Comics, Movies

Thoughts on Batman

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Batman vs Superman is out this week, and here are a couple of disorganized thoughts on the State of the Superhero.

I dislike Batman. It’s funny that I should say that about a fictional character, especially one that has brought me such joy while growing up. You guys are well aware of how much I have been into the character, and there is this element of hypocrisy that looms large over a statement like this one. But I have problems with the character, and more specifically, what has become of the the storytelling engine behind Batman.

History Lesson

This lineage of Batman “troubled man who dresses up to exorcise his demons” obviously begins with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the mid-1980s. But these books were one of a kind — DKR was an interpretation, not a definition of who Batman was — and it took a long time before Miller’s rage-and-angst-fueled ingredients seeped into the character’s engines. You had the pure joy of Mike Barr and Alan Davis’s short run, which ran in tandem with Year One, funnily enough; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s vulnerable yet foreboding Batman; Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ surreal Goth-meets-art deco incarnation; even the group-think endeavors like Knightfall and Prodigal and No Man’s Land, the messy products of their time that they were: all of these retained some amount of humanity that made you like the character likable, even relate to him, maybe, because Batman always did the right thing. But yes, elements of Miller’s work were creeping in slowly — Jason Todd, Robin #2 died at the Joker’s hands, something that Dark Knight Returns had alluded to. Making that book prescient almost made it seem like that dark future was in store for Batman, but we weren’t there yet.

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It was Grant Morrison who is to blame, when you think about it. Morrison, fresh from a  career of revamping DC’s fringe characters such as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, found himself in charge of the Justice League of America in the late 90s. The JLA had their share of troubled history in that decade – editorial diktats mandated the use of second-tier characters in the team because the Big Guys were involved in soap operas of their own 1. Morrison insisted on using the main characters, and among the changes he made to the JLA status quo, the major one was this:

Batman, despite having no superpowers, was the most dangerous man alive.

Batman has it all covered.

He can take down anybody. He is the embodiment of human perfection. He has a contingency plan for everything — seriously, everything. If the universe was about to be destroyed, Batman could pull a universe-undestroying glove from his utility belt and punch the universe into being whole again.

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This particular concept found much favor among fans, myself included. Unfortunately, when combined with the climactic scene of Miller’s seminal work, people — writers, fans, the ecosystem at large — began to extrapolate the facts in a very strange way. What was a one-off sequence involving careful planning and execution suddenly became a trope in itself. Batman can beat Superman anytime, they said. There was a proliferation of stories where indeed, Batman was not only rescuing the JLA from problems that stymied all of them, he was also beating Superman almost on a yearly basis. Miller’s 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, begins with a showdown where Batman, now even older, drops a pile of rocks on an angry Kal-El, punches him with a pair of special gloves and says “Get out of my cave”. In Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s newest incarnation of the Batman, in tales of alternate realities and stray one-shots, the message remains the same: Batman can take Superman. Any time.

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And all of that brings us to Batfleck taking on hairline-receding Superman on the screen.

End History Lesson

At the heart of it all, along with his seeming ability to go toe-to-toe against super-humans, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged rich guy who uses his money to dress up and go out and punch criminals. He says “My City” without a trace of irony. He is always right. He is rude and insensitive to people around him, and over the years, this assholish behavior has been amped up to stupendous levels. He will be part of a team, but everything and everybody has to play by his rules. He has an extended family, recruiting a bunch of boys and girls, men and women as part of his war on crime, but he also insists on being a loner, incapable of having a normal human relationship with anyone around him. His intensity has been stretched to such an incredulous length that Batman the character has become a self-parody. Batman is a scary reminder of what happens when Big Money meets Mental Illness meets Misguided Intentions meets Non-scalable Implementation.Somehow, “Batman does not kill” has become an excuse to make the character as unlikable and smarmy as possible. 2

But wait, you say, isn’t punching criminals the focal point of every superhero story?

