Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Two Jeremiads for the Price of One!

Been away a while--an extra-long blog by way of apology.

This is a piece written by novelist E.L. Doctorow. It first appeared in the September 9, 2004 issue of the Easthampton Star:

I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our twenty-one year olds who wanted to be what they could be.

On the eve of D-day in 1944 General Eisenhower prayed to God for the lives of the young soldiers he knew were going to die. He knew what death was. Even in a justifiable war, a war not of choice but of necessity, a war of survival, the cost was almost more than Eisenhower could bear.

But this president does not know what death is. He hasn't the mind for it. You see him joking with the press, peering under the table for the WMDs he can't seem to find, you see him at rallies strutting up to the stage in shirt sleeves to the roar of the carefully screened crowd, smiling and waving, triumphal, a he-man. He does not mourn. He doesn't understand why he should mourn. He is satisfied during the course of a speech written for him to look solemn for a moment and speak of the brave young Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But you study him, you look into his eyes and know he dissembles an emotion which he does not feel in the depths of his being, because he has no capacity for it. He does not feel a personal responsibility for the thousand dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be. They come to his desk not as youngsters with mothers and fathers or wives and children who will suffer to the end of their days a terribly torn fabric of familial relationships and the inconsolable remembrance of aborted life....they come to his desk as a political liability which is why the press is not permitted to photograph the arrival of their coffins from Iraq.

How then can he mourn? To mourn is to express regret and he regrets nothing. He does not regret that his reason for going to war was, as he knew, unsubstantiated by the facts. He does not regret that his bungled plan for the war's aftermath has made his "mission-accomplished" a disaster. He does not regret that rather than controlling terrorism his war in Iraq has licensed it. So he never mourns for the dead and crippled youngsters who have fought this war of his choice. He wanted to go to war and he did. He had not the mind to perceive the costs of war, or to listen to those who knew those costs. He did not understand that you do not go to war when it is one of the options but when it is the only option; you go not because you want to but because you have to.

Yet this president knew it would be difficult for Americans not to cheer the overthrow of a foreign dictator. He knew that much. This president and his supporters would seem to have a mind for only one thing --- to take power, to remain in power, and to use that power for the sake of themselves and their friends. A war will do that as well as anything. You become a wartime leader. The country gets behind you.

Dissent becomes inappropriate. And so he does not drop to his knees, he is not contrite, he does not sit in the church with the grieving parents and wives and children. He is the President who does not feel. He does not feel for the families of the dead, he does not feel for the thirty-five million of us who live in poverty, he does not feel for the forty percent who cannot afford health insurance, he does not feel for the miners whose lungs are turning black or for the working people he has deprived of the chance to work overtime at time-and-a-half to pay their bills --- it is amazing for how many people in this country this President does not feel. But he will dissemble feeling. He will say in all sincerity he is relieving the wealthiest one percent of the population of their tax burden for the sake of the rest of us, and that he is polluting the air we breathe for the sake of our economy, and that he is decreasing the safety regulations for coal mines to save the coal miners' jobs, and that he is depriving workers of their time-and-a-half benefits for overtime because this is actually a way to honor them by raising them into the professional class.

And this litany of lies he will versify with reverences for God and the flag and democracy, when just what he and his party are doing to our democracy is choking the life out of it.

But there is one more terribly sad thing about all of this. I remember the millions of people here and around the world who marched against the war. It was extraordinary, that spontaneous aroused oversoul of alarm and protest that transcended national borders. Why did it happen? After all, this was not the only war anyone had ever seen coming. There are little wars all over the world most of the time.

But the cry of protest was the appalled understanding of millions of people that America was ceding its role as the last best hope of mankind. It was their perception that the classic archetype of democracy was morphing into a rogue nation. The greatest democratic republic in history was turning its back on the future, using its extraordinary power and standing not to advance the ideal of a concordance of civilizations but to endorse the kind of tribal combat that originated with the Neanderthals, a people, now extinct, who could imagine ensuring their survival by no other means than preemptive war.

The president we get is the country we get. With each president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into and get us into, is his characteristic trouble. Finally the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail: How can we sustain ourselves as the United States of America given the stupid and ineffective warmaking, the constitutionally insensitive lawgiving, and the monarchal economics of this president? He cannot mourn but is a figure of such moral vacancy as to make us mourn for ourselves.

OK--back to your blog-author, Mr. Dryden again:

Nice piece, Mr. Doctorow--I think of Lincoln, and Wilson, and FDR/Truman, and those who really agonized over their decisions to kill not just our own men, but hundreds of thousands of others. And I remember Lee saying that it is a good thing that war is so terrible, else we should love it too much. Bush gets the latter, but not the former. Except that of course I've never really sensed that Bush is the one who really made this war, anymore than Johnson 'made' Vietnam. Admittedly, his was the final call, and for that all CoCs take the blame, if any, for this decision. But I think of the shuddering evil of Cheney's Halliburton contracts, worked out LONG before the troops hit the ground, I think of Karl Rove recognizing that the post 9/11 glow was fading and we hadn't caught Osama yet and so needed another way to keep Bush on top--I think of the men (and women, if we included Dr. Rice) who WANTED to go to war to solidify their power, and I can't entirely blame Bush who, let's face it, does what he's told if he's told it forcefully enough. I really do think this is our Vietnam--that it is a quagmire into which we are sinking (pardon the pun) our credibility and our resources and which WE CANNOT WIN, short of killing, Holocaust-style, a huge portion of the populace. Hell, I'll just come right out and say it: there cannot be democracy--not 'Western Style' democracy in Iraq. It Can't Happen. Why? History.

