Sunday, January 31, 2016

Star Wars: The Mother of all movies

February 1, 2016

When I talk about the new Star Wars being “the mother of all movies,” I don’t mean because of its sales figures.
I mean it literally.
This is a movie about parenting, fathers and sons – as in past Star Wars movies, but with a new wrinkle giving greater emphasis on the mother figure.
While we saw how Darth Vader’s mother influenced him, she was largely a background character, and not a central figure in the mythological plot taking place.
While The Force Awakens still follows the myth of search for father as the original New Hope series, female characters play a significantly vital role, especially Rey, who appears to be in search of her father, while at the same time plays the role as one of the central mother figures in this film.
She is tough, and yet tender, and it is hoped that as the series continues, the writers will avoid the mistake Lucas made with Leia or the Jackson made in the Lord of the Rings, by softening the character too much in later episodes.
There are four obvious female characters in The Force Awakens: Rey, Raia, Maz and the storm trooper captain.
Although Raia at one point refers to Snoke as “she,” I think this is a mistake or a slurring of words since everybody else in the film refers to Snoke as a “he.”
But there should be another fifth female and may be in future films, a femme fatal or evil mother figure operating in the name of Snoke, someone who helps seduce Ren to the dark side. This part is pure speculation, but clearly a missing element in a film so otherwise built on solid mythological foundations – a female character that helps balance out the obviously good mother figures fully embraced in this film.
Leia and Maz are clearly examples of “good” mothers, though Leia blames herself for Ren’s turning to the dark side.
“Leia, I saw our son,” Han tells Leia when they finally meet again. “He was here.”
Han regrets the fact that every time Leia looks at Han, she is reminded of Ren.
“Do you think I want to forget him?” Leia says. “I want him back.”
“There was nothing more we could have done,” Han tells her. “There was just too much Vader in him.”
“That’s why I wanted him to be trained with Luke,” Leia said. “I should never have sent him away. That’s when I lost him. That’s when I lost you both.”
“We lost our son forever,” Han says.
“No, it was Snoke, she (he) seduced our son to the dark side,” Leia says in what may simply have been a mistake or slurred word, but raises some question as to how Snoke deduced the young Ren, and if indeed there is yet another powerful negative female force to be unveiled in this series.
“But we can still save him,” Raia goes on. “Me and…you.”
“If Luke couldn’t reach him, how can I?” Han asks.
“Luke was a Jedi, you’re his father,” Leia responds, filled with the perpetual faith only a mother can have.
Maz is the clearly the wise mother, the Gaia figure who though is not a Jedi, is aware of the force, understands its ways, and become a guardian of its secrets and an advisor to those fighting on the side of the light.
“Maz is something of an acquired taste,” Han says in describing her. “She has run this watering hole for a thousand years.”
Maz is wise enough to recognize Rey’s potential, and connected enough to have Luke’s light saber in her possession. How she got it is among the many back stories spin off novels may convey but the film does not.
“A good story,” Maz says, “Best saved for later.”
Maz is savvy enough to know that Rey must continue on the path fate or accident has set her on.
“Those you are waiting for are never coming back,” she tells Rey. “What you seek is ahead of you, not behind.”
Lacking a strong female character on the dark side, we are left with the storm trooper captain, who oddly enough, isn’t bad enough to balance out dark and light. She represents a whole different kind of mother. But she is not a mother utterly detached from her storm trooper children. In her own right, she offers protection. But she is a strict disciplinarian.
Finn resent her the way many kids resent strict parents, which is why he goes off on her later saying, “I’m in charge, now. I’m in charge,” as if unleashing rage pent up over a long period of time.
Although clearly an agent of evil, the storm trooper captain fails to live up to the significant mythological heaviness of an all devouring mother figure, or even irresponsible femme fatal figure this film clearly needs. She is incapable of seducing anyone to the dark side.
Since this film is the first part of a larger tale, we might expect another powerful female figure to emerge in the future, someone that may even rival Snoke for ill intent.
But this film is not without bad parents, even though they remain invisible to us.
While Leia takes blame for failing her son, Ren (or Ben), there is plenty of evidence of truly bad parents, mothers and fathers who failed to live up to their obligation to their children.