Yes, you are right. At the end of the day, superhero stories are still about grown men — and women — punching each other into submission. But hey, it has been 75 years since we have had a man putting on a suit and heading out late at night to deal with the trauma of his parents being killed in front of his eyes. You could say that problem with Batman is emblematic of my problems with superhero stories in general. To be more precise, the mainstream superhero scene, these characters that have plodded through decades of reinvention, retelling and occasional resurgence. With a character like Batman, there can only be an attempt to retell the story with a fresh angle, to rearrange the familiar pieces and give them weight depending on which pieces we are focused on. Every now and then, someone figures it’s a great idea to add another piece 3 but all it does is add chaos to an already teetering structure. Add to it the fact that DC/Marvel comics, since the 80s, have been stuck in this confusing identity crisis (pun intended) where they are unsure about whether they are a children’s medium or aimed at adults. You point out flaws in the machine, and they want you to take a deep breath and lighten up, because superheroes are for kids. At the same time, the themes they handle try to be mature, the Comics Code Authority was thrown out the door a long time ago, and any attempt at wholesomeness stopped when anal rape became a plot point 10 years ago. 4

There are of course attempts to upend the structure every now and then: by what is referred to as a reboot. Scott Snyder, who I mentioned above, is the writer working on the new Batman. It is the first time in years that the origin story has attempted to break free of the long shadow cast by Year One. Snyder calls his version Year Zero, and rather than the shadows and grime that Miller brought into his version, Year Zero has psychedelic colors and an out-there, sci-fi vibe to it that I dug quite a bit. But the 75-year old legacy cannot help but creep into the pieces that a creator adds to this new structure, and it takes very little time for the building to collapse yet again. By the time the Joker is added to the mix, in a story called ‘Death of the Family’, we have — deep breath — the Joker in Arkham Asylum with a villain called the Dollmaker “who surgically removes Joker’s face at his request and then pins it to Joker’s cell wall as a sign of his rebirth”. By the time the Joker shows up again, in “Endgame”, he has become a scientist who has come up with a new chemical isotope (called, er, ‘Ha’), and the story also “implies that he is immortal, having existed for centuries, and has developed a means to regenerate from mortal injuries…(the story also) restores the Joker’s face, and also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity”. Umm, okay.

Add to it the fact that Batman’s story never does have an ending. 5 He has gone from being a lone vigilante killing people as he sees fit, to a good guy working with the law, to someone who is an urban legend. Look at the origin story: Where once it was Joe Chill and Lew Moxon, one retelling made Ra’s Al Ghul serve as a catalyst; in another, it was a person named Jack Napier; yet another has the Court of Owls. What I am getting at is that: the entire enterprise of keeping a superhero’s motivations and methods relevant in our world seems to be an effort that sucks in writers and makes them spew out fan-fiction that grates against my expectations and knowledge as a rational reader. More so in terms of Batman, because writers tend to latch onto their inner anger, that part of them that wishes that they could respond to the world around them by dressing up at night and getting out to break a couple of jaws and kneecaps. 6And the worst part of it all? Nothing changes. Bruce Wayne will always go out at night and beat criminals up. Maybe he will disappear for a while, maybe there will be a new costume, maybe an unknown adversary of the past will suddenly come back in his life and upend Everything That You have Ever Known. The common storytelling engine to all superhero tales seems to be a treadmill: a tiresome, frustrating journey that goes nowhere and yet tires you out.

It therefore becomes easy for me to say that Batman — or superheroes, in general — are not for me any more. Which is a valid point, but goes against my innate approach to popular culture, which is that New is always good, and that creators in any field are getting better at what they do because they learn from the past, and can pick and choose elements that work wonderfully, and discard the things that do not make sense. But it is a problem when the past weighs so heavily on your appreciation of any future work; when in order to explain who a character is, you have to go read Wikipedia. It’s a shame when to explain or make sense of what is going on, you have to suspend your reading to understand that what you are reading may or may not be a part of the story; and that there was a story and it’s not valid any more, and what you are reading can be replaced by a completely different story.

If you are not convinced, and are framing your apologist fanboy arguments about why Batman is awesome, here’s a question for you: how many Robins have there been? What happened to them? Let me get my popcorn while you scramble for the answer.