The Greeks fought back the Persians in 479 B.C. (B.C.E., for you politically correct types, of which I am not.) And with that original division between East and West established, Athenian democracy--that great experiment--was forever free to flourish (until they got too big for their britches and wound up getting taken down by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War.) But even with the fall of Athens democracy--the idea of rule by the many--even though it went underground, was in the bloodstream of Western thought for the next 2300 years, until the era of the French Revolution really brought it to the fore and it increasingly became regarded as the only 'civilized' form of government, much to the smug satisfaction of the Swiss, who'd been practicing it for centuries. But anyway--Point is, we of the West have internalized the ideology of secular democracy so completely that it really is a part of who we are. We think that Church and State should be separate--even the most rigorous fundamentalist, when pressed, will concede that it's better not to have a state religion, lest he find himself forced to worship in a way he doesn't care for. We think rule by the many is the only way to prevent tyranny. (We're probably right.) In other words--we ARE democratic. In our core selves. Now--go back to 479 B.C. Beaten back, the Persians retreated into their own culture--and guess what? IT WAS NOT AND HAS NOT BEEN DEMOCRATIC--MUCH LESS SECULAR--IN ANY WAY. For 2500 years, the 'Middle East' has been a collection of various forms of dictatorships, large and small, more often religious than not. The idea of individual liberty--of that whole Lockean 'inherent freedom of man' thing--it's not there. I'm not bashing these people--I'm just saying, their view of themselves as human beings, and as political beings: it ain't democratic. They're missing 2500 years of philosophy and instruction and cultural development of this idea. (Not to say that they haven't developed quite nicely in other ways, though.) But you're trying to graft something that won't grow in this soil. Criminey, have we learned nothing from Africa and the hideous results of our attempts to allow its people to be 'independent' after centuries of abuse? Do we really think that Iraq will fare ANY better? I could go on. But let me add this--for those who think that the region will 'stabilize'--unemployent in Iraq is somewhere around the 2/3 mark. Two. Thirds. Imagine an America where that was the case--how long would it take us to slide into 'Road Warrior'-like behavior? Six months? A year? I weep for this world, I really do.

But on the subject of weeping: I question one aspect of Doctorow's jeremiad--the idea that the mourning is widespread. The sickening thing about all this is that the people don't care. They don't care about Halliburton. At all. It simply does not trouble them that the Veep (remember when Agnew had to resign for actions that make this look like nothing?) pre-planned to make serious money off a war that we now know he knew to have been unneccessary. That's evil, pure and simple--no matter what culture we're talking about, from those that condone pornography to those that commit atrocies like 'female circumcision', the tenet that Killing People For Money Is Wrong is universal. (Calling it 'female circumcision,' by the way, strikes me as verbally sound as calling chopping off a foot a 'pedicure.' In any case--) We don't care. And the media, sensing that we don't care, ignores it. Which brings me to my own horrific realization:

Machiavelli was, improbably, optimistic about human nature. He said that it was important for a ruler to appear virtuous to the people, so that he could BE less so and run things efficiently. But Bush & Co. have proved that we're worse than that. We don't care if they seem virtuous. We know that they're not. We see the greed and the incompetence and the monstrous indifference and our reaction is to say, "Eh, not my problem--to hell with the Iraquis. Hey, the fewer brown people in the world the better, right?" The oozing, slithering quality of this administration isn't the horrible thing--I mean, at heart, most administrations are going to have some aspect of that--it's the fact that they've managed to combine a pretext for that corruption (the war) that perfectly shields them from facing any consequences of that corruption. It's--oh, Satanic is such a strong word--but it's Mephistophelean in its brilliance, really. And we see it, and don't care. Jonestown was not a fluke. We're all lined up for the Kool-Aid, we know it's poison, and our attitude is, "Well, I'm pretty far back in line--maybe they'll run out before I get to the front."

As for America becoming a rogue state, oh, I think it's much worse. I think we're entering into our Nero-phase as world rulers. Remember, the number of Roman Emperors who came to the throne and were evil bastards from the get-go is very small. (Actually, I can't think of any--Domitian may have been one, and also Heliogabalus.) But even Caligula--even Caligula--began as a reformer. One of Caligula's first acts as Emperor was to burn all of Tiberius's secret files on everybody and declare a general amnesty on the treason trials. He was a degenerate, yes, but he knew that he would last longer as a good Emperor than as a bad one. But then--and this happened to him, and to Tiberius, and to Nero, and to all those with such absolute power--he began the slide. See, when you're told you can do anything--anything--with impunity, you don't quite get it. You don't quite believe it. So you continue to act and think pretty much like you did before. Then, one day, out of pique or desire or curiosity, you push it a little bit--you try something a bit naughty, a bit over the line. And you wait for the reaction. And there is none. So you try it again. Again, no reaction. And again. No reaction. And from then on, it's off to the races. Like a sore tooth you can't keep poking, you've got to keep testing the limits--plus which, having begun to do whatever you want, you've also begun to expect that you can do these horrible things and have your butt kissed in return--because you'll never know for sure that you can do anything you want unless the things you do become increasingly more and more outrageous. Caligula made his horse a Senator. Why? Because he was crazy enough to think the horse would make a good politician? No--Because He Could--or rather, He Needed To Know He Could. We're in Iraq not because we should be, but because we want to be--because if we can just, on our own initiative, invade a country we don't like and turn it upside down, treating it the way the Who treats a hotel room, and no one says Boo to us (and they're not...), why, then, we really are the only superpower on Earth--we really do rule the planet. Worry, folks. Worry about what we do next--not because it needs to be done, but just because we can do it. Or rather, don't worry. Because that would require emotional involvement. And Lord knows, we wouldn't want to trouble ourselves.

My, but I'm bitter.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Plus de rien

Apologies to all as posts will continue to be erratic to the point of non-existence for the time being. We've moved from an apartment where we had a free, convenient, and lightning-quick ethernet hook-up (thanks to the good folks at UCI Grad Student Housing), to an apartment without this amenity, which means that I'm forced to haul out my laptop, drag it over to the phone-jack, tie up the line, and suffer what now seems to be the excruciating snail's pace of dial-up. Spoiled? Yes, I am, but I refuse to compromise. The new DSL equipment is (theoretically) on its way as we speak, and we'll see it we can't get things going a bit more smoothly then. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 17, 2004


Still moving, unpacking, and trying to arrange non-dial-up internet access, since my wife would like to use the phone once in awhile. (I know--women, sheesh!) In other words--we are experiencing technical difficulties. Please tune in at a later time.

