Happy Anniversary to Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Every nerd of a certain age today commemorates the release of a film that led to one of the deepest rifts in any fandom, and in the nerd sub-culture as a whole. I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about it because I’ve written about it before.

Most people will say “happy birthday,” but I consider May 19 more of an anniversary. I think a film’s birthday is more akin to when the picture is locked, not when it’s released. That’s just the first day that you got to celebrate it – if celebrate it, you did.

And I’m one of the ones that does celebrate The Phantom Menace. I always have been. I enjoyed that first screening at 12:01 a.m. and have loved it more with each passing year.

There’s no sense of irony here. There’s no “because of when it was released in my life” or “nostalgic” aspect to this. If anything, The Phantom Menace was released at a time in my life I’m not in too much of a rush to remember. (An important qualifier is that I’m not one to dwell on the past at any rate, even when it was a good point.)

I simply love Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace because it is an amazing and important work from a tremendous filmmaker. George Lucas is one of the greatest filmmakers in history, and The Phantom Menace is a testament to what he is willing to achieve. I wish he was still making films – any films –  because I’m bereft at the thought of what I could see him produce.

I’ve written about Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace a lot. A good sampling of my writing about The Phantom Menace can be found all throughout this blog. A select sampling is below.

Trust me, that’s just a sampling. There’s even more if you want to use the site search and find it. I think it’s worth a read, but I’m a little biased.

The Jedi Council in Star Wars Episode One The Phantom Menace which is a Star Wars movie called The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars saga featuring the Jedi Council.
Anakin before the Council.

 

The Fact of The Phantom Menace

The point is that I’m no stranger to trumpeting what I see as the under-appreciated genius of George Lucas’ re-entry to directing in 1999. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.

I’m also no stranger to being maligned, insulted, and dismissed for loving it.

I’ve been called a “fanboy” for defending it, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’ve been told that I’m lying (to myself and/or others) and only claim to like it, that I’ve “committed” to the opinion and won’t back down out of pride. I’ve had a friend directly say that “only an idiot” could like The Phantom Menace, then failing to understand why I took that as a personal insult.

In short, the people who think that the fight over The Last Jedi was the worst it got for Star Wars fans, are either too young to remember the fight(s) over The Phantom Menace, or it’s so long ago that their memories have faded.

It was pitched, it was ugly, and it was personal. It went on for years.

I still don’t care.

I love Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I’ve always loved it. I will always love it. I will always be grateful for its place in cinema history, in Star Wars history, and in my personal history.

Just like the lauded “Original Trilogy,” it will always transport me to a different time and a different state of mind.

So happy anniversary, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The world is a vastly different place than it was when you debuted, and somehow you’ve only become more relevant. Sadly, strangely, and beautifully relevant.

Thank you, George Lucas, for a work of art disguised as mass media.

Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine in Star Wars Episode One The Phantom Menace which is a Star Wars movie called The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars saga featuring Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine but not Craigula.
Yes, the point of the shot is that he’s in focus. I said good day, sir!

Rediscovering Lost Influences

I had the joyous moment recently of discovering a lost influence, an old Disney®™© film, The Black Cauldron. I hadn’t seen it in decades. I had fond memories of it, but I guess all the talk of Disney®™©’s new streaming service put me of a mind to track it down and see it.

I remembered seeing it in the theater with my dad. I remember he really enjoyed it; he spoke to me about the art and skill necessary to animate figures. He was a true fan of film, its art and its science, and it had a great deal to do with why I love it, too.

A Bygone Era

It was also a hoot to find an imperfect gem from the Disney®™© era that was defined by real artistic risk-taking. The Black Hole, Tron, and The Black Cauldron come from an era overseen by Ron W. Miller, who may not have filled their pockets with cash but stayed true to the artistic spirit of Disney®™©.

Ron W. Miller former CEO of Disney
Ron W. Miller deserves more respect and recognition.

This was all well before Bob Iger’s reign, the maestro who brought us the Marvel©®™ Juggernaut and snagged Lucasfilm™©®, and who I’m mentioning for SEO and just to link to an article to remind everyone that he’s got a million-dollar smile and a stiletto in his hip pocket.

Plenty of Disney®™© fans didn’t respond well to The Black Cauldron. Fair enough. There are unquestionably issues with the movie, which is partly due to the shakeup that ran Ron Miller out of the top spot at Disney®™©.

But it is definitely worth seeing. I’ve seen other movies from different franchises I’ve liked a lot less. There is a real art, a baseline beauty, to everything in this film that I can’t help but enjoy it.

