Category Archives: Criticism

How does Marvel’s culture industry manage to keep hope alive?

Like most folks who saw it, I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. It was inferior to the previous two Captain America films, in my estimation, but it was better than Age of Ultron. Much can and has been written about the drawbacks of the Marvel/Disney entertainment monolith, and I’ve been ruminating on the film since I saw it. Chuck Bowen recently used Civil War as the occasion to reflect on the State of Summer Cinema. Allow me to use Bowen as the occasion to reflect on everything that Marvel has done right so far. This will get a little dialectical. Bear with me.

Contrary to a cliche that dogs film critics, I don’t enjoy disliking nearly every movie that earns a significant amount of money. My words are carefully chosen. “Disliking” rather than “hating”, because to inspire such a passionate response as hate would require more than a preordained blockbuster usually offers. Works of art are like people: to hate either, one must be accorded a glimpse of their personality first, and a failure to exhibit personality provokes a muffled, low-risk indifference. But try telling people this sort of thing about a Marvel production and you’re a snob.

Of all people, I can empathize with Bowen’s gripe about his own audience’s bad-faith reception. The fact that one may simply not like a film (as opposed to hating, disliking, or any other strongly-agential gerund you please) does not compute for most people. When you’ve seen enough movies, the most common reaction, sadly, is non-reaction. Movies that most folks “love” or “hate” or think of as “just okay” or (God help me) “interesting” are, to the jaded cinephile, just sort of there. It’s almost a mercy when I actively hate a film, because I’m relieved to have my emotions excited by the experience. So what I’m saying is that I totally get what Bowen’s saying here. He’s got some other pity observations, such as when he compares blockbusters to the cautious personality of job interviewees, or that, given the choice simply to skip the requisite blockbusters, “Unending exclusion is dull and estranging,” so it’s probably better to be in the loop than out.

People have short cultural memories, but blockbusters used to occasionally be enjoyable. Even weird. Their plots might have been recycled and disposable, but they had plots, and some of them had ineffably powerful images. Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most influential of all blockbusters, is almost quaint now in its fealty to the idea of one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied all these elements together with pleasurable simplicity. And while its protagonist, Indiana Jones, was an indestructible superman, he also has discernible human characteristics. For one, he clearly liked sex.

Whuh? Not quite sure how Indiana Jones is an “indestructible superman” (fridge-nuking notwithstanding), because the first and third films end with literal di ex machina that emphasize the hero’s relative powerlessness. Also, what the hell does it mean that “he clearly liked sex”? is that the most readily identifiable human characteristic—liking sex? Unlike Tony Stark, for instance?

I’m also unsure how the Thor movies or the first Captain America weren’t pleasurable in their simplicity: one hero, one villain, a heroine, a few colorful supporting characters, a MacGuffin, and a story that tied these elements together. Guardians of the Galaxy had multiple heroes, but it stands as this decade’s superlative example of exactly the kind of film Bowen is complaining that the blockbuster machine doesn’t produce. I haven’t seen some of the other films he name-drops, but if some ivory-tower-bound neckbeard like myself, who sees maybe ten new movies a year anymore, can think of several counterexamples out of hand—taken from the very franchise he’s arguing about—one might get the sense that Bowen’s punching a bit above his weight class. Or simply being obtuse. To wit:

“On a scene-by-scene basis, this new Marvel uber-movie makes almost no sense, hopscotching across dozens of cities and a couple of different timelines, plugging new superheroes such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and yet another Spider-Man (Tom Holland), while dropping cute little in-jokes designed to pressure audiences into catching up with past Marvel installments that they may have missed. This is the most irritating component of the new corporate blockbuster: it’s always heckling you to buy more, without ever giving you what you already paid for. It may be called Captain America, and more or less be a sequel to the vastly superior The Winter Soldier, but it offers a buffet of superheroes designed to abound in so much as to offer each audience member enough of what they individually like, so that they can each retrospectively assemble a different, more focused movie in their minds.”

This paragraph foreshadows how Bowen misunderstands Marvel’s project in some very fundamental ways. First, I’m not sure how the film makes no sense on a scene-by-scene basis. It doesn’t really hopscotch different timelines so much as parallel storylines. Most of these scenes are united by the MacGuffin (that’s right, folks—there is one!) of the Sokovia Accords, a multinational agreement among the world’s nations that superheroes require some sort of civilian oversight. Coming on the heels of Ultron’s robot uprising and Hydra’s hijacking of the U. S. military-industrial complex (not to mention the emergence of the Inhumans, if one still considers Marvel’s TV franchises to be part of the same universe), one can understand that non-superheroes might want a say in how the Avengers conduct their affairs.

Civil War is a sequel to Winter Soldier, but it’s more properly a sequel to every Marvel movie to date. Unlike virtually every major franchise produced by Hollywood, Marvel has made a point of making sequels that actually push their characters forward. It’s TV-style serialization—which, in turn, was influenced by early film serialization, so I guess the blockbuster has essentially come full circle. Unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, which borrowed liberally from the early serials’ tropes, the MCU has borrowed from their episodic structure. More accurately, it uses the serial structure that has been the backbone of superhero comics for going on a century. While it’s fair to say that there are not really any long-term consequences in serialized comics (the medium that gave us the term “retcon”), there are often short- to medium-term consequences. Superman today is (sorta-kinda-pretty-much) the Superman of the 1940s, plus or minus a few powers. But there’s a gravitational power exerted by the shared universes of the two major comics publishers that basically requires their worlds to maintain a certain status quo. Mostly for business reasons: after all, it makes it easier for new readers to jump into a series when the basic premise and stakes are never-changing. There’s also a storytelling exigency, though: long-running series change creative teams from time to time, and it’s easier to do new(ish) things within an established paradigm if you’re not hamstrung by a never-ending series of paradigm shifts introduced by each previous team. It’s more about finding interesting new facets of a superhero (and that hero’s mythos) to explore, rather than totally reinventing the superhero from scratch. The Marvel movies do this better, in my opinion, than the Marvel comics.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe simply has exigencies that the comics do not, and that makes them more appealing to a certain kind of audience. The primary reason why I never got into superhero comics when I was collecting them is that I didn’t have the money or patience to go read everything I needed to know in order to fully appreciate the context of a current story arc. Storytelling in mainstream superhero comics is intransigently incestuous. After all, the whole point of having a shared universe is to do crossovers. That’s great when there’s only, like, a dozen titles in a given universe. It’s enough to induce a panic attack when dozens of titles and hundreds of characters are in play over the course of decades.

