’t planning to use the second Death Star to blow up any planets, he’s using it solely as a big shiny object to lure Luke into his trap. I can see the meeting now:

EMPEROR: I need to get that Luke Skywalker guy here so I can turn him to the dark side.
VADER: Dancing girls?
EMPEROR: No, he’s too much of a straight arrow.
VADER: Double coupons?
EMPEROR: He’s a Jedi, he gets discounts all over the place.
VADER: Second Death Star.
EMPEROR: Second Death Star, that’s absurd, it would be a monumental waste of resources and manpower. The last Death Star made me an utter joke throughout the galaxy. Why on earth would I want to build a Second Death Star?
VADER: I’m just saying, if you want to attract Luke, the ol’ Death Star trick is the best bet going. In fact, I’ll tell you what — let’s only build it half-way! It’ll save us money, it’ll bring Luke here on the run and he’ll be really overconfident!
EMPEROR: Yes. Yes. This is exactly as I have planned.
VADER: (throws up hands in gesture of helplessness)

Princess Leia starts off this movie strong, disguising herself as a bounty hunter to free Han Solo, then strangling a gangster slug to death with a chain while dressed in a smashing outfit. But then what happens? She tags along on a mission with Solo, gets picked up by the Ewoks, finds out she’s Luke’s sister. The end.

Han Solo’s destiny is the reverse of this. His motivation through Act I is “to do something about being blind and getting fed to a monster,” which, in screenwriting terms, is what we call a weak motivation. As Act II begins, he volunteers (as a rebel general, no less) to lead a commando raid on the Endor moon to blow up the Shield Generator. His daring raid gets hijacked, like the movie, by the Ewoks, and the rest of his arc revolves around dealing with the Ewoks, hanging out with them (he spends all night sitting around listening to C-3PO tell stories, then complains about being pressed for time) gaining their trust and enlisting their aid in his guerilla attack on the Imperial troops.

Which brings me to the Shield Generator. The Shield Generator, with its unprepossessing “back door,” becomes the locus of action in Return of the Jedi. The plot of A New Hope is driven by the construction, implementation and destruction of a moon-sized battle station, but the plot of Return of the Jedi is driven by a pair of sliding doors in the side of a hill somewhere in a forest. We’ve got to get in through those two sliding doors! How will we do it? If only there were a rebel army to help us! The Second Death Star, face it, barely figures at all into the plot of Return of the Jedi. It’s of minimal importance. Know how I know? Because it gets destroyed not by Luke or Leia or Han or the droids or even Chewbacca. No, the destruction of the Second Death Star falls to Lando Calrissian and this guy, a giggling, mouth-breathing alien we’ve never met before.

So the focus of Return of the Jedi is no bullshit Second Death Star; the focus of Return of the Jedi is more personal and, ultimately, more mysterious and, in part, goes back to this Shield Generator.

First, let’s divide the players of Jedi into three teams: there are the Rebels, the Imperials and the Ewoks. The Imperials dominate the galaxy with their impressive (if ultimately useless) technological marvels and employment of white, English guys, the Rebels have put together a rag-tag coalition of various species, technologies and whatnot, and the Ewoks are, literally, still living in the trees and fighting with rocks and sticks. So technologically, the lines are drawn: Upper Class (Imperials), Middle Class (Rebels) and Lower Class (Ewoks). The Middle Class, rebelling against the Upper Class, are forced to resort to employing the Lower Class to win their battle. They do not do so willingly — the Middle Class does not understand the Lower Class and their primitive ways, and would prefer not to associate with them. One wonders what is to become of the Ewoks in the triumphant new world after the victory of the New Republic. Will there be cuddly Ewoks, with their spears and animal skins, showing up in the new Republic Senate? Regardless of their role in defeating the Emperor, what kind of power would they have in a new Republican order, being so backward and primitive? It would be like the Tasaday having an ambassador to the UN.