Disorienting Truth

Rediscovering what an influence this was on my young mind was at points disorienting. I’ve always been open about the strong artistic influences of which I’m aware. The Doors remain the North Star on my musical voyages. George Lucas shaped the way I think of film, and unquestionably story structure itself, in inimitable ways.

Make no mistake, The Black Cauldron is imperfect. It’s powered largely by its unabashed vision and terrific art direction. In short, while the execution misses in some respects, there’s a lot to enjoy.

I can also say that my kids enjoyed seeing it with their dad – yes, that’s me – so maybe I’ve just repeated the cycle from my dad, and imbued in them a love for the stronger elements in the film.

It’s a Long Journey

There were countless other influences on me over the years, of course. All of us pick them up along the way. (Social media influencers are still soulless hacks, but that’s another discussion entirely.)

What great fun to rediscover them then. To rediscover one which so richly impacted my tastes, that I had only vague memories of, was a wonderful moment. That it put me in touch again with a memory of my dad is so much the better.

I also think, since Disney®™© has such a taste now for remaking animated features from the past, like Aladdin (which looks…like it’s going to be released soon), they should take a crack at this again and make it super cool.

The Lord of the Rings series proved people have a taste for this type of thing. Stop buying other properties, and dig deeper into your catalog, Disney®™©! You have some items of magnificent potential, and even some endearing missteps, that are laying right there for the taking.

Of course, I don’t expect them to take this advice hurled into the void.

But then, I didn’t expect them to drop Will Smith into the Uncanny Valley, either, so it’s not like I’m an Oracle.

Will Smith as the Genie in the live action Aladdin
I’m sure it’ll look better when it’s released. But you’ll have to let me know.

So, What Are You Really Reading?

Something interesting happens when you write something online.

To be sure, I’m just some random crank on the Internet who occasionally writes screeds that a few people read. Sometimes the ‘bots crawl through WordPress and give what I write a meaningless “like.” Sometimes someone connects with it and offers a comment.

Blogging has always been about having a way for me to work things out that randomly come into my brain. I’m not so vain as to regard blogging as anything other than something fun to let off nerdy “steam” that’s built up. Despite constantly hurling my voice at the world through podcasting, sometimes I return to it.

I’m Just a Simple Blogger

“Who’s the more foolish, the blogger or the fool who podcasts?” as Obi-Wan might ask. I do both because they’re fun, and when people like it for some reason, it’s even more fun. The terrifying thing is that this blog has, in one form or another, been around since the Prequels.

Anyway, what fascinates me is that frequently what I write isn’t the thing to which people are reacting. This has been true since the days of “Tony” trolling the comments panel, but I’ll take a recent blog as an example.

Not to Belabor the Point

Recently I wrote something highly critical of the Star Wars story group. It had sprung forth from a discussion I’d had with a friend of mine who kept his head low while the storm of Internet Outrage and Virtue Signaling attacked me, this blog, and my social media accounts.

If you didn’t read the blog, the point was simply that the “Story Group” was not as powerful, nor as all-knowing, as had been portrayed. [2019 EDIT: And that came to be accepted fact well after I wrote it, but was highly contentious at the time.]

Mistakes happened and stories introduced inconsistencies. In the era of “It’s All Connected,” that’s supposed to be what story groups are invented to prevent. Details in Story A should not contradict details in Story B, and vice versa.

This little sentiment was greeted with comments online that “I don’t understand how Hollywood works” (patently false, and a marvelous case of overstatement with the intent to insult) and that the “story group hasn’t f*d it all up.” (I’ll also note that neither commented on the blog itself; it was relayed to me via screenshot since I was off Twitter at the time. But I did see the person who jokingly recommended ritual suicide as the only way to prove my sincerest apology, which garnered no reaction from the blue-checked account who was leading the assault.)

At no point did I say that the Story Group had “f*d it all up.” At no point did I betray some lack of understanding of the mythical “Hollywood machine.”

But that was what people “read.” They “read” some universal condemnation of the Star Wars Story Group, and rose to defend them as if they’re all friends and super tight because someone RT’d them once.

When I invited one of them to re-read the blog, they admitted they saw my point. I wrote about the fact that the Star Wars Story Group is not as authoritatively powerful, nor all-knowing, as has been touted. I talked about how Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath books were both underwritten (my opinion, how dare I!) and serve no point aside from conveying some bullet points none but the most die hard fans will learn. If we’re living in the time of the Connected Universe, that’s doubly unforgivable by the rules of that game.

So What Happened?