What’s worse is that so much of the pathos from these titles comes from the assumption that readers are at least somewhat familiar with the histories of these characters. Imagine watching Star Trek: Generations without ever having seen any TOS episodes or movies and maybe only a handful of TNG. It’s not a great film anyway, but watching Captain Kirk die for real and for good is kind of a kick in the gut if you’re a Trekker in any sense of the word. If you only have the vaguest idea who he is, due mainly to pop culture osmosis, maybe the moment works, but mostly not, I’d wager. The entire film hinges upon two legendary Enterprise captains meeting for the first time for the last time and the torch being officially passed from one generation of the franchise to The Next. If you haven’t been watching Star Trek, there’s no legend. No impact.

For me, reading virtually any major superhero book was like jumping straight into the final season of Lost. There were a few exceptions, as there always are. (I loved Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil, for instance, but then, I’d already read most of Miller’s run and most of Bendis’s thanks to my local library’s shockingly capacious graphic novel collection.) On the whole, though, it simply never mattered to me. Any of it. Or most of it, rather.

However much the Chuck Bowens of the world complain about each installment in MCU being a product placement for other installments, the product line is comparatively sparse if you put it alongside the comics. You want to get caught up before Civil War? ‘Kay. Rent Iron Man (just the first one), the two Avengers movies, and the first two Captain Americas. You don’t need any Hulk, Thor, or Guardians. You don’t need the TV shows. You don’t need the films produced by 20th Century Fox. Will you miss a few inside jokes? Sure. Are you on the hook for 10+ hours of entertainment. Yep.

Know what you’re not on the hook for? Approximately 82,946 comic books, including back issues and current releases, because you happened to pick up the latest X-Men and you don’t know who the hell any of the characters are or why the one guy you do recognize is now a gay psychopath who’s also apparently the clone half-brother of some other character who’s Professor X’s great-granddaughter from an alternate future who is responsible for the sixth (or seventh?) time Wolverine got amnesia and had to go work as a short-order cook in Laos, where he eventually teamed up with the Punisher to take out the assassin/warlord who will (tune in next month! Excelsior!) be responsible for murdering Matt Murdoch’s latest doomed girlfriend, which will somehow precipitate the third superhero Civil War.

Part of me appreciates the operatic plot lunacy and behind-the-scenes organization it takes to pull of stuff like that even halfway successfully. It’s the same part of me that, in the abstract, thinks that soap operas and pro wrestling are kind of cool, in theory. The other part of me looks at my wallet and my time commitments and goes, “Yeah, I can check out the latest Marvel flick every eight months. That’s way more doable.”

It’s doable for movie audiences because the kind of money and organization required for large-scale blockbuster film production can only make movies like this happen every eight months or so. The most marketable part of these movies, apart from the franchise branding, is the truly impressive roster of performers Marvel has assembled. You only get RDJ or Chris Evans for so many movies, so you better spread ‘em out and make ‘em really count. Similarly, Marvel’s scored big with some of its behind-the-scenes hires. Joss Whedon, obviously. James Gunn, though, was a stroke of genius. Guardians of the Galaxy is the single best film in the Marvel MCU, and apart from the first Iron Man, it is the least dependent on the films’ shared mythos.

What will be even more interesting to see is whether Marvel has the ambition and vision to continue the current MCU well past the tenure of its founding players. Chris Evans will be done with Steve Rogers after the Avengers two-parter. Downey, Jr. is likely to bow out sooner than later. Marvel can always recast or reboot, but the cool thing about movies like Ant-Man or Guardians is that they do well without necessarily being based on known quantities. I get that making a movie about Marvel’s first black superhero is a big deal (and more than a little overdue), but seriously: did anybody outside of the comics nerd-o-sphere know who Black Panther was until Marvel stuck him in Civil War?[1] Would Ta-Nahisi Coates have gotten a shot at writing the comic right now without Marvel deciding to branch Panther off into his own film? Would they have chosen to do so if they couldn’t have spliced him into a strong, stable franchise like Captain America first? Things like this are part of the upside of the entertainment-industrial complex. Money + hype = willing viable franchises into existence. (Not always, but you have to admit that momentum is on Marvel’s side at present.) Unlike the comics publishing arm, it’s quite possible that MCU can survive the retirement of its initial flagship characters if there are folks like Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland waiting in the wings. (Or, for heaven’s sake, Scarlett freaking Johansson, who has already appeared in more Marvel movies than everyone but Downey and Evans.) Put another way, it’s possible for MCU to evolve in ways that the Marvel comics universe simply can’t, because we’re talking about two different markets and two different media, one of which depends on real, flesh-and-blood people to play the characters.

Not likely, I admit. Just possible.

I like the idea of the MCU growing and evolving, as it were, in real time. One of the distinct pleasures of watching the Marvel movies since Iron Man has been watching talented stars and writers collaborating to find interesting things to do within the constraints of the franchise. They age. They mature. Downey is a better Tony Stark now than he was in 2008. Chris Evans is a better Steve Rogers. Most movie actors get one film in which to get to know their characters. Downey and Evans have gotten six and five, respectively. To me, their performances reflect that process. And that’s tied to the thing that Bowens gets so, so wrong in his reflection Civil War. It is, in fact, the thing that he misses the most completely.

Would it kill the film-makers to offer just one memorable bit of dialogue? Every spoken line in Civil War serves an expository purpose. Or how about just one image that strives for poetry? Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances? Or having money problems? Or loving, in a visceral, personal way, rather than in the usual platitudinous fashion that testifies to the needs of teaming up yet again to mount yet another adventure?

Watching Captain America: Civil War, in which positively nothing is at stake, I checked my watch 25 minutes into the film, sighing at the realization that there were nearly two hours remaining. How can audiences stand this? By submitting to the anesthesia of the loudness, I suspect, by comforting themselves with the knowledge that they are, at this moment, doing what culture expects of them. Seeing the “big” thing, the Super Bowl of yearly adventure epics.

The whole point of Bowen’s piece is (I think) to chastise audiences for letting Hollywood get away with selling them all of these films that are structurally the same, but he displays no grasp whatsoever of what has changed from film to film. So doing, he cannot understand why audiences keep showing up.

