Haters may quibble about plot points, but one thing is already quite clear about Star Wars Episode VII: Rey is the best – a bold, clever, strong, adorable (in the best sense of the word) protagonist. What she needs is to be celebrated for the revelation she is. And what better way to celebrate than by rendering her best moments… in Legos! (Warning: Mild Spoilers ahead)
Moment 1: when we first meet Rey, she’s deep in the bowels of a star destroyer mining it for parts, all the while wearing an awesome facemask to keep the sand at bay:
Moment 2: Rey kicks back to eat her quarter portion of gelatinous green food, leaning against the ruins of an AT-AT among the sand dunes of Jakku, all the while sporting an old Rebel pilot helmet:
Moment 3: You know the one: it’s snowing in the woods, and Rey just force-grabbed herself a light-saber. It’s showtime.
As another Christmas approaches, the season looks anything but merry: a malevolent regime kills and abuses thousands in the middle East and seems to extend terror throughout the globe. First world nations squabble and choose self interest over human rights. Here in the US, Presidential candidates capitalize on global suffering to further their polling numbers. The poor stay poor. The outcast remain outcast. And popular culture and the media seem to care most about promoting another blockbuster movie sure to rake in money while fans bicker about its worth and ignore the real problems facing the world. So the argument goes…
And yet… And yet. This movie is the seventh installment in the Star Wars franchise, a series of films that invented and reinvented not just visual storytelling, but the whole western understanding of how films are marketed, discussed and, yes, even complained about. The beloved original trilogy of 1977-1983 may have given way to the controversial-at-best prequel trilogy of 1999-2005, but the buzz and the fascination with the universe Lucas made has not diminished. It has only grown. Now we are on the eve of the sequel trilogy, and I for one would like to meditate, in the calm before the cultural storm, about why, in this fraught and cynical age of global awareness and global nausea, Star Wars may teach us just what we need to survive:
There are always threats to the galaxy, and the greatest threat is within: the villains of Star Wars are a big part of its appeal: Darth Vader, stormtroopers, The Emperor, General Grievous. They put a face (or a hood) on the villainy that too often arises in human culture. It is not for nothing that the evil Empire of the original trilogy seems so obviously patterned after Nazi Germany. The late 20th century understood evil best as a bunch of drab-uniformed white men exterminating other races and cultures. But what the original trilogy, and the prequels in their due time showed, is that the most insidious threat to us may not be the totalitarian baddies a planet away. It is ourselves, our own recklessness (see Luke’s colossal failure at the end of episode 5), our own fear (see Anakin’s maddening descent into terror in episodes 2 and 3), our own petty justifications (see uncle Owen’s and Obi Wan’s continual lying to Luke for his own good in episode 4), and, perhaps most insidious of all, our assumption that because we are on the “right side” of a conflict, we needn’t police our own institutions or intentions. This is best seen in the arrogance and mis-administration of the Jedi order in the prequel trilogy and Clone Wars TV show. By the end of episode 3, one of the most believable and moving moments is Yoda’s grief over having failed the republic, and knowing he – perhaps as much as Darth Sidious himself – is to blame for its fall. It is the human heart, not a bunker full of terrorists, from which evil springs.
The path to wonder lies in the understanding of the Other: Throughout the Star wars saga, when a character – especially a protagonist – is wrong about a stranger, that mistake costs them joy, and sometimes lives. Han dismisses Obi Wan as an “old fossil”, and so misses out on even knowing one of the greatest men of his age. Luke dismisses Yoda because of his size and demeanor and so is shamed and humbled when he learns the Jedi Master’s true identity. And the Empire, who cannot abide the stranger, loses its grip on the galaxy because it misjudged everyone: Leia, the rebellion, the millennium falcon, the ewoks, the wookiees – the lost goes on an on. Those who embrace the other – and Leia is a great example of this in episode 6 – see the value and wonder in the other. If not for Leia’s befriending and trusting of the ewoks on endor, the rebellion most surely would have lost. In this she is like her mother, Padme, who trusts the offputting Gungans, and so saves her planet from the Trade Federation.
Our passions can destroy us: Simply put, emotion and appetite unbridled by reason and virtue lead to ruin in the Star Wars universe. Anakin is the best example of this, but we see it in other prominent characters: watto, sebulba, jabba, the whole host of sith who cultivate anger and fear, and always lose to the patient and the kind.
The halls of power hold no satisfaction: those who seek and achieve power in the Star Wars universe seldom become more joyful. Lando Calrisian’s administrative power, far from helping him do good, leads him only to compromise. Palpatine seems positively bored by his position (this is borne out in the TV shows and books). The Senate of the Old Republic, as much as they seem preferable to the Emperor’s despotism, are a glum and impotent bunch. Star Wars reminds us that political power, even when it doesn’t corrupt, causes grief, anxiety, and plenty of temptation to compromise.
You don’t believe in the force, do you? Finally, Lucas’s universe is one that questions the materialism of our age. Lucas assumes that we want the Old legends and religions to be true in our ideal story. His universe is open to the divine, to eucatastrophe, to a host of the departed who watch and aid the living. And he asks us, as C.S. Lewis did before him: does this spirit-shot world of wonder and danger not lick your modern world hollow?
