Notes on The Last Jedi

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Bully.


I feel like I need to clear the air a little before I start. I knew I’d want to write about The Last Jedi for this series pretty much immediately after watching it. It had parts I found breathtakingly beautiful, among the best things in the entire Star Wars franchise. It also had parts so bad I sincerely entertained the notion my screening was shown a joke version of the film for a prank show (the Yoda scene, mostly). I don’t know what an interesting cinematic failure is if it isn’t The Last Jedi. In accordance with our ethos of cold takes, I waited to start writing until (1) I’d given myself adequate time to sit with my thoughts, move beyond my initial impressions and hopefully deepen my analysis, and (2) there was no ongoing cultural discourse of significant scope or fervour around the film. I didn’t want my take on the film to be hot in either the sense it came too quickly after I watched the film or the sense it was too pegged to any particularly heated discussion unfolding when I wrote it. The former to ensure I developed my ideas well and the latter to ensure I wasn’t overly invested in responding to specific takes on the film that might be personally infuriating, but weren’t actually that interesting or relevant. So I waited.

It took the most devastating global pandemic since the Spanish flu to get people to shut up about this movie for five minutes.

The Last Jedi might not be the most controversial film of all time, but I can’t think of another that has continuously generated such a consistently high volume of discussion and debate for so long. People may have committed acts of terrorism over The Last Temptation of Christ, but they didn’t keep doing it for three years after release. The film came out, people saw it, the controversy abated, the world moved on. Not so with The Last Jedi. Obviously, a major part of that is the existence of social media as a permanent global forum with no space limits. Even with a 24-hour news cycle, only so much can fit in a newspaper or in a broadcast at a given time. News websites don’t have space limits, but they have the practical constraints of a human workforce that can’t pump out endless coverage of infinite topics (at time of writing). Social media knows no such limits. If thousands of people decide to spend their time arguing about whether a film is good or not, the only limit is their own patience.

But the changing nature of how we communicate only explains how The Last Jedi discourse lasted so long, not why. The 2016 remake of Ghostbusters also generated lots of controversy and discussion, months of it, but it was a dead topic within a year of its release. Not The Last Jedi. Until just a couple of months ago, it was still an active battlefield of culture war nonsense. Tens of thousands of words in op-eds and essays, thousands of hours of video on YouTube, and that’s not even touching on the tweets. People have written books about it. And I guess I needed to give all this context just so I could be clear about one thing before I dive into my own thoughts on the film.

I do not care about any of this.

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Patching the Zeitgeist

It all started with George Lucas.

The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)

In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.

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It’s Not Your Art, It’s Ours

Last month, James L. Brooks announced that The Simpsons had decided to pull “Stark Raving Dad”, its classic episode guest starring Michael Jackson. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, Brooks said that he and fellow producers Matt Groening and Al Jean agreed to stop airing the episode in reruns, drop it from the show’s streaming service and cut it from future DVD releases. HBO/Channel 4 documentary Leaving Neverland has brought renewed attention to the accusations against Jackson of serial child sexual abuse, and many have had to answer difficult questions about how to relate to Jackson and his work. Brooks et al. apparently felt this was most appropriate for a show that had collaborated with Jackson.

“I’m against book-burning of any kind,” he explained. “But this is our book, and we’re allowed to take out a chapter.”

Whether you agree or disagree with their decision, most people would instinctively concede that the producers are perfectly entitled to do with their property what they will. But that’s exactly where they were one hundred percent unequivocally wrong.

The Simpsons doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to us.

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Digitally Reanimated Corpses

In the second season of Bojack Horseman, Bojack is cast as the lead in a film: initially it’s a serious drama, but it’s changed significantly to test better with audiences, and so Bojack ends up going AWOL from production for months. When he returns to LA, he discovers the film has been finished without him: they created a computer-generated version of him based on a full-body scan he was made to take at the start of filming. Not only was the CGI Bojack used in additional scenes filmed when Bojack disappeared, but it was inserted into every frame filmed with the real Bojack to replace him. In the end product, Bojack doesn’t appear at all, just a digital copy of him.

The critics call it the best performance of his career.

When I first watched this episode in 2015, it seemed like comic exaggeration. When actors sign up to big movies, they often sign away much more than just their performance – like their likeness to be used for toys and merchandise – and have no recourse when the film they thought they were making turns out to be something else entirely. It was funny because, like most of Bojack Horseman’s best jokes, it was absurdist with a current of real-world melancholy underneath.

A year later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story came out.

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Fan Boys: The Phantom Menace

People tend not to have a great sense of scale, which isn’t the best quality when we’re so prone to making grand proclamations about entire populations of people. For example, a common refrain since the 2016 US presidential election has been variations on “we now live in a country where nearly half the people voted for Trump”. Now and then someone will point out that, with 60 percent turnout, it was more like a quarter. But that’s still not right. It was 46.1 percent (vote share) of 60.2 percent (turnout) of 71.6 percent (eligibility) of the US population in 2016, or just under 20 percent. This isn’t to minimise the horror of the election result or Trump’s presidency in any way. Every evil thing, every atrocity, that has occurred in the past two years still happened, and, if anything, it just makes it more fucked-up that it didn’t even take a majority to happen.

That’s why it bothers me when I hear this “we now live in a country…” thing, whether about Trump or Brexit or any of the other awful election results of the past several years. If your main political opponents actually comprise less than 20 percent of the country, but you react as if it was half, you can’t possibly be responding in the most effective way. Accuracy matters, especially with something as high-stake as the fate of democracy, and it’s frustrating to constantly see well-intentioned people be so sloppy with reality. Not that low stakes should let people off the hook: standards of research and fact-checking in entertainment journalism are in the gutter and it drives me up the wall. And while it’s obviously not as significant as the rising tide of fascism (though it’s often presented as comorbid with it), when it comes to misrepresenting the scale of a social problem, there’s little critics and journalists have fucked up more than their coverage of “fan boys” and their allegedly toxic effects on society.

Normally, I find articles like this difficult to write, because it requires me to cite specific examples of bad writing and I don’t enjoy going off on other writers, for the most part. But this one will be super easy, because, for once, I can shit on the writing of someone whose writing I already constantly shit on.

This is a callout post. For myself.

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Break the Studios, Save the Movies

Hollywood is in a prolonged state of crisis. Everybody knows this. Studios pump out a seemingly endless supply of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, reboots, and films otherwise based on any and all previously existing intellectual property, all of which invariably cost upwards of 100 million dollars. We call them tentpole films, because they’re supposed to be sure-fire bets that can make enough money to finance smaller, riskier projects across the studio’s slate, like tentpoles upholding a tent. The problem is that there is no tent. There’s just masses and masses of poles, sticking upright in a field, and we’re all so used to getting wet that we’re more likely to ask for the poles to be more interesting than ask for some tarp.

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