We’ll set aside haggling over what counts as a memorable line or a poetic image, or even what counts as “loving, in a visceral, personal way,” because I would argue that Civil War utterly hinges on what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls homosociality, and even tweaks it a bit with the role that Black Widow plays in the character dynamics.[2] Let’s focus on three questions. “Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? Or crying? Or changing allegiances?” Let’s take these one at a time. The correct answers (phrased in the form of questions) are, in order:

Would it kill one of these movies to feature characters who are capable of actually dying? What, you mean like Peggy Carter? Title character of the Marvel Television Universe’s best series? The love of Steve’s life who kicked ass with him in the first film and died and was buried in Civil War?

Or crying? What, you mean like Wanda, after she blames herself for killing those civilians in the first scene? Or Tony, expressing a mix of sorrow and rage after Rhoadie gets shot down in the climactic fight at the airport? I’m sorry, does a character have to bawl uncontrollably—cry on cue, as it were—in order to count as “crying”?

Or changing allegiances? What, you mean like THE ENTIRE PLOT OF THIS MOVIE? Like how the first Avenger, Captain America (remember the first film’s title?), breaks his allegiance with the Avengers as a matter of conscience, and spends the whole film fighting with his former teammates as a result? Or how Black Widow totally confounds the entire idea of allegiance by trying to remain loyal to both of her friends and teammates, and also has to leave the Avengers as a result? Or how Black Panther goes from trying to murder Bucky to apprehending the real killer when he realizes he’s been duped? I’m actually thoroughly confused by this question. Just so I don’t cause any confusion, this question is not rhetorical: Chuck, did you actually watch Captain America: Civil War?

The purpose of Bowen’s series of facetious queries, of course, is to buttress the claim that “positively nothing is at stake” in Civil War. Again, this would be a totally baffling claim, even if we took Civil War as a case by itself. In the context of the MCU, it is about as objectively wrong as you can get. That is, if context and character development matter to any criticism based on a method of close textual analysis. (Hint: they really do!)

As others have already noted, both Steve Rogers and Tony Stark have actually had quite distinctive character arcs across the films in which they’ve appeared. Stark starts out as the reprobate Ayn Randian hero who worships at his own altar and must continually learn and re-learn the principle of self-sacrifice for the greater good. As the films progress, his sense of responsibility becomes less personal (due in large part to the lessons learned from the consequences of his own arrogance) and more based on principle, more directed toward the global community. In the Iron Man films, Tony repeatedly is forced to pay for his mistakes or the mistakes of his family or his corporate empire. Avengers is the first instance we get of Stark sacrificing himself genuinely selflessly. He invents Ultron partly as a psychological defense against his own perceive weakness, but also because he wants to protect Earth proactively from global threats. It is his greatest failure, the culmination of the arrogance displayed in each of his standalone films, and it is what leads this individualist bad boy to push for the institutional restraint of the Sokovia Accords. He knows that he cannot be trusted to hold himself accountable, so he welcomes the prospect of oversight. As the final confrontation with Cap at the end of the film shows, he knows himself quite well—he is unable to stop himself from trying to exact revenge for his parents’ murder. But the Tony Stark of Civil War is one making a conscious effort to restrain his arrogance; only someone with such a fatal flaw could recognize it manifesting in someone else: Steve Rogers.

A paragon of the Greatest Generation, he becomes a superhero principally out of a willingness to put himself at the service of the government to fight evil. Not just for his own sake; because he believes the world to be at stake. When Nick Fury taps him for the Avengers, it’s not much of an issue for him. It is, in fact, Tony’s innate resistance to institutional trust that persuades Cap to question Fury and discover the weapons program that provoked the alien invasion in the first place. He tries to carry on in Winter Soldier, but finds that the institution to which he has devoted his life is utterly infested with the evil he sacrificed himself (in the first film) to wipe out for good. Skepticism toward technocratic solutions to world piece underwrites his hostility to Ultron in Avengers 2, after which it is Tony who is forced to agree. By the end of that film, Steve takes over the Avengers because there is no institution left on earth that he can trust. That need for moral independence is what informs his rebellion against the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. His blind loyalty to Bucky is not merely personal affection and perhaps guilt over what happened to his oldest friend; Steve’s experience in each film has led him to value loyalty among comrades in arms above all else. External constraints, such as SHIELD or Ultron, have only compiled evil upon evil. In his arrogance, Steve believes that he can trust only his own moral compass, so he defies international law, deceives Tony about his parents’ death, and ends the film by founding his own rogue group of vigilantes. The consummate team player has become the ultimate loose cannon.

In short, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’s character arcs have had an inverse trajectory that has been developed carefully and (shockingly) subtly over the course of the last decade, and what is at stake in Civil War is both thematic and personal. Thematically, the film presents two paradigms of the ethical use of force. Iron Man is a good guy, but he requires institutional constraints to use his power ethically, because he fears being a loose cannon. Captain America is a good guy, but he’s a loose cannon, because he fears that institutions will use his power unethically. Personally, Iron Man once again finds that his family’s tragic history traps him in an apparently unending cycle of retribution. Captain America is offered a final chance to save his oldest friend. Iron Man is spends most of the film seeking justice, only to have it turn into vengeance. Captain America is trying to redeem one friend by—to put it bluntly—screwing over another.

There be stakes all over the place. And that’s just for the two lead characters.[3]

More significantly, the stakes really only come into focus if you have, as Bowen says, done what culture expects of you: always checking out the Next Big Thing. Marvel counted on viewers having already invested their time and emotional energy into Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Without that investment, there’s no payoff in Civil War. Just a bunch of latter-day demigods punching each other into buildings and making wisecracks. With that investment, the payoff is witnessing the tragedy of a broken friendship, of an already-broken man being denied justice for his parents, of a once-upright man turning lawless because the lawful institutions have, one by one, betrayed him for half a century. Amid all this tragedy remains hope, of course. That hope is stipulated by the money machine at the heart of MCU. Steve and Tony will reunite in Avengers: Infinity War because they have to. That doesn’t erase the manifold tragedy in Civil War, but it does structurally affirm that, despite the heartbreak and tragedy, heroes will ultimately do what they must simply because they’re heroes.