Although the back stories are most likely told in the novels about the main characters, the film only alludes to some of the events, suggesting that Rey was abandoned by her parents who promised to return to get her. There is a girl screaming during the first scene with the light saber which may be a flash back to Rey’s parting from her parents.
Equally sad is Finn’s story, which has him plucked away from his parents as a child to be raised a nameless number in order to become a storm trooper.
Raia waits in vain for the return of her parents, which Maz claims won’t every return. Finn pines for a family he will never know.
Rey, Finn and even BB8 are orphans seeking new relations much in the way Harry Potter clung to his godfather in that classic film series.
“He’s the only family I have,” Harry says.
Rey, of course, is the film’s main female lead, savvy enough to survive on her own, yet not bitter. She is a story still in transition, and in some ways, the female character in the middle of the opposing forces, the way Luke was in the New Hope series, capable of turning to light or dark, although it is clear, she prefers the light.
She is capable of becoming the mother few other characters can become. Early on, she displays these motherly instincts when she adopts BB8 and repairs its antenna, a tender moment that reminds viewers of what a mother might do to help fix something her child might have broken.
She also appears to adopt Finn (and for that matter Han), although Finn seems destined to become her love interest.
Rey indeed acts parent-like when scolding Finn over a part she needs to make a repair, repeating the word “no,” as if a mother scolding her child.
Although clearly old enough to have already experience physical puberty, Rey’s experience with the light saber seems to suggest her coming of age – and this has several meanings, including obvious sexual ones, as well as the symbolic rejection of responsibility as hero or parent. The first encounter with the phallic light saber scares her into saying she never wants to touch that thing again.
There are huge implications in this moment, as heroine, coming of age woman, and her role as mother. Control of the light saber doesn’t come easy. She accepts it only at the point when Finn’s life is threatened, a motherly act that allows her to overcome her fear and doubt.
Since Rey is likely Luke’s daughter, her battle with Ren is significant as well, a sibling rivalry for control of the family.
It is no accident that the names Rey and Ren are so similar.
It is also no accident that Rey must eventually bring the light saber back to Luke, presenting it to him as if he was royalty or a powerful godfather or even a god.
This brings to mind an almost innocent conversation early in the film which talked about Leia being royalty.
Passing the light saber is very much symbolic of passing on an icon of power, or passing of a torch.
Rey is destined to become the queen mother Raia once was.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Who are you in the new Stars Wars movie?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Among the significant challenges raised in the new edition of Star Wars is the question of identity: how people see themselves, how they are perceived by others and are they deceiving themselves and others in their ever-changing sense of who they are?
We get introduced to the concept of identity early in the film when the Monk-like Lor San Tekka converses with Poe Dameron in their perceptions of who Laia is. One sees her as a general, the other royalty.
This sets the tone for what will be a dynamic character conflict that embraces each of the main figures in the film.
“I knew you before you changed your name to Klyo Ren,” Tekka tells the film’s primary villain, stressing the history out of which the First Order has risen, and how as a member of a more righteous family, Ren did not fit.
Ren, of course, is seeking to follow in the evil footsteps his grandfather, Darth Vader eventually abandoned, the ultimate identity crisis he finds almost impossible to resolve.
Ren hides his true identity behind a mask.
Poe tells Ren it is hard to understand him when Ren talks from behind that mask. Rey calls Ren “a creature” behind a mask. Han tells Ren he doesn’t need the mask.
Ren mocks Rey’s friends as thieves and traitors, but struggles to live up to an image he invented, and his grandfather’s memory.
Han complains to Laia that she sees their son each time she looks at Han, part of the reason for their breakup. But the matter is great than that. There is a sense that Ren is jealous of Luke, and Luke, missing in action for most of this film, has given up his own identity as well.
But in some ways, all the characters are wearing masks, and the distinction between good and evil appears to focus on the ability of good people to shed the masks they wear.