Monday, September 13, 2004

According to the Kinsey Report...

Brief and erratic posts continue as this week finds me moving at last (mutter, mutter) and next week finds me undergoing indoctrination (oh, wait, no--'orientation'--my bad) for the upcoming course I'll be teaching. Such fun--nothing more productive than sitting in a large room with a number of alternately bored, cranky, and obstreperous graduate students and new-minted Ph.D.s who can't seem to figure out that if everyone just shuts the f--- up and doesn't ask pointless, politically motivated questions we can all wrap this noise up and go home in time for the first episode of TNT's nightly showing of 47 "Law & Order"s. My stomach acids are already churning with anticipation, and, yes, I've started grinding my teeth in my sleep. Life is good.

So I'll just comment briefly on how much I'm enjoying the latest dust-up over Alfred Kinsey, occasioned by the upcoming biopic starring Liam Neeson as the good doctor, directed by Bill Condon of Gods and Monsters and Chicago. Bids fair to be an Oscar favorite, given early buzz and its subject matter. (Historical dramas always do well by the antediluvian members of Academy, since most of them are old enough to remember the events of, say, Braveheart and Gladiator. I'm convinced that the only reason the bathos-ridden Titanic won Best Picture is because the members all marvelled at how the recreation of the sinking was exactly as they'd experienced it. Note to James Cameron--if I'm more moved by the destruction of a stained-glass cupola than I am by the death of the lead character, then, sir, you have made a serious mistake somewhere along the line.)

But said biopic has given Kinsey's moralistic detractors a fresh opportunity to raise their ugly heads. And by 'detractors,' I don't mean those who argue against the scientific validity of his findings--by now, just about everyone has come around to the fact that Kinsey's sampling was too narrow and too non-random, that his findings were skewed by the interview process, and so forth. Not a problem there--hell, Kinsey himself knew that his findings had been seriously hampered by the politics of his time, and was more interested in getting the ball rolling on a scientific study of sexual behavior than in producing the definitive document on the subject. Like Freud, Kinsey is someone whose stature depends more on what he started than on what he achieved. But some of Kinsey's findings--the prevalence of masturbation--the frequency of the female orgasm and the discovery that (surprise!) women generally want sex just as much as men--the significant percentage of homosexual activity/orientation in the population (probably the most disputed of his findings, but still important in that it raised the issue and transformed the subject from a Freudian 'illness' to an alternate and not automatically unhealthy means of sexual activity.) (Freud, too, gets credit for transforming homosexuality from a depraved, sinful act to a psychological state of desire--true, he interpreted it as a mis-orientation, but he also rendered it morally neutral--a major leap forward to the achievement of tolerance.)

Needless to say, though, Kinsey's findings appalled and continue to appall those who consider sexual suppression--sexual self-denial--a major tenet of morality--who regard all sex except that conducted between a married couple for the purposes of procreation to be a capital 'S' sin, and who regard Sex as the Original Sin (which it wasn't--ambition for power beyond the limits set by God was the Original Sin, if we go by Genesis. Sex just came afterwards--almost as a consolation prize for getting kicked out of Paradise. Regardless--) Thus Kinsey has become something of a monster to these people--his arguments for tolerance and sexual self-discovery have been interpreted as an encouragement for the corruption of our society--a degeneration into a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah. (As a side note, I have a question--what were people doing in Gomorrah? We all know what the Sodomites were doing--all kinds of nasty man-on-man action and male-female hook-ups that did not involve Tab A fitting into Slot B. And there may have been donkeys involved somewhere. But what about Gomorrah? What were they up to? Why isn't there a category of 'perversion' named after them? What up? OK, end of digression.)

And so, being horrible, horrible people, these moral guardians have decided to discredit Kinsey the only way they know how. Now, you or I might, if we wanted to discredit a man's scientific findings, engage in a little research of our own--might use strict scientific methodology (maybe improving upon the failings of Kinsey's techniques) to collect evidence that argued the contrary. And maybe these people did attempt to conduct such a study. But guess what? If they did, then whatever they found didn't contradict Kinsey enough. So they did the only other thing they know how to do--they followed the old law of rhetorical subterfuge: if you can't attack the subject, attack the speaker. And so Kinsey has been accused of everything from pedophilia to Mengele-like methodology--needless to say, his (probably factual) bisexuality has been used to smear him--and the admittedly unusual (but not really abusive) circumstances of his marriage have been presented as dysfunctional to the point of Ike and Tina. Likewise, they've made much of the fact that Kinsey interviewed actual pedophiles (not really that odd in a study that tried to be comprehensive as possible) and presented their testimony in the neutral terms of science (again, proper to do, since science itself is about the gathering and interpretation of facts--moral judgment of those facts is something that has to wait until science has done its job. Consider--the more we know about pedophiles, the more we can do to protect our children from them, and the more we can--God willing--help them to avoid committing acts of pretty close to simon-pure evil. If Kinsey's interviews gave us any insight into the mind of pedophiles, then God bless him, frankly.) Said neutrality has been, of course, interpreted by these kind folks as 'approval' and 'endorsement.'

In other words, according to these guiding lights of bodily purity, a bad man produced bad science, which means it's still evil and perverted and unnatural for you to play with yourself, little Timmy. And one bizarre individual in particular, the so-called "Dr." Judith Reisman (whose professional credentials are so suspect as to make Dr. Laura Schlessinger look like a graduate of Johns Hopkins) has made it her mission (and, oh, coincidentally, her cottage industry) to destroy Kinsey. She has used incredibly suspect data--accusations decades after the fact by bitter converts and the like--to claim that Kinsey was not just a pedophile, but engaged in the systematic torture of children by forcing them to masturbate while timing their responses--similar vile charges abound, about as believable as the occasional witch-hunt claims that pre-schools have Satanic churches in their basements. "Dr." Reisman, by the way, got her professional start as the musical director of the Captain Kangaroo show. I leave that fact entirely uninterpreted--res ipsa loquitur. But regardless of the utter lack of substantial proof of her claims, and regardless of the fact that Reisman receives most if not all her funding from conservative Christian organizations devoted to--among other things--the 'curability' of homosexuality--there are those who will take any opportunity to smear those with whom they disagree.

