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The Force Awakens’ Rey: Disney Prince(ss)

Lots of spoilers ahead.

Once upon a time, there was a princess who was trapped in a dark tower by an evil usurper, and forced into an evil destiny. Our plucky princess manages to escape the tower with the evil usurper’s men in hot pursuit. Fortunately, she stumbles on a prince in disguise, who first helps her escape and then plans to destroy the dark tower. However, the prince is captured, so the princess gathers the help of some companions they met on the way and they go to the dark tower to free the prince. Meanwhile, though, the prince has already gotten free, and our heroes all meet up. They confront the usurper, with the princess holding him off just long enough for the prince to claim the magical weapon showing him to be the rightful heir to the throne. He defeats the usurper, but the princess has been magically wounded, and has fallen into a deep sleep. So, the prince goes on a quest to find a wizard in a far off land, who might be able to break the spell on the princess…

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been criticized for adhering too closely to the plot(s) of the original trilogy, and although the film certainly has flaws (relying far too heavily on implausible coincidence, for example), the critique that it’s too similar to the original trilogy is unfair.

The film wisely focuses more on reflecting the themes of the original trilogy, and the plot just flows from that as a natural consequence. And, indeed, this attention to theme over plot point is one of the main reasons TFA succeeds where the prequels failed, and will eventually, I think, be seen to have improved on both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi.

Take, for example, the central mystery of the film: No, it’s not to whom Kylo Ren is related; that’s revealed pretty early on, and no one over the age of twelve should have been surprised. Nor is it the death of Han Solo — again, that’s telegraphed pretty clearly throughout the film. Instead, the mystery is laid out in the first scene where Lor San Tekka says to him, “I know where you come from, before you called yourself Kylo Ren.” Throughout the film, the mystery of his name before he changed it to Kylo Ren isn’t revealed until the climactic scene, in which Han Solo’s shout of “Ben!” begins the end of the film.

Let’s consider that name for a second. It’s incredibly improbable for these characters that they would name their son “Ben.” Leia literally never met Ben Kenobi, and Han Solo’s interactions with him seem to have been limited to a business deal and scoffing at the idea of the Force.  Given all the time they spent fighting with others in the rebellion, Obi Wan Kenobi would have had very little impact on their lives, whereas naming their son after Luke, Lando, Chewie, basically important to Leia on Alderaan, or heck, even Akbar or Wicket W. Warrick would make more sense than “Ben.”  That name was not chosen because it made sense for the characters or the plot, but rather because it fits a larger thematic purpose.

So, what does all of this have to do with Rey? When we shift the focus to the thematic elements, we no longer see a film that recycles the plot of A New Hope, but rather a film that draws from a deeper well, that of the Disney princess. Although she may not literally be a princess (though with her mysterious past, she may be), thematically she fulfills the traditional role in the Disney film, though in this case with the gender roles frequently inverted. Heck, her name even means “queen.”

Rey and Finn together play out the plotline of the Disney princess film, with Rey in the role of Prince Charming, and Finn in the role of the princess. This, in part, goes to explain why Rey is, frankly, such a boring Mary Sue character — just like a traditional prince, she has to be attractive, charming, virtuous, skilled with a sword, have a faithful sidekick and a noble steed, etc. Presumably, her character will become more fleshed out in the next two films, as this film focuses on Finn, the next presumably on Poe Dameron, with Rey completing her arc in the third film (and I think we can expect a similar focus on original trilogy characters, with this film being Han’s, the next two focusing on Leia, then Luke, or visa-versa). But for now, her character does not have to be fleshed out, because her job is to be the stranger with the mysterious past.

