Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.


Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.


Fan Service

Posted: December 27, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Media, Taste

Having just seen the latest installment of the supermegahit Star Wars franchise, my thinking drifted ineluctably to the issue of fan service. There is probably no greater example of the public claiming ownership of popular culture than with Star Wars, which has been a uniquely American phenomenon for 40 years and risen to the level of a new mythology. Never mind that it was invented out of whole cloth. (Some argue that the major religions are also invented, but that’s a different subject of debate.) Other invented, segmented mythologies include Rowling’s Harry Potter series (books before movies), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (books before movies), Martin’s Game of Thrones (books before TV show), and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (operas). It’s little surprise (to me, at least) that the new American mythology stems from cinema rather than literature or music.

Given the general public’s deep knowledge of the Star Wars canon, it’s inevitable that some portion of the each installment of the franchise must cite and rhyme recognizable plots, dialogue, and thematic elements, which is roughly analogous to one’s favorite band playing its hits rather than offering newly composed music at every concert. With James Bond (probably the first movie franchise, though book series written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agathe Christie long ago established the model for recurring characters), story elements were formalized rather early in its history and form the foundation of each later story. Some regard the so-called formula as a straitjacket, whereas others derive considerable enjoyment out of familiar elements. So, too, with Star Wars. The light sabers, the spaceships, the light and dark sides of the force, the plucky rebels, the storm troopers, the disfigured villains, and the reluctant hero all make their appearances and reappearances in different guises. What surprised me most about The Last Jedi is how frequently and skillfully fan service was handled, typically undercutting each bit to simultaneously satisfy and taunt viewers. Some indignant fanboys (and -girls) have actually petitioned to have The Last Jedi struck from the Star Wars canon for defying franchise conventions so flagrantly.

New media have enabled regular folks to indulge their pet theories of the Star Wars universe in public fora, and accordingly, no shortage of overexcited analysis exists regarding plots, family relationships, cat-and-mouse strategics, and of course, possible stories to be told in an ever-expanding cinematic universe promising new films with nauseating regularity for the foreseeable future, or at least so long as the intellectual property owners can wring giant profits out of the series. This is what cinematic storytelling has become: setting up a series and wringing every last bit of value out of it before leaving it fallow and untended for a decade or more and then rebooting the entire stinking mess. The familiar criticism is Hollywood Out of Ideas, which often rings true except when one considers that only a few basic narrative structures exist in the first place. All the different manifestations are merely variations upon familiar themes, another form of fan service.

This is the inverse of a prior post called “Truth Based on Fiction.”

Telling stories about ourselves is one of the most basic of human attributes stretching across oral and recorded history. We continue today to memorialize events in short, compact tellings, frequently movies depicting real-life events. I caught two such films recently: Truth (about what came to be known as Rathergate) and Snowden (about whistle-blower Edward Snowden).

Although Dan Rather is the famous figure associated with Truth, the story focuses more on his producer Mary Mapes and the group decisions leading to airing of a controversial news report about George W. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard. The film is a dramatization, not a documentary, and so is free to present the story with its own perspective and some embellishment. Since I’m not a news junkie, my memory of the events in 2004 surrounding the controversy are not especially well informed, and I didn’t mind the potential for the movie’s version of events to color my thinking. About some controversies and conspiracies, I feel no particular demand to adopt a strong position. The actors did well enough, but I felt Robert Redford was poorly cast as Dan Rather. Redford is too famous in his own right to succeed as a character actor playing a real-life person.

Debate over the patriotism or treason of Edward Snowden’s actions continues to swirl, but the film covers the issues pretty well, from his discovery of an intelligence services surveillance dragnet (in violation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) to his eventual disclosure of same to a few well-respected journalists. The film’s director and joint screenwriter, Oliver Stone, has made a career out of fiction based on truth, dramatizing many signal events from the nation’s history, repackaging them as entertainment in the process. I’m wary of his interpretations of history when presented in cinematic form, less so his alternative history lessons given as documentary. Unlike Truth, however, I have clear ideas in my mind regarding Snowden the man and Snowden the movie, so from a different standpoint, was again unconcerned about potential bias. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does well enough as the titular character, though he doesn’t project nearly the same insight and keen intelligence as Snowden himself does. I suspect the documentary Citizen Four (which I’ve not yet seen) featuring Snowden doing his own talking is a far better telling of the same episode of history.