One symbolic moment in the film comes when we meet Rey for the first time and she is wearing goggles and her face is wrapped up like one of the sand people from the previous collection of Star Wars films. When she sheds this, she begins to get her own identity, although a good portion of this film (and likely those that will follow) involves her search for who she is and the roots of her upbringing.
Rey, like the other main characters, has a number of identities, partly because she has no real idea of who she really is.
“A big secret, me, too,” she tells BB8.
Rey is a scavenger, pilot and something even more that she has yet to discover, someone powerful with The Force, suggesting a heritage similar to Luke’s in the first trilogy.
Indeed, Luke’s light saber calls to her, and she later controls it even though Ren claims it as his own.
A storm trooper calls her “scavenger scum.”
She defines herself in one point as a scavenger, but when running away from a First Order attack early in the film, Finn yells, “We need a pilot.”
“You got one,” Rey yells back.
“You?” Finn says in disbelief.
Han later also seems shocked that she managed to pilot the Falcon, though she slowly convinces him to the point where he actually offers her a job – an identity. But she says she has to get back. She is waiting for the return of her family, and thus her original identity. But Maz Kanata tell her the answers Rey seeks are ahead of her not in the past.
Annother symbolic moment comes when a dying storm trooper marks Finn’s mask with bloody fingerprints, distinguishing him as different from the otherwise indistinguishable parade of storm troopers that stomp through this epic tale. Later, Finn takes the next bold step of removing his helmet without permission from his superior officer.
Finn has no identity at the start except for letters and numbers that had been assign him when he was taken from his parents. Poe gives him the name “Finn” rather than dealing with this complex impersonal identity the First Order insists upon.
After the crash of the fighter that he helped Poe escape in, Finn inherits Poe’s jacket, and so adopts yet a new identity as a resistance fighter. But it also marks him as a thief originally since BB8 recognizes the jacket when they come together a short time later.
Finn didn’t invent being a resistance fighter. Rey mistakes him for one.
“So you’re with the resistance,” Rey says.
“Obviously I’m with the resistance,” Finn replies.
“I never met a resistance fighter before,” Rey says.
“This is what a resistance fighter looks like,” Finn tells her. “Some of us. Others look different.”
Finn keeps changing identity through the film, starting out as a storm trooper, then a rescuer, then a resistance fighter.
Han Solo understands the deception, and warns Finn that women always find out the truth.
When Finn decides he needs to flee before the First Order catches up with him, he finally admits that he’s not a resistance fighter at all. But by this time, he’s well on his way to becoming one, even though he isn’t aware of the fact at the time.
When Poe arrives later, he recognizes his jacket. Finn starts to take it off, but Poe said, “Don’t, it suits you.”
Indeed, by that time, Finn is what he pretended to be.
But he’s forced into taking action, he would not otherwise take. Maz Kanata looks into Finn’s eyes and sees him as a man who wants to run.
But love of Rey moves Finn, because when he first met her, she saw something in him, he didn’t even see in himself.
Han has his own identity issues, as somewhat defined by his own jacket issue.
When Laia arrives on the scene, she looks at Han and says, “Same old jacket.”
“Na,” he replies. “A new jacket.”
But this is symbol of a more significant change in Han. After his son betrayed the Jedi, Han reverted to his old identity as a scoundrel. This was made clear from the brief interchange between him, Finn and Rey on the Falcon.
“You’re the Han Solo that fought with the resistance,” Finn (I think) says.
“I used to be,” Han replies.
We get a little bit more of this in a more or less comic exchange between Laia and Han about his trying to be helpful.
“When has that ever happened?” Laia asks. “And don’t tell me the Death Star.”
Arriving back at the Falcon, Han is forced back into his old role as a hero, although – as in the first Star Wars trilogy – it takes him a little while to readjust.
“Chewy, we’re home,” Han says.
Han said after his son betrayed Luke, Han went back to the only thing he was ever really good at, a confidence man. The space gangs, however, do not think much of his ability as a scoundrel.
“There’s nobody left that you haven’t swindled,” one gang member tells him.
Even R2D2 has lost his identity.
“Since Master Luke left, he’s just not himself,” CPO said.
But CPO also is suffering a crisis of identity, but blames it on the fact that he has someone come up with a red arm.
There are tons of other moments in this film dealing with identity, and more likely more to come when the new film comes out later this year.