There are afternoons I am so taken with excitement for the new Star Wars film The Force Awakens that I feel I cannot wait for it. My patience is reduced to that of the proverbial kid before Christmas. Though I consider myself part of several fandoms, (including Buffy, DC, and Harry Potter) Star Wars is my first fandom. It was preordained, I think; I was born in 1983, one month and one day after Return of the Jedi was released. One of my earlier memories is of me hiding behind a couch at my grandma’s house, listening to my uncle and my father watch Empire Strikes Back on TV. I was too young to join them, I was told. I remember the flashes of red on the ceiling, and the screams of laser fire. What was this forbidden story, I wondered. What was flashing and exploding on that screen?
Fast-forward to today, after the Star Wars canon has taken not one but two unexpected turns: first, the prequel trilogy, which were released around the turn of the millennium underwhelmed a majority of viewers and made many downright furious with disappointment. Now that we have some distance from the prequels, tempers seem to have cooled, but it will be a long time before some fans forgive Lucas for what they see as a failure of epic proportions. Secondly, and more quietly, Lucas began making television shows, putting them in the capable hands of Dave Filoni, who has turned out two Star Wars animated TV shows, Clone Wars and Rebels, with surprising critical and popular appeal. Now we are poised on a third great change, as the third trilogy heads toward theaters.
I’ll hold off on speculation about whether the new trilogy will follow suit with the prequels or, more hopefully, replicate Filoni’s TV successes. No, I’m here to provide a ranking of what we have up till now. (I’ve only ranked canon films and shows; I’ll leave it to others to tackle the expanded universe.)
10. The Clone Wars (2008 film): The first sentence of Roger Ebert’s 2008 review of this animated follow up to the prequel trilogy is: “Has it come to this?” One can practically hear the disappointment in Ebert’s voice, not only that this film is so blasé, but also that this film exists at all. The Clone Wars era had already been smartly handled in an short, animated TV show in 2003, and Episode III had ended the prequel trilogy on a grim high note. Why this let-down, and why now? We now know that Lucas had a long game in mind, that he wanted to kick off a television show and wanted to use the film as an introduction to his new characters, most especially Anakin’s Padawan Ahsoka Tano. But the introduction leaves much to be desired. Ahsoka is mildly amusing at best, and positively annoying at worst. The film’s plot revolves around a minor villain, Ziro the Hutt, who appears to have been dreamed up by Lucas while he was drunk in Vegas. The best that can be said for this film is that in Ahsoka it introduced a character who would later come into her own and become beloved. Other than that, this film is forgettable.
9. The Clone Wars (2003 show): If the 2008 Clone Wars film was a minor Star Wars story at its worst, this miniseries is a minor Star Wars story at its best. The animation is strange and consistently engaging. The characters are almost figurine-like in their simplicity. The new character that is introduced, General Greivous, would become one of the best villains of the prequel age. With its brief episodes and dialogue-light plotting, this will never rival the films, or even Filoni’s shows, but it is a testament to what a fresh take on the look of Star Wars can sometimes produce. [I’ve since been informed that this show does not count as canon.]
8. Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999 film): Such promise, such anticipation, such confusion. I watched this so many times in the theater, and so many more times on VHS, and I still could not make myself fully satisfied with it. There are moments of pure awesome that we had never seen before, never even imagined: the towers and waterfalls of Naboo, the sprawl of Coruscant, Darth Maul and his double-ended lightsaber, the whole quiet decadence of the Old Republic.
And yet the basic elements of what we looked for in a film were sub-par. The acting felt wooden and rote, most especially in actors we thought should know better, like Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor. The plot too often relied on Anakin’s abilities in ways that were hardly believable, even while keeping the original trilogies in mind. But now, sixteen years later, Episode I does not need to be the Return-of-the-Jedi-topping masterwork we were all hoping it would be in 1999. It introduced a key arc, and gave us indelible sights, and unforgettable characters.
7. Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002 film): This is an improvement, we all said. Obi Wan had some wry energy to him, Jango-Fett and his son Boba blasted onto the screen, and the Clone Wars actually, finally, started. We even got some promise of forbidden romance in the early scenes, which seemed at first to be charming and angsty enough. But it progressed all wrong. It didn’t seem to be acted well. The chemistry between the characters was off—too cold, then too obsessive and creepy. In retrospect, this almost seems the right way to do it. Anakin and Padme are supposed to be dysfunctional; we shouldn’t approve of or enjoy their courtship.
Luckily, right or wrong, the love between Anakin and Padme gets them into a wonderful scamper with alien beasts in a gladiator arena, which leads to a climactic Jedi, clone, and robot laser-fest that is still a lot of loud fun. And just when we think it’s over, Yoda pulls out a lightsaber, and audiences, for the first time since Return of the Jedi, were left breathless by a Star Wars duel. The Phantom Menace never really got the action right, except for in the final Darth Maul scenes. The real strength of Attack of the Clones is that it remembers the anxious fun of sci-fi action that the original trilogy captured so well.
