Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Pretty much spoiler-free, maybe a couple minor things. But c’mon, if you’re reading this, it very likely you’ve seen it already.

Nutshell: A good, fun movie, well worth the $8 and the couple hours of your time. If you are expecting another episode in the Star Wars universe, like we all hoped for in the prequels and were crushingly disappointed, then you’ll be very happy. I’m going to see it at least once more before it leaves the theaters, and pick it up on DVD first chance I get.

Like many people, I have seen the films from the original trilogy about 100 times each. I’m a little rusty now, but there were times when I could recite the dialogue – all of it – from memory. So, yea, I’m a fan. Take that into consideration.

First, let’s recap the many things they got right. Star Wars gets its power from being a moral epic – it’s about people not only discovering who they are, but accepting the adventure being who they are presents to them. This moral character – the sense 0f *obligation* felt by the heroes – is what makes Star Wars more than just a bunch of spacemen blowing stuff up (or milling around discussing politics, or whatever they were doing in the prequels).  The successes of the characters are moral victories, their falls moral falls. This depth turns their successes and failures into triumphs and tragedies. We have to know they could fail; we have to believe that others (Vader, Ren) have failed when presented with similar challenges. That’s why it’s key that Rey, Finn and even Han don’t want to follow the path laid out for them. That they do follow it – with their character flaws intact – is how what might otherwise be a parade of CGI explosions becomes epic.

The makers of this movie clearly understand this, and the other things about the original trilogy that people loved: the flawed and funny characters whose self-knowledge unfolds with the action, their love and willingness to sacrifice for each other, the witty banter, a clearly laid out idea of right and wrong, the sense of epic adventure, the huge scale – all contribute to the deep emotional gratification we all felt with the first trilogy. In this regard, the Force has indeed awakened – we find characters to love, both new and old, appropriately awe-inspiring visuals, good and stylistically consistent dialogue, epic fights, heroism, escapes – great fun.

We also do *not* have goofy animals introduced as comic relief, annoying characters dredged up from some unholy abyss in Lucas’s reptilian mind, nor lines about how much our hero hates sand. No trade routes or commercial treaties are discussed. Hairstyles and clothing are confined to the limits of earthly physics. Continue reading “Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

On Reading Old Books

Old books under discussion a couple places:

In Hello, Old Friend, Time to Read You Again (sorry, behind a pay-gate. I read the dead-tree version), St. John’s College president Christopher B. Nelson argues for the value of rereading familiar old works rather than obsessing over every new thing that gets published. He praises the virtues of rereading:

Moreover, a first reading of a book is always a pressured reading. Even if it is only the latest potboiler, you don’t know the landscape the first time through. You’re on the edge of your seat trying to see what’s coming. When rereading, you already know the big picture and can pay close attention to the details. You notice things you missed the first time. Your imagination gets a workout, judging whether it was adequate to the book on the first pass, or if you need to revise your previous images.

One of the things we discover as we mature is that the familiar is really quite unfamiliar, if observed attentively.

As President of St. John’s, Nelson is of course in the business of getting people to read and reread old books – the Great Books.

Over on John C. Wright’s blog there is a discussion of Appendix N, the list of works the creator of Dungeons and Dragons recommended as formative and foundational to the D&D world.(1) The issue is, as the title of the post suggests, a ‘canon gap’ between people over, say, 50 and youngsters: people my age – at least, people my age who are heavily into Fantasy, Sci Fi and RPGs – are assumed to have read a pile of classic speculative fiction, the speculative fiction, in fact, which Gygax lists in Appendix N. Younger folks cannot be assumed to have read these works; it is in fact shocking to find one who has.

Now, I am not a representative sample of the old guys group – I have no interest in D&D or roll playing games in general, my fantasy reading is limited almost entirely to Tolkien and Lewis, and even my Sci Fi reading has huge gaps when it comes to the classics, as this project here amply demonstrates. But – you’ll be shocked to hear this – my sympathies are entirely with the old guys: time tends strongly to winnow out the chaff, so that old books the memory of which their lovers have kept alive stand a much better chance of being worth the trouble to read than what’s popular among current books at any one time.(2) This process of selection tends to find the better works even if there were no bias in the modern world towards works that confirm a certain social or political outlook. If there were such a bias, the old books become just that much more valuable for throwing light on that vile practice.