And thus Reisman is a voice heard on Schlessinger's show, on O'Reilly's--on those who earn their bread with their choreographed crusade against the 'evils' of American society. (Isn't it interesting, by the way, that liberals are inevitably accused of 'hating' America, while those who, like Schlessinger and O'Reilly, do nothing but castigate our society for its hateful moral failings, don't get tapped for this same solecism? Of course, they avoid the accusation by calling such moral failings the product of a 'liberal sub-culture' that seeks to pervert the 'real America'--ignoring, of course, the fact that the 'real America' produces and supports the 'liberal sub-culture' every chance it gets. Why else would violent rap sell so well in white suburbs? Anyhoo...)

Kinsey's dead. Long dead. He can't defend himself against these despicable lies. But so what? The nice thing about such clashes is that the guy who's right--the guy who helped us progress into a clearer understanding of the world--usually wins. Who remembers the name of the Pope who excommunicated Galileo? Who remembers the name of Socrates's accusers? Who remembers the name of the nobleman who had Voltaire beaten by thugs, or the clergymen who tried to prevent his burial in the Paris cemetary? Kinsey'll win this one, folks. He may not have been right in the details, but he nudged us from a society in which we were living a collective lie--the lie that said that we were not sexual beings at our core--that our sexuality did not play a major role in our identities. For that--for being someone who bravely--hell, heroically--pushed towards the truth--he wins.

For those who'd like the documented version of Reisnan's crusade against Kinsey--did I mention the fact that the Kinsey Institute at U of Indiana called her a liar, that she sued them for defamation, and that her case was not only dismissed, but dismissed with prejudice?--please go to: www.jesus21.com/poppydixon/sex/kinsey/judith_reisman.html It's a good read...

Friday, September 10, 2004


Now that the horror of the Jedi debacle (both the film itself and my hamfisted attempts to correct it) are over, we can get back to other, less tedious things...Today, though, I had to get up wretchedly early for a train that was late and then delayed on the tracks while I was attempting, through only partly opened eyes, to reread Locke's TWO TREATISES ON GOVERNMENT (which I'm teaching soon and only half-mindedly remember), meaning that my underlining goes from very crisp and straight (immobile train) to wobbly as hell (moving train) to drooping off-page (I'm falling asleep--GET TO THE POINT, JOHN!) So now I'm faced with the choice of writing a long entry, or quitting my work-prep early and napping. Frankly, I think, for those of us in this world who aren't fortunate enough to lead lives of sufficient frivolity/triviality to allow them to take naps mid-afternoon, I owe it to all of us to take a hit for the team. Snooze-time it is...

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Return to the Return to the Return

I have a grovelling admission to make: I'm really not sure how exactly to fix the ending of Return. Well, not all of it. We'll see if anything occurs to me when we get there.

When we last left our heroes--Luke was off to Dagobah. Now, a major problem I had with the film as it stands is the, um, stupidity of the decision to have the day Luke gets back be the day Yoda dies. Wow, what a coincidence! And not at all narratively forced! Plus which, we get the god-awful 'partial death-bed confession moment' when, having lived 900+ years, Yoda can't hang on long enough to get out one or two more sentences of clarification. So how about this? We establish in our earlier Dagobah seen that Yoda is dying--more incentive for Luke to stay and train (making his decision to go rescue Han instead a bit more human, more likeable)--and when Luke gets back now, get this: Yoda's already dead. He's too late. Ouch. A moment of guilt and horror. But now we can have Luke confront Yoda's 'spirit' (Kenobi can be there too) about his father and what he now must do.

OK--here's a major change I'm going to make that will please some and infuriate others: Luke and Leia are not long-lost siblings. I'm sorry, that's just always struck me as weird, soap-operaey, decided after-the-fact bulls--t. Not after the kiss 'for luck' in Star Wars. No. This is not a Greek tragedy. No, no, no. Especially because--and this is key--they don't HAVE to be siblings. The only narrative purpose behind their co-sanguinity (oo! big word!) is to get Luke out of the way so Leia can hook up with Han. But as we'll see, that's not a problem. No, no "she's my what?" moments. And if you doubt my wisdom in this, watch the movie. It's a badly written film overall, but pay particular attention to those scenes that address the whole brother-sister thing--they ought to be used in screenwriting classes across the nation as "How NOT To Write" examples. The scene where Luke tells Leia about their true relationship is one of the most painfully, wretchedly scripted moments outside of a Joe Esterhaz movie--brief aside: Best (i.e. Worst) Joe Esterhaz Line Ever--and this includes all of Showgirls, including the conversation about eating dog-food--is in Basic Instinct: "She's got that magna cum laude p--sy done f--ked up your brain!" Wow. One steps back and just marvels at that one. Anyway, back to the Lucas debacle. Another reason I'm cutting the Luke-Leia connection is the ham-fisted, half-hearted way it was dealt with. If you're going to make such a serious decision as this revelation, then you've got to commit to it--and they didn't. Leia needs to be there to confront Vader, for instance. But no. No--it's mainly an excuse for a bad joke: "I love him like a brother because he is my brother!" And for Vader to taunt Luke into flipping out at the end, which we don't need, frankly. One gets the sense that Kasdan did the best he could with this fiat from Lucas, but just couldn't do very much with it--a sign of a poor, poor plot-point. Regardless, this is my decision. You have to make some serious changes to fix this mess, and that's one of 'em.

But Mr. Dryden, I hear you cry, what about Yoda's portentous claim in Empire, in response to Ben's claims that Luke is their last hope: "No--there is another"? What about that? If it's not Leia, who could it be???