6.Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005 film): I remember the first review that I read of Revenge of the Sith said that it was the best Star Wars film since Empire. That now seems to be overblown praise, but there’s no denying that this is the best of the prequel trilogy, and contains some of the most emotionally resonant scenes in all of Star Wars. The Mustafar duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan is nearly perfect, as is the unexpected Yoda vs. Palpatine fight. It is, in fact, Palpatine who really shines, believably corrupting and seducing Anakin and scorning the Jedi’s attempts to stop him. Even the painfully awkward Anakin/Padme love scenes seem to be appropriately painful, even if the acting leaves something to be desired.
Perhaps, in the end, this film justifies our whole unease with Episodes I and II. They lacked hope and spontaneity, seemed decadent where they should have been lively and aggressive where they should have been lyrical. Such lacks, such “should have beens” are, Episode III shows, what kill a republic.
5. Rebels (2014 show): I’m taking an awful risk here. This had better work. I’m predicting that Rebels, which is only 13 episodes in, will prove in the long run better than half of all Star Wars canon made so far. But what a 13 episodes they have been! Not in the whole prequel trilogy did I feel the fear, the thrill, the inspiration and the fun that the first season of Rebels has offered. Filoni says that the A-Team was an inspiration for Rebels, and I can kind of see that, but what Rebels really is, to me, is Firefly for the junior high crowd (okay, maybe ALL of Star Wars is for the junior high crowd). Many of Firefly’s adult themes are missing, but the rest is there: a ragtag group of misfits trying to survive off the scraps of outer space, a malevolent government tightening its grip on its frontier, and even a young, mysterious, and radically gifted teen with unresolved angst. And Filoni, like Firefly’s creator Joss Whedon, isn’t afraid to kill characters or crucially change the rules of the plot.
But what Filoni has that Joss doesn’t is the deep mythology of the Jedi—and the Jedi-in-hiding at that—to draw on, which leads to beautiful explorations of the virtue of hope and the activity of return. Return even takes on Judaic resonance in the early episodes, as Erza, the orphaned Padawan, finds Kanan, the lonely Jedi, and together they rebuild an ancient spiritual community. Perhaps one of the things that is so wonderful about Rebels is that is takes place in the Star Wars world we’ve known since 1977, the post-Order 66 world where the Empire is firmly in change. There are so many good stories to tell in this world, and I’m excited to see where they go next.
4. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi(1983 film): Jedi may be Star Wars at its most fun: Jabba’s palace, Boba Fett’s rocket pack, Ewoks, and a skeletal second Death Star. We finally get the narrative payoff—the redemption of Darth Vader—that we’d been waiting for since Empire in 1980 (if we saw it as it was released), or since Episode I, if we’re in a younger generation of fans. Jedi proves that Lucas lost none of his creative energy over the course of the whole trilogy, even if some of the elements (ahem, another Death Star?) feel a little recycled.
Why isn’t this, then, the best Star Wars? Well, the writing is just noticeably worse than the first two films; what had been the natural humor of Empire now feels a little more knowing and contrived. The sets, costumes and vehicles seem too neatly designed to be converted into merchandise, and there’s a heavy cheese factor at the end of the film with the Ewok party. None of these weaker elements are as off-putting as the Anakin/Padme romance, but they are creative indulgences which render Jedi a weaker film than its fellows in the original trilogy.
3. Clone Wars(2008 show): How can this possibly beat Jedi? It’s a cartoon for crying out loud! Well, sometimes Return of the Jedi feels like a cartoon too. Just hear me out: Clone Wars is the best of Star Wars on TV, and among the best Star Wars ever made because it learns from its predecessors and takes its cultural context seriously. Dave Filoni and George Lucas developed Clone Wars in a golden age of televised storytelling that was unimaginable even 9 years before when Lucas was making Episode I. I think that much of what Filoni and Lucas learned from a decade of prequels is what not to do: don’t focus everything on Padme and Anakin; don’t ignore your villains for the majority of the story, don’t treat the Clones like faceless throwaways, and don’t forget your women characters. Instead, Clone Wars focused on the villains, the soldiers, and the women. Ahsoka, who was just bearable in the Clone Wars film becomes a strong and beloved character; Asajj Ventress may begin as a one-dimensional villain, but by seasons 4 and 5 she is as fascinating as Carmela Soprano.
Speaking of Sopranos, I think that serious TV drama was the real influence on this show. There is a deep uneasiness at the political and interpersonal levels of this show that has more in common with Breaking Bad or Dollhouse than Batman the Animated Series or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, shows that are pitched at the same audience as Clone Wars. The closest inspiration for Clone Wars, however, is the impressive and disturbing Battlestar Galactica (BSG). Together, Clone Wars and BSG are the best sci-fi television of the new millennium, and arguably among the best sci-fi ever made. Only Star Trek is as good at sci-fi television, and Clone Wars and BSG have surely learned from the Star Trek shows of the 90s how to make good sci-fi TV. What is so effective about these shows is the political and philosophical seriousness. Clone Wars and BSG helped me process and wrestle with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the whole ethos of the War on Terror better than any pundit on CNN or article in The Atlantic. Clone Wars is truly art that reflects on its age; that it does so in a kid’s cartoon makes it that much more impressive.
