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Daily Reads: Nostalgia and Lazy Storytelling in ‘The Force Awakens,’ It’s Time for TV Critics to Be More Critical, and More

Daily Reads: Nostalgia and Lazy Storytelling in 'The Force Awakens,' It's Time for TV Critics to Be More Critical, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The “Star Wars” Fandom Menace: The Glaring Emotional Blind Spots That Power “The Force Awakens.”
As many of you have probably heard, there’s a “Star Wars” movie currently playing in theaters. Plenty of fans and critics like this movie, but as movies go, there are plenty who don’t. Salon’s Lili Loofbourow writes about how “The Force Awakens'” lazy storytelling and reliance on nostalgia hinders its emotional potency. (MAJOR “FORCE AWAKENS” SPOILERS)

This is typical: “Star Wars” tends to leech off myth the way the latest, biggest Death Star Starkiller thing drains the sun. Rather than provide grounded, specific motivation, it names a relationship (usually “father” and “son”) and expects the audience to weep. The hope is that we’ll project some content onto a relationship that’s almost admirably featureless. And it works! These projections are already blossoming in fan discussions of the film. “Can you imagine being raised by Leia and Han? Two emotionally distant legends?” one person says. “No wonder he’s messed up.” You may be right, random Internet commenter, but the problem is that you shouldn’t have to imagine it. A scene showing their connection or history might have earned the effect the movie gropes at by informing us – in a lamentably expository scene between Leia and Han – that Kylo and Han are father and son and that their meeting will therefore constitute a weighty moment. So why is that an issue? Can’t we overlook it? Well, sure. We can overlook anything, and fans routinely do. But this particular tendency worries me because “Star Wars” has become a strange self-justifying behemoth of its own fandom. People admit all its flaws and in the same breath forgive them, because the films offer something bigger that satisfies. We can forgive a lot in the name of fun, and “Star Wars” is something people look to for inspiration and meaning and philosophy, and we need that. But the franchise – and this film in particular – is catastrophically confused about its own psychology in ways that should trouble us precisely because it satisfies. Take, for example, the annihilation of several planets, and the way we’re invited to regard them as so marginal to the story that no one even seems to remember it happened by the end. When you’ve actually invented a tragedy that’s hundreds of thousands of times bigger than the Holocaust (in a film that prominently references Nazis) only in order to threaten that they’re about to do it again, in a matter of seconds, YOU CANNOT ASK YOUR AUDIENCE TO CARE THAT SOME GUY AND HIS SON ARE WASTING THOSE ESSENTIAL SECONDS HAVING A MOMENT ON A BRIDGE.

2. “The Force Awakens” Is a Deeply Broken Film.
Many of the criticisms lodged against “The Force Awakens” have been with regards to its storytelling and how it makes narrative cheats to panders to fans but that also hold the film back. On Medium, Tony Zhou demonstrates how “The Force Awakens” is a deeply broken film by its focus on two separate narratives. (MAJOR “FORCE AWAKENS” SPOILERS)

Everything that’s wrong with this movie stems from the choice to include Han Solo, the most beloved character of the Original Trilogy. As soon as you include Han and decide to kill him off, you have to earn that moment (which the filmmakers do). But that means you need Chewie, Leia, C-3PO, R2, and a whole bunch of other stuff to get Han emotionally to the moment where he steps out on that bridge. It’s a fantastic moment (really, it’s the best scene in the whole film), but it doesn’t belong in this movie. Indeed, there’s already a movie where the moment does belong: “Return of the Jedi.” Harrison Ford felt in 1983 that Han should’ve died at the end of that film. I happen to agree. It would’ve been a great arc for the character, who began “A New Hope” caring only about himself, to sacrifice himself in “Jedi” to save his friends. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and the result is that J.J. Abrams must spend half of “The Force Awakens” re-building the same emotional ground under Han Solo. That’s why Han is back to his factory default setting of “smuggler,” why he’s escaping again from people to whom he owes money, why he and Leia are separated then reunited, and why he quickly agrees to storm a planet and disable the shield so that fighters can attack the Death Star. Han Solo is literally, moment by moment, reliving “Return of the Jedi.” Because in story terms, he should’ve died then. Sadly, Han’s story really has nothing to do with any of the new characters (except Kylo Ren). Poe Dameron never talks to him. Rey gets a few scenes where he’s impressed with her, and he offers her a job (and a gun). Finn gets some banter and some advice not to lie to women. Han is a minor figure passing through their lives, nothing like the true mentor Obi-Wan was to Luke. Even Qui-Gon Jinn had more of a relationship to the main characters in “The Phantom Menace” before he was dispatched. Han is a great character. He’s an iconic character. He deserves a fantastic death scene. He just shouldn’t be a part of this film.

