Let it Go

Buying gifts for small granddaughters reminds me that the popularity of Disney’s Frozen (2013) is undiminished.  This is a fine thing.  It’s a great movie and includes some good role models for little girls.  However, there is something faintly disconcerting about seeing children’s clothing emblazoned with the slogan “Let It Go” (title of the lead song from the movie).

“Let It Go”

At these links, you can find the lyrics to the song (by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez); a video clip of the song as it appears in the movie, sung by Idina Menzel, with the lyrics helpfully added; and a pop version, with a driving rock beat, by Demi Lovato (with slightly different lyrics).

Let It Go poster with ElsaYou’ll recall that Elsa, the newly-crowned queen of Arendelle, has her uncontrollable ice powers suddenly revealed in public, and flees the city.  Alone on the mountainside, she abandons the careful restraint and concealment that her dead parents imposed, and gives her abilities free rein.  As she creates a magnificent ice castle, she renounces the land and people she’s left behind.  She proclaims that she will break through the limits and use her powers as she will:  “No right, no wrong, no rules for me:  I’m free!”

It’s a great song.  I have both versions on my playlists.  The music is powerful, and the lyrics take some clever turns.  (It’s the first time I’ve heard the term “fractal” used in a song.)  Moreover, the movie visuals that accompany the song are amazing.

Elsa as Role Model

As an anthem for young girls, “Let It Go” is a very appealing choice.  It praises the kinds of qualities we all want to see in young people growing up:  asserting your own identity, using your abilities, being unafraid to admit what you are.  (“What you are” could represent anything from personal tastes and talents to sexuality—the latter of which is suggested by Elsa’s costume change).  The song evokes the “breaking free” trope that’s so appealing to the young—not to mention, now and then, the rest of us—and speaks for self-reliance and independence.

So far, so good.  We can always benefit from another strong female role model.  The trouble is that fixing on “Let It Go” as a rallying cry assumes these attitudes are what we admire in Elsa.  But that’s not actually the role the song plays in the story.

Renunciation

I assume that by now pretty much everybody has seen this movie, so I won’t issue the customary caution about spoilers—since we now have to discuss specific plot points.

Elsa wants to cast aside all association with humanity (“kingdom of isolation”).  She has a praiseworthy motive—she feels she has to be alone, so others won’t be harmed—but she also revels in the freedom of isolation.  She declares independence, not only from arbitrary constraints, but from moral rules (“No right, no wrong”).

Once we’ve seen Elsa’s moment of solitary glory—and it is glorious—the story starts to subvert that declaration.  Her isolation leaves her unaware that she’s transformed summer to winter, not just where she is, but also back in Arendelle.  Not until her sister Anna and the skeptical Kristoff struggle up the mountain to find her does she find out how far-reaching the consequences are.

To her credit, Elsa is taken aback at these unintended consequences (which are not a consequence of her self-assertion per se, but an incidental side effect).  She hasn’t really abandoned all concern for other people.  On the other hand, she still doesn’t know how to release this Fimbulwinter.  She can’t turn it off.  Her only resort is to further distance herself—which endangers Anna and doesn’t solve the problem.

Redemption

Elsa and Anna embraceIn the end, renunciation of human contact and human limitations is not the right answer for Elsa.  Her salvation comes in re-establishing contact with her sister and, eventually, with the rest of the world.  Anna’s loving sacrifice reminds Elsa that love is the right answer.  As soon as she realizes this, she is able to use her powers under full control, for good purposes.  (The abruptness of this solution is a little implausible, but this is a fairy tale, and we’ll let it pass.  Maybe she’ll return to Dagobah to “complete her training” some other time.)

Love does enable and empower; but through connection, not disconnection.  In the end Elsa renounces the very withdrawal she was expressing in “Let It Go.”  The disjunction may have been a necessary stage, but eventually it’s replaced by a deeper bond.  Which is, after all, just the kind of development that normally faces a child making her way through adolescence to adulthood.

To Be Continued?