2. Episode IV: A New Hope(1977 film): Oh the effortless joy of Star Wars, as it was called when there was only one film, and the world was young. The politics and philosophy of Clone Wars are all there, but streamlined into a concise, transporting story that is almost medieval, even ancient in its plot: the lost princess, the farm-boy, the old wizard, the black-clad villain. Every Star Wars since ’77 has come to be because of our fascination with this new world.
Yes, there are flaws, mostly those of youth and inexperience; Mark Hamill does not know how to play Luke sympathetically yet, and the rubber aliens, especially in the Cantina scene, feel cobbled together from some backlot warehouse. But if anything this low-budget, amateurishness adds to the charm. We now know that all the overblown CGI and clone battles are on the horizon; it’s nice to sit for a moment with Episode IV and relive a more elegant story from a more civilized time.
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back(1980 film): What do you get when you make Star Wars with more experienced actors, a more tightly written script, more creative discernment, and more money? You get Empire, the only Star Wars film to approach Shakespeare in quotability and 2001: A Space Odyssey in sheer spectacle. While the Darth Maul saber battles in Episode I and Clone Wars are among the best in the canon, it is Luke and Vader whose long and varied duel in Empire takes the cake for best saber battle ever.
Joss Whedon has said that he doesn’t like Empire, because it’s not a complete story. This is a fair critique of it as a stand-alone film, but it’s not a stand-alone film. As we learn from Clone Wars, it is often the interludes, the half-way houses, the adventures one has while waiting for consolation or resolution to come, in which the greatest lessons are learned, in which meaning in life is discovered. As Yoda says in the final episode of Clone Wars, sometimes, when we least expect it, we discover that we can have “victory, not in the Clone Wars, but for all time.”
The buzz this week about Old Fashioned, a Christian rip-off/response to 50 Shades of Grey, has got me thinking about a genre of Christian art that’s even more embarrassing than Christian movies: that’s right, Christian Poetry. Let’s begin by looking at two interesting facts:
Christian bookstores don’t even stoop to sell Christian poetry.
Christian poetry has been around for longer than any other Christian artistic genre, and it’s always been embarrassingly bad.
First, let’s talk about the contemporary problem. Say you walk into a Christian bookstore (maybe you need some clearance Duck Dynasty merchandise?), and browse the aisles of books. You’ll see many genres: inspirational biographies, inspirational fiction, inspirational bible studies, and maybe even, way off in a corner, theology. You know what you won’t find? Poetry. No major Christian publishing houses even have poetry on their radar, and for good reason.
Here are some names of Christian poets you probably haven’t heard of (and shouldn’t really need to): Richard Wilbur, Franz Wright, Geoffrey Hill, Luci Shaw, and Scott Cairns.* These poets must be so embarrassing to even Christian audiences that they have to publish their books with obscure secular publishers like Penguin, Harper Collins, and Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Wilbur and Wright have been known to even win prizes, like the Pulitzer, but it certainly hasn’t helped their situation with the Christian bookstores. These stores know better than to foist iambic pentameter about nuns and laundry (Wilbur’s specialty) on the Duck Dynasty crowd. Maybe if Geoffrey Hill had helped to write a CMT-award winning song, he wouldn’t have to slum it as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (his current job). When only weary British students at some obscure college read your work, you know your career is in the dumps.
There are even rumors that Geoffrey Hill could win the Nobel Prize in literature for his opaque, rambling poems that are riddled with references to someone called “Our Lady of Walsingham” and something called “The Mass”. (Maybe he’s trying to stand up against body shaming?) In any case, if Hill does win the Nobel, it would put him in the company of T.S. Eliot, a Christian poet so characteristic of the genre that both Christians and non-Christians alike ignore his religious poems. Still, one must concede that Eliot did write some successful poems about cats after his conversion to Christianity, but that’s about it. And forget about bringing up his popular and award winning verse play Murder in the Cathedral, that was made into a movie in 1951. The only thing worse than poetry in Christian bookstores is poetry in movies. Gross.
Given that we’ve let the cat out of the bag about T.S. Eliot, it seems like we should move on to the historical kerfuffle that is Christian poetry. We should probably pass over David’s Psalm’s entirely (Honestly: shepherds? pastures? Way to pick horribly dated imagery David! Someone should have told him that no one – I mean NO ONE – is going to resonate with Psalm 23 after 500 BC!)
The real culprit in the sordid story of Christian poetry is this wannabe named Prudentius, who, in the early 400s AD, wrote rip offs of highly original Latin Roman poems like the Aeneid. Prudentius had a fatal notion that one could write poems that had both allegorical and literal significance, and this notion infected such failures as Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spencer, and even—gasp!—Shakespeare himself. Check out this gem from Shakespeare’s King Lear:
So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon ’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies.