3. Why We Get Religious About “Star Wars.”
It’s become a cliche to describe “Star Wars” as a religion for a certain brand of geek, but the truth is that plenty of people treat “Star Wars” religiously, and the text lends itself to this reading as it’s steeped in classical mythology. Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson writes about why we are so religious about “Star Wars” and how it has influenced popular culture.

The religious devotion and the drive to shoehorn “Star Wars” into every belief system has got to have something to do with this framing. We talk a lot about good and evil when we talk about religious systems, but we lose track of how much of being part of any organized religion is also about being grafted into a history. The point of what we do in church — the creeds, celebrating holidays like Christmas and Easter and partaking in the Eucharist, singing the songs, giving our testimonies, baptizing or dedicating our babies — everything about it is about being reminded that we are not the first ones to do this, and we won’t be the last ones, either. By dropping us into the middle of the action from the start, Lucas made us feel like more must be out there somewhere, languishing in some back closet, the untold story that might have something to do with us. The fact that the trilogies are dropping decades apart gives us plenty of time to imagine, and also to integrate new generations: there are children being born this year who will be able to sit with their grandparents in a few years and watch the movie Grandpa saw fifteen times when he was a boy, and shared with Dad when he got old enough. There is something deeply religious about this tradition, this recovering of history — something we tend to forget, but that’s buried in our subconscious. And that is a key to “The Force Awakens,” too Before the newest film released last weekend, Alyssa Rosenberg at “The Washington Post” wrote about how Star Wars has always treated religion — noting, importantly, that “from ‘A New Hope’ through ‘Return of the Jedi,’ the ‘Star Wars’ movies are fundamentally a story about how a dead and discredited religion reasserted itself and proved the truth of at least some of its tenets to unbelievers.” That’s the most startling thing about “The Force Awakens” — things have been forgotten or passed into myth (the phrase that’s always the most chilling phrase to me when I enter Middle-Earth or Narnia, too). Mere decades after the last myth was laid down, it’s been forgotten.

4. It’s Time for TV Critics to Become a Little More Critical.
In this age of “Peak TV,” there’s an assumption that there is a lot of “great” television on the air right now. Many critics have fallen into the narrative that everything is good because there’s so much out there. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum argues that TV critics need to be more critical if they believe there’s more than a handful of “great” show on the air.

I am absolutely drowned in stories these days about the best show on TV. Or the best show nobody watches. Or the best show on cable. Or the best show not on cable. Or the most criminally underrated show. Or the best show ever about prison. Or the best show ever about the military. Or the best show ever about the transgendered. Or the funniest show. Or the most heartbreaking show. Or the funniest show you’ve ever watched about a trangendered Marine Corps officer who ends up in prison. We don’t live in the golden age of television. We don’t even live in the platinum age of television. Apparently we live in the unobtanium age of television. Enough. This has become a joke. Theodore Sturgeon said 90 percent of everything is crap. He was being generous. Even so, this means that maybe 2 or 3 percent of everything is truly outstanding. If you think 60 TV shows out of 400 are must watch — and it was hard to narrow it down to that number from 175 — you’re just not being critical enough. I get that TV spent a long time as the bastard stepchild of the critical world, routinely mocked for its boob-tube idiocy. And when genuinely great shows like “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” came along, it was something of a revelation. But this doesn’t mean that a decade later upwards of half of all TV shows are brilliant. Critics do their readers no favors when they gush about so much stuff that their recommendations no longer even seem meaningful.

5. David O. Russell’s “Joy” Is Just a Bunch of Jennifer Lawrence GIFs in Search of a Movie.
David O. Russell’s new movie “Joy” has garnered mixed reviews from critics for being a confused, scattershot film that remixes plenty of Russell themes and actors until they somewhat fit. Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore argues that “Joy” panders when it wants to empower, which neuters the film’s emotional power.