In contrast, I have assiduously avoided several other recent films based on actual events. United 93, World Trade Center, and Deepwater Horizon spring to mind, but there are many others. The wounds and controversies stemming from those real-life events still smart too much for me to consider exposing myself to propaganda historical fictions. Perhaps in a few decades, after living memory of such events has faded or disappeared entirely, such stories can be told effectively, though probably not accurately. A useful comparison might be any one of several films called The Alamo.

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (1oo years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]

An old Star Trek episode called “A Taste for Armageddon” depicts Capt. Kirk and crew confronting a planetary culture that has adopted purely administrative warfare with a nearby planet, where computer simulations determine outcomes of battles and citizens/inhabitants are notified to report for their destruction in disintegration chambers to comply with those outcomes. Narrative resolution is tidied up within the roughly 1-hour span of the episode, of course, but it was and is nonetheless a thought-provoking scenario. The episode, now 50 years old, prophesies a hyper-rational approach to conflict. (I was 4 years old at the time it aired on broadcast television, and I don’t recall having seen it since. Goes to show how influential high-concept storytelling can be even on someone quite young.) The episode came to mind as I happened across video showing how robot soldiers are being developed to supplement and eventually replace human combatants. See, for example, this:

The robot in the video above is not overtly militarized, but there is no doubt that it will could be. Why the robot takes bipedal, humanoid form with an awkwardly high center of gravity is unclear to me beyond our obvious self-infatuation. Additional videos with two-wheeled, quadriped, and even insect-like multilegged designs having much improved movement and flexibility can be found with a simple search. Any of them can be transformed into ground-based killing machines, as suggested more manifestly in the video below highlighting various walking, rolling, flying, floating, and swimming machines developed to do our dirty work:


What’s Missing

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Consumerism, Culture

Pessimists, misanthropes, fatalists, and doomers (I’m all types) often find themselves defending the position that maybe we don’t live at the very best, super-duper, tippy-top time in history, that although technology in particular has admittedly delivered some amazing innovations and improved our material conditions considerably even over our fairly recent past, we nonetheless lack spirituality and meaning — unless of course one’s spirituality and meaning are mistakenly found in technology. The technological sublime is so deceptively glamorous and ubiquitous that it obscures the idea that maybe another time and place made for a more ethical, moral, and noble life. (Experience varied widely, obviously.) In addition, personal freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies are difficult to argue against, though that’s more characteristic of those at the very top of the socioeconomic heap than those of us below who know to keeps things buttoned up lest we discomfit our betters. Perhaps the most broadly enjoyed modern development is increased lifespan borne out of improved healthcare. And quite recently, the grossly expanded communications age (the information age is nested inside) reputedly makes learning and keeping in touch far easier than ever before. I won’t dispel any of these. However, I have two complaints against modernity as evidenced by a body of posts extending back through the life of this blog: life lacks many salutary aspects delivered passively by bygone social structures and technology smuggles in a host of problems with its bounty.

Among the failed attributes are (1) lack of a cohesive narrative for what life ought to mean beyond grubbing for money, chasing fame and social cachet, and overpopulating the planet with progeny (many of whom suffer neglect while parents are away grubbing for money), (2) lack of true community and social conditions necessary to be properly situated within a wholesome context, (3) spiritual and emotional vacuity, (4) destructive social presences and bullying, especially online (as exemplified by the Bully-in-Chief) and by civil authorities, (5) unrelenting, disorienting technological and social change, including slang and memes that are impossible to track fully without being in the thrall of celebrities, pundits, and media in general, (6) little prospect of things improving near term, and (7) the still-dawning realization that, like the existential angst from the so-called Atomic Age and its threat of complete nuclear annihilation, we possess tools sufficient to destroy ourselves many times over (including rotting ourselves out from the inside in a fevered race to the cultural bottom) and have unwittingly fired the slo-mo suicide gun. We’re only just waiting for the bullet to strike its target. Since the gun is industrial civilization, the target is all of us. Dead men walking, or perhaps more accurately, the zombie shuffle.

A significant minority has replied to this set of miserable circumstances by voting into office our our current president, 45. According to one astute commentator, 45 was never understood as a solution but rather a murder weapon used by the disenfranchised to kill the host, namely, our sick society run by plutocrats maniacally hellbent on destroying everyone outside their immediate concern, which is just about everybody.