Once upon a time A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a princess who Finn was trapped in a dark tower Starkiller Base by an evil usurper Kylo Ren, and forced into an evil destiny. Our plucky princess Finn manages to escape the tower Starkiller Base with the evil usurper’s men Stormtroopers in hot pursuit. Fortunately, she Finn stumbles on a prince in disguise Rey, who first helps her Finn escape and then plans to destroy the dark tower Starkiller Base. However, the prince Rey is captured, so the princess Finn gathers the help of some companions they met on the way and they go to the dark tower Starkiller Base to free the prince Rey. Meanwhile, though, the prince Rey has already gotten free, and our heroes all meet up. They confront the usurper Kylo Ren, with the princess Finn holding him off just long enough for the prince Rey to claim the magical weapon light saber showing him her to be the rightful heir to the throne. He Rey defeats the usurper Kylo Ren, but the princess Finn has been magically wounded, and has fallen into a deep sleep coma. So, the prince Rey goes on a quest to find a wizard Luke Skywalker in a far off land, who might be able to break the spell on the princess teach her to heal Finn…

By drawing on this well, that of the folkloric princess (in Disney form), The Force Awakens offers us thematic hints at the future of the series. The film is clearly self-aware of the gender swap in the princess role addressing it in comic moments, such as the exclamation “Stop taking my hand!” and C3PO correcting himself in calling Leia “Princess” rather than “General.” Nevertheless, it never devolves into a pandering “Grrl Power” attitude, instead allowing Rey and Finn to have feminine and masculine strengths, respectively. In particular, Rey on Jakku evokes the princess waiting to be rescued by her family, but the depiction of her is not of helpless passivity, but rather resolute steadfastness. We see that she was a little girl who is surviving in the (literal) wreckage of war, and each mark on the wall is a mark of strength, not passivity.

By the end, prince(ss) Rey has learned that she is waiting not to be rescued, but to find someone to rescue. Just as Leia had to awaken Han Solo from the carbonite, and Prince Charming had to awaken Sleeping Beauty, Rey now has to awaken Finn — and as the Force awakens, unite these two traditions.

Does the Canon Still Matter?

Recently I was having a conversation with a student who wondered why we still have a canon. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, the “Canon” is what we call that collection of great literary works that are considered important, the type of thing that people should know.

In the late 20th century, particularly the 1980s, the academic world had a conflict often called the “Canon Wars,” essentially a debate over what gets included in the canon. It was during this time that we began to see more writings by women and minorities included in the Canon, and the phrase “Dead White Men” became an epithet. And although some of those dead white men got pushed out (I can’t recall the last time I saw Pilgrim’s Progress on a syllabus), and anthology offerings got more diverse in 1980’s-style diversity (with Pushkin ceasing to be Russian, and becoming Afro-Russian), the Canon mostly remained the same.

Partly the end of the Canon Wars was tacit recognition of demographics; literacy was historically the domain of those maligned dead white men in the West, so unsurprisingly they wrote most of what is worth reading (as well as most of what is not worth reading). In large part, though, the Canon Wars ended simply over exhaustion. Everyone was tired of talking about how contingent literary value is, and was ready to move on. Some people on both sides claimed victory, others on both sides declared the end of civilization, and the conversation moved to Cultural Marxism.

So why bring up the Canon again? My student seemed confused by the whole issue. She is young enough that the Canon Wars were over by the time she was born, and there has always been an internet. “Why do we have anthologies?” she wondered. “We can just look up any text we want any time we want online, right?”

I think the Canon matters for two reasons. The first is simply that not everything is available online (yet), and we should not be too confident in the permanence of online resources. Some things that were literally carved in stone are missing, and even when we have a complete text, we often can’t read it because the language is completely dead. Even being famous and widespread is not enough; Aristotle’s Treatise on Comedy is gone forever, despite the fact that it was written by freakin’ Aristotle and there were presumably a bazillion copies. We know it existed at one time, but we don’t know what it said.

For those who are convinced by that electronic resources will never die (ah, the arrogance of youth!), there is the second reason: You will die. You are mortal. You can’t read everything, so you have to choose what to read.

Consider this in the age of Netflix: When I was a child, we had three channels. We might have to choose between watching Hee Haw, The Lawrence Welk Show, and some game show. It was either that, playing outside, or Legos. Your choices were made for you.

Today, I might go weeks watching only documentaries, or independent films, or every episode of Fringe, but I can’t watch everything that’s offered to me. I can’t even watch 1% of what’s available to me. I have to make choices, and worse, I often have to make uninformed choices. Do I listen to the din of a dedicated fandom? Or perhaps let the AI choose for me?