__________

[1] If Civil War succeeded in nothing else, it made me terrifically excited for the Black Panther and Spider-Man movies. Boseman will be a great leading man, and there are a ton of exciting possibilities for T’Challa in the MCU. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was both the best and most extraneous part of Civil War. In an already overstuffed film, his was the only new character who didn’t really serve a plot function. The scene where Tony recruits him, however superfluous, at least felt fleshed-out on a character level. In a story that leans so heavily on Tony’s troubled relationship to his dead dad, we get to see Tony get paternal with a kid who has so much in common with him. Peter and Tony both lost their father-figures (Uncle Ben and Howard Stark, respectively), both are nerds, both have taken it on themselves to be heroes outside the law. It’s a rather sweet scene. Also chilling. Just like Howard, Tony places unreasonably high expectations on Peter to manipulate him. The line between Tony turning Peter into his weapon and Tony relating to Peter paternally is blurry here, but that makes it all the more real and resonant, given how the film ends. Still sort of unnecessary, all things considered, but if the writers were going to shoehorn Peter Parker into the film, at least they did their best to make it make sense that Tony would recruit him. Holland and Tomei are sort of perfect as Peter and May, and the airport scene, in retrospect, feels mostly like a proof of concept for the kind of awesomeness (stunning high-flying acrobatics and nerd-witty banter: check!) we can expect from the next Spidey solo film. Sign me up.

[2] And by the way, I get that Bowens is trying to be cheeky when he asks rhetorically, “Wouldn’t Captain America: Civil War be a more interesting movie if Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) fought over, say, the affections of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), whose approval they are both clearly jockeying for anyway?” Yes, what a Paulette you are, Chuck, ever-so-subtly and perhaps-(perhaps-not!)-unironically insinuating that Natasha character would be far more effectively deployed as the object of affection in a male rivalry love triangle. Or, wait. No. Actually, I think that makes you a sexist jerk. My mistake.

[3] Civil War’s villain is also tragic. He is a direct product of the last Avengers film. Zemo has no superpowers, no great resources. Just a keen intellect and the drive to exact revenge. Like Steve, he’s a former soldier whose institutions failed him and those he cared about. Like Tony, he is a genius operating without restraint. Zemo is who Tony Stark might be if left to his own devices, but he justifies his villainy according to Steve Rogers’s ethos. If he’s the dark mirror to each of this film’s heroes, it reflects rather badly on their inability to resolve their differences.


Is it Thursday yet?

Last month, my wife and I finally stopped being outlaws. We had been watching Critical Role on YouTube for several months. Not on Geek and Sundry’s official channel mind you. Nope. Some user had thoughtfully put together his own playlist, updating it each Monday with the latest episode. I fully realize that this is the 21st century, and that a vast majority of people don’t care if they’re illegally pirating stuff. Screw those people. My wife and I spend precious little enough of our money on entertainment, but we figured that if Critical Role had given us nearly 150 hours of joy over the course of the last year, the least we could do is support it in the only way that matters in a marketplace. So we bought a Geek and Sundry Twitch subscription.

Geek and Sundry, of course, is the web-based entertainment company founded by Felicia Day. Capitalizing on the cachet Day earned with The Guild, G&S is home to nerdy shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Co-Optitude, which Day hosts with her brother, Ryon. (Wife and I are fans of those, too.) G&S is a multiplatform presence, streaming videos from its official website as well as YouTube. Twitch bills itself as “social video for gamers,” which is apt enough. The platform includes live video streaming and chat functions, so you can watch your buddies play Halo or Hearthstone and comment on the game with other users besides the gamer in real time. Most of the popular channels are devoted to video gaming. G&S offers a variety of shows that are primarily oriented toward tabletop gaming.

What makes G&S’s Twitch experiment so intriguing is that it’s live. It seems, in other words, that broadcast media has come full circle. People from my generation and those even younger probably only know about old-time radio from movies like Woody Allen’s Radio Days (from what you might call his “peak Farrow” period), or perhaps they listen to shows like WPR’s “Old Time Radio Drama” (or whatever else is locally available outside of Wisconsin). While Twitch does allow its users to archive livestreams on their channel pages, the real draw is watching shows that are devised with the affordances and limitations of a live broadcast in mind.

Subscribers from around the world participate in the chat, peppering the hosts with questions, unsolicited advice, and solicited recommendations. While there are some shows designed around the chat function (like the recent trial of The Scavenger), most simply feature a confab of young, charismatic nerds playing games like Rock Band or HeroClix. The genius of Day and Wheaton is that they figured out that there was a fairly sizable niche audience of folks who would enjoy watching young, charismatic nerds play tabletop games. TableTop itself is almost paradigmatic in this regard. Each episode features Wheaton and four celebrity guests playing a different tabletop game, cracking wise about the diegetic absurdities of the games and sublimating their own cutthroat competitiveness into self-reflexive jibes. (Not to mention erecting a mythology around Wheaton’s own incredibly bad luck throughout most of the first two seasons. For instance, you now say, “I just Wheatoned,” when you roll really badly with your dice.) Unlike TableTop, the games on the Twitch channel unfold in real time, so many (though not all) hosts come from an improv background, flexing those theater muscles to carry two- to three-hour games with breezy insouciance.

That’s part of what makes Critical Role so special. As the host and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer opens every episode: “Hello! And welcome to Critical Role, the game where a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons!” That’s pretty much it, but it explains very little about the show’s core appeal. What the description misses is just how gifted these actors are and how expertly they deploy their improv skills to flesh out and inhabit their characters. Some, like Sam Riegel and Marisha Ray, use something very close to their own accent and timbre as they play (respectively) Scanlon, the gnome bard, and Keyleth, the half-elf druid. Others, like Travis Willingham and Orion Acaba, demonstrate their professional range to give an Anglicized working-class growl to (again, respectively) Grog, the goliath barbarian, and upper-class twit brogue to Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer. The use of accents and different timbre is a helpful marker in the cast’s code-switching, as they flip merrily between their in-game characters and real-life personalities.

That, too, is part of the charm. Like any great improv troupe, the cast revels in surprising each other with totally in-character moments of ribaldry or pathos. One of Willingham’s greatest moments in the show, for instance, is when Grog locks himself in an outhouse to have a conversation with his cursed, sentient sword, Cravenedge. Though utterly hilarious, it carries some emotional weight, as one of the other party members, Percy (played with devilish calculation by Taliesin Jaffe), had just recently been delivered from bondage to his own cursed weapon. While Grog doesn’t want to pose a danger to his own group, he relishes the power given to him by the sword, and he’s no more inclined to sacrifice that power than Percy was, even with his growing suspicions. Similarly, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey play twins, Vax and Vex (respectively), whose comic bickering rings solidly true, but whose co-dependence delivers some of the biggest emotional impact in the series, especially when one or the other flutters over death’s threshold, instilling the other with uncontrollable panic. All of the characters often make very bad decisions for reasons that make total sense, and it then becomes the job of Vox Machina, their party, to pull their reckless butts out of the fire.

