Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Season I, Episode VI: Downfall of a Droid


"Trust in your friends and they'll have reason to trust in you." Every once in awhile the epigram that begin the shows catch me off guard--I needed that one. Worth thinking about--why put nuggets of wisdom where "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" used to be? Perhaps to retroactively frame that original message as a piece of wisdom?
Anakin Skywalker, for all his dark side dabbling, maintains a respect for alterity lacking in the declining Jedi Order. He has an intimacy with droids, having built one--built an original trilogy character--and grown a forbidden attachment with another. . He even became friends with Jar Jar Binks. This episode is the story of his attachment to R2-D2. The attachment does not only signify Anakin's willingness to disregard orders (not wiping R2's memory--another sign of his salubrious relation to beings written off by even compassionate others. And how are our people's memory' wiped--entertainment?) as well as more important principles. The episode also weaves the longest will of the force--Anakin's bringing balance to it. He will bring balance partly by inspiring the next generation, the reformed order, to allow attachment. It begins with this young man, who eschew mystical energy fields, like Han Solo, in favor of good old-fashioned flying and his techno-wiz droid. (R2, by the way, gets techno music for the scene where he resists his restraining bolt. I like that the creators are willing to map new genre onto the Star Wars universe mold). The latter will be the flying companion of his son, the first of the next generation--another way in which R2-D2 is the glue that holds the whole saga together. The next generation will have its hands greasy, no rich-poor (Jedi-droids) gap, encouraging each to use her own strengths, rather than comply with the principle of an order losing relevance and losing its connection to life ("The Force"). "Hands-on experience", Anakin calls his disregard for his training, justifying to Ahsoka his running off after R2.
Make no mistake, though, there is a darkness that comes with this rebirth. It operates centrifugally from Anakin, who clenches his gloved, artificial fist when Obi-Wan says that droids are a dime a dozen. Anakin who is dismissive and angry at R3, R2's replacement, and Anakin with the psychotic plan of attack to which both his old master and his padawn reject.
But he's right about the attack, and right about R3, who turns out to be spy. This is the great burden and responsibility of being right--it can isolate you so much you become a monster. How about the framing story for this drama? Another attempt to save a planet from falling under Separatist control. There are many such storie in The Clone Wars series. But each planet the Republic 'wins' is won for a Republic on the verge of becoming a repressive Empire run for profit and power. As such, The Rebel Alliance has a strange affinity with The Separatist cause. The revolution will not necessarily be pretty, in any case. It's one more way Anakin's distrust of the Jedi turns out to be more perceptive than it first appears--these Jedi support a Republic on its way to empire. Sure, they are being fooled, but aren't we being fooled here in America, where a disturbing percentage of the working class vote for the people whose low-tax policies and military-police state insure their continued distance from the rich and continued lack of access to education and health care? The riddle of Star Wars is how can we learn from the only man whose senses are attuned to the weaknesses of his Republic, when that same man becomes the antidemocratic poster boy? He is like Soviet Russia--so close to real democratic reform until a Stalin takes over. No wonder we are afraid of revolution. But as I said above, the line between a Separatist rebellion and The Rebel Alliance is thin. To see the difference follow where the corporate funds are going...


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Season I, Episode V: Rookies

What is most fascinating about this episode is the narratological web woven between it and the first two episodes of Season 3. Episode 1 of Season 3 is a prequel, whereas Episode 2 is a sequel to this particular episode. We jump back and forth in time quite often in the Star Wars universe (does one even need to italicize Star Wars anymore--it is a word and idea now, not just a copyrighted story). This weaving through space and time gives Star Wars its unique position as a continually updated canon, a story that has no 'original' versions or definitive interpreations, as they are always up for revision, including revision of the individual films themselves. This character of George Lucas' film-making infuriates many, but I attribute that more to nostalgia and our desperate faith in 'originals' and 'authenticity' than to any truly critical bent. It reminds me of early criticism of rappers for their 'inauthentic' borrowing of other beats and bragging about money.