Friday, January 29, 2016

That historic storm

Friday, January 29, 2016

The memory of “that snow storm” isn’t as clear now as it was, but the storm on Saturday recalled some moments of it, as do the photographs of me dressed up in Harry’s hat and coat, a snow-covered hobbit braving the elements.
Although the photo of the 1957 storm shows me standing on the front walk of my grandfather’s house in Clifton, most of my memories recall the rear yard where the snow drifted so high we built a snow fort for what became a historic memory battle between me and my two neighbors, snowballs flying this way and that, most of which zipped over my head without affect.
This idea of being snowbound as we were this week did not exist for me back then, when each drift was an adventure, and a landscape upon which I needed to leave my mark.
My uncles may have felt trapped by the weather as they struggled to dig out their cars from the drifts in the boat store driveway or on the street in front of the house, but I felt free.
On Saturday, I chose not to shovel the walk until the storm was over. Since the blizzard like conditions extended late into the night, I got up early on Sunday to start the process. Heeding warnings against over doing the digging, I started with clearing the front porch and steps, not even bothering to go beyond the gate to a sidewalk three feet deep in the white mess.
On my second round, I tackled the gate, and at this point, a physical memory of that snow storm long ago hit me, and for a moment, I envisioned myself in my uncle’s overly-large coat and a tilted hat with ear flaps – and felt my mouth for the missing front tooth that gave me a “Dennis the Menace” look I have since lost with the advent of adult teeth and loss of innocence.
The wind had created a gap in the depth of snow in the sidewalk beneath our tree in front, although the length of it made it a chore my wife handled while I rested again for the dubious task of dealing with the driveway and car, which the snow had wrapped in a drift nearly, has high as my chest.
When I came into this, I was again that small, inappropriately dressed boy confronted by elements beyond my comprehension to face. Though my back ached during the relocating the mass of white, I felt connected again, almost as if I could hear my uncle’s laughing from somewhere beyond view, and could see their shapes moving through out drifts – if not of snow – then time.
Being the last survivor of that old house on that hill back then, I often feel abandoned, as if life had stolen something very valuable in allowing me to outlive them.
While nearly all of them died early (some prior to the age of 60, none made it beyond 67 except my mother), they would not have lived to see this new historic storm anyway. So I would have stood here in the snow alone despite my best efforts to keep them alive.
But that thought didn’t strike me until later.
With each shovel full of snow I sent onto the pile in the front yard, I lived again with their ghosts, pale figures keeping me company on this sunny Sunday in January, they sharing my labors and I sharing their laughter. They shared their love and I accepted it, one shovelful at a time.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

