Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Last Jedi Backlash - The Lost Art of Understanding Themes

It's been a while and a lot has happened and there are many things to discuss. So many things. But one thing I want to focus on is how a large number of people seem to fail to understand how to watch a film thematically.

And I really wish that people knew how to watch films and understood what a theme is. It honestly makes watching films more enjoyable and allows you to empathise with different points-of-view or experiences to your own. But I guess enjoying things is too hard or something?

I don't know where this failing occurred. Maybe it has something to do with the rise of nitpicky pseudo-film criticism such as YouTube channels like CinemaSins in the past half decade or maybe people only know how to watch films literally and not thematically.

This is literally something David Benioff said about Game of Thrones. Weird that someone adapting one of the most thematic rich fantasy series of all time would think that themes aren't important. 

First, let's define our terms. A theme is the main idea or underlying meaning of a text. It is the central topic a text examines. For example: If the topic of a text is loneliness, then the theme would be what the text says about loneliness. Furthermore, themes can be divided into two categories:
·        Thematic concept - what readers think the text is about
·        Thematic statement - what the text says about the topic

If you don't know what a film's theme is, you don't know what the film is about. Maybe it's time people learnt that films exist to tell us stories and communicate ideas through theme. Since the ideas that a film is trying to convey are far more important than whether or not things literally make sense in the world of the film

This is not to say that films get free reign to put whatever bullshit they want on screen and for us to just accept it because of the idea they are trying to convey. The world of a film still needs to exist and work within its own internal logic, as long as that internal logic is clearly established.

For example, Superman can fly because he's an alien. No more explanation is required or necessary. We don't need to know that his body converts the light of the sun into kinetic or propulsive energy. The audience learning the hows and whys of his ability to fly doesn't add anything of value to the character. He flies because he's Superman and Superman can fly.

Image result for superman flying
He's an alien and a superhero. That's how.

However, I think another problem linked to this literal watching of film is that people often think not liking a movie means it is therefore bad and poorly made. Since if a film doesn't fit this narrow view of what you think films should be, then its a failure and "just bad writing", right?

The fact that few people seem to be able to articulate what they mean by "bad writing" says more about how we fail to watch films then about writing of the film itself.

For example, let's talk The Last Jedi. I know so much has been said about The Last Jedi that at this point I'm just adding to the ceaseless cacophony of the void but here we are.

Firstly, The Last Jedi is a competently made film. It simply is. The visuals look great, the editing is fluid, it's a well-directed and the story addresses a number of interesting themes that challenges our expectations of what a Star Wars movie can or should be.

Not to mention that each character in the trio of Rey, Poe, and Finn has an arc and is positioned between two other characters' worldviews (Rey: Luke and Kylo, Poe: Leia and Holdo, Finn: Rose and DJ), and that is just great storytelling and narrative structure.

Wow, it's almost like the guy who wrote this knew how to structure narrative and set up character arcs or something.
Now, you can argue on how successful it was in its execution of these themes and whether or not the narrative or character arcs landed for you but it is a well-made film.

Because here's the thing, you can dislike something and still recognise it was good. Just as you can love something while acknowledging it has flaws. Things are rarely perfect and nothing is going to please everyone, regardless of how well-made it is or what ideas it is trying to convey.

And that's okay. Citizen Kane is a fantastic film that deserves its reputation as a masterpiece due to its innovation in storytelling and technique and place in cinema history. It also fails to move me or make me care. This does not diminish its status as well-crafted and design film. It just means I don't like it.

Unfortunately, some people, especially fanboys, can't seem to think critically about movies. They can only criticise, which is not the same thing. Which is odd reaction towards something you claim to love but I digress.

As per the ever eloquent Film Crit Hulk, "It is downright impossible for them to think the storytelling of the film is on-point as hell, all because it does not reflect their emotional experience of watching it". It doesn't matter that the film is well-made on a technical or narrative level, their emotional response to it renders it moot. They didn't like how they felt watching it, therefore, it was badly made.

I think part of it is because of that side of fandom which claims ownership over the content they love. Since they tie the content so closely to their own sense of identity that Star Wars becomes a 'part of who they are', not a franchise owned by Disney or a movie directed by Rian Johnson. It's THEIRS.

