Going Home Again To Star Wars [No Spoilers]

One evening in 1977 I stood in a long line with my parents at Grauman's Chinese Theater. I was utterly oblivious to what I was waiting for; 1977 marketing campaigns look quaint compared to the barrage we endure now. I had no precedent. The trip was out of character for my parents, who weren't science fiction fans or movie buffs. Despite the lack of preparation, the experience of seeing Star Wars that night was transformative. I had enjoyed the normal run of eight-year-old-boy obsessions — sharks and dinosaurs and the Six Million Dollar Man — but those were nothing compared to the immersive imaginative leap the movie inspired. The fascination was a community experience. Star Wars was the lingua franca of kids my age, providing common ground to boys and girls, jocks and nerds, bullies and the bullied, kids of every ethnicity and neighborhood. Everyone was running around the playground like an idiot pretending to be an X-wing, and our relentless hunger for action figures made George Lucas filthy rich.

Three years later I was watching The Empire Strikes Back at a run-down drive-in movie theater somewhere in the San Gabriel Valley with my father. He viewed the movies as silly, but recognized that nothing would make me happier than seeing the movie immediately, and so found the one place we could find tickets. We ate dangerously revolting drive-in cheeseburgers and listened to the crackling audio and once again I was transported. I was old enough, at 10, to follow everything, and still young enough to appreciate everything.

Three years later Dad got tickets to a charity premiere that allowed us to see Return of the Jedi a day early. It made me very happy, as he knew it would, but somehow not quite as happy as I was at the first two movies. Surely part of that was that Return of the Jedi isn't as good of a movie as the first two, even by space-opera popcorn-flick standards. But it was also because I was 13, and no longer uncritically delighted at anything. The gravitational tug of adolescence and eventual adulthood, with their cares and worries and self-consciousness, had a hold of me.

So what was it like, more than 32 years later, to watch the latest Star Wars movie with my wife and kids?

It was different. But not, I've concluded, a bad different.

First: the movie. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was thoroughly enjoyable. The newcomers in the lead roles have charisma and great chemistry. Oscar Isaac was underused as ace pilot Poe Dameron — hopefully he'll get more attention in the sequels — but Daisy Ridley and John Boyega deserve the career they're going to have now. Harrison Ford could have just lounged around being iconic but instead delivered a top performance, showing flashes of both his character's original flair and the weight of the years since. The bad guy is three-dimensional and compelling — J.J. Abrams understands that notes of humanity make a villain more terrifying, not less. The special effects are skillfully mustered to enhance the story, not substitute for it. The dialogue was slightly clunky at worst and quite funny at best. The plot? Of course there are holes. How could there not be? And sometimes the echoes of earlier movies were a bit too loud. But what flaws the movie had never took me out of it. I never winced or groaned. The prequels made me think I can't be enthralled by a movie any more like I could when I was 10; this didn't. The nostalgia was positive, not rueful. My hopes and expectations — kept carefully at bay with the reins of bitter experience — were exceeded. Did it make me as happy as, say, Fellowship of the Ring? No. But it made me very happy.

But it didn't feel like watching The Empire Strikes Back with Dad at a drive-in in 1980. How could it? I haven't been 10 for a third of a century. I have the preoccupations of an adult. I have cares that make it hard to be fully present in any moment, let alone moments of heedless fantasy. Never again will I race around the back yard with friends, tumbling into the bushes and shoving each other off of hills pretending to fight Stormtroopers, furiously shouting "I hit you! I hit you! It's a BLASTER! You're DEAD!" Never again will I go to bed dreaming of nothing more but the carefree pleasures of the next day.

Fortunately life has a way of replacing one pleasure with another. I walked out of the theater holding my wife's hand, smiling and talking about our memories of childhood. My older two kids skipped ahead of us, excitedly talking about heroes and villains and squabbling over details. My youngest held my other hand, loudly claiming that she was FINISHED with such things and would see NO MORE STAR WARS OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER. She had spent a substantial part of the movie curled up in the chair with me, head against my chest. It was a bit noisy for her tastes, though the normally prohibited Skittles were some consolation.