Posted: February 26, 2017 in Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Sports
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Early in the process of socialization, one learns that the schoolyard cry “Fight!” is half an alert (if one is a bystander) to come see and half an incitement to violence (if one is just entering into conflict). Fascination with seeing people duke it out, ostensibly to settle conflicts, never seems to grow old, though the mixed message about violence never solving anything sometimes slows things down. (Violence does in fact at least put an end to things. But the cycle of violence continues.) Fights have also lost the respectability of yore, where the victor (as with a duel or a Game of Thrones fight by proxy) was presumed to be vindicated. Now we mostly know better than to believe that might makes right. Successful aggressors can still be villains. Still, while the primal instinct to fight can be muted, it’s more typically channeled into entertainment and sport, where it’s less destructive than, say, warrior culture extending all the way from clans and gangs up to professional militaries.

Fighting in entertainment, especially in cinema, often depicts invulnerability that renders fighting pointless and inert. Why bother hitting Superman, the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, or indeed any number of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Segal, or Statham characters when there is no honest expectation of doing damage? They never get hurt, just irritated. Easy answer: because the voyeurism inherent in fighting endures. Even when the punchfest is augmented by guns we watch, transfixed by conflict even though outcomes are either predictable (heroes and good guys almost always win), moot, or an obvious set-up for the next big, stupid, pointless battle.

Fighting in sport is perhaps most classical in boxing, with weight classes evening out the competition to a certain degree. Boxing’s popularity has waxed and waned over time as charismatic fighters come and go, but like track and field, it’s arguably one of the purest expressions of sport, being about pure dominance. One could also argue that some team sports, such as hockey and American-style football, are as much about the collateral violence as about scoring goals. Professional wrestling, revealed to be essentially athletic acting, blends entertainment and sport, though without appreciable loss of audience appeal. As with cinema, fans seem to not care that action is scripted. Rising in popularity these days is mixed martial arts (MMA), which ups the ante over boxing by allowing all manner of techniques into the ring, including traditional boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and straight-up brawling. If brawling works in the schoolyard and street against unwilling or inexperienced fighters, it rarely succeeds in the MMA ring. Skill and conditioning matter most, plus the lucky punch.

Every kid, boy or girl, is at different points bigger, smaller, or matched with someone else when things start to get ugly. So one’s willingness to engage and strategy are situational. In childhood, conflict usually ends quickly with the first tears or bloodied nose. I’ve fought on rare occasion, but I’ve never ever actually wanted to hurt someone. Truly wanting to hurt someone seems to be one attribute of a good fighter; another is the lack of fear of getting hit or hurt. Always being smaller than my peers growing up, if I couldn’t evade a fight (true for me most of the time), I would defend myself, but I wasn’t good at it. Reluctant willingness to fight was usually enough to keep aggressors at bay. Kids who grow up in difficult circumstances, fighting with siblings and bullies, and/or abused by a parent or other adult, have a different relationship with fighting. For them, it’s unavoidable. Adults who relish being bullies join the military and/or police or maybe become professional fighters.

One would have to be a Pollyanna to believe that we will eventually rise above violence and use of force. Perhaps it’s a good thing that in a period of relative peace (in the affluent West), we have alternatives to being forced to defend ourselves on an everyday basis and where those who want to can indulge their basic instinct to fight and establish dominance. Notions of masculinity and femininity are still wrapped up in how one expresses these urges, though in characteristic PoMo fashion, traditional boundaries are being erased. Now, everyone can be a warrior.

I see plenty of movies over the course of a year but had not been to a theater since The Force Awakens came out slightly over a year ago. The reason is simple: it costs too much. With ticket prices nearing $15 and what for me had been obligatory popcorn and soda (too much of both the way they’re bundled and sold — ask anyone desperately holding back their pee until the credits roll!), the endeavor climbed to nearly $30 just for one person. Never mind that movie budgets now top $100 million routinely; the movie-going experience simply isn’t worth $30 a pop. Opening weekend crowds (and costumes)? Fuggedaboudit! Instead, I view films at home on DVD (phooey on Blueray) or via a streaming service. Although I admit I’m missing out on being part of an audience, which offers the possibility of being carried away on a wave of crowd emotion, I’m perfectly happy watching at home, especially considering most films are forgettable fluff (or worse) and filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to shape and tell good stories. So a friend dragged me out to see Rogue One, somewhat late after its opening by most standards. Seeing Star Wars and other franchise installments now feels like an obligation just to stay culturally relevant. Seriously, soon enough it will be Fast & Furious Infinitum. We went to a newly built theater with individual recliners and waiters (no concession stands). Are film-goers no longer satisfied by popcorn and Milk Duds? No way would I order an $80 bottle of wine to go with Rogue One. It’s meant to be a premium experience, with everything served to you in the recliner, and accordingly, charges premium prices. Too bad most films don’t warrant such treatment. All this is preliminary to the actual review, of course.