So I have some misgivings about “Let It Go” as an ideal motto for kids.  The message of the whole story is broader and deeper than that of the song alone.  It’s still a great song, though.  What I’d really like is to have it paired with a song that’s as powerful an affirmation as ”Let It Go” is a renunciation.

There’s actually a sequel to the movie scheduled for release in 2019.  I have no idea what it’ll be about, and such sequels don’t have a good track record for coming out well.  But maybe the story will develop in such a way as to give an opportunity for just such an affirmation song.  We can always hope so.

The Last Jedi . . . Maybe

Boldly Going Where the Story Hasn’t Gone Yet

Debating what may happen in future Star Wars movies has been a favorite spectator sport since 1980, when we all saw The Empire Strikes Back and spent the next three years madly surmising  what would happen in the third episode.  Was Vader really Luke’s father?  (It’s hard to believe in this era, when “I am your father” is a classic meme, but in 1980 it was a viable theory that he was lying.)  Who was the “other” of Yoda’s enigmatic remark, “There is another”?

That last question illustrates the danger of too much speculation.  By the time Return of the Jedi came out, we’d debated every possibility, from a complete unknown to Han Solo—including the winning choice, Princess Leia (requiescat in pace).  The revelation in Episode VI couldn’t help but be an anticlimax.  So I’ve been trying not to spend too much time spinning my wheels over the unanswered questions in The Force Awakens.  We’ll find out soon enough.

The title of Episode VIII, though, does bring up an interesting point.

Last Now, or Last Forever?

Star Wars - The Last Jedi title screenDisney announced the title The Last Jedi for Episode VIII on January 23, 2017.  The fan community immediately went to work to ferret out the implications. It was pointed out, for example, that “Jedi” can be either singular or plural.  There might be one last Jedi, or two last Jedi, or an entire academy-full of last Jedi.  Still, some sort of finality seems to be indicated.

Comments around the Web as of February 12, 2017, suggest there are at least two major possibilities:

Luke and Rey(1)  The film is about the last Jedi who happens to be left alive at the moment.  That’s obviously Luke Skywalker, and Rey could reasonably say, on meeting him, that she’s found the last Jedi.  It doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be any more to follow.  The Last Jedi might show Luke taking on Rey as an apprentice and making her a new Jedi.  If so, the story could well be captioned, from Rey’s point of view, How I Met the Last Jedi and Became the First Recruit in a New Jedi Order.  This would simply put us back in the realm of “That boy is our only hope / No, there is another.”

(2)  The more interesting, more drastic possibility is that Luke is the last Jedi there will ever be; that Episodes VIII-IX will involve some sort of epoch-making shakeup that will end the Jedi order permanently.  That might seem an anticlimax, after taking all that trouble to restore the order in Return of the Jedi.  But if it did, what would the future look like?

This possibility raises a question that has long intrigued me:  Is the Jedi order as we see it in the prequel series really a good thing?

How Not to Train Your Jedi

We had to wait for the prequels (Episodes I-III) to see how the Jedi order actually worked in its heyday.  What emerged was rather surprising.  The training program is of particular interest, because how you form the next generation of Jedi shapes what kinds of people they become and how they carry out their somewhat hazy galactic peace-keeping responsibilities.

(I should note that I’m referring only to the movies here and not the vast expanded universe of novels and spinoffs, much of which is no longer canon anyway.)

Jedi younglings at practiceWhen we meet young Anakin Skywalker at nine years of age in Episode I, he is already considered too old for the normal Jedi training program.  This is borne out by the scenes we see of five- or six-year-old “younglings” practicing their Jedi arts.  Evidently in the Republic, Force-gifted children were taken away from their families as young as five or six and brought to Coruscant for full-time training.  (No wonder Yoda also complained about Luke’s age in Episode V.)

If Anakin’s own experience is any guide, the younglings don’t return to their families, even, say, for summer vacations.  They are expected to grow up without normal family interactions, living a sort of monastic existence.  This approach might produce an intense concentration on one’s studies, and a sense of fierce fellowship among the Jedi members.  But it’s not clear that the resulting Jedi Knights would be especially well-adjusted for dealings with other, normal citizens.