Anyway, some notes on this episode: The difference between clones and droids is at the forefront. New technology produces new droids with a new personality. Clones, despite their common DNA, develop unique personalities. At the same time, the Jedi, for all their compassion, can't help but sound pandering sometimes: "Good man, that clone," says Obi-Wan Kenobi, sounding like a pet owner. This is in fact the proletariat story in the Clone Wars universe. As in our world, the proletariat must battle the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier, these mechnanized beings that resemble the soul alienated by the capitalist workplace. Theirs is inauthentic being, such that even in impersonating clones they cannot help but say "Roger Roger". The clones are even treated to The Force Theme at one point, such that what might perhaps have been construed as an elitist motif becomes a leitmotif of mastery, mastery among all classes and races. One notes that we never saw a clone with his helmet off in Episodes II and III. Also, Hevvy's last act is to blow up his place of employment, from which he is alienated (quite literally, by 'alien' mechnanized beings).
There is a decidedly New Hope feel to the episode, from the lighting, to the tracking shots, to the reference to Han Solo's "Everything's ok down here" on the Death Star, to the hiding out within the menancing techno-complex.
A final thought: does Obi-Wan wear white armour for solidarity with his troops? A bold move for an order clothed in monkish robes.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Malevolence Trilogy: Episodes 2-4


What strikes me as this series gets going for real is how much time we have to follow characters and subplots. A great luxurious heaping of precious time. We are freed by the television format of the burden of developing the main characters, providing backstories, drawing the major themes together, and for that reason can dig more subtley into the less epic developments in lives and lifetimes. This is particularly true for those characters that are the centerpieces of the saga--Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Emperor Palpatine, etc. We jump in medias res into the wartime work of Anakin and Obi-Wan. The entire series is an elongated, expanded take on one of their modes on the saga--the wartime mode. By the time the series is finished and we conclude these wars with Episode III, Anakin and Obi-Wan's story will be dripping with tragedy and poignance.
In the meantime, we are afforded time to slowly and subtley reveal the varieties of thought and activity that lead to the dark side. The black shadow of vader is cast from the first scene in Star Wars: Episode I, and our job is to notice the seemingly innocuous statements and actions that in fact lead to Vader. This series refuses to comparmentalize Vader and Anakin. Ahsoka tells Plo Koon Anakin is "one of a kind", and this uniqueness tends to bleed into both characters. In many episodes one sees Anakin standing or gesturing like Vader, or standing on the bridge of a Republic cruiser in the same fashion he later does so on an Imperial cruiser....of the same design! Indeed, the middle episode here closes with Anakin and R2-D2 and Ahsoka standing and looking out of the bay window of a cruiser, in an almost exact replica of the closing shot of Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back), with his son taking his place and his daughter taking Ahsoka's.
There are many examples; I will point to but a few. First there is the ambiguity of Anakin's talents. They in the end of this episode saga do indeed succeed in their mission, but he loses many men along the way, partially because of his arrogance. "Master, you can do it, but everyone else is getting shot down." This is a common theme in the series--what are the burdens and responsibilities of being the best? Anakin plays high stakes games always--flying these ships before they're ready, taking a shortcut through a nebula filled with massive prehistoric flying beasts, attacking a dangerous ship head on. This is why he wins...both as the hero and as the villain. What is the difference between the two? Not much. In the meantime, the beauty of the visuals is so overwhelming that we are not emotionally prepared for the devastation of 'you can do it, they can't.' We are momentarily floored, and thus all the more floored by the beauty when it returns. This is the sacred alternation in Star Wars--beauty alternating with horror. Beauty--"You have to trust me," says Anakin, as Padme leaps across the gap between two trains. Horror--what happens as she continues to trust him, in the films.
I want to remind the viewer to look, as always in the Star Wars universe, for the metaphorical implications military and other banal forms of speech. For example, when Grievous orders his droids to flee for "separatist space" he is betraying the ideal fascist organization of space into noncontinuous space. Later, Padme remarks that her attempt to negotiate a treaty with the banking clan (it turns out to be a trap) is a failed mission. Of course--like any mission to negotiate peace with a banking clan! The structure of the Republic cruisers includes two bridges--a smart symbolic gesture against tyranny that is lacking in the cruisers later incarnation under the Empire. Before a kiss, Padme ominously tells her future Vader to 'stop talking'. This is the kind of bad advice Ahsoka, who is always grilling him, does not give, and it hints at Padme's tragic weakness. The whole rescue scene in fact, is a foreshadowing of Anakin and Padme's son rescuing their daughter in Episode IV: A New Hope., complete with the tractor beam and the kiss on the run. These connections are designed to show us what went wrong in the first case, right in the second case--subtle, because they are so close. Other connections remind us not to hold on to our first impressions or limited narrative windows into our neighbor's character. For example, General Grievous drops in on Obi-Wan Kenobi and says: "Hello there." This is an exact echo of Obi-Wan's line dropping in on Grievous in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. What on first viewing seemed like an inappropriately cheeky version of buddhistic detachment is revealed to be a ritualistic appreciation of a circle returning (and closing, with Grievous' death).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Season I, Episode 1: Ambush