The warmth I felt wasn't just nostalgia, or hopes and expectations mostly rewarded. It was the ineffable pleasure of experiencing the happiness of the people I love. Even if I can't access what it's like to be 10 any more, my kids can, and it turns out that watching them do it is somehow better than doing it myself. For years I felt sorry that the price of my great pleasure in 1980 was my Dad enduring bad cheeseburgers at a distant drive-in with a movie he didn't care about. Now I know how happy my joy must have made him. Now I can help make those moments for my kids.

Mad Max: Actually, It's About Ethics In Truck Driving

(note: nearly zero spoilers. perhaps actually zero.)

The three genres of the Mad Max trilogy

The interesting thing about the original Mad Max trilogy is that each movie belongs to an entirely separate genre. Mad Max is a 1970s biker film, Road Warrior is a western, and Thunderdome is NFL half-time show. In world-building, yes, they're all post-apocalyptic films (except for the first, which is perhaps during the very early stages of a grinding apocalypse), but genre conventions and associations matter a heck of a lot: they give us a structure to fit the pieces in to and a set of expectations about what comes next.

The original Road Warrior is, it's almost universally agreed, the best of the three, and I think the reason is not just the incredible visceral car chases and wrecks and stunts, but the western format. Echoing perhaps not only Star Wars and a bunch of Sergio Leone spaghetti, but the best western ever (Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) , the plot plays out like this: the drifter encounters a populace in need, insists that he's no hero, reluctantly is converted to serving the cause, and then – ronin-like – drifts away when the moment of need is over.

As a side note, the original Road Warrior also delivers on the important but unspoken requirement of a good western: good cinematography that displays a vast panoramic landscape. The shots where Max is looking down at the refinery camp and the desert looks so huge and empty under the infinite sky is breath taking. Later there's a second shot that always makes me catch my breath: the leaders of the refinery camp are deliberating under a single electric light against a wide purple sky. The juxtaposition of the small bright spark of technology (the first electric light we see in the entire movie, and, I think, the only one) against vast world gone dark is stunning.

Thunderdome sucked (although, after a re-watch recently, not as much as I'd once thought – it's actually the second best movie in the trilogy, and if only a few things were changed could be a lot better) for a lot of reasons, and one of them is that it departed from the Western genre for a Hollywood-ized, big-budget, campy halftime show.

Anyway, I take us down memory lane not merely for the sake of nostalgia, but as a jumping off point to explain Fury Road. Because until you understand what genre the movie is, you can't understand the movie.

A Western Super-Hero Movie

Fury Road has many of Road Warrior's strengths: it is at least half a western, and it is jam-packed with dangerous automotive mayhem.

Crucially, it did not make the same mistake as Thunderdome: taking its huge budget and using it for camp. Or, rather there are a few bits that could be campy in other contexts, but because they're so overwhelmed by gasoline, metal, and anger, they don't register as camp: one moment they're a distant dot on the horizon, and the next they're gone, behind, never to be seen again.

So, how well does Fury Road do as a Western? It does decently, but not great. The drifter arrives in town, he accidentally hooks up with the people in need, and he reluctantly agrees to help them. And then, at the end, like a tumbleweed, he drifts on. It checks all the Western boxes, but it does so perfunctorily, without passion …and, on one occasion, without a lot of sense.

Oh, and about the unspoken rule of good westerns? Yes, the amazing shots of the desert are there – boy are they there. But you knew that already, from the trailers.

If I had to put my finger on the one thing that disappointed me about Fury Road it was that it had a bit of superhero genre mixed in. In watching Road Warrior one feels concern for the protagonists and fear over their prospects. The villains are just real enough – one thinks that, yes, two years after the nukes fell and the gas ran out, the most brutal of the biker gangs and the renegade cops could have come to exactly this. In the first third of Road Warrior we see Humongous and his gang murder, rape, and loot outriders from the refinery camp, so we know exactly what they're capable of. Later, when our hero and his charges venture out into the wasteland and into conflict with the villains we know how it might very well end: the vehicles caught, destroyed, captives pulled out, brutally raped, and then crossbow-bolted when they're of no more use.