We saw how badly this worked out for Anakin himself.  When Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi redeem Anakin from slavery in Episode I, they can’t afford to buy out his mother Shmi as well.  But, appallingly, they never go back with more funds to do so; apparently they’re content to leave her enslaved while they concentrate on her Force-enabled son.  (This omission itself says something about the mind-set of the Republic and the Jedi in particular.)  When Anakin returns in Episode II just in time for his mother to die in his arms, this experience plays a key role in his eventual turn to the Dark Side, with the avowed aim of bringing “order to the galaxy” to prevent such tragedies.

No Valentines for Jedi

The exclusion of Jedi Knights from normal family and community life extends forward in their lives as well.  We find out in Episode II that Jedi are not permitted to marry.  (No one seems to have considered that this restriction is a fine way to breed Force-sensitivity right out of the participating species.)

Anakin and Padme silhouetted against cityWhile this barrier may have been set up simply to create a story conflict, it also intensifies the separation of the Jedi from ordinary social interactions.  The trope of a celibate monastic order certainly has some narrative power.  But it may not be an ideal way to establish the primary enforcement and conflict-resolution arm of a galactic society.  In a curious way, the Jedi order resembles the army of familyless clones that the Jedi themselves initially create, and later combat.

A Failing Republic

With this issue in mind, the whole plot of Episodes I-III looks less like a simple tale of scheming intrigue by Senator Palpatine and more like a civilizational tragedy.  A polity falls most easily to a destabilizing force when it is already rotting from within.  Palpatine could not have succeeded so easily, one might argue, if the Republic and the Jedi had not already become decadent or dysfunctional.

In fact, the Jedi leaders in the prequels speak uneasily about some sort of failure or lessening of their communion with the Force, which is never really explained.  Is it possible that the Jedi ways of cultivating young pupils had become hidebound and ossified in a way that decreased their powers and made them vulnerable to a sneak attack or “phantom menace” from the Dark Side?

This is all speculation, of course.  I don’t know whether any such thing was in Lucas’s mind when Episodes I-VI were made, much less in the current screenwriters’ minds now.  But these considerations do suggest that it’s not enough just to restore or return the Republic’s Jedi order.  A renascence or renovation of the Light Side organization may be needed as well.

A Post-Jedi Order?

We now know that you don’t have to be a Sith Lord like Vader or Palpatine to serve the Dark Side.  We’ve also got Kylo’s Knights of Ren, and Snoke, whatever he is.  Maybe it’s also possible to serve the Light Side without being a Jedi Knight.

Based on the above thoughts about Jedi training, I’ve always rather hoped that Luke would rethink the historical Jedi practices (which he hardly knows, anyway) and develop a more humane, more balanced cadre.  We now know that he tried to train a new group between Episode VI and VII, but from the movies, at least, we don’t know how he went about it.  (I haven’t yet read any of the new-continuity novels.)

We do know that Luke’s new Jedi academy was a failure:  it produced Kylo Ren and collapsed after his turn to the Dark Side.  Perhaps now, after years of meditating on his mistakes, Luke may be ready to try something different.  It could be that the new knights of the light won’t be Jedi at all, but a new kind of Force for good.  To my mind, that would be a really interesting development.

 

These idiosyncratic guesses have a pretty low probability of panning out, to be sure.  The subtleties of training programs might not appeal to the Star Wars audience as a key plot device.  But they’re fun to think about.

The real entertainment value of SWAGs like these is to see how far off they were when the movie actually comes out.  We’ll see in December what “The Last Jedi” really means—and probably have a good laugh about this post.

 

Follow-up Notes

4/14/2017:  Here’s the latest trailer.
4/18/2017:  Zak Wojnar at ScreenRant has a good commentary today making some of the same points.

Don Quixote of Tomorrowland

2015’s “Tomorrowland” was not a great success with moviegoing audiences or critics.  But it hits on some themes that are vitally important.

We can’t discuss those themes without issuing some spoilers, so be warned.