Perhaps, in the age of the internet, the Canon has become even more important. It is the Rotten Tomatoes of books. Goodreads tells us what our friends are reading, but the canon tells us what people have been reading for decades, centuries, or even millennia. If I want to start reading Shakespeare, I could start in alphabetical order with All’s Well That Ends Well, or chronologically with A Comedy of Errors, but unless I’ve committed to binge-read all of Shakespeare, why not read the canonical greats, like Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Henry IV, Part II? Sure, I might eventually get around to reading Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus (a personal favorite), but life is brief, so why not move on to writings by other authors? You can read Pride and Prejudice but skip Northanger Abbey, read Paradise Lost but skip Paradise Regained, read Fences but skip the rest of the Pittsburgh Cycle — or you can fall in love with an author and read deep into them.

For this generation, then, the Canon may no longer be “The Great Works As Handed Down From On High,” but rather “The Best Stuff, Not Just What’s Popular Today.” It’s the best thing ever to happen to binge readers. And, with the advent of social media, the binge reader joins in the project of Canon formation. The Canon wasn’t really democratized by the efforts of academics like me; it is being democratized by the unhindered love of readers.

In Praise of School Pictures, the Anti-Selfie

School pictures — those annual photos taken by schools ostensibly for yearbooks — have turned into a relic from the past, a practice that seems to continue more from inertia than for any particular reason.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, school photos and yearbooks served a pretty important purpose: They provided a visual record of a child’s development, and acted as a way to build comradery and mutual identity for students. According to the OED, the term “year-book” was first used in this sense in 1910, to describe Barnard College’s The Mortarboard, but the practice of taking pictures and marketing them together in a book actually predates the American Civil War, and can be attributed to George Kendall Warren, a daguerreotypist who lived from 1824-1884 and started making “class books” from as early as 1858.

In the 20th century, yearbooks stopped being for colleges only, and became part of the elementary and secondary school landscape. Families that couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer for a sitting could still get a chance for a picture of their child every year. Pictures were (and still are) offered in various sizes, from 8×10 to “wallet size,” so that they could be given to loved ones and carried about.  School pictures didn’t just provide a record of a school, they provided a record of a family.

Even when chemical film cameras became ubiquitous by the end of the 20th century, school photos still served that important function. In a large family like mine, sitting everyone down for individual portraits year after year would have been a Herculean task — but school pictures made sure that our classmates and families can look back and remember much more clearly.

But today, do those original purposes of school photos really make any sense? I have a semi-daily record of my children from social media, and don’t have any need to distribute pictures to my family and friends, since that is automated. Parents today anxieties today are that images of their children are too widely distributed. And does anyone really think that the Reunion Committee for the Class of 2015 is going to mine the yearbook for nostalgic images, rather than finding them on the internet?

School photos no longer mean what they used to. Today, they are the anti-selfie, one of the few antidotes to our cultural narcissism. The selfie (and its loathsome accoutrement, the “selfie-stick” has only one true challenger to its dominance — the school picture. You can try to look your best, but in the end, THAT picture is going to be the permanent institutional record of you, zits and all. We need school photos to keep us from becoming our own paparazzi.

I will close with an elementary school picture of myself. LOOK ON MY BANGS AND 70s GARB! LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR!

School Pictures

Jupiter Ascending: Reboot This Movie

Last night I went to see Jupiter Ascending with Captain Skyhawk and Kat Ninetails. We were literally the only three people in the theater, which allowed us to go full MST3K (or HDTGM, depending on your tastes).

Following standard internet protocol, here is the warning that spoilers are coming, but frankly, the movie makes so little sense that it’s practically unspoilable.  Just go ahead and read this and any other spoiler-filled review — it won’t matter.

I’m not going to get into everything that’s wrong with this movie, because that would take longer than the film itself. Suffice it to say that Sean Bean plays a half-man/half-bee character, Channing Tatum spends most of the film on space roller blades, and Mila Kunis both has an incestuous engagement and gets into bestiality, attempting to seduce a half-wolf character by saying, “I like dogs.” And none of these are even the craziest and stupidest parts of the movie.

If you want a review of how terrible this movie is, you have find lots of those online. Instead, I want to offer a different suggestion here: That this movie should be rebooted.