I had learned quite a bit about Rogue One prior to seeing it, not really caring about spoilers, and was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as bad as some complain. Rogue One brings in all the usual Star Wars hallmarks: storm troopers, the Force, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, ray guns and light sabers, the Death Star, and familiar characters such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc. Setting a story within the Star Wars universe makes most of that unavoidable, though some specific instances did feel like gratuitous fan service, such as the 3-second (if that) appearance of C3PO and R2D2. The appearance of things and characters I already knew about didn’t feel to me like an extra thrill, but how much I needed to already know about Star Wars just to make sense of Rogue One was a notable weakness. Thus, one could call Rogue One a side story, but it was by no means a stand-alone story. Indeed, characters old and new were given such slipshod introductions (or none at all!) that they functioned basically as chess pieces moved around to drive the game forward. Good luck divining their characteristic movements and motivations. Was there another unseen character manipulating everyone? The Emperor? Who knows? Who cares! It was all a gigantic, faceless, pawn sacrifice. When at last the main rebels died, there was no grief or righteousness over having at least accomplished their putative mission. Turns out the story was all about effects, not emotional involvement. And that’s how I felt: uninvolved. It was a fireworks display ending with a pointless though clichéd grand finale. Except I guess that watching a bunch of fake stuff fake blow up was the fake point.

About what passed for a story: the Rebellion learns (somehow?!) that they face total annihilation from a new superweapon called the Death Star. (Can’t remember whether that term was actually used in the film.) While the decision of leadership is to scatter and flee, a plucky band of rebels within the rebellion insist on flinging themselves against the enemy without a plan except to improvise once on site, whereupon leadership decides irrationally to do the same. The lack of strategy is straight out of The Return of the King, distracting the enemy from the true mission objective, but the visual style is more like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is to say, full, straight-on bombardment and invasion. Visual callbacks to WWII infantry uniforms and formations couldn’t be more out of place. To call these elements charmless is to give them too much credit. Rather, they’re hackneyed. However, they probably fit well enough within the Saturday-morning cartoon, newsreel, swashbuckler sensibility that informed the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Problem is, those 1970s kids are grown and want something with greater gravitas than live-action space opera. Newer Star Wars audiences are stuck in permanent adolescence because of what cinema has become, with its superhero franchises and cynical money grabs.

As a teenager when the first trilogy came out, I wanted more of the mystical element — the Force — than I wanted aerial battles, sword fights, or chase scenes. The goofy robots, reluctant heroes, and bizarre aliens were fun, but they were balanced by serious, steady leadership (the Jedi) and a couple really bad-ass villains. While it’s known George Lucas had the entire character arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in mind from the start, it’s also fair to say that no one quite knew in Episode 4 just how iconic Vader the villain would become, which is why his story became the centerpiece of the first two trilogies (how many more to come?). However, Anakin/Vader struggled with the light/dark sides of the Force, which resonated with anyone familiar with the angel/demon nomenclature of Christianity. When the Force was misguidedly explained away as Midi-clorians (science, not mysticism), well, the bottom dropped out of the Star Wars universe. At that point, it became a grand WWII analogue populated by American GIs and Nazis — with some weird Medievalism and sci-fi elements thrown in — except that the wrong side develops the superweapon. Rogue One makes that criticism even more manifest, though it’s fairly plain to see throughout the Star Wars films.

Let me single out one actor for praise: Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic. It’s hard for me to decide whether he chews the scenery, upstaging Darth Vader as a villain in the one scene they share, or he’s among a growing gallery of underactors whose flat line delivery and blandness invites viewers to project upon them characterization telegraphed through other mechanisms (costuming, music, plot). Either way, I find him oddly compelling and memorable, unlike the foolish, throwaway, sacrificial band of rebellious rebels against the rebellion and empire alike. Having seen Ben Mendelsohn in other roles, he possesses an unusual screen magnetism that reminds me of Sean Connery. He tends to play losers and villains and be a little one-note (not a bag of tricks but just one trick), but he is riveting on-screen for the right reasons compared to, say, the ookiness of the two gratuitous CGI characters in Rogue One.

So Rogue One is a modestly enjoyable and ephemeral romp through the Star Wars universe. It delivers and yet fails to deliver, which about as charitable as I can be.