“Ambush” announces that we are once again the realm of that rare treat—a work of art equally appealing to children and adults. Actually, I have trouble believing children could enjoy it as much as we do. In one episode we are treated to meditations on the futility of war in a series about war, we get philosophical musings by the greatest Jedi master of all time, Yoda, and we get action choreographed as well as a dance company (Yoda fights in a smooth wholeness of motion, as if he can read the whole world, from its natural to its cultural features, while fighting).

The entire conflict is carried out in order to secure the allegiance of the planet Toydaria, a planet that by association with its one representative in the films, Anakin’s slave-owner Watto, is probably fairly business-minded. The moral of the episode is that keeping one’s word and fighting fair can win the allegiance of even the nominally self-interested. But every moral in The Clone Wars is shaded by the monstrous narrative timeline proffered by the six films. This battle, like the others, is orchestrated on both sides by a corrupt politician. We are forced to follow the wisdom of Yoda if we are to enjoy these episodes, taking solace, aesthetic rapture, and even hope in the details. The devil may be in the larger story arc (that of Anakin Skywalker), but the angels are in the details. “To reach our goal, a straight path we will not follow”, says Yoda, embodying the truth in his speech performance. Time will indeed weave back and forth across the various episodes and genres.

And these details, they are in the surreal magnificence of the giant pink forest of coral, before which Yoda pauses to remark:

“Beautiful this moon is

Hmm?

Amazing

The universe

Is.”

I hear line breaks in yoda’s poetic speech:
“On the moon below is my mission

There

I must go”

The details are in the clones, who remove their masks to confess embarrassedly that “there’s not much to see, we all look alike.” But Yoda sees the details, sees the living force in each one of them, as he proffers his strange mixture of Japanese Zen and Bukowski. Yoda fights using one’s weaknesses against her. He uses the environment, confusing his enemies into firing on each other. He is a master conserver—he conserves his mental and physical energy hobbling along on a stick in a robe, then turns into a deadly whirling dervish. He stops Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku’s apprentice and servant, merely by holding her hands in place using the Force. Rather than attack her or even block her blow, he simply makes her pause, suspended in her horrible self-consciousness. If there is any way out of war, it is in this making of the enemy aware, or at least making one’s allies aware. Thus do the clones contrast with the technological production of the Trade Federation, Corporate Alliance, Banking Clan and Techno Union, which fight with droids. “Ah well, it’s my programming,” says one metafictional droid, excusing his archetypal (for bad guys) poor shooting. In another instance of using the enemy’s power against itself, Yoda levitates a super battle droid, rotates it, and manipulates its will such that it starts blasting away its own company. It can only protest: “I’m having a serious malfunction”, because in the disembodied, alienated consciousness of these peons, there is no murder or injustice, only malfunction, and presumably, poor business decisions.