Vader, silly. Or rather, Anakin. Yoda, like Luke and unlike Ben, believes that Vader can be redeemed--that he, like Luke, can fulfill his destiny. If Luke's whole agenda in Return is the redemption of his father--if that is indeed possible (as it turns out to be)--then surely Vader is another 'hope'? So that's the thing we need to establish in the confrontation with Yoda's ghost--NOT that Leia's Luke's sister, but that he will need Vader to defeat the Emperor. So now Luke's got a pretty serious task ahead of him--he's got to set aside his own feeling of anger and frustration in order to pull his father back from the Dark Side--oh, and, needless to say, no-one's ever been able to accomplish such a 'spiritual rescue.' Big deal, this.

So now Luke rejoins the rest of the gang--and they're planning their assault on the Endor excavation, which (needless to say) is guarded by most of the Imperial fleet above and a huge number of Imperial troops below. Again, Luke's reunion with his friends is cooler than it should be--he's got a lot on his mind, folks. And before any of them can turn around--he's disappeared, taking his beloved X-Wing and flying straight to Vader's command ship. This will be essentially unchanged from the scene on Endor in the original movie--which, to give it its due, is a genuinely brilliant moment. Here we have this huge civil war about to come to to boiling point, we have hundreds of thousands--maybe millions of men and women engaged in this military conflict that they all believe will decide the fate of the galaxy, and Luke just walks up to Vader without hesitation--and there's this tacit but powerful recognition between these two men that all this military folderal is just so much noise--that it's meaningless in the face of the real conflict between the two sides of the Force--that anything else is trivial in comparison. I love that Vader isn't surprised that Luke came, and that Luke isn't afraid of Vader even slightly--that he speaks to him as an equal. I love that they really 'get' each other for the first time, and that for the first time, Vader's not cocky or smug--that he's being confronted with Good--with the Light--with who he was and who he desperately still wants to be, even if he won't admit this to himself. So, yeah. We'll keep that moment--and Luke and Vader will go towards the surface of Endor, where the Emperor awaits them both.

We can have the same overall plan for the Rebels--an assault on the fleet timed with a ground assault on the (let's say) Jedi Temple below, since we ditched the "Death Star" idea a while back. (I see this huge, HUGE space of elaborate carvings and glowing crystals and what-not--much fun for the tech crew.)

A few minor points--Han is no longer with the ground forces. As an ace pilot, he's needed to lead the fleet assault, along with Lando. Leia is in charge of the ground assault--dammit, let's give this woman her props, shall we? She spends most of these movies being rescued, and she's really as much of a gung-ho, can-do hero as the rest of them. I want to see her in charge down there, giving orders like a pro. This is a woman who stood up to being torture-interrogated by Darth Vader in the first movie, and didn't give away a thing. She ruthlessly garrottes Jabba at the first opportunity. She's got serious brass, and it's time we see it in action.

And yes, WE WILL CHANGE THE F--KING EWOKS BACK INTO THE WOOKIES THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE. Again, we don't have to change much in terms of plot--the Rebel ground forces land a safe distance from the excavation--make their way, 'Nam-like, through the brush, and get captured--one by one, invisibly, we don't see by whom--this is SCARY, a la Predator--by the Wookies. The last one to get caught? Chewbacca, of course. In fact, he's not captured--he's greeted, formally, and led to the village, where he sees his friends trussed up like chickens, about to be killed quite gruesomely. It seems that in clearing the excavation site, the Imperials killed hundreds of Wookies, and, well, they're a little pissed off about it, and assume that these humans are more of the same evil a--holes. Chewbacca explains the truth of things, and, Spartacus-like, inspires them to unite with the many other tribes of Wookies in the area and lead an all-out assault on the excavation (the Wookies, being sensible, reasoned that such an attack would simply lead the Imperials to commit planetary genocide, but faced with the prospect of serious payback and the end of the Empire, well, hell, they're all for it.) This will lead to one of the coolest visual moments in the entire trilogy, akin to the Ents coming out of the forest to attack Isengard: the sight of thousands upon thousands UPON THOUSANDS of these giant, angry monsters coming out of the jungle, bowcasters blazing, just mowing down the Imperials in their rage. They don't "trip" or "smash" the Walkers--they climb up the sides of those sum'b--ches with their claws and rip off hatches and get INSIDE and start using them against the Imperials. Remember Han's comment about Wookies tending to rip arms off in frustration? We'll have as much of that as a PG-13 rating will allow. This is the film-goer's revenge for the a--kicking the Rebels got in Empire. Totally, utterly sweet.

And above, we can have pretty much the same battle as before--the Imperials have held back a vast number of their ships and the trap is sprung. Han and Lando are just barely holding things together. And below--

Below--the Emperor is enthroned in the ancient seat of the Jedi Council, poisoning it into an altar to the Dark Side--the place is, let's say, a direct conduit to the Force--the equivalent of, I don't know, Stonehenge, the Holy of Holies, Lourdes--someplace where the Force flows like Niagara Falls. And sitting on top of it is the Emperor--he doesn't need a Death Star now. Here, he IS a Death Star--remember how Vader said that the ability to destroy a planet was insignificant next to the power of the Force? This is what he was talking about. The Emperor can wave a hand--and does--and huge Rebel ships go boom. Luke can feel the power--and when the Emperor offers it to him, my GOD is it tempting. And above--and this REALLY REALLY needs to happen--Lando gets killed. Harrison Ford wanted Han to die, but I'd argue that Lando needs to in order to atone completely for what he did in Empire. That he dies somehow saving Han and a number of other Rebel ships--a suicide run at that big Star Destroyer, maybe? But what pissed me off about that first movie--as posters have noted--is that victory came without cost. All the bad guys died, and all the good guys lived (even Yoda & Co. were still 'alive,' thanks to ghost-power!) The idea that evil--absolute evil--could be beaten without terrible, awful sacrifice was and is offensive. It would be as if we fought WWII (the European Theater) and ONLY the Nazis got killed. Um, no, sorry. Good guys have got to die. Victory in war is always bittersweet. So somebody has to die--I rather like the idea of Lando and Threepio flying together, Threepio finally showing himself to be a hero and not a whiner, giving Lando the exact co-ordinates at which to hit the Star Destroyer, and them going down together. Who wouldn't cry at the sight of Han and Artoo realizing what they've just lost? We need the ending to have a down-beat--and that would do it--Luke isn't the only one who has to grow up here--Han, the 'doesn't-give-a-s--t' scoundrel from the first movie, has to experience this loss in order to become a true hero. (And one worthy of hooking up with Leia, frankly.)

