Who Reads the New Yonker, Anyway?

This article will introduce itself with my brief opinion of Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. As should be presumed, there will be a few spoilers here. What follows is not really a review of the film; if you want that, well, I’ll humor you: in short, go see it–it’s worth it. And if you’ve seen the rest, you’ll go watch it anyway–despite what I may or may not say about the film–just because it’s what ties the prequels to the original series. Thumbs up and all that. Anyway, after my brief opinion of the film, I’ll make the title of this article clearer, by critiquing a review of the film by Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.

I’ve been waiting for Sith for a very long time. After Attack of the Clones I flirted with the idea of an ‘R’ rating for Sith–but was not disappointed with a mere PG-13. I found the third installment to be as dark as it needed to be. I really don’t have many complaints. Even Anakin, who has annoyed me since the beginning with his dialogue and characterisms, was believable as he was consumed by the Darkside of the Force, and became Darth Vader–arguably, the most ominous villain in cinema. Well, except for the fact that we have to suffer through Vader crying like a baby, taking our iconographic figure to a place I didn’t want him to be… Anyway, the evolution of our friendly neighborhood Chancellor into The Emperor was most impressive, although I would have preferred a bit more insight into how, what appeared to be, a simple confrontation with Windu could scar and deform him irreversibly. I also didn’t quite care for General Grievous–he’s sort of a sub par villain, coughs without reason (at least for those who don’t care about what happens outside the movies–he coughs because of damage done to him by Mace Windu, prior to the Clone Wars) and is too animated for my tastes. However, all in all, the film was well worth the wait and believable as a transition into Episode IV: A New Hope.

Now for my critique of the review of the film by Anthony Lane of The New Yorker. I suggest you read the article first.

I will copy the review directly, with my comments interjected in red as I see fit. Again, this article is copyright Anthony Lane of the New Yorker and is reprinted here in fair use.

The New Yorker
The Critics

The Current Cinema
SPACE CASE
by ANTHONY LANE
“Star Wars: Episode III.”
Issue of 2005-05-23
Posted 2005-05-16

Sith. What kind of a word is that? Sith.

Well, it’s an archaic conjunction, preposition or adverb, meaning since; afterwards; seeing that. I can expect this opening from a high school essay or an amateur blog, but not from The New Yorker.

It sounds to me like the noise that emerges when you block one nostril and blow through the other, but to George Lucas it is a name that trumpets evil. What is proved beyond question by “Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith,” the latest—and, you will be shattered to hear, the last—installment of his sci-fi bonanza, is that Lucas, though his eye may be greedy for sensation, has an ear of purest cloth. All those who concoct imagined worlds must populate and name them, and the resonance of those names is a fairly accurate guide to the mettle of the imagination in question. Tolkien, earthed in Old English, had a head start that led him straight to the flinty perfection of Mordor and Orc.

Oddly enough, the writer has taken away something unique in Tolkien. While his languages might have been influenced by Old English, Tolkien actually developed entire languages of his own (e.g., Runes) for his stories. I’m not sure what the author is getting at here by saying Tolkien was led to the “flinty [unyielding?] perfection of Mordor and Orc.” Mordor was a creation of Tolkien, while Orc (from Orcus) was the god of the Underworld. I suppose the author is trying to lend credence to the creations of Tolkien, while taking away from those of Lucas. As we see here:

Here, by contrast, are some Lucas inventions: Palpatine. Sidious. Mace Windu. (Isn’t that something you spray on colicky babies?) Bail Organa. And Sith.

Tolkien was dealing with one universe. The names he used all pretty much sound the same–depending on the disposition of the creature or place. If you look at the evil creatures and places, they all have roots in Old English (as the author correctly cited), Nordic mythologies, and Greek and Roman mythologies. However, they all sound as if they relate to each other in some way. Much the same, the Hobbits, neutral and good characters and places all have correlating names that sound like pleasurable things (e.g., Brandywine or The Prancing Pony). Lucas, however, creates names given to creatures and places that span over many galaxies. Palpatine could likely be derived from “Palatine,” one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Most importantly, Roman Emperors would build their palaces on this mountain. Palace, of course, is a derivative of Palatine, giving quite a bit of significance to Lucas’ Palpatine. The Emperors’ Sith name, Sidious is marked with a tone of snake-like evil and clearly leaves the impression it should. Mace Windu is a clever name, in that it begins with a strong first name and a quite foreign surname. I like Bail Organa because of its liveliness (organic) and sense of movement. Sith, I’ve already commented on.

The main concern I have with Lane’s first paragraph: I don’t want to read the rest because of it. He lauds Tolkien, yet dismisses Lucas for the same ingenuity. Both authors use etymology and resonance equally, in order to create their worlds and the creatures that populate them.