One could choose to see fatalism or futility in the last shot of Yoda’s ship being swallowed by a massive star destroyer, enlisted by his forces but symbolic of the coming Empire, or in Yoda talking to the villain who was once his apprentice—is this Lucas’ darkest leitmotif, that of the master’s inability to prevent the apprentice to succumbing to the easier way? It occurs a number of times in the saga. Perhaps, but in the word and action of the master we are also shown a beautiful world and a beautiful way of navigating it that in the end, if preserved in the self and in the culture, may, after a torturous series of twists and turns and revolutions, bring about the just society seemingly precluded by our inability to impart wisdom anymore. Yoda reminds us in the end of another trickster, Bob Dylan, who appears at the same time to be life’s most sober detractor and most subtle appreciator: “It’s alright ma, it’s life and life only.” The first episode of The Clone Wars teaches us how to watch the series and life itself—enjoy the ride, because we all know where it’s going to end…

The Clone Wars: An Introduction


THE CLONE WARS: AN INTRODUCTION


Why a blog on Star Wars: The Clone Wars? Well, obviously because I think the show is good. Very good. Why good? They continue the Lucasian tradition of throwing new light on old lightsabers, of making the old episodes new by means of additional episodes, in varying genres: comic book, television, film, radio podcast, video games and accessories by which to create one’s own narrative. (My band of Jedi Knights, the Teds, spent the last night of burning man in a group of 8 carrying around glowing sabers. Our charge that night was to battle the Cynics).

The Clone Wars is 66 episodes and counting that take place between film Episodes II and III. The stunningly dark context is that every battle is pointless, since the entire war has been manipulated by Chancellor Palpatine, Darth Sidious, who runs both sides, both armies. As such, our enjoyment of the relationships, virtuous actions, and victories is always tempered, always echoing back at us across the void of Episode III, tinged with the light of the Chosen One’s (Anakin Skywalker) terrible but in the end redeeming journey.

But is every battle pointless? See my review of the first episode, “Ambush”.

In a metaphysical sense, we know Star Wars is right—death will have its say in the end. As an observer of the American Empire, I see an echo of the hopelessness of each of our little wars as well, from Afghanistan to Venezuela coup attempts to our various drug wars. But there are characters in this American landscape we love—Jim Morrison, George Jackson, Bono, Frederic Jameson. Following their stories, even if America dissolves like the Republic in Star Wars, is fruitful for the soul. And so with the episodes of The Clone Wars, which have the time and patience to follow minor characters on major quests, or major characters in minor quests. This is what the world looks like fleshed out. What storyworld is this fleshed out, in the history of narrative? Star Wars veers precipitously towards the complexity of our version of storytelling of ourselves to ourselves—history.

If Lucas tells his story in contradictory space and time across multiple genres, an added advantage of this tendency is the unique properties afforded by each medium. Take, for example, commercial breaks in the television medium. In the age of DVD/Blu-Ray/DVR, of course, many watch the episodes with no breaks. But I find the breaks fascinating—during the first episode the star wars story(ies) give way momentarily to a Batman narrative, and we can imagine both narratives simultaneously, underscoring the narrative multiplicity of the Star Wars universe.

The episodic nature of television is interesting as well, given its presentation. Every Friday night, thousands gather at 9pm in front of their television to watch the same developments in the same story. Although this takes place within the privacy of living rooms, the water cooler talk means that each week these stories are processed culturally, across a wide spectrum, (the wideness of which includes that of age—both children and adults watch the show, which is rare enough).

As for animation, in addition to stunning scenery and a seemless integration of person and planet, action and stillness, it frees us from the necessity of having to use actors who don’t understand the visual and sonic elements of cinema (as, for example, elucidated in Stefan Sharff’s book of the same name). The stylized yet expressive rendered face affords the face more archetypal transmitting power, less bound in the associative distractions of actors and their betraying faces.

So sit down every Friday night and engage the ritual. There are so few in contemporary American life. Here is to the episodic push towards a processing of our time of war and empire, and the philosopher-warriors who fail us.