There is also a strong religious component to Jedi. Again, separating the players into teams, what we find is that the Ewoks represent the Old God (which, ironically, includes C-3PO, a droid) (but not R2-D2, oddly enough), the Rebels represent the True God (that is, The Force) and the Imperials represent the False God (The Emperor). If we look at Jedi through a religious lens, it becomes a story about missionaries colonizing a new land and bringing their “advanced” beliefs to the funny, superstitious primitives. Luke becomes the rebellious Christ, representing the new covenant, throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, again, oddly, with the help of the superstitious primitives.

(Or, on a nationalistic level, we could say that the Empire represents Imperial England [which would explain all the English people], the Rebels represent the melting-pot United States with its crazy-quilt of races and ideas, and the Ewoks represent the Native Americans.  Which means that in Episode VII, all the Ewoks will die from Rebel-introduced diseases or be wiped out as the New Republic colonizes their moon to put up strip-malls and liquor stores.  A few hundred years down the line, the few surviving Ewoks will be granted casino licenses to assuage Republican guilt.)

No wonder the bulk of the movie takes place in “the forest” (after successfully negotiating an exodus from enslavement in “the desert”). It’s not “a forest,” but “the forest,” that is, the Forest Primeval. That is the Forest the Rebels and Ewoks and Imperials stumble around in while deciding the fate of the galaxy. Who is “right” in the Forest Primeval? Which god, which class, shall triumph? How will society evolve? Will we remain with our primitive superstitions, or turn to a False God with its powers to create False Worlds (that is, the Second Death Star) with is awe-inspiring technology, or will the True God prevail?

The Ewoks irritate not because of their character design or their “cuteness” or their obvious racial characteristics but because, for forty disastrous minutes, they derail the plot of the movie, keeping the protagonist from his goal (“I shouldn’t have come, I’m jeopardizing the mission,” frets Luke, perhaps not realizing how right he is) and thrusting Theme into a position of dominance over Plot.

The Shield Generator, then, becomes a metaphor for the “shields” constructed between classes, religious beliefs and friends. There is a shield between the Rebels and the Ewoks, between Vader and Luke, between Han and Leia, between Vader and Obi-Wan. When Han destroys the Shield Generator (nice that the Shield Generator is an invention of the False God), all those shields vanish, allowing Vader to see the Emperor for who he is, Han to see Leia for who she is, and Vader to hang out with Obi-Wan and Yoda in blue sparkly heaven. This is all very nice and elegant, but as I say, the plotting of the middle act of Jedi is a disaster.

Some other thoughts:

1. I wonder what happened to Jabba’s criminal empire after Leia strangled him and Luke blew up his sail barge. It was enormous and powerful enough to make Jabba a force more powerful than Vader in the eyes of the Emperor (otherwise why would Vader worry so much about offending Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back?) (I mean, apart from the fact that he’s in love with him), such a thing is not going to simply dry up and blow away like so much roasted meat in the Dune Sea under harsh Tatooine binary suns. Odds are, an intergalactic gang-war erupted after Jabba’s death with many deaths, shady deals and spectacular shoot-outs. The gangster aspect of the Star Wars universe is under-served.

2. Yoda dies, and disappears. Obi-wan dies, and disappears. Vader dies, and must be lugged onto a stolen shuttle and hauled down to the Endor moon to be cremated (or barbequed — it’s not clear; the Ewoks, after all, do eat human flesh and threaten to eat Luke and Han earlier in the movie). I couldn’t care less, but this inconsistency confuses my son Sam. Why do some enlightened beings disappear at the point of death and other writhe in bloody agony? Qui-Gon does not disappear when killed by Darth Maul, hundreds of Jedi die like dogs in the dirt in Revenge of the Sith and do not disappear. Sam posits that only those who come back as ghosts get to disappear, and yet at the end of Sith it’s revealed that Qui-Gon has come back as a ghost — why didn’t he disappear? Darth Vader not only comes back as a ghost (just in time to witness his own cremation — that must feel weird), he comes back as his 25-year-old self. That seems to me to be enough magic to allow one to disappear at the point of death, but apparently not.

