The Antepenultimate Jedi

Have you seen it? Read on. If not, and spoilers bother you, stop.

The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

There’s a moment in Reign of Fire where a story is being acted out for a group of rapt children — and we in the audience should recognise the story, since it’s a version of the original Star Wars trilogy. Those first three films — episodes IV to VI — have the quality of the fairy tale, the orphan who battles monsters, who reaches the happily ever after moment and then is heard from no more, until he has to give half his kingdom and his daughter to whomever will slay the dragon. There is always another child — and it should have been more interesting than it was that Anakin was that child and grew up to be evil Darth Vader. Think reading The Magician’s Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And then there was Rey, in The Force Awakens, of mysterious birth, a wild untutored phoenix in the ways of the Force who this time was a girl (and there was a great perturbance in the Force….)

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Wild Untutored Phoenixes… Phoenices… er…

At the start of Philip Pullman’s great His Dark Materials, Lyra is a wild child, a seeming orphan, playing in the grounds and on the roofs of an Oxford college, who needs to be chased away from the fruit trees. A sensitive reader might remember Eve from the Garden of Eden, at least in her unfallen state, and the connection is made explicit for us by The Amber Spyglass (2000):”The girl, then, is in the position of Eve, the wife of Adam, the mother of us all and the cause of all sin” (71). Having obtained the alethiometer, a sort of divining instrument, she is able to comprehend and use it, without any training.

As I wrote in “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy”, Pullman allows Lyra to retreat from a character able to communicate with everyone and who has agency, to a much more subservient character. In fact, as soon as she meets Will Parry, she is very much more girly and cooks him breakfast, albeit badly, and then spends much of the final volume in a coma. At some point, she falls, in a sequence I think we have to read as sexual (but involves marzipan) and loses that innocence. By the end of the novel, she is destined to have a formal education of the kind she had scorned at the outset of Northern Lights and may at best hope for a bluestocking existence. She has to be taught to use the alethiometer.

Of course, this innocence/experience thing is drawing on William Blake (his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which feature a sleeping Lyca) and Heinrich von Kleist’s parable of “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810). Let me quote myself:

This story describes a brief encounter between the narrator and a dancer, Herr C., in the town of M. in 1801. The two see a performance of string puppets and Herr C. claims the marionettes have a grace that dancers could learn from. The puppets, being artificial, “would never be affected” because they are not self-conscious. Self-consciousness for humans is “inevitable because we have eaten of the tree of knowledge. And Paradise is bolted, with the cherub behind us; we must journey around the world and determine if perhaps at the end somewhere there is an opening to be discovered again.” The narrator responds with a story of a graceful young man who pulled a thorn out of his foot; seeing himself in a mirror, the young man recognised his likeness to a similarly-posed statue. Afterwards he became self-conscious and narcissistic. Herr C. then tells a further story, about how he fenced with a Russian family and then fought a tethered bear. Try as he might, Herr C. was unable to defeat the bear. The human’s self-conscious actions were unable to defeat the animal’s unconscious actions. Herr C. concludes that humanity’s grace can be eventually regained: “grace returns after knowledge has gone through the world of the infinite, in that it appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has no consciousness at all — or has infinite consciousness — that is, in the mechanical puppet, or in the God.” Grace can be regained by eating for a second time from the Tree of Knowledge.

Great things can be done unconsciously – or, rather, without consciousness – by those in a state of grace.

When I wrote both chapters, I’d clearly forgotten France Gray’s concept of the “Wild Untutored Phoenix”.* Gray discusses the various ways in which we deny that women are funny or have a sense of humour – they are too prudish or gossip too much or… It’s a variant on How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Gray suggests “When women are visible making people laugh, deny the existence of a conscious creative process” (8). It’s just an accident, it’s just chance.

But it was of the Wild Untutored Phoenix I thought when thinking about Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Obviously we all have our theories about who one of her parents is, but what is clear is that she can use the force without the, admittedly limited, training that Luke had, a training which when returned to is cut short. Do we read this as a real talent and skill, or do we end up with some essentialised wild girl, running around, having to be chased away from the fruit trees? At what point will discipline chop off her agency.

Pleasing although Finn is as a character, could he be the Will to her Lyra? Will she modify her needs in favour of his and will she – like Han, who was not a Jedi – be put into a sleep? Will she keep her agency? We have the example of Leia to look back to – canny and strong in the first (fourth) movie, slave in the third (sixth) (although she has a few weapons left to her). Can a woman be allowed to stay strong and her talents not get undermined?

We’ll see.

 

Note

 

* As far as I can see, this is a reference to an article on D. H. Lawrence by F. R. Leavis in Scrutiny. This is an odd – Lawrence would say queer, no doubt – linkage that I need to think through more.

Bibliography

  • Butler, Andrew M. “Bearly Conscious? Deconstructing Pullman’s Postmodern Marionettes”, Philip Pullman. Edited by Catherine Butler and Tommy Halsdorf, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014: 96-112.
  • Butler, Andrew M. “The Republic of Heaven: The Betrayal of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.” Children’s Fantasy Fiction: Debates for the Twenty First Century. Edited by Nickianne Moody and Clare Horrocks. Liverpool: ARPF/Liverpool JMU, 2005: 285-298.
  • Gray, Frances. Women and Laughter. London: Macmillan, 1994.

My Heart Belongs To Dada

May contain spoilers

The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

I was seven when Star Wars came out – and I’d swear it had the subtitle then, but I suspect it was a couple of months into the run. I’d not seen The Searchers, The Dam Busters, Hidden Fortress or even Triumph of the Will, so it felt original. I’d probably seen Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and at some point the Glen A Larson version showed up. I would have seen The Wizard of Oz, but didn’t make the link to Star Wars, but both were modern fairy tales and I knew them, albeit via panto and Disney and Ladybird Books. There was a novelisation, apparently by Lucas, which suggested earlier segments. I didn’t yet know The Lord of the Rings.