Notes:

  1. Superman died, and came back again. Batman had his spine broken, and then it was healed. Wonder Woman was replaced, and then she came back. Green Lantern went crazy, and another Green Lantern took his place.
  2. Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right?
  3. The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls.
  4. For those who do not know, Identity Crisis.
  5. Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns as the last Batman story, and that went on to get its sequel 15 years later, and there is a third part out now. Neil Gaiman wrote a story called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader’, which was Gaiman interpreting every supporting character in Batman as erudite people that knew exactly the right thing to say, just like bad fan-fiction.
  6. Not to kill anyone, of course, because Batman does not kill. But it’s perfectly fine to break a wrist and maybe an elbow too, if a guy just pointed a gun at you, or flashed a knife, or maybe a crowbar. Hmm, maybe if he even looked wrong at you, or cut you in line, or honked at your car when you were merging into his lane.
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Movies, Toons

An obnoxious reason for walking out of a movie

Have you ever walked out of a movie theater? I have. I walked out of Supari, once upon a decade ago, and I walked out after 30 minutes of that Vishal Bharadwaj film with Pankaj Kapur and Imran Khan whose name I cannot recall, it was that bad. Oh yes, Matru Ki Bijli. A screening of Profundo Rosso that was part of a double-feature, and it was so late in the night that my brain had turned to mush. I am fairly sure this number would have been higher had I not been with other people in the theater. Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, for example, and even the first Hobbit movie. In all these cases, I walked out because the films did not engage me in any way; there was some amount of revulsion involved, and the thought that if I did not allow more of my time to be wasted in that darkened theater, it would imply redemption of some sort.

When you are the only person in a movie theater. #red #movietheater #alone

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Yesterday, I walked out of a theater for another reason altogether. It’s possible that in doing so, I startled the rest of the audience. I had been the first person to arrive at the theater, half an hour before showtime, and was able to pick the best seat in that sea of red faux-leather, that perfectly centered spot that brings the rectangular screen, uh, square in the center of your vision. There I sat, indulging myself in butter-covered food of the gods, acknowledging the matinee crowd that traipsed in slowly, film buffs, couples out on dates, parents with young children in tow, or the other way round. We laughed as the ads played, and the sounds of my chewing found sympathetic patterns in the mastication of other film-goers. The film trailers got over; the passive-aggressive switch-off-cellphone ads got some of us to double-check our devices, and we clapped as the theater darkened for the main feature. And once the movie began, it took me about 20 horrific seconds to realize what I was in for. To decide I did not want to see it anymore.

The movie was Mamoru Hosoda’s Boy and the Beast, and you see, the version playing on that particular screening was the one dubbed into English.

No. No no no no.

In my head, there is a clear breach of expectation that happens when I go to watch a film in one language and get another. It does not have to be Japanese anime; I have found myself cringing when listening to Pixar movies dubbed in Spanish, or even a Cantonese film in Mandarin. For anime, it hits me in the worst kind of way; the closest analogy I can give is when you go to a restaurant and order a plate of samosas. When the waiter brings the plate in, you smell the delicious samosa-smell and your mouth begins to water. The waiter has even remembered to bring chutney, and it’s the right kind of chutney, the syrupy, tangy tamarind recipe that goes perfectly with samosas. Eagerly, you pick up one of them. It is the perfect temperature too; freshly fried and kept aside for just the perfect amount of time that you know there will be no waiting for the filling to cool down, and that your tongue is safe. You dip the samosa in the tamarind chutney and bite into it. How would you feel if that samosa, for some reason, is sweet, instead of salty?

When the opening narration in the movie began in English, in my head, I was sure that there was A Problem, and only Swift Decisive Action could solve it. I remembered that I had double-checked to see if the matinee show had the original language or not, and the website said that only the 4 PM show would be dubbed. 1 I could be that hero the rest of the audience needed. I ran outside, and the girl selling tickets was gone, and so was the manager, who had been lounging around reading a newspaper. There was only the guy selling popcorn, and he agreed with me, that the movie playing should be a subbed version. The manager came into view, finally, and he pointed out that Saturdays they only have two shows, and the 7 PM screening is when I would see the subbed version, if I wanted to come back. Unsure about my plans for the rest of the day, I got a refund. At 7 PM, however, I had come back. This time I did not buy the popcorn, and I made sure to ask about which language would play, before getting my ticket.

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The movie? It was okay. Visually stunning, like Mamoru Hosoda films are. Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai are two anime film-makers who have distinct visual styles of storytelling. More importantly, their films contain stories with an emotional depth that other, more lackadaisical animation film-makers either glaze over or dumb down. This however has the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your point of view) of appending any discussion of the two film-makers’ work with a comparison to Hayao Miyazaki’s ouevre. I am guilty of making the same analogy when it comes to selling any of their work to my friends, to be honest. But here’s an admission — I think Hosoda and Shinkai, the latter in particular, bring in more emotional honesty and vulnerability into their work than Miyazaki ever did. Miyazaki protagonists are idealized archetypes, asexual and wide-eyed. These latter-day filmmakers make their characters more fragile and human, and that makes their work much more appealing to me.