In contrast to this level of realism, Fury Road turns the dial one more, to eleven, for that push over the cliff. It was an inspired choice, in a way: I'm glad I saw these insane war rigs, I'm glad I saw the gouts of flame, the grenades, the spiked cars, the white skinned lunatics leaping off of moving vehicles to their certain deaths, and more. I've never seen anything like it before, and it was glorious.

…but necessarily, if you're serving up an apple, you're not serving up an orange.

The scale, the craziness, the everything – all at once, in every direction – is shocking, and aweing, and wonderful. …but because it's so much, and so hyper-real, the movie slips away from being a Western and into being a superhero movie. These villains are not what real biker gangs and real cops could have evolved into in the wasteland: these are comic book crazies. In the real world, no one would actually build these vehicles. No one would actually do these things. No one would actually set up this tribe or this economy.

…and thus, because it's so much larger than life, it is not life. In Blade Runner, when Deckard misses his jump at the very end of the movie and is hanging twenty stories above hard pavement I gulp, because the idea of falling twenty stories is a real one. I can picture it. My heart hammers. My palms sweat.

In Fury Road, when Max is standing on top of a war rig hurtling through the desert I'm mostly curious as to what will explode next. There is not a moment of fear about the shear insanity of standing on top of a moving vehicle doing sixty over rough terrain. Think about that: if you're anything like me, just standing on top of the tanker would scare you to the point of needing new underwear. Yet in Fury Road none of it seems real. The violence was glorious and picturesque and insane…but not once was it scary. …because not once was it real.

Fury Road is a superhero movie.

Who is the superhero?

Fury Road is odd. Unlike the previous films in the franchise, there's not one hero, there are two. And, in fact, Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa is at the center of the plot, and at the center of the heart of the film. She drives the action, she drives the truck, she drives the plot. This is a bit odd, given that the movie is called "Mad Max: Fury Road" and not "Imperator Furiosa: Fury Road", but what are you going to do?

That said, Max gets a lot of the action, and even if it's not 51%, there's more than enough to go around.

MRA boycott because Fury Road is feminist propaganda

Someone, I think Roosh V, has announced that Fury Road is feminist propaganda and should be boycotted. There are three reasons that I can think to call a boycott.

First, to put economic pressure on someone. Given the size of the movie industry and the size of the MRA world, I can't imagine that anyone thinks that this might work.

Second, to keep out badthink (the SJW tactic of blockbots, etc.). Say what you will about the MRAs, but I don't think that this is their style.

Third, to create a conspicuous cost to being a member of community, thus serving as an initiation ritual of sorts, and binding the members of the community together.

It's gotta be number three, right?

< shrug >

Moving on:

So, is Fury Road a feminist movie?

I can see why the MRAs say so. It does seem to go out of its way to hit a few feminist tropes – I felt like I was reading bad lesbian science fiction from the 70s once or twice.

Clan of wizened "wise women"? check.

…who live a simpler, more peaceful life? check.

…and have peaceful flower-power hippie names ("Initiating Mother", "Vuvalini of the Many Mothers", "Clan Swaddle Dog", etc.)

…and carry a bag of seeds with them, a symbol of the nurturing protective womb? check.

Pro-forma enunciation that women are not property? check.

Kick-ass heroine, because girls can be just as tough as guys? check.

So, yes, there is a bit of feminism shoe-horned awkwardly into the movie. But it's more silly than objectionable. And, in fact, conservatives will find a lot to chuckle over: the maguffin on the entire chase is the group of young breedable women…and yet not once does anyone suggest that they do anything other than breed. No, a just society, it seems, will still have these women cranking out babies…just under (heh) the good guys, and not the Ugly Old Coot.

Yes, but is Fury Road a feminist movie?

