Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Like the remote-control TV channel selectors that children love to play with, and the mechanical shooting games found in arcades, Star Wars offers solitary, narcissistic pleasures more than communal or romantic myths to keep its audience cheering.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1977

I have attempted, in passing, to grapple with this Rosenbaum quote before; with the virtue of retrospect, at first blush it seems perverse to identify Star Wars' appeal as a "solitary pleasure" when the franchise is propped up by such a wide and universal fanbase while fan communities flourish. And to dismiss the calculated Campbellian mythmaking and cinematic mining that drives the films' plots and tones misses much of the appeal that still wins audiences.

Yet, I can't help but think he was on to something, something perhaps even he couldn't properly fathom in 1977. The moment a child is handed a Star Wars action figure, that child now owns a piece of Star Wars, and becomes a storyteller. The moment you hand a child a lifesize toy lightsaber or blaster, the child also becomes a participant. And while children can play together, this ultimately means that each storyteller and participant has a slightly different Star Wars.

So while the pleasures aren't necessarily narcissistic, perhaps they are, in part, individualized and distinct. Solitary?

It's difficult to absorb a new film straight away, because one begins by superimposing the film one expected, which one wanted to see, and even which one wanted to make oneself.

All these barriers must be set aside before one can see the film which is actually there on the screen, and only then can one decide whether or not the director has succeeded on his terms rather than yours. A certain distance is absolutely essential. Spontaneous reactions are all very fine, but they tell you more about the critic than about the film.

- Jacques Rivette, 1963

Star Wars fans have had two years to contemplate how Luke might respond to Rey, how Luke might train Rey, and who Rey is. They have had ample opportunity to conjure, at whatever level of detail they choose, their own sequel. And now that Rian Johnson's version has been broadcast while theirs remain imaginary, vocal groups of fans are up in arms, taking to futile (and narcissistic) online petitions and claiming to have hacked website user scores so as to counteract this grave injustice, this insult.

What these particular fans wanted wasn't really a movie, or a singular artistic vision -- well, strike that, they wanted their own visions to be canonized. Fulfillment was more important that surprise, ratification more crucial than discovery.

(This seems to be a trend in certain strains of fandom; two or three episodes into HBO's Westworld, many viewers had figured out the season's big narrative twist. When that twist came to pass, they were delighted; they had been right, they had "solved" the show and were rewarded for their cleverness [note -- I am not saying that anyone who liked the show liked it for this reason, or this reason alone]. Would they have been angry had they been wrong? Would there have been online petitions? Thinking about this only adds to the majesty of the third season of Twin Peaks and its utter, almost pathological explosion of audience expectation. It was a season of television in which literally anything could have happened, nothing played out as anticipated, and it was from its first moment to its last thoroughly exhilarating as a result.)

But the problem, or the obstacle, is that, even if for some reason Johnson wanted to simply satisfy fan requirements, there isn't (and couldn't be) any sort of consensus about what those requirements even are. This is perhaps most evident in reactions to the film's explanation of Rey's origins. It strikes me that the choice made in the film is by far the best alternative that was available to the filmmakers, and admit to being rather gobsmacked that so many people seem to disagree. So while I am, I suppose, gratified that I was "right", I do wonder how I might have reacted had I been "wrong". Was my territorial claim on Rey's origin any more legitimate than any other fan's?

The fact is, neither I nor them get a vote, because we are not the film's creators. This notion that the film can be officially "decanonized" is of course total nonsense, if for no other reason that what is "officially" canon doesn't really matter, unless Kathy Kennedy calls you up and asks you to pitch her a story idea. Pablo Hidalgo isn't coming to your house to seize your copies of Heir to the Empire. Everyone, in fact, is entitled to his or her own (solitary) "canon". What these fans want is for everyone else to sign on to their own canon. Narcissistic pleasures.

We've been through something like this before, of course, with the backlash to the films George Lucas made under this imprimatur in the late 90s and early 2000s. I don't know the man, but I imagine that this experience indicated to Lucas that Star Wars didn't really belong to him anymore, so he might as well cash out and let it be someone else's problem.

These movies will all be so different. Rian Johnson is a friend of mine -- he's going to make some weird thing. If you've seen Rian's work, you know it's not going be like anything that's ever been in Star Wars.

- Lawrence Kasdan, 2015

Disney's Lucasfilm chasing off two directors before they had made films and a directing team after they had shot theirs, as well as bringing in reinforcements to help reshoot another, gives the impression that they are looking in some way to homogenize the product. And yet, the three films released under the Disney banner to date have all exhibited unique styles, tones, and approaches. Authorial sensibilities are palpable in these films, in line with the claims of the auteur policy of yore.

What the corporate overlords appear to maintain, however, is that there is some set of tones and attitudes that can acceptably fit under the "Star Wars" umbrella. Presumably, Lord & Miller's comedic emphases are outside of that tone, and their dismissal from the Han Solo origin film rings in the ears of moviegoers treated to Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson opening The Last Jedi with a comedy routine. So maybe we don't quite know what exactly the tone of a Star Wars film is is after all -- but we do know what a Rian Johnson film is, and The Last Jedi is certainly that. The humor is of an off-kilter yet rambunctious sort that is familiar to viewers of Brick and The Brothers Bloom, and the somewhat convoluted scheming plots resonate with those prior films as well as Looper's, um, loops.

Disney/Lucasfilm certainly must have known what they were getting with Johnson, and how different he is as a filmmaker from JJ Abrams. Abrams comes from a Spielbergian school of common touch crowd-pleasing; his films are propulsively, almost frenetically-paced, with relatively few moments for anyone to breathe; it's on from one rush to another (The Force Awakens actually dials this back a bit compared to his other films, in my view). His favorite films are works of populist, emotional manipulation (I am not saying that pejoratively -- all filmmaking is manipulation). He had a blockbuster track record before he ever went on Lucasfilm's payroll; even his post-Felicity TV series were "blockbuster" efforts on a network TV scale.

Johnson's taste runs to moodier fare: noir, disappointment, obfuscation, and ambiguity -- but also humor. Two of his three prior features were small, and even Looper with its successful box office had a modest budget -- and an ambivalent ending. Perhaps Kathy Kennedy and/or Bob Iger saw in this a good match for a trilogy's second chapter, as such installments tend toward irresolution and villainous victories. He has stated in post-release interviews that he arranged his narrative around identifying the biggest and most meaningful obstacles the characters could face. He puts them through the wringer -- and perhaps the extent to which he succeeds at this had contributed to some of the fanboy outrage, as well.

The visual styles are also different; JJ relies heavily on camera movement, with sweeping and tracking, characters exiting screen left and other characters crossing the other way, all in one shot. Johnson certainly isn't averse to moving the camera, but what sticks with me more are his striking compositions and bold colors (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky does a fine job exploring his visual and narrative influences in his spoiler-conversant essay on the film). I've seen some allege that Johnson was trying to "undo" what JJ set up for him, or that he sought out to intentionally push what Star Wars can be; he denies the latter, but the evidence on the screen establishes that he didn't even have to try -- he just had to be Rian Johnson.

Did Rian Johnson make the movie I would have made? Not entirely, but in some respects yes, and in other respects I was delighted by surprise, and in others ... not as much. It is certainly a work of verve and ambition and creative individuality, and it sticks enough landings where I can applaud the result as well as the effort. Sure, grant me the power and I'd pare a subplot here and clarify one there, but know that a bunch of people would petition against my proposed changes as much as they do the actual product. I'm not narcissistic enough to think that this film's and franchise's pleasures belong solely to me.