Star Wars: The Last Jedi Has Been Out for a Month; I Have Thoughts

Star Wars: The Last Jedi theatrical poster.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi theatrical poster.

The Last Jedi came out out December 14, 2017. I saw it on December 16, then again on December 29. This continued my streak of seeing all of the new Star Wars movies in the theater twice, which I began with The Force Awakens and continued with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Last Jedi is the best of the new Star Wars movies, and is maybe the best entry yet in this massively successful, 40-year-old franchise.

This is, of course, not an incontrovertible position. The White Male Resentment crowd has some problems with it, flooding the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes profile with negative reactions in an effort to artificially deflate its score. [Ed. Note: A long and forceful discussion of Rotten Tomatoes being a crappy metric has been removed. Nobody has time for that.] There are also good-faith reasons to dislike the movie, or at least have some problems with it. It is certainly not a perfect movie — no big-budget blockbuster will ever be a “perfect” movie — but some of those good-faith arguments against it are exactly why I liked it so much.

The following comes from an email I sent to a friend from high school, a doctor back in Baltimore, who emailed me with some of his concerns about the movie:

A huge part of this movie, I think, was sort of blowing up what we expect a Star Wars movie to be. In the same way that lots of people expected Snoke to be nouveau Palpatine but then he ended up dying in the Second Act of the second film in the trilogy, a huge secondary theme has to do with Poe’s recklessness. So much of sci-fi relies on the dashing, daring hero speaking truth to power and taking the necessary steps that the powers-that-be refuse to. We’re expected to dislike Holdo in favor of Poe — I actually expected Laura Dern to be a double agent when I watched the movie the first time — but as it turns out she knows that if she gives Poe an inch he’ll undermine her authority and mess things up. Which he, Finn, and Rose end up doing anyway!

My thinking is, the stakes are actually super high for the Canto Bight/Benicio del Toro sequences, it’s just that the stakes aren’t what we expect. The normal stakes would be: They succeed in their mission, the Resistance survives; they fail and everyone dies. But because Holdo has an actual plan — which she withholds from them because of Poe’s documented refusal to follow orders — the actual stakes are that they need to minimize the damage they do. They DO need to succeed, but not for the usual reason: when they fail, Benicio del Toro sells them out, and hundreds of Resistance fighters die.

Their failure to follow orders, and subsequent failure to minimize the damage for that, means that suddenly the entire Resistance can fit inside the Millennium Falcon. This sets up a crazy, holy-crap-how-do-they-eventually-win third installment.
The Last Jedi did not follow the template for a Star Wars movie; nor did it follow the formula for a big-budget sci fi picture. This is very similar to how Rogue One took the standard action movie formula — daring heroes make a dramatic stand in the third act, narrowly and dramatically escaping at the end (with perhaps one or two tragic casualties) — and just crushed our expectations by having everybody you’d come to love over the previous two hours die in various ways.

When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, I worried that they would do to Star Wars what they’ve done with superhero movies. I stopped watching superhero movies because, with at least one Marvel movie coming out a year, with bloated rosters of superheroes and endless tie-ins to the next several Marvel movies due up, the movies themselves are boring, repetitive, and unoriginal. So far, this has not been the case with Star Wars. There’s always a chance — perhaps even a probability — that the franchise will eventually become as stale as the Marvel and DC universes. But for now, Disney has shown a willingness to do exactly the opposite of what audiences expect, and the movies are better off for it.

Also, grizzled, old Luke is great. There’s so much more to unpack with his character, like how somebody with the optimism and pure potential he displayed at the end of Return of the Jedi could be so depressive by the end of his life. I’m fascinated by his reaction to failure: He tried to revive the Jedi Order and failed, his failure feeding directly into the force (pardon the pun) that would ultimately destroy The New Republic. The New Republic, of course, being the thing that he and Leia and the rest of the Rebel Alliance spent the entire original trilogy trying to create. His disappointment — his feeling of having wasted his life, his opportunity, his potential — is so fascinating to me. And Mark Hamill nailed the performance.

Because of Luke’s and Poe’s and everyone else’s failures, The Resistance is on the ropes by the end of The Last Jedi. This is a disappointment for everyone involved, but the final parting shots of the entire Resistance — the whole thing! — fitting inside the Millennium Falcon have me so incredibly jazzed for Episode IX. We only have to wait two years to see how they turn the thing around.