3. Leia tags along on Han’s mission to Endor. She dresses in Rebel Camouflage. Then she’s captured by Ewoks, and emerges in a lovely Forest Ensemble. Where the hell did that come from? Similarly, Luke goes on a speeder chase through the woods and wanders around with Han, yet when it comes time to meet up with dad, he’s got on his Don’t Mess With Me Jedi Black. Where do these clothes come from?

4. Luke asks Leia what she remembers of her mother. Leia gives him a sketchy description of an unhappy but loving woman. Odd, seeing as how Leia’s mother is also Luke’s mother and she died at the moment of their birth. Obviously, Leia, pressed into an uncomfortable position, has decided to make up a bunch of utter bullshit in the hopes that maybe that will make her appear more vulnerable and interesting to Luke. Then she finds out Luke’s really her brother — oops.

5. Luke, who’s supposed to be a Jedi (or near enough), is a terrible negotiator. He constantly tells his enemies his plans and opinions, giving them plenty of information and tools against him. I like Luke as much as the next guy but Qui-Gon would punch him in the mouth for that bullshit, and I’m surprised Obi-wan “Truth From A Certain Point Of View” Kenobi puts up with it too. Of course, then again, Qui-Gon is the Jedi who was too principled tosteal a Hyperdrive Generator from a slave-owning junk dealer, so he’s a lame-o too. Obi-wan, though, there’s a guy who decides not to tell his own apprentice (and future savior of the galaxy) that the most Evil Guy in the Galaxy is his father because it serves his purposes. Now that’s a negotiator.


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Sam has a question

Because of images like this (courtesy of

 ), Sam (6) is under the impression that Buddhists once lived on Naboo. We attended a wedding over the weekend at a Zen temple and all Sam saw in the garden was “Buddha statues, you know, like on Naboo.” So for him, that’s pretty much where Buddhism started — a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

I see no reason to contradict him — as far as I know, there is no rule against bodhisattvas showing up on other planets in ancient history. Anyone know who these ancient statues are supposed to be? When were they built (in Star Wars time), who built them, why? And is it sacrilege for a Gungan to perch on one when calling his army to battle a bunch of robots?


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TIE fighter!

So, a few months ago Sam (6) comes toddling into my office and says “Can we make a TIE fighter?”

And I say “You mean like get a modeling kit, where you put it together?”  And he says “No, I mean make it.”  And I say “You mean, like, make a TIE fighter?”  And he says “Yeah, like make one.”  And I’m like “Like, make it out of — what, exactly?”  And he’s like “Well, what are they made out of?”  And I’m like “Well, they’re made out of some kind of metal from another planet, dude.”  And he’s like “Well, but what could we make it out of that we have around here?”  And I’m like, “I don’t know — cardboard?”  And he’s like “Sure, cardboard, we could do that, right?  And tape.  And glue, right?”

Anyway, many months later, here is our TIE fighter, after countless production delays.  It wouldn’t fool a stormtrooper, but I think it looks pretty good for a cardboard TIE fighter made by someone who’s never made anything crafty before in his life (by which I mean me, not Sam).

 

For those of you troubled by the color scheme, there was a long discussion between the client (Sam) and the builder (me) about what color to make it.  In the movies, the TIE fighters are shown to be a pale bluish-gray.  The toy TIE fighter we own (a 1997 re-release item) is a tad more bluish, but the TIE fighters shown in Sam’s Lego Star Wars video game are shown to be a dark cobalt blue.  Then we found out that George Lucas actually wanted the TIE fighters to be the cobalt blue, but it was too close to the blue of the blue screens he was using for his special effects of the time so they had to make them gray.  Sam is a stickler for accuracy, so for him the gray of the movies isn’t accurate and neither is the bluer gray of the toys — the cobalt blue of the video game is the most accurate color scheme.

Sam’s initial plan was to have a working hatch on his TIE fighter, and an actual cockpit inside with controls and things for the pilot to operate.  Months of delays (while the builder worked on a TV show) forced him to accept a simpler version, and when he saw this mean-looking pilot hunkered down in his forced-perspective cockpit, all was forgiven.  One of these days I’ll buy a ruler and I’ll be able to accurately paint an octagon.

Watch out, Santa Monica!  There’s a rogue TIE fighter loose among your suburban palms!


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