So if they don't like a Star Wars film, the filmmakers have failed them because they are not catering to their sense of self. Because if you can't relate to the content you defined your identity by, then who are you? If the character you identify with is shown to be wrong or mistaken, what does that say about you? Case in point: "Why didn't Holdo tell Poe [me] her plan? This is bullshit!". This is why they get so angry, any subversion of expectation or familiarity feels like a betrayal.

"What?! They made Luke grumpy and drink green milk instead of blue! How could they ruin the franchise like this?!." 

On a side note, this why I have a problem with people who defined their identity by the pop culture they consume. Art should supplement and enrich your sense of self, not BE your sense of self.

Now please don't misunderstand me, I am not saying you shouldn't be proud of what you like or celebrate your nerdiness or geeky interests. We are all in part shaped and identified by the content we consume and love.

And I love Star Wars. My childhood favourite movie was Return of the Jedi. My favourite movie for most of my twenties was A New Hope. However, I always recognised that Empire Strikes Back was a far better film, in terms of story-telling, the development of character, and deepening the mythology of The Force. It simply is a better film.

I only had a stronger emotional reaction to A New Hope but this did not make A New Hope a better film in my eyes. It was just the one that made me happy watching since it suited my sensibilities more than Empire (that said I love Empire so very much).

I will never stop laughing myself silly at this bickering couple.
This scene simply makes me feel things.

Let's circle back to themes and The Last Jedi. So what are its themes? What is it trying to say. Well, lucky for us the film wears its themes on its chest and often states them loud and proud.

Luke Skywalker tells Rey that "This isn't going to go the way you think" (not fall victim to our expectations), Yoda wisely impacts to Luke that "Failure, the greatest teacher is" (the importance of failure and what we learn from it), and Rose informs Finn that "That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love" (love is how you win the war, not hate). Even the Kylo Ren's one from the trailer about "Letting the past die" (letting go of those things in your past which are preventing you from moving forward").

So it's odd that so many people often critic aspects of the story even though they are entirely in line with the themes that the film is trying to explore. "Canto was a waste of time, it didn't even work" is a criticism I've seen repeatedly. And it makes no sense to me since of course it was a waste of time, that was the point. It's what they learnt from their failure that was important.

It's Poe learning that he can't keep going through this war as a hothead when he has people under his command who depend on him. That it is better to fail and lose the battle in order to save your people and continue the war than it is to sacrifice their lives just to win.

And I know some of you weren't on board with Rose's and thought it was stupid. Well, not only was it not stupid, it's been a significant theme for all of Star Wars as this thread succinctly articulates.

I'm not going to rehash what she says in the thread but will just pose this question: how is Rose's line not directly in line thematically with Luke's refusal to kill Vader in anger at the end of Return of the Jedi? Luke's refusal to give in to anger and hate leads to Vader's redemption, it's kinda the thematic climax of the original trilogy.

It also is the thing that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys in Star Wars. The Empire or First Order are fascists, using their power to destroy those they hate. Literally, the thing that turns Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader in the first place is losing himself in anger and then hate.

It's like you win by saving the ones you love, not by fighting those you hate or something.

And this is the thing when people don't watch films thematically, they criticise without considering context, being uncharitable to the material and the story. If you only watch films literally and in terms of plot, being only concerned with what events happen, you are missing what the movie is about.

Which is fine, I guess, if you don't want to allow movies to move you or get you to think about things differently to how you did before. There are many films which have strong plots but are boring as hell since their characters are just devices to move the plot along and they don't say anything.

And I don't know. Maybe that's a good thing. Probably not, since it fosters an environment where plot is more important than character, where a film's ideas are less important than whether or not it satisfied a fan theory or expectation. And that seems like a bad time.

I'd rather enjoy films, allowing them to take me on a journey and explore their themes with them. But that's just me.

Note: There is so much more I could say, especially about The Last Jedi. I only watched it twice in theatres but it has resonated so much with me that I could talk about it forever. If I didn't get round to your specific nitpick, sorry about that. Maybe next time.