High school students who complain about Shakespeare have a point, it seems. Not only are the butterflies inexcusable, but the cliché Christianization of the whole shebang with the final “God’s spies” is just a bridge too far. We’re not inventing names for cheesy CCM pop groups here Shakespeare!
At least John Milton gives us some hope in his seeming celebration of the Devil and his avoidance of allegory, but by the end of Paradise Lost you get the idea that even he might actually believe in a literal Genesis and a real, actual God.
And this brings me to the real point. It’s all well and good to find out how contemporary Christian beliefs ruin the artistic endeavors of today’s religious folk, but it’s even more important to show that Christian belief couldn’t possibly motivate good art. We all know that transgressive anarchism is the essence of art. This is why it’s best to use our critical writing to aid people in forgetting that there ever were Christians who were successful and culture-defining in their art.
It was summer of 1988 when my brother and I finally mustered up the courage to ask our dad the question. We were staying with my aunt, and we decided this was serious enough to pull dad into a private room to inquire; the question wasn’t just for anyone’s ears.
“Dad, we were, um, wondering, um, if we could get Ninja Turtles figures…”
The answer was bound to be no. Just a year before, my brother had received Masters of the Universe figures as a gift, but was not allowed to keep them. I still don’t know how to play video games, because we were never allowed to get a Nintendo.
“Yeah, I don’t see why not.”
We could hardly believe it. Had dad just said yes? Not only that, but he took us to the nearest Kay-Bee toys, and bought them for us! I got Raphael, and my older brother, the natural leader, got Leonardo.
Twenty-six years later, I seem to be living in a golden age of nostalgia, where what I loved as a child is given back to me as an adult, repackaged and re-mastered with updated talking points and culture nods. The world remakes itself for me to buy it once again, both for myself and for my kids. This is a kind of fountain of eternal youth, where I may drink and drink, each sip remixed, the base flavor always the same… Okay. Enough metaphors and exalted diction. I’m talking about the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or TMNT) movie which came out this weekend. But don’t worry, this post isn’t going to hate on reboots as much as meditate on them.
I’m a literature professor, so I don’t have the luxury of being able to treat the reboot as some evil invention of post-modern pop culture. Many of the greatest works of narrative art in world history are reboots: Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Nolan’s Dark Knight. The good of any story, it turns out, is much more in the quality of telling than the novelty of the concept.
I tried to keep all this in mind this weekend as I prepared to watch the new movie. But the prospects weren’t promising. Michael Bay, the producer, hasn’t made a decent movie since Bad Boys 2, and the director, Jonathan Leibesman, seems not to have ever made a decent flick. Nevertheless, I showed up opening day with my classic TMNT shirt on (sans sais, which turn out to be illegal to carry in Texas).
The opening day matinee was sparsely attended. As far as I could tell there were a dozen or so twenty- and thirty-something guys with expectations as liberally drizzled with skepticism as their popcorn was with butter. There were a couple kids, but not as many as I expected. On the whole it was my peers and I, who had played with the action figures of the late 80s and watched the cartoons and movies of the early 90s, and were looking, not too expectantly, for a possible jolt to the awe buried somewhere in our souls.
II. (Spoilers Ahead)
Though the movie was not completely awesome, there were things that I really enjoyed about it; first, the turtles themselves were true to their characters, especially Michelangelo, whose jokes, more often then not, are actually funny. Given that it’s a 100-minute movie, we don’t get a lot of time for the turtles to interact, but what we get is energetic and honoring to the source material.
It turns out that this is April’s movie just as much as it is the turtles’ movie. Whereas in previous incarnations, the main back-story and conflict center around shredder and splinter in Japan, in this one, the backstory belongs to April. In her girlhood, she befriended her scientist-father’s lab animals, and saved them from he fire that destroyed her father’s lab and claimed her father’s life. Present day April, a young reporter forced to jump on trampolines to be the eye candy in Today Show-style puff pieces, longs to be a serious journalist, only to be held back by those who want to relegate her to the trampoline forever. That this version of April is played by Megan Fox – relegated to brainless eye-candy roles as the actress often is – is sly on the movie-maker’s parts. April gets reunited with her past when she meets both the turtles she saved (now grown) as well as the evil businessman responsible for that fateful fire. This backstory connection gives April and the turtles a sentimental, even nostalgic connection. As they tumble across Manhattan, I got the sense that this is a story about a girl and her pets in some fantasy that is, in the end, less experienced by adults than it is imagined by that little girl. Though adult April gives off flashes of Louis Lane, her real pop culture analogue is Nancy Drew. (I have learned that this backstory was loosely based on the IDW comics backstory, in which April was a lab assistant who named the turtles. I like the 2014 version of this better.)
But placing the central conflict between April and her father’s killer, and thus writing out the Splinter-Shredder backstory, makes the obligatory showdowns between the turtles, Splinter and Shredder largely meaningless. Shredder is no longer the age-old enemy who must be stopped to avenge Splinter’s honor (and, in some versions, Splinter’s murdered wife), but simply some really big mean guy who happens to work with April’s dad’s killer. The sentiment of jealous resentment and generations-long grudge (a sort of negative nostalgia) that hangs over the Shredder of yesteryear is gone. He is simply a video game boss, whose most interesting feature is his magnetic, boomerang knives. This problem also applies to Karai, Shredder’s right-hand woman, who is less than disposable in the new movie, but downright likable and even fascinating in the current TMNT TV show.