Lucas was not always a rootless soul. He made “American Graffiti,” which yielded with affection to the gravitational pull of the small town. Since then, he has swung out of orbit, into deep nonsense, and the new film is the apotheosis of that drift. One stab of humor and the whole conceit would pop, but I have a grim feeling that Lucas wishes us to honor the remorseless non-comedy of his galactic conflict, so here goes.

Oh please. Wanna back that up? Because he finds some of Lucas’ terms smugly amusing, Lane’s now concluding that the entire storyline is nonsensical? Non sequitur, anyone? As far as popping the proverbial fantasy land with a stab of humor… Well, I don’t get that at all. The films are supposed to be campy. The whole concept is pastiche of old fifties Saturday matinee serials–hello? Buck Rogers!–and Kung Fu flicks? And the “non-comedy”–despite the scope of the films’ origins–are insightful in terms of politics, Eastern philosophy and the mythos, based on Joseph Campbell’s heroic archeotypes.

Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his star pupil, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), are, with the other Jedi knights, defending the Republic against the encroachments of the Sith and their allies—millions of dumb droids, led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) and his henchman, General Grievous, who is best described as a slaying mantis.

Alright, I’ll chuckle at the “slaying mantis” bit as clever word-play, though there’s certainly nothing mantid about it. As far as “dumb” droids are concerned: well, they do speak; but I’ll assume the author meant “not smart”–which they’re certainly not. But these are the movies, and villain henchmen are never quite bright, and if they were, you think they’d follow commands so easily? Remember the remark Obi-Wan Kenobi made in Clones to his friend Dex in a cafe, “If droids could think, there’d be none of us.

..”

Meanwhile, the Chancellor of the Republic, Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), is engaged in a sly bout of Realpolitik, suspected by nobody except Anakin, Obi-Wan, and every single person watching the movie.

This has got to be the most ridiculous comment Lane makes throughout this entire article. The problem with this comment is that the author really hasn’t looked at the films very closely–and certainly not objectively. In The Phantom Menace, the Jedi first come to terms with the fact that the Sith aren’t quite as extinct as they thought–with the introduction of Darth Maul. They don’t know if he’s the Master or the Apprentice and so there’d be absolutely no reason to suspect Palpatine as a Sith Lord (Darth Sidious). The only communications Darth Sidious has with anyone other than his apprentice, that we see as viewers, is with the Viceroy of the Trade Federation, Nute Gunray. Again, in Clones, only key leaders in the Separatist movement have any knowledge of Sidious. It is not until Obi-Wan Kenobi relays what he heard from Count Dooku (not known as Darth Tyranus at the time) to Yoda, that there is sufficient means to suspect Palpatine. And lo and behold! The Jedi take precautions!

The fact that the entire audience knows that Palpatine is also Sidious is irrelevant–and takes nothing away from the film. In fact, it adds to it and is made known on purpose. Much like a Tarantino film, Lucas has purposely thrown us into the middle of the conflict and then taken us back to gather the pertinent information. The mere fact that this commentator cannot objectively look at the film as a series, shows his ineptitude for writing a critique at all.

Anakin, too, is a divided figure, wrenched between his Jedi devotion to selfless duty and a lurking hunch that, if he bides his time and trashes his best friends, he may eventually get to wear a funky black mask and start breathing like a horse.

Rolls eyes

This film is the tale of his temptation. We already know the outcome—Anakin will indeed drop the killer-monk Jedi look and become Darth Vader, the hockey goalkeeper from hell—because it forms the substance of the original “Star Wars.” One of the things that make Episode III so dismal is the time and effort expended on Anakin’s conversion. Early in the story, he enjoys a sprightly light-sabre duel with Count Dooku, which ends with the removal of the Count’s hands. (The stumps glow, like logs on a fire; there is nothing here that reeks of human blood.) Anakin prepares to scissor off the head, while the mutilated Dooku kneels for mercy. A nice setup, with Palpatine egging our hero on from the background. The trouble is that Anakin’s choice of action now will be decisive, and the remaining two hours of the film—scene after scene in which Hayden Christensen has to glower and glare, blazing his conundrum to the skies—will add nothing to the result. “Something’s happening. I’m not the Jedi I should be,” he says. This is especially worrying for his wife, Padmé (Natalie Portman), who is great with child. Correction: with children.

What about Friday the 13th? Er…Uhh…Anyway: Wrong. The choices Anakin make throughout the rest of the film are just as important. Anakin’s “decision” to slay Dooku was really Palpatine’s decision. Given his feelings toward the Chancellor, Anakin really had no say in the matter. It is not until he chooses to follow him to the Darkside (remember the key scene with Windu?) that he truly chooses his fate. Thusly, the beginning sequence is necessary in order to show how susceptable young Skywalker is–and it also forewarns his dissent to the Dark Side. And anyway, if that was all it took, Lane, why bother even making Sith, when clearly he had “made his decision” in Clones when he wiped out an entire civilization because of his mother’s kidnapping–how about strapping that “funky black mask” on then?