The commitment to character consistency has intersected with the challenges of live broadcast in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most controversial moment in the show’s run so far has been the departure of Orion Acaba after episode 27. Independent of the real life drama surrounding the event, the sudden departure was not entirely out of character for the flighty sorcerer, and his official farewell (performed by Mercer) in episode 37 was a somber highlight in the epilogue to the party’s first full arc without Tiberius. Another long-running challenge for Critical Role has been the incorporation of its gnomish cleric, Pike. Because Pike’s player, Ashley Johnson, pursues a live-action career that calls her away from Los Angeles, where the rest of the cast is based, she’s been missing for huge swaths of the show, not least including its initial few episodes. While she worked on Blindspot in New York City, Johnson telecommuted via Skype for several episodes. The distance and technical difficulties for Johnson meant that Pike was forced into a much more reactive role within the party, but her sporadic appearances also had the effect of reminding the cast and their characters how vital she is to the dynamic of Vox Machina. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show was Johnson’s surprise appearance on-set for Episode 22, during a shooting break for Blindspot. The delight of the cast members to be reunited with Johnson was perfectly intertwined with the delight of their characters, who had not been together for four weeks. The necessity of having the players actually be present together physically in one place is something that can be dealt with in a live format, but it’s not something that can be “shot around.”

When technical difficulties occur in real time for us, the audience, it’s also about a thousand times more frustrating than a jam-up on YouTube. After all, when we were watching Critical Role on YouTube, we might have to abandon the video if YouTube was being stupid and come back to it later. That sucked. Then again, we rarely watched an entire episode all at once anyway. Critical Role episodes average three hours, and some have stretched past four. Given our schedules, my wife and I don’t usually get home until after 8:30 pm, and we’re usually asleep by 11. So while we were watching on YouTube, it became our custom to watch CR in one-hour blocks or so, breaking each episode into three nights’ entertainment. Besides prolonging the pleasure of each episode, finishing one also meant that we only had to wait four or five days until the next one.

Now that we try to watch Critical Role on Thursdays, when it airs (7 pm Pacific Time for its cast/crew, 9 pm here in the Midwest), that rhythm is severely disrupted. While it’s unusual for us to manage to stay awake until midnight on Thursdays, we usually watch at least two- to two-and-a-half hours as it streams live. That is, unless Twitch poops out on us. Or we poop out from fatigue. Neither of which is the worst thing in the world. And full episodes are uploaded by the next day, so we can pick up where we left off pretty quickly. But Twitch is, in our experience, still rather buggy. And since Critical Role is literally the first regularly-scheduled program that we have made a point to watch at its regularly-scheduled time since we got married,[1] not being able to watch it at that time is so much worse.

Worse, because we usually finish watching each episode on Friday nights. That’s awesome, in the sense that we get to finish the latest episode almost immediately afterward, and on our own schedule. But it also means that we have to wait until next week Thursday to see the new episode, and a less-than-perfect experience makes us all the hungrier for a better experience the next time. Which is usually no less than six days away, as opposed to the four or five it normally was when we watched episodes on YouTube.

There’s a bigger reason why it’s worse, though. After being spoiled for years by services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, which are at their best when you get to marathon episodes in large gulps, waiting for Critical Role each week is practically an exercise in discipline. There’s a reason why the fan-sourced tagline for Critical Role, “Is it Thursday yet?” is how Mercer closes each episode. The hunger for each episode is not felt by each fan alone; we feel it together. That time slot on Thursday is special because that particular time slot really means something. It’s the only time when all of us—the fans, the film crew, and the cast—get together for the Critical Role experience live. In real time. It happens first and for real only on Thursday. Everything afterward, while still thoroughly enjoyable, is not unique. It’s reproduced. That doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the episode, but it also cannot replicate the sense of live connections being forged in the moment.

Fans of Critical Role are called “Critters,” and both the fans and players commonly refer to the “Critter community.” My wife and I don’t participate in the chat (which goes way too fast), the Reddit threads, or on Twitter, where the cast interacts with Critters on a regular basis. Yet I believe we do feel at least tangentially connected to the Critter community. In old message board parlance, we’re lurkers. But that sense of participation is something that we’re enabled to feel each Thursday night by virtue of the fact that we watch the show live, as it is streamed. The story itself is improvised with each breath and dice roll; the players are putting on a show for us, but they are also putting it on for each other. We, the audience, are simply invited. That invitation to the event itself, though, is always and only for Thursday at 1900 Pacific Time. It is the only time when none of us, collectively, knows what will happen next, and it is the only time when all of us, collectively, get to see what happens next. It is the only time when fear that something could go critically wrong is held perfectly in tension with the sincere hope that everything turns out all right. We, the viewers and players, are bound together in time to each moment.

There is something utopian,[2] I think, in the voluntary discipline of this ritual. Ritual discipline is something I don’t think I have appreciated enough in my life. It is, to be sure, qualitatively different from weekly worship services. It is also qualitatively different from live broadcasts of sports competitions, like football games. While I appreciate worship services far more deeply than sports competitions, I do acknowledge that, much like live artistic performances, there is something necessary to the human experience for events that technically only occur once—here, now, for those of us present—but which are ritually repeated at set times. These things give meaningful shape to our experience of time and space, and the most meaningful of these rituals take narrative form.

One of the great lies told about worship services is that it’s the same old crap every Sunday. In one sense, that’s true. Liturgies are cyclical, and they draw upon the same source material week after week, year after year, century after century. Yet. With each week, year, century, millennium, this circumscribed time with its own circumscribed set of conventions is made new by the fact that those present—here, now—are never the same. We are always older. Always slightly different. Always experiencing this same time in a new way, filtered by our passage through time. We die. Others take our place. They are not us, but we are them. We are made new by our participation in the ritual, by experiencing collectively a totally unique event that nevertheless replicates a set structure at periodic intervals throughout our lives. The narrative structure of these rituals is what gives narrative structure to our own lives.

Like any conventions, though, the governance of our life-narrative is not totally beholden to dogmatic minutiae. There is room for improvisation and surprise. These are also necessary. There is a certain delight, or perhaps catharsis, that can only be had by bonding together with others in the surprises that unfold themselves within the conventions of ritual. That’s why it’s healthy when someone farts loudly in church. That’s why it’s shocking when a pro ballplayer suffers a career-ending injury on the field. That’s why we know when stand-up comic tells us the truth. Are these things always delightful? Cathartic? Perhaps there are better words. Joy and awe. Rituals are not meant to be dry, empty obligations, but celebrations of being alive, and they are meant to inspire gratitude that we are alive to recognize meaning in this moment: here, now, together.