Spoilers Follow

The World of Tomorrow

Tomorrowland - Casey and FrankThe story of “Tomorrowland,” co-written and directed by Brad Bird of Pixar fame, involves Frank Walker, a boy inventor whose earliest appearance is in 1964—played in the present day by a disillusioned George Clooney—and Casey Newton, a teenage girl with a particular genius for making things work.

Casey’s dad, a NASA engineer, will shortly lose his job as the agency decommissions a historic launch site.  Casey sneaks onto the site at night to sabotage the demolition efforts, which shows where her loyalties lie.

We see her in school with a series of morose teachers, each explaining how the world is going to hell in a handbasket:  nuclear armageddon, environmental disaster, literary dystopia.  Casey frantically waves her hand and is finally allowed to ask the question none of them are addressing:  “Can we fix it?” And the bell rings.

With this scene, the movie “had me at hello.”  For fifty years we’ve listened to doomsayers telling us how things will inevitably grow worse—from every part of the political map.  Solutions, however, are harder to come by.

Casey in the golden fieldIn the movie, the same situation turns out to be mirrored in the hidden Tomorrowland.  This haven was founded half a century ago with the goal of recruiting bright people to improve the world.  In the intervening years, it has focused instead on trying to make people face the approaching disasters.  Its futuristic technology beams subliminal messages into our world in an attempt to “raise consciousness” before it’s too late.  But like the schools, this secret cabal is no longer proposing ways to “fix it,” only foretelling doom.

Of course, alerting people to potential disasters is not a bad thing.  Motivating by fear is certainly one way to arouse people to action.  But what Tomorrowland, like the schoolteachers in the opening scenes, has forgotten is that dread, without hope for solutions, doesn’t lead to fruitful changes.  It leads to stagnant despair.

In the end, Casey and Frank halt the doomsaying broadcast, and begin again to recruit “dreamers.”  “Dreamers” here doesn’t mean believing things are just fine.  That would be blind optimism.  Rather, it means believing better things are possible.  If you’re a “fixer”—a builder, a maker—this leads to asking how things can be made better; which leads to plans for change, not just empty wishes.

In other words:  the conviction that catastrophe is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Expect the worst (admitting no other possibilities), and you’ll get it.

The World of La Mancha

A complementary idea forms the backbone of another favorite of mine—the play “Man of La Mancha,” a musical adaptation of the story of Don Quixote by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh, written—oddly enough—in 1964.  (There’s a movie version, but this is one case where the stage play is definitely better.)

Man of La Mancha posterThe play slims down the sprawling novel and focuses it on a particular set of ideas—as does the operatic version of Les Misérables.  What makes this Quixote a worthy adjunct to Tomorrowland is the course of his eccentric romance with his lady “Dulcinea.”

The woman the deluded Don identifies as the virtuous Dulcinea is a barmaid and part-time prostitute named Aldonza.  She is at first baffled and then enraged by Quixote’s attempts to place her on a lofty pedestal, his refusal to see her as (she says) she really is.  (Audio / Movie video)

As soon as Aldonza begins to believe she can be better than that, she is brutally disillusioned.  Yet Quixote stands by his conviction that she’s really a noble lady, in the face of all contrary evidence.   At the end of the play (7:42 in the clip), she finally accepts that role:  “My name . . . is Dulcinea.”  She takes on the quest of becoming more than she is.

In other words:  expecting the best calls it forth.

 

This encouraging principle doesn’t always work out nicely, as the play makes devastatingly clear.  If we seek out the best in people, we’d better be prepared for a letdown sometimes.  But the principle does shape our thinking in the right direction—a productive direction, rather than a dead end.

The two matched stories remind us that some degree of faith in the future, for a person or for a society, is needed if we want to foster energetic action.  It’s therefore incumbent on us not to crush such fertile hopes.  We should never blind ourselves to the facts, but that doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with them.