Thoughts on the New Year: 2018 Edition

I almost didn’t write this essay this year. Looking back on the ones I’ve written before, it seems like I write the same exact essay every  single year. When was the last time I finished a year genuinely satisfied with how it went, and excited about what the next one would bring? Well, at the end of 2015, the year I got married, probably. But other than that? Never.

Last year I even wrote this essay twice. I had to re-write it because the first one was so self-indulgent and mopey. As excited as I had been to enter 2016, I felt like the year crushed me. I finished last year hating myself and my surroundings — basically hating everything except my wife and my cat. (Not always in that order.) It was the lowest I’d felt since the spring of our year in New York.

This time last year, I set several goals for myself: to be at least a fraction as good a person as my wife; to run regularly and start racing again; to go to therapy and get myself right in the head; to write more regularly and more productively; and to follow current events but not so closely it threatened my mental health. To sum it all up, I wanted to take better care of myself. I wanted to get myself healthy.

I didn’t achieve a single one of these things! Even the therapy one — which really should have been the foundation upon which the rest of the getting-myself-right would be built — was a failure. It took me a month and a half to find a therapist (because insurance is bad!), and then she wanted me to come in more often than I could afford to. Yes, my biggest stressor is financial, and she wanted me to come in once a week even though I could barely afford to go in once a pay period.

When I re-read both of last year’s essays, I was shocked to realize how much those words mirror how I have felt this fall and early winter. Finishing out 2017, I felt exactly the same as at the end of 2016.

Just after Christmas, my wife and I were talking about our general dissatisfaction with this past year. I compared it to the year we lived in New York. The difference, we agreed, is that when things were really bad in New York, we made a change. In 2016, we did nothing to help ourselves.

(Ironically, just a few years ago this would have been a good thing! After we got ourselves right after our New York disaster, I craved stability more than anything, and in 2015 I got it! Just two years later, and it’s gone from benefit to detriment. Funny how important context is to what we value.)

In 2018, something has to change. What, I’m not sure — but I don’t think it has to be a big thing. At least not to start. The foundation upon which further change can be built lies within me. Over the last two years, I’ve allowed myself to wallow too much. I’ve allowed myself to be brought down by the way I live in a terribly boring place, or by my growing failure to create any art, or by the way I can barely pay my bills* despite making the best money I’ve ever made, because the cost of living in the Bay Area is so outrageous.

These things drive resentment inside me. In the — bear with me — Nitzschean sense. Ressentiment, allowing my internal state to be a reaction to external factors rather than maintaining control of what I feel within me.

I want so badly to be a happy, loving, positive person, the kind of person who empowers and uplifts those around him. But I become so worn down by the things bothering me that I can’t see or appreciate the good. More often than not, I’m just a big, blue crab.

I call this the moody blues. My use of that term started in New York, I think, when I would get suddenly and overwhelmingly sad that the weekend was about to send. It’s my term for That Sunday Feeling, though it fits for any sort of darkness so strong no light can penetrate.

Perhaps it’s a little too on-the-nose — but it’s also not a total surprise — that this winter I started listening to the actual Moody Blues, the British psychedelic rock band best known for Nights in White Satin:

This song is doubly remarkable, though incredibly unsubtle in its symbolism for my feeling as I enter 2018. Tired of wallowing in my own moody blues, I’m attracted to this song that is really not so happy but that turns on an anthemic chorus of, “I love you, yes, I love you, oh, how I love you.” Because that’s what I want to do this year: really concentrate on the things and people I love.

In the style of years past, I guess that makes 2018 the Year of Positive Focus. I want to remember and pay attention to and focus on those things I love. When I catch myself failing to do that, maybe I’ll just listen to Nights in White Satin and get fired up by love. I’ve done that a couple of times this winter, and honestly, it worked.

What do I want to be focusing on, then? What are the things I love?

In terms of activities, I’m happiest at two times: When I’m running, and when my cat is snuggling me. (Seriously.) Every year I berate myself for not achieving my running goals, so I won’t do that this year. I need to appreciate the runs I do go on rather than beating myself up for the ones I miss. But achieving some kind of routine in it — for the first time in years — will help me improve, and one of my favorite things about running is being able to see and track my improvement.