No. Not unless "blowing immense quantities of shit up in a vast barren desert" is a new form of feminism I'm unfamiliar with (and if it is, I promise to give feminism another look-see – that'd be a promising development).

To the degree it's got any ideology, it's about ethics in truck driving: "people should not be slaves, nor should they live under corrupt all-powerful kleptocratic dictatorships".

That strikes me as pretty damned libertarian.

Should you see it?


In the theater.


It's not the perfect movie. It's not even the perfect Mad Max movie. But it is a spectacle of the best kind, and there's no substitute for seeing it the way every western is meant to be seen: spread across a screen as huge as the desert itself.

Love Is Kind Of Crazy With A Spooky Little Movie Like You

Our friends at Quarter to Three, one of the best gaming sites on the web (and one not involved in #Gamergate!) are compiling a list, with detailed reviews, of great horror movies from the past two decades. 31 movies in 31 days. You know all about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead, but have you seen Audition? Did you know that "The Call of Cthulhu" has been filmed, and that someone, somehow, actually made a decent film based on H. P. Lovecraft?

One of my rituals, every October, is to watch a mix of classic and newer horror movies. The people behind this series know what's good, and I'm looking forward to watching their recommendations. But if you're squeamish, don't click!

The Allure Of Unquestioned Premises: "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz"

Smart people are a-dime-a-dozen. Very smart people are common. Though geniuses are statistically uncommon, humanity's surging tide produces tens of thousands of them in every generation.

But even geniuses are people, and people tend to play the hand that is dealt to them, or else discard just a few cards to draw new ones. Few question the rules of the game or why they should play it at all.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz depicts a rare genius who questioned the premise of the game. It's terrific and moving. I bought it, downloaded it, and watched it on my iPad on a plane trip, all of which seemed very appropriate. It was well worth the time and attention and money.

[Read more…]

Fruitvale Station: Subversive Humanity

Saturday was date night, and Katrina and I went to the local over-the-top-luxurious movie theater, where you sit in recliners and swaddle yourself in soft blankets and order food and drink from the full menu to be brought to you in your seats.1

Now, if I am presented with an opportunity for someone to bring me Chimay whilst I recline and watch a movie, I view it as morally wrong to miss it. Am I to be ungracious? No.

The luxury and decent food and excellent beer didn't really feel right this time, though. They felt deeply incongruous and increasingly uncomfortable. That's because we were at the theater to see Fruitvale Station, a harrowing but stunningly acted story of the last twenty-four hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer as he lay prone and unarmed on the ground of the train station of that name. That officer — Johannes Mehserle — was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. I previously wrote about the law governing the charges against him and how they applied to his defense that he accidentally grabbed his pistol rather than his taser.

The movie starts with actual footage of the shooting, then flashes back to the last day of Grant's life, plagued with trouble but centered on his girlfriend and daughter. It's powerful, and moving, it's amazingly well-acted, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, with the reservation that it is like a kick in the gut. The film's treatment of the fatal moment allows varying interpretations, which might arise from your preconceived notions based on media coverage or political or social views: did Mehserle lose control and execute an unarmed man in a moment of rage? Did he make a terrible, reckless error reflecting bad judgment and bad training in a moment of chaos? The movie has things to say about how police act towards young men like Grant, but it doesn't force the ultimate conclusion.

The movie has been deservedly well-reviewed. One review caught my eye, because it says things that, as a criminal defense attorney, I hear a lot. At Variety, Geoff Berkshire says:

Yet even if every word of Coogler’s account of the last day in Grant’s life held up under close scrutiny, the film would still ring false in its relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.

. . . .

Consequently, “Fruitvale” piles on examples of Grant as a loving boyfriend to Sophina (Melonie Diaz), son to Wanda (Octavia Spencer) and father to Tatiana (Ariana Neal), with only fleeting glimpses of his foibles. Sophina remains angry about a recent affair Oscar had (though she has to forgive him, because he’s so darn sweet). He also spent time in prison (for reasons never made clear), has a temper that occasionally flares up and was fired from his grocery store job for missing work. Yet there’s never any question that by the time we meet him, all of this dubious stuff is firmly in Oscar’s past, and he’s dedicated himself to pursuing a better life.