On the surface, Hosoda’s style is much more aligned with the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli — a little-known fact is that he was tapped to direct Howl’s Moving Castle, but Miyazaki took over due to creative differences. Much like the veteran film-maker, Hosoda’s work is rooted in Japanese tradition. Scenes from Wolf Children play out like extended homages to My Neighbor Totoro, and both Wolf and Summer Wars are as much about family ties and bonds with nature as any Ghibli movie you can think of. In Boy and The Beast, there are striking similarities to Spirited Away, especially with the concept of a parallel world that exists just beyond our world, and one human child that makes his way to the other side. There, Chihiro became Sen, with a flick of the characters in her name; here Ren becomes Kyuta because he is aged nine. There, our heroine was trapped in the land of the Others, who are unfamiliar and mostly horrific and unkind to trespassers; here, Kyuta willingly crosses over into a world of beasts who, though suspicious of the motives of the runaway human, mostly accept him in time. The theme of finding your family — blood or surrogate — loom large throughout the movie’s storyline, as does the idea of belonging.

My main issue is that most parts of the film feel rushed. It opens with a narrator explaining the situation, skimming through the world-building, telling us more than we can see. We never really understand certain characters’ motivations. There are too many montages — one where the characters go on a journey of self-discovery, for example, and meet a variety of powerful beasts in that world —no payoff to those scenes follow. Things get interesting when Kyuta begins his training under Kumatetsu, and the central theme of the film, that of these two unlike creatures finding themselves through each other, is cemented in this all-too-brief sequence. The third act falls apart almost completely, especially as grown-up Kyuta begins going back to the real world. Subplot brimming with threats and conflicts come out of nowhere, as do the resolutions; the romantic angle is all Jungle Book meets anime cliche, Ren’s meeting with his biological father is angst and adolescent fury, and the final boss-fight involves a character who is woefully under-explained. The only place, therefore, where Boy and The Beast really succeeds is in making us root for the titular characters right off the bat.

All in all, the movie suffers just because Hosoda’s previous work has been so good. Of course it’s a wonderful movie, full of wit and charm and moments, but it manages to not live up to expectations. But hey, this is from the guy that hated Howl’s Moving Castle the first time he saw it, and changed his mind later. If you get a chance to watch it, please do — and if you haven’t seen any of Hosoda’s previous work, check them out after this one.

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Notes:

  1. This had happened once before, you see, with a screening of a Ghibli movie, where but for an epiphany just before clicking the buy-button, I would have been sobbing through a dubbed movie after having taken a bus across town.
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Movies, Music

On watching and listening to Under The Skin

Pal William handed me a DVD of Under The Skin last week, a movie that we had talked about before and which he recommended with such enthusiasm that I bumped it up my queue. Took me a while to finally pop the disc in, but glad I did. The movie is bizarre and unsettling and wonderful, and Scarlett Johansson’s character makes me afraid and aroused at the same time. In the beginning, it is a strange mix of what feels like candid, unscripted moments of Ms Johansson driving around a strange land and picking up strangers. Scenes of seduction that make you hold your breath while waiting for the pay-off. When it ended, two-odd hours later, I found myself tingling with excitement, the kind  that comes from consuming something that is beyond what you expected. 1

Nowadays, I prefer to go into movies without the burden of expectations that the publicity machine brings along. Oh, I am not talking about the big-budget franchises. That’s an infinite hype train subway where the exit doors lead to yet another platform and yet another ride. But it’s films like this, that come sans trailing numbers or colon-separated sub-phrase in the title, that bring me the most joy. Not just the way they play with the monotony of the three-act structure, but the way they give an actor like Johansson a role beyond the mundane.

But therein lies the problem – not boarding the hype train also makes it hard to pick a journey, and sometimes the ones you pick prove unworthy of your time. My criteria for this is simple – if I pause or get distracted while watching a 2-hour movie, I rethink whether it’s really worth my time. One of the ways to get around that is to watch movies only in someone else’s company, but that brings down the opportunity to watch a film at home by a large degree. I realized, after having finished Under the Skin in one non-stop sitting, how rare it had become for me to switch on my TV after I get home.

