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E Pluribus “Rogue One”

 

“It’s all falling apart!” — [rebel insurgent Tivik]

I was a bit confused by this movie when it was first released in 2016. I enjoyed it, as Imperial Droid K2SO might say, in a “vague and unconvincing way.” But it was hard to fully appreciate at first glance, for a number of reasons.

First, most of the characters are new, their stories are told in bits here and there, and if you don’t immediately memorize their first and last names, you won’t follow who’s talking about whom. Assuming you can tell them apart, that is. Except for a few, it’s not clear what their backstory is, what they want, and where they want to go, unless you pay attention to small clues planted throughout, which you probably won’t, the first time you’re viewing it.

Second, we have the same problem with the locations. The story cuts back and forth from many locations, all on different planets, and often with little warning. It’s not always clear who came from where, and when they’re meeting for the first time, and where they’re going next. The names won’t help you because most of them you’ve never heard before, except for a few you almost certainly forgot from previous films seen decades earlier.

Third, I was thrown by those elements that were familiar. Not just the countless shout-outs to previous films, with cameos of minor characters we’ve grown familiar with over many viewings, nor countless shots that visually echo past iconic images. There’s the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, Senator Mon Mothma, the commander of the Rebel Fleet, and others. Like with Darth Vader himself, you’re left wondering who’s human, who isn’t, are they convincing, are they in keeping with their previous appearances or are we going to watch beloved icons misused for the sake of the unknown cause this film serves?

so, it was a few years later when I saw “Rogue One” on Netflix and decided to give it another try. I’m very glad I did, and I wish we’d see more of this side of the Force.

It takes a few viewings to orient yourself with these characters and their locations, but you start to figure out for yourself who they are and what they want. There’s no obvious journey of the hero on display, no grand destinies, and no uncanny displays of Force “magic.” It’s all on a human scale, featuring humans who don’t trust each other and reveal only what they need to, when they have to. Regardless of location, whether in space or not, everything feels grounded and connected. The technology in this story seems to harken back to Star Wars’ original vision of using World War II era films as reference, with the battle scenes reminiscent of Vietnam War footage (Star Wars was originally conceived as an allegorical commentary on the Vietnam War, before George Lucas decided that escapism was in short supply in the 1970s, and embraced the old movie serials instead). None of it looks computer generated, not even the buildings, the fantastical landscapes, or the spaceships. You’ll notice that the smaller ships leave marks when they take off, occasionally knocking people over. Even in space, there’s mass and shadow, and a ship, or even a planet, might emerge from the shadows when approached. When Darth Vader does make his grand appearance with a light saber, there’s no dancing about. He hacks at his opponents like weeds and his fist seems just as deadly, brandished on its own.

The film’s main villain, Orson Krennic, is perhaps the first character of the Imperial government who seems to have an agenda of his own, and capable of real human interaction at some point in his life. We see glimpses of an office party with him, Galen and his daughter Jyn. Though hardly a nice fellow, he’s recognizably human, and his evil is just as humanly proportioned. Suffice to say, he finds himself dealt out of the game by truly ruthless competitors who sacrificed their humanity long ago, and with his own single-minded ambition aptly rewarded, as Darth Vader predicted.

The story unifies around the main character, Jyn Erso, who’s scarred by the experience of abandonment by everyone charged with her protection, growing up. She’s spent her life getting kicked around the grey areas of the Rebellion. The dual nature of Darth Vader, man and machine, seems to define this world. Her father is a rebel who builds the Death Star, her guardian, Saw Guerrero, an insurrectionist whose bloody encounters with the Empire have left him half machine and wheezing into a breathing tube, much like Vader. When he reunites with Jyn, there’s a shot of his metal feet walking along a metallic floor grid, that very much resembles Vader’s march to Princess Leia’s cell in “A New Hope.”