There was a space race of blockbusters — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire Strikes Back, Superman — and at some point there was Star Trek the movie, nicknamed The Slow Motion Picture or The Motion Sickness and boy was it dull. But we saw the gang coming together for One More Mission and there’s that extraordinary ten minute sequence when Kirk and Scottie check out the old girl on the big screen. Talk about your male gaze.

And years passed and puberty hit and Empire was clearly the best of the three and the three prequels happened. Oddly the BBC paid me a lot of money to write something about sf for their website and to review the novelisation. I went into The Phantom Menace knowing the plot. But then (spoilers) we knew the ending — Little Orphan Annie Kin is going to go wrong. The poster told us. There were call backs — more westerns, an attack like the one on the Death Star, but only C3PO, R2D2 and x to link us to the trilogy. There was Obi Wan Kenobi, but in an odd non-Guinness style by Ewan McGregor. The prequels were pants.

And years passed and that seemed to be that — although there was an odd Star Trek reboot that felt more like Star Wars, and director J.J. Abrams clearly preferred that franchise.

And then Disney bought Lucas (not Lucas Entertainment) in a no-brained multi billion deal that would pay in terms of merchandising alone, even without a third trilogy and spin offs. Our friend would be back.

So what happens next? Well, Han and Leia retire to the suburbs and Uncle Luke bounces their kids above his knee. Although Han did turn into seventies dad in the original.

Well, Abrams only has one one thing to do — to not kill the golden goose. Because, frankly, the magic bean counters at Gold Mouse Central will have calculated that the deal is repaid by merchandising alone — and endless iterations in Lego.

So we shake the magic eight ball of plot and we find an orphan with exceptional abilities, the finest pilot in the galaxy, a cute robot, a wise cracking sidekick, the finest pilot in the galaxy and a new evil man in black to recreate the original plot, and bring back the older versions of the old gang. This is somewhere between fan service and prick tease — we know from the poster that Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are back, and can make a few shrewd deductions about Skywalker’s absence from the poster but Hamill’s name on it. There’s a balance to be struck between delayed gratification and seeing what we want.

In a sense the original films were reruns — variations on Buck Rogers and the Flash Gordon Lucas had wanted to make. Both the later films in the trilogy and then the later we-shall-not-speak-of-it trilogy ape that, albeit with diminishing returns. The secret plans of The Death Star (which presumably are on file at the local council offices) are the secret map to Luke, entrusted to the faintly double entendred BB8, the cat to R2D2’s puppy, and inevitably this ends up on the not Tattooine desert planet which is home to this film’s orphan du jour, the kick ass Rey. BB8 is antenna in hand with ex-stormtrooper Finn, whose conversion to the light side is as easily and convincingly accomplished as Annie Kin’s was to the dark.

Incidentally, the crapness of this generation of storm troopers — shuffling embarrassedly out of shot at one point — could be used as a racist argument against diversity… Ooops.

And through such frail travelling coincidences we assemble the old team and the old set pieces — scavengers, trips across deserts, scrap dealers, strangulation by the Force, a cantina, hologram chess… Fan service. Give us what we want.

A character is killed off. Oh yes — although apparently the director was so enamoured with the actor that he is completely unexpectedly brought back. Because the thing we know about popular culture — I’m looking at you, Doctor Who — is that death is simply a matter of contractual obligations. But then, death didn’t slow Ben or Yoda down. So that death that comes later is clearly a wrench but there are two more films to play out.

And so we come to the new Big Bad, so evil he has to kill someone à la Vader, Kylo Ren, who hero worships a Vader he plainly doesn’t know. He appears to have a helmet fetish, which cramps in his impossibly bouffant hair style. Incidentally, his looks seem to be be more like an Alan Rickman than his putative father, suggesting his mother has the same kind of morals as Annie Kin’s mother with her “I got knocked up by the Force” cover story. This is a man, nay a boy, with anger management issues, who would throw his toys out of the pram with or without the Force, as witnessed in his really stupid light sabre attacks on consoles. Quite what the even Bigger Bad, Gollum Snope, sees in him remains a mystery.

It turns out that all the films are about relationships between fathers and sons — from Annie Kin’s anonymous trick to Darth Emo’s petulance. If we compare it to perhaps the only other multi-chaptered, anachronous saga — Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays — we can see how the quasi-patricide of Richard II by Henry IV is still playing out in the relations of (spoilers) Hal and Falstaff and even Henry VI. We have divided good and evil fathers, fathers who can’t measure up, sons who can’t measure up (and as far as I recall, the spoiler of Luke-I-am-your-father, supposedly not known about when Star Wars was filmed and Leigh Brackett’s contribution to the saga, was there in the comic book adaptation released before Empire). Annie Kin’s missing father (and thus under developed superego if you buy Freud) is played out in Darth Emo’s over compensation.

But fathers are there to be obeyed. Well, the good ones.

When Star Wars was released in the late 1970s we had had a run of adult themed, grown up sf movies and were desperately in search of heroes in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate disillusionments. It made us children again — even those of us who were children. Arguably, Lucas and then Spielberg infantilised the sf genre with their fort da sagas. Again, again! And made shit loads of money. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers (but Indy was the dog).

The Force Awakens is a cosy old set of clothes and slippers and presses the buttons expertly. The question the remaining two films will have to answer is the nature of mothers and sons, but more importantly daughters and mothers. It is to be hoped that Rey gets to stay kick ass, rather than face the domestication Leia endured from agent to slave.