I think these uninspired versions of Shredder and Karai are due to a lack of interest on the filmmaker’s parts that this franchise has been, until now, about ninja, and is thus rooted in the world of martial arts, of pop-Japanese-mysticism, and the incarnation of both in badly dubbed, spectacularly choreographed Bruce lee flicks. Further, ours is a post-Matrix world, where fans know that slow-motion, explosion heavy, American action film tropes can be elegantly wed to those earlier, kung-fu import tropes. Sadly, nowhere in the film do we get a fight scene as enjoyable or beautiful as anything in the Matrix movies, let alone anything in the recent Ip Man movies. Though the director said the action was inspired by The Raid, he seems to have learned nothing from that film except that actions scenes should be loud and fast-paced. If I had my way, I’d recommend Leibesman remake the film using the excellent and under-appreciated Attack the Block – a film that understands both teenage goof-offs and samurai swords – as his inspiration.
At a deeper level, Leibesman does not seem to understand or portray ninjutsu as the tradition that grounds the culture and morality of the main characters. Instead, ninjutsu is Splinter’s arbitrary choice for a method of self-defense to teach his adopted turtle sons (if you couldn’t tell already, family is a big, not very well explored, theme in this movie). Further, the foot soldiers are not ninjas – as they are in the source material – but rather burly mercenaries who fight mostly with automatic weapon and tasers. This gives our heroes little chance for the sort of martial-arts based sparring that fills many an enjoyable fight scene in earlier incarnations. Instead, there is a generic smashing and thrashing that takes up most of the action scenes. The welcome exception to this is the snow chase and the Splinter/Shredder fight scene, but the balletics of both are marred by truncations in narrative and blocking.
If the new movie has a source material, or a closest iteration, it would be the 1990 movie of the same name. Though there have been three movies since then, none of them have been reboots as much as “further adventures of” type stories. I was seven in 1990 and remember what a big deal the movie was. I was not allowed to watch it when it came out, as my careful parents were worried it would make my brothers and I more pugilistic than we already were.
But we – who still faithfully toted our action figures wherever we went – found a loophole: some friends of my parents had bought the VHS of the movie soon after it was released, and one night when we were over at their house for dinner, while our parents were talking, we slipped into the living room and found the movie. I still remember the feeling of transgressive fun that the glossy black slipcase stirred in me. We watched as much of it as we could before my parents found us. Realizing they had been outwitted, they let us finish it.
I haven’t watched it again since the early 90s, and I’m a little afraid to. The impression that I got from it was that being a teenager was a life of danger and difficult choices. This was highlighted most not by the turtles themselves but by the runway kid who is lured into the foot clan by the evil Shredder. Would I be able to resist the lures of ninja-gang rebellion when it came down to it, I wondered? I got another sobering dose of reality when it turned out that Raphael – my prized action figure – was not a role model; hotheaded and independent, he tries to take on the foot clan alone and gets beat up, captured and humiliated. The most affecting shot of the film for me is when the foot soldiers drop a bound, gagged, and beaten Raphael through a skylight into a bathtub for his brothers to find. Grim stuff for a seven-year-old. But I think I learned a little about which activities and attitudes to avoid if I wanted to be a good brother.
Back then I believed that movies were the highest form of storytelling; If a story was made into a movie, it had reached the pinnacle of its existence. And could only get better if it was made into a trilogy. The last 20 years have complicated this belief, as I’ve written about on this blog before. TV now rivals film as the ultimate visual story-telling medium. Part of this is the rise of the character as the supreme component of screen-based storytelling. We want to see the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. House, Walter White, Batman, The Doctor, etc. If they do make a Doctor Who movie now, it won’t feel like a peak and an ending point as much as an olive branch to the not-yet-initiated, as many of the Marvel movies feel. Further, it could be argued that what has made Marvel’s recent successes – especially Avengers and Captain America 2 – so beloved is that they felt like the season finales to their previous movie episodes. And it’s only in 2014 that Batman movies become so popular that TV execs decide to make a Gotham TV show. In the Star Trek world of the 60s and 70s, it was the other way around.
All of this is a long is introduction to a simple point: the 2012 TV show is the best of the TMNT screen incarnations. While there is still some retro charm here and there in the 1987 TV series, the new series benefits from being made in an era of cartoon storytelling that has learned from and incorporated the great animation styles of the intervening decades, most especially those of Pixar and anime. And it has learned from the long-form genre TV storytelling tropes of Buffy, X-Files, and Veronica Mars. It is not as good a show as these, but it has learned from them. The character exploration and development of the turtles is especially good, and the weekly themes/moral lessons are reminiscent of the recent Clone Wars show at its didactic best.