As far as the cat is concerned, honestly, I think I pay enough attention to him. But my love for him — and for animals more generally — is an opportunity for me. I’ve been joking for the last week about doing a cat-focused podcast. But I’ve also been talking seriously since last spring about volunteering for my county’s cat adoptions. Maybe this year I stop finding reasons to postpone that and actually start doing it.

This would be an active step towards helping improve the world. In the face of all the evil and hate in the world, I want to work for good. At this moment in early January, I don’t know what that means, but I’ve used not knowing what to do as an excuse for inaction throughout the entire Trump administration so far. Inaction is inexcusable.

Creatively, too, I want to do more. I want to consume more art, watch more movies, write more, and see that writing published. Depending on what happens with our living situation, I want to audition for plays, or commercials, or something. I miss performing, even though I haven’t done it since I was 17 or 18. I want to work at these things and stop feeling pulled away from my passions by various “obligations,” which aren’t obligations at all but get treated as such.

(I’m not talking here about bowling, of course. I hope to keep bowling forever. This past year I’ve almost become kind of good at it!)

And above all, I want to focus on my family, both immediate and more dispersed. I allow my multifarious resentments to turn into resentment towards my wife; we haven’t had the best year together. I want to remember, each day, how and why she’s so great.

My more distant family needs more from me, too, and I want to focus on my love for them as well. By “distant” family, I mean the physically distant, which is my entire family (including parents and siblings) because I’m the one who moved so far away. We see my in-laws all the time, but I never see my family more than once a year. I haven’t done a major holiday with anyone in my family since Thanksgiving 2012. That’s not going to change this year, but I can call and email them more. I should, but just as importantly, I want to.

Will this a good year? I have no idea. But I sure as hell better try to make it one.

Here Are Some Things I Ate Recently

In 10 days back on the east coast, I ate lots of things at lots of places. Here is a ranking of the best of it (home-cooked meals and wedding dinners excluded):

  1. Ippudo West – Ramen – New York City
  2. Rubirosa – Pizza! – New York City
  3. Joe’s Pizza – Pizza! – New York City (West Village)
  4. Miller’s Twist – Pretzel and Pretzel Dog – Philadelphia (Reading Terminal Market)
  5. LES Pizza – Pizza! – New York City
  6. Red Emma’s – Falafel Sandwich – Baltimore
  7. Bube’s – Roast Duck – Mt. Joy, PA
  8. Lunch Box – Bagel Sandwich with Lox – New York City
  9. The Point – Crab Cake Sandwich – Arnold, MD
  10. Brewer’s Art – Sausage Plate with Beer Pairing – Baltimore
  11. Nom wah Tea Parlor – Dim Sum – New York City
  12. Encantada – Very Sloppy Portobello Sandwich – Baltimore (American Visionary Art Museum)

Ranking everything is a little unfair, because everything in these 12 meals was very, very good. Basically, I only wanted to rank it because the meals at Ippudo and Rubirosa were that good.

The Granger-Weasley Wedding: A Muggle Perspective (Fan-Fic)

The car rolled over the moors, lumbering through the humid June morning. It was a respectable car, certainly nothing flashy, moving at a reasonable pace. Seated in the front seat was a couple that were similarly respectable, reasonable, and certainly nothing flashy. The driver was a middle-aged man with thinning red-brown hair and a slightly ruddy complexion; seated beside him, poring over maps printed from the internet, was his wife, whose brown hair was tied loosely back. Both wore spectacles and were the model of middle-class practicality.

Filtering from the Peugeot’s speakers was a CD by the Australian rock band Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, which the couple had bought on a year-long holiday down under a couple of years prior. That trip had been one of the few impulsive things either of them had ever done: Looking back, they were hard-pressed to explain what had driven them to suspend their dentistry practice and leave for Australia for an entire year.

“Lovely country, isn’t it?” the husband said to his wife. “Do you think they’re going to stay out here after the wedding?” She looked up from the maps that she was studiously examining and smiled.

“Well, they both work in London so I imagine they might end up at least a little closer to us. Oh, look,” she added, pointing to a signpost, “Ottery St. Catchpole, 1 mile. It should be coming up.” She buried her head back into the maps.

As the narrow road curved around a bulbous little hill, they spotted a narrow drive cutting through a bog marked by what appeared to be a freshly painted sign:

No. 127

The husband was about to ask his wife if this was the driveway they were looking for, but realized he had no need: This was certainly it.