There’s a brilliant piece of dialogue from a bit that was cut before the release of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega if he listens, or waits to talk.

Maybe that’s why we’re all in so many arguments online nowadays. Maybe that’s why friendships fray on Facebook. We go into every conversation with our minds already made up, paying half-attention, and skimming instead of reading. We’re not actually “listening” the way we should, and have no interest in understanding.

Certainly, that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s circumstance. But it’d be nice if people took a second to ask if they “got” what the author was trying to say, instead of attacking.

It’s called giving the benefit of the doubt, and it was, at one time, the default starting point.

What I think Now and Why: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Part V]

From the previous blog in this series:
The ironic thing is that everything Lucas had pointed out, from the Tone Poem structure to the old movie serials influences, helped shine a bright new light on The Force Awakens which allowed me for find my way to enjoying it. Which brings me, finally, to my new review.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Opinions can change.

Sadly, past statements usually are treated as an unchanging piece of our firmament, the words of long ago regarded as eternally fresh. People like to leverage your past statements as a way to vet what you have to say now. If they like how you’ve revised yourself, it’s referred to as nuance. If they don’t like what you have to say, it’s held as dishonesty.

This seems a weighty way to start a movie review. There’s a reason for it, though.

I wasn’t particularly kind to The Force Awakens when it first came out. As the title of this blog series suggests, that has changed.

“A Good, Wholesome Adventure”

At a glance, The Force Awakens‘ mission statement is “to have fun.” This was surprisingly anachronistic for Star Wars by December 2015.

It’s worth noting my love for the prequels endures.

The prequels are tonally serious; they’re dealing with the collapse of civilization and loss of freedom. Even though The Clone Wars started with a lighter touch, the sense of dread increased as it marched inexorably toward its inevitable resolution. (Lucas also used the series to back-fill story and character development given only a glance at times in the prequel trilogy, but that’s a topic for another time.)

I enjoyed it all. I really, really loved a lot of it.

My initial reaction to The Force Awakens was wrapped up in a whole lot of factors, covered earlier in this series. Worth repeating is that during the lead-up I was steeped in too much Star Wars for my own good. It colored my expectations and my reaction to the material. Also worth repeating is that the amount of implicit and explicit disrespect heaped on Lucas as a filmmaker during the run-up to The Force Awakens grated on me.

As a self-appointed Star Wars Expert (still true) and ardent Lucas Apologist (still true), refreshed in the great miasma of esoterica released through the years, I was prepared to dissect the new film from every possible angle.

What I didn’t realize is that I was making the same mistake that the prequel bashers before me had made. I was setting myself up to dictate what made something “worthy” of being Star Wars.

Journey’s End

So that’s where I started. Here we are now at the end of my personal journey. This is what I think of Star Wars: The Force Awakens now.

The Force Awakens is a charming film, filled with fun and excitement. It’s imbued with the emotional resonance I remember Star Wars having when I was a kid. It’s nearly impossible now to remember those halcyon days when it wasn’t about mythology and intricacy, but just “a good, wholesome adventure” as Lucas cited in the original The Making of Star Wars special.

From a technical standpoint, The Force Awakens is an achievement. The cinematography is wonderful. The shot compositions, camera movement and color palette feel at home in Star Wars. The editing is amazing; the pace is swift without being relentless. The script is clear, straightforward and accessible. The characters are charismatic, distinct, and memorable.

Kylo Ren flares up.
Also, lens flares.

To be sure, this is a JJ Abrams film, not a George Lucas one. Part of this journey has been accepting that this is actually a pretty wonderful thing. Though I was enjoying Lucas creating a masterwork over decades across many media, the only way Star Wars grows is if new blood gets injected.

The Empire Strikes Back is what it is, because Irvin Kershner put his stamp on it. Return of the Jedi is what is it is, because Richard Marquand contributed.

I’ve come to love the storytelling flourishes Abrams pulls off. Rey’s introduction is several minutes without a word from her, yet we know all about her and the life she leads. There are small, subtle moments, such as Poe’s look of surprise/amazement at the magnitude of the military preparations as he’s off-loaded into the Star Destroyer at the beginning.

Rey is a vibrant lead character. Kylo Ren’s villainy is a more human one than we usually get in Star Wars; his anger management issues are a refreshing touch in a narrative series where the villains are typically so controlled and deliberate.

I rejected Finn’s silliness at points. But he was a compelling character maturing through his actions, and he serves a solid story purpose. I caught flack for pointing this out long ago, but he’s actually what Lucas was trying to achieve with Jar Jar. Though I’m more fond of Jar Jar than most, Finn is certainly a more successful expression of that character type.