This view of the Rebellion is very different than what we saw in “A New Hope,” where Han Solo was the only rogue in sight. The difference is accounted for, I assume, by the fact that we’re seeing the Rebellion coming together as a formal entity for the first time. Home grown uprisings now seem to have come together under a Senator’s leadership, but it’s a shaky alliance. As one of Guerrero’s men tells Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor, “It’s all falling apart.”

The Senator, Mon Mothma, states at the beginning what she has to offer: a “chance to make a fresh start.” She has no power to grant it, or to enforce her will. Agreements are democratically arrived at, or not at all.

Fortunately, the democratic spirit is strong with Jyn, thanks to the crew she picks up on her travels to the Rebel Alliance Headquarters. George Lucas drew inspiration from the films of Akira Kurosawa, and there is a big nod to films like “The Seven Samurai” when the action moves to the last Jedi temple of Jedha. It seems this place may have been the birthplace of Jedi philosophy, and we see signs of ancient ruins suggesting that, such as an enormous Jedi statue half buried and seemingly asleep in its deserts. The only remains of Jedi culture lie with its now-unemployed protectors, who, like the Ronin in “The Seven Samurai,” are without masters or teachers.

We’re greeted in Jedha by blind Chirrut Imwe’s wish, “May the Force of others be with you!” It’s not clear if this is an ancient version of the phrase we’re all used to, or if it’s a garbled version from a man who never formally trained as a Jedi (there was no one to train him, growing up), but it’s very well suited to a film that will have to get by without any real Jedis, or “Force Magic.” He does seem to possess some kind of power as he chants his prayers, but it’s not clear if this is the Force working through him, or he’s just over-confident and very lucky. As he will insist, “The Force did protect me!”. “I protected you,” his guardian friend and Force apostate, Baze, corrects. But they’re both right: The Force of others protected him, as he predicted. This Force protects the others as well, until each does what they can, then trust others to carry on.

The final battle is a passing of responsibility to more familiar characters, but the end of these characters we’ll never see again does not seem tragic. Not just because of their worthy cause, but because they all get what they’re looking for. Baze is brought back to his faith, and reunion with his friend; Bodhi, the Imperial pilot defector, gets to do more than just keep the engine running, he’s able to fulfill the dream of his mentor, Jyn’s father. Cassian, who, like Jyn, found himself part of the Rebellion at an early age, and a killer who, unlike Han, shoots first, has his lifelong faith in the Alliance repaid. Even the petulant droid, K2SO (who, like Bodhi, has a few wires loose due to some “reprogramming”), finally gets to wield a blaster. And Jyn, whose childhood memories echo with the words “protect,” and “trust,” is capable of doing both by the end, and has found those worthy of it. “I’m not used to people sticking around when things go bad,” she tells Cassian. “Welcome home,” he replies. Chirrut tells her on their first meeting that “The strongest stars have hearts of kyber!” Her necklace from her mother bears a kyber crystal, and from her father, the nickname Stardust. The result of her mission will end with the Death Star returned to dust among the real stars, though she last sees it perched serenely among the clouds, like a natural part of the heavens.

Her destiny, it seems, was perhaps foretold after all, as much as Luke Skywalker’s was, except it grew organically out of her experiences, and the hand-off of her efforts to Princess Leia, whom she never meets, doesn’t seem forced, but a natural end result. As she says in her attempt at a “pep talk” to the Rogue One crew, success is doing the first thing, then figuring out the next thing, each step of the way, and you need to have faith you might reach the end. This isn’t the vision of a genetically elite Jedi hero; It’s a faith in a democratic process that doesn’t always work smoothly, but accomplishes its mission by casting its net and its hopes widely, with the Force of others, a power that we’ll also see wielded elsewhere, such as the final scenes of “Return of the Jedi.” This film lacks the high mythic purpose of other Star Wars films, or the soaring victory themes, and after three grim prequels detailing the shortcomings and cynical abuse of the democratic process, it’s strangely empowering, and a relief, to see it affirmed here, though it’s the last thing I expected from a crew that styles itself “Rogue One.”