What also got me about that movie was the judicious use of music throughout the nearly-wordless sequences. Violins that play like cancerous lungs gasping for breath; creepy pitch-bends that make me feel as if there are glitches in my audio-spatial perception; the steady thump of a muted drum. This is music that truly lives up to the idea of the movie, the musical accompaniment to an anomalous entity exploring herself (itself?). The composer is a British lady named Mica Levi, stage name Micachu, and this is the first time she has worked on a soundtrack, can you believe that?

Parts of the music reminds me of both classic horror scores – mostly Bernard Hermann’s flamboyant use of the violin and Morricone’s intense giallo works. But the album that I had to go revisit, after the movie, was Wojkiech Kilar’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula; at first glance, there isn’t much of a similarity between Skin and Dracula, but my brain somehow established a connection between Levi’s keening violin scrapes and Kilar’s old-school orchestral maneuvers. In case you are wondering, there isn’t much of a resemblance. It was probably a resonance of the feeling in my gut when I watched Dracula for the first time as a kid.

 

Notes:

  1. I have yet to watch Her and Lucy – two very unlike films, I know, but part of ScaJo’s recent filmography that convinces me that this lady is one of the finest actors in the business today both in terms of skills and the choices she makes. I loved the short appearance in Chef, for example, and her New York Jewish girl in Don Jon
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Books, Movies

Beasts of No Nation – the book and the film

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I read Beasts of No Nation after watching the movie. Written by a Nigerian author named Uzodinma Iweala in 2005, it came about as a continuation of Iweala’s award-winning thesis in a creative writing course in Harvard, way back in 2004. It is a work of fiction based on true stories, and was an attempt to capture the life of a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. But really, Agu, the protagonist could have been any orphan in any war-zone in the world, brainwashed, abused and thrown into circumstances that are too horrible to comprehend for someone like me.

An excerpt from the book, the description of a child slaughtering a grown human being as a rite of passage. Enough to turn your stomach and make you want to curl up in a corner and cry. The narration and dialogue in the film follows the tone of this passage very closely, but is more linear than the book.

He is squeezing my hand around the handle of the machete and I am feeling the wood in my finger and in my palm. It is just like killing goat. Just bring this hand up and knock him well well. He is taking my hand and bringing it down so hard on top of the enemy’s head and I am feeling like electricity is running through my whole body. The man is screaming, AYEEEIII, louder than the sound of bullet whistling and then he is bringing his hand to his head, but it is not helping because his head is cracking and the blood is spilling out like milk from coconut. I am hearing laughing all around me even as I am watching him trying to hold his head together. He is annoying me and I am bringing the machete up and down and up and down hearing KPWUDA KPWUDA every time and seeing just pink while I am hearing the laughing KEHI, KEHI, KEHI all around me. Then I am hitting his shoulder and then his chest and looking at how Commandant is smiling each time my knife is hitting the man. Strika is joining me and we are just beating him and cutting him while everybody is laughing. It is like the world is moving so slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face.

I thought the movie version was much more well-rounded. The cinematic experience is something you need a strong stomach to sit through, and not only because of graphic content. It is hard to not take it in as a guerilla documentary, shot among real people with a hidden camera, except that it is singularly gorgeous through and through. Some of my favorite scenes in the film involve Idris Elba and the photography. The kids, especially Strika and Agu are incredibly good, of course. Surprised to learn that the actors in the movie were former child soldiers and mercenaries who participated in actual warfare, and had problems shooting in Ghana because they were on a watch-list.

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Books, Movies

Talking about books I read: ‘How Star Wars Conquered The Universe’

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Pal Seamus was reading this book when I went to meet him one evening in Larchmont Village. Even though there were other books in my queue, hard to resist a book about Star Wars. Not that I have much love for the franchise – people’s reactions to it make me shake my head in bemusement and back away slowly.  1I suspect the most invested I was in the series was while reading a bunch of Star Wars novels about 10 years ago, specifically The New Jedi Order series, which begins with the death of Chewbacca in the first book. Don’t worry, this is not really a spoiler, none of the books are canon anymore, especially with The Force Awakens and the planned one-Star-Wars-movie-a-year releases. Just so you know, this book talks about that happening too, with the kind of cold-blooded objectivity that sends shivers down your spine.