And by the way, there’s never been any visible blood when Jedi or Sith have been cut down by the blade of a lightsaber—yes, it’s spelled “lightsaber.” I’ve not done any research on this, but I can only conclude that other than the fact that the series is generally suitable for young kids, because of the heat of the lightsaber the tissue may scar over quickly enough, cauterizing the wound so as not to shed any blood.

What can you say about a civilization where people zip from one solar system to the next as if they were changing their socks but where a woman fails to register for an ultrasound, and thus to realize that she is carrying twins until she is about to give birth? Mind you, how Padmé got pregnant is anybody’s guess, although I’m prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes. After all, the Lucasian universe is drained of all reference to bodily functions. Nobody ingests or excretes. Language remains unblue. Smoking and cursing are out of bounds, as is drunkenness, although personally I wouldn’t go near the place without a hip flask. Did Lucas learn nothing from “Alien” and “Blade Runner”—from the suggestion that other times and places might be no less rusted and septic than ours, and that the creation of a disinfected galaxy, where even the storm troopers wear bright-white outfits, looks not so much fantastical as dated? What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging from the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.

This is completely off-base. Firstly, I’ll note the cantina scene from A New Hope–lots of smoking and drinking here. And how about the costume Jabba the Hutt has Princess Leia wear in Return of the Jedi? Or what of the banter between Sidious and both Skywalkers–isn’t that blasphemous blue language? What Lucas has actually done, is take the fantastic tales of the fifties and place their ideologies on screen with the original trilogy, but taken those ideologies and eschewed them with the prequels, giving a whole new meaning to the politics and nature of the Star Wars universe. What began as a simple morality play, turns into something far more enigmatic.

Lane is so concerned with the morality of the characters that he fails to see the elements of the movements as a whole. The very Republic that stands for Democracy ends up being controlled by a totalitarian. Anakin really makes a good point by telling Obi-Wan that the good and evil aspects are all a matter of perspective. Anakin is dealing with a pragmatic view of what is good, though clearly, Sidious is using him as he used Maul, as he used Dooku, and so on, in order to garner the power he wants over the galaxy. The point here, is that we see differences in perspective of what is good and what is bad. Even in the original trilogy, we saw that with Han Solo. In essence, it’s certainly not this fledgling, cut and dried storyline as Lane would like it to be.

The general opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion. So much here is guaranteed to cause either offense or pain, starting with the nineteen-twenties leather football helmet that Natalie Portman suddenly dons for no reason, and rising to the continual horror of Ewan McGregor’s accent. “Another happy landing”—or, to be precise, “anothah heppy lending”—he remarks, as Anakin parks the front half of a burning starcruiser on a convenient airstrip. The young Obi-Wan Kenobi is not, I hasten to add, the most nauseating figure onscre

en; nor is R2-D2 or even C-3PO, although I still fail to understand why I should have been expected to waste twenty-five years of my life following the progress of a beeping trash can and a gay, gold-plated Jeeves.

In terms of story, the “general” opinion of Sith is that it justifies the prior two films. If you believe it’s an improvement in terms of character development, setting, happenings, or whatever, that is your own opinion. The bad analogy which gives more value to dying off quickly rather than slowly, in reference to, I suppose, abruptly dealing with what you have in Sith, rather than having to deal with the exhaustiveness of the others, is given for shock value; and thus, has no business in a serious review. And now he’s merely attacking anything and everything that disturbs him in the film. I mean, I seriously feel as if I’m reading a high school sophomore’s essay on the film.

No, the one who gets me is Yoda. May I take the opportunity to enter a brief plea in favor of his extermination? Any educated moviegoer would know what to do, having watched that helpful sequence in “Gremlins” when a small, sage-colored beastie is fed into an electric blender. A fittingly frantic end, I feel, for the faux-pensive stillness on which the Yoda legend has hung. At one point in the new film, he assumes the role of cosmic shrink—squatting opposite Anakin in a noirish room, where the light bleeds sideways through slatted blinds. Anakin keeps having problems with his dark side, in the way that you or I might suffer from tennis elbow, but Yoda, whose reptilian smugness we have been encouraged to mistake for wisdom, has the answer. “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose,” he says. Hold on, Kermit, run that past me one more time. If you ever got laid (admittedly a long shot, unless we can dig you up some undiscerning alien hottie with a name like Jar Jar Gabor), and spawned a brood of Yodettes, are you saying that you’d leave them behind at the first sniff of danger? Also, while we’re here, what’s with the screwy syntax? Deepest mind in the galaxy, apparently, and you still express yourself like a day-tripper with a dog-eared phrase book. “I hope right you are.” Break me a fucking give.