Dungeons & Dragons has a detailed canon, why not use it?

I had a series of posts here going through all the D&D-related comics I could find in order to understand why they take the approach they do. Most of these comics are 5-part series that tie in with a new game or novel release. I’ve no problem with corporate synergy, and I hope they’re successful, but there doesn’t seem to be much integration between the comics and the games, and from what I understand, it’s intended that way. The comics seem to resemble other comics more than their game products. You’d have no idea there’s a world of enormously detailed descriptions of creatures, characters, environments, conflict scenarios, histories, maps, etc., they could draw on for their stories (which the Pathfinder comics make good use of). Instead, they come across as rather generic fantasy, once you remove the gaming details (entertaining as these comics may otherwise be). In fact, they seem to be portraying not the game itself, but the people who play the game; the characters seem more like player avatars than beings who live in a very different world than us. I guess this is to increase their appeal to readers not familiar with D&D. But what’s the point of that? If readers aren’t going find such details absorbing, why would they be drawn further into the world of role-playing? Wouldn’t it be better to dramatize what it’s like to operate in a role-playing game, with all the twists and tricks, pitfalls and setbacks they entail?

I got rid of those posts which seemed to have no end because I realized I could just some up my views in this one conclusion: anyone who’s ever played D&D has used it to tell a story. It’s fool-proof: the reference books are basically story bibles, and the more you rely on them, the deeper your story. I’m sure a majority of mainstream comics writers have experienced this personally. So instead of all these 5-issue series scattered here and there that just vanish without comment by the time they’re done, why not have one long-running D&D series that can build a real presence in the market, and uses the reference books to inform their stories. Having ready-made “story bibles” means it’s a great place for new writers and artists to get up to speed in the series, and it will provide readers a good working demo of how the game is played. After all, that’s how Gary Gygax first publicized his game: by presenting his games as fictionalized narratives done in character.

That seems like an obvious strategy, so why isn’t it being done? The books have been coming out on a regular basis, so why not the comics? If they had these resources back during the age of pulp comics, there would be a whole studio of rank-and-file artists cranking out issues, for the comics and the strips. It’s D&D, after all: a planned-yet-improvised combination of art, craft, and sporting event. It’s perfect for spinning quick, reliable yarns, so it’s win-win-win. Why aren’t they doing that? I dunno, maybe it’s strategy that works for all involved, but it seems odd to me.

Types and Patterns?

Why call this site “Types and Patterns?” Not a title that sings, by itself. As it happens, I borrowed it from a poem:

ALEPH am I,

The First and the Root.
From mine unfathomable Will
The universe hath its beginning.
In my boundless Wisdom
Are the types and patterns of all
things.”

This is from the chapter on the Fool, from “The Book of Tokens,” by Paul Foster Case, a 20th century author on the subject of the Tarot (you can learn more about his work from his society’s webpage, here). His was a very appealing interpretation of the Tarot (certainly, appealing for artists). I wasn’t interested in the Tarot for its own sake, however; I encountered this quote while researching an essay on this site (here). “The Book of Tokens” was used by those writers to help clarify a particularly difficult turn of events in their own story, and as it turned out, their methods help clarify a lot of things about storytelling, to me.

So for me, this dry title evokes this site’s subject: problem-solving when it comes to understanding story structure. The Fool is a good starting point, and a touchstone in navigating the currents of someone else’s story, or your own. According to Case, the attributes of God, when projected onto an ordinary man, matches the common description of a fool, and to be sure, anyone in the role of storyteller (or someone trying to decipher the methods of a storyteller) is in the position of being both divine and human at the same time. Hence, a fool. Or as Case describes it: “the inexperience at the beginning of all life,” whose virtues are “originality, audacity, and venturesome quest.”

The quote above seems to describe a God-like wisdom: but in mortal terms, it seems to describe the exercise of creative power, which eventually leads us, artist and audience, somewhere beyond ourselves.

So it seems wise to start with this card on the table.