When fan grief over the death of Chewbacca surpassed anything Shapiro or Stackpole expected, a rumor surfaced that Randy Stradley of Dark Horse Comics had told the meeting to “kill the family dog,” and compared Chewie to Old Yeller. But Stackpole denies that, insisting they all stuck the knives in at the same time, like Roman conspirators. Shapiro, who would edit the book, was happy to wield a blade. “You’ve got to get people’s attention. Otherwise it’s just ‘Oh, another adventure, another super weapon,’” Shapiro explains.

Why the interest in this book then, you ask? Because the behind-the-scenes affairs with the series has always fascinated me. Stars Wars’ tendrils encompass a lot of sci-fantasy pulp fiction, old-school Hollywood space operas, and world cinema. Alex Raymond and Akira Kurosawa, EE Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs coming together in a cultural bouillabaisse that is timeless and appealing to multiple generations, clunky dialogue be damned. Lucas, an avowed non-writer, worked his way through anxiety and budgetary nightmares to try and bring back to life his childhood fascination with film serials; to deconstruct what made his heart soar in a darkened movie theater. And – pardon my mixed pop-cultural metaphors – he even went boldly where few screenwriters had gone before, tapping into primal myths and stories, specifically the themes and archetypes that writer Joseph Campbell identified in his seminal works. For me, knowing about Star Wars was much more enlightening than watching the movies. 2 That’s why I jumped on this book immediately.

Also, turns out Campbell had nothing but good things to say about Lucas, who met him later in life and befriended the academic:

“I was really thrilled,” Campbell said of the Star Wars series in a later interview. “The man understands the metaphor. I saw things that had been in my books but rendered in terms of the modern problem, which is man and machine. Is the machine going to be the servant of human life? Or is it going to be master and dictate? That’s what I think George Lucas brought forward. I admire what he’s done immensely. That young man opened a vista and knew how to follow it and it was totally fresh.”

The book opens in a wonderful manner, a screening of Star Wars dubbed into Navajo, where the writer tries to find Star Virgins, people who hadn’t seen any of the movies before. He spirals out into how pervasive the movie’s references have become, and how it is very hard for anyone at all to come into Star Wars with a blank slate. (If I remember right, someone did a Star Wars virgin watch on Twitter recently.) Alternate chapters of the book talk about fandom and the weird ways in which everyday lives of people have been affected by the movie. I had no idea, for example, that light-saber classes existed:

The easiest way to describe light-saber class is that it’s one part fencing, one part yoga. The goal is to learn a numbered system of fight choreography worked out by Bloch and his co-founder Matthew Carauddo, who runs the same class in a studio in Silicon Valley. You and I could meet for the first time with our light-sabers at a Comic-Con, say, and I could utter a string of numbers and you would know that I was going to slice around your body in a star formation and parry appropriately. We could even throw in flourishes such as the figure eight, or something more elaborate Bloch calls the “Obi-Annie” (but which is actually a move called “plum blossom” from the martial art Wushu). We would for one moment shed our nerd shells; we would look cool.

Or that the imperial storm-troopers you see at conventions are part of an officially-endorsed Stormtrooper legion created and managed by loyal fans, called the Fightin’ 501st. They later went on to be name-checked and referenced both in novels (Timothy Zahn’s Survivor’s Quest) and in the prequels, though in an ill-fated turn of events, they will forever be known as the baby-jedi killing storm-troopers.

It was, friends agreed, a pretty neat idea. They helped him hand out leaf-lets at conventions: “Are you loyal? Hardworking? Fully expendable? Join the Imperial 501st!” In 2002, Johnson mustered roughly 150 Stormtrooper costumers in Indianapolis at Celebration II, the second official Star Wars convention, and offered their services to a skeptical Lucasfilm to let the 501st help out as crowd-control when the event’s security proved woefully inadequate for the thirty thousand attendees. Lucasfilm was won over by the tireless, hyper-organized troopers, and started to use the 501st as volunteers for all its events. Lucasfilm licensees followed suit. If you’ve ever been to one of the Star Wars Days held at dozens of baseball stadiums across the United States, if you’ve seen multiple Stormtroopers, or Darth Vader or Boba Fett at a store, a movie theater, or a mall, you’ve almost certainly been staring at the forces of the 501st.