Offshoots

In the last ten days I’ve seen two new movies spun off from existing fictional universes, but not part of the main story line.  Their success bodes well for the willingness of audiences to welcome independent stories in a common setting—offshoots from the main trunk, you might say.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic Beasts posterI found “Fantastic Beasts” unexpectedly enjoyable and rather touching—possibly because I came to it with low expectations.  It is, of course, set in the same world as Harry Potter, but focuses on different characters in a different time period (the 1920s).

The Potterverse, to my mind, is not all that compelling in itself.  The HP novels and movies are enjoyable, but that’s mostly because of the events and characters.  There are too many oddities in the worldbuilding of the Harry Potter stories to make that milieu a preferred destination, to my mind.  (Why does the entire wizard culture revolve around a prep school, and do wizards have no purpose other than to protect their own secrecy?).  So “Fantastic Beasts” didn’t exercise a strong appeal just because it was set in the Potterverse.

But I really liked the characters in this one.  For one thing, they were grown-ups, with adult concerns.  There’s nothing wrong with young adult stories, but after a while one yearns for adult companionship.

In particular, the likable Muggle Jacob Kowalski steals the show.  (The HP books are sadly lacking in sympathetic Muggle characters.)  And I was pleased that Queenie, who first appears to be a traditional dizzy blonde, turns out to be loving and sympathetic and competent.  Both the romances in the story were as pleasing as they were unexpected.

Rogue One

Rogue One posterThe newest Star Wars film is not only set in that same galaxy far, far away, but also tied in very closely with the plot of the original Episode IV, “A New Hope.”  Nonetheless, it’s characterized as a “standalone” Star Wars movie.  The characters are almost entirely new (though some familiar faces appear in cameos), and the plot is distinct from that of “A New Hope” right up to the point at which they tie together.

The movie is good, though I’m not quite sure of its long-term pulling power.  I found the character chemistry a bit more uneven than in the iconic original.  One doesn’t become quite as invested in these new characters, for a variety of reasons.  They have dramatic backstories, but for some reason those backstories didn’t seem to emerge on the screen quite as compellingly.  The plot zigs and zags extensively before it straightens out into the crucial track where it needs to connect with Episode IV – at which point it does become pretty gripping.  (Since the movie has only been out for a few days, I’m striving valiantly to avoid spoilers, which is why my observations are intentionally vague.)

The Reception

Both films seem to be doing well at the box office, and with viewers.  “Fantastic Beasts” has had a successful few weeks, and “Rogue One” had a boffo opening this weekend, as reported in the New York Times and Variety.  The Star Wars picture is getting highly favorable audience reviews—currently 84% on Rotten Tomatoes.

TV Tropes refers to this kind of independent offshoot with the term “Metaplot”—multiple independent works coexisting in the created universe other than sequels or prequels, while there is still an overall story arc that affects the plots of those separate stories.  The phenomenon is common in written works, including those science fiction “future histories” with works separated by long distances in time or space.  It’s becoming more common in the movies too.  For example, Erich Schwartzel in the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15) mentions the parallels in the Marvel Cineverse.

Conclusions

Dragonflight cover artIf we like the “look and feel” of a given universe, we may be glad to revisit that locale, even in the absence of familiar characters and storylines.  For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern has flourished through innumerable sequels, prequels, side stories, and odd departures of all sorts (Dolphins of Pern, Renegades of Pern, The Masterharper of Pern . . .).  People like to spend time on Pern.

Still, this attachment to a location or milieu only takes us so far.  When the original Pern plotline was concluded, and the new batches of characters were not quite as engaging as the first four, I confess that I gradually lost interest.  A well-loved setting can draw a viewer or reader in—but it still takes compelling characters and plots to please the audience in the long run.

That’s the primary lesson I’d take from the success of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Rogue One” so far.  Viewers and readers today seem to be more willing than in the past to invest in expanding universes as well as long story arcs—contrary to what one might call the “ADHD hypothesis” that no one today has an attention span longer than 140 characters.  This is good news for writers who are into worldbuilding.  But building a world people want to visit isn’t enough by itself.  We still need to tell a good story—no matter where it may be set.

Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?