Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars, or something

I just listened to the Slate Spoiler Special podcast on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and even though they obviously included spoilers in that, I don't need to spoil anything here today. (Or, only very, very minor spoilers.)

Instead, I want to talk about how they talked about it.

The panel was composed of Slate Culture Gabfest host and Slate film critic Dana Stevens, and two other Slate writers, Forrest Wickman and Sam Adams. I don't know those two apart from each other so I will refer to them interchangeably in this post. "Samrest" seems like as good a portmanteau as any.

Dana Stevens, bless her heart, is not a Star Wars fan. She's a wonderful personality and a great film critic, but when it comes to basic Star Wars terminology, she's hopeless. When one of the guys talked about how the training of Rey by Luke on Ahch-to (that's not a spoiler) was this film's version of Dagobah, poor Dana thought that Dagobah was a method of training Jedi, not the planet Yoda lived on.

Dana has to be on every show because she's the film critic and the host of this series. The other two, though, were on the show specifically because they were thought to have substantive thoughts and opinions on Star Wars from knowing something about it.

Well, it's questionable.

Actually, I won't say they don't know anything. I'll say that they undercut the things they know by having a strangely dismissive attitude toward the conventions that define the world's most popular entertainment property.

Instead of projecting confidence in the things they know, they would undermine it by saying "or something" after every plot development they discussed. "The rebels are trying to use their bombers to take out the dreadnaught, or whatever it's called." You know it's called a "dreadnaught," Samrest, if not because you just saw the movie and loved it, then because you're a dutiful journalist and looked it up if you were planning to talk about it. But we know it's really the first option.

What I felt as I listened to it was a reluctance to take Star Wars seriously. If a planet is called "Cantonica" in the newest Star Wars movie, you don't have to make a Hannukah joke, which Samrest did, saying that today was the third day of Cantonica. If the movie chooses to call one of its planets Ahch-To, just call it Ahch-To, don't say it's called "Ahch-To, or something."

I could see that dismissive attitude if they hadn't liked the movie, but both professed to love it, despite not being able to rein in their snark. Maybe it's kind of what I discussed in yesterday's post, how loving Star Wars and hating it are strangely intermingled emotions. You love it so much that you can't help but hate aspects of it. But the names of the aliens or the planets or the spaceships are no goofier in this movie than in any other movie, and to say "or something" after you produce the perfectly accurate name for that thing is just disingenuous.

Then there were the times that Samrest just got something wrong. Samrest raised an objection to how these new movies killed the "happily ever after" of Return of the Jedi, saying something along the lines of "You defeated the empire, and then ten years later, here they come again." Isn't the passage of time between Jedi and The Force Awakens thought to be about 30 years? Being wrong by two decades on that time estimate was either a careless mistake, or an intentional case of getting it wrong, which brings us back to the unaccountable dismissiveness.

And as much as I am in the bag for Dana Stevens -- I attended a live recording of The Slate Culture Gabfest in Melbourne back in May, and had my picture taken with her -- she didn't help matters by introducing every new plot point with kind of a giggle about the unfathomable absurdity of it all. So both the people who like Star Wars and the people who like it but have purposefully learned nothing about it let me down in this episode.

I am reminded of the words of my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Murray, who had a theatrical way of making points about not only the English language, but the world. I considered him a great teacher, but the fact that he had already forgotten me like two years later dimmed his star a bit. Anyway, Mr. Murray was once talking about the right level of enthusiasm to have for something, and gave a person's reading of the beginning of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as his example. The first person was a turn off by being too invested in it. "Four score ..." he boomed in a way that was frighteningly earnest and intense. Indeed, it was a turn off. But then the person who thought he was too cool for school and barely spat out the iconic opening words in disinterested fashion was equally problematic. The right way to do it was to read the words with seriousness of purpose and with feeling, but not too much or too little of either.

I don't really know what point he was trying to make, but his words stuck with me, and they feel instructive here. If you start getting into the nerdy details of what Star Wars canon says to be the case and what creatures came from what homeworld and whether anything they did would be realistic in the scope of the Star Wars universe, you turn people off. But it's equally a turn off to pretend that those details don't matter. It's best to discuss Star Wars with seriousness of purpose and with feeling, but not too much or too little of either.

At this point I think we all must accept the fact that Star Wars is serious business. You can laugh it off as a lark, and indeed, sometimes the movies themselves invite you to laugh at them, either because they robotically try to insert laugh lines (see the prequels) or are genuinely funny (see these recent films). But if you don't take them seriously you fail to meet them not only on their own terms, but on the terms that legions of fans have come to view them.

So get over the fact that these things have "silly names." A porg is a porg, and it would be no more or less silly if it were called a flerg, a fur-penguin, or a space bunny.

When you laugh at Star Wars, you laugh at the people who have devoted their lives to it. Laugh with them, but not at them.

No comments: