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Category: watching

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017): first thoughts.

Spoilers abound, obviously. If you haven’t seen the film: well, you’re going to or you aren’t, it doesn’t matter what I say.

First thoughts, not last:

Episode VIII is the most ‘mythology’-heavy episode of the series, dealing more explicitly with the Skywalker legacy as legacy than any of the previous seven. The prequels were about Anakin Skywalker and the end of the Jedi, in a mix of mythic register and present-time biographical/psychological mode — the sort of ironic story a middle-aged artist tells about the idols of his early life (even those he himself created). But the sequels are (pre)occupied with ‘Star Wars’ as legendarium. They’re not ‘mythic’ at all, they’re about myth. A neat, characteristic moment: Rose the starship technician genuinely squees when she meets Finn — ‘a hero of the Resistance’ up close! — but once she realizes he’s trying to escape from the Resistance/Rebel ship, she doesn’t hesitate to tase him and turn him in.

The Last Jedi, like the considerably tighter but less resonant The Force Awakens, treats ‘Star Wars’ as something received, to be acknowledged and honoured and then tweaked. Both films are explicitly political in this regard: if the multiracial and multigenerational ensemble doesn’t feel at all casually constructed, that’s a function of the advancing age of its writers and directors, but their agenda is entirely progressive. Rian Johnson, much moreso than JJ Abrams, seems able to imagine a universe after the Skywalkers and the Solos — the difference between the liberal and, well, the rebel — and in Episode VII he reveals again a gift for building on the old stories, looking past them, without anathematizing them.

The shocking death of Snoke is the smartest turn in a smart (but at times confused and overly busy) film: tasked with becoming ‘the next Darth Vader,’ Ben Solo does precisely what Vader tried to do in this film’s elemental template-story, The Empire Strikes Back — he kills his abusive surrogate father and reaches out to the powerful enemy he he envies and perhaps even loves…who rejects him, beginning the process of his dissolution.

Boyega is great. Go watch Attack the Block, the kid’s a star.

Laura Dern is great. Go watch literally everything she’s done, she’s a natural treasure.

Poe and Leia are well characterized, though it’s frustrating to have an actor with Oscar Isaacs’s extraordinary charisma cooped up for the entire film; on the other hand, that frustration puts the audience in the character’s position, which nearly justifies the decision to ground Poe early. Leia, meanwhile, is utterly Leia, which is to say my heart leapt every time she appeared onscreen. If Carrie Fisher in her final days was no longer able to be as expressive as in the original films, she manages a weary grace that nicely suits the story.

(The young Fisher had genuine comic gifts to go with her princess-next-door beauty: timing, flexibility, and enough trust in her innate dignity to play the goof. She played comedy like a writer-actor, which of course she was. Johnson makes excellent use of footage from the original film, in unexpectedly moving tribute to Fisher. As Edelstein put it in his perceptive review: Fisher and Leia merged, in the end. This is a lovely swan song for both.)

Unfortunately, what goes on around Isaacs and Fisher is silly. The chase bits are nonsense, and of course the overall plot premise — apolitical lunatics in Empire cosplay manage to destroy the entire galactic republic with a single gun, then reduce the Rebellion to a single shipful of goodies — is almost offensively stupid. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the worst of the film’s plotstuff is the sequences that get us from one iconic tableau to the next. The unusual power of these sequels is generated by the tension between the passing old world and the emerging new, but the actual mechanics of the First Order/Resistance material are deadly boring. Characteristically Abrams-y, you might say, though indebted to Galactica in the final act.

I need to think more about Mark Hamill’s place in the film, and Luke’s place in the story. I’ll say this: Hamill does strong work, handles the comic material with a sparkle that made me wish he’d worked on camera more often over the years, and invests the dramatic pieces with real dignity. It’s so good to see him again. Hamill has a very different presence from Harrison Ford, less plastic in his physical bearing but nicely flexible in his voice work — not for nothing is Hamill a sought-after voice actor, best known for his decades-long recurring role as The Joker. (Hamill and Ford were a compelling odd-couple comic pairing in the original films; their prickly friendship is one of the series’s best features, its transformation in the third film one of its more complex emotional lines, while their ecstatic greeting in the Yavin hangar — ‘That was one in a million!’ — is peak Star Wars.)

What troubles me a bit is that, by his own account, Hamill disagreed with ‘every choice’ that Johnson made for Luke in his script. I think I see why; Kylo/Ben is supposed to present Luke with a once-in-a-lifetime problem, but because we haven’t seen Luke since Return of the Jedi, the character is effectively reduced, in the film audience’s eyes, to having fucked off to mope for several decades. This strikes me as unfair to Luke: after all, the final turn of Return of the Jedi sees Luke proudly declaring he’s one of the Jedi, ‘like my father before me’ — it’s in the film’s title for heaven’s sake! But for the sake of plot movement, Luke has to be a problem for Rey to solve, and —

Oh, Rey.

Rey remains a problem. The character’s much more defined here than in The Force Awakens, where she was a cipher, but Daisy Ridley’s natural charm can’t protect Rey from having to carry the idiot ball at times. The character’s core identity is odd: she’s a ‘nobody’ who’s stumbled into an ongoing Oedipal saga, and Just So Happens to be the most powerful creature in the galaxy. (We, the geeks, told you she was a Mary Sue, and even if Jedi Master Rilstone says she’s not, she damn well feels like one — regardless of whether many of the people banging on about this subject are sexist morons.) This is, I think, part of the political program of the film: Rey isn’t ‘old money’ in Force-user terms, no member of the old-boy Jedi network, so she has to hustle twice as hard to get where she’s going…except she doesn’t, not at all. Never having been taught word one about lightsaber fighting, she takes on three highly trained Knights of Ren (former Jedi trainees, I assume?) and comes away with a scratch on her shoulder. Never having actually tried the lifting-rocks thing that took the son of Vader weeks to learn, she lifts an avalanche by herself. Leaving aside the ‘worldbuilding’ implications, Rey’s fast-forward developmental stuff means Rey’s more like Harry Potter than Luke Skywalker, not so much ‘refusing the (Campbellian) call’ as waiting to press the Win button.

Rey’s relationship with Luke is boring. Luke should smile more. That’s a bigger deal than you might think.

I’ll come back to this movie. Why not? It’s less depressing than talking about Trump.

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TV ‘criticism.’

Add Rick and Morty to the list of shows for which the Iron Law of TV Criticism holds:

The amount of valuable criticism written about contemporary TV is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

I’m the real victim here, of course.

Update, 9:46am… Wait, a found the review of a well known ‘TV critic’ who…wait never mind, it’s stupid bullshit.

Irreal Life Top Ten, September 2017.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. The Genius in the Writers’ Room: Every great TV show needs one, where by ‘genius’ I mean the caretaker of a coherent (read: generative) vision which backstops creative arguments and serves as a conceptual/thematic/imagistic home to return to. Buffy had one and arguably several; for a while Lost had a couple (but crucially not the showrunners); Game of Thrones started out with a whopper, GRRM and his vision for ASOIAF, but now obviously has none; The Sopranos had at least two after Matt Weiner joined up; The Gilmore Girls, which I can’t stand, obviously had one; Seinfeld had two, Arrested Development maybe more; peak Simpsons is said to’ve had a handful. Fawlty Towers and The Office obviously had theirs (the UK system has long been built around individual/paired writers, which isn’t always a strength), and even the American Office glowed for a moment. Mad Men and Deadwood are clear examples of one visionary master guiding an expertly assembled workshop, as is The Wire. The GITWR keeps the story from taking obvious or easy turns; she intuitively connects storyworld elements because her innerworld is so connected. This isn’t just a matter of craft — Chris Carter’s a miserable scriptwriter but was unquestionably The X-Files‘s GITWR, like the equally hamfisted George Lucas — rather a reflection of a holistic conception, an ability to serve the whole story at once. In music, think David Byrne, Trey Anastasio, Peter Gabriel: the one to whom the low-energy method never even occurs as a possibility, who holds the door open for everyone else in the Room to work at a level above themselves.

  2. Guardians of the Galaxy 2: The trouble with Marvel’s ‘cosmic’ movies is that they seem to think ‘cosmic’ means ‘great big,’ which is incorrect. ‘Cosmic’ is (should be) the opposite not of ‘microscopic’ but of ‘myopic,’ and that’s why GotG2‘s lack of daring was such a bummer. Not to link numbered items like some kind of hippie, but commercial formula and creative vision tend to end up in tension, and with Marvel, the formula has so far tended to win decisively.

  3. Peak Phish: I know I know, you just don’t care about Phish and you wish tasteless myopic Phish fans would stop going on about them. OK then lemme put it this way. Phish formed in 1983 and hit their creative peak in 1993-99, and if they were a normal band the story would end there. But since 2013, defying nearly every rock/pop precedent, they’ve been doing work that in some ways equals — and in some ways surpasses — their glory years. Consider their 2013 experimental album premiere; the Halloween 2014 theatrical production; Trey’s 2015 woodshedding, Dead guest gig, and triumphant return to a band inspired to mid-90s-level improvisation; and of course the 2017 ‘Baker’s Dozen,’ thirteen shows without a single repeated song featuring their most consistently successful experimental improvisation in nearly two decades. They can’t do what they used to, which is OK — no one ever has. (I mean that literally.) But as they enter their mid-50s in a bad that formed nearly 35 years ago, no other band in America can do what they’re doing right now. For weeks I’ve been trying to think of other popular musicians their age taking such risks, and am growing a little worried, because names like ‘Miles Davis’ keep coming to mind. And that’s just ridiculous. Right?

  4. John Wick 2: I know I know, you’ve heard the first film is a ‘cult classic’ and an ‘expressionist noir-action masterpiece’ and blah blah blah, but John Wick 2 is 70% unbearably dumb unfunny bullshit, and 30% witty balletic film art. Wait no, make that 85/15 with error bars pointing the wrong way. The risk the Wick flicks take is in depicting unrealistic (indeed superhuman) mastery in realistic-ish detail — John/Achilles is always reloading his guns (because ‘realism’) but he never ever misses (because ‘hero’)…which is an iiiinteresting, thoroughly modern approach. And the photography’s nice. But the vaunted ‘mythology’ is the wrong kind of stupid, the dialogue is always tedious (I did laugh twice, but at gunfire), and Keanu Reeves’s weary beauty is poorly served by his dirgelike line readings. I liked looking at the film, sometimes, but so what? I like looking at Chungking Express too, and it made me want to say things other than ‘Cool!’ How old-fashioned of me.

  5. Art as self-advertisement: It should be its own best reason for being, right? Beauty is enough, wisdom and wit are enough. But last year’s film Kong: Skull Island is all witless exposition and witless ‘character work’ until the first ape attack; then more witlessness, more ‘character-building,’ until the next big animal thing, and so on. John C. Reilly, some ‘jokes,’ then some computer graphics. Samuel L. Jackson giving a speech; computer graphics. The film has no personality whatsoever. Why not? Did no one with even a trace of wit or creativity touch the script? Did the director not realize how many strong comic actors he’d been given to work with? Even the usually effervescent Tom Hiddleston shows not a spark of life here, and I wonder: did someone, at some point, watch the dailies or just read the script and point out that this was a waste of time? The scenes not shown in the trailer may as well not be in the film, and hundreds of people worked extremely hard to make this movie. Not ‘but’ or ‘yet,’ just…’and.’ Aaah, Hollywood.

  6. Clarity and correctness: I used to tell students — excuse me, to pronounce self-importantly at students — that all edits are for clarity, the point being that you need first/most of all to know what the hell you’re trying to do, which will generate corrective impulses as you edit; ‘prettier’ and ‘more intense’ and ‘more exciting’ are side effects of ‘clearer.’ If the music is clear in your head then you’ll know right away which notes on the page don’t work, and part of the craft is learning to hear those infelicities as directional, i.e. indicating at least onedimensionally how a wrong note’s wrong. It seems to me most bad writing’s bad because of a mismatch between intention and attention, e.g. you (white Pundit) don’t want to share cultural privilege w/economically ascendant blacks/Latinos but also don’t want to be called racist so you instead write garbled nonsense about e.g. something called ‘black-on-black crime’ or go on about the e.g. nobility of racist historical figures, netting a plum job at the NYT opinion page. If you’d done your reading and had principles and written what you actually thought, you’d have produced a coherent and testable argument. Instead you produced an anxious one. The reason mainstream cultural/political pundits are bad is that they don’t (generally can’t) say what they think and mean. This is part of what Angela Nagle’s talking about in Kill All Normies: saying what you feel liberates certain energies which are, for a variety of reasons, unavailable to ‘respectable’ figures, which is why it’s taken so long for MSM pundits to know what the hell’s going on with Trump’s supporters.

  7. The First World War: George RR Martin says you should read about WWI rather than WWII; the latter has clear heroes and villains and a strong narrative arc, meaning it’s a freak occurrence in military history, while the former is a more conventional ‘bastards with armies force boys to murder each other in the mud’-style conflict, with an appropriately disastrous end that made a sequel inevitable. I’ve just read Norman Stone’s World War One: A Short History, 200 pages of witty insight from a British historian angrily dismissive of the rampant stupidity which it was his job to describe, and now I’m desperate to dig deeper into the subject — starting with Ludendorff himself, who presided over the collapse of the German military in 1918 and first spread the ‘stabbed in the back’ calumny which Hitler (whom Ludendorff legitimized!) and his angry mongrels turned into a cultural/political organizing principle. The Great War really was in a sense the death-spasm of an entire civilizational project, the beginning of a long-delayed reckoning with Europe’s changing role in the changing world, which (reckoning) wouldn’t end until August 1945’s two ultimate expressions of mechanistic modernity in the sky over Japan. As is usually the case, getting a strong dose of historical detail has reminded me that today is not 1914, nor 1933 — and reminded me, too, as Angela Merkel likely coasts to another term as leader of Europe’s dominant economic power, how much our historical moment owes to the decisions made during that decades-long crisis of modernity.

  8. An analogy: politics : identity politics :: political party : personality cult

  9. …by which I mean: David Runciman’s superb Talking Politics podcast recently did a ‘the year ahead’ episode, in which Runciman and his boon companion Helen Thompson expressed frustration with Emmanuel Macron’s almost fraudulent use of the electoral process to advance a kind of glorified personality cult (this is my gloss; as good Englishmen they were appropriately measured in their assessment). It occurred to me that Trump had, of course, run the same kind of campaign, with similarly disappointing results for his supporters, who’ve gotten nothing of substance from his administration. And I immediately thought of Mark Zuckerberg, the vicious resentful little dilettante who’s done more than any living person to convince otherwise sane humans that ‘social networks’ have something to do with actual healthy social relations. I can’t imagine Zuckerberg wanting anything to do with an established political party — they’re too messy, too compromised and compromising, too grounded in actual human-speed social processes to appeal to the millennial par excellence. Like Trump, Zuckerberg has given no indication whatsoever that he sees his cultural/economic position as entailing any responsibility; what I take to be his self-conception, his appraisal of his own ‘visionary’ talent (what rubbish), leaves no room for the political collective. Which is why Facebook has accelerated the gutting of coalition politics in the name of identity politics, at terrifying cost to representative democracy (a system whose innate conservatism mitigates its innate potential for radical individualism). Runciman suspects that Macron’s failure, when it comes, will come because he has no party, only a ‘movement’; notes that social movements are very easy to get going; and imagines Macron and Co. will be overcome in time by other, better organized, more sustainable social movements, Left or (let’s hope not) Right.

  10. …by which I MAYBE (but on the other probably don’t) (but) (but) really mean: Sarah Palin, the grifter whose sole political platform was ‘I feel aggrieved,’ was the real winner of the 2008 election.

Lion, wolf, whatever.

The differences between George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books (ASOIAF) and the Games of Thrones TV show have been endlessly hashed out. I went on about them last week. I’ll just point out one more thing here, which I realized after watching the Season Seven finale, ‘The Wolf and the Dragon.’

The novels themselves are quite good, as you may have heard. But Martin’s tie-in hardcover, The World of Ice and Fire, punches way above its weight class. When I talk about the books as a kind of fantasy-historical documentary that follows a couple dozen main characters because it must, I do so partly because the World book shows where Martin’s heart is: his main character is Westerosi society, the families and communities and ‘smallfolk’ who populate a continent. TWOIAF is largely about noble houses and royal families, but its purpose is to connect those houses, to ground the present-time shenanigans of the novels in a sense of deep cultural history.

So. In the novels, one of the key events leading up to Robert’s Rebellion was the great tournament at Harrenhal, where Rhaegar Targaryen spurned his wife Elia Martell and presented blue roses to Robert Baratheon’s fiancĂ©e, Lyanna Stark. A year later, Rhaegar abducted Lyanna, they say, and the Rebellion was on. Meanwhile the ‘Knight of the Laughing Tree’ (Howland Reed?) got into some mysterious business in the background as well, and Jaime Lannister was inducted into the Kingsguard — arguably a revenge play by Aerys Targaryen against his former beloved friend and Hand, Tywin Lannister.

What fascinates me, though, is the question of who funded the tournament.

This detail does not matter even a tiny little bit to the show, which actually mentions this detail in the early-season DVD infodumps (to which Martin’s subtle ‘worldbuilding’ has been relegated), but never does anything with it. Now, the novels don’t need to do anything with (‘foreground’) a detail like that: Martin can just mention in passing that perhaps Rhaegar was conspiring to remove his mad father from the throne, and that suggestion will resonate more or less strongly depending on the pace of your reading, the depth of your immersion. In the books, the world of Westeros/Essos is rich enough, the last several decades of history detailed enough, that those echoes remain audible at all times. The minor ‘historical’ question — what was Rhaegar’s purpose at the tourney? — makes the Rebellion something more than it was, regardless of the truth/resolution of the Rhaegar/Lyanna story (i.e. the plotwise mystery).

In the show, there’s no time or imaginative overhead for that kind of subtle shading. Every moment of the series needs to service a vast ensemble of well paid actors performing in expensive European locations, and at any rate TV audiences (even in the dwindling ‘golden age’) have no attention spans. Most importantly, moving images work fundamentally differently from the vivid continuous dream of written fiction in terms of how you distribute your attention. You determine a book’s playback rate and focus by your reading, but film presents an attentional agenda, deciding for you, in a sense, how much (or little) it has on its mind. Game of Thrones on TV is all foreground, so to speak, never moreso than now, as conspiracies collapse to action and historical flashbacks come to have served their point. (The idea of history having a ‘point’ is an essential dramatic distortion, a trick of the human mind.)

ASOIAF has always been interested in how its entire world fits together — carefully balanced cosmic/historical scope as such is part of its point — but the show for a variety of reasons never has, and now it simply feels small. Having nearly all the main characters in one place might excite some viewers, but it irritates me, not least because of the stupid spacetime-distortions it took to get them there.1 And without Martin’s originating vision guiding Benioff and Weiss through the changes, we’ve had to settle for simplistic ambiguity (multiple episodes of the Arya/Sansa ‘standoff’) in a story that once reveled in ambivalence. As far as I’m concerned, Season Seven was an incoherent waste of time.

But it wasn’t much of a disappointment, because the show’s limitations have always been both obvious (even at its peak in Seasons 3-4). Benioff and Weiss didn’t adapt ASOIAF because they share Martin’s fantastic-historical vision, they just thought it would make a great TV show. They were right; kudos to them, I guess? But if Jon Snow’s parentage matters, then who funded the tourney at Harrenhal matters — history matters not because it moves the plot but because human beings survive it. That’s one of the lessons of the book which the TV show has discarded outright, and if that observation implies a criticism then I can now retreat in good order.


  1. ‘But you have no problem accepting dragons and magic in the show! Now you’re complaining about how its ravens are unrealistically fast flyers?‘ Imaginary complainant, you’re stupid. Dragons and magic are part of the contract of the series, and so is a certain physical realism. The showrunners/writers have shown themselves willing to abandon parts of the contract because the other bits are what sells — the criticism is that the maximum airspeed velocity of a lightly laden raven has just increased immeasurably in TV-Westeros because that’s the only way the writers could see to get out of a corner, and this speaks poorly of them. See? 

Multiclassing into idiot: Game of Thrones simply gives up.

I quite enjoy Game of Thrones, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I write about the show. I much prefer the books, which are vastly more ambitious in terms of narrative economy and more serious (adult) in their conception of personality and society, but the show is beautifully made and has the occasional moment of greatness. Its cast has few weak spots, though unfortunately Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) might be one of them; like Jon Snow (Kit Harington), she’s shown less and less interesting emotion as time has gone on and the writers have moved out beyond Martin’s own work. This is partly a function of seriality — the cost of serial dramatic protagonism is that one or a few characters must bear the weight of a very world’s changing, which naturally deforms them a bit, stripping away accident and frivolity and often personality, cf. my beloved Buffy Summers — and partly a function of the Thrones writers having conceived shallowly of the characters and story. Every time I think they’ve captured the magic of the books, they deliver a monthslong embarrassment like Bronn/Jaime’s trip to Dorne, or have a once-multifaceted character like Arya suddenly fall into endless comicbook declamations, or…

…or send a party of high-level Fighting-Man PCs, including a couple of Paladins and a Fighter/Cleric multiclass, on a deeply stupid quest into an apocalyptic hellscape to, I dunno, steal a single zombie from what until now had seemed to be a single mass of zombies and, I guess, carry it back through miles of inhospitable wasteland, apparently without even the most basic wilderness gear or preparation.

Y’know, that sort of thing.

The show has been silly for years, at times ugly and dumb, but this week’s Beyond the Wall’ was the first merely contemptible hour so far. Every single plot point depended on heretofore-savvy characters (or script supervisors) behaving stupidly. Arya and Sansa didn’t share obviously helpful vital information because…’drama.’ Jon and his band of hardened soldiers embarked on their ludicrous fetch-quest through the Plane of Snow because…’excitement.’ Daenerys and Jon are tumbling into a boring romance because…’destiny.’ A raven can fly from Eastwatch to Dragonstone, and Daenerys can fly back, all in a day or so, because…’suspense.’ In each case, the need to move plot-chesspieces forward has again washed out the integrity of character- and worldbuilding. The story (generational, historical, social) has been choked by the plot, and is now nowhere to be seen. The world has gotten smaller, collapsing to the cast of named characters and a handful of stage sets; indeed, entire continents are crossed in moments because the writers have given up caring about what lies between Dramatic Locations.

This collapse has been going on for a while — I called Season Five a hamfisted near-miss and Season Six a failure, and refused to watch the show for the first several years precisely because Martin’s grand history had been consigned to the DVD Extras as monologic infodumps — but with ‘Beyond the Wall,’ Benioff and Weiss seem to’ve put aside Martin’s story altogether in favour of their Plot. Their Westeros has no deep history, no sense of place, no mystery.

If I were George RR Martin I’d be lying in a house-sized pile of money right now, screaming at the sky.

Game of Thrones.

‘Realpolitik Tolkien’: A Distant Mirror with dragons. The first three books (the series’s first movement) are major achievements: impeccable hybrids of grand quest-fantasy, court-intrigue whodunit, (anti)war epic, and empathetic social portraiture. Books 4-5, interwoven as one volume, are nearly as good, deepening the series’s historical consciousness, but dangerously slow. If Martin sticks the landing, ASOIAF is its genre’s capstone work. The show is impressive, at times superb (and perfectly cast), but since overrunning Martin’s books, it’s gotten silly, lacking Martin’s social-historical vision and sense of proportion. Read the books instead — then Viriconium.

Game of Thrones and ‘narrative economy.’

Game of Thrones in its seventh season has become a different show, set in an entirely different world: instead of the densely populated, richly imagined world of the first few years, or even the rapidly collapsing stage set of seasons 5 and 6, the show now takes place in a purely abstract space unmoored from anything like actual geography. This makes for more efficient ‘narrative economy,’ but the transition from dramatic to almost comedic abstraction comes at enormous cost — to believability, obviously, and (worse) to the books’ delicately balanced historical consciousness.

What I’ve always loved best about Martin’s books is the sense that the history of Robert’s Rebellion is playing out across a second generation twenty years later; history is present for the book’s characters at just the right scale, if that makes sense, with just the right weight. The Starks and Lannisters relate to the past as people do, rather than as Player Characters, and the generational struggle which drives the various court intrigues is simply correct. (‘Realpolitik Tolkien,’ as they say.) The TV show has never given me that feeling, mainly because its world is so much smaller than the books’. The Citadel is three rooms onscreen, but Martin can situate it in a complex ecology. The same for, say, the Starks’ relationship to the ‘smallfolk,’ who don’t appear in the show because that kind of ‘worldbuilding’ (the kind that matters) means hiring even more extras. The fifth book in the series ends with Kevan Lannister grandly murdered by Varys — a complexly motivated chess move which the TV series is too coarsely plotted to accommodate. (Kevan Lannister barely appears in the show, as does his entire stratum of ‘second-string’ players in the titular Game.)

Season 7 has so totally collapsed the physical and temporal scale of the story that the connection to Robert’s Rebellion, say, has been lost altogether. This doesn’t seem to bother the audience, whose numbers swell further as the show abandons Martin’s sense of seriousness or purpose. But it bothers me.

All of which is maybe just to say: I told you years ago that the show would lose its brain when Benioff and Weiss passed Martin’s books and had to go it alone.

Tonight’s episode was funny and ‘heartwarming,’ and oh yes, patently absurd. It was, at several points, a literal parody of itself. Most disappointing.

Spirited away; goodnight moon.

I saw Spirited Away (the English translation/adaptation) last night with my wife and son, and was reminded that this magnificent film would never, ever be made in the United States today — none of our animation studios, not even Pixar at its best, would trust children as Miyazaki does with scenes of such quiet contemplation, dream-logic, languor.

I’m reminded, actually, of Brown/Hurd’s Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown was both an acolyte of Gertrude Stein and part of the Bank Street Writers Lab, whose members emphasized the concrete details and intuitive surrealism of children’s own imaginative fancies, interviewing young children and mimicking their storytelling rhythms. (‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ is one of the great final lines in our literature.) Spirited Away gives me the same feeling of melancholy dissolution as Goodnight Moon, of drifting down into an inexpressibly vast strange universe, and celebrates the same virtue, the courage needed to face the world and speak the names of things.

Spirited Away is so full of visual invention that a complicated story would render it unwatchable. As it is, after the concise opening movement, there’s very little discrete incident in the entire film: the boiler room, the contract, No-Face’s arrival, the stink spirit, Haku wounded/Zeniba’s debt named, No-Face calmed, and then the extraordinary train journey to Zeniba’s home in the swamp — the last sequence with no obvious parallel in American animation, gorgeous and sad without being about sadness, if that makes sense. After that, naming the pigs is a brief formality — of course Chihiro can do it, the animals have gathered for a celebration not an execution — and what remains is the walk home, a final release of breath. Spirited Away is more than two hours long(!!), but I can easily imagine an American animation studio cramming its action into 90 minutes, complete with 3-D dragon ride around the bath house and more pratfalls from the sidekicks…

I first saw Spirited Away in 2002 when it made the arthouse rounds in the USA, and in all that time certain images have never left me: Kamaji working the boiler, Haku terrorized by the paper spirits, Yubaba wrapping herself in a shawl and flying away. But I’ve always treasured Chihiro’s train ride. I want to say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen, but the opposite is true; it’s like dozens of other sequences I’ve seen, almost exclusively in foreign pictures and ‘art movies,’ which invite the audience to watch the characters watch and wait,to take a long moment to see not what they see but as they do, not pedantically in terms of POV but in their time, so to speak — waiting as they wait, bored or curious as they are.

The train ride lasts three minutes, an eternity in children’s films. Chihiro’s companions fall asleep, No-Face bows its head and rests, and Chihiro simply looks out the window with an expression we haven’t seen before, seeming (to me) tired, resolved, resigned, fully present — I believe this is the moment when the fullness of her family’s outer-world (real-world) transformation, the frightening move to the new house and school, has finally settled in. By choosing to travel out, to assume responsibility for Haku’s theft of the seal, she has become…well, not an adult, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? But she’s transformed all the same. Not knowing what comes next, she changes because she has to. The train ride might be the end of her story, which is a hell of a thing for a children’s movie to dramatize: death as resignation and loss and the final turn of the page rather than glorious climax.1 And to do so wordlessly, as other worlds and stories drift by uncommented-upon, not for spectacle’s sake but because even in the third act of a film that’s just how long train rides (and nighttime soul-transformations) are, and the world is more important than any story we might tell about it…

This, I think, is the bravery that Spirited Away shares with Goodnight Moon, or rather that Miyazaki shares with Margaret Wise Brown. For kids (as I understand things), the world is full of stories, yet it isn’t itself a story — hasn’t yet been instrumentalized. Kids’ worlds are bigger than they are (not least because literally), bigger and stranger and terribly older, impossible to understand and so easier in a way simply to accept. In my experience kids deal with the world more sanely than adults in that specific sense, accepting that the world is a world. Which is why their own stories can at times be absurdly boring, their fantasies so repetitive: the world is enough for kids. The stories they find in the world are enough, and so are the trees, the uncapped pens, full and empty plastic bags, loud sounds, snatches of song, dogs playing, grandmothers, water and its coolness, its way of sneaking into every space… The visual richness of Spirited Away paradoxically serves the same end as the stark simplicity of Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon illustrations (and Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry): to see and show a world as it is, merely inescapably real — whether it contains a telephone and a little toy house and a painting of bears, or a flying river spirit and three friendly rolling heads and an eight-legged boiler-room demon.

Their animating principle is honesty; wonder and whimsy and whatever else follow from having resolved to see a child’s world on its own terms. Most kids’ stories (and ‘adult’ stories, now) can’t help but anxiously hang lampshades on their own fabulations, which right away dates them — you can place a story in spacetime by what it’s embarrassed about. But to depict a country of the imagination without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to see even imaginary things as they are, is to create something ‘timeless.’ We use other terms for this quality as well: ‘mythic,’ ‘sacred,’ though honestly I prefer ‘wise.’ Timeless children’s work goes beyond dated, socially contingent ideas of innocence and appropriateness, and discovers that the common element between children Then and Now, Here at home and unimaginably far Away, is the world itself.

Which is to say all great art explores the absolutely specific in order to discover the universal, but you already knew that, right?

If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should, you must. It’s beautiful because it’s true and vice versa, which I take to be a straightforward observation about the world rather than empty clichĂ©, and by way of justification I submit the rest of this blogpost and the entire history of art and (why not?) the universe, amen.


  1. The phrase ‘death as glorious climax’ seems to me to sum up a lot of what’s sick about contemporary American culture. 

The waX-Files.

Reminder: if you like this stuff, you will likely like these posts, on The X-Files. The perspective is, shall we say, eliptonic-appreciative, and the attitude toward existing popular coverage of the show is (shall we say?) largely contemptuous. They aren’t ‘recaps,’ sorry, just responses, each pitched in whatever register made nonsense at the time.

I didn’t grow up watching The X-Files, which went off the air while I was in college or grad school. I’ve now seen most of the first four years, and consider it both good and (both historically and potentially) important. The incoherence of the ‘Mythology’ doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t bother you; caveat conspirator.

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.