In fact, I’m tempted to say that if TMNT has an important cultural function beyond mere entertainment, it is in its main conceit, which is essentially set up for moral lessons: four teenagers with differing dispositions and talents learn to work together and overcome relational and physical obstacles under the guidance of their master/father/teacher. TMNT, like Harry Potter, is a school story, albeit not in a Scottish boarding school. I don’t know that any incarnation of TMNT has capitalized on this as much as the new show; one of the ways it does this is making April not a young professional, but a girl in high school, who deals with parental issues and troubles in her studies alongside the turtles. Placing April as the turtles’ peer also allows for teenage relational drama that isn’t quite possible in the many incarnations in which April is the adult sister/unattainable crush of the turtles. The tv show has just finished its second season and shows no sign of stopping; for well organized ninja battles, long-form character development and teenage insight, I’d recommend the show, not the new movie, as the thing to watch.
And yet, TMNT may just not be as suited for the screen as it is for the page. Many think the turtles started in the 1987 TV show and toy franchise, but this itself was a reboot of the 1984 black and white, independent comic. To go back and read this book – which I’ve done over the last month – is nothing short of a revelation. The first happy revelation is that TMNT began as a melodrama parody of gritty 80s marvel comics like daredevil. Peter laird and Kevin Eastman, already well established on the Indy comics world of the early 80s, decided, as a joke, to write a violent ninja noir starring turtles. What they thought would be a hilarious one-off sold well, however, and they continued for ten more issues before hiring more new writers to help with the now quite popular series. Since 84, TMNT comics has continued, off and on, sometimes jumping publishers, until the present day. Eastman and laird still return from time to time to begin new story arcs or write the finales for others.
The second revelation is that the black and white art of the original arc is fantastic. What the pages lack in color they make up for in sheer plentitude of detail. At least once per issue, there are marvelous two and sometimes three page spreads, usually depicting epic standoffs between the turtles and their foes in lushly particularized scenes: trash filled alleys, dark department stores, alien wastelands, the New England countryside, and lots and lots of rooftops overlooking monstrous Manhattan cityscapes. The most visually interesting part of the new movie is the opening credits, which are animated in the Eastman and Laird style, but with less care and grubby detail.
In a way, I’m glad that the new movie is innovative in some ways and deficient in many others. It shows that there are still new things to be done with an old franchise, but also that it’s not easy to match the lasting quality that has popped up from time to time in earlier incarnations. TMNT will never be a wholly serious story, nor has it ever been very idea-driven. At its best it meditates on the condition of the American teenager as he relates to the expectations and lasting mistakes of previous generations. The formation of adult identity out of the storm and wealth of adolescence is a story we’re nowhere near done telling. And sometimes it can be well told using turtles. Teenage turtles. Yes, even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Thanks for your response to my brief, admittedly self-contradictory essay last week. I like your reimagining of the blog as a form of literary correspondence. What resonates with me especially about your idea is the linking of literary correspondence as practice to the writing of a blog as practice. I’ve often thought of the blog posts I’ve written as a sort of writing exercise—practice essays, practice reviews, etc. If indeed that’s something that literary correspondence has been used for—and I think there’s a good argument that it is—then it makes sense to approach the blog post in the same way. Further, I think you’re right that the blog post shares with literary correspondence the quality of intentional address. We write both the letter and the blog post to a specific audience. While the audience of a blog post is larger than that of an average personal letter, it’s probably not actually that much bigger. Unless we’re famous bloggers, we write our posts not for the eyes of all, but the eyes of an interested dozen—give or take a few.
But here’s where I begin to become uncomfortable with the whole thing: I may write a blog post for a favored dozen, but, as you mentioned, I’m making it available to all. When Ezra Pound wrote letters to Harriet Monroe complaining about Amy Lowell, he did so with the knowledge that only Ms. Monroe (and perhaps her close confidants), would read them. They wouldn’t get back to Ms. Lowell, and even if they did, they certainly wouldn’t be printed in the Sunday Times for all of London to read. Every essay I post to my blog is readable by all. Not all will read it, but all could, with a careful Google search—great Aunt Mildred, potential employers, casual acquaintances, the DEA. Now, most of our blog posts will not be read by anyone but our friends and family, but the point is, they could be. Our practice, our dashed off, private correspondence, is no longer private.
Perhaps this isn’t that big of a deal. At the very least it’s a significant change. And I ask myself why I would want my practice or correspondence to be public. What’s the benefit? Will it mean I’ll spend more time on my public blog than my private correspondence or daily writing practice? If so, then it’s not quite the same thing as either of those. It’s closer to something I’d publish in a magazine or newspaper. If not—if, in fact, my public blog is no more polished than my emails—I’m not sure why I wouldn’t, for the sake of care and tact and privacy, turn my posts into emails and send privately them to my friends over Gmail or Facebook. Perhaps, though, I’m missing some benefit that the public nature of the blog bestows upon the post.
Of course, in the long run, if any of us do turn out to be an Ezra Pound or Amy Lowell, then sooner or later fans and scholars will want to churn up our private correspondence for public consumption. Just yesterday I did in fact read Ezra Pound’s private letters to Harriet Monroe complaining about Amy Lowell. But I only did this because I think the editorial and published work of these three worth reading. Thus, I dig backward to those writings of theirs that might, in and of themselves, not be worth reading. But these days we seem to do things backward. We offer first our practice to the public, and if we are deemed worthy, we then get paid to publish our best work.