Berkshire seems to feel that filmmaker Ryan Coogler is cheating by depicting Oscar Grant as a loving father and fond if imperfect boyfriend and son, without portraying him sufficiently as — to be blunt — a criminal.

Geoff Berkshire didn't see the same movie I saw. I saw a movie in which Michael B. Jordan convincingly portrays a young man who has recently cheated on his loving and patient girlfriend and is somewhat defiant about it, a young man who knows his choices threaten to make his daughter miserable, a young man who still flirts with drugs, a young man who can be cruel to his devoted mother, a young man who has a hot temper and poor self-control and a capacity for violence. The film shows a young man who went to prison and was immersed in its brutal culture.

But the movie shows other aspects of Oscar Grant, too, and that may be what is upsetting Berkshire. The film shows Oscar Grant is all those things, but still others at the same time. The film shows that Grant genuinely loves his girlfriend even though he wrongs her. The film shows he is devoted to his daughter even as he's made choices that separates them. The film shows he loves his mother and regrets the pain he's caused her. The film shows that he can be kind to strangers and form connections with people.

We're used to stories that depict criminals as protagonists, like The Godfather or The Wire or Boardwalk Empire. The culture accepts — with occasional grumbling — fictional characters being more than one thing at once, made of good and bad parts. But when it comes to a real human being like Oscar Grant, our culture tends to be scornful of complexity and nuance. Berkshire's review suggests that Oscar Grant is a criminal, and shouldn't be portrayed otherwise. (It's entirely possible that somewhere someone is writing angrily that Oscar Grant is a victim and shouldn't be portrayed otherwise.) But Oscar Grant, like all of us, was more than one thing. Oscar Grant, a real live human being, could make terrible decisions that threatened his relationship with his daughter and still love her fiercely. Oscar Grant could love his mother and break her heart. Oscar Grant could commit crimes but be kind to strangers. If we're honest about human beings, we can depict one side without diminishing the other side.

Society has a stake in depicting people like Oscar Grant — people who have gone to prison, people who have committed crimes — as all one thing. Society has a reason to get anxious, as Berkshire seems to, when the Oscar Grants of the world are depicted as people like us with good and bad parts, people to whom we can relate. Society runs on treating many people as less than human. Society depends on the social compact not falling apart when a young man is shot to death as he lays prone and unarmed on the pavement. Society depends on us accepting the fact that we jail people at a greater rate than anyone on the planet. Society depends on us accepting, as we are more and more enthusiastic about jailing people, that we are less and less interested in paying for adequate legal representation or adequate jail conditions. Society depends on us shrugging at brutality. Society relies on us not recognizing the essential humanity of the targets of the state's power. Depicting people who commit crimes as one-dimensional criminals supports that social compact; depicting them as people — people more like us than unlike us — threatens it.2

Society can't function as presently constituted if we recognize the Oscar Grants of the world (or for that matter the Johannes Mehserles) as a human beings, and act accordingly. Fruitvale Station is not subversive because it suggests Oscar Grant's death was a grave injustice; it's subversive because it suggests his life had value in the first place.

Talking the talkies

How will you be passing the time as Hurricane Sandy– aka "the Frankenstorm"– passes your way?

We'll be watching 1930s and 1940s movies unless and until the power goes out. Our goal is to make it through at least one flick by each of the actors who have possessed and now torment actor Scott Ratner's mind:

('Like' the vid if you like the vid!) Good thing he became obsessed with talkies instead of silents. But I hear he also does a mean Buster Keaton and a passable Harold Lloyd.

For Plagiarists, The Internet Is A Double-Edged Sword

If you're on a deadline, and you need to produce written content, the internet makes it ridiculously fast and easy to rip other writers off.