OK--so here's where I start to fall apart. We've solved the problems we laid out in the first film; we fixed the structure by making the film about Luke, we eliminated the moments of stupidity and uncreative repetition, we got rid of the Ewoks. We killed some of the good guys. We made this a film for grown-ups--for the adolescent grown-ups we'd all become when the movie came out. But I'm not, alas, quite sure how to handle the final conflict between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. So here's what I've got, and bear in mind this is all, well, subjective and speculative and maybe not quite right. Obviously, we need to have Luke play the 'Jedi' card--to become one by controlling his emotions. And I think we need to have Luke be less of a, frankly, loser when next to the Emperor--to have his arguments for the validity of the Light Side be a bit more substantial, persuasive. Because what that final scene is about is putting Vader in the middle--about Luke suddenly turning the tables on his father--saying: "This isn't about whether I'm going to choose the Dark Side--this is about whether you're going choose the Light Side." It's about Luke--and Vader--realizing that all this stuff about "once you go to the Dark, forever will it consume you" is just bulls--t: that just as a Jedi has to choose, day by day, to stay on the right path, so too a Dark Jedi (a Sith, I suppose) can choose, at any time, to come back. (Little bit of the quasi-'Christian' concept of all sins being redeemable through true repentance and faith.) The Force, like all forms of cosmic morality and power, is about Choice and Its Consequences. And so Vader can be saved, can choose to come back--and does. Before our eyes, he becomes Anakin again--ripping off his mask to face the Emperor with his own eyes, perhaps--and he and Luke, their Force powers joined, manage to defeat the Emperor--and I want light-sabers to play a part in that bastard's death. I also like the idea that the Emperor too disappears in death--that as someone who dies in the throes of the Dark Side, he becomes destructive energy--not becoming one with the Force, like a Light Jedi, but being completely EXPELLED from it--ripped into non-being--very explosive, this moment. And of course, Vader-now-Anakin dies in this process. Hell, Luke almost dies, except the Wookies, led by Leia, burst into the Temple right at this moment. The Emperor dead, the Imperial fleet loses its advantage, and scatters. (None of this "and then every single Imperial soldier was killed" nonsense--but with the Emperor gone, the Rebels are now able to seize Coruscant by force, and re-establish the Republic.)

And we can actually keep the cheesy 'victory' montage from the re-issue--we can use to give a poignancy to the funereal moments of our group of surviving heroes. Lando and Threepio are given major tributes, and (again, a good moment from the original we'll keep) Luke says goodbye to his father, alone, Viking-style--though instead of burning him in his old, evil-looking armor--he's dressed his father in a Jedi's robes. We resolve the Luke-Leia-Han trilogy simply: Leia really loves Han, and goes to tell Luke this, but before she can, he tells her he's staying on Endor, alone--he can't be with her, or with anyone--he's got to devote himself to rebuilding the Jedi Order, just as she's got to go back to Coruscant in order to rebuild the Republic. Different lives, different paths. Plus--he smiles--he knows about her and Han. And so we end the film with Leia and Han leaving for Coruscant, Han having to give up his friend with Chewbacca, who has to stay behind as the leader of the Endorian Wookies, and Luke and Artoo facing the massive entrance of the temple, which beckons to us as a sign of, yes, The Return of the Jedi.

Sigh. I think this works. I think this fixes it. Any thoughts?

Friday, September 03, 2004


I've been asked, by a member of the younger generation, to explain my--my generation's--collective fixation on Return of the Jedi. After all, said young person pointed out, Return of the King was the weakest of the three Lord of the Rings movies, and it didn't mess up the current generation. Accepting this point (which I don't, until I see the full version on DVD where some rather important moments will be included--like the DEATH OF F--KING SARUMAN!!!--I say this because the longer version of Two Towers was significantly better than the theatrical version), I have to say to this member of Generation Y: you just don't get it. Not your fault--I can't think, off hand, of an equivalent cultural--and I mean that in the deepest sense of the term--phenomenon for your generation. The one after you has one, which I'll get to in a moment, and which my shrewder readers will gues right away. (No skipping ahead!)

The fact is, Star Wars hit us when were just in the high prime of childhood--just at the point at which our narrative imaginations were at their most impressionable--and it really took hold of us in ways I can't explain--look at this way: in many ways, it's essentially Kurosawa-lite, ideal for introducing the major themes of life and adventure and the meaning of it all to kids. We just really, really got it. All of it. We were Luke--kids, knowing nothing but just beginning to realize that the world was a big place and we had potential, and that we could fulfil that potential in amazing ways. A comedian--Patton Oswalt, who's brilliant, get his new album -- http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0002BO0WG/qid=1094232602/sr=8-1/ref=pd_ka_1/103-6396857-7172620?v=glance&s=music&n=507846 -- said that when you went to see Star Wars, you went in a kid and came out a man. And silly as that sounds, everyone my age will agree on some level. It just affected us on a very primal, Jungian collective way.