I adore BB-8. Maz Kanata delighted me.

Getting back to my love for meta theories, The First Order is a commentary – intentional or not – on the rabid Star Wars fanbase itself, angrily resisting any change to the world as they thought they knew it. I point as an example for this to the fans who reacted poorly to the idea of the old series of books and comics being invalidated by Lucasfilm/Disney.

The Great Thaw

Naturally, there were plenty of things I picked on when the film first came out, otherwise my journey isn’t very interesting. Warming up to them had a lot to do with my growing acceptance of the film.

To give you an idea, I picked on the horns for the opening fanfare. (I still do, honestly). I was picking on the instruments and conducting of a sliver of a piece of a film score. I actually had to “get over” the LA Philharmonic’s treatment of 10 seconds of music to admit that the rest of the new score is actually quite wonderful.

Starkiller Base is a huge sticking point for a lot of people. It was for me at first. Then, as I thought about it, it works because of the very nature of what The First Order is: a cadre of villains not trying to build a future but restore a past they’ve idealized and fetishized. It works thematically.

I’ve already commented on the meta nature of Han’s character earlier in the series, and it was realizing that which ameliorated my original complaint about his scene with the Rathtars. I originally hated that scene. “Han doesn’t need a motivation to look for Luke,” I decried. That missed the point. The point was that Han was out of tricks, and the galaxy was done with him.

Besides, if I can look the other way on an overlong sea-monster sequence in The Phantom Menace because it was full of Qui-Gon character building moments, I can roll with this. I can roll with it even if only because this scene plays with considerably more excitement, and a “monster moment” is part of the DNA of Star Wars.

…and if I’m going to get hung up on the Rathtars, I might as well get my knickers in a bunch about a sock puppet forcing the story forward in The Empire Strikes Back.

Once I “got there,” I saw the nuance of his portrayal in The Force Awakens, as opposed to the chip I had on my shoulder about his regression to immaturity. He is very much what every Father fears: the reason their kid chooses poorly. Then the moment where he tenderly forgives his son, accepting responsibility at the final moment for what he did to help push him down a dark path, is a dramatic moment worthy of this epic series.

I harped on ship design – a fetish of mine – for a while. Then I realized it, too, speaks to the nature of the galaxy. The heroes we knew failed in their mission to refresh and restore the galaxy, and the ships reflect that. Yes, it also serve a marketing purpose of making the film accessible and friendly to fans. I’m fine with that.

(Except for the Resistance troop carrier. Seriously, screw that ship design, it’s awful.)

Perspective

But I really, really focused on every little thing I didn’t love. I ground that axe until it was a sharp blade and swung it at anyone who defended the film. And I dug in my heels as I spent countless hours discussing it.

Looking back, I think that there was a part of me that didn’t want to like The Force Awakens, no matter how much I claimed that I did. I was a Lucas Loyalist, and to love something that didn’t have his express involvement and blessing undoubtedly weighted my criticisms.

In short, I became the sort of fanboy I hate being. I feel like I owe an apology to my buddy Shawn, who took a great deal of abuse in the first week on behalf of the film.

Once I stepped back, I saw that Lucas built something so enduring that The Force Awakens works as a part of the saga regardless any shortcomings I may find in it still. I (and other fans) looked the other way with a lot of choices Lucas made because it resolved well. I enjoy his filmmaking style, and understand his art. I like to think I understand him as a person through it. (For the record, Revenge of the Sith remains his greatest work, and the best of the series.)

In Summation

I’ve learned my lesson. I learned to live with certain shortcomings with the previouse six, even as new issues cropped in as they’ve been continually revised through time. Looking for Abrams to achieve perfection in a way that Lucas doesn’t think even he attained becomes reductive and tiresome.

I think that this journey I took with The Force Awakens will help with my reception of the further episodes, and anthology stories, and help me keep things in perspective. Lucas walked away, and I’ve got to get over that. He made the decision to let someone else make Star Wars, and they made a pretty great start of it.

Even if it did include a helicopter shot at the end.

The Question of George Lucas: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Part IV]

From the previous blog in the series:
Solo is Lucas [in “The Force Awakens”]. Here is a man who’s run out of tricks and the galaxy has no use for anymore. He has come back to the life he knew but those who worked with him consider him a disappointment. (“When have I ever let you down?” he asks Kanjiklub. The answer is not good.) Solo is trying to stay relevant and, though some admire him for his past, the present has no more use for him.

I’ve written about artistic heroes before. It’s never easy.