The whole thing, including the comments, is worth reading. One point perhaps needs expanding on: one younger commenter mentions that there are good modern works that have a lower threshold of entry for modern readers

…but I will say that the former are more accessible for being modern, because the language and settings really will resonate more naturally with someone my age than the language and settings of older books…

This is not a bad point, but undervalues, it seems to me, the adventure of discovering the strange new worlds of the past. There is great value in immersing oneself in the unknown and alien worlds of 50, 100, 150 or more years ago. Today, the imaginary Barsoom of John Carter is hardly more alien than the real post-Civil War world that John Carter came out of here on earth. A 20-something would do well to open his imagination to a time when not every Rebel was a despicable racist pig – that may be a bigger leap than imagining a 9′ tall six-limbed green Martian.

In a similar way, the worlds of Dante and Shakespeare and Milton are as full of alien monsters and bizarre cultures as anything you’d see on Star Trek. Guelphs battle Ghibellines for reasons more foreign than Klingon honor; Hamlet is the monster who would damn his father’s murderer’s soul – the horror of which almost certainly escapes the modern mind. The majestic evil of Milton’s Satan was terrifying, not sympathetic, to the contemporary readers – a point bound to bewilder the callow modern.

The Orwellian phrase ‘multiculturalism’ describes as desirable a state in which one is so willfully ignorant as to be unable to tell the differences between any cultures while at the same time condemning the general superiority of our own culture in most areas as a vicious lie. Getting to know our own culture through great old books is a pleasant way to combat multiculturalism so defined. All that is required is an open and curious mind.

  1. A world of which I myself am completely ignorant. When I entered college in 1976, I’d never even heard of D&D; the freshman class of 1977 was full of D&D players – missed it by a year, I guess. More fundamentally, the appeal of RPGs has evaded me, even though I suppose I fit the profile well in every other way.
  2. The downside is that, sometimes, choices get made that make it hard to see the bigger picture clearly. I don’t know enough about Sci Fi to even know what I don’t know, but I had an experience with early Renaissance polyphony that has since made me wonder: if you search for 15th and 16th century music, chances are you will come across a small number of works from a small number of composers – Josquin, Dufay, Palastrina, De Lasso, and maybe a couple others. For example, Palestrina wrote over 100 Masses, yet recordings of only 2 or 3 are commonly available. It’s as if all we knew of Beethoven was, say, his 3rd Symphony. The same thing holds for the other famous composers. But it’s worse: there are many more obscure composers from that time, with works that no one has performed or heard in centuries.  I once sang a Mass by an obscure 16th century Northern (Flemish?) composer that some grad student had dug up from some archives in Belgium or someplace, painstakingly transcribed, and gotten a pick-up choir from Stanford to perform. It was both wonderful and very different from any other polyphony I’d ever heard or sung. The work had almost certainly not been performed for 450 years, and would not have gotten performed if not for some grad student needing a PhD project. (I’ve got a copy someplace at home – now I want to go look for it.) The point: Time’s winnowing is not perfect.

December Aphorism & Bullet Points

A. Political pragmatism is a mask behind which hide despair and contempt.

B. Just as those pretending to try to stop the climate from changing are the real climate change deniers(1), those most likely to scoff at the idea of American Exceptionalism seem most likely to believe that, when it comes to tyranny, America is not like other nations. Unlike every other democracy in history, America isn’t and can’t be slipping into tyranny. We don’t need to worry about demagogues, unless those demagogues are on the Wrong Side of History(tm). The examples of the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the fall of Germany and Italy to Fascism don’t need to concern us, again, as long as we’re on the right team.

If I accept that America is not exceptional in the sense of being immune to all the forces that have ended so many other nations and governments in tragedy, and so anticipate its fall and talk and prepare for it as an inevitability, I will be labeled a nut and told I am ignorant and unenlightened. Thus, Orwell rears his head: knowing history is ignorance; shining the light of human experience on the events of today is benighted.

C. For next year, I am planning to set aside all other reading materials and muscle through 2 or 3 feet of bookshelf now occupied by the various Education books I’ve been accumulating. I will finish Mission: Tomorrow (and review Mike Flynn’s story, at least!) and Somewhither (a book that is not really to my taste, but fun anyway), then it’s works by and about the great Catholic educators, and their tenebrous and sinister counterparts in American education history.