Perhaps we’re stuck with this strange set-up for now. If so, I think your recommendations for re-thinking our posts are helpful, and I’ll keep considering them as I struggle to come to terms with blogging.
Twice in the last week I’ve had this experience: I’m on facebook, and see that a friend has linked to an article about a topic I care about, often with some variation of: “THIS!” or “Can you believe some people?!” I read the article, then the comments, and am about to add my fired-up two cents when I stop and think: “Wow, that article was bland.” Then I have another thought: “I wish we could discuss an actually GOOD essay on this topic, but I’m stuck with this shoddily written article that stumblingly regurgitates the better ideas of real writers and thinkers.” This thought is an exaggeration, but my guess is it’s quite common. With the reign of wordpress, Huffington Post, Patheos, even Slate, we find ourselves discussing the important topics of our day in response to subpar pieces of writing. Why are we doing this? How can we stop?
In mulling this over, I’ve come up with 4 questions to ask next time I find myself about to click on yet another link to yet another online article that may or may not waste my time with mediocre writing about mediocre thoughts:
1. Has this essay been edited/curated?
One of the big differences between an essay on Slate and an essay on randomdeconstuctionistmustings33.wordpress.com is that the former essay was published only after someone other than the author had a look at it. Further, essays on non-personal-blog sites have not just been edited for content and style, but have been curated to fit with and relate to the other content on the site. When you read an edited, curated article, you’re reading something that has passed the test of at least one other pair of (hopefully knowlegable) eyes. As a poet, I have sworn to never post my poetry on facebook, or my blog. I’ve spent too much time on it to not place it in the careful hands of an editor. Websites like aldaily.com exist solely to pick the best, free, professionally written literary and critical writing on the web and put it in one place. Finding essays that have been so considered is a good start. Next, we should ask:
2. Is this the best way to read this writer?
A couple years back one of my favorite contemporary poets posted a surprise piece on Huffington Post’s religion blog, clarifying statements about ecclesiology that he had made in person the day before. Judging by the online conversation that followed, his clarification didn’t work. He was misunderstood and maligned by Huffington Post’s readers. What most of the readers and commenters didn’t know, however, is that he’s one of the most gifted poets of his generation in the english speaking world, and his poetry and critical lectures and essays articulate a much more powerful ecclesiology that his 500-word blog post seemed to indicate.
These days many writers who publish pieces in books, newspapers, and journals are often called upon to write short posts for blogs. As someone who does publish in books and journals, I can say, hands down, that my worst published writing has been my blog pieces. And I’m tempted to say that most other writers who publish in multiple mediums will say that same. A theologian’s guest post on a Patheos blog will, almost without a doubt, be more hastily written, poorly crafted, and quickly edited than their essay on the same subject that they present at an academic conference or publish in Theology journal, or in their book. And the trouble is that it’s in the books and peer-reviewed journals that the best, most careful arguments for most reasonable positions on most topics are being published.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. We could imagine a world where free-access personal blogs are valued as the premier literary and critical work of the highest caliber. But the fact is, we don’t. Our expectations for blogs and online content is low, especially compared to our expectations for printed, bound material. Yet many spend their most valuable reading time online, and more and more we demand that our favorite writers meet us there. I’d wager Neil Gaiman’s blog is read more often than Sandman, even though no one’s confused about which contains his best work. Eminent postmodern theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s post about Reformation Day last week was probably read by more people than will ever touch one of his books. The more we ask our best writers and thinkers to write off the cuff, the more we waste their time and ours. Why? In part, because we’re ceasing to ask:
3. Is this the best argument for this position?
It’s fun to post links to articles by poor thinkers arguing for ridiculous positions. It’s also, as you’ll learn in any Logic 101 class, a classic case of the Straw Man fallacy, wherein we dismiss an intellectual position after attacking the weakest version of it. You will do a great service to your facebook friends or twitter followers if, instead of linking to the first random essay you find on a subject of mutual interest, you spend another 5-10 minutes tracking down the best thing you can find written by this particular author and/or on this particular subject. Too often we poison discourse by plucking the lowest hanging argumentative apples. We need to, instead, ask ourselves:
4. If I truly care about this conversation, am I willing to do more research?
This research is, at the very least, learning more about the writer and the topic in question. Hopefully, if the issue truly matters, it will lead to real, sustained learning over time. Find a sloppy article about the dangers of vaccination? Why not take it as an opportunity to research the history and biology of vaccination, competing schools of thought over time, and key figures in vaccination advances? It would be sad if we let a bad essay about a good subject deaden our desire for further conversation/knowledge.
Best of all, such questions and investigations could lead us to leave our computers, walk out our doors, and talk to our friends about the questions that drive us, far from dashed-off blog posts on uncurated, personal blogs by amateur essayists – which is, after all, a good description of this thing I’ve been writing and you’ve been reading.