The 501st Legion is now recognized as one of the largest costuming organizations in the world. It has active members in forty-seven countries on five continents, divided into sixty-seven local garrisons and twenty-nine outposts (those units that comprise fewer than twenty-five members). More than 20 percent of the troops are female. The 501st absorbed a once-independent UK garrison and established a garrison near Paris, though some French Stormtroopers have gone their own way with the 59eme legion. The Germans, meanwhile, have a garrison consisting of five squads that are all large enough to be garrisons on their own—but are loath to undergo any kind of de-unification.

Swooping into a quick history of Lucas’s childhood and influences, the book talks about his early avant-garde career – one of his acclaimed student films, for example, was comprised entirely of panning shots of photographic images with music playing in the background. The takeaway is that Lucas always had ideas, but they were unconstrained by any Hollywood pretensions – the three-act screenplay was not for him, until American Graffiti came about. The nugget there is that the name did not quite appeal to the studio bosses, because the word “graffiti” was not in popular usage then.

It sounded odd to contemporary ears. The Italian word had not yet gained common currency. New York subway trains were about a year away from being covered in spray-painted signatures. Lucas hadn’t intended that debased usage of the word in any case; he meant the word invented at Pompeii in 1851 that means nostalgic etchings. He wanted to record the legacy of a lost decade: an American Pompeii, frozen in time forever.

Lucas tried to follow up this success with options of Dune and Flash Gordon. Producer Dino DeLaurentiis happened to get Flash, and Alejandro Jodorowsky got hold of Dune. Flash Gordon ultimately got made as a campy pastiche in the early 80s, while a different version of Dune made it to the screen. The book talks about trippy possibilities that the latter presented, and this reminds me that I need to check out the documentary soon:

Jodo, appropriately enough for Dune, was something of a cult leader himself. He persuaded the great Orson Welles to act as the villain of the piece in exchange for hiring his favorite Parisian chef, and even managed to hector Salvador Dali into agreeing to a cameo as the Emperor of the Universe (for $100,000 a minute, Dali insisted). He got the Swiss artist H. R. Giger, possibly the only person in Europe weirder than Jodo and Dali, to do a bunch of nightmarish concept paintings, and recruited French comic book artist Moebius to storyboard the entire film at lightning speed.

Most of the making of the actual Wars movies was not new to me. Too much have already been written about the process, and the different iterations of the first movie’s screenplay that Lucas banged out. One thing however stood out, the short-lived gender reversal of the lead character, a telling choice for a series that has been plagued with gender/race allegations until the recent sequel. Think of what might have been.

In March 1975, Lucas decided to fix that at a stroke: Luke Starkiller became an eighteen-year-old woman. After all, he’d been reading an awful lot of fairy tales as research into the mechanics of storytelling, and it’s rather hard to ignore the convention that the protagonist of fairy tales is almost always female. (Think Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks—as much as they have to be saved by princes or woodcutters, we at least see the story through their eyes.) This gender reversal lasted for a couple of months, long enough for the female Luke to show up in a McQuarrie painting of the main characters.

The discussion becomes much more entertaining with the movie’s release. Taylor goes into an inspired examination of the first few words on the screen – words that apparently were rewritten at the last minute by Brian Coppola to lessen the original verbosity.

Consider instead that this is exactly what every fantasy epic needs to give you right off the bat: a setting in space and time that says, relax. Don’t bother trying to figure out the relationship between what you’re about to see and your own Earthbound reality, because there isn’t one. This isn’t Planet of the Apes; the Statue of Liberty isn’t going to turn up in a last-reel twist. No other movie had ever announced its divorce from our world so explicitly before; with the exception of Star Wars sequels, none would ever be able to do so again without seeming derivative. The perfect simplicity of those ten words appears to have been hard for a lot of people to understand in the run-up to the movie’s release. The words that open Alan Dean Foster’s novelization (“another galaxy, another time”) aren’t quite the same—that might place us in the future, rather than in a story that is safely in some history book. Fox didn’t get it at all: its trailer for Star Wars opened with the words “somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now.” The ten words remain on the screen for exactly five seconds, long enough for the casual viewer to think, Isn’t this supposed to be a science fiction movie? Aren’t they all set in the future?

It is this modern myth, that of how the Star Wars machine became what it was, in the first weeks and months after the release of the first movie, that the book really captures so very well.

