Saturday, October 02, 2021

Means and Ends

 Freddie deBoer has a post looking back on The Last Jedi that is almost entirely wrong. Old hat stuff, but it's worth noting why deBoer's argument is wrong, because it sheds a light a number of problems that I think are widespread in current art-making.

One of the fundamental problems with attempts to run counter to the very common sense that The Last Jedi is worse than The Force Awakens is that so many of the attempts to argue this explicitly base themselves on two things: it "takes risks" and "has more interesting ideas". Both of these are true. But taking risks is not an artistic end; it is intrinsically a means, and only has genuine artistic value if the end achieved by the risk is greater than what you could have had without taking it. The same is true, if less obviously, with expressing interesting ideas; the purpose of a movie is not to express an interesting idea, which you could do in an essay or a lecture, but to entertain as a coherent whole. All three of the Disney sequels fail at this purpose in three distinct ways: they fail to entertain as coherent wholes individually, they fail to entertain as a coherent whole as a trilogy, and they fail to contribute to make the whole series, originals, prequels, and sequels, entertain as a coherent whole. But The Last Jedi fails much more egregiously than The Force Awakens.

The Star Wars movies are structured on what Lucas called the principle of "rhyme"; that is, clear reiteration with building variation. This is explicitly done in each of the three originals, and then the three prequels were constructed both individually and as a whole to "rhyme" with the originals. The Force Awakens is immensely clumsy and clunky about it, even clunkier than the prequels were, but it respects this principle: Rey rhymes with both Luke and Anakin, but in such a way that you can see the beginning of a progression from Anakin to Luke to Rey. It errs in exaggerating the progression -- Rey's talents should have emerged much more gradually. It also errs in the nature of much of the reiteration -- the resetting to the empire vs. rebels theme of the originals that deBoer criticizes, instead of (as the story needed) a rhyming with the prequels, which were republic vs. rebels (just different rebels). That would have been a good structural payoff, and interesting in itself: the Republic fell through a rebellion that established the Empire and turned the pro-Republic faction into the Rebellion; what happens when the Rebellion becomes the Republic and has to face rebellion against the Republic? In effect, the movie should have rhymed with the prequels in setting but rhymed with the originals in characters, and it does mostly the reverse on both, giving it an incoherent and inexplicable feel, where everyone was left wondering how the First Order managed to be such an industrial military powerhouse while the Republic were basically fighting as rebel insurgents despite the reverse supposedly being true. Almost all the flaws of The Force Awakens are tied to these two errors -- overdoing Rey's natural talent even more than Anakin's had been overdone, and forcing the story into an Empire vs. Rebellion mold again. But the story does do its duty of rhyming, and the main characters are likeable as characters, and the set-up for the quest for Luke Skywalker had a lot of people interested. That's mostly what it had to do in opening a sequel trilogy. 

The Last Jedi is not completely without its rhymes, but almost all of them are inherited from the fact that the previous movie set it up to rhyme with The Empire Strikes Back, and instead of introducing variation, it actively breaks the rhymes. Another of the signs of the problems with the movie is that its defenders repeatedly have to fall back on its "subverting of expectations". But while it can be perfectly fine to subvert expectations, this is an artistic means, not an artistic end, and it gets its value entirely from how it furthers the real ends of the work. The ends of the work included: as a sequel, building on the prior movie; as a middle movie in a trilogy, bridging to the third movie; as part of a rhyming trilogy of trilogies, building on Empire and Attack of the Clones. Its subversions do none of those things well (although it does least bad in rhyming with the prior middle movies); and, indeed, its defenders don't even try to claim that it doesn't throw over many of the things it was supposed to be doing as a sequel to The Force Awakens. The most serious problem, however, is that it subverts itself, repeatedly. The most egregious point at which it does so is when it makes such a big deal about the slaves, and then our heroes, helped by the slave children, free the animals, not the slave children. Rose, in the scene that more than any other made fans hate her, interferes with Finn's brave attempt to stop the First Order forces, says, "We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love", to Finn, who of all the characters is the one who least needs to be preached at in platitudes, at literally the very moment that the First Order pierces the bunker because of her action, bringing the Resistance, its final forces, and their friends into imminent danger that they only escape because of Luke ex machina. Yoda lets the books burn, but Rey saves them. The movie subverts not just the previous one but itself, as well, leading to an incoherent mess; it has the will to subvert but never the courage to follow through. Parts of it are good -- almost everything to do with Leia, except her near-death, is handled extremely well. The very tail-end is good. And there are interesting ideas, yes; Johnson is a more thoughtful director than Abrams is. Its means were much more clever. But by every standard established by its ends, it was a disaster.

DeBoer takes the tack that is all too often taken, in trying to portray critics of the movie in moralistic terms. This is a grossly bad habit. DeBoer does not like The Last Jedi because he is righteous, but because he's an idea-man and thus (as is clear from his comments) thinks of movies almost entirely in terms of their ideas; fans disliked it not because they are wicked but because it did not give them what they were hoping to get in the next Star Wars movie. But this is all of a piece with the rest: morality deals with ends, so by moralizing aesthetic judgments, you are treating means as if they were ends, which is both bad aesthetic judgment and bad moral judgment. Over and over again, means are treated as if they were not means at all but ends. And it is the explanation for much bad art and a vast amount of clueless criticism today.