The only thing I can compare it to is what hit the generation after Gen Y: Harry Potter. You may have noticed how much kids really, really, really care about Harry Potter. (I think the media may have done one or two stories on this--I can't recall.) How they read and reread and reread again--how they hope, how they speculate, how they project themselves into those books and argue with the movies about not being perfect--kids taking Hollywood to task rather than just lapping it up--that alone is huge--HUGE!!! Now imagine that Rowling, after all this wonderful, generation-enchanting build-up, completely and utterly f--ks up the last book. How, after all this wonder and excitement and delicious/agonizing anticipation about how it will all end, she decides, arbitrarily, to make Harry and Hermione long-lost siblings. Oh, and Voldemort dies by slipping and hitting his head on a coffee-table. And instead of having the victory over evil come at any cost, just have nobody important die (Sirius Black lives! Yay!) and then have Malfoy decide to be a good guy and it all works out happy happy happy--and hey, let's have cute little fuzzy things fight off the Death Eaters by throwing pebbles at them! Yeah! And Snape and Harry hug. And Hermione marries Ron. In other words--have everything that needs to happen for the story to achieve greatness go out the fucking window. Arthur and Mordred never fight each other to the death. The Wagnerian gods never face Gotterdammerung. Achilles decides not to kill Hector and the war ends in peace and harmony. Adam and Eve say--Hey, let's not eat the apple--and Satan sees this and says, Hey, I should apologize! No. No, no, no. Return of the King may have been less than perfectly executed, but it ended the way it was supposed to--Frodo's wound is never really healed, Theoden falls in battle--and worst of all, the elves leave Middle Earth forever--life goes on, but at a terrible price that makes you realize just how much worse losing would have been. The climax of Return of the King is the cataclysmic destruction of a thing of pure evil--a moment that literally shakes the world--and for which the entire 9+ hours of the story has quite pointedly been moving towards--The Crack of Doom is the telos (the 'aim/purpose') of the story--all aspects of the story exist to support the achievement of that moment. So when it happens--and happens in a moment that despite this inevitable lead-up, manages to maintain its tension by having Frodo hesitate at the last second--it feels like a consummation. On The Other Hand--and it's only starting to occur to me how feebly similar this moment is to its equivalent in Lord of the Rings--the climax of Return of the Jedi essentially consists of one evil guy arbitrarily picking up another evil guy and throwing him off a cliff, then saying "I'm sorry." WHAT?! WHAT?!?!?! No. NO. NO! NOOOOOOO!!!



Basically, this was a story that became, for us, a part of who we were--of where we were headed--Star Wars woke us up to hope and possibilties, Empire forced us to realize that the bad guys would sometimes win but that you had to persevere in the face of this--and Jedi just took all of that emotional capital and squandered it on Ewoks. Bad. Very, very bad indeed.
Does any of this make sense? I don't mean to sound like some fucking hippie who, talking about the '60s, always falls back on "You had to be there, man." But there's some truth in it--we just were part of something--or rather, something became part of US, that went really really wrong. Something like that. My apologia for spending your valuable time on this issue, take it or leave it.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Return to the Return

Sigh. Let's get this over with, shall we. I warned you earlier ("I'm Really Really Sorry About This") that this was coming, so we'll just bite the inside of our cheeks and clench our nails into our palms and get through it together.

To begin: The fundamental proposition here is that Return of the Jedi sucks. Except that it isn't a proposition, it's a fact. If you fail to acknowledge this fact--this rock-solid, absolute, mathematically certain fact--then this screed is going to be about as effective as a Mormon lecture in a mosque. Just recognize, as Dave Barry has wisely said, that you are entitled to your opinion and that yours is wrong.

But why does it suck? I know, I know: F--king Ewoks. But let's move beyond this point so obvious that the only people who argue it are those weirdo devil's-advocates who want to claim that the Battle of Endor is "like Vietnam, man--it's like, these little dudes seem so easy to beat, and the Imperials are just these badasses, but then, like the little dudes use their environment to turn things around, and like, the Imperials can't adapt, and like that's what it's about: why we lost in Vietnam. Pass that hackeysack over here, man!" Nevermind the fact that such an argument turns America into a regime of pure evil, and patronizes the Viet Cong into cuddly little teddy bears, there's one fundamental problem with it: It's incredibly stupid. So f--k that. Seriously. Totally. 'Man.'

OK, let's start at the beginning. Return has a fundamental flaw: it's two largely disconnected narratives--instead of the quite linear Star Wars or the elegant parallel plotting of Empire, Return is about first, the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, and second, the final confrontation between Rebellion and Empire, Luke and Vader/Emperor, Light with Dark. Watch the movie again, if you can stand it. After the escape from Jabba's sand barge, there's this collective sense of "Well, that's done--now the real plot can begin!" So first things first: we've got to find some way to get those two plots together. And the answer is simple--indeed, the damn title gives it away: We go in with the understanding that, start to finish, This Is A Movie About Luke Skywalker. Luke, and his painful struggle to achieve Jedi-hood (Jedi-dom? Jedi-ism?). Regardless of the special effects and the cowboy/samurai goings-on--which I like and are cool, but tend to obscure the substance of the film, it's a classic 'coming of age' story--young man with a horrible, overpowering father must learn to become a man without turning into a version of that father. (This, by the way, is why the Star Wars are fundamentally 'guy' films--they're about Fathers and Sons. Even in the wretched pre-quels, the mishmash of Masters and Padawans and the fact that every Padawan ends up rebelling against his Master with equal parts love and hate--jeez, you'd have to go back to Field of Dreams to find a film that 'gets' the Father/Son dynamic that well.) Luke must become a true Jedi--must become what his father could not become--and must experience the temptations that seduced his father--must recognize that this man whom he's hated is, in fact, someone who struggled with the same demons, tried, and failed--that Vader is someone to pity--and to try to redeem. In saving Vader, Luke is attempting to save himself--if he can defeat the dark side in his father, he can defeat the dark side in himself.

So it's about Luke. So that's where we begin. Right after the small intro scene on the new Death Star--which is a creative decision that's quite boring, guaranteeing that much of the climax is going to be exactly like that of the first movie--pragmatic, of course--the Death Star was an effective weapon with a flaw, which can be easily fixed, and sure it makes sense that the Empire would just fix the flaw and move on, but on the other hand, the Death Star's big boosters (Tarkin, primarily) are dead, leaving Vader as the primary big wheel in the Emperor's circle, and he was none too thrilled about the giant metal ball. Tough call--on the whole, I'd say we need a new source of danger--something like the Valley of the Jedi in the Star Wars: Dark Forces games--something that turns the focus of the film from technology to spiritualism. So, say we're at an excavation site where a staggering source of Force-based power is located--something that will grant its wielder the power of the Death Star and then some. (Shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark--no bad thing, that!) Keeps the 'ticking clock' aspect of the first film without sacrificing the creativity we need to keep this from being a simple rehash. (Hey! We could even set it on Endor! How's that for cleaning up this mess?) (OK, OK, 'the moon of Endor,' OK?--get a life, fanboy.) Anyway, this brief intro scene with Vader and the underling in charge of on-site operations is important because it introduces the presence of the Emperor.