In May 1977, repeat viewers didn’t necessarily add to the ticket gross: they could simply stay in the theater, wait an hour or so, and watch the movie again. This was not something viewers had tended to want to do before. Indeed, it was because of Star Wars that most cinemas instituted a policy of clearing the audience out of the theater between shows. But as soon as they left the theater and came back, the repeat viewers were responsible for an incalculable amount of box office takings. For many—and this is something you see time and again in television and newspaper reports from 1977—the number of times they’d seen Star Wars took on the tone of a competitive sport: “I’ve seen Star Wars twenty times!” But for many more who weren’t quoted by the news media, it was simply a thrill to invest themselves in a story with such eminent repeatability. You could see it twenty, thirty, forty times and not get bored.

***

The manager of the Coronet, a cranky old soul named Al Levine, had never seen anything like it. He offered a now-famous description of the crowds: “Old people, young people, children, Hare Krishna groups. They bring cards to play in line. We have checker players, we have chess players; people with paint and sequins on their faces. Fruit eaters like I’ve never seen before, people loaded on grass and LSD.”

***

In June 1977, the monster crowds at the four theaters in New York showing the film each required police on horseback for crowd control. All walks of life rubbed shoulders in those lines. Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, and Senator Ted Kennedy waited at their theaters like everyone else. Elvis Presley tried a different tack; the King was in the process of securing a Star Wars print to screen for himself and Lisa Marie at Graceland the day before he died.

***

In May 1977, the most popular poster in America was an image of Farrah Fawcett, chief Charlie’s Angel, in a bathing suit, with a noticeably aroused nipple. By July, Star Wars posters were outselling Fawcett five to one.

***

Toy sales came to the rescue. Despite the movie no longer being in theaters, despite the disastrous Holiday Special, and against all expectations, Kenner announced that it had its strongest holiday season yet. Sales of Star Wars action figures, spaceships, and play sets had crossed the $200 million mark, funneling more than $20 million into Lucasfilm subsidiary Black Falcon. Without that cash injection, there’s little question Empire would have been sunk. There’s something poetic about it: millions of children joyfully acting out the further adventures of Luke Skywalker literally funded the further adventures of Luke Skywalker. Call it a karmic Kickstarter.

It’s funny how Taylor blazes through the three prequels all in one chapter. Star Wars fans from the New Hope generation are so predictable.

All in all, the book was an excellent read; it did make me want to re-watch (or watch, in case of Jedi) the original movies, and put in pieces of the Star Wars history that were missing from my understanding of the history of the seminal series, especially the debt Lucas and Co owe to concept artist Ralph McQuarrie, whose designs really helped sell the movie to both Lucas’s friends, his team and studio heads. My dismissive tone about the series is at odds with my fascination for its metadata, as you can clearly see. I know the technical details of where the sound of Wookie comes from (‘a bear starved in a zoo and then shown a bowl of milk outside the cage’, for your information) or how Lucas made a note when someone asked for Reel 2, Dialog 2 in the editing room of THX 1138, or the story behind how Han Solo’s sprezzatura in saying “I know” came about. I can also appreciate how it probably is the only bit of mythology that America can truly call its own. The person sitting next to me at the morning screening of the Force Awakens cried a few times as the movie played. My local comic-book shop (and others) had large “Star Wars Spoiler Free Zone” signs up the first two weeks of release. All I wonder is how long this reverence will continue to play out. A major part of Star Wars is to do with how little we know about the Star Wars universe and its details – and it only takes a few years of misbegotten scripts to run a special thing into the ground, to turn a mythic tale into something mundane.

Notes:

  1. while growing up, some people distinguished between Star Wars and Star Trek as the series with the tube-light lights and the series with Mr Spock. Star Trek played on Doordarshan in 1985, a year before we bought our first TV, so I bypassed that too. But there were kids in school who would pinch you really hard on the back of your neck, because Mr Spock.
  2. Here’s a confession: I saw the first 20 minutes of Empire Strikes Back when I was 11 or 12, and did not make sense of it, obviously. I have vague memories of watching one of the Ewok movies a year later, and that was a cutesy experience where storytelling did not matter. I saw New Hope in my second year of college, shaking my head over the outdated effects at the end but letting myself be sucked into the world. Then came the prequels, and much as I enjoyed them in the theater, the relentless barrage of wtf-ery in both plot and dialog overpowered the love of the world Lucas created. Yes, I have never seen Return of the Jedi.
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