All in the family in the new Star Wars

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Unlike earlier versions, the new Star Wars saga movie “The Force Awakens” raises more questions than it answers.
And this is a good thing.
Although George Lucas endowed his previous six films with mythology, his tales often lacked depth of plot, and more importantly, limited characters.
Desperate to play off the father-son theme he explored much better in the Indiana Jones series, Lucas created in Star Wars a somewhat superficial father-son conflict – that fortunately, the Disney film takes off from and expands upon greatly.
The first film in what is expected to become a whole new series is all about family.
This theme is announced very early in the film when Kylo Ren confronts Lor San Tekka seeking the map that will lead the film’s villain to Luke Skywalker.
Tekka tells Ren he knows where the villain came from and it is about family.
This announcement ties into more conventional mythology, and defines devil as anything that breaks apart of the bounds of family.
This is something Ren knows well, and struggles with through out the movie, always drawn back towards the light side of the force. He knows deep down that he is like his grandfather, Darth Vader – whose downfall as the villain in the original films was his love of his family – son and daughter.
In order for Ren to achieve his ambition to become evil, he must destroy all ties to his family – but more than that, he must destroy his family. This is the personal motive behind his actions throughout the film, and his desperate need to find Luke, who is his uncle, and the same man who brought down Ren’s hero, Darth Vader.
 But there are levels of darkness in this film, as each of the main characters engages in a similar conflict, for each character is scarred by separation from family members.
Rey, the female lead, was abandoned by her family and lives with the pointless hope of their return. There are many clues as to who her family is, especially her father, although this fact will not likely be revealed until Star Wars 8 is released later this year. The bigger question is why she was abandoned. Was it a similar reason as when Luke and Laia were hidden from their father?
Finn, the storm trooper, is part of a Spartan-like military order, which robs its recruits from the cradle. He doesn’t know who is family is either, and perhaps part of his eventually story will be seeking them out.
But even the great heroes of this film are not free of guilt.
Laia, Ren’s mother, betrayed family when she sent her son away to be trained with someone other than Luke.
This allowed Snoke, who serves as this film’s version of the evil Emperor, to lure Ren over to the dark side of the force, and use Ren, to do again when Anakin did back in the original series, destroy the Jedi.
Luke apparently was so distraught over Ren’s betrayal of family that he fled into solitude.
Ren is consumed with living up to his grandfather’s legacy as a villain. This self deception reaches deep into the Lucas mythology since it echoes Anakin’s foolish pursuit of vengeance as a result of his mother’s murder.
Like many of the characters in this film, Anakin never knew his father, and reportedly did not have one.
Ren, of course, loves and hates his own father, Hans Solo, mockingly Rey for his admiration.
“He’s the father figure you always wanted,” Ren tells her. “But he’ll only disappoint you.”
This suggests that Hans Solo somehow disappointed Ren. (The similarity of names Ren and Rey suggest that there may be some other family tie between the two of them to explain how powerful both are with the force.)
Perhaps Solo’s return to his own sly ways as a smuggler soiled his reputation in Ren’s eyes as a hero.
Hans was always a gray character in the otherwise black and white world of Lucas’ mythology.
And since Ren could not become as good as Luke, he appears to have decided to become as evil as Darth Vader should have been.
Ren, like so many kids in our world, is the product of a broken marriage.
Some of his criticisms of Hans may come through Laia, who clearly was disappointed in Hans herself.
When the two meet again in this movies, both Hans and Laia are full of regrets for what once was, and what could have been, and perhaps what should have been, and they still struggle over some of the issues that tore them apart in the first place
Hans continues to try to be helpful in small things, but clearly he doesn’t meet Laia’s expectations. She has no confidence in him.
Maz Kanata – this film’s version of Yoda – blames Hans for giving up the fight, not just against evil, but to retain his place in the family as father.
“Go home,” she tells Hans.
“Laia doesn’t want me there,” Hans tells Maz.
But as this film progresses, Laia falls back onto the old faith as she once said back in The Empire Strikes Back.
“You have your moments,” she said. “Not many. But you have some.”
When push comes to shove, Laia relies on Hans to save their son, the way Luke helped save his father, Anakin.
“Bring our son home,” she tells Hans before he goes off to fight the big battle.
In this film, the need to reunite the family is the real cure for evil, and this is the central message behind the film.
Whether or not each of the numerous characters in conflict succeed in finding their family roots remains the stuff for future films to resolve.