Rituals build communities, and communities thrive on ritual. That is true for individuals, families, villages, nations. It’s true that my wife and I simply don’t have the wherewithal at present to be active in the online Critter community. For now, though, we have made a commitment of time and treasure to experience Critical Role as it streams each week. It is something we cannot pilfer or reproduce and retain quite the same meaning. In finally subscribing to one of our favorite shows, we have finally begun to participate, however marginally, in a ritual that makes the lives of thousands, una communitas sine finibus, just that much more vibrant.☕

__________

[1] I don’t count Doctor Who, which we typically get from Amazon the day after each episode airs. That’s pretty close, but not really the same thing as watching it as it’s broadcast.

[2] I’ve written very critically about utopia in the past. I’ve changed my previous position on utopianism about 165 degrees. Someday, perhaps, I may elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think utopian hope and utopian process are necessary components of any thriving community. I agree with Ernst Bloch that anti-utopianism tends to stifle positive social change; I disagree with any utopian theorist who views the shoring up of inherited traditions as inherently regressive, weak utopianism or as anti-utopian.


Five films: a Spring Break roundup

For the last few years, I have found less and less of the emotional energy I need to concentrate on a proper film, so I don’t watch many movies these days. I’m far more likely to binge TV shows or watch one piecemeal over the course of the week, as time permits. That said, this last week was spring break for me, and these are five films I took the time to watch.

 

John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For purity of tone and generic convention, this one reminded me of Payback and A Bittersweet Life. As straightforward of an underworld revenge flick as you can get, John Wick relies almost entirely on nailing the atmosphere and cadence of the alternate reality inhabited solely by hitmen, crime bosses, and femme fatales, who seem to spend most of their time partying in neon-hued cellar nightclubs, perpetually renovated old cathedrals, and posh estates in the hills with lots of windows and austere, minimalist decor. Directors like Stahelski and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to be the heirs to Michael Mann, populating their films with who’s-who faces and cleanly-shot scenes of violence. Keanu Reeves is wonderful in this film, channeling his charisma into a subdued smolder for most of the film and explosive, calculated lethality in some really stellar action sequences. The karmic themes are perhaps a bit thin, and the climax feels a bit tacked-on after a sustained, single-minded drive toward one bloody goal, but it’s a great film for fans like me of noir pastiche actioners.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2014)

I’d forgotten that Vaughn had directed Kick-Ass until I saw that this was based on a comic written by Mark Millar, who can be incisive and tasteless, but never incisively tasteless or tastelessly incisive (if that makes sense). Among the things that work in this film are Vaughn’s feel for kinetic, deft action sequences and a marvelous eye for production design. Colin Firth is his typical amazing self, and I always like Samuel L. Jackson when he does over-the-top villains. Among the things that don’t work are the structure of Kingsman as an origin story; we’re in Joseph Campbell territory here, so fans of Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring won’t be terribly surprised (or terribly emotionally moved, I suspect) by a moment in the film’s midpoint that I’m sure Millar thought would be “shocking” or “unconventional.” (Even as he probably thought it was “mythical” or somesuch thing.) Watching Taron Egerton come of age as a superspy is fun, but Egerton doesn’t have Firth’s charisma, though he might get there in ten or fifteen years. Then there’s the fact that the cultural politics of this film are weirdly ambivalent. The aesthetics of a scene where Firth kicks the crud out of some bullies near the beginning of the film are identical to a scene where he massacres a churchful of American bigots. There’s a sense in which each group “gets what’s coming to them” that, to viewers of one stripe, might seem “anarchically subversive.” For viewers of another stripe (and you don’t need to look too closely to see these stripes peeking above my collar), the revelry in this violence (set to “Freebird,” as such things are) seems genuinely gleeful, and therefore genuinely gratuitous. It’s tough not to conjoin the revelry in gratuitous violence with the validation of juvenile androcentrism at the film’s end, when our young hero slays the (metaphorical) dragon, then goes to fuck a princess in the ass. (This is not metaphorical.) So there’s fun to be had with this movie, but it’s a sleazy fun. It dredges all the innuendo and sanitized brutality that lurks barely beneath the surface of of the James Bond franchise, then dives into it headfirst, like a Hustler centerfold doing graceful backstrokes through a wake of chum.

Hotel Transylvania (d. Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Honestly, this movie was delightful. The A-plot was a funny, sweet story about an overprotective father learning to let his little girl grow up and bring a strange boy into the family. The B-story (allow me to read a bit much into the subtext here) is about how a group of bad boy outsiders (literalized here as monsters) grew up to become the establishment. It’s hard not to see the cast of monsters voiced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, and Steve Buscemi (though I’ll admit I’ve no idea who CeeLo Green is) as a metaphor for their place in the Hollywood ecosystem: a group of former enfants terribles who are now among the elder statesmen of popular entertainment. Again, I admit that I’m perhaps reading a bit much into it. At any rate, I laughed a great deal with Hotel Transylvania, and I look forward to seeing the sequels (someday).

The Last Witch Hunter (d. Breck Eisner, 2015)

The best thing about this film was watching Vin Diesel as a relatively chillaxed seeker of vengeance. Playing an immortal can go any number of ways, but the mixture of amiable, aloof, and ruthless Diesel cooked up for Kaulder, the title character, went a long way toward lugging this B-film across the finish line. As a mid-budget tentpole flick, it’s very slick, moderately-paced, perhaps boasting a bit too much grayscale production design for its own good (although I credit Eisner with not shooting the whole thing through those damnable blue/gray/brown color filters that directors seem to have loved so much for the last decade or so), but definitively unambitious. For urban fantasy junkies, this’ll scratch an itch, but it won’t quench your thirst.