The blinkered idea that when female characters are capable and lead a story it’s pandering is one that’s been lobbed at other movies this year as well, particularly “Mad Max: Fury Road” for its introduction of Charlize Theron’s fabulous Imperator Furiosa. It’s the howl of a small fraction of moviegoers outraged to realize they are no longer the only demographic Hollywood’s catering to…except then something like “Joy” comes out and you wish all those grumblers cared as much about the latest David O. Russell drama as they do major franchises. Because “Joy” is what pandering actually looks like, and it’s not pretty. Well, it is pretty, because it stars Jennifer Lawrence, Russell’s leading lady of choice for three movies now, and because it’s shot by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, who makes the whole thing look like a slightly faded home movie from some undetermined moment in the past. Lawrence will always be fun to watch, even when she’s as miscast as she is here as Joy, a divorced mother of two who invents an innovative mop that’s sold on the Home Shopping Network. The actor tamps down her unruly charisma to play a woman who’s struggling to support not just her children but her musician ex (Édgar Ramírez), her divorced parents (Robert De Niro and Virginia Madsen), and her beloved grandmother (Diane Ladd). But it doesn’t matter. Despite how capable Lawrence is, the 25-year-old still can’t convincingly pull off the soul-deep exhaustion and panic of a woman who’s spent more than a decade and a half treating her own needs as secondary to those of the people she’s taking care of. When Ladd’s Mimi tells Joy, “You don’t exactly have your whole life ahead of you, but you still have a good portion of it,” it’s eye-rolling, because plenty of people who are Lawrence’s age are still coming around to the idea that you have to buy toilet paper.

6. Lynch/Rivette: In Dreams.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City is running a retrospective series called “Lynch/Rivette” in which they play double bills of films by David Lynch and Jacques Rivette, two of the most enigmatic filmmakers in the medium’s history. In honor of the series, the Film Comment staff has published a transcript of a conversation between Village Voice senior film critic Melissa Anderson and FSLC director of programming Dennis Lim, author of “The Man From Another Place,” a critical look at Lynch’s filmography.

Dennis Lim: “Mulholland Drive” is probably one of the very few films that I’ve watched twice within the first 24 hours. I felt compelled, like I had to go back and figure it out. And that was one of the main compulsions for writing this book. I had been invited to submit a proposal for a critical biography on a filmmaker. Lynch came to mind immediately. He is to me an inexhaustible subject. 

Melissa Anderson: 
So when you were trying to map out a sensibility of a very singular artist, how difficult was that? Especially when the term “Lynchian” has almost become completely evacuated of meaning. If it’s applied to such preposterous examples as Susan Boyle, Louis Vuitton, or perhaps, most absurdly, Quentin Tarantino, does the descriptor still have a potency? 

DL: 
That was a question I was trying to work through in writing the book. I saw it more like writing about a sensibility, or the anatomy of a sensibility. I read other biographical texts on Lynch and didn’t feel I needed to do a year-by-year chronology of what happened. So this idea of the Lynchian was always the starting point. It is so all-purpose and so readily applicable to so many things, but it’s also evocative of something. The fact that it even exists — that somebody who made 10 feature films, some of them very weird and very uncommercial — means something in the popular culture worthy of investigation. 

MA: 
And you’ve interviewed Lynch at least twice? 

DL: 
Three times, and once was in person for “Mulholland Drive.” 

MA: 
Was it during that interview that you asked him directly to define “Lynchian”? 

DL: 
Yeah, I was very naïve. [Laughter] I think that he was not pleased by that question. The line that I quote in the book was something like: “That’s like, ‘What’s a donut?’ Keep your eye on the donut and not the hole.” That’s a question that focuses on the hole and not the donut. I knew he was resistant to over-interpretation of his work. I brought a book that Slavoj Zizek had just published on “Lost Highway” to give to Lynch, which I’m sure he was absolutely horrified by. I spend a bit of time with this in the book, too: Lynch’s language, the way that he talks about his work, seems determined to thwart interpretation, but that in itself seemed worthy of exploration. I did not interview him again for the book because he didn’t want to do another interview. He’s not really a big fan of book projects on him, but he was very supportive in the sense that he told many people, like Fred Elmes and Peter Deming, to feel free to talk to me. And I totally understand, especially given his relationship with language and interpretation.

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