Monday, January 4, 2016

When Star Wars got good again

Monday, January 04, 2016

Just shy of 40 years later, I got the same chills I had the first time I saw the movie, Star Wars.
Back then, Pauly had called to tell me about it, and how he, Hank and Garrick were going even though lines wound around the block of every theater showing it.
“This is something special,” he kept telling me, first on the phone and later when I drove over to theater in Hawthorne where he said the lines were less maniac.
None of our crew had seen the film yet, so we stood outside the theater puzzled at the mania of the people around us, people who seemed almost entranced by this need to share this experience.
Once inside, we sat in one of the back rows, because all the rows upfront were filled, and waited, and when everything started, we were entranced, too, caught up in a movement that we did not expect.
A decade after the Summer of Love, movements seemed to be in short supply, and our faith in the concept of change diminished. We did not have confidence in the No Nukes movement, even though Three Mile Island scared us. And with the war over in the Far East, we had little to protest against except the perpetually spiking oil prices that made it less and less affordable to drive to and from work or anywhere else.
I drove a silver Pinto then, constantly in fear that I would get rear-ended and blow up.
No moment in time stood out as much as this brief time in that theater, except perhaps the night we all individually sat in front of our TVs back in 1964 and saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. As with most events of this kind, we knew even then we would remember where we were and who we were with when we saw this film for the first time, even though over the years, we would come back to it again and again, seeking to the same thrill, but knowing the first time would also be the best time, and we could not recapture that magic.
This weekend the magic came back.
Only it was different this time – even though it was just as difficult getting into a theater to see the new Star Wars movie.
A private affair – like finding an old love after many years, rekindling some special feeling, knowing that this was a reprise to a previous love, and marked the end of an era, and because of this sense of closure, felt as special as the first love, even though it did not have the same sense of newness the first experience did.
Unlike the first time, I held back from seeing this film. I did not jump in and buy ahead of time. Age as made me shy of crowds. But also I had my doubts. Despite the positive reviews, I was still stinging from three bad movies that bore the Star Wars name. Lucas’ selling the franchise to Disney did not make me think things would improve. I also expected a maudlin tribute to the past filled with old sentimental scenes that I would have to endure through to get to the action.
The moments were there, but they were not maudlin, carrying with them instead an emotional impact we all waited for for years, a desperate need for us to rekindle old relationships with people who have hovered in the back of our heads like spirits since the last of the original films were released in the early 1980s.
This was always the flaw of Lucas, miscasting the later films and misreading the fact that the films were less about his mythology and more about the people who lived through the experience, actors whose faces had become as close to many of us as our own families.
These moments stirred up a passion that Lucas could not, bringing back for a final curtain many of these people for use to see before we, the original audience, make our way off this mortal coil.
Not all of these moments were happy, although Hans Solo was exactly who he always was, as were the others of the original cast of characters. In some ways, this is a sad film, a closing of a door on the past that we needed, but also feel regret about. And yet, the film allows us to do what we most wanted, see our friends again one last time. Some of these will make their way into future Star Wars films, but several won’t, and this film in some ways has similar shocking conclusions some felt way back in early Disney films like Bambi.
When I finally made up my mine to see the film, most of the shows were still sold out. I stopped off in Bayonne just minutes after one show started and another wasn’t set to start for several hours. When I went to Secaucus on Saturday, they only seats they had were in the first row – and while a close friend of mine from the original movie made a point of dropping acid to sit in the front row for the famous trench scene, this was a little too close for me since my eyesight was not what it once was, and yet good enough to make out each pixel – not how I wanted to experience the film for the first time. So we changed for tickets on Sunday.
From the first moment to last, I was transfixed.
Perhaps this film means more to people like me who have the prior experience to go by, so that even with the new cast, the film seemed to stir up emotions I’d not felt in years, and when the old cast arrived, I was stunned.
This was a film that covered all the bases, touched upon every aspect of the previous films, including tributes to the bad three Lucas gave us inbetween this and the films of the magic years, tributes that did not linger, but gently danced on for us to catch or not catch on the first viewing, each scene just long enough for us to get the message before moving on.
Since Hans Solo was always my hero, his arrival thrilled me. And as I said, this was a film in which I get to meet and bid farewell to that old friend.
By the time, the concluding credits came only one word came to mind: perfect.
This was a perfect ending and a perfect new beginning. I could not have asked for anything more.