The BoxTrolls (d. Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, 2014)

Laika does pretty amazing things with stop-motion animation; ParaNorman is easily a high point in mainstream use of that technique. BoxTrolls is charming; it tries to balance the truly horrific implications of its cosmos (where genocide, fatal political malpractice, torture, and sadism, are narrative engines, just to name a few lovely aspects) with heartfelt relationships and positive messages about choosing one’s own path/identity and whatnot. It is one of the few children’s films that I’ve felt was appropriately cynical about the world. Yet it ultimately manages to resolve the major plot points without long-term negative consequences, and given the darkness this movie treats with, it felt like a bit of a cheat. If this film is a disappointment overall, it should be restated that Laika set the bar pretty high for itself with Coraline and ParaNorman. While I did totally buy into the relationships that Eggs, the boy hero, cultivates with Fish, his Boxtroll foster-father, and Winnifred, the girl who becomes his partner in heroism, the character dynamics of the bad guys worked especially well. Mr. Gristle is a chilling parody of unfettered cruelty, and Archibald Snatcher is the kind of main villain who is better precisely because his ambition and evil are so thoroughly human (and thus more monstrous); Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles are the evil henchmen with enough of a glimmer of self-awareness to recognize at the vital moment in the narrative that they’re not on the side of the angels. This rogue’s gallery gives you a pretty good snapshot of the spectrum of human frailty, and it is they who emerge as the most compelling figures in the ensemble. ☕


Jodorowsky’s Dune ☕ d. Frank Pavich, 2013

Three films are competing for screen time in Jodorowsky’s Dune: a love letter to the greatest film never made, a Herzogian tale of a mad genius doomed to failure, and (drumroll) Jodorowsky’s Dune, the film itself.

Having not seen any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work, I may be at a bit of a disadvantage in suggesting ways in which this particular documentary does or does not take his oeuvre into account. Alejandro Jodorowsky himself is a transfixing raconteur; (apparently) a consummate artist, nothing he says is delivered at a rhetorical pitch below eleven. By his own account, his plan for Dune was that the film itself, like Paul Atreides, would become a prophet, leading humankind into a new age of enlightened consciousness. By the account of everyone else who worked on the project, Jodorowsky was perfectly sincere in his ambition. The film’s narrative trajectory traces Jodorowsky’s quest to assemble a fellowship of “spiritual warriors”—likeminded artists who, regardless of their film experience or credentials, had the soul needed to bring his project to fruition. Many of these people had never heard of Jodorowsky before he sought them out for this project; they, too, knew nothing of his oeuvre. What compelled them to drop everything and move to his headquarters in Paris was much the same as what this documentary expects will compel its own viewers, many of whom may not be familiar with Jodorowsky’s work: the charisma and prophetic vision of the man himself. Of a film that might have been, and which might have revolutionized human consciousness. Continue reading


Sinister ☕ d. Scott Derrickson, 2012

Sinister

 

Morality tales aren’t really about nuance; they’re about getting across a point clearly and forcefully. I’m willing to forgive Sinister its one-dimensionality because it achieves two modest goals requisite for most great horror films: 1) it’s creepy, and 2) it is about evil. The first goal ought not be much of a stretch for someone as well traveled in horror filmmaking as Derrickson or the producers of Blumhouse, which has recently rolled in the dough with other morally-inflected shockers like Insidious and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sinister is of a piece with those films, relying primarily on atmosphere, suspenseful build-up, and cheap-but-effective jump scares. Continue reading


The Winter 2013 anime review

spacebros2

Apart from my reading schedule, the most media I’ve consumed in the last few months has mainly been anime. Since anime has comprised most of my entertainment diet, and since the 2013 winter season ended just a few weeks ago, here’s a set of capsule reviews of the stuff I’ve been consuming… Continue reading


George Lucas, filmmaker of the millennium?

While I presume that most of you have seen the Star Wars prequels, I expect that many of you have not heard of Camille Paglia, who thinks that Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is the greatest work of art in the last thirty years. My ignorance is great, and therefore I hadn’t heard of Paglia until Sonny Bunch referenced her in a confession of his ten biggest blown judgment calls from the past decade. The interview to which he linked is long on art snobbery and short on art discussion; nerds the world over excerpted Paglia’s comment that asserts quite a place for George Lucas on the Iron Throne of contemporary culture:

Yes, the long finale of Revenge of the Sith has more inherent artistic value, emotional power, and global impact than anything by the artists you name. It’s because the art world has flat-lined and become an echo chamber of received opinion and toxic over-praise. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—people are too intimidated to admit what they secretly think or what they might think with their blinders off.

The interview was conducted in the wake of Paglia’s book, Glittering Images, which concludes with a chapter aggressively defending and reframing Lucas’s stature as an artist and his life’s work as a cultural touchstone. In reviewing the book, New York Times Sunday Book Review critic John Adams retorted:

There is something deeply depressing about having to argue over the cultural dominance of an immensely successful and beloved filmmaker like George Lucas in the context of art history. In anointing Lucas, Paglia has signed on to a currently popular thesis that blames serious artists who, because of their arrogance, have lost touch with the general public and brought about their own marginalization. This argument claims that the conventional fine arts have diminished in significance, leaving only those innovators who have “embraced technology” as worthy of our attention. This is a thin thread on which to hang the appraisal of a living artist. A “technology” is no more than a way of doing something, a means to an end, and throughout history artists have been stimulated by new technological and conceptual ideas. […] What matters is not the technology itself (and your 9-year-old will tell you that the original “Star Wars” films look fairly clunky by today’s standards). What speaks to us in a work of art and makes it resistant to the passage of time is the depth of the humanity it expresses. There is entertainment, and then there is something infinitely richer: what we call “the sublime,” the true rec­ord of our spiritual condition that we get from serious and complex artworks. The films of William Kentridge, the serene Land Art of Andy Goldsworthy, the paintings of Anselm Kiefer, “Einstein on the Beach” — all these are sublime. “Star Wars” is not.

At first glance, this entire micro-conflagration threatened to overflow the banks of the River Pretension into the Flood Plain Bullshit. Neither Paglia’s Vice interviewer, Sean Craig, nor Adams bothered to press the case for or against the film itself. It was simply taken for granted by Craig that Paglia must be onto something when she asserts that Episode III is one of the greatest works of art ever made, just as it was taken for granted by Adams that, simply put, it’s not.

I’m fully aware of the stakes within geekdom. On my side are the haters, those who have a myriad of problems with the prequels, much of which is borne of an overattachment to nostalgia (the original trilogy was better because we imprinted on it first), but a lot of it stemming from Lucas’s hackneyed handling of cliches he did so much to inject into the mainstream. A big sticking point with me is that Anakin’s conversion to the Dark Side never feels authentic; it is a plot point shoehorned into by plot necessity, with weak writing undercutting character development at every turn. On the other side are those who either genuinely love the prequels (and many of them are younger, never having grown up with the original trilogy like my generation did, and who are utterly besotted with the digital f/x while being turned off by the dated look of the Episodes four through six) or who forgive their flaws because… well, those battle scenes are freakin’ sweet. Or so they say.