D. This is so I can write a book, the only book I probably have any business writing: a critique of Catholic education in America, how bad it has really gotten under the influence of the secular anti-Catholic education establishment, and what to  do about it. Perhaps this book exists – I have not come across it. If so, I will be freed; if not, I sense a grim duty to write the damn thing.

E. On that note, two of the biggest holes in my knowledge of education history are 1) a blow-by-blow account of what really went down when the NYC Catholic schools compromised with the state education establishment so that, for a while, Catholic schools were publicly funded. What were the conditions of the compromise? Was adoption of the graded classroom model part of it? And 2) a good source for what academic life was like in medieval universities. Anyone got anything here?

F. Finally, I am not posting a picture of our cat enthroned on the keyboard of my home computer, because we don’t do that sort of thing here on this blog, but his insistence on being so enthroned is at least one small contributing factor to the scarcity of post these days.

  1. The climate changes. Always has, always will. We are now, by any reasonable geological perspective, in an inherently unstable position, climate-wise: current conditions have prevailed for some tiny fraction of the last  60 million years – under 1% of the time has there been comparatively small icecaps with temperatures and ocean levels where they are now. Mostly, it’s been warmer, with sea levels about 100′ higher than they are now, or, for about the last 3.5 million years, there have been massive ice sheets and sea levels 300 lower than they are now for all but about 200,000 years, tops. Stopping climate change so as to maintain current conditions would be balancing a feather on a knife point. To ‘believe’ in climate change is to believe those efforts will fail of necessity.


Checking In

Partly too busy to blog (obvious case of misplaced priorities, that) partly having confused feelings about what to write. For example, and I refuse to link to it, a friend liked and linked to an essay on Facebook claiming that we are much more likely to die at the hands of white American terrorists than Islamic terrorists, and then threw up a bunch of numbers and statistics that were so transparently bad, so egregiously cherry-picked, that I despaired to think that a person with a couple working neurons to call their own could possibly fall for it. (1)  Perhaps John C Wright is on to something? Would not be the first time.

Speaking of John C Wright, almost half-way through Somewhither, and am enjoying it a lot. BUT: a while back, due to the t-shirt-worthy phrases “Make blood loss work for you” and “Disarm, Decapitate, Dismember” (2) occurring in the first few pages, I read the first chapter aloud to my 11 year old, who, as a gamer who whiles away many an innocent hour chopping up monsters and blasting zombies, thoroughly enjoyed it. Mr. Wright cautioned me that I should not continue, that the book was not suitable for someone so young. Right, true, unless you want the kid to never sleep again and want to explain a lot of uncomfortable adult stuff to him – it gets gruesome and alarming pretty fast starting with the second chapter, with enough gore, slaughter and torture to make old-guy me squeamish. Not dirty in any current sense, but plenty of lonely teenage boy angst and blood and vomit and – eewe! But fun. Will review soon.

Also, everything in the news is so depressing. Speaking of not having two neurons to rub together, the Paris Climate Conference would be bitter Dr. Strangelove-level satire – except it’s for real! We are so doomed if these bozos get any of what they’re looking for. I suspect they intend to just ‘move the ball forward’, meaning that they don’t really want anything much to happen yet, since any real steps might shift the attention from the panic they are trying to produce to the actual outcomes of whatever it is they try. Best to leave with some meaningless ‘progress’ having been achieved yet still in a panic-mongering frenzy: See! We all agree we need to Do Something Now! But evil forces keep stopping us! We need to keep panicking! The last thing they want is for people to focus on concrete reality – they lose that battle. They have already lost that battle.

And San Bernadino. A town not too far from where I grew up. And, no doubt, to be excluded from that terrorism study referenced above on the completely rational and objective grounds that it doesn’t fit the narrative.

So, maybe this weekend I’ll get a chance to write a real post.

  1. For example: the time frame chosen for the analysis just happened to be the last 13 years. You mean, since 9/11? So, just exclude without comment the major event in which Americans died at the hands Islamic terrorists from your analysis of Americans dying at the hands of Islamic terrorists? By one year? It goes downhill from there.
  2. I think those are the right 3 “D’s” – don’t have the book in front of me. You get the gist.