Unfortunately, Hollywood has a habit of remaking (and ruining) good films, rather than remaking bad films that could have been good. While there are some happy exceptions to this rule (The  1941 Maltese Falcon was the third film version of that book), the Nicholas Cage remake of The Wicker Man is more representative. Oh, and just to keep with our horrible bee-movie theme, here’s a short clip from The Wicker Man expressing how we felt watching Jupiter Ascending:

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing about Jupiter Ascending: It’s trying to do big things.  Although most of the practical effects are Fifth Elementesque, the non-action space scenes are truly beautiful.  Terry Gilliam makes a cameo in a bureaucracy montage scene (yes, bureaucracy plays a major role in the film) that pays homage to his own wonderful Brazil. It introduces interesting themes that never get fully explored, on topics such as transhumanism, cross-cultural identity, and the amorality of scientism.

Here’s an example: In the beginning, we find that Jupiter (the ostensible protagonist, who is so ill-constructed as a character that she defies description) is being taken advantage of by her cousin. He convinces her to sell her eggs to a fertility clinic so that he can buy a Roomba and a big-screen TV.  Somehow, he has convinced her that he should keep 2/3 of the split, though it is unclear as to why he should get any of this money, nor why she is so stupid as to agree to this when we know she is genetically predisposed to be one of the most ruthless capitalists in the universe.

This whole subplot seems like at one time it was supposed to be a comic parallel of the darker, larger plot: A relative is exploiting her, getting her to sell out her genetic heritage for his own gain. Her cousin Vladie and pseudo-son Balem Abrasax even have parallel speeches about the nature of capitalism. The problem is that those parallel themes never get fully exploited, and are in fact hard to see in the final cut of the film.

Lots of people have complained about how many characters are introduced in the film, then mysteriously disappear without a story arc. Jupiter has a best friend who is about to get engaged to a wealthy sort-of Olympic athlete, which presumably in one draft of the script of another was supposed to mean something? Sean Bean has a daughter who in no way advances the plot, coughs in a way that seems to big significant, then never appears again. We’ve got bounty hunters who start to get developed as characters, then suddenly fall off the edge of the movie.

This flaw, however, is exactly what makes the movie ideal for a reboot. It is a horrible movie, but it has many bits and pieces of a wonderful and important film. Kat Ninetails compared it to a ransom note: A weird message pasted together out of bits of other media in a way that makes the reader feel confused and threatened. It’s as if Dune, The Fifth Element, Anastasia, and Brazil were all blended together and forced down your throat. A reboot that picked a single theme and single visual style, stayed disciplined in that, and was competently acted, could not only be a great film, but the beginning of a great franchise.

Now, before we go, I offer you Captain Skyhawk’s Jupiter Ascending prequel fanfic, which I would like to note he wrote before seeing the film, and still manages to be a better version of the first act  of the movie.

EXT. SHOT SPACE

PRESENT
DAY

[Caine]

SPACE SHIPS ARE FLYING AROUND AND ZOOMING EVERYWHERE. SPACE IS A
BUSIER PLACE THAN WE IMAGINED.

Caine
I need to land on this planet to get the plot moving.

CAINE LANDS ON THE PLANET.

INT. SHOT BUILDING
PUBLIC
BATHROOM
[Caine, Jupiter, Baron Harkonnen]

JUPITER IS CLEANING A TOILET. THIS IS HER JOB BEFORE SHE FINDS OUT SHE IS
QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE.

Jupiter
I hate cleaning toilets. It stinks.

CAINE ENTERS THE ROOM

Caine
I have come to take you to outer space.

Jupiter
Who are you?

Caine
I am Channing… Caine. I am Caine.

CAINE AND JUPITER REPAIR TO LEAVE THE ROOM TO GO TO OUTER SPACE, BUT THE BARON HARKONNEN FLOATS INTO THE ROOM ON SUSPENSOR FIELDS AND BLOCKS THEIR PATH.

Baron Harkonnen
No! This is my story! You won’t steal it from me. (MANIACAL LAUGHTER)

Caine
Don’t worry, my queen I
shall defend you!

CAINE LEAPS IN BATTLE AND THE STORY BEGINS