My reflection on Jim Morrison and what he’s meant to me through my life was just such an exercise. So I’m going into some deeply honest territory, and my initial question as I started writing this was whether it really has a place in a series about coming to love The Force Awakens.

It does. This is about more than just my long relationship with Lucas’ artistry. It’s about his artistry in relation to the sequels being created in his absence.

What I won’t be getting into is the ongoing argument about Lucas’ “earlier works” versus prequels, or Crystal Skulls or any of that. Argue on your own time. I’ve made my feelings known more than once, on multiple outlets.

The George Lucas Lecture Series

George Lucas is one of the most significant artistic influences on my life. I’d think that’s obvious to anyone who knows me or has read this blog.

I’ve watched things he created, wrote, directed, and produced. I’ve watched and read things listed as his major influences. I did this so I could understand his own artistic formation better, and hence look for additonal layers in his own work.

The point of all that is that I love George Lucas’ work. I’m one of those who’s spent a lot of time “at his knee,” as it were, learning what he thought made a good story.

Goodness knows he came to enjoy talking about it. He enjoyed talking about it so much that we all grew accustomed to Professor Lucas explaining everything imaginable about what he did (“Georgesplaining”?). During a lot of those discussions, Lucas stressed that the series operated like a Tone Poem, where things repeat in iterations.

I’ve noted before that they function like Norse Myth, whether specifically named or not. In them, names and places repeat in an often-obvious way to the audience but with the characters unaware. This turns things into an exercise in dramatic irony, and the characters are often susceptible to the traps of repetition. For more on this idea, I recommend reading The Poetic Edda at your local library.

Do You See?

It became an adventure to examine insert shots and creatures added in post-production. Each Star Wars film has subsequently been picked apart like the Zapruder film. This is, I think, what came to turn off a lot of fans about him and his work.

Tangentially, I love doing that. It’s why I love being on a show like Stage Nine. Heck, I love looking for hidden cues and revelations in an artist’s work. It’s like living through Shakespeare and wondering if they were aware that works rife with sex jokes and poop references were going to reshape entertainment forever?

Unfortunately, he spent the years of the prequels bludgeoning fans with the thought that every decision, no matter how minor, was potentially vital to the understanding of series symbolism. A Rodian added to the background of a Coruscant shot might have meaning!

And so the Mythos Building gained momentum over time. Star Wars is by its nature about Big Important Things, but it’s also about having fun. Paraphrasing something he said regarding updated dewback effects in the Star Wars Special Edition, sometimes whimsy motivates decisions. Surely it motivated the humor of Jar Jar as well.

If I’m honest, the Big Important Things sometimes clouded over the fun. It could feel like an obligation to watch for every addition to “canon,” especially as The Clone Wars progressed. Indeed, the purpose of The Clone Wars TV series was to “fill in the picture” between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Setting aside the tacit acknowlegement that some story would have been better served within the prequel films themselves, the existence of the series speaks to a desire to offer a study guide for them. I get why it turned off some fans.

None of this diminishes the passion or skill he has. It does not diminish my love for his work.

I am merely saying that the swashbuckling fun within the Star Wars universe came to be dulled a bit by the Seriousness of It All after a certain point. We were conditioned to have a connossieur’s palate for this entertainment, and constantly reminded that hamburger wasn’t chopped ham – it was chopped steak.

The Aftershock

This is what was initially disorienting about The Force Awakens for a fan like me. Abrams wasn’t giving us a layered, pointed historical lesson or sociopolitical metaphor. He wanted to entertain with a Big Accessible Story by creating what Lucas in 1977 would have called “a good, wholesome adventure.”

It played for laughs! It was in constant motion! It introduced our third Death Star in seven films. [Which, again, is something I think presents an elegant “viewing order” answer that TFA should be viewed after RotS if you’re viewing by series.]

I took issue with these things. I had a great big chip on my shoulder about them. Things weren’t helped by the fact that the marketing of the film majorly emphasized how much Lucas didn’t have to do with it. It felt disrespectful to a fan who loved it all.

Lucas’ statements about the film were also just passive-aggressive enough to change my mood as I walked into it. It made it seem like Disney had done him something of a disservice by “not making things the way he would have.” Nevermind that, if it was that important to him, he should have gone ahead and made the movie himself, and not sold it all to Disney in the first place.

The ironic thing is that everything Lucas had pointed out, from the Tone Poem structure to the old movie serials influences, helped shine a bright new light on The Force Awakens which allowed me for find my way to enjoying it. Which brings me, finally, to my new review.

Of course that’s the blog for next time: My Revised Review.