The evidence was a man standing some ways down from the sign, who began waving excitedly as soon as he saw the car slow down. He was middle-aged, with thinning hair that still retained much of its original bright red, wearing what could only be described as a wizard’s robe.

“The Grangers, at long last!” he exclaimed as the car pulled to a stop and Mr. Granger rolled down the window.

“Hello, Arthur! You didn’t have to meet us at the end of the drive,” said Mr. Granger by way of greeting, as Mrs. Granger leaned across her husband to wave her hello.

“Oh, it was no problem at all! I wasn’t sure if I did the number right — our home is usually unmarked. We don’t get your post, you know. Besides, I’m always fascinated by how unmodified muggle cars work.”

The Granger shared a bemused look, before Mrs. Granger spoke. “Would you like to drive it back to your house, then?” she asked.

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Frozen Grapes and Apple Juice Saved My Actor’s Life

Labor Day weekend 2017 was an extraordinarily hot one in the Bay Area. Headlines shouted that the heat wave “shattered” all-time records in San Francisco, with the thermometer hitting 106 in The City. Santa Cruz was the hottest it’s ever been, since records started being kept in 1874. Beforehand, news reports warned of “potentially deadly” heat, though I can’t find any reports of deaths. In Berkeley, where I was scheduled to shoot a short film in an un-air conditioned apartment (because very few people in San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley have AC) it hit 99 on Saturday. This posed problems.

I’d been working on this shoot since May, when I first wrote the script. While my professional commitment is to publishing and the general spread of knowledge, I still love writing and wanted to graduate from writing scripts solely as exercises. So I decided to write something I could actually shoot. On June 2, I met with my first actor, a co-worker of mine with a theater degree, for whom I had written the lead role. On June 19, I had what I considered to be the “Go/No Go” meeting: I called my father-in-law and asked if I could borrow his camera for the production. He said yes. So, with one actor and a camera — and with my wife lined up as producer and production designer — it was time to get going.

With Franny in charge of props, set dressing, and wardrobe, I was freed up to work through July and August on securing the rest of the talent (two more actors), scouting and securing locations, rehearsing, and learning how to shoot video well. In theory, this was plenty of time to prepare.

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I Don’t Blog in June

Last year, I only posted one item between May 1 and the end of June: this post about how I had been neglecting my blog so much that I had let the URL lapse. This year, I was able to remember to renew my domain registration. (I keep doing a one-year registration, because it never feels like I can afford the payment for a multi-year one, even though that saves money long-term.) But still, I haven’t posted anything since May 29.

Part of that is that I’ve been busy. I wrote a short film that I’m shooting in September. Most of my free creative time has been taken up by planning and budgeting and hiring and casting. Even though this short is of modest ambitions, there’s still a ton to do. The bad news is that I haven’t had time to do any writing — I’m behind on my personal journal-keeping as well as my blogging, and haven’t done any creative writing beyond tweaking that short script — though the good news is that I really, really enjoy all the minute production tasks that I’ve been working on.

The other part of my silence over the last month and a half is that I am, quite simply, behind on things I want to write about. The further behind you get, the harder it is to catch up. I have about half a dozen book reports I want to write, about things I’ve read and enjoyed and learned from over the five months since my last one. I want to write more in-depth about producing this short, and learning to direct, to create shot lists and storyboards, to cast, and to do all the other minute tasks that go into a film production. I want to write all this and more.

But for now, there is no time. I have about 30 headshots and actor resumes to look over, and I need to figure out where to do these auditions.

Yesterday’s Animals

This is a post-script to my post from two days ago about the animals I see on my long runs. Right now is an especially active time in the hills behind my apartment — late spring, as the summer heat is really beginning to come in (albeit inconsistently), in a year that saw extraordinary amounts of rain. This winter’s rains, of course, came after several years of historic drought, so many plants that went dormant to survive the drought are coming back with a vengeance. This means, of course, more food for the little animals, meaning more little animals, meaning more food for the big animals.

On yesterday’s run, an 8-mile run in which I climbed almost exactly 1,300 feet — over 100 feet per mile is a lot of uphill — I didn’t see any mammals except for squirrels. But the birds — oh, the birds! At the end of my third mile, I hobbled to some shade atop a ridge looking north out towards the Carquinez Strait. The wind was whipping up through the valley and birds were singing and it was peaceful. I stood long enough and quietly enough that the birds began zooming back and forth. They were gorgeous red-winged blackbirds.

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