First of all, it’d be “A fucking break, give me” as Yoda speaks in object/subject/verb format. And boy have you missed the bus on the philosophy of letting go, my very young apprentice. The idea here boils down to worry. When you worry about things you grow angry, jealous, fearful, envious, etc. “Letting go” merely means that one has accepted the worst case scenario and works from there. This is Eastern philosophy at its best, and the film clearly shows the dangers of selfishness in terms of what it can inwardly do to a person. Anakin is so engrossed in himself and his feelings that he believes he must hold on to everyone dear to him, lest he loses them. As viewers, we see that Anakin loses Padmé because of his fear. The fact that Lane does not understand the philosophical implication here, proves he is unfit for such a position–a reviewer at The New Yorker. It is a slap in the face to intellectual discourse and must be dealt with.

The prize for the least speakable burst of dialogue has, over half a dozen helpings of “Star Wars,” grown into a fiercely contested tradition, but for once the winning entry is clear, shared between Anakin and Padmé for their exchange of endearments at home:

“You’re so beautiful.”
“That’s only because I’m so in love.”
“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”

For a moment, it looks as if they might bat this one back and forth forever, like a baseline rally on a clay court. And if you think the script is on the tacky side, get an eyeful of the décor. All of the interiors in Lucasworld are anthems to clean living, with molded furniture, the tranquillity of a morgue, and none of the clutter and quirkiness that signify the process known as existence. Illumination is provided not by daylight but by a dispiriting plastic sheen, as if Lucas were coating all private affairs—those tricky little threats to his near-fascistic rage for order—in a protective glaze. Only outside does he relax, and what he relaxes into is apocalypse. “Revenge of the Sith” is a zoo of rampant storyboards. Why show a pond when C.G.I. can deliver a lake that gleams to the far horizon? Why set a paltry house on fire when you can stage your final showdown on an entire planet that streams with ruddy, gulping lava? Whether the director is aware of John Martin, the Victorian painter who specialized in the cataclysmic, I cannot say, but he has certainly inherited that grand perversity, mobilized it in every frame of the film, and thus produced what I take to be unique: an art of flawless and irredeemable vulgarity. All movies bear a tint of it, in varying degrees, but it takes a vulgarian genius such as Lucas to create a landscape in which actions can carry vast importance but no discernible meaning, in which style is strangled at birth by design, and in which the intimate and the ironic, not the Sith, are the principal foes to be suppressed. It is a vision at once gargantuan and murderously limited, and the profits that await it are unfit for contemplation. I keep thinking of the rueful Obi-Wan Kenobi, as he surveys the holographic evidence of Anakin’s betrayal. “I can’t watch anymore,” he says. Wise words, Obi-Wan, and I shall carry them in my heart.

This would be a wonderful diatribe, marked with eloquent language and curious quips, if it were, well, true. The fact of the matter is, Lucas has created a fantastical world with broad landscapes and extraordinary characters and places. Guess what? It’s science fiction! And if Tattooine is clean and orderly and all that–well, someone scrape out my eyeballs, cuz I need a new set of lenses. What’s with this guy’s fascination with vulgarity? Go watch Sin City or something, and quit reviewing films for the sake of the children and the whales or something. And by the way, just because there’s “ruddy, gulping lava” (and since when is “ruddy” ever used to describe lava?) doesn’t mean there’s an apocalypse coming. You’d think that the anti-stereotype wouldn’t say something riddled with stereotypical symbolism. And what the hell is “tranquillity” anyway?

And as far as taking Obi-Wan’s wise words so seriously: I’m shocked. I’m utterly amazed, friend. I’m surprised you watched at all.

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6 thoughts on “Who Reads the New Yonker, Anyway?

  1. The movies have put too much primacy on CGI! Arrrrrgh! (Head explodes.)

    Also? The dialogue in the movie is the stuff of junior high science fiction. Blah blah blah.

    I’ll just keep my old school Star Wars, thankyouverymuch

  2. Actually, having just rewatched the originals…the dialogue is much better. Chalk it up to Lawrence Kasdan and Harrison Ford’s improv.

  3. Well, let me clarify. It’s just as campy. I’ve thought about this though, and the real problem here is that the prequels take themselves too seriously. It’s like they’ve lost the campiness that made the original trilogy so great. Man, the banter between Leia and Solo was absolutely brilliant, yet, between Anakin and Padme… Well, it’s just sad. *sigh* I love Star Wars. I love the prequels. But I really do love them because I’ve been anticipating this for so long.

  4. Also, only IV was written by Lucas. Lawrence Kasdan wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and there is remarkable disparity in the quality of dialogue in those. The cheese from the new movies hearken back to the first, when Lucas was punching out those laughable lines.

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