Then we're with Luke. On Dagobah. Which, really, is where he would have gone after the end of Empire anyway. And not confronting Yoda about Vader. Keeping it in, mulling it over--and Yoda, being Yoda, knows that he knows. An unspoken ugliness between them. And Luke's training. Training hard--I'm talking 'Rocky before the Big Fight' training. Making his new light saber like a drill sergeant putting together an M-16 blindfolded. He's grown in power. Exponentially. His encounter with Vader and the discovery of his lineage have opened the bottle and let the genie out. We watch him do things that make Yoda's lifting of the X-Wing in Empire look like party tricks. We finally understand why Vader and the Emperor have been so obsessed with the threat Luke represents. And Yoda's concerned, knowing that Luke's about to go out into the world again, stronger than anyone Yoda's seen since Vader and still not incontrol of his emotions. The dark side is very much a presence in him now--he resents the hell out of just about everyone now. And, against Yoda's advice, he leaves to face Jabba. We are worried--it's just possible that the dark side will claim him, just like it did his father.

Meanwhile--well, we have a number of problems with the non-Luke related plan to rescue Han. Mainly because it's quite stupid. How, for instance, did Leia know that, after dragging in Chewbacca, that Jabba wouldn't have just thrown him to the Rancor then and there? How could we be sure that Artoo would be in a position to deliver Luke's light saber? How could they know that Han would be still be in carbonite? How could--you know what? The plan was nonsense. But that's actually OK. We might change a few things--turn it into a real "Mission Impossible" covert-op--have everyone using their skills to get into the palace--only to have Jabba, smarter than all of them put together, catch them red-handed. And all the while, they and we are asking, where's Luke?

(Also, wasn't Tatooine supposed to be an ass-end of nowhere, nothing little piece-of-s--t backwater of the galaxy, where absolutely nothing happened and where nobody lived, which is why Luke was hidden there and why Kenobi hid out there? If so, why must Jabba's palace be there of all places? Criminey--it's supposed to be an insignificant speck--a place that Luke solemnly, portentous declared that he was 'never coming back' to in the first movie--and it's been in four out of the five f--king films! So let's have Jabba's palace someplace different. Just for kicks, OK? Since Jabba wasn't on Tatooine in the first version of the first movie, there's really no narrative need for him to be there now. Let's just set it elsewhere, and give the art department something more fun to work with, m'kay?)

So everyone's asking, Where's Luke? And out of the desert he comes. No more white tunic from Star Wars. No more grey fatigues from Empire. Now he's in black. Cowled. Menacing. Doesn't bother to knock--he just waves his arm and that huge metal door flies up. Gamorreans come by the dozen, and out comes the light saber--a short, brutal battle, and they're in pieces, and he doesn't have so much as a scratch. And he's so calm--not angry, not swash-buckling, just emotionless--stoic--almost indifferent. Luke is starting to scare us. He strides into Jabba's throne-room, and we have the confrontation. And here Luke's arrogance almost costs him--Jabba dumps him into the Rancor pit. But instead of the whole 'throw a dog a bone and drop the gate' silliness, we see a Jedi fight this creature--St. George versus the Dragon. And Luke wins, to the dismay of Jabba & Co. And the fun is just beginning. His cape billowing around him, he levitates up out of the pit, a dark angel out of hell. And then--oh, it's on. The whole throne room goes apes--t. As Leia and Lando and the droids watch, Luke single-handedly takes about a hundred-odd guys on--and my goodness, is the Force ever with him. (One thing we gotta keep from the original--Leia strangling Jabba with his slave chain. It's nicely symbolic, and more to the point, it's a brutal, ugly death--a murder on par with Orson Welles strangling Akim Tamiroff in Touch of Evil--entirely apt for the scummy, hubristic Jabba, and ballsy in its graphic nature.)
Oh, and about Boba Fett. We don't kill him. Why? Well, again, we need to show the degree to which Luke is starting to be scary. They can fight, oh yes--and let's have Boba fight with a bit more wit--have the choreographers read a stack of Punisher comic books for inspiration--have Boba be the only one in the room who doesn't get his ass thoroughly kicked--and then, just as he and Luke are about to go at it to the death--have Boba notice that Jabba is dead. And Boba puts up his weapons, and shrugs. It's over. "What?" Luke wants to know. "I'm not getting paid anymore," Boba explains--gesturing to the corpse. And, ever the professional mercenary, unconcerned with the morality of his employer, leaves--commenting to, say, Lando or Han that he's glad that he doesn't have to hang around with that guy--that's he's essentially a nuke waiting to go off. And the Rebel team can't help but agree--Luke is perfunctorily solicitous to Leia and Han, but it's clear that, this mission accomplished, he's got his mind on bigger things. And so this victory is soured by our increasing conviction that Luke enjoyed what just happened.

And under this cloud, we move to the entrance of Emperor, and the colloquy with Vader, who are both feeling the disturbance in the Force--and in the increasing possibility of Luke's turn to the dark side...

OK, that's enough for now. But see? We remove all the embarassing crap--the stupid plot, with Threepio's unfunny cowardice, the idiocy of the torture droid--um, explain to me how droids can cheerfully submerge in boiling oil, but scream when they're branded?--the moronic slapstick of Han's blindness--the godawful death of Fett--and, as I say, the stupidity of the overall plan. We make sure everyone gets how smart and powerful Jabba is--and then show how, to someone who's strong in the Force, all the smarts and guns and goons don't mean d--k. We show how Luke's playing on a whole different level now--and how things like his friends, and even the Rebellion, are starting to be of less and less importance to him as he faces what could be a very ugly spiritual destiny. We're beginning to turn the movie into a movie about--gasp!--the return of the Jedi--showing how hard it is to become a Jedi, how it's about gaining power and learning the deep commitment to the greater good, and how it asks a man to be a hero, and not just 'a good guy.'

Next time--we fix the second half.