But people who live by the sword also die by it. Once someone suspects plagiarism, the internet makes it easy to search for other people who used your words first. It also makes it easy to spot-check your other work to see if any of it appears lifted from prior sources without attribution. Finally, once plagiarism is detected, the internet — full, as it is, of both successful and frustrated writers — makes word of the misconduct spread like wildfire.

This week's example: the Movie Junkies.

John Scalzi — who hates plagiarism the way you hate Hitler and the way I hate reality TV — writes the Alpha post, noting that MaryAnn Johanson's review of a film — appropriately enough, "Shame" — was plagiarized at MovieJunkies. As Scalzi notes in an update, MovieJunkies has now edited that review, leaving an incoherent mess that still has elements of the plagiarized work. A screenshot is here, and the sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other errors are in the original:

A powerful plunge into the mania of sex addiction. The feelings of isolation and all-consuming need so piercingly in “Shame”. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a New Yorker who shuns intimacy with women but feeds his desires with a compulsive addiction to sex. His troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment stirring memories of their shared painful past and Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control. Sissy is her brother’s polar opposite, and she proceeds to invade his carefully cultivated privacy.

Shame offers something different than I have ever seen on screen in a main stream movie. For the first a main stream audience can see a man with extreme vulnerability. Fassbender is exceptional is expressing is misery and utter weakness in the fight against his obsession and addiction. Most movies that are available to the mass audiences protect the male image and ego. Even male nudity is treated much more tabu than female nudity.

The only issue I had with the direction was that some shots were held for too long where I got a little bored numerous times throughout the movie.

Movie Junkie Rating: GOOD BUZZ :) Note: GREAT HIGH for Fassbender’s performance!

Now comes the part where other writers — and their fans — start looking for other instances of plagiarism. Scalzi's commenters are off to a good start and have found some strong candidates for plagiarism. Mike McGranaghan of Aisleseat indicates he has screencaps of six reviews plagiarized from him, and is tracking down plagiarism of other writers. Things are swiftly becoming very grim for MovieJunkies. The plagiarism is looking serial and pervasive rather than isolated.

Using the comment form on the MovieJunkies web site, I asked for a comment, indicating that I write about various forms of internet misbehavior and wondered if they had a comment about allegations they had plagiarized multiple articles. Here's the response I got — which I feel comfortable sharing because I made it clear I was writing to get a comment for a blog post:

Hello Ken,

I cannot apologize enough.

It seems some of my views that I passed onto to one of my staff to post on the site have used other sources that should not have been included. I should have looked more carefully and we do so in the future. I apologize for this error. We have removed the requests that have been sent to us.

Please let me know if you see anything else and I will gladly remove it immediately.

Thank you very much.
Michele Schalin

I find this incoherent and unconvincing. To the extent one can parse the main sentence, it's very difficult to believe. Is she saying that she voiced views that happened to incorporate the exact language of other writers' work, and her staff wrote it verbatim? Or that she referred to other writers' work, and they copied it verbatim? It's impenetrable, particularly for someone who supposedly writes professionally. Moreover, it's not believable. The hasty and incompetent editing of challenged posts — which as of now lack any apology or acknowledgement — suggests a guilty conscience, not an innocent error. The number of posts at issue, discussed above, also makes any innocent excuse hard to accept.

The people who run Movie Junkies are poised on a knife's edge. If they handle this situation correctly, with a convincing display to the extent that critics are mistaken, or (more likely) with abject apologies and acceptances of responsibility, the site might survive, even after this goes viral. If they take a dishonest, self-righteous, or evasive approach, they are done: curb-stomped by the internet they used as a source for stolen text. Just ask Judith Griggs

(If memory serves I learned of Griggs from Scalzi, too. Don't plagiarize around Scalzi. Just . . don't.)

Edited to add: another plagiarism victim.

Edited to add: Mike McGranaghan tells his story, and notes that the Movie Junkies site and Facebook page are down.

Edited to add: Eric Snyder talks about how the site plagiarized him, and about his correspondence with Michele Schalin.