Then, of course, there are those who patrol the murky waters of academic criticism, like Paglia. Opponents in that realm are much more attuned to larger ramifications like Lucas’s famed reliance upon world mythology or the implicit critiques of our various political systems. Generally speaking, Lucas has enough fans across the spectrum — low, middle, and highbrow — to ensure that all six parts of the Star Wars saga will remain ensconced in the minds of at least another generation or two. My side has effectively lost this cultural skirmish in populist terms, even though I suppose the ivory tower set has our back for different reasons.

But even the biggest fans of the prequels would rarely venture to say that Episode III is, like, the best thing EVER (in living memory), which is why Paglia’s comments in interviews (like this one) generated heated discussion. What I needed to know was why the hell such a mediocre film grabbed a famous art critic’s attention and blew her mind. Fortunately, a simple Google search sated my curiosity (as it often does). Paglia published an adapted excerpt of the Episode III chapter from her book in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, she states her case that Lucas’s wedding of technical innovation to his artistic imagination is essentially a perfect union of vision and craft; though she doesn’t acknowledge it as such, it is a strikingly auteurist piece of criticism, with all the strengths and drawbacks that entails.

Note that it’s not necessarily the entire film that raptured Paglia to fangirl heaven, but the climactic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin in particular:

A miniature set (at 1132 scale) of Mustafar’s craggy black landscape was carved out of foam on a massive platform, which was raised so that the 40-foot-long lava river (composed of 15,000 gallons of the translucent food additive methylcellulose, tinted bright yellow) could be under-lighted to glow fiery red and burnt orange. Then the entire platform was tilted so that the river, recycled by a pump system, would flow. Clumps of ground cork simulated floating lava crust, while real smoke was fanned overhead. The result was a collaborative triumph of modern installation art.

The Mustafar duel, which took months of rehearsal, with fencing and saber drills conducted by the sword master Nick Gillard, was executed by Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor at lightning speed. It is virtuosic dance theater, a taut pas de deux between battling brothers, convulsed by attraction and repulsion. Their thrusts, parries, and slashes are like passages of aggressive speech. It is one of the most passionate scenes ever filmed between two men, with McGregor close to weeping. The personal drama is staged against a physical one: Wrangling and wrestling, Anakin and Obi-Wan fall against the control panels of a vast mineral-collection plant, which now starts to malfunction and fall to pieces. As the two men run and leap for their lives, girders, catwalks, and towers melt and collapse into the lava, demonstrating the fragility of civilization confronted with nature’s brute primal power.

We could debate the validity of Paglia’s interpretations of the mise-en-scene. The way she Armonds the production design into a nature/civilization dichotomy is an interesting tangent that she doesn’t bother to justify, as are most of her observations about the film. That said, it’s apparent that she’s given the matter a lot of thought, and as criticism, it’s a great performance. Especially if considered from an auteurist perspective, it’s easy to understand why George Lucas, of all people, emerges for Paglia as the most significant figure in contemporary art. The man’s impact on pop culture has been seismic, and, narratively speaking, the Mustafar battle is arguably the lynchpin of the works for which Lucas will be remembered. Couple that with Paglia’s implication that the industrialist figure is an artist of a peculiarly late-capitalist kind, turning mass production and technological advance into his palette, with postmodern society as his canvas, and you do have a pretty strong (if unintentionally cynical) case that Lucas is the pre-eminent artist of the most pre-eminent art form of the early 21st century. Only a cineaste Tony Stark could have created something like Episode III’s climax, therefore Iron Man is the filmmaker of the century. Or something to that effect.

It’s an incredibly Marxist argument, even if it subverts every conclusion you might expect a Marxist to draw from the success of the Star Wars saga. For Paglia, the pudding’s proof is in the detailed litany of material factors at play. The cameras, the models, the toys, the Lucas family history, the worshipfulness of consumers… Paglia’s essay is a sort of masterpiece of interpretation factual material details as artistically significant in themselves. But she neglects style. For someone whose background is art history, the lack of detail in her discussion of things like composition, the juxtaposition of edits, the significance of the sound design — it’s all a bit vague. It’s like she’s aware that all these things exist, yet what’s most important is her idiosyncratic understanding of what Lucas is “saying” with Revenge of the Sith’s climax. It’s the sort of thing an amateur blogger like me can sort of get away with, provided nobody out there has the energy to call him on it, but it’s not the sort of thing a renowned academic — especially one so assiduously contrarian — can or ought to get away with.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith may very well be a the supreme (or sublime) expression of George Lucas as an artist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great film or a great work of art. Hundreds of shoddy or meh films have been made by unique artists; the singularity of an artist’s vision doesn’t guarantee greatness or quality, even if it is of interest to those who find such a vision to be appealing or fascinating. It’s telling that Paglia’s apology of Episode III concludes not with a summation of the film’s artistic strengths, but with a biographical gloss on the relationship between the saga and the man who wrought it: “The exquisite tenderness with which strong men handle babies here surely reflects Lucas’s own experience as a single parent who retired for two years to raise the first of his three adopted children. “Expand our universe!” Lucas commands his artists and technicians. He is a man of machines yet a lover of nature, his wily persona of genial blandness masking one of the most powerful and tenacious minds in contemporary culture.”

Absent the protestations of a true believer (who would likely argue for no more or less than for the prequels being solid entertainment), there are two prevailing defenses of the Star Wars prequels offered by thoughtful fans at the moment. One, the auteurist defense, argues that because the films adhere to or explicate Lucas’s grand artistic vision, they achieve greatness. This appears to be Paglia’s quintessential argument. Two, the relativity defense, argues that the prequels may not be masterpieces (especially in relation to the beloved original trilogy), but they’re not as terrible as haters make them out to be, and Episode III is the best of them.

The Star Wars prequels have certainly raked in tons of money, and tons of people enjoyed forking over cash for tickets and rewatching them on DVD. McDonald’s has probably served more cheeseburgers than any other restaurant chain, but any beef connoisseur will tell you that, yes, 22 billion people can be wrong. The success of McD’s is a testament to the shrewdness of Ray Kroc’s business model, not his skill as a gourmet. Just as a chef is not judged on the value of his personality, but the taste of his food, so Lucas’s films are not judged on the basis of his supposed “vision,” but of their quality; and praising Episode III for being the best of the prequels is like praising a bowl of soup for not being served with a fly in it.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers

%d bloggers like this: